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Hunger Games – A Profile Of An Activist

David Goldsmith is a fifty-two year old father of three and a very hungry man. The reason for this is that he’s currently on day eleven of a three week hunger strike on Parliament grounds to raise awareness about the climate and ecological crisis. Unsurprisingly, a twenty-one day hunger strike is not an activity endorsed by doctors. There’s an alarming list of medical phrases that go hand in hand with a hunger strike of this length (bradycardia, orthostatic hypotension and depression to name a few) and recovery is not quite as simple as just starting to eat again. So why on earth would anyone, let alone a Christchurch gardener, handyman and father of three knowingly put themselves through something like this? I visited him on the parliament grounds on day eight of the strike to find out why.

One of the first things I learn from David is that he’s not going about this with any intention of harming himself. David is going into this forewarned and forearmed after having a medical check-up prior to the strike starting. He is in contact with his GP, is monitoring his heart rate, has arranged for a blood test during the later stages of the strike and is taking vitamin and mineral and electrolyte supplements.

“I don’t want to harm myself; I want to be a catalyst for change,” says David.

David is surprisingly clearheaded when I speak with him. He is soft spoken and chooses his words with a calm and thoughtful deliberation. I find out that over the course of his life he has been a mechanical engineer, a Quaker and a most recently a handyman / gardener. His outlook on life has been influenced by everyone from Buddhist monks to Greta Thunberg. Although he is now an atheist he considers himself a deeply spiritual person and I find myself wondering if this is how he manages to project a feeling of calm even as he talks about the desperation that has driven him into such a drastic action.

David tells me that to understand what has taken him to this point we need to talk about what he describes as the “seven points” that describe the scale and urgency of the climate and ecological crisis. We skate over the first of these points relatively quickly - it’s the one that everyone has heard of, has been heavily researched by a global network of scientists and is now universally acknowledged as scientific fact – that climate change is already happening and is caused by humans.

David’s second point is that we are at the beginning of a human caused mass extinction event. This is also a point that has been extensively researched – however less people are aware of this. There have been five naturally occurring mass extinction events in the past that have wiped out astonishing quantities of life in a relatively short amount of time and David urges people to learn about these events as they provide a chilling glimpse of what our future holds for us without urgent preventative action.

“Human’s aren’t necessarily going to be exempt from this mass extinction,” says David.

The other points that David raises are equally concerning. The third point is known as “Climate Lag” or “Climate Inertia”, which is the time delay between when we emit greenhouse gases and when the consequences are felt. This is a concern because we are releasing carbon emissions at an accelerating pace (slightly over half of all cumulative global CO2 emissions have taken place since 1990) and we are yet to feel the full effect of this.

“When we look at any other crisis, for example, Covid 19, it’s easy to see the effects of actions. In New Zealand we’ve followed the science and people are alive as a result. But for climate change when we ignore the science we are able to disassociate ourselves from the consequences because the consequences will not be fully felt for decades to come.”

For David’s fourth point, he talks about ocean acidification. When this occurred in the past it is thought to have triggered a mass extinction event that is estimated to have wiped out about 90% of marine life.

The phenomenon known as tipping points is David’s fifth point. Tipping points are where the climate system reaches some limit that, when exceeded, will accelerate the effects of climate change much more quickly.

“The classic example is the permafrost in the Arctic. It’s melting right now because of climate change, and as it melts it releases methane which is a very powerful greenhouse gas – and this is just going to make the earth heat up even more quickly.”

The sixth point follows on from this; that tipping points lead to a cascading or domino effect. Scientists are now telling us that nine of the fifteen known tipping points that were identified decades ago are now active, and that this is likely to lead to the other tipping points being activated.

The final point that David wants everyone to consider is that if tipping points cascade then this will lead to an abrupt and irreversible climate catastrophe.

“We’re teetering right on the edge of that catastrophe, and by the time the lagged and cascading effects catch up with us it will be too late to turn back the clock.”

When these seven points are viewed together it paints a very grim picture.

“We keep saying, climate change, climate change, but it’s not. It’s climate change plus ocean acidification plus mass extinction. It’s all connected. It’s an emergency. Greta Thunberg said we should be acting like our house is on fire, because it is.”

We take a break after David finishes explaining the seven points. He looks tired and says as much. He’s been having trouble sleeping and finds it difficult to concentrate for long periods. Throughout the interview we have had groups of people approaching to express their gratitude for what David is doing. There’s a memorial for Jeanette Fitzsimmons in the afternoon and it’s easy to think, with the steady stream of well-wishers, that this is a foregone issue politically, that everyone is on board with the need to take urgent and drastic action. The reality is something else entirely and it’s a sad fact that there is currently not enough political will from New Zealanders for the government to take meaningful climate action. David, like many activists, has faced times of despair when looking at the scale of the problem and the scale of the response needed to address it.

“I feel we’re in a desperate situation where the window of opportunity to do something is narrowing rapidly and we’re not doing anything. The action required is so huge – basically the entire world needs to stop burning fossil fuel – and people think that’s ridiculous, but if we don’t do it then there’s no future for our children and grandchildren.”

The future is a point that David keeps coming back to, and it’s his children which keep him grounded and focussed when things feel hopeless.

‘I’ve got two boys that are twenty and twenty-two, Rowan and Dylan. And then I’ve got my daughter, Hana, who is four. I’m on my second shift as a dad.”

So, what do we do? Is there any hope for us?

“The crazy thing is that we’ve got all the solutions available to us already. As well as banning fossil fuels, there’s an organisation called Project Drawdown – it’s a collaboration of hundreds of scientists and researchers from around the world – and it lists the top one hundred projects out there. If the entire world does all one hundred of them, then we achieve drawdown of carbon. We keep hearing “carbon zero” but actually we urgently need to reach the point of drawdown, which is when we start to be carbon negative. We already have dangerously high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere right now as it is.”

Some of the findings from Project Drawdown are surprising. The top way of reducing emissions is to increase gender equity. It has been calculated that universal education and access to contraception can potentially avoid 120 billion tons of emissions by 2050. Another set of Project Drawdown solutions are focussed around regenerative farming and this is something that David sees as being particularly relevant to New Zealanders.

“There’s this false dichotomy between environmentalists and farmers, or even urban and rural. Farmers provide our food and I support farmers. It’s farmers who are going to be on the front lines of climate change – it’s their livelihoods that are going to be affected first – through drought, floods and fires. Farmers in Australia are already having to walk off the land. We’re all in this together and we need to support farmers. Farmers have the potential to provide a lot of the solutions through regenerative farming, but it’s not going to happen on an individual level, they need government support.”

When I ask David what we can do right now to help with his campaign he gives me two answers. The specific answer is a call for people to join him on parliament grounds – all day if they can, but if they can only spare a few hours each week then to do it during Friday lunchtime so that they can support Fridays For Future – the campaign started by Greta Thunberg which, in Wellington, has a regular group occupying parliament grounds every Friday between 12:30 and 1:30. The broader answer is that David wants to start a coalition of individuals, groups, churches and unions asking for real action on the climate and ecological crisis.

“I know this is a big ask – but everything I’m asking for is based on an understanding of the science and the understanding that unless we do this together there is no future for our children and grandchildren. And the only way I can see this happening is if there is a mass movement of people telling the government that this is what needs to happen. We’re all in this together. We need to get beyond divisiveness; we need to start caring about each other, and doing this massive transformation in a caring and equitable way.”

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