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Burning Milk Bottles

How climate change affects the poor before those who benefitted from causing it.

Burning Milk Bottles

Dec 2, 2021 Society

I have often been too poor to dispose of household waste effectively. There have been periods of my life when I couldn’t afford rubbish bags, when spending money on them would mean missing out on a meal. A friend of mine from Nelson told me off once for burning a milk bottle to get my log burner going. I tried to reason with her that, since my solo mother didn’t learn how to drive until I was 10 and we had to walk everywhere, it didn’t matter if I burnt plastic because I had carbon credits left over from my semi-deprived childhood.

I used to stub my toe on the heel of Mum’s matching Bata Bullets to remind her how sick I was of walking up and down Wellington streets. I suggested to my Nelson friend that a lot of environmentalists could be defined by how much contempt they appear to have for humanity and its rotten excesses. Whereas I’m just a sook and a nostalgia junkie who misses going to Para Rubber to buy Bata Bullets with Mum.

Gwyneth Paltrow recalls being a Californian golden child and leaning out the window of her mother’s car to tell off big gas guzzlers. Indoctrinated early by liberal parents she waved a chubby finger at the greedy wreckers of the earth. For Gwyneth this was a cute and righteous memory, but the thing I’ve gleaned from being poor is that you don’t get to pick and choose what to care about. And you don’t get to disown the mess.

Wandering around Wellington Zoo recently, after being charged almost $30 to watch some miserable, dwindling animals behind bars — a pane of glass between a baby and a pacing, forlorn tiger calling out to the other tiger — I couldn’t help but notice the attempts to recruit our children as climate activists. Isn’t it like candy to tell a child they can both fix the world and judge adults for the mess they have made of it?

I’ve also spent two hours on the Auckland motorway trying to get into the city, with cars backed up like world-destruction dominos. As my car idled in the heat I thought, Oh, we are all on fire and we can’t make it stop. I’m a slow learner, I admit it.

When I was studying social services a few years before my rush-hour feelings of doom, I couldn’t understand why we had to learn about sustainability. I wanted to help people, not bully them into using their bins properly — but then all social work has a middle-class corrective at the core of its motives, so maybe it was the same thing. The lecturer made it easy to hate sustainability by playing the class a Michael Jackson montage of children saving the world and cried at our unmoved faces that we were a tough crowd. A woman from ‘peace studies’ came to tell us how she was saving war-ravaged Myanmar by making sure the villages still had wells; a saint who gave her talk from beside a set of taps. Finally there was some game with blue jelly beans and red jelly beans designed by Laila Harré’s sister, but whatever, it was infantile and I felt vindicated. We would be dealing with clients that had power disconnection notices, not hectoring them for being complicit in how power is produced.

I had met the lecturer before she was my lecturer out in the wilds of Dunedin, at a party full of like-minded woolly hippies. I gleefully announced to the bonfire we should just go for the big blow out, run everything into the ground for the big nuclear winter and raze the world even of the righteous. The earth would be better off without us. She claimed not to remember me and gave me bad marks. The solemn way she said ‘kaitiaki’ made me wince.

During the course, it started to rain. A deep grey biblical rain that was slow and relentless. Suddenly South Dunedin was awash. They had to evacuate the rest home where I used to work and where my grandfather had died, and up the road Nana, still alive, announced there was water at the door. My uncle, who lives with schizophrenia, spent a stoic evening in his immaculate smoke-stained flat and my cousin went door to door in a four-wheel drive lifting sandbags and making sure people were okay.

I did nothing except worry, and then I read in the paper that South Dunedin shouldn’t exist, it was too low-lying and prone to liquefaction in any future earthquake. I felt insulted, not just because I love South Dunedin, but also because it sits on the same place on the deprivation index (or it did then) as parts of South Auckland. It is our version of the hood, except old, white and newly migrant, bogan and beautifully decrepit, with one shop selling corned beef and puletasi at the lonely end of its main street. No one would ever suggest to the rich residents of the oddly named Maori Hill, Dunedin’s Remuera, that they just shouldn’t exist. That their village didn’t matter.

And I finally got it then. Climate change, like power disconnection notices, affects the poor first, long before those who benefitted from causing it. Those who had the least say in creating this dangerous funnelling of the world’s resources pay before those who had the most say. It is no accident that life in a coal mine is grim, and can destroy the worker. It is no accident that in our desire to be clean the sea is full of microbeads that will drown low-lying Pacific nations. The planet coughs up multiple signs, while we choke its lungs with smoke. If we plan better for those hit first by the disaster, we’ll have a better collective chance of surviving it. But mostly, I try really hard not to burn plastic even though it is fun to annoy people from Nelson, here at the end of the earth.

This story was published in Metro 432 – Available here in print and pdf.

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