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Stateside With Rosalea: Reality Happens

The first series of "Survivor" has just won the People's Choice award for best reality based tv show. "Zooality tv" seems like a more appropriate term for placing people in a constrained situation in full public view and then watching them perform within a set of rules (as in "Survivor") or without a set of rules (as in "Temptation Island"). But Americans call this reality tv - and therein lies the key to understanding how a nation of intelligent, educated, well-meaning, considerate individuals can continue to be shocked and surprised when actual reality happens.

Really in California in winter it is not 70 deg. F inside your house - unless you have a thermostat controlling some kind of heating equipment. All the media are advising people to turn down their thermostats to ease the power crisis and lower their electricity bills, but no-one questions why they've got those heating systems going all day and night anyway.

OK, so I grew up in Taranaki and moved here from the Hutt Valley and I might be more than a little cold-inured, but honestly there's been only a couple of days when it was cold enough to turn the heater on. Even in summer - when it was much hotter than anything I'd experienced before - there was only a couple of days I needed to use a fan, yet most people had air-conditioning going 24/7.

Medea Benjamin, the unsuccessful Green Party candidate for state Senate last November, is seen with her bull-horn almost nightly on tv, urging protestors on at pro-consumer demonstrations outside the Governor's San Francisco office and the power company whose tripled bills are now appearing in consumers' mailboxes. Since when has the Green Party been pro-consumption? That's certainly how it appears, because there's no balancing coverage of what their environmental policies are.

Perhaps they're glad of that. California's strict environmental laws, which reportedly tie up new generating plant applications for years instead of months as in Texas, are often cited as one of the reasons there is a power crisis. Big deal. There's a 'crisis' only because people's expectations are so unrealistic. Elementary arithmetic dictates you can't halve your cake and eat it. Not the same sized portion, at any rate.

Which brings me to the biggest pizza delivery day of the year - Superbowl Sunday. The National Football League's big game will be played at Tampa, Florida, on Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and NY Giants, and will be followed on CBS by the premiere of "Survivor II: The Outback". Which is maybe why, amidst the many pizza delivery company ads on tv this week, has been an intriguing little number from Lindeman's wines.

A bunch of people are stranded on a tropical island when a crate of wine washes ashore. They light a fire, cook up a meal, and are sitting around their rickety table enjoying fine wine and food when they hear the drone of an aeroplane overhead. "Cessna," says one bloke. "Cherokee," says another. The ad ends with their lovely lady companion laughing and raising her glass - all so happy with their lot that they're no longer interested in rescue.

I kind of suspect that the whole point of this ad is lost on Americans because the plane isn't shown and they probably don't know what a Cessna is, and are left wondering why the name of a sports utility vehicle is being invoked, since any relationship between "Cherokee" and the name of an American Indian nation - let alone a plane - has long since been subverted by Jeep. One hopes of course that this situation will be remedied by someone flying a Cessna over the Tampa stadium and "flour-bombing" the field with leaflets saying: "Count our votes". Now there's a 20-year-old idea whose time has come around again!

More likely the leaflets would say "Eat at Joe's" or "Dial A Pizza". According to a statistical snapshot of the American consumer published in the January "Consumer Reports", families spend 16 minutes to a half-hour a day - and singles 15 minutes or less - preparing meals. Only half an hour a day? Sounds like a lot of semi-prepared or bought-in meals and their attendant packaging, so it's no surprise to learn that each American generates 4.46 pounds of municipal waste per day, 66 percent more than in 1960.

Overconsumption is the pressing problem that the power crisis should be highlighting - not consumers' rights and politics.

Besides, it's all relative. Electricity cost me 9.72 cents per kwh at Lower Hutt in May 1999. I used 227 kwh and paid a $13 network charge (and GST) on top of that making my bill $39.50. Living in a comparably sized apartment at a comparable time of year, my power usage for November here in California was only 132 kwh charged for at 12c per kwh (including network and other charges), although it cost PG&E 22c per kwh to buy it. Less a legislated 10% reduction, my bill came to only $13.77. I know I'm a skinflint with electricity but I don't think that even a family of 5 could justifiably have a bill 10 times that size for the same period without there being some fat in their usage that they could cut.

Reality bites. You can't put it in a cage or on a leash. You have to deal with it. But first you need to know it exists. Sadly, in a country that can't see the irony of a car ad boasting of its air-conditioning that it's "the freshest air you'll find anywhere in the world", while the very thing it advertises is the cause of all the unfresh air it's travelling through, it seems like an impossible task to get people to deal with the problems caused by overconsumption of energy.

Now if only F&P could afford the $80k per second to advertise during the Super Bowl they could do their bit to save the world. "Consumer Reports" lists as the most energy efficient washer - and the one that gets the most water out, thereby cutting energy consumption in driers as well - as Fisher and Paykel's GWL10.

Lea Barker California Saturday, 28 January 2001

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