Bruce Curtis, The University of Waikato, School of Social Sciences
In July I was fortunate to attend the Australasian Animal Studies Association Conference 2019: Decolonizing Animals. The conference was held in Christchurch. I will talk about the conference in a moment. On the other side of the Avon river from the conference venue is the lot where the PGC Building stood. Eighteen people died in the collapse of the building on 22 February 2011. To visit Christchurch is to experience disaster capitalism first hand.
I’m not simply talking about how, seven years after the earthquakes, the CBD still looks like a building site. All the old red-brick buildings that dominated the place are gone -I counted only 4 left and these were surrounded by scaffolding. What is left is mainly waste land with ticket machines courtesy of Wilson Parking, brand new parking buildings (yay), grassed areas designated as playgrounds (swings instead of ticket machines), and the ‘new cheap’ in construction (glass facades, long-run steel and concrete slabs). One of the unintended outcomes of the Government decision to hand the rebuild of Christchurch to the private sector is that the city is a tribute to ‘fuck you architecture’. I found this delightful term on Urban Dictionary: “insincere, inauthentic, dishonest, and ugly building design meant to meet the bare code, legal and zoning requirements for standing domiciles whilst achieving one goal and one goal only: making money off the public and usually in the most blunt, crass and direct way.” That said, I am not sure that these monstrosities are properly unintended. Rather, they are unintended in the same way that neoliberalism and austerity politics has the unintended consequence of destroying the lives of working people – they’re not unintended at all. Further, the Christchurch CBD wasn’t financially viable prior to the earthquakes. The Square – Cathedral Square (the Anglican cathedral that is, the Catholic basilica was sited next to the old gasworks) – had ceased to be the hub of transport (the bus interchange) and entertainment (pubs and cinemas) by the 1980s. By the time I was a student living in grotty flats, the old red brick buildings housed band practice rooms, barbers, second-hand clothes and record stores, coffee shops (actually I remember them more for their tea and toasted cheese sandwiches), brothels and evangelical churches. Even the University of Canterbury had moved out of the CBD some years earlier and into the ‘burbs. Little wonder then that much of the insurance pay-outs felt like a get out of jail card for landlords.
How or even why the CBD should be rebuilt was never really clear. The Christchurch City Council started with a hiss and a roar. A couple of years ago John Minto (radical activist!) wrote this: “The previous Christchurch City Council came up with a grand masterplan for the city reconstruction in November 2011 through an extraordinary process of democratic consultation (remember Share an Idea? – all traces now erased from the Council website). The overall framework should have become the blueprint for a “New Christchurch” but it was scuppered by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) under pressure from the government and corporate business interests.” (John Minto, Christchurch rebuild is a ‘corporate-led stranglehold’, Stuff). As a Cantabrian in exile, Minto’s analysis seems spot on to me. What struck me during my working week in Christchurch, was that of all the people I talked to (and I talked to a lot of people during my recent visit) no one seemed to know anything about what was going on. When will the conference centre be finished? Why is it so big? Dunno. What are they going to build over there (pick any swath of unmown grass or unpaved Wilson’s carpark)? Dunno. When will they fix the roads? Dunno. Who designed that monstrosity?… It was a depressing experience alright. For my money the biggest transformation to Christchurch post-quake isn’t to the built environment but to the residents. The stroppy Cantabrians I remember aren’t so much disillusioned as they are worn down and exhausted.
Into this unhappy mix we can now add mass murder. The ‘Christchurch mosque shootings’ occurred on 15 March, 2019. Fifty-one New Zealanders killed. I believe all were Muslim, all at prayer. The victims were aged 3 to 77. The man charged with murder and attempted murder (he has pled not guilty to all charges) is a recently arrived Australian who may have been ‘radicalized’ by his recent perambulations around the globe. Christchurch offered two mosques within only 8 minutes drive. The shock is enormous. 51 dead is a disaster in a country of 4 million, an enormous disaster in a city of 400,000, an unbelievable one for a small migrant community – many of whom were fleeing violence. This is another manifestation of disaster capitalism, is it not? Both the murdered and the accused murderer are linked in this: pushed out of their communities of origin by a global neoliberalism that has never been anything more than making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and works by divide and rule. How this is played out is very different; fleeing war and sectarian violence on the one hand, and the collapse of the Australian heartland on the other. But this is how imperialism works, in its neoliberal guise and otherwise, by creating victims home and away.
I have no direct contacts with the Muslim community in Christchurch, only with friends and family who have rendered kindness to new neighbours – local initiatives in adult literacy, refugee resettlement, advocacy- some of it faith-based, some avowedly secular. Unlike the topic of the quake and the rebuild no strangers wanted to talk to me about the killings. I think there is a considerable anger here, which partly reflects a knock to community pride. Several people I know said variants of ‘Why call it the‘Christchurch mosque shootings? No-one from Christchurch did it!’ And I think this reflects an anxiety with our (Christchurch and New Zealand’s) colonial and racist past and present. We are all victims of the earthquakes; what is our status in terms of militant white-supremacy? What is concerning is how this manifestation will negatively impact post-colonialism, for want of a better term. Will this advance or close down discussion? What is appropriate? Indeed, even as I type these sociological assessments, I realize that I am abstracting away from a hugely massive unending hurt that will never be resolved. For this I don’t have the words.
My suspicion going into the Australasian Animal Studies Association Conference was that it represented a balm for Gen X. Something captured by Marx’s ‘heart in a heartless world’. Something analogous to the ‘kindly rationing‘ the Arden Labour Government is running with (Words are cheap, why not spend your budget surplus?). There were elements of feel-good but I detect a shift in the zeitgeist constituted as anti-speciesism and the broad struggle against oppression. This may crystallise and have dramatic implications for farming in New Zealand, and especially intensive dairying. As the ecological damage of dairying is becoming more and more documented and contentious, farmers have had to abandon the ‘we are custodians of the land’ rhetoric that has served them and settler capitalism so well. What is left is a straight economic argument which is not only dubious but reveals New Zealand as not much more than a neo-colony. Anti-speciesism opens up a new front, an ethical and moral critique of forms of farming which are already under siege.
Hei konā mai,