|Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy|
The Zone of Ozone
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Chapter 3 No 6: Zone Ozone Troubles
Blog Dave McArthur published 15 September 2005
Post script to
My heart is not really in this blog as I start to write (Sunday 11 September 2005). I am watching my country take humans ever closer to war, chaos and misery. It is now less than a week to our elections and everyone is looking at the signposts around them and not realising the ground they stand on is moving.
In National Radio’s case the signposts read Health, Waitangi Treaty Issues, Education and The Economy. In the Sunday Star Times there are nine signposts of key issues. Not one of them includes our use of solar resources. Not one of the issues signposted is our oil-Gas addiction. This is the issue most driving this election and our nation’s journalists are oblivious to it. If there is mention of the issue it is often a reactionary one. The article tends to conclude with an “expert” saying that we can proceed “business as usual” as there is plenty of oil and Gas left and/or the Hydrogen or Nuclear Economies will protect us.
The average person feels the ground shaking under their feet and knows something is shifting. Every trip to the petrol pump their $20 injection gives them less kick. In the 1980s global oil prices were $US35 a barrel. By 2001 they were $US9 a barrel and now they are up to $US70 a barrel with New Zealand being asked to draw on our oil reserves to bring the price down.
Economists and politicians argue that, inflation adjusted etc, the price is still cheaper now in “real terms” than those peaks in the 80s. If they truly believe what they say they must live in the proverbial Lala Land.
The truth is our society has become increasingly oil and Gas dependent since then, which ever way you look at it. Check out:
Yes everything I think of is less efficient and this is despite the potential of the electronics age.
The disconnect between New Zealanders and their environment has grown over the period too, despite or maybe because of the growth of the Environmental Education industry. Economic health is increasingly gauged by consumption and “employment” measures and, as the disconnect widens, debt levels rise. Household debt levels have doubled in this last decade. (Student debt has ballooned from near zero to $NZ8 billion.) Home affordability has dropped on a historic scale.
This is the ‘real’ price of things. This is the ‘real” life experienced by a significant portion of the population. They live at the edge of their income and even small price increases represent massive inflation in their lives. Thus as oil-Gas prices have risen, small-scale fishers tie their boat up one day in two, drinking mates meet in a garage rather than the local pub, the market gardener decides not to put a crop in, the small scale tourism operator closes their home stay, the householder racks up their credit card another notch, the taxi driver decides to stay home more and, in general, all those people at the margin are experiencing a major erosion of their income and savings from inflation.
This reality is not reflected in national statistics. These do not measure the reality of inflation and what happens when $20 is effectively removed from a disposable income of $100 after basic food, housing and utility costs are met.
However in that reality is the stuff of revolutions.
So I am predicting that because the central issue of our dependence on oil and Gas has not been addressed, its impact will dominate this Saturday’s election result and in most unfortunate ways. We will generate a Government that is even less equipped than the present Labour led one to address the issues. Both Don Brash (National) and Winston Peters (New Zealand First) still persist with the claims that they killed inflation in the 1990s. Such naivety and ignorance or deceit and arrogance or whatever it is puts us all at great risk. As I have pointed out before, global oil, Gas and rolled steel prices were dropping dramatically through that period. They have risen several fold this century.
Peter Dunne (United Future) has similar views. Claims his party is a “family” party are questionable, given his historic support for industrial legislation that undermines the family and even at grave risk. The most consistent thing about Peter Dunne is his promotion of oil sector interests. In particular he has run very public campaigns to have billions of dollars spent building large motorways in the Wellington region.
The fact that journalists in media such as broadsheet, television and radio accept these “inflation killer” claims without question reveals the scale of the disconnect from reality in New Zealand. As I mentioned, our oil-Gas addiction does not even rate in the top ten of their key concerns. They fail to understand or wish to obscure the fact that our education, health and justice systems are underpinned by our choice of energy sources. If an economy is based on oil use and that resource dries up then there is no tax to provide an education or health system. All the election promises on these issues are meaningless in this situation. All the arguments about the best way to deliver health or education are pointless when there is no resource to provide them.
And already there are clear signs of the negative impacts our continued addiction to oil and Gas. Our trade balance continues to worsen as the cost of obtaining oil and Gas increases. Statistics New Zealand has just reported a $NZ3.09 billion deficit in the September quarter. Much of the increased deficit is due to the increased costs of our oil addiction, whether in the form of oil products or of the record imports of vehicles to consume the oil. And so the New Zealand mortgage payer subsidises the oil sector and private vehicle owners through the higher interests rates from trade imbalances and inefficient infrastructure.
As I write I remain mindful of the Bleeping movie I wrote of in a recent blog. In particular I still retain glimmers of insight into the mind-boggling potential inherent in the ideas of Buddhism, modern nuclear physics and neurochemistry in the movie. In particular I remain aware of the potential of my awareness to alter reality. I remain conscious of the intimate relationship between the momentary existence of the atoms and my perception of those atoms.
I also remain mindful of the trace nature of my existence and how my consciousness is the briefest manifestation of my being. I consciously access only the most miniscule amounts of my knowledge of this world.
I am struggling to get a handle on these potential powers. In brief I am concerned that my images of desolation generate the reality. This will read real strange, if not positively “new age” junk, to new readers to my blog. I am suggesting that in predicting an election result I create that result.
Mind you, such a concern is not so weird or “new age” when you consider the millions of dollars merchant bankers invest in PR to create self-fulfilling predictions. Often their polls are simply framing devices. These guys are primarily concerned with short-term return on investment. Hence they create political polls designed to drive polling results. In my case I am more concerned to somehow tap into a wisdom that enables me to create a future for our children’s children.
Anyway we have seen the publication and promotion of polls in this election that swing wildly between parties. I ignore them and look for the underlying drivers of behaviour. What I see is an oil-Gas addicted people who are worried where their next hit is coming from. Both New Zealand First and National know how the habit makes these people vulnerable. NZ First has promised to remove GST (a 12.5% “consumption” tax) off petrol. National has suddenly reversed last week’s policy and has just (13 September) promised to cut petrol taxes. It does not matter that its rationale that the cuts are offset by increased GST charges are spurious. Addiction does not promote rational thinking. Both parties should receive a boost in the polls as a result of targeting the addicts. (Footnote- Thursday- some polls suggest this happened)
When I say I ignore polls and prefer to look at the underlying drivers of behaviour I mean I look at the fundamentals underpinning our society and how the media communicate them. The almost universal objective of our media is to promote our dependence on oil and Gas and obscure healthy, community based options. That simply reflects the interests of the bankers who own them and drive civic agendas. In some malleable areas such as the Wairapapa, daily broadsheets such as the Dominion Post are being delivered free to homes for the election period to ensure their objectives are achieved.
Similarly, our TV networks continue with a barrage of pictures in which oil based societies are portrayed as the norm. This maybe in the form of direct advertising for cars or indirect advertising using dramas filled with car chases and motorways without traffic jams.
This election seems very reminiscent of the 1975 election. In 1974 we had the so-called “first oil shocks”. For a period staggered carless days was even mooted. The country got the jitters real bad. Vulnerable sectors of society, already badly affected by rocketing house prices in that period, were massively impacted by the inflation resulting from our oil addiction. I was a postie at the time and staff ceilings were imposed on the public service. These impact most on those at the bottom of the structure and our working conditions deteriorated. Credit sources dried up for many – that’s what happens at such times when people base their economy on concepts of cheap, everlasting oil or other such disconnected notions.
I was a passionate Labour Party supporter in 1975 but predicted a landslide of 23 seats to the National Party. I was the only one in a sweepstake that included a prominent political scientist to predict a National victory. My calculations were simple: I had noticed the power of broadsheets like The Truth and the Catholic Tablet to influence the behaviour of uncommitted voters and figured that just as they put Labour in 1972 they could put them out again by the same margin. I mentioned this theory to Peter Harris, the economist, and he said he used an additional indicator as well – the Rugby Union publication.
I was a postie at Aranui Post Office sited in the poorest area of Christchurch. Despite my insight into the political process, my co-workers startled me. Theoretically the Aranui area was heartland Labour as you can get. Before the elections, no one had suggested they were not supporting Labour. However on Monday morning after the election I found most of my workmates had decided to abstain from voting and withhold their vote for Labour or had voted National. This was the days of two party-First Past the Post politics.
National had promised tax relief in the form of returning the new national Superannuation Fund to taxpayers. Effectively it was a tax cut. In my arrogance I dismissed my fellow workers as fools for falling for such a bribe.
(As an aside it was me that soon looked a fool in that workplace as the new Muldoon-led National government lifted the price of postage from 4 cents to 20 cents, thereby reducing the floods of garbage mail that made our jobs intolerable; it removed the staff ceiling as some of our rounds had been growing by 100 houses a year; and it gave us four weeks leave because we were shift workers. The price of houses also dropped, though Muldoon kept his pre-election promise not to leave young families stranded with mortgages larger than the value of their houses. We were one of those vulnerable young families at that stage. And now Post-Reforms, I realise that the Rogergnomics (New Zealand’s version of Chicago School Economics) of the 1980s would have found ways to gift the Superannuation Fund to a couple of merchant bankers as they did other national assets. Hence my current belief that education, self-sustaining dwellings and primary health care are the best insurances.)
While I personally benefited in that period, the country did not. The Government embarked on the unsustainable Think Big projects “ to insulate New Zealand from future oil shocks” and aborted attempts to develop a sustainable economy based on solar, wind and other sustainable uses of energy. These Think Big projects consumed vast resources mainly for the short-term benefits of a few large multinational corporations. Think Big worked to suppress the groundswell of community based initiatives and inventions using local sustainable sources of energy.
The parallels today are striking. People have the jitters from fears of oil withdrawal. Many have become displaced because of the latest round of rising house prices, student debt and inflation. National and NZ First are promising “tax relief” to enable their oil habit. As oil and Gas extraction becomes more expensive and risky the bankers of the sector are looking to the more lucrative returns that can be made off the Bulk-electricity industry.
Labour has bedded in the oil-Gas dependence structures this term – including the retention of the Electricity Reforms, airline subsidies, Carbon Trading, the TransPower Cayman Island deals, the inefficient privatised rail system, a massive car-import/motorway investment strategy and other important elements. However it is showing signs of exploring options for more sustainable uses of energy – just as its 1975 predecessor did and just as President Carter in the US did in the late 1980s before they were trashed. By comparison, National, ACT, United Future and NZ First will more enable the next Think Big era and place fewer obstacles in the way of the transfer of resources such as the electricity grid to the banks as oil reserves run down.
Labour effectively lost the elections in 2002 when it dumped on the Greens in that election campaign. That election was dominated by US State Department determination that the New Zealand GE moratorium had to end. However by decimating Green support, as Helen Clark proudly proclaimed in Australia she had, the Labour Party destroyed the political capital required to adapt New Zealand for the Post Cheap Oil-Gas Age.
Indeed, unlike the Greens, they remained ignorant or unwilling to face the demise of the Cheap Oil-Gas Age up till very recently. So we had the remarkable scene in Parliament this year of the Labour Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen responding to a Peak Oil inquiry from Jeanette Fitzsimmons (the Green Party co-leader) with the counter inquiry: “ Peak Oil? What’s this Peak Oil? That’s a new one on me.”
Labour remained unable or unwilling to teach us how the atmosphere works and promoted education programmes that omit its existence. Such programmes would have undermined their Clean Green New Zealand marketing strategy. The “Fart Tax” and “Carbon Trading” fiascos were of Labour’s own making. Now National, ACT and NZ First capitalise on that public ignorance and woo voters with promises to get rid of the “useless, uncompetitive Carbon Tax”. They are supported by a raft of vested interests such as the Automobile Association, “business executives” and commercial greenhouse operators.
It is always hard to know whether Ministers surround themselves with officials who will protect them from what they do not want to know. All I know is that I have found it impossible to communicate the unsustainable nature of our current images of energy to them and to suggest more helpful ones. Maybe Labour Ministers simply do not have the time or space to reflect on the real issues or maybe they are “protected” from reflecting on them.
Maybe the future of our children depends on Labour Party ministers being given the ‘time out’ to reflect and the space to become more open to reality. Maybe this is the way that at least one of our major parties can become more open to the issues and common sense can prevail in politics. This is a sad thought. However the cruel fact is that if 6.5 billion humans adopted the New Zealand energy inefficient lifestyle then civilisation would collapse within a very short period. New Zealander’s use of valuable resources is unsustainable on a global scale. New Zealand has a massive environmental footprint.
There is much I do not understand and I can never know what good comes from bad. Perhaps it is for the best that the Labour Party are given time away from the frenetic pressures of the Treasury Benches to listen and reflect. Perhaps this will enable them to cease to use National Party and ACT as their principal benchmark and they can be revitalised with visions of sustainable living. Maybe that is the circuitous path New Zealand must take in our quest to find the political will that enables us to confront and break our addiction to mining the Earth (oil, Gas, coal, uranium and other precious resources) and that enables us to stand tall under the sun again.
It is easy to promote ominous visions of war. Our election occurs in an international context. Oil-Gas issues elsewhere this week are driving elections too.
The election in Japan produced a landslide of risk of war. Ostensibly the major election issue was about the privatisation of the Post Office, which is also the largest bank in the world. A hint of the real text is seen in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi election activities with
“His visits to shrines where militarists were honored and his backing for more assertive military policies have understandably alarmed public opinion in Asia.”
There are pressures, including US pressures, for Japan to re-arm on scale. The New York Times article I quoted does not point out that China has recently moved its warships into a disputed oil and Gas reserve in the ocean between the two countries and begun extracting its contents. That was in another article and in it I learned something that no one ever taught me at school. I was taught that the Pearl Harbour bombings were completely unprovoked. They “just came out of clear skies”. They were quite unprovoked. I was not taught that the United States had recently enforced an oil embargo on Japan.
Is this what I imagine for humanity – more war? No, it is not. I am not sure how we avoid it. I am not sure how we break our addiction to fossil fuels and oil and gas in particular. I am clear in my belief that New Zealand’s use of energy forms is unsustainable. However I know peaceful ways are possible using local resources and community good will. I have a strong sense there are sane options and small countries of four million people can show the world a sane way:
This week was also election time in Norway and I read this in the China Daily:
results give Norway opposition a win
was poised for a power shift after the left-leaning opposition won a
majority of seats in Parliament with pledges to spend more of the
nation's vast oil wealth on welfare, official election results showed
more than 96 percent of votes counted, a three-party coalition led by
the Labor party had grabbed 88 seats in the 169-seat assembly, enough to
oust the center-right government.
Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who campaigned on promises of tax cuts, said if the final tally confirmed the result, his government would resign after presenting its draft 2006 budget on Oct. 14.
What is interesting about this is that Norway has some of the largest oil reserves in the world and early this year was retailing petrol at the pump at $US6.66 a gallon. Almost this entire price is taxes designed to prevent Norway becoming oil addicted like us. Most Norwegians know there is life beyond oil and are freed by that knowledge. Indeed they are freer in a number of ways. A friend visiting Norway a couple of years ago was constantly asked if there is a statistical error. Norwegians saw New Zealand as a country similar in size and spirit. They had difficulty comprehending our crime rate and the fact four times as many people are in prison here.
I know there is a large reservoir of love and care in New Zealand. I witnessed how it kept the country from civil war as The Market Reforms of the 1980s on ravaged it. It created MMP out of a semi fascist state. It is this reservoir that will see us through the Post Cheap Oil-Gas Age with all its great risks of war and chaos. Perhaps people will find a way through the MMP system to express that wisdom and the election result will be different to 1975.
The challenges are greater. The great 2-300 year Maui Gas field has been used up in that short time. Half the global oil reserves have been consumed in that short period of my life. Speculators have destroyed much of our urban solar generation capacity. There are three extra billion extra souls on Earth.
At the same time the sun still shines with roughly the same intensity, a computer chip can hold a forest of knowledge and an iota of electricity can communicate in a second a message that takes a thousand horses weeks to deliver. There is great hope but it does not lie in the current National–NZ First–ACT or the Labour dominated options of this election in New Zealand. It lies in the great reservoir of love and care around the world and I ask only that it is manifest in tomorrow’s election result in NZ. And in asking that, I acknowledge I may not immediately understand how that prayer is answered. Hope is why I resort to prayers rather than predictions.
Note re. the Bonus Joules cartoon. This chapter of Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy explores the symbols Scientists (not to be confused with the scientists we all are) use to communicate the nature of energy. In this panel I explore the difficulties and confusion created when concepts of ozone layers and holes are introduced into greenhouse images of atmosphere. In short the use of the Ozone Layer and Hole symbols are at complete odds with the Greenhouse symbol. The confusion is needless and puts us all at risk in an age when it is vital we understand how human activities impact on climate processes.