Book Review: Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene, by Rod Oram

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_three_citiesRod Oram is an interesting example of a business journalist who has escaped the somewhat narrow confines of the daily press to become a columnist, and is able to discuss some of the big issues confronting the world. On his most recent Tuesday morning slot on RNZ National he talked about civilisation being at risk from global climate change and ecological destruction. The man-made environmental change to planet is what Oram means when referring to the ‘anthropocene’ in the title. But he remains in a minority of financial journalists who delve into environmental issues.

So Oram goes to three of the largest metropolitan areas in the world to look for others who are interested in ecological questions. This looks promising at first, even though the opening chapter about Beijing includes a lot of rather dry statistical information. And there he finds about the idea of ‘ecological civilisation’ which China confronts as it continues to industrialise, but faces certain financial and institutional challenges. In the conclusion Oram refers to other ideas he discovers in the Western metropoles, like the ‘doughnut economy’ and the ‘circular economy’. The sub-title of the book claims that “conventional economic policies are failing worldwide”, and he refers in the text to the ‘lifeless’ economic theory that plagues elite policymaking in the West. Oram also mentions something called Californian Ideology based on Silicon Valley values.

But, unfortunately, the book doesn’t really delve into the new ideas in any sustained way. Oram’s visit to three cities is based on his own familiarity with them, rather than really seeking new experience and opinion. There is a lot of personal narrative here for such a short book. And there are quite a few digressions as well, though some involve finding a Kiwi connection, like the Chinese store owned by Japanese interests which sells a Comvita gift box of 5 honey related items for 3031 yuan ($NZ750). He also refers to some interesting facts about a New Zealand firm LanzaTech, which has relocated to Chicago. However, I found the chapter about London rather disjointed, with an odd beginning about Jeremy Corbyn and Yanis Varoufakis. Oram writes quite a bit about the Financial Times where he worked in London, and the Northwestern University where he studied in the USA, but this does not add much to the big themes.

There is another version of this story which Oram presented for the 2015 Bruce Jesson Foundation lecture. There he talked about three crises which are linked: a fiscal or financial crisis for global economy beginning in 1971; the ‘Eco shock’ which has also been developing over the same time; and what he calls the ‘Corporate shock’, as exemplified in the Volkswagen company’s systematic deception over carbon emissions from its vehicles, being emblematic of the environmental costs of big business. If only the book were more focussed on the analysis of these issues, though the suggestions for local change in New Zealand at the end of the book are useful.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene
by Rod Oram
Published by BWB Books (Text series)
ISBN 9780994135407

Book Review: King Rich, by Joe Bennett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Tcv_king_richhree small things have occurred in the past two weeks to bring Christchurch to the front of my thinking. Firstly, this week saw my first visit to Christchurch since the tragic earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. To be honest, although I have not had any need to go to Christchurch, I certainly have not gone out of my way to find a reason to go. Very simply, I have not wanted to see how this city that I have visited many times over the years, has been so destroyed both physically and emotionally. But a holiday on the West Coast required going through Christchurch to get there, and an overnight stay with friends who offered to take us on a tour of the city was far too good to turn down. Secondly, the latest North and South magazine has a very sobering article on the very slow progress being made in those five years to fix homes and businesses damaged/destroyed, with massive fingers pointing at both the insurance industry and the government. And lastly, I read this wonderful novel set in the days after the 2011 earthquake. What a gem.

This is the first work of fiction by well-known NZ writer and columnist Joe Bennett, who has lived in the Christchurch area for many years. His novel asks what would have happened to someone who actually managed to remain inside the cordoned off CBD disaster zone, living in the condemned multi-story hotel which also happened to be the tallest building in the city? For Richard, in his early sixties, life in recent years has taken a bad turn. Sick, probably malnourished, basically homeless, and an alcoholic to boot, the haven he finds in the deserted and leaning hotel, is really the only place he wants to be. Just think of all those mini bars! With no one to love, and no one to love him other than an abandoned dog which also finds its way into the building, Richard has little to live for. On the other side of the world in London, his daughter Annie, who has spent her whole life wondering what happened to her adored father after he left her and her mother, sees on TV the devastation wrought on her home town, and makes the long journey back to Christchurch to see if she can find him and maybe re-find herself.

It’s a simple story of love and hope, the kindness of others, the simple pleasures in life, set against a background of such devastation, loss and despair. Could it only be written by someone who has lived through all this themselves? Well, in this case, I think yes. Because the book absolutely sparkles with what Christchurch is all about. The writer captures the essence of the landscape, the garden city, the old wooden architecture, the solidness of the place, the spirit, resilience and stoicism of the residents that was apparent to the rest of the country and the world in the days, weeks and now years after. Joe Bennett is a marvellous writer, so visual – ‘The starlings are gangsters in flashy suits, strutting like hit men on the far edge of the sill, their sword-beaks jabbing at each other in perpetual squabble.’ This is just one of many, many sentences that I loved. It’s such an entertainment to read, even though the subject matter is not.

Both Richard and Annie, as the main characters, are very real people. Despite their flaws, as the reader you can’t help but relate to them, empathy oozing over the page. Noted NZ writer Dame Fiona Kidman reviewed this book for The Spinoff, and her main criticism is how Annie’s mother/Richard’s ex-wife is portrayed, and I agree with her. It is a very simplistic and one-dimensional view of a woman who was betrayed early on in her marriage and left with a young child to raise. The reader is not supposed to like her, she does not behave well. However, taking into consideration the circumstances of her marriage breakdown, I do think she deserves some compassion and sympathy. Dare I say it, if the book had been written by a woman the wife may have come across as a nicer person, with at least one redeeming quality.

Besides this small criticism, Annie’s search for her father, the history she unearths, and the people she meets who knew her father in his younger and better days is really quite heart-warming. Disasters like this always produce small but beautiful real life stories, and the best thing about the story of King Rich and his daughter Annie, is that it could so easily be true. I hope there is more fiction to come from Joe Bennett!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

King Rich
by Joe Bennett
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540557