Archive for January, 2015

Greenpeace: Crusade or O.E.?

A bit before the last General Election I had a Greenpeace fundraiser knock on my door. Pleasant enough young lady who had flown in from Canada to warn me about the devious way my government had conspired to expose me to the risks of deep-sea oil drilling off the south island coast. A nice but not a memorable graphic presentation on a smart new IPad apparently explained why I should be demanding the Government choose the alternative of wind power development rather than drilling for oil which would quite possibly destroy life as we know it.

Perhaps, being from Canada, she was not up with the fact that New Zealand, like many other countries, has been investing in wind-power generation for a few years now. Wind power supplements hydro-sourced energy but is not seen in the forseeable future as being viably able to replace the need for oil as an energy source. Even if petrol vehicles were all banned and electric cars, trucks, ships and buses made mandatory, we are acutely aware that such battery powered technology also comes with its own environmental price tag due to the need for mining of rare earth elements.

I also concluded that the Greenpeace lady thought that the proposed oil exploration off the south island coast was intended only for NZ’s own energy needs since she proposed to me that wind farms built by our Government would replace the need for off shore oil drilling. Not so. Even now, crude oil is NZ’s fourth largest export commodity. If we found more oil, this oil would be for exporting. But aside from that, looking at the alternatives as a global rather than local issue, by promoting wind turbines as  an alternative to oil energy, this GreenPeace representative is effectively promoting exploration for rare earth elements, such as Neodymium, as a preference to exploring for oil.

Neodymium is the rare earth element that is essential in the manufacture of the electro-magnets for the wind turbines. Incidentally, her new iPad also requires the mining of rare earth elements for its manufacture.

The lake of toxic waste at Baotou, China, which has been dumped by the rare earth processing plants in the background

The lake of toxic waste at Baotou, China, which has been dumped by the rare earth element processing plants in the background

There are serious and considerable environmental concerns connected with sourcing rare earth elements. Extracting rare earth elements begins with mining, followed by the refining process and then disposal.

All of the stages of mining, refining and disposal come with unique issues. Most rare earth elements are mined through open pit mining, which involves heavy equipment and machinery. This disruption on the surface of the earth disrupts ecosystems.

Furthermore, mines are the point source of release for very serious contaminants. Rare earth elements contain radionuclides (radioactive isotypes), Once radionuclides are in an ecosystem, they accumulate in plants, where the higher concentrations are ingested and ascend the levels of the food chain (Paul & Campbell, 2011). Radioactive contamination has become such a problem that monazite mining has now been banned by China.

The other major contaminant is dust and metal. When mining operations break up materials, the dust can release a variety of heavy metals commonly associated with health problems. As dust, these minerals (such as the asbestos-like mineral riebeckite) can be absorbed into lung tissue, causing problems like pneumoconiosis and silicosis, commonly known as “Black Lung” (Paul & Campbell, 2011). Another example of harmful dust generated is flue dust, a byproduct of mining fluorine. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, every ton of rare earth elements produced generates 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kilograms of flue dust, waste materials which contain the heavy metals discussed above (Schuler et al, 2011).

The goal of mining is to end up with a mostly pure and usable element that can be utilised in whatever way necessary. However, the ores that are extracted from the earth do not come out pure, instead they need to undergo a refining process. This refining process introduces another set of environmental concerns, mostly revolving around the release of metal byproducts into the environment. It is very easy for metals to enter the air, ground or waters in an environment, and once there it is nearly impossible to remove them.

The metals in an environment can also prove devastating to organisms. The byproduct of mining rare earth elements is usually waste that is full of further threats to the environment. Generally, waste is categorised into two different types: tailings and waste rock stockpiles. It is the tailings that are of particular concern as they are full of small, fine particles that can be absorbed into the water and ground surrounding a particular mine. Regardless of whether a contaminant is deemed tailings or waste rock stockpiles,the contamination of the water is the main concern. Water can be contaminated in three ways: sedimentation, acid drainage and metals deposition, and once contaminated is difficult to restore to its original quality.

While most of the Neodymium is currently mined in China, it is readily available elsewhere on the planet and very possibly available in economic quantities in New Zealand. Areas in New Zealand that have been identified as possibly containing mineable quantities of rare earth elements are in Northwest Nelson, Westland, Fiordland, and Rakiura/Stewart Island. Fortunately many of these places are off-limits to such mining under schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act 1991 (when, incidentally, the National Government held 70% of the seats in Parliament) or because they are in World Heritage areas.

However Greenpeace, in spite of these environmental issues, are asking for my financial support to pressurise the Government to explore this wind-turbine industry as their alternative to oil exploration.

The Greenpeace young lady then presented me with a very legal-looking direct debit form that apparently gave GreenPeace the right to dip into my bank account every month and extract the agreed amount to help them put this pressure on the government to cease and desist from oil as an energy source and invest instead in the business of wind turbines.

When I raised my concerns over the problems in extracting Neodymium I was surprised to be told by the young Canadian lady that she had absolutely no knowledge that there even was such a problem. I don’t think she even knew what Neodymium was. Given that she also did not even seem to realise that wind-farms were already existing and expanding rapidly in NZ, it was a little alarming that a front-of-house representative of Greenpeace, sent all the way from Canada to inform me about the benefits of wind turbine energy, knew so little about them. There ended that discussion. So, short story even shorter, she didn’t get my signature on the direct debit form.

That however did not discourage Greenpeace from a follow up attempt at getting access into my bank account to help halt this oil exploration, this time from an English-accented young lady.  I tried the amicable fob-off: “haven’t you got big enough environmental issues closer to England?” (I don’t look for confrontation, but there seems to have been a lot of oil drilling underway in the seas around Europe), but she insisted she was actually calling from Auckland, as if that made any difference, as if flying halfway around the world to make a phone call was something with which Greenpeace were ecologically comfortable. She really did want me to contribute to the Greenpeace funding campaign.

I explained that I know full-well that oil drilling companies are primarily interested in profits and I have no doubt they are negotiating with a Government that is equally keen on making our country a profitable economic entity, and yes I am aware what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and have some idea of the risks of a worst case scenario in NZ. I assured her that if there was a viable alternative I would endorse it but so, I believed, would the corporates and Governments which are also very averse to risk taking. The corporates for the impact on their profits, the governments for the impact on their next election.

But the massive and growing demand for energy sources including oil, wind, hydro, gas, coal and nuclear means that we still need to keep sourcing new deposits of oil in addition to developing alternatives if the rapidly growing world population is to be fed, provided with homes and hospitals, schools and libraries, offices and factories and with a transport infrastructure to connect everything.

And frighteningly the earth’s population grows exponentially. While it took over 150,000 years for the earth’s human population to reach its first billion, it took only another 150 years to reach its second billion and now in less than a further 100 years it is moving quickly towards eight billion. How quickly we pass ten billion depends on what happens in this current generation. I am not surprised if the earth is complaining loudly.

Wordl-Population

So I pointed out that increased drilling for oil with the consequential increase in CO2 levels in our atmosphere is actually a symptom of our problem, not the problem itself.

The core problem is that our population is rapidly expanding out of control. If GreenPeace were somehow successful in significantly reducing oil drilling then that would be a solution of sorts, but only because it would lead to global economic collapse, massive unemployment, starvation, disease and would put the human species on the path back to the stone age and possibly beyond.

I wondered aloud whether the Greenpeace organisation might wish to focus its resources on humanely resolving the crisis of over-population as a means of reducing the human impact on the environment rather than asking me for money to travel around the world fundraising and sailing protest banners to oil rigs. For if we do not resolve the population explosion problem then, sooner or later, mother nature will develop a really unbeatable virus and do the job for us.

A pause and then an exasperated young English lady told me that she was just wasting her time with me and so she hung up.

I guess you can’t travel to New Zealand and Australia on Greenpeace donations if you are only coming to tell us about birth control. The dire threat of off shore drilling is a much easier sell.

 

 

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Red Cross: white knight?

or just another day at the office…..

(cue sfx: a knock at the door)

“Good afternoon sir, I am from Red Cross (flash ID/ flash smile) and may I say what a beautiful Audi car that you have in your driveway. Now I am not here to ask you for your beautiful Audi,” assured the zealous young man, a silent companion watched on obviously enthralled with his technique, ” no , no, I am just asking for a small donation to the Red Cross (strange, I heard exactly the same sales pitch when I opened the door to another fundraiser not long before that for an entirely different cause), because we have exhausted all our funds helping the people of Canterbury recover from the terrible earthquake disaster (pause, head bowed slightly, awaiting me to share the ‘amen’ moment)”. Then out came the very convenient direct debit form which, once signed, will mean I don’t have to think about it again because they will just dip into my account each month and withdraw the agreed amount of money without having to keep knocking on my door for further donations (unless of course they want me to increase my pledge). Its the gift that keeps on giving.

My first reaction is surprise. Why would a reputable institution like Red Cross employ such snake-oil sales tactics to raise funds? I may be wrong but these two did not have the appearance of the expected volunteer fundraisers, more like commission salesmen. Don’t I recall they normally put people on the streets when disaster strikes and we all come together as one community and raise huge sums for the emergency relief to provide food, water, clothing, shelter and medical support to help victims survive a crisis?

Red Cross certainly were impressive putting armies of collectors on the streets all around NZ within 24 hours of the big 2011 quake in Christchurch. But now that I think about it, and I hadn’t until now, what else can I recall of Red Cross throughout the first few crisis weeks of that earthquake?

bp1christchurch-earthquakeimagesRescue+workers+clear+out+remains+from+the+CTV+building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I most vividly recall watching videos of ordinary people doing the extraordinary, in frantic search for and assistance of  survivors; I remember all the Rangiora community cooking and flying in thousands of kilograms of hot meals by helicopter; our emergency services: the St John Ambulance crews, the police, firemen and defence forces seemed to be everywhere controlling traffic chaos, organising search and rescue efforts and transporting victims to either hospitals or the temporary morgue. I remember images of the urban search and rescue crews from a number of countries burrowing through demolished buildings. An Australian Army field hospital was set up in Aranui staffed with Australian medical teams. But my only recollection of the Red Cross, apart from the collection buckets, was vaguely recalling something about handing out thousands of torches that they presumably had stock-piled, on the night of the quake. But why did I have no vivid image in my mind of the Red Cross emblem in the trenches?

I told the fundraiser to come back later while I thought about it and meantime I consulted Mr Google. I found out from Red Cross online publications that they collected $128 million dollars in donations for Christchurch. I also found that most of this money was issued in grants to fund things like furniture storage costs, packing and shifting costs, providing independent advice including small business advice. Of course WINZ and Housing NZ were also issuing emergency grants for similar things as were the Salvation Army and other Church and community led projects of support. I admit I was surprised. In my mind Red Cross was a front line, in the trenches organisation when it came to dealing with disasters. I did not expect them to primarily be fundraisers and distributors of financial grants.  I wonder how much support the bucket collection would have gained if we had all known then that the intent of the money was for Red Cross to make social welfare grants at its discretion. Not that we would deny social welfare support, but simply that there are already enough experienced organisations in that field and we have no understanding of how Red Cross would add constructively to the existing social welfare infrastructure.

My impression is that in the field of humanitarian care, the Salvation Army is probably better than anyone so I checked Mr Google on their contribution during the earthquake. I first learned that they received $18 million in donations, noting that was only a fraction of the $128 million given to the Red Cross. But that in the immediate aftermath of the 22 February 2011 quake, Salvation Army Emergency Services served up to 4700 meals a day to displaced residents and emergency service workers, providing more than 75,000 meals from the truckloads of food and water donated by NZ companies. Around 1200 Salvation Army officers and staff, from as far away as Australia, converged on the city to join psychosocial teams that visited in excess of 100,000 affected households in Christchurch and surrounding areas

Since the September 2010 quake, The Salvation Army has spent around $8 million dollars in welfare support, including food, clothing, furniture, grocery, petrol and hardware vouchers, as well as the provision of $500 Care Cards for the financially strapped. Respite holidays have been provided for traumatised families and individuals needing to get out of the region for a break.

When domestic water and sewage services were in disarray, The Salvation Army provided $1 million to fund 20,900 chemical toilets. It also contributed three mobile, custom-designed shower units comprising 21 shower and changing cubicles, costing around $130,000 to build, ship and operate.

In addition, many salvation army centres around the country saw steep increases in demand for their help as thousands of individuals and families left Christchurch to seek refuge in other parts of the country. The Salvation Army operated Community Care Vans, supported by Westpac Bank. who also established a website to provide up-to-date information on the location of the vans.

I had a quick look at a major disaster in Australia, the 2009 Black Saturday Bush Fires. The Australian Red Cross was commissioned by the State Government to implement and manage the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund, based on its expertise and the ability to adapt its existing software. Once the Appeal Fund had received initial funds, the State Government established the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority with the role of planning and coordinating the relief and recovery activities, and authorising the distribution of the funds from the Appeal Fund.The Red Cross raised over $300 Million in donations. By comparison the Salvation Army raised $17.5 million for their work.

Red Cross staff processing grants in Christchurch March 2011

Red Cross staff processing grants in Christchurch March 2011

This review of the Red Cross’ role in one of our worst natural disasters was an exercise well worth undertaking. I think I understand it better now. The modern Red Cross is quite a different organisation to the one I thought I knew. No doubt the Red Cross today are professional, very organised and very impressive fundraisers in major disasters. If supported in that role by government then it is probably to reduce pressure on government tax-funded budgets to finance the recovery programme. All very understandable from government’s point of view, I guess. Otherwise it would make balancing the books much harder in government and that often means a change of government. But it all just has the feel of a well-organised, political fundraising operation, using a specialised, professional fundraiser at a time when the donors are feeling at one of the most compassionate points of their life. To the donors it is a very human moment, but to the Red Cross, it seems that this is their business. The raising, managing (does that include investing?) and dispensing of hundreds of millions of dollars. It may be a necessary function for medium and long-term recovery, but that is just not the role I expected the Red Cross to be doing.

When the Red Cross fundraiser returned for his pledge he was sent away empty-handed. I have no idea what they achieved with $128 million of New Zealanders’ donations to the Christchurch Earthquake, their reports are just too much like a consolidated corporate annual report to get a real feel of what impact they had at a humanitarian level. I assume it was all legitimate and accounted for to whatever Government body they were accountable. The Salvation Army didn’t come knocking, but they don’t have to. I have a pretty good idea what they do, and it just feels like they are in the same humanitarian mindset that I am in at such times. I now know where my donations will now go and why. It’s good to sort that out in my mind before the buckets or direct debit forms are next thrust under my nose.

footnote: The President and CEO of Red Cross America is on a salary of $US651,957 plus expenses. Mmmmm, if it looks like a business, markets like a business has a highly paid CEO like a business, then……

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