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Blog by Dave McArthur Oct 30 2006

 At last the BIG Moment! I reach the godhead, the controller of the universe, the definer of the potential of our existence, the New Zealand Minister of Energy. And the truth of it all? The answer resides in a banana.

New readers to this blog should know that in 2001 I created a cartoon character to symbolise the concept of bonusjoules. The US election fiasco in 2000 had made it very clear that our civilisation was being set on a most unsustainable course and the bonusjoules-junkjoules concept emerged as one of my responses to the realisation that humanity is at high risk. 

Then, as now, ignorance reigned in the form of what I call Energy Gobbledygook. This is the Spin and bullshit put out by the self-styled “energy sector” as its bankers and PR merchants pervert our greatest science symbols and attempt to brainwash us into buying their products. In New Zealand our universities are now veritable mindless cesspits of this gook. The stuff spews out of every orifice of our Government, generating a lethal cocktail of confusion and non-science in the wider public.

So I sent Bonus Joules off on a journey in search of the true nature of energy. The cartoon strip formed a loose diary of my own search for the truth of our existence and as far as I know it was the only cartoon blog (an e-toonlog?) of its type in 2002. In that period I wrote to the then Minister of Energy, Hon Pete Hodgson, the Prime Minister and others attempting to alert them to the lack of science in their Government’s communication of climate and resource use issues and requesting a meeting to discuss the problem.

(You can check out a later sample 2003 correspondence.)

The Minister replied essentially saying he did not have time to meet. This seemed very odd because science suggests the Minister of Energy should have all the time in the universe(s). So in the cartoon strip I sent Bonus Joules off to our Parliament to check out the actual nature of this legendary being, the Minister of Energy.

It so happens that in 2001 (and again in 2003) New Zealand experienced what the Gobbledygookers call an “energy crisis”. Of course it was nothing of the sort and the universe was working pretty much as it has for billions of years. It was just a beat-up born of the ignorance of our politicians, policy makers and merchants/media of the most primitive physics. These folk either don’t understand or they don’t care to know the difference between energy and its forms. In this case they confused energy with our stupid use of Bulk-generated electricity. In brief, for years they encouraged New Zealanders to use Bulk-gen electricity as though there is an eternal supply of it and there is no tomorrow. The frenetic consumption that resulted made Gross National Product figures look great and generated great profits for a select few merchant bankers. However the nature of energy being what it is, time ran out for our National Grid operators when rainfall was lower than average and our Bulk-gen electricity system became at high risk of collapse.

In this sequence of the cartoons, Bonus Joules is in the basement of the New Zealand Parliament – a place I knew well from my decade as the electricity meter reader for the local utility owner. The simple act of sitting in the sun to warm up had sent politicians and the banking fraternity clustered around our Parliament into a panic because this reduced the growth figures of their sacred GNP. Their beloved MARKET, balanced on its precarious spiral of $trillion debt, had gone in paroxysms of shock. Bonus Joules is doing as they instructed and is trying to inflate the GNP figures and save The Economy by consuming as much Bulk-gen electricity as possible. This activity is the antithesis of Bonus Joules who represents the wise (efficient/sustainable) use of resources.

A note of reassurance for you: if this all sounds daft to you, then chances are you are blessed with sanity. Its not only daft- it’s the demented rationale and reality of New Zealand economics in this age. In the cartoon Bonus Joules takes this behaviour to its inevitable conclusion: demand for Bulk-gen electricity far exceeds supply and BANG! The breakers on the National Grid all trip out.

Is it serendipity or coincidence that this blog in which I meet the Minister of Energy coincides with this cartoon which I first published three or four year ago now? I don’t know. In 2005 I started publishing these blogs in association with the cartoon strip, starting at the beginning of the series. 35 panels/blogs later here we are with Bonus Joules in Parliament’s basement nearing the godhead and I am meeting the new Minister of Energy upstairs.

What tips the balance towards serendipity is the fact I nearly met with the Minister of Energy several months ago. I had more or less given up on trying to communicate to our Government on the issues. However late last year it had become obvious to all but the most obtuse observer that New Zealand’s National Energy and Conservation Strategy (NEECS) and our “climate change” strategy (Kyoto) were both failing their stated objectives. Emissions on Kyoto specific gases are up over 20% since 1990 with carbon dioxide emissions up a whopping 39%. The stats of international comparisons measuring the efficiency with which we use resources are negative and investment in the supply of Bulk-gen electricity far outweighs demand reduction investment. 

Finally this year both strategies are up for review. Both strategies so lack science and are in such conflict with each other that it was easy to predict years ago they would fail. Four years ago I sat down and spent a couple of months identifying where they screwed up and working out ways to fix the problem. Our Government officials and Environmental Educators weren’t interested.

Indeed, as I have detailed in earlier blogs, some went to rather extraordinary lengths to block discussion of my proposals. We are fortunate in that our local Member of Parliament and senior Cabinet Minister, Hon Annette King, is a most affable and approachable person. So with the reviews in mind, early this year I decided to give it one more try. I hauled the posters of my rationales out from under the bed, blew the years of dust off them and took them along to Annette.

She seemed impressed with them and said the new Minster of Energy and Minister Responsible for Climate Change must see them at once. This was on a Saturday. Could I meet with him in her parliamentary office the following Tuesday or Wednesday? I reckoned I could organise my school cleaning duties around it somehow. She warned me that David is “very bright” and I would have to be very organised.

This was a hilarious, if not scary thought. I am the most chaotic and incoherent presenter going and I could only hope his intelligence is matched by the wisdom and compassion to see past my bumbling shambles.

Sunday I prepared an agenda. Monday morning I pulled together samples of proposals for promoting science in our schools and communities. I also threw in some illustrations of the nonsense being propagated by our Government, our Royal Society and our universities. 

Monday afternoon I have my industrial vacuum cleaner on my back attempting to dislodge the layers of crushed crumbs, yoghurt splots, paint drips, pencil shavings and playground crud that congeals on the carpets of the classrooms on an average day.  I have my earphones on and over the shrill protest of the vacuum motor I become aware of a newsflash being broadcast over our National Radio: David Parker has just resigned from his post as Attorney General!

“Not a good omen for our meeting”, I think, “… even if he has the transcendent powers of the Minister of Energy, he may be a little unfocussed over the next few days.” By Tuesday I know our meeting is not meant to happen. The news comes over my headphones that he has resigned as Minister of Energy and Minister responsible for Climate Change as well.

Now both these Ministerial titles are so grandiose and impossible that they always reduce me to fits of laughter. So now with the resignation of the Minister it is a bit like God saying to all believers, “Umm, I’ve got some news for you, folks. I’ve got a few problems and so I am resigning from this universe.”

For some reason I also find the timing of the resignations hilarious. This is the only time in my life I have organised such a meeting. I am aware that life moves in such mysterious and funny ways and years ago I learned that there is often a good reason for such delays and obstacles. This does seem a bit ridiculous and over the top. I wonder what I am being released to do this time?

Of course I felt deeply for the man. He is accused of one of those small technical breaches of Government regulations that almost every one of us is guilty of at some time in our lives. The media went into its usual feeding frenzy, oblivious to the fact that no one in their right mind would stand for Parliament if their hypocritical standards prevailed and so I spent the next few days firing off letters reminding them how their frenetic commentary threatens the existence of democracy and justice.

I have been through the wringer of slander myself and something in me sensed the man has not committed a major crime. In the event my intuitions are vindicated and after some months David Parker was cleared and able to resume these two portfolios. And, yes, my sense that the several-month delay was for a good reason was vindicated too.

In that period I had formulated a possible new principle of energy. I still have not worked out a name for it. I have toyed with the Survival Principle, the Transformation Principle, the Reflective Principle, the Decision Principle etc but none of them catch the essence of the proposed principle:

“When a symbol use works to deny change it will materially alter the potential of the universe (energy) in a way that results in a reduction in the capacity of the symbol user to mirror reality. When a symbol use works for the acceptance of change it will increase the capacity of the symbol user to mirror reality.”

If our meeting had been earlier this year I could have shown the Minister of Energy a range of popular symbols uses that generate nonsense. If the Minister of Energy enjoys the requisites of science then he would have easily recognised the nonsense. However his official speeches and media releases tend to lack science and I figure there is a good chance he would have dismissed me as a pedant and a waste of his important time. He would have argued that the nonsense uses of the key symbols are “just convenient terms”, “acceptable compromises” and “metaphors that everyone understands.”

Now six months later I can now present a list of nonsense symbol uses that reveal a common pattern of behaviour. It is probable they have the same primal driver: their choice of use is probably driven by a denial of change. At the same time I am aware that many folk have difficulty entertaining this possibility. Many are unable to even see the nonsense, let alone detect a pattern of behaviour.

I also understand that comprehension of the denial process is more a matter of the spirit than a matter of intellect. Indeed the greater the intellect the greater the capacity to construct complex rationales for the denial. 

It requires humility, honesty and openness of spirit to truly accept change, to embrace our mortality as human beings and to enjoy the bounteous, ever transforming nature of energy. The Hon Annette King told me that David Parker is passionate about climate issues. Here’s hoping the Minister of Energy enjoys the generosity of spirit required to enable science to happen so we are enabled to confront the problems we cause for ourselves with our use of the atmosphere.

Anyway I go to this meeting with a confidence in my work that I did not enjoy earlier this year.  If correct, the unnamed principle of energy provides a useful tool for evaluating whether a symbol use will tend to work to destroy or enhance humanity. Applied with honesty it gives us greater freedom to identify our denial of change and so embrace the Conservation Principle. 

I also find the principle also supports the bonusjoules-junkjoules concept in a most elegant way. In my mind they combine to evoke an uplifting vision of energy and a fineness in the human spirit. They invoke a sense of a marvellous process in which we humans are gifted to tune our existences so we better reflect and dance with the balances in the great flux of energy that is our solar system and beyond. In so doing we are more able to find wonder and joy in the trace nature of our existences.

September 2006 and the Government reviews of NEECS and our Kyoto strategies are now officially underway now. Those responsible for them have invited comment from the general public. This meeting came about because last month I decide to take them on their word. I rang and reminded Annette King’s office of our previous plans. I then forgot about it and so was surprised one morning in September when the phone rings and it is David Parker’s office arranging our meeting.

The streets of the central business district near Parliament are near deserted at 6.20 pm on the 10th of October as I arrive for the meeting. So I am not sure if it is a sign of some sort when the sole person I meet coming out of Parliament is David Caygill. 

Dave was NZ’s Minister of Finance when control and ownership of our telecommunications system was transferred to Americtech and Bell Atlantic in 1990. As head of the Electricity Commission in 2000, he is one of the prime architects of our current electricity system. We have known each other for forty years now and I spent many hours as a Labour Party member supporting his electorate office in the 1970s-1980s in Christchurch. While I have considerable respect and fondness for Dave we do differ on some things. I have always argued the telecommunications and electricity reforms were doomed to fail us. I am increasingly confident that history will prove this has been true. The thought occurs: maybe this chance encounter is a sign that our Parliament is still locked in a time warp of the desolate period in NZ history that occurred at the end of last century?

There is no time for anything but a quick catch up on family news and I promise to send the Christmas card and news update still sitting in my outbox pile 10 months on. (Yes I do not exaggerate – I am a disorganised person.)

The security guards inform me Minister is going to be ten minutes late for our meeting scheduled for 6.30 – 7.00 pm. He is in a meeting with a fellow Cabinet Minister and as I sit waiting I reflect on the hostile environment Parliament provides for the requisites for science. The minutes tick by and I reflect how there can never be the time to reflect in a place like this. Always there are deadlines, threats, ambushes, clashing egos, distrust, secrecy, bureaucratic pressures and insane tensions – hardly a fertile environment for science to occur.

7pm comes and goes and I know the bells will be ringing for the next sitting of Parliament within the half hour. I am wondering what sense I can make in a ten minute meeting… a two-minute meeting…  a thirty second meeting when suddenly I am ushered into a room with the Minister and his official. He is looking pretty tired. “So you are bringing some energy for us”, he quips and we all laugh. I laugh because I know I am a walking charisma vacuum with the capacity to send the most sentient being comatose, no matter how pumped up they were before I began speaking.

Outside the downtown buildings are lighting up in the deepening dusk and I wave towards them. “Ah yes,” I say waving toward the vertical acres of office lighting, “I used to walk through all those buildings reading their electricity meters and that is where I learned all about energy.” It’s a stupid thing to say in a way. I am not going to be able to tell him that it was meeting thousands of people in the course of that work that afforded me the insights into how our schools and businesses communicate Energy Gobbledygook and deny us the wonders of the atmosphere that sustains us.

Nor am I going to be able to tell him of my experiences of the Arthur Anderson clones that inhabit some of these buildings and the immorality of these powerful people who manipulate our images of energy, regardless of our children’s welfare. They know they have only to threaten to cut the supply to those glowing towers of lights, those symbols of civilisation, for the Minister to receive a very graphic reminder of how dependent we are on Bulk-generated electricity and how his political future gets switched off with them.

Hmm, but them maybe it was not too stupid. After all David’s biography does say:

“David became active in Labour in the 1990s, incensed by the last National Government forcing local authorities to sell community-owned electricity assets.”

I know in intimate detail how the intelligence of the grid serving all those lights was destroyed when the Wellington City Council transferred ownership of its utility company, Capital Power, to the North American company, TransAlta in the 1990s. Maybe even the Minister of Energy would weep to hear the details. But now is not the time to enlighten him of the details of how our distributed generation potential was destroyed, the demand control systems were trashed, equipment left to rot or ripped off the switchboards and efficiency advisors were sacked.

Instead I start by showing him posters from the world-leading “energy and climate” Energy Action education programme that Capital Power and other community-owned grid companies were putting into our schools in the 1990s before they were forcibly broken up by Parliament and sold off. I point out that funding ceased in 2000 for the programme. I don’t spell out that was the year his party, Labour, assumed the Treasury Benches. Is the Minister yawning because he is tired or is my delivery sending him comatose or is this is a rather unwelcome fact of history? Maybe it is all three factors?

David suddenly jerks as he reads the source of the programme on a poster and says how he has recently visited Negawatt Resources Ltd. “Ah, so you have met Grant Dunford…he is the nearest to a genius that I have known.” I say. David looks a bit incredulous and so I explain how Grant saw before anyone else how New Zealand lacked quality ‘energy efficient” products and started marketing them. He realised that people have to understand how the products work and how they protect the environment. He had the genius to pull it all together in this community education resource, complete with facilitating teachers and engineers. 

The clock is ticking towards the time of the ringing of the Parliamentary bells and we are all aware of it. No doubt David’s mind is travelling down the lift and through the walkway under the street and may already be in the Chamber, preparing for some debate or barracking. I hurry through a brief presentation of the ‘energy and climate’ programmes that dominate our education now and show how they are all profoundly flawed and work to make nonsense of the role of the atmosphere in our lives. You can link to my presentation to the Minister.

I have a strong sense no one has ever given him an overview like this before of the scale of the dumbing-down of our schools. I show him how Enviroschools completely omits any reference to the atmosphere in its basic themes and mention, “ …and, of course, you know the Government has just committed $4.5 million in the latest budget to this resource that teaches against the atmosphere….”  

This is news to David. He is not even aware of the allocation. This is quite understandable as these few $millions form only a tiny portion of the Budget. I don’t have time to explain that though the amount is relatively small, it is a massive commitment in terms of the national education system. It will have huge leverage on climate awareness in our schools and communities – for the worse.

The bells have not rung yet. I rifle through the illustrations to show him photos of current insulation practice on our building sites. When he sees the insulation sagging, scrunched up and with large gaps left he exclaims, “I can install insulation much better than that!” I explain this shoddy work is a product of our education system, which produces builders who do not comprehend basic thermodynamics or understand how air works.

Eyes are on the clock. It is nearly 7.20. I don’t have time to think to pull out my posters showing how our Kyoto education strategy screws up our builders. Perhaps I can make the link to the power of symbols. I ask the Minister if he has read the reports of the research of the Frameworks Institute?

This suggests, for instance, that use of the greenhouse symbol  in communicating climate issues does not work for most people. I think I got to add that the Frameworks Institute instead recommends the use of the blanket symbol to symbol to describe atmosphere processes and I do not believe that will work either as it too will screw up our builders etc. 

Maybe I am communicating something because David says that he really wants to get into education about climate issues. I have no time to warn him how the traditional sources of advice, the Royal Society, our universities, our Government Agencies et al will fail him – just as they have done so for the last two decades.

The bells are now ringing and I have not shown him my rationales or the bonusjoules concept or the unnamed principle. ”Ah well,” I say trying to wrap up, “I hope that sort of explains the shambles around climate issues in New Zealand.”  David looks a bit affronted and goes to his desk. He pulls a couple of media releases out of the top drawer and gives them to me.

His official who disappeared out of the room when the bells rang came back clutching a couple of tiny muesli bars. I realise the Minister of Energy has given up his evening mealtime to meet me. 

I feel humbled and wonder how he can keep this way of life up. The muesli bar looks a bit pathetic and will probably give a sugar rush that will lead to scrambling thinking. Already there is too much of that in our Parliament. I remember I have just bought a couple of bananas and offer the Minister one. He accepts one with gratitude and races out the door. I have this image of his body running through the Bowen Street tunnel to Parliament’s chamber to catch up and be reunited with his mind there.

David had accepted his official’s offer to stay on to see out my presentation. The official is very attentive but I can see he is under pressure to be somewhere else too. I quickly show him the other key points and say I would like a review of our nation’s use of the key symbols of energy, power and climate so we can stop the dumbing-down of our kids. 

We both laugh as he points out the field day our media would have accusing the Government of being PC and social engineering. I have this image of our editors and talkback hosts gleefully and righteously scoffing at such a review. This is despite the fact that they lubricate their lives with the $millions spent by corporations in advertisements in their media as sector Spin merchants re-engineer our most vital symbols and render them lethal. “Yep, you are right.” I say.  I have to agree such a review would be fruitless in the arid culture of New Zealand’s media. Our Spin merchants are the maestros of hypocrisy and cynicism.

The official tells me the Minister is passionate about climate issues, as I will see from the media releases he has given me. Then with a few kind words of appreciation he hurries out the room to catch up with his schedule too. I know the media releases. I had read them when they were originally posted.

As I pack them away I realise that I have failed in this communication. The Minister obviously thought I was describing his climate policy as a shambles and was naturally affronted. In fact the shambles around climate issues I referred to is the confusion and lack of science in the communication of climate issues. 

Perhaps the Minister of Energy had not perceived the difference? Perhaps he failed to see the magnitude of the flaws in the education materials I showed him? I don’t know.

Waiting at the bus stop and on the bus I have the opportunity to reflect before resuming my school cleaning duties. I have no idea if the Minister understood the full implications of the ideas for our children. I do know I have one answer. I originally sent Bonus Joules to investigate the question: Is the Minister of Energy some sort of transcendent being that reflects the vast majesty of this ever transforming universe as the title suggests? Is the Minister of Energy the revealer of all the potential of existence?

Or is the Minister of Energy just more Energy Gobbledygook, the figment of the imagination of greed-driven people like the late Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling of Enron and the merchant bankers of the Cayman Islands?

What is clear is that our Minister of Energy is very human and subject to great pressures and tensions. Buildings full of Energy Gobbledygookers – Victoria University, Treasury, The Reserve Bank, more Victoria University, Multinational Corporations and media companies, surround his office. They are clustered around him, whichever way he turns. Odd bod citizens like me come and go from his office. These towers of Gobbledygookers are always there. Even at night. Then their windows and signs blaze with light to remind him of their power.

And, yes, a human who gets tired and frayed like the rest of us fills the role of the Minister of Energy. He is just another human form like you and me. He requires constant sustenance just as we do to maintain our Thermal Beings - oxygen from the air and fuel from the earth. I know this because I saw how pleased and grateful he was to have a banana to eat.

I wonder if he will ever get the time to reflect on what a nonsense symbol the Minister of Energy is? Can there be a greater denial of our mortality and change than this title? Can we dumb down our kids much worse than teaching them that energy is as defined by a couple of merchant bankers? That is the practical effects of this Ministerial symbol.

I wonder if he will get to read my suggestions that it might be more helpful to frame our future in sustainable symbols so we have a chance of avoiding another world war and can transition to a new age beyond the Cheap Oil-Gas Age. It makes more sense to have a Minister of Solar Technology to we can frame our full solar potential into actuality. It makes more sense to have a Minister of Electricity Uses so we can frame all uses of electricity in our future, including the electrical potential of the roofs and windows of our houses, the winds in our backyards and the leaves on our plants.

I hop off the bus in the bush-clad valley where I live in overlooking the Cook Strait. As always the ocean-charged air sparkles like champagne after the leaden fumes of the city. Above the splattering of stars sparkle in the vast reaches of space and I am reminded of the trace nature of our existence. It is easy to imagine each star as a gas molecule in our atmosphere. Only one in a thousand of those molecules sustains the thermal balance that enables life on Earth. 

It is good we have a Minister responsible for Climate Change Issues. But climate change is not the issue. Climate change is the natural order as surely as our solar systems are born, grow and die. The issue is our impact on the trace balances that sustain us. Perhaps it makes more sense to have a Minister responsible for Climate Balance Issues or the Conservation of Climate Balances. 

Soon I am in another world. The high-pitched whine of the industrial vacuum cleaner on my back dominates. I am surrounded by the fug of air warmed just after it has been through a filter bag of crud. For some reason I am reminded of our Parliament. The Minister had told me he too had been a cleaner. I hope he can reflect the stars and transcend the fractious atmosphere of the industrial machine, which is our Parliament. I hope he communicate sense and inspire his peers to rid our country of the pollution of Gobbledygook. I can see he will need help – all the help that the scientist in you and I can offer him.

Footnote. I thought I’d go for a browse on the net after finishing this blog and immediately hit on this interview on Arts and Letters Daily;jsessionid=ESWTMEGGZCOPPQFIQMFCFF4AVCBQYIV0?xml=/arts/2006/10/24/bohumph24.xml&site=6&page=0

We will soon be lost for words

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 24/10/2006

In the final exclusive extract from his new book on language, John Humphrys laments the death of formality and the dumbing down of classic texts

John ends with this profoundly relevant sentence:

“The simple fact is we cannot afford to be careless with our language, because if we are careless with our language then we are careless with our world and sooner or later we will be lost for words to describe what we have allowed to happen to it.”

·  Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now by John Humphrys (Hodder & Stoughton) 

And in the news  are a couple of the architects of our current “energy culture”: 

“Former Enron chief has been sentenced to 24 years in prison for his part in the financial scandal that brought down the US multinational company.”

Yes Jeff Skilling may soon be behind bars and so would Ken Lay be for thirty years except he is now dead. However I see their co-masters of Energy Gobbledygook generation, Arthur Andersen and Co are resurrected now as BearingPoint, Inc. and are busy teaching the Iraqis about energy. 

Hmmm. Do we really want our children’s future being framed by these guys?

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