This piece was published in May, 2004 by the Napier Mail, one of New Zealand's two independent newspapers.

2004-03-05 Cape Reinga, New Zealand
March 5, 2004. Cape Reinga, New Zealand.

More than Middle Earth

Many Americans know New Zealand principally through the lens of The Lord of The Rings. Like them I was unsure what to expect. To my astonishment I found a way of life which I think is better than my own.

This is not such an easy thing for an American to admit. Our culture is so confident that we oftentimes judge the world by the quantity of its KFCs: the more deeply a place is Americanized, the more we feel, viscerally and spiritually, that it's right.

The New Zealand I encountered is more than Peter Jackson's spectacular scenery. It's a visceral challenge to my sense of what it means to live happily. These are some of the reasons.

Lack of pollution

New Zealand is the first place I've ever known where the world is clean. I stood on clifftops at Cape Reinga and the Bay of Islands and saw with absolute clarity to the ends of the earth. This is simply not possible in California, where the horizon is brown on even the most perfect of clear spring days.

Even the rural outback of America is impacted. Lake Tahoe receives the drifting air pollution of the San Francisco Bay metropolis, while national treasures such as Yellowstone and Yosemite are threatened by acid rain and by right-wing ideologues in office who gleefully grant snowmobile entrepreneurs egregious freedom of destruction.

Lack of noise pollution was equally striking. I was many times able to climb hills and hear nothing but wind and waves. Perhaps it seems surprising that such a simple thing could cause such an impact. Yet it amazed me. There's not one square foot of ground anywhere on the North American continent where you can stand longer than three minutes without hearing jet planes overhead. This may of course be frustrated hyperbole. But I don't think so.

What was life like for people when all the world was clean? I could not have imagined this question just two months ago.

Rhetoric of partnership between Maori and Europeans

I many times heard it expressed, in what seemed to be official discourse, that in New Zealand the creation of the nation goes forward in partnership between Maori and Europeans.

It's hard to convey how unimaginable this rhetoric is to American ears. We simply do not discuss the people who lived here before we Europeans arrived. They were eradicated by disease and war, and today they're present neither in popular consciousness nor political discourse. We see them in movies, of course: John Wayne kills them, Kevin Costner joins them; and these twin antinomies of demonization and romanticism are naively all we know. There's no notion of partnership: that would imply equality.

I don't understand the substance of these issues in New Zealand. But I was shocked and absolutely delighted to find that they exist. To my ear this is a signal that there's a different experience of civilization unfolding there than the one which unfolded here.

Independent merchants

Small towns in New Zealand look like those of my American childhood. While chain stores are evidently taking over like weeds choking a field, right now there are still independent merchants, maybe more of them than chain stores, just like little Lemon Grove, California, in the early 1960s. A place I loved, which died, that is, lost its identity, more than a generation ago.

Let me tell you a story about this. Here in San Francisco independently-owned stores are so rare that neighbors ban together to protect them. A neighborhood called Inner Sunset fought for years to prevent Blockbuster Video crushing their local movie merchant. The struggle was so fierce that during its construction somebody actually torched the Blockbuster building. The neighbors won: Blockbuster went away. This story is interesting because it's so rare. Normally there's no struggle, and it's the small merchant who goes away, silently and forever. It's hardly worth commenting on, because nearly everywhere it was over long ago. Kids grow up never knowing what was lost.

Across the north island I saw the downtowns of my childhood many times. Waipu, Paihia, Thames, Coromandel, Te Awamutu; even Mt. Maunganui and Rotorua weren't so far gone that they'd become like Lemon Grove is today, a strip mall like any other.

Food with flavor

Agriculture in America is so productive that we could feed the world if our leaders chose to do so. Yet that productivity comes with an ironic downside. Our vegetables ripen in transit, our meat and poultry are raised in pens on hormone-and-antibiotic-laced feed, so that American food tastes diluted. Right now New Zealand seems to enjoy very favorable circumstances for agriculture, the combination of scientific pest control and fertilization with short shipping distances and a small population to feed, so that cows can range free and fruits can ripen on trees. I can tell you without exaggeration that food in New Zealand tastes noticeably better than food in America.

The fact that there are (probably) no nuclear warheads pointed at your head

As I sit here in Silicon Valley I'm conscious that there are doubtless two dozen ex-Soviet MIRVs out there somewhere with my name on them. This consciousness is part of the American experience: it's like the emotional equivalent of background radiation. New Zealand's brave anti-nuclear stance means that Kiwis may never need to know this feeling. It's a good thing not to.


It's sad to realize that the wheels of free-market "progress" will one day grind down these unspoiled advantages, as they very likely will. But it's hopeful to remember that Kiwis have a tradition of political rebelliousness which has kept them nuclear free. Perhaps there's some chance that this rebelliousness can be translated into a sustained, responsible stewardship of the nation's environmental and cultural treasures. Arm-wrestling, as it were, against Adam Smith's hidden hand. Realistic or not, that's a lovely image.