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Possums, Hippies, and Politics

More Dispatches from the Other Summerland


I’m back in New Zealand for a few weeks but don’t seem to be able to leave my old habits behind me — which is to say, I ought to be relaxing, but of course I’m still going to meetings and trying to participate in the betterment of the community. So much for taking a break from it all.

The issue this time? 1080 drops to kill the Australian possums that infest the New Zealand countryside. 1080 is a pesticide, if the pest in question is mammalian or avian (although industry claims it doesn’t kill birds, it quite clearly does). It’s a vicious neurotoxin, killing its targets slowly and cruelly, and it’s often consumed by domestic animals which come across it when dropped near human habitation. If you’re an animal lover, it’s a horrifying prospect to imagine not just possums but various “collateral” animals suffering days of agony. If your concern is human health, then it’s deeply disturbing to think about this stuff ending up in the water supply — which it invariably does, as “drops” by helicopter broadcast it throughout the target area.

Lee Heller

Golden Bay — my piece of New Zealand paradise — got notice several months back that the Animal Health Board was planning another 1080 drop on our area because of the supposed risk of bovine tuberculosis (which would threaten dairy herds). Forget the fact that possum populations here are low and that those caught don’t test positive for bovine TB. The plan is to drop 1080 over a wide area, mostly because this is the habit that the New Zealand government has gotten into when anything possum-related is concerned. Add that Kiwis don’t really care about animal cruelty (well, some care passionately, but it’s an agricultural society, so most of them think animals are farm tools at best).

So I went to a meeting about the issue, thinking I’d inform myself and learn about how the locals deal with a problem of this kind. When I got there and sussed out the attendees, I saw a lot of dread-locked, barefooted, unshorn folk of the kind that we don’t see much of in the U.S. anymore, but for whom Golden Bay remains a refuge. Now, I’m not anti-hippie — on the contrary, I’ve often felt cheated by having been a few years too young to truly experience ‘60s counterculture and its passion for transcendent change. But I am impatient with idealism unsupported by practical action — and that is too often the hallmark of a movement that thinks “being the change you seek to make” is a strategy for effective social reform.

The meeting reflected the diversity of the Bay — it was facilitated by a young American woman, very laid back, and attendees included a few hunters (worried about the effect on deer, pigs, and other things they like to kill) and some fairly “normal” looking Kiwis. But somehow the energy of the meeting got sucked out by the hippies, speaking adoringly of Maori mana, the sacred status of plants (Doesn’t 1080 hurt them, too? Shouldn’t we petition the government on behalf of the plants?). I really tried not to roll my eyes and say, “Seriously? ‘Cuz your government cares about whether or not plant spirits are harmed?”

Of course, I put in my two cents about divvying up tasks and circulating a sign up sheet to make sure there was a central list of everyone who wanted to work on the issue. It did look like the group might do a few practical things, identifying possible strategies and sharing out work (since no one seemed to want to step up to lead the effort). But it took two hours to get to that point, and I didn’t leave with wild optimism about their organizational future.

I believe in grassroots activism. Well, I believe that grassroots activism ought to exist, at least when the grassroots is genuine (as opposed to corporate puppetry, like so much Tea Party activism). But I continue to doubt that “the people” can make a real difference when there is so little practical political intelligence among them. Maybe that should be a required course for all high school students — it would be a good bit more useful than advanced math. Then again, I think of all the Americans I know who had eighth-grade civics and still don’t have a clue about how the different branches of government operate…

Maybe I’ll just go for a walk in the bush instead. And hope I don’t run into any 1080 along the way.

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