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Bonus Joules: When Is A Hole Not A Hole?

Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy

When Is A Hole Not A Hole?

Bonus Joules asks what’s the matter with Black Holes.
Bonusjoules Blog 4 July 2005
Chapter 3 No 1: Exploring holy holey metaphors

Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

Hurray. So New Zealand has suddenly lost a billion dollars ‘value’ because of our expenditure of our carbon credits. Yesterday we had half a billion dollars in credits. Today we are a carbon debtor by half a billion dollars. Great. I never could understand how carbon trading could work for us. Now it is time to start taking Kyoto seriously and making some real money out of it.

First to explain the cartoon to newcomers: Chapter three of Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy, created four years ago, explores the holes we create. We start deep Outer Space and explore our concept of Black Holes -objects can suck up nearby solar systems. We end up in our lounges exploring Fashion Holes – objects in our ceilings that suck our wallets dry. It explores our use of metaphors and how we – and especially Scientists - continue to use them long after they add value to our lives. Now back to the gaping hole that has suddenly opened up in our Carbon account.

Yes, there is real money to be made from taking the risk of Human-induced Climate Change seriously and carbon trading was never going to deliver it to us. Why not? It is fundamentally flawed. It breeds bad science, shonky economics and unsustainable behaviour generally. All of which costs. Big time.

As you may know, it is dawning on this generation of humans that it is possible our activities can affect weather patterns on a global scale and the impact may be to our detriment. This capacity is not news to those humble cultures that have maintained a powerful sensibility of their interdependence with the environment.

I was not born into such a humble culture. I was born into a Christian culture and taught that God is something up there in heaven beyond Earth. If you did something ‘wrong” you could confess to your local priest about it and using his “God-given power” he would absolve you of your sins as long as you said a few prayers in penance. This is the basis of the carbon trading system.

Sure, the growth in satellite technology and data transfer has made it easier for people to appreciate the possibility that human activity can affect global energy balances. However this does not necessarily result in wise insights and responses - our response depends so much on our personal primal perceptions of life. Often the response to such awareness is fear based, characterised by a numbing of humanity, despair, dissociation and rigidity.

The ability of humans to alter global weather patterns for centuries to come may not be new. The March 2005 Scientific American asks:

Did Humans Stop an Ice Age?
8000 years of Global Warming.

OK. I know the title is daft and most unscientific. Global warming is a process that has been going on for billions of years and enables life to exist. The article is attempting to discuss the possibility of human activities warming up the surface area of Earth so average temperatures are higher then they would have been in our absence.

(Note: For a quick translation of the Gobbledygook surrounding energy and climate matters, check out my Climate section at

William F Ruddiman has studied the relationship between both methane and carbon dioxide concentrations and solar radiation patterns in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 400,000 years using ice core samples. He suggests the links between their concentrations and solar activity were broken about 8000 years ago – about the time humans began deforestation, irrigation, rice growing etc on scale. In brief, those scientists in the 1970s who thought solar activity indicated should be heading into another glacial age were correct. It is just they had not factored in the impact of human activities. The average surface temperature of the globe would 2°C cooler now without our presence.

“..current temperatures in parts of North America and Europe would be cooler by 3-4°C – enough to make agriculture difficult.”

To put that into perspective, the last glacial period maximum 20,000 years ago was only 5-6°C cooler than present day temperatures.

The article also looks at a question I have often asked: what is the impact of pandemics such as the European introduction of small pox to the Americas that wiped out 90% of the 50 million humans there and the “Black Death” which decimated Europe by up to 40% in the same period? Could it have resulted in the cold snap of the 16th Century, that which froze the Thames and caused the failure of Polynesian root crops here in New Zealand? The article suggests this is a good question.

Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

Since 2000 I have followed a number Internet sites and forums that discuss the possibility that human activity can impact on global gas balances and affect long-term climate change. Some, for instance, scientists at UNIPCC and NOAA and those working for the Nuclear-electricity Industry say we can and are doing so at our potential peril. Others, for instance, independent climate scientists and those representing Fossil Fuels sector, deny the possibility.

Both groups spend a great deal of time debunking each other’s work. This could be a healthy process, but it is not. The debate is too often ego-bound, personal and abusive. More seriously after a three-year search I have been unable to discover a significant piece of evidence that there is a science underpinning the communication of climate issues. Not one.

Note: I did say “ no science in the communication”. Climatologists, especially those who promote the belief our activity is impacting negatively on the ability of the climate to sustain humans, tend to a knee-jerk reaction and think I am saying there is no climate science. I am not. Such is their lack of reflection on what they say.

Also note how I said they promote a belief. In many cases they do not live this belief, and their lifestyles are little different to that of their major proponents in the debate. Both groups rate in the top few percent of carbon emitters and travel around the globe as though there is no tomorrow.

Such confusion and ignorance has a political reality. Check out the lack of science in the communication of climate issues in the Minister Replies… (scroll down)

The letters from the New Zealand Minister of Education, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Science and Technology, the Minister for the Environment and two Ministers of Energy and the Convenor of the Ministerial Group on Climate Change all reveal the inability of the politicians and their advisors to even begin to address the questions I ask. It is no mistake New Zealand suddenly finds itself an extra billion dollars in debt because of its involvement in carbon trading. Indeed it is no mistake Last Tuesday’s headlines (28th June) were

New Zealand's trade balance was again worse than expected in May.

Instead of the $300 million surplus predicted by economists, a $25 million deficit was posted, Statistics New Zealand figures out today showed.

That took the deficit in the year to May to over $5 billion against economists' forecasts of $4.69 billion.

The annual trade deficit equates to 16.3 per cent of exports. As a percentage of exports, this is the largest annual deficit since the mid-1970s, Government Statistician Brian Pink said.

Increased private vehicle, air travel and oil import costs contributed significantly to the imbalance as did a high $NZ. Nor is it a mistake debt levels have risen yet again on nearly all fronts and interest rates are high, reflecting the high degree of risk investing in New Zealand.

This morning the same risk caused US interest rates to be raised for the 9th time in a row. That’s what happens when you do not take the risks from Human-induced Climate Change seriously. Its about time National and Act gave up their pathetic claim that such interest rate rises are the result of excess government (Labour) bureaucracy and they faced the real issues.

Note my use of the word “risk”. From what I can gather no one knows how the climate works or how to communicate about it. Some know less than others e.g. the New Zealand Climate Change Office and literature in our schools teaches that carbon dioxide is the dominant Warmer Trace Gas – only they don’t teach about Trace gases and instead teach about greenhouse gases. Evoking the greenhouse image generates a profoundly different curriculum than does the use of the Trace symbol. It promotes a far less scientific, organic world-view.

These educators should know the scientific consensus is that water vapour, not carbon dioxide, is the dominant Warmer Trace Gas and without it the average temperature of the surface of the Earth would be 20°C cooler i.e. 5°C below freezing. The presence of carbon directly raises the average temperature by only a couple of degrees. It has powerful leverage but so do all the Warmer Trace Gases. Teaching trace is to teach leverage.

Knowledge of water vapour is important because of its vital communication’s role. Ask the person in the street what is weather and they will point to the clouds. Indeed, when I worked in the interior of Australia, locals would point at a cloud materialising on the horizon and say, “ Ah look – weather!”

We live in the thin layer of the atmosphere (6-10 miles/10-16km high) called the troposphere or the “mixing layer” where almost all “weather” and almost all water vapour is found. Our prime experience of climate is in the form of clouds and rain. As I mentioned in my last blog, we are Ocean Beings. Our civilisation/agriculture is dependent on our intimate knowledge of water vapour. We are profoundly sensitive to variations in the amount of water vapour.

Also water vapour is the biggest variable in the climate equation. According to Wikipedia the duration stay of CO2 is variable (approximately 200-450 years) and its global warming potential (GWP) is defined as 1. The duration stay of Methane is 12 +/- 3 years and a GWP of 22 (meaning that it has 22 times the warming ability of carbon dioxide). NZ is unique in the world in that our industry emits more methane than carbon dioxide.

By contrast, water vapour is recycled back out of the atmosphere every 10-14 days or so on average. If it is possible gas emissions from human activities can result in more or less clouds and can alter the ratio of low-level clouds to high-level clouds, then we can alter the thermal balances than enable us to exist on Earth’s surface. This can generate rapid effects in the form of “water bombs” and droughts.

Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

So Government teachings via the Climate Change Office et al that “carbon dioxide” is the dominant “greenhouse” gas truly obscures the issue and confuses the debate. In some of its literature it worsens the situation by completely omitting water vapour from the equation.

Imagine being a child sitting in the classroom watching the clouds race by outside or an adult struggling up Wellington streets into a howling wet norwester or southerly is water vapour. It forms your primal experiential link to the climate. The role of carbon dioxide is much harder to experience. Similarly your primal reactions work to strain your credibility that the atmosphere works like a greenhouse when so much of your experience is to the contrary. As the principal purveyor of climatology and user of poorly researched symbols, the Climate Change Office destroys the credibility of all climate scientists.

The confusion generated impacts far beyond our perceptions of the weather and climate. It also alters our response to our environment and undermines our living styles. For instance evoking images of Earth’s atmosphere as a greenhouse conflicts directly with images of sustainable dwellings. In particular it screws our collective ability to use air effectively in insulation. So we have Government departments promoting Kyoto Protocol objectives working directly against NEECS, our National Energy Efficiency Conservation Strategy. So we live in some of the least energy efficient dwellings in the OECD.

Much more on this on my website, including simple inexpensive proposals how we can avoid the confusion and conflict.

So how did New Zealand slide so quickly into this debt situation? In terms of our new-found Carbon Debt, the Government’s Climate Change Convenor, Pete Hodgson, argues that it is just a result of the refinement of the analysis: land covered with scrub in 1990 had been considered “bare land”. Any tree planting on it subsequently would gain us carbon credits as we could trade on those areas being reclassified as new “carbon sinks”. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis and store it as tissue.

Pete’s outdated choice of language offers insight into how this error occurred. What Pete refers to as “scrub” is the native manuka and kanuka trees and the imported gorse bush. Thirty years ago these were seen as a threat to pastoral farming and I was paid good money to slash these “ bloody pests” out of existence.

I now know “scrub” is extremely valuable. The native trees are an unparalleled source of antibiotic honey, excellent at soil retention and provide an effective nursery for forest regrowth i.e. the development of carbon sinks. Similarly, in the absence of fires, gorse is the most efficient nursery of native forests – it adds nitrogen, protects seedlings from humans/animal stock and provides excellent sunny sheltered growing conditions. These are high quality carbon sinks. Note that soil retention is also important in the equation as it acts as carbon sink. Officials were still stuck in the old Colonial “scrub’ mentality in which, for instance, the indigenous Maoris were abused as lazy parasites because they let areas of their lands “lie barren” “undeveloped” and “revert to scrub”.

For those not familiar with New Zealand history, Maoris settled in New Zealand about 8-900 years ago.

I understand the desperate conditions resulting from the loss of their Polynesian root crops in the Mini Ice Age of the 1600s had a serious impact on conservation practice. When Europeans began settling here in the 1800s there were still large tracts of forests and most of these were milled or burned for pastoral farming. For decades Australians 1200 miles away talked of the “Kiwi Sunset” as their skies glowed from the smoke of New Zealand burning. As a child in the 1950s I recall travelling for miles through landscapes littered with great charred tree stumps. Today only remnants of those forests remain.

Europeans quickly became the dominant culture and by 1840 New Zealand was a British colony. Then in the shifts of power of the latter half of the 20th Century the people here became more dominated by the USA. In the mid 80s the new colonial powers imposed “Free Market” economics on our people and control of most of our infrastructure (electricity, rail, telecommunications, publishing, broadcasting, banking etc) was transferred to US based companies. New Zealand became more fully a colony of America. This ensured the culture remained predominantly Anglo Christian-based and a vehicle for US “Free Market” activities.

Hence it was no mistake that New Zealand was at the forefront of negotiations at Kyoto, along with the US, Australia, Canada, and Japan to counter European opposition to the concept of Carbon Trading as a mechanism for promoting the reduction in carbon emissions. US accounts speak of the vital role New Zealand played and the indefatigable endeavours of our officials to prevent the Kyoto “Climate Summit” from “collapsing”. Their mindset was that a treaty not involving the US would be a failure. Our officials believed they could prevent this “collapse” by incorporating mechanisms that would make the Kyoto Protocols palatable to the powerful US based corporations present at the summit.

And so “market” solutions to a spiritual crisis prevailed. Kyoto legitimises the idea that you can trade away responsibility for your behaviour on scale. You can engage in carbon emissions if you pay someone else to repair or ameliorate the perceived damage. The hidden hand of The Market will protect and provide the environment that sustains us. Individual responsibility and science are discounted.

Vain hope. Think of the impact of current “Free Trade” systems on resources such as world fish stocks (90% of higher level fish types have been depleted since 1970), soils stocks (Some estimate US soil reserves alone are down from 60 cm average to 15 cm last century) fresh water reserves, forests, oil and Natural Gas reserves (halved since 1950) etc. Think of the pressures the present trading system generates to expand global populations. It is unsustainable medium term and high-risk short term. It is callous, uncaring and arguably as psychotic as the corporate systems that drive it.

This is the trading system New Zealand officials have worked so hard to incorporate into our collective consciousness of our environment.

Again the results speak for themselves in our national Warmer Trace Gas emissions – officially up 20 % since 1990 with some estimating carbon dioxide emissions are up 39% in that period. NZ's SUVs, vehicles specifically designed to exploit loopholes in the US efficiency legislation and guzzle oil, are up from 40,000 to 200,000 in seven years. Truck and car imports and cheap air travel have flourished while rail has almost died. Inflation pressures from increased steel, Gas and oil prices are building and National debit is set to rocket..

This “trading” ethos is why those like myself who attended Climate Change Office meetings for businesses witnessed Kyoto (Carbon Trading) being promoted as a money generating mechanism. Officials assured us that New Zealand would benefit from such trades as we have “the good fortune” to have forests providing us with a large pool of “carbon sinks”. More than once we were also told New Zealand is very lucky because the oceans surrounding us will reduce any negative impacts of (Human-induced) climate change. Climate Change Office school kits reinforce this message with portrayals of New Zealand as an oasis of cool green on a feverish red Earth.

The Government’s two key messages at these seminars are that we have a natural advantage that enables us to make easy money out of carbon trading and we can be assured – it is “business as usual”. I observed this latter assurance seemed most directed at the leaders of the private corporations present. The nervousness of our politicians of the response of the industry “heavy weights” was palpable.

A variation of the concept of “business as usual” also underpins administration of the carbon credits. Business projects that reduce carbon emissions such as wind farms or biogas-electricity plants have to prove the project would not proceed under conditions that are “business as usual”. So I sat there in 2004 watching millions of dollars of credits being handed out on the basis that the price of oil and “business as usual” would be $19 a barrel that year as predicted by the Ministry for Economic Development.

Now even a ham amateur like me had been able to predict early in 2003 that prices would be $40 a barrel within a year. I was wrong. They were heading up to $50 a barrel and we have entered the Post Cheap Oil Age. This clearly means $19 a barrel was not “business as usual in 2004. Check out the recent Guardian article When the wells run dry. “Business as usual” cannot be stated in terms of declared oil reserves. Rather it should more likely be stated in terms of half the amounts declared.

This is because figures were inflated so OPEC members could pump above their agreed quotas. And, if Matthew Simmons is correct, “business as usual” should be defined in terms of the probability that Gharwar, the biggest oilfield on the planet, is definitely in decline.

In the context of the advent of the Post Cheap-Oil Age, carbon credits can be seen to be primarily yet another mechanism of giving more subsidies to corporations. It is extremely difficult for small community-based projects to qualify for credits, particularly while they remain repressed by the Electricity Reforms and with the continuing destruction of community Trusts such as the Hutt-Mana Energy Trust, PowerCo and Vector Ltd.

However the ultimate reason carbon trading does not work is that it is poor psychology. The majority of people respond best to appeals to their intelligence and the most sustainable change comes from inspiration rather than fear. That is why “market” driven economics is, on balance, unsustainable. It takes little account of and gives little value to the work of parents and to service industries such as nursing, child care etc. As a result these vital professions remain relatively poorly paid. Love, care and conservation are largely an anathema to this economics.

Economists argue that market signals such as higher prices lead to “adjustments” and indeed recent movements to smaller, more efficient cars supports this belief. Dig deeper into some of the movements e.g. the US-based 45MPG Movement and you will see powerful altruistic forces operating. These include a desire to prevent the collapse of America because of its burgeoning oil/Gas based debt and a concern for the continuing slaughter of Iraqis and Americans. Its poll suggests a majority of Americans now see the wisdom of buying more efficient vehicles.

Also dig deeper and it becomes clear that higher prices result in larger profits for the fossil fuel corporations. These are reinvested in unsustainable lifestyles and massive campaigns to suppress the development of alternative uses of energy.

It is no mistake that the Minister responsible for New Zealand’s Kyoto negotiations was Simon Upton. (Unfortunately the Arcadia link to his speech no longer works):

8 December 1997 Statement on Behalf of New Zealand at Kyoto

Simon Upton's address to the COP3 at Kyoto: -5% target, emissions trading, forest sinks and an evolution of commitments

He was part of an avid “Free Market” cabinet that fragmented and sold off our New Zealand owned rail, optic fibre and bulk electricity structures to promote “competition” in trading. He was also responsible for introducing the same “competitive” process to scientific research. He failed to understand what Jacqeline Rowarth says:

“Great new products will come from great breakthroughs – in other words, great science. Our science funding system should not be about finding a route to market or industry relevance; it should be about backing great science and great scientists.”

This article confirms what I learned from a NASA study many years ago. That research suggested that “blue skies” research returned $6 for every dollar invested in it; “dedicated” research returns $1 for every dollar invested in it. In the article we read:

“Of the UniServices’ 17 spin-out companies, funding for blue skies research was the driver in all but one case.”

In other words, we enjoy the greatest benefits when we do something because we truly care. I believe this is true of our attitude to our climate too.

True science is an exercise in care and every child is born with the “little scientist” within it. This gift is enables us to experiment and learn to walk and talk and ride a bike. Some like Tesla and The Buddha become visionaries that transform civilisations with their altruism, insights discoveries and inventions. The impact of the latter on King Asoka and the Indian-China continent is one of the all-time great stories of conservation.

The scientist in most of us fails to flourish in the acid sea of cynicism and greed that pervades our present culture. Inclusiveness gives way to the exclusiveness of egotism, greed and PR Spin. In science we face the truth, however uncomfortable in the moment. The dissociating forces inherent in Carbon Trading are fundamentally hostile to science and work to alienate us from our environment. This dissociation diminishes our awareness of our interdependence with our environment. It fails to register in our calculations.

Earlier this year there was a fascinating article on happiness. Prospect Magazine discussed the new book by Richard Layard (Long standing adviser to the Labour Party in Britain): "Happiness: Lessons from a new science". The article sums his premise as:

“Growing incomes in western societies no longer make us happier, and more individualistic, competitive societies make some of us positively unhappy. Public policy should take its cue once more from Bentham's utilitarianism, unfashionable for many decades but now vindicated by modern neuroscience”

Particularly relevant to the sustainability of carbon trading is this example given by Richard:

“Economists and politicians tend to assume that when financial motives for performance are increased, other motives remain the same. But that is not so, as this example shows. At a childcare centre in Israel, parents were often late to pick up their children, so fines were introduced for lateness. The result was a surprise: more people were late. They now saw being late as something they were entitled to do as long as they paid for it; the fine became a price.”

Carbon trading promotes the same behaviour. It enables individuals and governments to absolve themselves of responsibility of the affect of their activities on the carbon emissions. We end up in farcical situations. We read of British Labour MPs donating funds to create carbon sinks to “offset” the impact of their air travel to India. The recent Earth Summit in San Francisco featured thanks to a sponsoring company for purchasing carbon credits to offset the impact of the conference.

The San Francisco Chronicle headlined it:


Power to the people
Earth summit places global responsibility in local hands
68 mayors pledging to achieve 21 goals.

This is great and yet think how much more useful if organisers had created a system that wired up the 68 mayors from the world’s greatest cities in a showcase Internet conference so we all could watch. The main impact of the conference was to reinforce existing beliefs that airline travel is a sustainable means of communication. The mayors go home to further entrenched obstacles.

Carbon trading also results in unhelpful education programmes, such as the Climate Change Office example I give. In this case the Government teaches that carbon dioxide rather than water vapour is the dominant Warmer Trace Gas because its mental fix is on the carbon cycle/Carbon Trading rather than the climate.

Similarly its State Owned Enterprises are mandated to expand and sell Bulk-electricity. It is logical then that they promote education modules where the turbines of hydroelectric plant are driven by lake levels that never fall in cloudless skies and the thermal plants emit mere trace puffs of gases (The original model did not even have a smoke stack or air intake fans until I pointed it out to the Royal Society, a major beneficiary of Genesis Energy sponsorship/PR investment and supposed promoter of standards of science.) In both cases the atmosphere is basically written out of the thermal equation.

Indeed Enviroschools, the Government’s prime Environmental Education programme in our schools, completely omits the atmosphere in its list of basic themes!

Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

By contrast the role of the atmosphere was central to the Energy Action programme put into our schools in the 1990s by the community-owned electricity companies before the Electricity Reforms destroyed them. The first thing you saw on entering many primary- school foyers was a large poster on which students had mapped out Bulk-electricity and Gas savings, the funds saved and the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from student activities.

That was revolutionary. Primary school children were calculating the impact of their use of a light switch on global gas balances!

That programme finally died in 2000 as successive Governments opted for “industry-derived solutions” i.e. they relied on the private corporations’ to love and cherish the atmosphere that sustains us.

Ignorance of the atmosphere goes deep. It is no mistake that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environments publication on Education See Change promotes Enviroschools and fails to make any mention of the Energy Action Programme. Check out the Enviroschools website for yourself:

“Environmental education can be integrated with your school’s physical surroundings, operational practices and organisational principles through the following five theme areas:

Living Landscapes

Ecological Buildings

Healthy Water

Precious Energy

Zero Waste.”

Notice anything missing? Well besides the lack a Zero Image Pollution theme. Yes, that’s right. Like I said: the atmosphere. It just does not rate in our collective consciousness. And that’s no mistake.

And nor is the “carbon trade bungle”. And nor is the failure of “the fart tax”. And nor is the fact New Zealand CO2 emissions officially rose 20% since 1990 and more probably 39%. And nor is it a coincidence that Enviroschools dovetails into our Clean Green Image marketing strategy and generates minimal focus on how our activities impact on the atmosphere.

This week we have additional proof that the atmosphere simply does not rate in our Government’s collective sensibility. National and Act are screaming for more investment in roads. And when the Government unexpectedly received a half a billion-dollar one-off tax payment this week it immediately earmarked it for roading. Even a cartoonist like Garrick Tremain, whose cartoons generally testify his profound belief that the (Labour) Government manufactures crude oil and sets the world price for it, was able to portray the real heart of the Parliament and New Zealand’s ruling elite.

If it’s rash of road construction investment is an attempt to buy votes then the Labour Government is doubly doomed.

Already many are disturbed by the secrecy surrounding the effective sale of large blocks of the national electricity grid. Labour’s cynicism/ignorance will offend/concern key Labour supporters and its opponents will shovel the cynicism back on it. Just as they did in 1990 with the “sale’ of Telecom and as did the Australians to the Labour Party in that country over its amoral Tampa Refugee policy. Also many sense in their guts that investment in more highways is the road to nowhere. Rod Emmerson’s cartoon of the family left bereft of vehicle, walking down our brand new highways into oblivion is an accurate commentary.

Which brings me to the point of how NZ can make big bucks out of Kyoto.

  • Let us assume that science and knowledge are vital to our future. Let us assume there is a risk our accelerated carbon emissions are raising the average surface temperature of the globe and making us needlessly vulnerable to climate changes. We are to experience more oceanic/weather “events”.
  • Let us assume carbon fertilisation from increases CO2 levels has raised agricultural yields while draining soil nutrients.
  • Let us assume that the solar cycle is such that without human activity Earth would be heading back to a glacial age and also that our carbon emissions could trigger ocean current changes that result in a sudden sharp cooling of the North Atlantic region.
  • Let us assume oil and Gas reserves have been overestimated for “market” reasons.
  • Let us assume delegates at this year’s special session of the Russian Academy of Sciences are right and “It is possible to say now that the Sun will cause a mess on Earth in the near future”. The 40 years of the Electronic Age has been characterised by a relative calm in solar activity. Some suggest the cyclic nature of solar activity means it will become relatively more turbulent within a decade. This could play havoc with centralised grids.
  • Above all let us assume we do not need to resort to a catastrophic global war as is probable if present trends continue.
  • We can adopt risk-minimisation policies. What I find fascinating about these strategies:

    (1) The same strategies reduce risks across all the above scenarios.

    (2) The same strategies enhance community wealth and individual health.

    The underlying factor is a belief in community potential or “service derived solutions” rather than centralised corporation activity or “industry-derived solutions.”

    It means we focus on enabling communities to get access to high quality information. So out with “User Pays” for advice from the Met Office, NIWA, the Consumer’s Institute, libraries, the Royal Society, BRANZ etc. The main beneficiaries of these obstructive charges are speculators and shonky merchants.

    The focus is on tapping the visionary powers of average, often poor, citizens. Many of the greatest thinkers were poor. Famous examples include Christ, The Buddha, Einstein, Tesla and Van Gogh. In comes cheap broadband with community portals to ensure the widest access to quality thinking around the world. At present the broadband cable of a private corporation runs into to my house but I do not connect to it. It is of little use to me. It is too expensive and junk ridden.

    In comes community ownership of local grids. This will again enable communities to maximise use of the grid’s potential for communication and electricity use and avoid the debacle this week when Telecom crashed for four and half hours. Read Russell Brown’s excellent commentary on that farce: "Actually its not all right… "

    Workers in Wellington could not even communicate via the Internet to the firm across the road. The Stock Exchange crashed with it. Those using the locally owned optic grid were able to stay up.

    The scale of the outage was no accident. It was a direct result of Government investment strategies of the last decade. It is “the market” at work, generating “perverted routing” strategies so short- term profits for a few are maximised.

    Now apply Russell’s insights to what we still persist incorrectly in calling the local “electricity grid”. Recall the similar shambles when floods took out the local grid in the Thames region. People could only communicate through a maze of seven Bulk-electricity retailers, none of who could communicate with United Networks, owner of the lines, to find out what was going on.

    In my last blog I outlined the fantastic unrealised potential of community-owned assets like Vector Ltd in the Post Cheap Oil/Gas Age and the way wise countries will be able to enjoy the benefits of the conjunctions of the great emerging technologies of:

  • PLC (broadband through “electricity sockets”),
  • Smart metering/appliances
  • And Distributed Generation.
  • The key to a sane future is combining science, local generating capacity of all sorts and community intelligence to create robust utility grids that are as self-sustaining as possible while reinforcing the national network.

    The use of electricity, solar resources and broadband must be modeled on the same military rationale for the original Internet – multiple routes between local nodes so if one node gets nuked there are a wide combination of alternative routes. We are witnessing in the stupid games being played by Telecom and TelstraClear the paradox and flaw in the “competitive” market system: it breeds brittle inflexible systems that a rat can bring down.

    The Electricity Reforms have bred the same lack of resilience in our use of electricity. As I mentioned in my last blog, a tree branch touching a wire blacked out Northern America. The Reforms promote excessive dependence on Bulk-electricity and suppress options. Already we are seeing commentators such as Michael Bassett, ex-Cabinet Minister, “historian” and an arch proponent of the “competitive” market system, now arguing for the use of Bulk-electricity from nuclear energy: Why we must go nuclear.

    Nuclear generation requires very expensive investments requiring large supporting structures that leave grids at high risk of collapse from a range of causes. On a more profound level, the past 50 years have shown our faith in “nuclear power” as the ultimate solution has bred a dangerous moral complacency that has resulted in the destruction of most of the energy forms that support us.

    Out goes “commercial sensitivity” and all that crap. In comes transparent, locally-owned systems, accountable by democratic processes and collegiality where communities share and adapt each other’s insights to their regional conditions. Does that sound familiar?

    Well yes it is if you know how the most productive and exciting science happens. (Even Bill Gates, Steve Jobs et al got started in a garage, thriving on the fun, free-sharing spirit of the legendary Computer Homebrew Club. This was before they became the greedy, joyless souls they are today.)

    And yes, it is familiar if you worked as I did for enlightened utilities like the Christchurch Municipal Electricity Department in the 1980s.

    Out goes the office of Minister of Energy. In comes a Minister of Solar and Atmospheric Resources, a Minister of Fuels and Minerals and a Minister of Electricity Uses. Out goes EECA and in comes community-based and controlled centres responsible for researching and administering local codes –including Construction, Transport, Solar-based generation, Broadband knowledge and Electricity Use codes. In this scenario the local Council building inspector is upgraded from a law enforcer to a community advisor and researcher as well. Also in this scenario the Electricity Reforms are scrapped and communities are again permitted to generate and distribute electricity to their members. Genuine collegiality, not mean-minded competition, is the essence.

    Out goes the Climate Change Office and in comes an expanded NIWA with facilities to research the communication of climate issues and develop education programmes in our schools and communities.

    Out goes wasteful daily advertising broadsheets (so called “newspapers”) and the exporting of logs for $30 dollars a ton. In comes smart, open, broadband/radio news services and sustainable buildings made with simple double claddings that provide effective thermal and weather barriers.

    Out goes urban car use and in comes smart public transport systems. The megabillions saved can be invested in education and developing smart uses of energy in the community. Learning and research is revered for its own sake and released from the shackles of mean-minded accountants. The “Father of the Internet’, Vint Cerf, was recently asked what he had not anticipated about the creation. He replied he never could have imagined how much people would do for the love of it. I reckon Wikipedia is the latest marvellous example of that.

    My proposals have considerable and proven precedents. I mentioned the military strategy underpinning the original basis of the Internet. It is part of a wider concept of Civil Defence – a term barely heard in the modern world of private armies and corporations. My parent’s generations saw the horrors of war – the starvation, the violence, the disease, the corruption and the inequity of it. They came away determined their children would not know such horrors and re-instituted universal “free” education, “blue skies” research and civil defence facilities in all major services such as rail, roading, telecommunications and Bulk-electricity.

    My Post-War generation dismissed the lessons of war and we sold off our infrastructure using high-risk accountancy that relegated civil defence elements as liabilities. Our parent’s investments in multiple grid loops across fault lines, multiple diesel electric engines on sea ferries so they could act as emergency generators for stricken cities, rail/electricity/communication apprentice schemes, Ministry of Works asset registers etc all counted for zero or even as liabilities in the new order.

    More importantly we transferred control of our infrastructure to the principal shareholders of the multinational corporations. These folk have little concern for our welfare in emergencies. As the recent examples of Enron and TransAlta-OnEnergy show, these people simply skip when crises occur. Communities are left carrying the can. We remain living in thermal shacks, lumbered with inefficient health, communication and transport systems and further in debt and at risk than ever. Now the advent of the Post Cheap-Oil/Gas Age represents one hell of a civil emergency for us and much of our civil defence structure lies in ruins.

    All the counter risk measures I propose bring enormous benefits and wealth to communities – even if the risks never eventuate. We can never prove they would not have eventuated if we had not changed anyway. In short, caring pays.

    No time for quick comments this week. Next time. This week’s Junk Joules Award goes to the Hon Trevor Mallard, Minister of Energy and Education for his speech at the opening of Contact Energy’s “service centre”. Sorry Trev, you will have to wait to find out how you achieved such distinction. Hopefully someone will be eligible for a Bonus Joules award then to.

    I end with this observation I heard on National Radio this morning. A Japanese physicist was explaining how Einstein was able to crack the code of time and matter and reframe how we imagine the nature of energy. “Einstein’s genius was that he was able to picture things – the mathematics came later.”

    Contrary to what another physicist said in the same news item, others have changed our views of matter, time, space and energy equally, if not more than Einstein has. The Buddha is one example. And the Buddha also gave us another insight relevant to this discussion: Our environment is without pity if we set ourselves above and beyond it. We cannot trade away our responsibility for the links that sustain us.

    That is why I have been calling for a review of the images we use to portray the nature of energy and, in particular, how the climate works. Our present picture is clearly flawed and I know there is a grander vision we can enjoy. So far I have not had one message of support in my call for a review.

    Come on, Pete H and all you pollies and power mongers; know there is more to life. Believe in communities. Believe in individuals. And just as individuals inspire new visions, so can nations of any size. I know you are surrounded with politicians/officials/ business people who argue New Zealand is too small to make a difference to carbon emissions and we should retain the status quo.

    Well the truth is we can and do make a difference. A disproportionate difference in fact. For better and worse. Look at our role at Kyoto and in a raft of international forums. Now is the time to review our images of energy, adapt our lives to reduce the risks from Human-induced Climate Change and embrace the Post Cheap-Oil/Gas Age. We do not have to stick to our present path and risk enduring hideous war. The vast majority of humans will enjoy enhanced lives as a result of precautionary systems that express love for the air we breath.


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