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Bonus Joules: A Major Encounter

Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy

A Major Encounter


Bonus Joules is in a collision.
Bonusjoules Blog 5 May 2005
Chapter 2.2 Hitting EECA


Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

“What does living in Lala land mean?” This question is put to me this week by a friend from India. I answer with a string of expressions: It means you are away with the fairies. Out of your tree. You don’t have your feet on the ground. You are out of touch with reality. You live in cloud cuckoo land. You are bit crazy, dotty nutty over-optimistic. I might have added that you are like many of New Zealand’s most prominent business and media people with regard to oil and gas.

I illustrate a possible origin of the term by floating around the room with an expression of inane happiness on my face intoning, “lala lala lala…” I explain how a person who is lala persists with this behaviour regardless of what is going on around them. A web search confirms my general explanation. Freesearch defines living in la-la land as:

“be/live in la-la land: to not be realistic but to think that things which are completely impossible might happen.”

Wordweb defines cloud cuckooland as “An imaginary place where you say people are when they seem optimistically out of touch with reality.”

I seem to have explained it’s meaning quite well but the web does throw up another very interesting possible origin for the term Lala.

Lala is a Bulgarian girl’s name and is Slavic for tulip. Many readers will be familiar with “Tulipmania” or “Tulipomania”. The first official stock exchange opened in Holland in 1631 and soon a speculative spree in a new commodity, tulips, eventuated with people paying the incredible modern day equivalent of $44,000 per handful. The Stock Exchange came complete with a Futures Market and the investment structure collapsed 1637, bankrupting many and bringing down the Dutch economy with it. Rumours are some were reduced to eating tulips to survive.

The analogy to the way “developed” countries have created economies based on oil use (with the back-up dream of another supposedly limitless resource - nuclear power) has similar lala elements. One difference is those countries reliant on agricultures based on oil use will have neither oil nor food to eat. Instead of having piles of worthless tulips they will have piles of worthless motorways and buildings. The trouble is just as the Dutch business community thought it could create something from nothing, so does our business sector. This is truly lala stuff. Either a resource is endlessly available or it is not. To my knowledge only energy and love have a remote chance of fitting the former category.


Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

As the guy selling me toilet-cleaning supplies today was able to tell me, the First Principle of Energy or the Conservation Principle states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Of course there have always been those who would deny this great principle. Since humans performed the first primitive trading act, the spin-doctors, wizards, economists and alchemists among us have tried to convince us they have breached the Conservation Principle and are able to sell us perpetual motion machines, eternal fuels and elixirs of youth. Maybe locusts populations have their insect Spin equivalents too that encourage them to go on almighty consumption binges till they drive themselves to near extinction?

It seems boring to say we ignore the patterns and flows of the energy system that sustain us at our peril. The fact is flawed images of energy have destroyed past civilisations. So alarms bells rang for me last week when I heard a prominent NZ business group blaming a “slowing economy” and inflation on proposed Government welfare policies. And on Tuesday I hear our National Party bods in Parliament blaming higher interest rates and inflation on the expansion of New Zealand's civil service. I guess that expansion explains why the US Federal Reserve nudged interest rates up on Tuesday for an eighth straight time, nodding to mounting inflation pressures.

These people are clearly living in lala land, a place where cheap oil and gas flow in endless streams. The brute fact is oil prices have doubled in the last year or so and could well double again soon. Our investment in SUVs, motorways, airlines and intensive monocultural farming amplify the impact of the price rises. A high dollar does not reduce the ultimate impact.

Even the Americans do not live in such a lala land though they are still pretty much in cuckooland with their belief they can kill and bribe their way out of their addiction to the cheap oil. At least they have their feet on the ground a bit. Let me quote from this weekend’s New York Times:

Economy Hits Energy Prices, and the Brakes
By EDUARDO PORTER
Published: April 29, 2005

***The economy braked sharply in the first three months of the year, the government reported yesterday, expanding at its slowest pace in two years as rising energy prices spurred a burst of increased inflation and dragged down spending by businesses and consumers…

But the spike in energy prices appears to have thrown a wild card into the expected growth pattern.

Steven Wieting, senior economist at Citigroup, argued that the rise in energy costs this time shaved one percentage point from output growth. But he also argued that the drag was probably over.

"We are in a hole we have to dig out of," Mr. Wieting said. "But oil prices have peaked. There are reasonable prospects that the second quarter ends stronger than it began." ***

As a matter of interest The US Federal Reserve nudged interest rates up on Tuesday for an eighth straight time. Our Government’s policy is having a major negative inpact on the US economy too obviously.


Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

There have been other glimmerings of hope in the New York Times articles recently promoting:
- Norway’s relatively low consumption of oil (The $6.66-a-Gallon Solution cf US $2.25 gallon)
- The joy and wealth of using public transport and local schools,
- The wisdom of investing in efficient vehicles (read that as the stupidity of using SUVs and trucking etc)
- The potential reality of oil costing $US100 a barrel this year.

It is probable Mr Wietning is living in Lala land. I am more inclined to believe the likes of Colin Campbell and Andy Weissman. Read the recent interesting Guardian articles on them:

The end of oil is closer than you think
Oil production could peak next year, reports John Vidal. Just kiss your lifestyle goodbye Thursday April 21, 2005

“The one thing that international bankers don't want to hear is that the second Great Depression may be round the corner. But last week, a group of ultra-conservative Swiss financiers asked a retired English petroleum geologist living in Ireland to tell them about the beginning of the end of the oil age….”

And

Analyst fears global oil crisis in three years
reports John Vidal.
Tuesday April 26, 2005

"….This is a new era," Mr Simmons told a conference of oil industry analysts, government officials and academics in Edinburgh. "There is a big chance that Saudi Arabia actually peaked production in 1981. We have no reliable data. Our data collection system for oil is rubbish. I suspect that if we had, we would find that we are over-producing in most of our major fields and that we should be throttling back. We may have passed that point."

Incidentally if, unlike me, you had $US197 to spare, you could have bought a line to the Energy Central Power Session seminar on May 3. You could have heard and even questioned Andy Weissman. The guts of the seminar was advertised as:

***“At the beginning of this year, most industry analysts were predicting that oil prices would decline in 2005 and that natural gas prices would moderate along with them.

Andy Weissman was one of the few who predicted that just the reverse would occur.

Andy is now convinced that all the ingredients are in place for prices to explode this summer for natural gas and electricity. Further, the potential price explosion this summer could be the start of a sustained multi-year period in which oil prices frequently exceed $100 per barrel and the price of natural gas could increase to as high as $18.00/MMBTU. This explosion in oil and gas prices also could lead to steep further increases in coal prices and even steeper increases in the wholesale market price of electricity, especially in summer months.”***

There is much more talk of the concept of Peak Oil now. Personally I much prefer to sum up the new era Andy talks of as the Post Cheap Oil Era. There are so many other factors at play at well. Whether this era links us to the Great Solar Use Age or the Collapse of The Third Millennium Civilisation is a matter we each have to decide.

But what confusing images of energy and power! I can see no way that the present use of symbols of energy and power can link us to a sustainable future. In fact their continued use seems a recipe for disaster. They are fatally flawed and fundamentally breach some of the greatest scientific principles. I guess that is what happens when you let the Spin doctors of the Bulk Electricity and Fossil Fuel sectors take charge of the public and school curricula. We inherit a Lala Land driven by Energy Gobbledygook.

Check out our main media and Government agencies. Their actual structures are pure Energy Gobbldygook. Look at the May 2 item from STUFF’s so called Energy Reporter:

The $1 billion development of the crucial Pohokura gasfield may be slipping behind schedule because of a bitter row between energy heavyweights Shell New Zealand and Todd Energy over operating key New Zealand gasfields.

Its pure Gook and I hope you can see it. (Hint: There is a world of difference between energy and power and the forms they take) My favourite medium after the Net is Nat Radio and even it is a massive source of Energy Gobbledygook. Just about every programme you can name generates Energy Gobbledygook: Science, EnviroMatters, World Watch, News, Commentary, Windows on the World…yes, and even the programme I rate the most informative and valuable of all –Media Watch.

Take this week’s interview with Transpower's Spin merchant. The whole programme was framed by symbols promoting the interests of the Bulk Electricity sector. Rough sample:

Media Watch: I asked Chris Roberts (former journalist and current spokesman for TransPower) can he see shortcomings among today’s journalist that might account for the lack of public confidence in the media?

TransPower: It’s certainly clear in the energy sector that it’s a very complex topic. And that there are reporters out there with the title energy round or energy correspondent but a lot of them have other work to do as well. They as are not fully committed to doing energy and really there is only a handful of reporters in the country that have a real grasp of energy issues.

Media Watch: When you say a handful, how many are we talking about?

TransPower: I could probably think of five, maybe six reporters in the country that have been around for a little while, know the background, know the issues and the actually understand how the industry is structured .. but around the issues that are of real interest to the public:
Are the lights going to stay on?
Where is the next generation gonna be built?
Is coal the answer?
Is gas the answer?
All those big questions that are of interest to every body.

...Reporters with a background in that in the mainstream media are fairly limited.

Media Watch: I was talking to an engineer yesterday who is a journalist and writes about energy issues sometimes. He says it’s actually pretty difficult to get these stories placed. Do you think. Its not necessarily to do with that lack of expertise among the journalists but the predisposition of the mass circulation media to put that sort of stuff in front of their readers and viewers?

TransPower : ……There has to be something slightly controversial about it..Preferably a victim somewhere –always good, even better that there is a villain.. just because its an issue....Energy is an issue of great importance to the future of NZ just because that is the case doesn’t mean it is going to get in the media.

Media Watch: Yeah but its your job to put things to the media in a way that is favourable to your employer, to the company. Surely if there is a lack of expertise out there as you say in this sector among journalists, isn’t that great for you? You are not going to be scrutinised to the nearly degree you might be if there were reporters who have been dedicated to that round for years and years and years.

TransPower: No we much would rather have more informed journalists out there. Our attitude is always to supply as much information as we can
But sometimes you have to go back to the very basic position and almost explain how electricity works you spend a lot of time repeating the same information over and over…..
…We seem to repeat ourselves. There is a very short memory for most journalists…

Media Watch: You are now a PR man; formerly a journalist, now a PR man, you and public relations in toto are part of the problem now. If there is there is a lack of experience, a lack of depth in the media, If this is true is it not because senior journalists and people like yourself have been taken out of that to much better paid positions in PR.

TransPower: I am sure that is part of the problem and I don’t know what the answer is. No one is going to stay in one position or one job for their whole career anymore- that’s not how it is done….

Media Watch: Would you accept that public relations is part of that problem? (A recent poll indicated a lack of public confidence in the media) People out there know that in say the last twenty or thirty years PR well funded lobbying has become something of an industry and they know it has an influence on the media.

TransPower: Well it’s a symbiotic relationship between the media and public relations in communications people – we both need each other. And perhaps the media now have an over reliance on PR sources, You could go through a newspaper and probably on some days 80% of those stories have in some ways via PR people.

Media Watch: So people wouldn’t be wrong to say look I have less confidence in the media and trust because I think they are being led by the nose by well-funded PR. That’s a fair thing for them to think?

TransPower: They are getting some of their information from PR people. There is still a healthy degree of scepticism in the media towards what they are receiving and that’s good. My point is that not that they shouldn’t be sceptical because they should but do they have enough knowledge and enough ability to understand what the information means and where it fits in the news cycle and how important it is…that’s what we are concerned about

Media Watch: Last year we had your counterpart from Contact Energy sitting there where you are and he was telling us about their campaign with the animated pigeon that was running.. is still running still going on and he told us that it had a budget of two million dollars and this something designed to tell us consumers that difficult decisions about energy are to coming up, price rises will inevitably come. Journalism cannot compete with budgets like that. What are people to think when they see well funded things like that which are pushing that company’ strategic plans and objectives?

TransPower: Hopefully they realise that those are paid advertisements. That is where PR has moved over into marketing. It is a legitimate method to be used by any company but it is advertising. People should see it as advertising. I think the particular example you have given is giving a very good message. Its not a come-buy-our- brand type of advertising but its talking about the future and its good advertising from that respect but it is still advertising and hopefully people will see that it is different from the news stories.

Media Watch: That’s Chris Roberts, former journalist and current spokesman for TransPower

END


Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

Holy Joules! Where do I start? I should really put it into the Energy Gobbledygook Register on my website. However it would take me a week to attempt to translate even this segment of the interview into scientific and common sense language for the layperson. And why did a memory from my childhood keep recurring as I listened to it. (Yes, we listen to advertisements on Nat Radio as well as view and read them elsewhere.)

Its breakfast time in my memory. I am about five years old and my father has come in from checking out the possum trap line. He sits down, looks as his porridge and goes a strange contorted green. It seems he caught a ferret in a trap on a strainer post. Every time he went to get the ferret it jumped through the fence forcing him to clamber over the fence to get near it. Back and forth, back and forth they went and the ferret continually released its repulsion odours from its “pong gland” as we called it. Now the sight of food sends him near spew country.

Analogies between the elusive ferret and this interview are complicated but seem to exist. There is a bit of a pong in the way TransPower does not front up to the real guts of the questions. For instance note how the spokesperson is “hopeful” the public can distinguish between advertising and news. Already he has pointed out 80% of so-called news items are PR products and there is a major lack of journalistic integrity. And when you consider, for instance, over 80% of our daily broadsheets are direct paid advertising. That leaves about 1-2% of the broadcast as potential informed journalism amidst a veritable sandstorm of PR. Similarly Transpower says there is a “healthy scepticism” in the media and at the same time argues it lacks knowledge, cohesion and experience. The pong grows.

Journalist- Spin Doctor, journalist –Spin-doctor – or in this case journalist –Energy Imagineer. Yes that is why the image of ferret caught in the trap skipping back and forth through the fence seems so relevant. Either way, there is still a bad bong and its foot is caught in the trap.

Media Watch is caught in the trap too. Notice, for instance, how it used power symbols in questions like “Your company is currently embroiled in the power line proposal for the Waikato...” Snap. Bang. Crunch. Those steel jaws of the Bulk electricity sector gotcha. You see, we are in the middle of a hundred year war by the bankers of the Bulk-electricity/Fossil Fuel sector on the rights of “small electricity consumers”, i.e. you and me, to use intelligent, small-scale technology to generate our basic needs. There is a strong argument that the proposal by the owners of nationwide Bulk electricity grid will actually dis-empower Auckland people. Especially with the impending transfer of the ownership of Vector Ltd to them. Media Watch just promoted the Spin line of those who wish to obscure that argument.

When Transpower talks of “energy” their vision of it is Energy=The Bulk electricity Industry. It was a beautiful sell. Did you notice all the talk of “energy, doing energy, energy rounds, energy correspondents, energy issues” and then the definition of energy as “the industry”. I am sure the spokesperson learned it long before he started working directly for the Bulk Electricity sector. He probably learned it as a cub reporter on one of our daily advertising broadsheets sometimes known as “newspapers”.

And damn it, this blog is ponging now. Every time I use the symbol TransPower I am perpetuating a lie. I am perverting Science. I am evoking flawed images of energy. I am dumbing down our kids. TransPower is only a Bulk-electricity grid company. That’s what it would be called in an honest world. It is provides a means for carrying energy and providing power but it is not energy or power.. Fullstop. (Well kind of full stop. I am not even sure if it can be described as the National Electricity Grid Company. It seems to be run by the Harvard Electricity Policy Group HEPG for overseas bankers.)

Yes I know it is hard not to get caught in the Spin. After working two decades of working in the electricity industry at the community level I find I have been hardwired into the Bulk-electricity sector lingo – “power bills, power poles, power wires power blah blah” Sometimes I feel so hard wired that I am reduced to breaking the brain circuits molecule by molecule as I strive to be accurate. I am reduced to a stuttering wreck but I’d rather be an honest wreck than an erudite mindless glib.

The term mindless must seem a bit harsh but how else can you describe the endorsement TransPower gives to the Contact Energy education programme.

To describe it as “talking about the future” is about as meaningless as saying energy is important to the future of New Zealand. (Scientific fact – no energy= no life, no potential.) The Contact Energy education programme is entirely about SHAPING our future so they can gut the gas fields as fast as possible and then hopefully control the country via ownership of nuclear power stations. Personally I would have given it the 2005 Roger Award for attempting to screw up our kids on such a scale and promoting the siphoning billions out of New Zealand community coffers.

By the way, notice how both Telecom (the Roger winner) and Contact Positive Energy both invest heavily in associations with cuddly little humorous creatures? Well I understand the practice began when Telecom went along to the Spin-doctors complaining that people thought them a callous, uncaring, cruel corporation. It really is extraordinary when a “ex-senior journalist” is so smitten and blinded by the warm fuzzies like this. Surely such people know spin is about making associations? It’s about wiring up the right emotions in us. Of course Contact Energy is working to ensure its market share is maximised.

I’m not picking on Contact Energy in particular. They are just doing what any modern callous, uncaring corporation does- getting the best quarterly results they can for their principal shareholders. I recall a scene in an uptown Wellington restaurant in the early 1990’s. A couple of very loud, very articulate, very well dressed North Americans were telling the Kiwis at their table and the rest of us that “Gawwwd, Nu Zilands got gas for ever.”

Within a couple of years TransAlta was here gutting our energy efficiency programmes and burning that everlasting gas to generate electricity and New Zealand was about to spill hydro dam water on an unprecedented scale.

And remember the vast Maui gas field with fuel to heat NZ dwellings for 300 years? First we had to give it away because it was a liability. The day after the sale suddenly and magically vast new reserves were found in it. Such discovery was very nice for the new owners and helped market greater consumption. Then last year, the inevitable, it suddenly runs out. Surprise! I am sure this would not be no surprise to Andy Weissman. That is how the world’s gas and oil supplies are used.

And that is what happens when we confuse an energy form with bounteous energy itself. We destroy it –and ourselves in the process. That’s the trouble with living in Lala Land.

Incidentally I think Chris Roberts overestimates the number of journalists who understand the nature of energy in New Zealand. I can think of many people who show a clear understanding of the scientific principles but I cannot think of any journalists.

And so the search for the true nature of energy and the Knowledge Economy continues in the Bonus Joules cartoon. Can it be that that EECA is fatally flawed too?

ENDS

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