Opinion: How can a broken cup help us heal our planet? Some years back, during the Seddon earthquakes, a lovely ceramic cup and saucer, which my stepdad Seb had inherited from his parents, was smashed. Seb had a great appreciation for beautiful things — glass, ceramics, paintings, music, trees. He was also a practical guy — a builder, a veggie gardener, and a man who lived very much in the moment.

So when the cup and saucer were smashed, it was, as far as he was concerned, the end of its useful life. Before he threw it away, I asked if I could have it. I found it hard to bear that something made by one of the world’s great mid-century ceramic artists would end up in a Masterton dump. 

Not long after the earthquake, Seb died. He left a very particular break in our family’s heart. 

The Lucie Rie cup and saucer sat in the back of a drawer for some years. Then recently I sent it away to someone who specialises in Kintsugi — the Japanese art of repair. Kintsugi craftspeople take broken objects and put them back together in a way that doesn’t try to cover up the breaks, but uses resin and gold and silver lacquer to create something new and differently beautiful. It makes the breaking a part of the history of the object.

The cup is now something of much greater value to me — a beautiful, different object that allows me to reflect on its previous life and what Seb brought into our lives. It’s also a reminder what is broken can be grieved over, but also made into something differently beautiful when we treat the breakage as part of the story.  

Jess Berentson-Shaw’s repaired Lucie Rie cup and saucer. Photo: Supplied

Kintsugi makes me think about our planet. About the damage the way we live, work, play, earn, and travel has done to our life-supporting systems — our climate, water, soil, and plant ecosystems — and how we might move to repair what we have broken in a way that keeps alive the story of how we broke it. But it has to start by acknowledging the breakage. 

You cannot repair what you don’t see is broken 

On the south coast of Wellington last week people gathered to talk about their homes, and what will need to happen as the seas rise, the land sinks, the weather becomes more extreme, and the places they call home are made uninhabitable. They were sad, angry, and worried, which seems normal in the face of the anticipated loss and uncertainty about “what do we do next?“

The south coast of Wellington is only the latest of many communities across the world facing the pain and loss and uncertainty human-induced climate change and environmental damage has brought. For our Pacific neighbours and people living in the global south, their loss, pain and grief started decades ago, but very few people in power turned up to listen or act — they wouldn’t acknowledge things were breaking or their role in it.

It’s wrong those people hurt first and most by the damage our systems have done to the planet were not listened to. As more people experience the tides washing against our front doors, we can do some repair. As more and more communities experience climate and environment-related loss, including those with more power and wealth and voice, we have an opportunity to come together in that loss and do better. This has to start with building a better understanding and an acknowledgment of what is broken and why.

In countries such as New Zealand, many people might care about climate change and the environment, but still not understand exactly which boundaries we’ve transgressed, or how the economic, work, farming, and transport systems we’ve built have contributed to harm. They don’t understand which changes will make the biggest difference to repair the harm. And they don’t understand or support those changes when they do get suggested. 

It’s absurd some people reject policies that will reduce transport-related carbon emissions, such as bike lanes, or parking removal, or fewer roads, while facing climate-change-induced flooding of their homes. Yet the problem is not that people are stupid, but that people have been underserved by the information provided by leaders and manipulated by people who benefit from maintaining the status quo. 

The information people get has to be based on building a much deeper understanding — that the way we live, work, and play, in richer Western countries especially, is the source of the harm to our life-sustaining systems, and these ways must change in specific ways, and our lives with it. People in government, in power, in businesses must more clearly lay this all out in accessible and meaningful ways. As I have argued, we can greatly improve how we talk about this stuff. 

We must grieve for our collective loss

After we acknowledge what is broken, we have to have a way to grieve for our collective, not just individual, loss. The current approach to storytelling and reporting on environmental harm often creates an ‘other’. We often name ‘other’ people in ‘other’ communities who have particular characteristics that make them more vulnerable to harm. This approach contributes to ways of reasoning that deny the real risk. For example, “I’m OK, I don’t live on the coast, low-lying atoll, flood plain, or work the land.” 

But climate change and other types of ecosystem damage is all of ours to share, to grieve, and to act together on. We need the collective ‘us’ to see and understand we’re all harmed, that life will not be what it was for all of us in different ways.  

Of course, different communities and people experience different losses. Some people had far more than they needed and the loss is, in absolute terms, small. Other people have so little and had so much previously taken, that the loss is everything. Yet as Duncan Grieve pointed out recently, “everyone measures their relative happiness against prior happiness and if you have experienced decline, it sucks for you!”. And if many of us can feel and acknowledge that loss and grief, then it can be a source of shared understanding and solidarity. Solidarity can help us think about how to repair and do better, especially for those who need it most — disabled people, indigenous communities, and those who will lose their work first as we change the economic system. 

Repairing the damage but not trying to remake what was  

We see what is broken, share our grief, and have a shared desire to repair what we can because there is still much worth saving. Yet like Kintsugi we can’t remake what was. We have to repair using different methods and materials, and different knowledge and skills.

I can’t even begin to see and name all the different ways we can collectively explore how we mitigate and adapt to climate change and environmental harm. But I do know it must be different from the ways things are currently done in our systems. We can’t use the same economic theory based on extraction or trading off parts of the environment for wealth. We can’t rely on knowledge and belief systems that, outside of all reason, suggest we can have infinite growth on a planet that has clear limits. And we can’t keep listening to and being led by the same people with the same ideas. That’s why this must be a collective endeavour. We’re not short of better alternatives, or people willing and keen to act. There is better knowledge, skills, and hope all around us. Are we prepared to see them? 

We need to be doing democracy and decision making in different ways that serve a different purpose — to support collective collaboration. I’m interested in what can happen at the local level, where the pain is felt and seen most. People in our local democratic institutions could provide new structures for communities to understand the problems and solutions better, and to grieve, to plan, and to repair together. That meeting on the south coast certainly suggested more is needed and wanted. 

We need to look to the leadership within Te Ao Māori and to the potential in our treaty partnership. Ngati Toa, one of my local iwi, is leading collaborative decision making on climate that many people across the motu are watching closely. In real partnership, communities, iwi, and hapū can together create solutions that properly acknowledge the harm, and trial solutions at a scale appropriate to the challenge.

In honest repair lies something even better

About the climate and the environment, I am deeply hopeful and deeply fearful at the same time. There is hope in the work so many people are doing to repair. But we must not try to paper over the broken bits. For example, we must stop coming up with systems to try to trade our way out of living outside the limits of the ecosystem that sustains us. If we see the broken parts for what they are and make them obvious, we can make something better for our kids and their kids — a way of life true to what we need as human beings to thrive physically, socially, and emotionally together. 

Leave a comment