Archive for category The Greens

The seat of civilisation

So what is it that absolutely defines civilisation? That tipping point when our species moves from uncouth barbarian to civilised being? Let me jump, with no further ado, to the answer: it is plumbing.

I remember making that decision back in 1978 while watching what was the original reality TV show when twelve couples and three children were placed in a re-created iron age village. These original Greenies were frothing with romanticised anticipation of the opportunity to demonstrate that man and the planet were so much healthier back in the pre-industrial ages and life itself so much more satisfying.

It was hilarious. One of the first tasks, being practical people, was to arrange for their communal latrine. There is nothing more ‘back to nature‘ than taking logadvantage of an already fallen log as the communal lavvy seat and digging a trench beside it for the containment of the communal waste. Job done, now for a well deserved communal dinner. They spotted a hen and thought that will do nicely. I would have kept it for the eggs but what do I know about sustainability, I bow to the wisdom of the village earth mother who they elected (I forgot, they did that just before designing the ablutions block). Eventually, after an extraordinarily clumsy hen-butchering effort during which, I suspect, the hen decided to pretend to be dead just to get it all over with, they had their chicken dinner. And so to bed for the first self-satisfied night (not intended as a euphemism, but may well be)  in their communal bed-hut.

And, in the middle of the night, the chook got her revenge. Oh dear, you have to be so careful with chook; it can be dodgy if not butchered and cooked correctly and this chook was a long, long way from being undodgy. It was probably still technically alive when they ate it. So as their second mistake dawned on them (their first mistake was the design of the latrine, but more of that later) it became clear why such romanticists were, forever after, referred to as the greens; nothing to do with the colour of grass, everything to do with the colour of the faces of this lot as they stumbled barefooted in their hemp undies to where the fallen tree lay and then fought like primal beasts for the spot with the least bark upon which to place their soft white bums while they communally sprayed arse-gravy into a far-too-shallow trench.

And so morning dawned on these twenty seven very unwell greenies. Their first day in the iron age now seemed as romantic as a newly married couple waking with a stinking hangover and a squashed turd in the bed. And they just realised they would no longer have eggs for breakfast. It all went downhill from there, apart from the trench filled with arse gravy which just sat there attracting flies and awaiting their return.

And so, in spite of the subsequent impact of the internet into our lives, my conviction remains unwaveringly that the tipping point between civilisation and barbarism is with our ability to instantly turn a pile of poo into a shiny white bowl of clean, clear water with a hint of citrus. Thomas Crapper was, to my mind, the founding father of our civilisation.

I raise this now because it is our local body election year and the time for us to elect our village leader upon whom we will depend to ensure our latrines are well plumbed and that we are not served dodgy chicken. So first let us reflect on our current village earth elder, Dave Cull. What did we know of him when we elected him? Well he was a TV presenter and a published author on all things DIY. Handy about the house. Knows a few things about pipes and drains, the fundamentals of our civilisation. Perfect. The sort of good practical bloke to whom you can give a miner’s hat with torch and leave him to happily wander through our sewers and mud ponds to ensure all is well. 

FloodThen came the big flood of June 2015. What happened? Even I know that floods occur when drainage inflow exceeds the outflow. The official response came quickly. A prophetic mayoral announcement in the local newspaper, headlined, “End game for South Dunedin” or something similarly dramatic, put the blame squarely on mother nature and her annoyance with our failure to remain in the Iron Age where we belonged. “The seas are rising” said the wise old one, “we are being punished for offending Gaia with our toxic fumes. We will have to have a conversation about abandoning South Dunedin, either that or find a few virgins to sacrifice”. A year later after many hundreds of paid hours of ‘investigation’ we find that the cause was, as the common man said at the time, the failure of Council staff to sweep up the autumn leaves off the streets, check the pumps and clean out the mud tanks before the rains came.

The Otago harbour tide gauge has shown an average annual rise over the past one hundred years of 1.28 millimetres. The current level is almost the same as it was forty years ago. The problem is confirmed as being that the mud tanks, put in after we reclaimed the harbour shallows for housing, were simply too full of mud. They need regular cleaning out. In spite of having a DIY expert as Mayor, this did not happen. Under questioning from Radio NZ the mayor spluttered that it wasn’t his fault, the system was designed to cope with a one in fifty year flood and this flood occurred within the fifty years. Excuse moi?? The last South Dunedin flood was ten years ago so did our DIY mayor think he had another thirty nine years before having a bit of a look at them?

Well just for the record, long before we could ever be accused of excessive carbon emissions, Dunedin experienced regular major floods that did not have anything to do with any fifty year deal with mother nature. In the first century of our city’s history it was North Dunedin that suffered the wrath of the gods of flooding. Major floods, with the Leith River bursting its banks, occurred in: February 1868, January 1870, February 1877, November 1883, December 1911, August 1913, April 1923, March 1929, November 1933, April 1944, September 1946, February 1955.

But there were no Mayoral proclamations during that century saying ‘we need to have a conversation about the end game for North Dunedin”. The North Dunedin flood protection just got better and better as experience was built up. In the late 1950’s the water channel from George Street to Great King Street was straightened with a high velocity concrete channel. Boulder traps were built upstream of George Street and in the late 1960’s  a larger boulder trap built upstream of the Malvern Street bridge. North Dunedin is now safe and happy.

So South Dunedin just needs a basic programme of sweeping up leaves before they wash into drains, clearing out the tanks before each rainy season and making sure the pumps in the pumping station are working. It may even require a bit of channeling work like the Leith did or more sea-wall construction. Then, Dave, I really do not think we are needing to ‘have that conversation about the end of days’.

But what we really need is a total review of Council priorities (which means who we choose on the upcoming village earth-mother elections). For the South Dunedin mud tank problem is just the start of our city plumbing issues. If our mud tanks were neglected because they are out of sight out of mind, when was the last time the mayor went for a wander through our sewers? The job we elected him for. The preservation of the very basis of our civilisation. And what is the state of the water pipes to feed our showers or fill our baths. Close behind the essential need to have a civilised crap, is the need to have a nice hot bath or refreshing shower on demand. It is for good reason that we have the age-old maxim, cleanliness is next to godliness.

Truth is, the plumbing of our city is old, very old. Some sections of piping are an ancient hundred years old when clay pipes may not have been as robust as today’s standards and our population was half what it is today. Would the Dave Cull that we thought we knew from TV’s Home Front tolerate that? As author of such riveting reads as “NZ backyard DIY Projects” and “Kitchen Essentials“,  our plumbing should have been a DIY job right up his alley, so to speak. Condition critical. Priority #1. But it is not. In this city, under this mayor, priority #1 is that a couple of dozen middle-aged men can park their SUV’s in South Dunedin on a Sunday morning, put a black pudding down the front of their Lycra’s and pedal off on one of the city-wide routes that will take them to the cafe of their choice for a latte and slice of cheesecake. ‘Yoghurt not cream thank you, my body is a temple’.

We are now being fed alerts from Council that the budgeted $20-30 million earmarked for the cycleways could well head northwards to $100 million and this money “will be found” quote/unquote. And the city plumbing can wait a few years until we have completed our priority of building end to end cycleways through the city.

What we need to do is take Dave Cull and his Council, feed them some dodgy chicken and make them spend the night sitting bare-arsed on a log in the dark. That should re-set their priorities for a civilised society in Dunedin.

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Greenpeace: Crusade or O.E.?

A bit before the 2014 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 foreseeable 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 lithium and cobalt. Ironically the smart new I pad that she was using to prick my conscience had its own human rights price tag being reliant on the ongoing slave labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine 60% of the world’s cobalt, essential for powering that i-pad’s battery. But that is another story for another time.

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, essential in the manufacture of the powerful electro-magnets for the wind turbines’ magnets and lithium & cobalt for lithium batteries, as a preference to exploring for oil.

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 rare earth elements 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, on a jet plane which would have consumed around 200,000 litres of jetful each way, 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, solar, 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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