What emotional reserves will New Zealanders have when we are struck by genuine disaster? Today's DomPost headline reports as "disaster" a non-fatal ship stranding with a fuel oil spill. So flatulent has our public discourse become over any loss that the hyperbole may go unremarked. Or worse – New Zealanders may think this is genuinely as bad as things can get..
Language is debased by claims that our "worst maritime disaster" is a few hundred tonnes of fuel oil in the sea. It seems to be based on the likely fate of some sea birds, and the unpleasantness of months or years of oily cow pats on beautiful beaches. Those deposits were familiar on some beaches, including Paekak, when I was a child. Apparently they came as ships cleaned their oil bunkers at sea in preparation for refuelling in Wellington. We burned them in beach fires, or left them to go hard and scarcely distinguishable from stones.
If the Rena is "disaster" of the worst kind, what about the Wahine, or the other sinkings that have taken hundreds of lives around our coasts? What about the milliions of seabirds killed by the El Nino/La Nina cycle of feast and famine every decade? What about beautiful beaches ruined by uncontrolled erosion, or the blocking of the normal replenishment cycle as tamed rivers no longer discharge their annual flood shingle. What about the economic costs of the lost ship and cargo. Sure, they are probably insured, but insurance just spreads losses – it does not mean we do not eventually pay.
What language resilience will have have when White Island explodes again, or some other volcanic venting kills kilotons of marine life, releasing shiploads of mercury and sulphuric acid and arsenic and other pollutants into the atmosphere and the sea.
I might have ignored today's DomPost if it had not come on top of yesterday's Herald headlines talking of Piri Weepu's "tragedy". What was it?
His grandfather had died, full of years and with every reason to be proud of his family. Where is the "tragedy" in such a death. We must all die. If we are fortunate we die with family, mourned and missed. But that is not tragedy.
Could not some media lead in the rehabilitation of that spurned inheritance – the stiff upper lip. For the sake of dignity alone, but more importantly so that we leave ourselves some language with which to convey and share feelings in the face of genuine catastrophe.
PS NBR is on to the job. Thank you Nevil Gibson