Between a rock and a hard place? What the structure of New Zealand society means for greens & the Greens.

8 Tribes: The Hidden Classes of New Zealand (by Jill Caldwell & Christopher Brown) is a thought provoking little book about New Zealand society. It certainly has some significant gaps and omissions – lumping most Maori, Polynesian and other large-family non-European immigrant New Zealanders into the ‘Otara’ tribe is one of them, and silence about Asian New Zealanders is another. But it doesn’t pretend to be a scientific analysis, rather it presents the 8 ‘tribes’ as sharp caricatures  of recognisable segments of contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand society. And those caricatures certainly provide some food for thought, from the perspective of green politics and the green movement.

Briefly, (the book is short, go read it ) the 8 tribes are [and I’ve added my own “Might be” section in parentheses]:

  1. The North Shore Tribe – Barely needs explaining to anyone who’s lived in Auckland. Competitive, consumerist, materialistic. [Might be: Real Estate Agent, amateur triathlete]
  2. The Grey Lynn Tribe – Intellectuals, social liberals, watch film festival movies. [Might be: Policy Analyst, member of Amnesty International]
  3. The Remuera Tribe – Old money. Elite networks. Often, but not always, with a sense of ‘noblesse oblige’. [Might be: Partner in established Law Firm, on the Board of Charitable Trusts established by their Grandfather]
  4. The Papatoetoe Tribe – Urban working class, anti-intellectual. [Might be: Process Worker, member of Rugby League club]
  5. The Balclutha Tribe – ‘Heartland’ Kiwis, conservative, practical. [Might be: Dairy Farmer, volunteer Firefighter]
  6. The Raglan Tribe – Rural/Provincial non-conformists, though wannabe Raglan types are found in the cities too, because the first three tribes own most of the coastline now. [Might be: Whatever, ageing surfer]
  7. The Otara Tribe – Urban ‘minorities’, very diverse group, extended family and communal networks. [Might be…see how this one doesn’t work without being racist?…]
  8. The Cuba Street Tribe – Young, avant-garde, trend and fashion innovators and leaders. [Might be: Snooty Barista in uber trendy cafe, recording a demo album]

So, looking at the 8 tribes, where might we find green supporters, where might we find friends and allies?

Obviously, the most likely places we will find green supporters is in the Grey Lynn Tribe, perhaps followed by the Raglan Tribe.  That means that the Green Party is competing for votes within one of Labour’s core support groups.

There are some elements of the interests and values of all the other groups that could at times be linked to a coalition in support for some green policy agendas, though I find it harder to plausibly imagine widespread and consistent support for the Green Party and green agendas in those groups at this time.

The tribes that seem to me to be most intrinsicly anti-green are the North Shore Tribe and the Papatoetoe Tribe. Interestingly, the North Shore Tribe is probably the largest and most politically influential element of National Party support, and the Papatoetoe Tribe is a shrinking but still significant (especially symbolically) component of Labour support.

What’s my conclusion?

The Green Party faces substantial and likely insurmountable obstacles if it aims to become a true mass party. It could only suceed in this task  if a) Labour were politically incompetent and unresponsive over a series of election cycles, and b) if the Green Party was very lucky, grounded in a vibrant, numerous, and extensive green movement,  and supremely well-organised.

But this isn’t the end of the world for the green movement (or indeed for the Green Party). A plausible social change strategy (which, I would argue, is taking place already, but too slowly) is to shift the hearts and minds of the thinkers and opinion-shapers (i.e in particular the Grey Lynn Tribe) in support of green agendas enough that Labour is forced to re-shape it’s political programme to be green in a significant way (as opposed to its current ‘greenwash’ approach). Part of that re-shaping process would include finding means to communicate green ideas and messages in a way that can reach the hearts and minds (or at least not frighten or antagonise) members of Tribes other than Grey Lynn.

In shifting the hearts and minds of the Grey Lynn Tribe, I would argue, the critical task now is to provide a persuasive alternative analysis of our economic situation, alongside a persuasive alternative policy programme that responds to that analysis. Given that Aotearoa New Zealand has a chronic financial unsustainability problem that is directly linked to its ecologically unsustainable practices, this seems to me to be an obvious focus around which to develop policy and messages. (While parts of the rest of society may still need perusading or ‘waking up’ about environmental issues, I believe that battle is already essentially won in the Grey Lynn Tribe, and the question is persuading them to support meaningful action now).

In finding means to communicate green ideas and messages to wider society, I see two approaches: one that is top-down and depends on good fortune and one that is grass-roots and within all of our grasps. The top-down approach is to hope that we find a great political communicator, who happens to want to promote a green message. The grass-roots approach is, of course, to go out and do the community-level work of building a green movement – by which I mean not just supporting community initiatives like the Farmer’s Market and Transition Towns, but participating in ways that bring the political bigger picture – respectfully, appropriately, and  honestly –  into conversations within those initiatives.

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