David Goldsmith is a 52-year-old father of three and a very hungry man, currently on day 13 of a three-week hunger strike on parliament grounds. He talks to Mathias Corwin about the strike and his mission to raise awareness about the global climate and ecological crisis.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that refusing to eat for 21 days is not an activity endorsed by doctors. There’s an alarming list of medical phrases that go hand in hand with a hunger strike of this length – bradycardia, orthostatic hypotension and depression to name a few – and recovery is not quite as simple as just starting to eat again. So why on earth would a 50-something Christchurch gardener, handyman and father of three knowingly put himself through such torture? I visited Goldsmith on day eight of the strike to find out.
One of the first things he tells me is that he has no intention of harming himself. He went into this forewarned and forearmed, having had a full medical check-up prior to the strike’s start. He’s in contact with his GP, is monitoring his heart rate, and has arranged for a blood test during the later stages of the strike. He’s also taking vitamin and mineral and electrolyte supplements.
“I don’t want to harm myself; I want to be a catalyst for change,” he says.
Goldsmith is surprisingly clear-headed for someone who has already gone more than a week without food. He speaks quietly and chooses his words with thoughtful deliberation. His outlook on life has been influenced by everyone from Buddhist monks to Greta Thunberg. Having dabbled in Quakerism in the past, he’s now an atheist but still considers himself a deeply spiritual person. This may be how he manages to project calm even while discussing the desperation that drove him to take such drastic action.
For me to understand what brought him here, Goldsmith says I need to know about the “seven points” that describe the scale and urgency of the climate and ecological crisis. We skate over the first of these points relatively quickly – it’s the one that everyone has heard of, has been heavily researched by a global network of scientists and is now universally acknowledged as scientific fact: that climate change is already happening and is caused by humans.
His second point is that we’re at the beginning of a human-caused mass extinction event. There have been five naturally occurring mass extinction events in the past that wiped out astonishing quantities of life in a relatively short amount of time. Goldsmith urges people to learn about these events because they provide a chilling glimpse of a future without urgent preventative action. He also sounds a warning: “humans aren’t necessarily going to be exempt” from the next one.
The third on his list is “climate lag” or “climate inertia”, the time delay between when we emit greenhouse gases and when the consequences are felt. This is a concern because we’re releasing carbon emissions at an accelerating pace (slightly over half of all cumulative global CO2 emissions have taken place since 1990) and we are yet to feel the full effect of them.
“When we look at any other crisis, for example, Covid-19, it’s easy to see the effects of actions,” Goldsmith says. “In New Zealand, we’ve followed the science and people are alive as a result. But for climate change when we ignore the science we are able to disassociate ourselves from the consequences because the consequences will not be fully felt for decades to come.”
Fourth on Goldsmith’s list is ocean acidification, caused by increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. When ocean acidification happened 252 million years ago it’s thought to have wiped out about 90% of marine life worldwide.
Fifth is the phenomenon known as tipping points – when the climate system reaches some limit that, when exceeded, will accelerate the effects of climate change much more quickly.
“The classic example is the permafrost in the Arctic,” he says. “It’s melting right now because of climate change, and as it melts it releases methane which is a very powerful greenhouse gas – and this is just going to make the earth heat up even more quickly.”
The sixth point follows on from this: that tipping points lead to a cascading or domino effect. Scientists are now telling us that nine of the 15 known tipping points that were identified decades ago are now active, and that this is likely to lead to the other tipping points being activated.
The final point Goldsmith wants everyone to consider is that if tipping points cascade, then this will lead to an abrupt and irreversible climate catastrophe.
“We’re teetering right on the edge of that catastrophe, and by the time the lagged and cascading effects catch up with us it will be too late to turn back the clock.”
Together, Goldsmith’s seven environmental points paint a very grim picture.
“We keep saying, climate change, climate change, but it’s not. It’s climate change plus ocean acidification plus mass extinction. It’s all connected. It’s an emergency. Greta Thunberg said we should be acting like our house is on fire, because it is.”
After Goldsmith finishes explaining his list we take a break; he looks tired and says as much. Since beginning his hunger strike he’s been having trouble sleeping and finding it difficult to concentrate for long periods. While we’ve been speaking, groups of people have approached to express their gratitude for what he’s doing. It’s easy to think, with the steady stream of well-wishers, that this is a foregone issue politically, that all New Zealanders are on board with the need to take urgent and drastic action.
That’s not really the case. The fact is, there’s currently not enough political will among the electorate for the government to take meaningful climate action. Like many activists, Goldsmith has sometimes despaired when faced with the scale of the problem – and the scale of the response needed to address it.
“I feel we’re in a desperate situation where the window of opportunity to do something is narrowing rapidly and we’re not doing anything. The action required is so huge – basically, the entire world needs to stop burning fossil fuel – and people think that’s ridiculous, but if we don’t do it then there’s no future for our children and grandchildren.”
What kind of future we’re leaving for the next generation is a subject Goldsmith keeps coming back to, and he says it’s his children who keep him grounded and focused when things feel hopeless.
“I’ve got two boys that are 20 and 22, Rowan and Dylan. And then I’ve got my daughter, Hana, who is four. I’m on my second shift as a dad.”
But explaining the problems is one thing, coming up with solutions is quite another. So what should we do? Is there any hope for humanity?
“The crazy thing is that we’ve got all the solutions available to us already. As well as banning fossil fuels, there’s an organisation called Project Drawdown – it’s a collaboration of hundreds of scientists and researchers from around the world – and it lists the top one hundred projects out there.
“If the entire world does all 100 of them, then we achieve ‘drawdown’ of carbon. We keep hearing ‘carbon zero’ but actually we urgently need to reach the point of drawdown, which is when we start to be carbon negative.”
Some of the findings from Project Drawdown are surprising. For example, the top way of reducing emissions is to increase gender equity. It’s been calculated that universal education and access to contraception could potentially avoid 120 billion tons of emissions by 2050. Another set of Project Drawdown solutions is focused around regenerative farming – something that David sees as being particularly relevant to New Zealanders.
“There’s this false dichotomy between environmentalists and farmers, or even urban and rural. Farmers provide our food and I support farmers. It’s farmers who are going to be on the front lines of climate change – it’s their livelihoods that are going to be affected first – through drought, floods and fires. Farmers in Australia are already having to walk off the land.
“We’re all in this together and we need to support farmers. Farmers have the potential to provide a lot of the solutions through regenerative farming, but it’s not going to happen on an individual level, they need government support.”
Asked what we can do right now to help with his campaign. Goldsmith gives two responses. The immediate answer is that he wants people to join him on parliament grounds. While they’re welcome to be there all day, he’d particularly like to see people at Fridays For Future, the Greta Thunberg-devised campaign which in Wellington occupies parliament grounds every Friday between 12.30 and 1.30pm. The broader answer is that he’d like to inspire a coalition of individuals, groups, churches and unions demanding real action on the climate and ecological crisis.
“I know this is a big ask – but everything I’m asking for is based on an understanding of the science and understanding that unless we do this together there’s no future for our children and grandchildren. And the only way I can see this happening is if there’s a mass movement of people telling the government that this is what needs to happen.
“We’re all in this together. We need to get beyond divisiveness; we need to start caring about each other, and doing this massive transformation in a caring and equitable way.”
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.