You’re never too old to have a vision

At last, after 4,000 generations of farmers plus one speechwriter, there's someone in our family working in the field of optical dispensing.

“Good morning, David,” texted our daughter. “Mary-Margaret from Devonport Optometrists here. Your spectacles are ready for collection.” It’s just a part-time job on Saturday mornings, but all the same, it’s nice to see her in such a place. Eye people are good people. I wrote in the first of these columns of my first experience, aged seven, of the quiet cocoon of the optometrist's room: dark as night, a spaceship cockpit, with red and green lights, and sophisticated equipment. A very good place to be.

I have photos of my daughter, aged nine, being fitted with her first pair of spectacles. The young dancer poised, upright, expectant, as the spectacles are carefully placed on her face. And then there she is, a part of our world – the imperfectly sighted world – with a broad grin because she thinks the spectacles look cool and also, she can now see the far wall clearly.

And now she’s the young woman behind the counter handing me my reading glasses and she can mould them for me. Would I like to have them moulded?

Your kids; your little tiny bundles. They seem so small and in need of your help for an eternity. And it’s over in five minutes, then they’re helping you.

In America's wonderful Doonesbury comic strip, the characters actually grow older. Some are no longer with us, all of them are a lot older than they were when I first met them in the 1980s. I forever remember one strip where Joanie, a Washington lawyer, is talking on the phone to her mother, patiently explaining something once, and twice, and again, eventually telling her mother goodnight and saying to her husband, “There’s this point you reach in your life when you find yourself talking to your parents and your children in the same tone of voice.”

I’ve come past that point now and am possibly at the one where you sometimes think: this is too hard, maybe the young ones might want to have a go.

What puts me in this frame of mind is the state of the world and its - how to put this in a positive way - suboptimal present condition. I'm thinking of politicians with authoritarian tendencies. I’m thinking of the undermining of the rule of law. But mostly I'm thinking of the climate crisis and where we'll end up if we don't do something substantial.

In that respect, I'm at odds with people my age who object to teenagers telling us we're not doing enough. I agree with them, we need to be doing much, much more.

What fixes this, of course, is not noise, but action. And where a middle-aged person such as I might find it less easy these days to summon the energy and the fire, those young people - the ones my daughter spends her time with in class and at rallies and on student radio, when she’s not patiently moulding frames - are full of determination. And determination is what matters here. Determination is how you move from, “We should do this” to, ‘“We finally did it.”

To avert disaster, we need to get things changed: shifting how we consume, moving to plant-based food, moving to sustainable energy, getting out of fossil fuel cars, reducing, reusing, recycling. That’s what I’m hoping these young people will have the energy to do, because it takes a lot of energy to overcome inertia and the resistance of vested interests.

But also, I know that it’s copping out to hope they’ll sort it out and to just leave it all to them. Better to encourage good ideas and work together. At Helensville’s recycling centre they team up wayward teenagers with volunteers: retired blokes with power tools teach youngsters how to use the equipment and turn junk into items for sale, like recycled timber into planter boxes.

And they have bigger plans. They see thousands of state houses marked for demolition and they say, “We can reuse those.” The retirees and the teenagers have all the skills required: they can deconstruct a house for the same price it would cost to demolish it. Funding permitting, they will set up to help build tiny houses using the recycled material from state house deconstructions.

It makes a middle-aged man like me happy to see this kind of thing happen: practical, constructive action. This is action that takes a problem and turns it into a solution, action that brings young and old together to fix things. Even if it turns out that an army of scientists were mistaken and there was no climate crisis - good news! We made things sustainable anyway.

Even a short-sighted old guy like me can see that that’s the way forward.

David Slack is an Auckland-based author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter.

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