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Stepping back from the brink -some sanity at last

Readers should have no delusions about the state of New Zealand. The ‘clean and green’ image that New Zealand has marketed over recent years is largely a consequence of low population, high rainfall and strong prevailing winds and has little to do with government policy or business ethics. And, just like most other nations, it is being driven off the energy cliff in an orgy of consumption. There is only one atmosphere, only one [interlinked] ocean system, so what happens elsewhere on the planet will impact here.

Stepping back from the brink - some sanity at last! by Kevin Moore
I apologise to readers who are already very familiar with the geography and history of New Zealand, but before getting down to the nitty gritty, I feel it would be useful to highlight a few facts about a once a sub-tropical paradise in the South Pacific, in order that the reader may appreciate the full horror of my tale of woe.

The Maori named it ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ (Aotearoa) and early European visitors may have done the same, had they not been in the habit of naming almost every [for them] ‘discovered’ location ‘New somewhere in Europe’. Early tourists endured months at sea to wonder at the spectacular scenery and partake of a culture that was so different from their own. Even as late as in the 1970s, New Zealand was still something of quiet backwater, with numerous quaint characteristics, such as the inhabitants driving 20-year-old cars and placing a higher value on family life than shopping; the former was a result of restrictive tariffs, tight purchase regulations and import scheduling; the latter leading to the complaint of tourists who arrived on a Friday afternoon that they had ‘visited New Zealand, but it was closed’. That said, it was a largely self sufficient and egalitarian society, with an economy based primarily on agricultural products, in which crime levels were relatively low, unemployment was low, every locality had a post office and a bank (many of them locally owned). On the whole, life was predicated on fundamentals of trust and belief in the community.

However, following the failed financial policies of the Muldoon era, everything changed. In the 1980s, a small group of radical right-wing politicians hijacked the newly elected Labour Government of the time, promoting a philosophy of maximised commercial opportunity, combined with minimal governmental responsibility, broadly labelled Rogernomics, after Roger Douglas, one of its proponents. In truth, New Zealand was probably ripe for plunder but at the time, New Zealanders were told this revolution in economic thinking would bring enormous wealth to the nation. In reality New Zealand simply joined the international rat race.

Despite all the hype, the benefits of deregulation to the average citizen were meagre and after tolerating radicalism for as long as they could, disaffected voters eventually looked to change in government (National), only to get more of the same - policies based on selling the family silver in an orgy of asset stripping and privatisation of state assets that largely benefited the rich and transferred long-term costs to the poor. Disaffected once again, voters returned yet another Labour government, which, though it pulled back from the grand excesses of the Shipley era, set off once more down the road of broken promises and offered effectively more of the same. More critically though, next to nothing was done to provide for the long-term sustainability of the nation. Through the late 80s and the 90s, New Zealand governments championed familiar dogmas predicated on growth of GDP, globalisation, free trade and consumption, while failing to address issues such as long-term energy supply or long-term funding for old age pensions. The gap between the rich and poor got greater and the egalitarian society that had been at the core of the New Zealand character for generations largely disappeared, whilst the country ploughed ever faster into its energy endowments in a frenzy of unbridled consumption. Yet, as time progressed (and despite the incessant sell-offs and restructuring), the NZ dollar fell, unemployment rose and the general populace became increasingly disillusioned, leading to periodic mass exoduses, while those who remained did so on the basis of further promises of better times to come.

Well, apparently the better times have finally come; the New Zealand dollar has risen spectacularly against many other currencies, enabling New Zealanders to afford all kinds of ‘goodies’ that were undreamt of previously, whilst tourists flock to New Zealand in increasing numbers, bringing with them highly desirable overseas currency. Superficially, New Zealand looks like the success story of the century, with the internationally acclaimed ‘Lord of the Rings’ showcasing the nation. Even the share market, which had previously languished for a decade, has risen to new heights. But in reality, this apparent success has come, not as a consequence of any government policy, which remains as dysfunctional as ever, but as a function of even greater failure elsewhere in the world.

With pollution, overpopulation, economic and security worries troubling so many destinations around the world, migrants and tourists flock to nuclear-free New Zealand as one of the last unspoilt ‘paradises’. Indeed, one of the reasons many films are made in New Zealand is the fact that disfigurement of the scenery is less severe than elsewhere. But New Zealand is no longer a land of milk and honey (indeed the bee population is under threat from a recently introduced pest) and there are long black clouds hanging over it, clouds that are not going to disappear when the wind changes direction. Like so many nations around the world, it faces an energy crunch for which it is almost totally unprepared.

Just how could a country that has a small population, is naturally endowed with a temperate climate, well distributed rainfall, large forests, almost unparalleled opportunities for hydroelectricity generation, massive endowments of natural gas, exceptional opportunities for geothermal energy and spectacular opportunities for wind generation have got it all so wrong? How could New Zealand have become, though not actually bankrupt, seriously anxious about energy? That is a question many environmentalists and energy analysts continue to ask and the answer inevitably comes back to the politics of failure and an economic system that is entirely dysfunctional. The list of failures is a long one indeed and dates back to the 1960s, but notable examples that come to mind are:

· The [giant] Maui gas field being developed to proved cheap fuel for industry and for electricity generation. In the privatised market, consumers were persuaded to use as much electricity as possible, since that boosted profits.
· Chemical plant being built to convert natural gas into petrol at around 50% efficiency. The monstrous loans incurred during the ‘Think Big’ extravaganza generated a currency crisis that burdened the country with debt for more than a decade, whilst much of the gas was converted to methanol and urea, which were sold overseas to obtain funds to repay loans.
· High tariffs on numerous imported goods were removed in a pre-emptive move to promote trade. The removal of tariffs and general deregulation of the transport sector transformed it into something of a free for all, whereby amongst other things, the importation of grossly inefficient, oversized vehicles was encouraged, on the basis that growth of vehicle sales equated with a booming economy. And of course larger vehicles using more fuel equated with a bigger turnover of money and the ubiquitous growth of GDP that all western style economies are predicated on. Thus car yards become packed with 2,3,4,5,6….yes even 6 litre …SUVs and racing cars capable of speeds up to 240km, for use on congested roads with a maximum [nationwide] speed limit of 100km/hr! The insanity of this was apparently completely lost on politicians obsessed with economic growth. Office workers and mothers with young children bought these monstrosities to commute or do the family shopping and in doing so achieved fuel economy on a par with that of a farm tractor, whilst actively promoting the destruction of their children’s future. And of course, the larger cities started choking to death.
· Deregulation of the retail sector to maximise shopping opportunity, resulting in 24 hour shopping 362 days of the year. The frenzy of shopping that ends on Christmas Eve can resume at 9:00 am on Boxing Day and some retailers flout the liberal trading regulations, on the basis that profits exceeded fines.
· The conversion of large tracts of previously productive farmland into ghettos of substandard housing, as dwellings constructed of unsuitable materials were ‘thrown up’ by unskilled labour; in extreme cases these squalid constructions became almost uninhabitable within a few years of construction, due to rotting timbers associated with leaky construction.
· The encouragement of migration from overseas, in order to provide continuing work and business opportunity for businesses that would have otherwise languished. In a seemingly never ending cycle, shopping malls (with their mandatory acres of car parking remote from housing developments) were constructed, to provide new citizens with the opportunity to spend money they did not have, while houses were constructed to provide homes for new migrants in order to fill the shopping malls with patrons.
· The failure of city planners to plan, resulting in grid-pattern roads, interrupted by traffic lights at every major intersection. That in turn results in gross inefficiencies in time and energy use, as vehicles wait, race to the next set of lights, come to a stop and wait and then race again. Meanwhile public transport was under-funded or sold off.

Needless to say, New Zealand’s inadequate road system could not cope with the influx of vehicles and by the late 1990s a crisis had developed, with gridlock becoming commonplace, whilst the overloaded motorways frequently exhibited ‘compression waves’ that resulted in vehicles coming to a near standstill before moving again at as little as 20km per hour. Inner city locations recorded air pollution levels that exceeded WHO safe limits. Hardly surprising then, that New Zealand began falling behind in its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, whilst deaths and diseases resulting from air pollution continued to rise. The reductions in emissions that did occur were largely as a result of factories (and their emissions) relocating to China as the economy became more and more unbalanced (in the 70s the greater portion of footwear and clothing was locally made, but now the bulk is imported from China). But emissions from the transport sector have been (and still are) completely out of control and getting worse by the week. To add to the mix, as in so many other countries, debt has increased spectacularly, whilst the trade deficit has grown.

Under these circumstances, one might imagine that both local and central government might step back and look toward an alternative approach, an approach based on some kind of sanity, an approach predicated on identification of problems and implementation of appropriate solutions. Sadly, until very recently that was not the case at all. In 2004, the then mayor of Auckland John Banks was proposing closure of city streets in order that a international motor racing circuit be created in the heart of Auckland to bring ‘economic benefits’, whilst his equally petrol-headed compatriot, Barry Curtis, Mayor of Manukau, was pressing for additional motorway construction to fuel further economic growth. In same year the Automobile Association of NZ produced proposals showing Auckland linked by countless new motorways, some for completion well after realistic projections for Peak Oil and when confronted on the matter, dismissed the concepts of energy resource depletion and global warming with the stroke of a pen. The AA regurgitated IEA projections for massive increases in oil production and proclaimed that hydrogen cars were on their way.

Needless to say, the major source of New Zealand’s current woes is the government of Helen Clark, which remains firmly in a state of denial about realistic projections for Peak Oil, with the recently retired Minister of Energy, Pete Hodgson, steadfastly adhering to delusional projections for the discovery of massive new oil fields, as promoted by the IEA, that would put Peak Oil as distant as 2067. Presumably the newly appointed Trevor Mallard knows next to nothing about the portfolio and will take many months to familiarise himself.

Yet, in an odd contradiction, whilst denying imminence of Peak Oil, the government acknowledged the demise of gas and, in order to maintain economic growth and continuing electricity supply, began discussion to evaluate the merits importing LNG or of building more coal-fired power stations!

Sadly, the denial of realistic Peak Oil projections allows the government to continue to promote growth in international trade, massive increases in tourism and motorway construction, whilst encouraging the importation of yet more SUVs, street racing cars, speed boats -indeed, all the paraphernalia of the globalised consumer society, right down to the epitome of a dysfunctional society, gas-fired patio heaters!

Those of us who recognise the lunacy of an economy based on the increasing consumption of rapidly depleting non-renewable carbon fuels and the conversion of those fuels into carbon dioxide (that will almost certainly bring abrupt climate change) could be forgiven for looking on in near despair, wondering just what kind of mentality it takes to sacrifice the next generation’s future in order to fuel an economy that creates death and disease. Let us pull no punches: though not as bad as some nations, the health of New Zealanders has suffered badly and it ranks high in world for numerous conditions and illnesses that come from inactivity, pollution and excessive consumption - obesity, diabetes, heart disease and asthma, to name a few. The 4 cent bottle of [subsidised] milk of the 70s has been replaced by the 85 cent bottle of cola, whilst the milk is now $1.60, resulting in an epidemic of tooth decay. Meanwhile our televisions ‘shout’ their messages to buy more cola, to buy more fatty, sugary food, whilst most major roads are sufficiently polluted and dangerous to make cycling a life-threatening activity.

Are we stepping back from the brink of energy collapse and societal collapse, or are we driving straight off the cliff? The answer will depend on who you talk to. The more pessimistic analysts believe that New Zealand has all the characteristics of a juggernaut that is driving straight off the energy cliff: there is much evidence to support his view. TVNZ, the national (state-owned) television broadcaster was commercialised long ago, and as such, concerns itself with generating advertising revenue, largely by promoting cars, overseas holidays and other unsustainable forms of consumption, rather than promoting public good. The largest newspaper promotes corporate interest and fails to report commentary unfavourable to the business as usual model. The majority of citizens appear to be oblivious of Peak Oil. The majority of business and community leaders appear just as oblivious and when tackled on the issue usually fail to respond. Indeed, despite the best efforts of numerous individuals and groups, politicians at all levels firmly remain in denial or, having acknowledged the possibility of peak oil, do little or nothing about it. So, is there any hope for a nation that measures progress by the rate of conversion of productive farmland into fast food restaurants with drive throughs? Is there any hope for a nation that permits the dragging of advertising banners, such as that of ‘More FM’, across the sky by low flying helicopters, using precious fossil fuels to generate unnecessary pollution and unacceptable noise? If so, what signs of hope are there?

After an entire generation of near inaction, New Zealand finally tackled the issue of smoking: we may assume that since the implementation of smoke-free legislation fewer resources will be consumed in the promotion and distribution of tobacco. And there has been talk of upgrading the rail system which, though largely undeveloped by world standards, was previously run into the ground. But in the face of the Peak Oil crisis, possibly as early as 2006 or 2007, we need a lot more than just a reduction in the number of delivery trucks distributing tobacco or vague plans for the future of rail: we need a total rethink in the way our society works. We need to apply the brakes to the juggernaut right now!

It therefore came as something of a shock to the ‘petrol-head’ community when in 2004 its archdeacon, John Banks was not re-elected as Mayor of Auckland and the proposal for motor racing in the city rejected. The motor racing community was pushed further onto the back foot when long standing noise complaints about the Western Springs racing circuit were upheld and noise monitoring deemed noise levels unacceptable. Diehard petrol-heads vowed to fight to the bitter end, but even the frequently apathetic general public cannot have failed to notice the nearly 30% increase in fuel prices (from NZ$0.93 to $1.19 per litre) over the past year and the possibility of further increases. Indeed, it has only been the partial collapse of the US$ against the Kiwi that has prevented much greater surges. Those of us dismayed by the continued petrol-head mentality, and the importation of grossly oversized vehicles that characterises it, look to further rises in fuel prices to bring the sector that still equates bigger and faster with better to its senses. In the meantime, new models of more fuel efficient vehicles are being seen on the roads and bus lanes are slowly being established to ensure that bus users beat car drivers on congested routes.

Furthermore, there was much relief and considerable celebration when the recently elected Auckland city councillors rejected the Eastern Corridor, a grandiose scheme that would have required the demolition of hundreds of houses to make way for a transport route. Originally proposed as a motorway and public transport corridor, it had been trimmed back to just a motorway, as cost estimates had escalated. The motorway only proposal was rejected on the basis that we need to move people, not cars and there are better ways to achieve that goal. Yes, some sanity at last.

We now look for further glimmers of hope from a city council that has an alternative vision to more cars and more roads and trust that we will not be disappointed. The Transport Committee, headed by Richard Simpson, already recognises that:
Elsewhere in the world, motorway construction has proven a failure, as traffic filled the available space and motorways into cities simply encourage more vehicle use, creating worse inner city problems

Motorways incur unacceptable environmental damage to air and water

A city that has waterways should encourage the effective use of ferries.

Light rail is entirely absent in Auckland and needs to be incorporated into an overall transport strategy.

There is a possibility of generating electricity locally, via tidal power across the Auckland Isthmus, to power light rail systems.

We need to bring back the humanity to the city and that can only be achieved with human scale infrastructure
The vision of the new councillors is of a vibrant city with clean air and sustainable transport. Whether the new council is prepared to take on board the prospect of imminent Peak Oil – with all its ramifications – and whether their vision of new transport solutions is achievable within the time frame for approaching Peak Oil, as suggested by the more pessimistic of analysts, remains to be seen. Transit, the national funding body for road construction, still fails to acknowledge Peak Oil and has a massive, nationwide road construction agenda that will be difficult to reverse.

In general, levels of ignorance about Peak Oil remain high. We still live in a society that is characterised by complacency, ignorance and denial, but the recent speech by Green Party Co-Leader highlighting Peak Oil and follow up articles in less mainstream media indicate that at least some of media’s blind spot’s are slowly being replaced by a grudging recognition that perhaps we have, as a society, been on the wrong track and that we may indeed, be driving off the cliff.

The Energy Forum in November 2004 (kindly sponsored by Alliant Energy) gave me personally the opportunity to confront decision makers in the energy field with the realities of oil depletion and carbon balance, to challenge the frequently touted oxymoron, ‘clean-burning coal’ and to point out the lunacy of statements, such as that made by Chris de Freitas, that ‘carbon dioxide is a harmless gas’. But we should foster no delusions: the majority of those who attend such forums are likely to remain unconvinced, immobilised or in denial. Untethered paradigms may change; paradigms tethered to vested interests may never change.

Much as we look for avalanches in public awareness or policy making, they rarely come and progress on the issues of Peak Oil awareness and environmentalism in general are incremental, with some small successes and many failures. The interviews given for National Radio in 2004, warning of the possibility of Peak Oil in 2006 and the need to prepare for it elicited little response; it was as if the listening public regarded the interviews as fictional. Meanwhile, articles in mainstream magazines frequently tend to be written by journalists who promote a rosy outlook, creating the impression Peak Oil will be a minor problem that will impact some time in the distant future, whilst hydrogen cars or other technical fixes will carry us through unscathed. The Minister of Energy’s rosy assertion that Peak Oil will occur sometime between 2021 and 2067 fosters this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. Despite the lack of concrete progress, the delusions about technical fixes continue. Thus the Minister of Energy, Pete Hodgson, continued to promote the notion that substantial oil deposits would be found in or near New Zealand at some stage and that new technology would increase recovery rates dramatically. The mantra has not changed since his departure and replacement by Trevor Mallard. Reality is just too unpalatable. The more aware amongst us see a far worse reality than mere inconvenience should we fail to change course soon. Pessimists say it is too already late and that an energy crash is inevitable. But even if it is too late to prevent a crash, many of us still believe it is worth attempting to make the landing soft, rather than hard. Surely, if New Zealand cannot achieve a soft landing, then few other countries are likely to, but we realise the task is monumental and that time is running out.

Readers should have no delusions about the state of New Zealand. The ‘clean and green’ image that New Zealand has marketed over recent years is largely a consequence of low population, high rainfall and strong prevailing winds and has little to do with government policy or business ethics. And, just like most other nations, it is being driven off the energy cliff in an orgy of consumption. There is only one atmosphere, only one [interlinked] ocean system, so what happens elsewhere on the planet will impact here. That really does make us fearful of the United States’ refusal to deal with Climate Change and China’s commitment to rapid industrialisation. Where New Zealand does perhaps have an edge over other nations is that it is now less dominated by two-party, or even worse, one-party politics; this enables minority parties such as the Greens to survive. How effective the Greens are in promoting sustainable agendas is questionable, but even a little bit of green must surely be better than none. Fortunately, New Zealand still has geography on its side. Unlike other nations, should there be a substantial sea level rise, most of the country will still be above sea level. Should there be a rapid rise in average worldwide temperatures, the oceans that surround us will ameliorate the effect.

But if there is to be any long term hope for the people of New Zealand, or for the planet as a whole, we must surely raise the awareness of every member of the public and every politician in every nation of the consequences of Peak Oil and of Climate Change and of the dire consequences of ignoring them; in doing so we challenge paradigms that have often been held for a lifetime and tread heavily on vested interests. Here in Auckland, our new city councillors appear to offer our best hope at this stage. We must also continue to tackle organisations such as Transit and point out that policies based on rear-view mirror analysis simply will no longer do. To say ‘this is where we have been and what we’ve been doing for the past five years, so we won’t look ahead, but we will just keep doing what we have been doing’ can no longer be accepted. We now need a true radicalism, not the fast-buck rape and pillage radicalism of Rogernomics, but radicalism based on recognition of basic truths, perhaps the most poignant being: There is no such thing as a free lunch -everything has its price. We must surely stop passing the cost for our extravagance to our children.

Just what we do when our audiences refuse to listen, as is so often the case, is rather hard to answer. When organisations fail to respond to correspondence, fail to live up to their mission statements, fail to abide by their charters, completely ignore their environmental policies –fail as wholeheartedly as TVNZ, The NZAA and Manukau City Council, to name but a few, have failed -and then go into denial when challenged, is a thorny issue for which there are no ready answers; words such as ‘provide balanced and informative coverage’, ‘accept responsibility to address global issues’ or ‘listen to and respond to citizens concerns’ come easily: the actions rarely do. As activists, we need to continue to prise open the doors that have been slammed in our faces and to rise above the despair that hits us on such occasions. Those who are not currently active are invited to join the fight –a fight for sanity and survival. To do nothing is always the easiest option, yet we surely there is no time to sit and do nothing. The crisis is at the door for all of us.

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Readers interested in following up Peak Oil and Global Warming activism in New Zealand are recommended to visit www.oilcrash.com/ and click on the ‘New Zealand’ icon

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