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New Zealand, Middle-earth and Reality

There was a time when I threatened myself to start teaching the ecology of Middle-earth. I helped take a couple of trips taking American university students around New Zealand. It was an amazing itinerary, but it came with a strong feeling that my students were far more interested in where scenes from ‘Lord of the Rings’ were filmed than in actual, real-life ecology of New Zealand. Yeah, I was ready to give in, to go with the flow. ‘Lord of the Rings’ did a lot for New Zealand tourism, I’ll grant it that. It had some other effects too, so I understand. It brought us so far on to the radar that cashed-up foreigners snapped up some prime real-estate. Sour grapes? Yeah, I’m uncomfortable about it. Now New Zealand is going hell for leather to make the most of its new-found Middle-earth image. It has become Middle-earth, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

So what is it about Middle Earth that is so appealing? My guess is it’s not just the spectacular scenery – it’s somehow incorporated the sense of pre-industrial lifestyle. Well, at at least above ground – the industrial heartland seems to be nicely out of sight below the Misty Mountains (I’m not a Tolkien-freak, so I’m bound to get some names and geographies wrong). where all the dwarves are mining. I’m not sure where their intensive on-surface agricultural base is and surely the degree of smelting associated with all that mining will have caused massive deforestation, acid rain, polluted air, polluted rivers,  …. but that would spoil the image. I would guess that there was also the appeal of a land with a sense of mystery – a place where there was ‘wilderness’ and where ‘adventure’ was possible. And if you focus on what could be considered the ‘core’ of Middle-earth, at least from Tolkien’s point of view – The Shire, it’s extremely egalitarian.

But what is the reality that our tourists see? The movie scenery, absent a few digital additions, is all too real. New Zealand/Middle-earth is a pretty country. Within a short drive/walk/cycle you can see forest, mountains, fords, glaciers. I can even accept that some people see grassy cow paddocks in front of snowy mountains as ‘pretty’. What they don’t see is what there isn’t there to see, because it’s gone -the massive number of species that are extinct or near-enough so. And you would need a little education to tell a healthy forest from one that’s being eaten alive by cows, deer or possums. But look beyond the landscape to the social environment. I see on the National Party’s website “New Zealanders know that this country today is doing better than most other developed countries … ” If your idea of “doing better” is limited to a weird abstract entity called … The Economy.

When I was a kid we all understood that New Zealand was ‘egalitarian’. And it was something to be proud of. I remember being told (I would say late 1960s) that we probably did have millionaires – but they kept themselves quiet. How things have changed!  I’ve just finished ‘The Spirit Level‘, a book documenting, very bluntly, the relationship between increasing inequality in developed countries – and a whole range of social dysfunction. We’re talking obesity, mental illness, imprisonment levels, life-expectancy, teen pregnancies, trust, and a bunch of other things. Sound familiar? The shocking thing to a kiwi of my generation is to learn that New Zealand is now at about number three globally for all these things (hardly better than “most other developed countries”). It’s happened over the last 30 years or so, as we went from being that egalitarian society to one of the most unegalitarian.

As The Spirit Level points out, again and again, ‘egalitarian’ doesn’t just mean improvements for the lower ‘class’ in society. And it doesn’t mean we have to become communist, tree-hugging hippies, intent on destroying capitalism. It means that a reduction in levels of inequality – independent of how they are achieved, will benefit all of us. Yep, even in the upper echelons of society, life expectancy will increase. Incarceration levels will decline, meaning we can spend more money on  education instead of prisons. It will even mean we get more time off. It’s not fantasy, because there are societies whether this have been achieved – Sweden being the classic.

But don’t take my word for it, read the book. Or if you want a quick introduction, check out a You-Tube video. The authors also have a website. There are of course, other points of view. I haven’t yet read that one, but judging from the reviews, I don’t expect much.  We (New Zealand)are heading for an election soon – but few parties emphasise policies to lower the inequality levels that will result in a better place for us all to live in (Flicking through party websites I see a lot of projects, not policies).

For a tiny, beautiful country with a population of less than 4 million – there simply isn’t any excuse to not be Middle-earth.

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