We don’t know how lucky we … aren’t

Robert Stratford, University of Waikato

One of the treasures left to us by the late John Clarke was Fred Dagg’s unofficial anthem, ‘We don’t know how lucky we are. In this song Clarke was drawing on his immense reservoir of dry wit to point out the collective comfort our nation has traditionally turned to in the face of global turmoil and overseas debt. It was a celebratory jibe at how Kiwis react ‘if things get appallingly bad’ and a bit of a go at what has also become known as our ‘she’ll be right‘ attitude.

“So when things are looking really bad
        And you’re thinking of giving it away
Remember, New Zealand’s a cracker
        And I reckon come what may
If things get appallingly bad
        And we’re all under constant attack
Remember, we want to see good clean ball
        And for God’s sakes, feed your backs!”*

– John Clarke, ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’

‘We don’t know how lucky we are’ was written in 1975, in what were very different times, and at the dawn of Robert Muldoon’s infamous time as Prime Minister. I want to honour Clarke’s legend here by asking if his jibe isn’t still relevant. My wondering leads me to question whether too many of us in this lucky country still have a version of the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude when it comes to the ‘appallingly bad’ change in planetary circumstances facing us today?

The word at the centre of this wondering is ‘Anthropocene’ (literally the age of humans). For those of you who haven’t come across this term, the name ‘Anthropocene’ has been put forward by a group of scientists as the name for a new geological age. This new age would replace the current Holocene epoch which has provided us with a stable climate for the last 11,700 years. These scientists claim that the Holocene is now over due to the impact of humanity. This impact is so vast, these scientists argue, that it could be read in Earth’s geology for the many epochs to come, assuming there will be any species interested in pursuing such science.

The Anthropocene is yet to be recognised as an official epoch by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (which is responsible for defining components of the Earth’s historical timeline). It is, however, very much alive and well in the critical consciousness of educational thinking here and overseas. And the key educational idea that the Anthropocene asks us to ponder is not climate change, mass extinctions or the acidification of our oceans, it is instead that the Anthropocene is a product of our thinking. It is human thinking that underpins our current unsustainable economic and social systems, including the way in which we extract wealth from this planet, without a working concept of limits and with hardly any real sense of aroha or fairness (including that with other species).

The friendly rational alien geologist scenario

A friendly rational alien (from another world, and who may or may not be a geologist) might look in on us here and decide that New Zealand is a great part of the planet – to use John Clarke’s term, ‘a cracker’. However, that same alien might also be surprised at:

  • how little is being done in Aotearoa to actually alter the way we think and act
  • how our human students are not developing the sort of Anthropocene intelligence that would help us to ‘live well’ within limits
  • the low status given to wellbeing in the curriculum rather than it being a central feature of teaching and learning
  • why human learners are not developing their understanding of system science and why they also put so much faith in technology
  • why we continue to repeat our errors – including the pollution of our lands and water – and give far too much of the profit of this process to far too few.

Perhaps most strangely of all, this friendly rational alien might also wonder why New Zealand isn’t leading the world in living well within limits. With all the advantages we possess, including our natural spaces, love of the outdoors, low population density and ability to grow food, it seems almost too obvious that New Zealand might be the best place in the world to develop an ecological democracy.

NZARE could help develop Anthropocene education in New Zealand

Currently New Zealand is a real laggard (aka ‘fast-follower’, in the language of some New Zealand politicians) on issues of climate change, biodiversity protection and the ensuring the equality of humans. We are also way behind when it comes to developing an education system for the Anthropocene. We can be pretty good at Holocene education – basic skills along with technical skills and optional tidbits of sustainability, but in no way can this be considered best practice. In this regard, even ‘education for sustainability‘ is a concept that seems to have been tainted by some mainstream attempts to ‘balance’ economic growth with hand-wringing about natural resources. That said, even on the sustainability front New Zealand’s performance has been poor. We took a very limited approach to the recent United Nations’ Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) and the current government even removed sustainability as a priority from New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Strategy (TES) back when it was first elected.

Where to from here? Fred Dagg might say that New Zealand needs ‘a rocket’, or that we need to ‘pull ourselves together’. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which New Zealand has signed up to, offer one way forward. There is also much that might be learned about the good and not so good aspects of sustainability education. A far better educational practice is possible, and a far more considered, democratic, ecologically intelligent society is possible too. Given the importance of education in this process, it seems crucial that NZARE puts more emphasis on what an education system should look like in the Anthropocene. Where, we might ask, is NZARE’s strategy for education in the Anthropocene? What role can NZARE play in changing government policy and improving educational practice in these appallingly bad times? Can we move beyond just saying, ‘She’ll be right?’

We can be far more lucky than we are now.


For non-NZ readers, the references in the song to ‘good clean ball’ and ‘feeding your backs’ link to New Zealand’s national sport, rugby.

Cover photo: Robert Stratford. Old Ghost Road, West Coast, NZ.


Robert square 2.jpgRobert Stratford is a doctoral scholarship student at the University of Waikato. He is supervised by Michael Peters and Jayne White. Robert is currently the co-convenor of the NZARE Researching Education for Sustainability special interest group.

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