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Bonusjoules Blog - 10 November 2005
Chapter 3 No 9: Holey Fashions & Respects to Rod Donald MP


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Today is the funeral of Rod Donald, co leader of the NZ Green Party, profound patriot and outspoken advocate for the dispossessed and for Fair Trade. I have just heard his coffin will be taken to Christchurch cathedral in a bus. Trees are being planted the across the land in his memory. These are my thoughts on this day.

I awoke on Monday morning to hear Morning Report on our National Radio inviting listeners to send in tributes to Rod. This is my hastily constructed tribute sent that morning:

It is easy to forget that our actions may mean that our children may have no tomorrow.

It is easy to forget that our actions can destroy the environment that sustains our civilisation as surely as previous civilisations have destroyed themselves.

It is easy to forget that our purchase is only a bargain because people are displaced from their ancestral lands and people work in slavery to produce it.

It is easy to forget that without strong local communities there is no nation.

All these truths the corporations and their media would have us forget, for they are primarily driven by concerns for the next quarterly statement and the next career move.

It is a rare and brave person who stands up and continually reminds us of any one of these hard truths, as we do find it so much easier to forget them.

Rod Donald stood up and reminded us of all these hard truths and was widely derided and dismissed for his efforts. He worked to remind us of the great paradox that, with equal inevitability, our forgetfulness of these hard truths breed war and misery while our mindfulness of them promotes joy and peace.

It must be nearly thirty years ago of your young life when I first became acquainted with you, Rod, sometime back in that haze of days of developing urban communities, food cooperatives and anti-racism activities of the late 1970s in Christchurch. Since then I have watched and appreciated the way you have built on that local base to stand tall internationally for democracy and for a real chance of a future for our children. In particular I have admired your ability to cope with the constant simmering hostility, disbelief and derision of our corporation-bound media. It surely must have taken a great optimism and love to get up each day to face more of those interviews with dignity and not go right over the edge.

Farewell you tree hugger, you woolly woofter, you parasite, you bloody greenie agitator, you commie bastard, you wierdy beardy, you business flake, you airy fairy dreamer, you total disconnect, you pot head, you bleedin’ stirrer, you pontificating pain in the butt and all those other names our media commentators and the more forgetful among us like to dismiss you with. Know the world you dared to dream will be and thank you for making it possible. Kia ora, Rod. Kia kaha.

Since writing this I have heard others state similar views. Winston Peters generated gales of laughter in Parliament when he too spoke of his admiration of Rod’s ability to retain his sanity in the face of our media. I suspect many journalists have difficulty understanding this. Perhaps being part of the problem they cannot fully appreciate how destructive the glib, “sound-byte”, ratings driven, tycoon dominated industry is. Unlike Rod, they can contribute little that is sustainable. They are soon out of a job if they try.

On Monday afternoon the National Radio panel discussed your legacy, as is appropriate on such a programme. The guests were John Ansell and Bruce Wallace.

John is the architect the National Party’s bill boards in the last election and is credited with gaining the party many votes. The ads were deeply anti-democratic in that they portrayed issues in First Past the Post Blue-Red rather than the multicolour Proportional Representation system that New Zealanders voted for. The billboards divided New Zealand into Kiwi (Blue) and Iwi (Red) and financial options into taxes (Red) and tax cuts (Blue)… This reveals a simplicity and amorality of thinking that is not nation building.

Bruce Wallace is a finance reporter and I have listened to his programme Your Money on National Radio for many years. Indeed I took the advice of people like Bruce in the 1990s and am now stuck with a mortgage again. In this I reflect the deepened debt of the nation’s households as collectively we have followed this school of thinking.

John was upfront that the Green Part is an anathema to him and he feels he has nothing in common with it. Bruce made it clear in his very polite way that he feels the same. As always when such company discusses Green Party the word Luddite is bandied about and John wondered in scornful tones if the Greens would have protested the advent of the motorcar. The next day a listener wrote in protesting the insensitivity of National Radio of featuring such people at such a time of grieving. Personally I think the Monday panel provides us with an excellent opportunity to cut through the lies and deceits served by vested interests on the Greens and Rod as their leader. I am sure Rod would welcome this.

So this morning it seems appropriate to briefly explore the bigotry, selfishness, hopelessness and racism that Rod worked so hard to eliminate. Yesterday I checked out what a Luddite is on Wikipedia. I too have often been called a Luddite and “chicken of a bit of change” because I dared to question the value of a technology.

I will draw on my own experiences to illustrate what makes one a Luddite in present day New Zealand. A good case is the brick-sized computer that electricity meter readers now wear strapped to their arm. When it was introduced about 1990 I asked the question “ Is this an improvement over the printed page we used to carry?” and found it was inferior on most counts:

-It was more difficult to gain a “picture” of the terrain and location of meters. This results in a wide range of inefficiencies and expenses.

-The chance that a message would not reach the mainframe computer and be acted on increased at least 10 fold, resulting in much poorer service to customers, greater inequity of billing and higher peak loads.

-The new “computer” format resulted in printed material requiring four times as much paper at least than the “antiquated” paper-based system.

-Even a small volcanic eruption hundreds of miles away affected the Bulk-electricity system and the system went down in a way that did not happen under the paper-based system i.e. it had poor Civil Defence rating.

-The device was large, clumsy and dangerous. One day I tripped on steep hill and fell onto my arm with the computer strapped to it. (Perhaps I was a bit distracted. The day before the PSA has failed to turn up to a meeting to negotiate me a job so I would not have to work with people I feared to be criminals.) Imagine falling so you chest slams onto an upturned brick or post sticking out of the ground. The impact stopped my heart and only my instinctive reaction to engage powerful yogic breathing got it going again. The fire brigade, who just happened to be in area, said I was still suffering light heart attacks when they found me. At the hospital they said I had broken five ribs. The point is I had advised the purchase of a smaller, smarter and safer computer. This crud technology was not necessary. I was 48 at the time too, the same age as Rod. I know I am here only by a flicker of a heartbeat.

-The technology came with other risks, including timers measuring every stroke of the keypad. The distributor used this without caveats as a selling point. It does not measure whether the work is being done in howling wet southerlies or the number of steep slippery steps between the meters or the effort of the worker of or their treatment of customers. I researched this and found where such timers were used by management all aspects of hypertension (headaches, accidents, stomach disorders etc) increased by up to 30% and businesses such as supermarkets and airlines lost customers as checkout operators concentrated on “keeping the timer happy.” My simple solution, dismissed, was to suggest that a code of conduct should be established to ensure the timer technology was not counterproductive.


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Now here comes the rub. I am dismissed as a Luddite and “standing in the way of progress” for questioning the value and use of this particular piece of technology. What a lie. It was not that I do not embrace technology and change. Once the decision was made to use I studied the guide from end to end so I could ensure my fellow workers could operate it.

I did far more. I sat down and worked out what we could best make of this pile of crud. For a start it could only take messages three lots of four digits at a time. So I sat down and devised a simple text using 200 words of four letters or less to describe access to all Wellington meters.

Example: rcpt LHS foyr (next page) back east strs (next page) brwn door cupd. This reads: receptionist in left hand side foyer, (next page) back of building eastern stairwell, (next page) brown door cupboard. Even semi-literate people can read phonetics.

Is all kind of familiar? This was before the cell phone and I had created txt messaging years before Nokia let a bunch of children teach the world how to do it.

The reaction was fascinating. The New Zealand distributor of the computer was unsupportive and unhelpful. Indeed he cautioned me to steady on, that I was getting carried away! Some fellow workers and managers saw great merit in it and worked to implement it into the mainframe system. When I look back, everyone one of these people, including myself, were sacked in the Electricity Reforms and left or were forced to leave the Bulk-electricity industry. By contrast those that saw no merit in the communication method survived and even thrived on the Electricity Reforms. As did those who saw the text method as threatening their ability to screw the Bulk-electricity sector via the proposed contracting system and who abused me as “a dirty fuckin’ traitor” and threatened to sabotage the mainframe data base. Yes, I was the one who was condemned as the Luddite.

I have written in detail elsewhere of how I dreamed and worked towards creating a resilient, community based electricity system that would enable us to use this wonderful resource efficiently. I have long seen such efficiency is crucial to the conservation of our beautiful natural environment and peace. I have also written of how those of this mind were sacked, the energy efficiency systems dismantled and the data logging technology ripped off the customer’s switchboards. Those people who opposed our endeavours thrived in the new world of the Bulk-electricity industry of the Electricity Reforms.

And now I find myself almost praying that the smart “metering” technology I advocated in the 1980s does not eventuate in 2005. In the past it would have been owned and administered by communities who were accountable to their members through democratic systems. The Electricity Reforms trashed all that and this technology is now subservient to the whims of the new owners. Effectively these are a few overseas-based bankers. The new technology means they have little reason to know or care if poor people are forced to disconnect themselves from the grid for all but one of two hours a day.

When I got up this morning I spent an hour browsing the web exploring the great trade movements that are our British-American heritage. I had started out to see what Wikipedia had to say about us so called Luddites. It was as I suspected. There are two schools and I will quote Wiki pretty much in full:

Criticism of Luddism

A conservative view of Luddites is that they were a paramilitary group, trying to enforce a production monopoly for their own financial gain through sabotage and the resultant intimidation.

Also, neoclassical economic historians would argue that Luddites' opposition to the free market and opposition to technological 'progress' were roughly equivalent, believing that the progress that created what we generally refer to as 'modernity' (and especially the high standards of living prevalent in developed nations) was due to the use of technology for private gain, and that this pursuit of private gain, through the medium of specialization, comparative advantage, and mutually beneficial exchange, accumulatively enhances the general welfare. This view, shared with other writers, is a key thesis of David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

A more sympathetic view that makes more sense of my own experiences as “a Luddite” and “shit stirrer” is that of E.P. Thompson

“…He shows that the Luddites were not opposed to new technology, but rather to the abolition of set prices and therefore also to the introduction of what we would today call the free market.

Thompson argues that it was this newly-introduced economic system that the Luddites were protesting. For example, the Luddite song, "General Ludd's Triumph"

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims

At the honest man's life or Estate

His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames

And to those that old prices abate

"Wide frames" were the weaving frames, and the old prices were those prices agreed by custom and practice. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left untouched.

Secondly, Thompson counters the view that the Luddites were thuggish. There were remarkably few Luddite arrests and executions, and yet they operated highly effectively against the forces of the state. Thompson's explanation for this is that they were working with the consent of the local communities (or indeed were part of those communities).

Thirdly, Thompson argues that the Luddites were not disorganised. He notes that some of the largest Luddite activities involved a hundred men.

In short, Thompson feels that in caricaturing the Luddites as 'thugs' who just wanted to smash up new technology we are simply continuing the propaganda of the time. The reality, in Thompson's view, is that the Luddites were normal people who were protesting against changes of which they disapproved.

It so happens, “Luddite” that I may be, I have always been fascinated with technology and new ideas. As I boy I loved reading of the development of the steam engine and the nuclear reactor. The former took me directly into the excitement of age of the Dissenters. How different it is to the bland conformity, greed and secretiveness of the modern corporate world that I experienced.

Ideas were shared freely and loved for their own sake. The eccentric was not only valued but prized. The Dissenters were not MBAs but your common man off the street who was excited by technology and science and who was driven by keen sense of generosity and morality. Their meetings bubbled with enthusiasm and positivity to new ideas and inventions. You would only see such excitement at sports event nowadays.

I know both Rod and I would have loved to be present at these meetings. Similarly we would have thrived at Computer Homebrew Club in the 1970s where “nerds” like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs met to share ideas about how to make computers do things. A lovely account of the club can be seen here.

By contrast, we would not have felt at home in the boardrooms of the corporations that took over the technology and created the “satanic mills” of the 1800s and the Asian and African sweatshops of our time. One has only to recall the hostile and derisory comments of our “business sector leaders” to Rod’s recent attempts to build bridges with them after the election. At the time I just shook my head in wonder at the enormity of optimism and compassion that enabled him to even try.


Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

Excuse me if I stop to weep. I am not very good at weeping and it is such a privilege when tears flow, as they should. I am w..at..ching a..nd li…st..eni..ng T..VN..Z’s we….b str…ea..ming of your funeral Rod. I know this is not what you worked for – a New Zealand heading for the bottom of the broadband uptake in the OECD. Readers unfamiliar with New Zealand history should know the economic reforms of the last two decades resulted in the rail, telecommunication and the electricity grid systems being fragmented and sold off to large overseas-based corporations. In 1990, previous to the fragmentation, our nation was the most advanced in the world with the potential to easily match present South Korea where 80% of the population have access to cheap incredibly fast broadband. Even rail had an optic fibre system the length of the country and this was not sold but given away to a couple of merchant bankers. Now most of us are left stuck on dial-up at 56 Kbps.

Thank you Rob for enabling me to weep. It is just what I need as I read about trade this morning. You were so right. The difference between “free trade” and Fair Trade is the difference between war and peace, misery and prosperity, depravity and justice.

Thirty-five years ago I was browsing the Canterbury University Library and a history book fell into my hands. I had never read a “history” book before. It opened on a page that blew away every thing I had learned about the Britain and the Industrial Revolution. I had always been taught Britain’s superior technology enabled it to dominate the global textile market. No one ever suggested to me that the British cut the wrist tendons of one and a half million Bengalese weavers to destroy their industry, so that the India-Britain textile trade had completely reversed in within a fifteen-year period.

Is this true? I do recall reading the book and finding much else that was consistent my general knowledge. I decide to try to check it out this morning. A search of the web throws up no mention of such an event though there is are detailed accounts of savagery and destruction of cities in India because of the presence of the British corporations. There are accounts of hundred of thousands of people fleeing the great Bengal textile cities for the safety of the countryside, leaving them near deserted. It is clear Britain had a balance of payments problem because of the demand for the exquisitely created textiles:

A rage for Indian fabric swept across Britain , causing a serious drain of gold and silver from the West. "From the greatest gallants to the meanest Cook Maids, nothing was thought to fit to adorn their persons as the Fabric from India ," grumped an English politician in 1681. Despite stiff import duties, Indian textiles threatened England 's own manufacturers. "Europe bleedth to enrich Asia ," complained another 17th century Englishman. An act of Parliament in 1700 made it illegal to wear or use Indian fabrics in Great Britain , but clandestine trade flourished nonetheless.

I soon linked to the massive opium trade the British fostered in India (18% of its economy) at the same time and how they used it to solve another balance of payments problem – the huge trade imbalance created by British demand for silk and tea from China. Again the trade imbalance may have been resolved by something called “free trade” but there is no way it could be called Fair Trade:

Fantasies epitomised by Sax Romer’s Dr. Fu Manchu struck deep. One result has been that most people who have heard of the opium war of 1839-42, only by name, would assume that the British waged it to free China from opium: the truth was the exact opposite. The British Empire was the world’s largest grower, processor and exporter of opium, and China was its main market. The English fostered the addiction in China and had a virtual monopoly of the drug and blundered into war largely to defend their profits against an emperor who was struggling to stamp out the trade. Opium was a hard political currency of the far east and England made it so. In 1876, an observer summed up “the east and the west England, India and China act and react on each other through the medium of poppy juice”.

The modern parallels are impressive. Recently we have seen the opium industry in Afghanistan grow from a few tons a year just prior to the US led invasion of Afghanistan to the record levels by 2004. This is no coincidence. It is how our worst corporations balance their books and sap the will of peoples who oppose them.

And here is the irony: Rod opposed this invasion and yet is regularly vilified as a druggie. Even New Zealand politicians who know full well that that Green Party members, if anything, use less drugs than the norm, are prepared to stand aside and allow the lie to continue. Anything for votes. Their silence is corrosive of the national spirit.

Of course the US led invasion of Afghanistan was primarily driven by another addiction – our addictive use of oil and Natural Gas. This is by far New Zealander’s most serious addiction. As a nation, our use is born of desperation. Many of us can no longer imagine life without bulk use of it and would commit murder/suicide if deprived of it. Rod was routinely dismissed and derided for his attempts to show there are alternatives to private cars and there are far more sustainable and healthy lifestyles.

The fact is the private vehicle is a crazy use of an incredibly valuable resource. Think about it. In good driving conditions less than one percent of the tankful of petrol actual moves the driver. The rest disappears as friction and heat loss. In cities the wastage is amplified two and three fold. As the Energy Bulletin points out of this very limited resource:

The energy density in oil is just incredible. One 42-gallon barrel of ... But the energy you get from that is the equivalent of 25000 man-hours of labor.

... OUR DEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN OIL -- (House of Representatives - April 20, 2005)

I ask you. Our so-called “business leaders” promote the use of technology that routinely gets only 100 man-hours of labour out of their investment in much more than 25000 man-hours to perform a task. Rod promoted the use of technology that could perform that task fifty times for the same investment i.e. gets 5000 man-hours of labour. And these guys call him an idiot. And probably these “leaders” are surprised at the outpouring of grief at Rod’s death. This is because when a person is paid $10 an hour they value of man-hour of labour. Who is more grounded in the value of humanity and delivers a greater future for our children?

Certainly TVNZ seems oblivious to the national grief. In the stupid hope they may be also telecasting the funeral I have just attempted to tune in my TV to TV1. It seems to be some sports programme , which is somehow ironical when I recall Rod’s recent attempts to alleviate the suffering of the Zimbabwe people.

People have spoken of Rod, the internationalist. I suggest Rod’s campaign for Fair Trade will have considerable rewards for those who understand his global vision.

Already Environmental Education resources in Europe are teaching the young there how to evaluate the energy required to move a product in a trade. I have seen trade with New Zealand used as the worst-case scenario. It uses a fraction of the energy to move an apple from the next county compared to moving one from around the world in New Zealand. As the Post Cheap Oil-Age deepens that knowledge will take on increasing relevance at the till. And this is at a time when we are burning our orchards and look to become a net importer of apples from across the globe.

All I can say is that if protesting against the vast wastage of irreplaceable resource makes Rob a Luddite and caring for the poor and dispossessed makes him a crank, then I suggest our children will bless Luddites and cranks. Again I say

Know the world you dared to dream will be and thank you for making it possible. Kia ora, Rod. Kia kaha.


Click through to Bonus Joules Cartoon Strip

P.S. I don’t know if Rod ever saw the cartoon that accompanies this when I first poked it on the net a couple of years ago. In the previous panel Bonus Joules had just insulated the ceiling of the cartoon to reduce carbon emissions and maintain global thermal balances. Now in the name of “modernity”, “progress” and “fashion”, the ceiling is being drilled full of holes. The “downlights” being installed effectively act as heat pumps, sucking heat out of the room. Is it being a Luddite to point out how daft this is?

ENDS

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