Notes on the First World: Is Advanced Better?
I started writing this while sitting on a train in the south island of New Zealand, netbook on the table, Howard Zinn issue of The Progressive on my lap, and one coffee cup downed. I sit in this beautiful nation, one that knows enough to protect its part of the earth, pondering if the progress we brag about in the first world is infact superior. Is New Zealand, a nation of roughly 4.1 million people, all of which seem to be Caucasian but for a handful of Asians and Maoris, more progressive, or simply a tiny country that appears a bit like a modern version of Pleasantville?
On the plane, my seatmate Wade said that New Zealand was “almost first world,” and I laughed thinking, what did you think I expected it to be? Of course it’s like America. But it’s not. I, like the spoiled America transitioning from traveling alone to being one of seven, shifting from budget travel to a costlier, higher standard (an American, middle-aged standard), am acting like a spoiled American. I’m really not, but I am in expecting the appliances and technology to be on par with the United States and the United Kingdom. But, the truth is, these technological developments and making these items available to the masses, at affordable prices, is a matter of what we in America call progress and sophistication, The First World. But, here in New Zealand, where most don’t spend their days working long hours or checking email, shopping online, DVRing tele, buying items they can’t afford, they seem to care about the earth, something we are only now beginning to deal with. Our assessment of our damage on planet earth is at an infantile stage, and perhaps, our priorities in America are off, putting technology, luxury lifestyles, and money making above basic issues that are vital to humanity in the long term.
When you travel after coming from America, where luxuries like fast Internet and speedy service, are available to all, the transition to a non-tipping culture is a bit slow. But, New Zealand, which is between second and first world, though closer to the latter, places emphasis on important macro issues, such as social services and environmental measures. In America, the exemplary first world, places a bigger emphasis on service and material offerings. As my dad says, it’s all about interests. The question, in my mind, becomes: can you add widespread internet, dryers to accompany washing machines and longer store hours without sacrificing the love of a simpler life on a treasured earth?
In New Zealand, recycling bins are in towns large and small, the airport screening is not for shoe bombers but for people trying to, knowingly or not, bring food or plant items in that will corrupt the nation that has no snakes or lizards because of their biodiversity security check. See the picture above and you’ll note that the rubbish bin has the word landfill on it. Some chocolate labels have Halal certifications, wine bottles have a picture of a pregnant women with a line through the circle and anywhere liquor is sold (18 is the legal age) they note that anyone that looks under 25 will be carded and no one drunk will be sold liquor.
Most food seems to be packaged by Health Pak, a New Zealand company that makes degradable materials. Beyond the occasional Halal certification, which I rarely, almost never see in the U.S., there are gluten-free options everywhere, despite the heavy carb diet and portions that at times exceed large American plates. New Zealand is also progressive about health initiatives, with television advertisements about depression and clear signs on ciggarette packages at airport Duty Free that say Smoking Kills. Tobacco lobbyists in the U.S. would never let anything stronger than the obligatory warning blurb get to its clients’ packages and sales zones.
But New Zealand is different. They seem well aware of the damage done to the Maori people, but even more so, the damage the early Europeans did by introducing certain species and killing trees to create farm land. In the valley where the Dart River tourism group runs Jet boat and hiking tours, the Department of Conservation recognized that the Maori people originally first mined the mountains for the green rock they value, otherwise known as Jade. The area is now protected by the government and owned by the Maori. When the boat driver bulled the Jet over to show us a piece of jade rock, after passing it around, he put it in back on the ground because the public recognizes it is Maori property. I have yet to see this type of recognition. However, the Australians handled the poaching of resources from the Aborigines the same way the Americans did with the Native Americans. However, the perception of the Maori is that they were better warriors and fought harder to protect their rights and land.
In the March 2010 issue of The Progressive, in a tribute piece to the late Howard Zinn, one quote mentioned sums up the pessimistic one-dimensional view of American foreign policy operations that often dwarf our accomplishments by solidifying our place in the global society as the war nation. “Sooner or later, profound change will come to this nation tired of war, tired of seeing its wealth squandered, while the basic needs of families are not met. These needs are not hard to describe. some are very practical, some are requirements of the soul: health care, work, living wages, a sense of dignity, a feeling of being at one with our fellow human beings on this Earth.”
But now we’ve gone too far and maybe the best we Americans can do is to attempt to save more, travel outside our borders more frequently, consume less, appreciate family and mother earth more, and attempt to transition more big boxes to B Corp.-style operations. Like celebrities, America should use its money and power to create socially-responsible businesses and collaborate near and far, to expore the concept of development for projects ranging from real estate in poor urban areas to infrastructure in the third world. But be this development, it must not be as political measures attempt to make every nation a democratic capitalism country; it must be to help the country continue with development to enable all inhabitants to have access to clean water, electricity, safe food and the basic elements of modern life, such as some kind washing and cooking machines, music players, compact efficient autos and schools.
Leaving New Zealand, the hope I have is that when my computer wallpaper and screensavers are set with my photos of New Zealand, during stressful times, I will use this imagery to recall a time, when after a few days, I was able to detach from the technology and enjoy nature and people. I hope that I will remember a country that is truly concerned about endangered species and the overconsumption of plant life, greenhouse gases, plastic use and its the health and wellbeing of its people.