Low-Car Lifestyle

Here in New Zealand there is a 12 Week “Challenge” hosted by Green Urban Living.

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I posted two weeks ago about the local food week challenge. Last week was a Car-less challenge. While we did not go the week without using our car, I thought it was a good time to reflect on many of the choices we have made to maintain minimum dependence on our car.

Coming home from a party two weeks ago.

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Collecting seaweed on the beach.

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Going to Steiner playgroup.

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Going to a local primary school to plant a garden with the children.

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Walking to the local surf break.

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Buckle up, bro.

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Coming home from the farmers market.

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Peace, Estwing

Eco-Design, Payback Period and Savings

Editor’s Note: This is more or less the 100th weekly column I have written for our city’s newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle.  Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 6.58.46 AM

Nearly two years have passed since I was invited to write this column, which brings us to what is approximately the 100th edition of Eco-Thrifty Renovation.

Since starting the weekly column  23 months ago, we have received our certificate of compliance for the renovation, I have been capped a Doctor of Philosophy by Waikato University, we witnessed the birth of our first child, and saved approximately $5,000 on electricity when compared to the average NZ household.

Yes, $5,000, not a misprint.

Savings earned from investment in energy efficiency is known as ‘payback’, and the time that it takes to recoup the investment is known as ‘payback period’.

For example, a compact fluorescent light bulb that costs $5 will usually “pay for itself” in energy savings over the course of about 12 months depending on use. This means the payback period is 1 year, representing a 100% return on investment. During the second year that $5 is in your pocket.

We’re not specific about exactly how much we save from each of our many energy efficient investments. We simply look to our monthly power bill – ranging from $17 to $31 – to gauge our performance against average domestic users.

While I have been writing this column for 23 months, we have lived in our Castlecliff home for 40 months, meaning our total energy savings thus far is approximately $9,000: roughly 1/3 of our investment in passive solar redesign, solar hot water, and energy efficient appliances.

This puts us on track for a payback period of under 10 years. In other words, we will essentially “double our money” by saving the same amount we initially invested. After the payback period, every dollar saved is a dollar in our pocket: hundreds each and every month.

In the meantime, the faster power prices rise, the shorter our payback period becomes: 9 years, 8 years. Some people might say we have “future-proofed” ourselves against rising prices. We have achieved all this by using eco-design to work with natural energy flows.

Investing is good design saves energy and money, but sustaining bad design costs energy and money.

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For example, a recent article in the Chronicle indicated that Wanganui District Council decided to bulldoze the beach as its management strategy 12 years ago. At a reported cost of $25,000 per year, simple maths tells us ratepayers have contributed $300,000 during that time and we still have the same poorly designed beach, with a high probability of higher ‘grooming’ expenses in the future.

This is like having a big, draughty villa full of energy-gobbling appliances and light bulbs, and paying hundreds of dollars month after month for power, and after 12 years being in the same situation. Alternatively, after 12 years we will have saved over $30,000 on power, paid back all of our investment, pocketed the savings, and have a warm, dry, low-energy home.

Using an imaginary time machine, let’s travel back and consider that council made the decision 12 years ago to invest in a beach redesign that worked with natural energy flows instead of against them. As long as we’re pretending, let’s say we take the $300,000 with us.

Back in 2002, say we invested $100,000 in a beach eco-redesign that resulted in $7,000 annual maintenance instead of $25,000. This resulted in yearly savings of $18,000 and a payback period of five and a half years. From the sixth through 12th years we saved $18,000 per year for a total savings of over $108,000. (Please note, these estimates are used for explanation only.)

By 2014, we could look forward to saving $18,000 or more per year moving forward. Additionally, we would have “future-proofed” ourselves against rising diesel prices and what the vast majority of climate scientists have predicted will be increased extreme wind events, as we’ve already seen this spring and summer.

While hindsight is 20/20, eco-design thinking and payback period allow us to ‘travel’ into the future and look back at what decisions will be most cost effective. It’s worked brilliantly for us.


Peace, Estwing


A Parent’s Perspective on the TPPA

When I look in the mirror I see three things: a researcher, an educator and a parent.

As a researcher I am data driven. My mind seeks out robust arguments supported by evidence, and discounts arguments that lack evidence.

As an educator I try to keep my message simple and relevant. There is a vast amount of information in the world, but people relate best to that which relates most closely to them.

As a parent I am focused on safety. Many times each day my toddler daughter strives to engage in behaviours that could negatively affect her health and wellbeing.

From these three perspectives, I’ll keep my comments on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) as evidence-based, simple and prudent as possible.

The purpose of a corporation is to return maximum profits to investors. Anything that impinges on profits – Pharmac, the Resource Management Act, the Treaty of Waitangi – can be seen as a “barrier to trade.” The TPPA seeks to remove barriers to trade, and will allow corporations to sue sovereign governments.

At the same time, it appears that the purpose of my 18 month-old daughter is to put herself in peril by climbing on anything available, playing with electrical cords, and eating as many sweets as possible. As a parent, it is my responsibility to keep her impulses in check.

The same can be said of governments in relationship to corporations. In other words, we have laws that keep corporations in check because their ‘natural urges’ have been shown to cause harm to significant numbers of people worldwide and degrade environmental quality, not to mention crash the global economy.

In other words, the government is the parent and the corporation is the child. But the TPPA seeks to reverse this, letting corporations set the rules and punish governments for laws they do not like.

This would be like my daughter telling me she is going to spend the afternoon in a candy store full of ladders and electric leads. Oh, and by the way, if I disagree with her she will take me to a secret court made up of three of her friends.

Are there any parents that think this will turn out well?


Peace, Estwing

Early Autumn Permaculture Update

We have had a magnificent “Indian Summer” here in Whanganui. Our strawberries and tomatoes are still producing after nearly four months. Along with those, we are getting autumn crops like apples and pears.

But first, our new post box built of driftwood, three nails, and two screws.

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We have been racing the birds to harvest a bumper crop of figs.

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We ate the last of our peaches with fresh local raw milk.

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We’ve had some nice broccoli and cauliflower.

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Jerusalem artichoke is going for it everywhere.

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I have been taking a plant propagation course. Here are some of my “assignments.”

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We have been also doing lots of composting, with gifts from the sea…

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…and gifts from community events.

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And a few amazing gifts from the western horizon.

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Peace, Estwing

Engaging Children in Recycling & Composting

Last week I had every intention of writing about Sea Week, Castlecliff Children’s Day, recycling and composting. I even had the photos picked out.

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But then I saw a cryptic invitation in the Chronicle about writing poems for St. Patrick’s Day. Then I saw a letter from Bob Walker on the costly and impotent “odour fence” and an article that included a remarkably uninspired statement by a councilor about “growth” and “lifestyle.”

What started as an innocent limerick in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day rolled into 650 words of critique on what appears to be a pattern of reductionist, ineffective and costly decisions by council.

While I stand by every word, I did not mean offend anyone with undeserved insult – especially not the Chronicle editors. I think they, along with the entire Chronicle team, have guided our paper to a secure place of relevance at a time when many newspapers around the world are reducing circulation, down-sizing, digitizing, and disappearing entirely. Over the last two years, the Chronicle team has built what must be best network of local columnists of any paper in the country.

Long live the Chron

May all celebrate her in song…

Never mind, on to the rubbish…I mean waste management.

Good on Des Warahi for committing Castlecliff Children’s Day to waste minimization. Like SKIP’s Children’s Day a week earlier, we were able to work together to divert a large amount of materials from landfill by making recycling and composting easy for attendees.

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Castlecliff’s Children’s Day wrapped up Sea Week, which saw many school children helping clean up our coastline. While it is important to engage children in this type of overt action to help the environment, it’s even more important to make sure that they do not perceive it as a one-off. In other words, tokenism has the potential to do more harm than good if children see “the environment” as something “out there” that they engage with only on certain occasions.

The Enviroschools programme has done a good job throughout New Zealand of making sustainable practices such as recycling, composting and worm farming regular parts of operations for the schools that join. Equally important is that children experience those practices at home. Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 10.28.53 AM

Waste minimization is a great example of eoc-thifty thinking because it so obviously saves resources and money. For example, it takes our family about two months to fill one bag of rubbish. It may not be that we have any less total ‘waste’ than other families, but that we divert most of it from landfill by recycling and composting.

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Much of the ‘waste’ that makes its way onto our property comes home with Verti and me from our walks along the beach. If there is anything I’ve learned as a new parent it is that my 18 month old daughter loves imitating and helping. From this perspective, I can’t think of many things more valuable than walking with her along the seashore collecting discarded cans and bottles, bits of plastic, and organic matter for our compost.

Plus, I get to check out the waves so I can plan for a surf after mum gets home.

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Sidebar: TPPA Alert!

We face many challenges ahead, but perhaps the most immediate one is the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) being negotiated in secret at the behest of transnational corporations whose one and only mandate is to return maximum profits to share holders. The likelihood of the TPPA being good for people or the planet is about that of the All Blacks falling to Japan in a test match. Please attend the rally against New Zealand signing onto the TPPA Saturday 29th March at 1 pm. Meet at the Silver Ball sculpture at the River Market and walk to Majestic Square.

Health Benefits of Heirloom Tomatoes

A friend of ours who lives in Whanganui is active in researching the health benefits of tomatoes and apples. I’ll write about apples in a few weeks, but here is a blurb about their tomato research:

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This research is looking to find the best open-pollinated tomato varieties in the world for human health, particularly those highest in lycopene for cancer prevention.
The research is also seeking to determine whether hybrid tomato varieties (and vegetables in general) are nutritionally deficient in comparison with traditional open-pollinated varieties.

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Here is a bit about their findings:

Discovery of the Real Tomato (12 April 2013)

We are delighted to announce a break-through in our understanding about the superior health benefits of specific tomato varieties.

Two types of lycopene can be found in tomato. All-trans-lycopene is commonly found in red (and other colour) tomatoes; and tetra-cis-lycopene (also known as prolycopene) is found in some orange heirloom tomatoes.

Read more here.

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I stopped by to visit him last week, and took pictures around his glasshouse. There are some really amazing varieties.

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Peace, Estwing

Reductionist Thinking Does Not Serve Us

Editor’s Note: This is another of my weekly columns in our newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. I refers to a wastewater treatment plant that we’ve had to build (and pay for) twice because the first one failed after less than seven years. Council’s short-term ‘fix’ for the smells wafting over our windy, coastal city was to install a million dollar ‘odour fence’ spritzing ‘tutti frutti’ deodorizer into the air. Seriously…


Three cheers for the Chronicle editors

I prefer them to letters page predators

But sometimes their headlines

While rushing toward deadlines

Can leave me feeling discredited


My point is that eco-design thinking, as described in this column, is not about “going green” (headline 22-02-14) or being “eco-warriors” (headline 01-03-14). It is about recognizing and maximizing beneficial relationships within systems to develop strategies that are good for people, good for the planet, and save money.

This type of holistic, win-win-win design thinking helps our family save hundreds of dollars on our power and food bills every month. It is opposite to the lose-lose-lose situation Wanganui District Council has saddled us with regarding the wastewater treatment plant: bad for people, bad for the planet, and expensive.

On top of the original poor design and/or management, the finger-pointing and excuse-making, council has added insult to injury by piling on more debt by running a useless odour fence, which according to my conservative calculations will cost every household in Whanganui over $60.

Thanks to Cr Vinsen and Bob Walker for questioning this grossly reductionist thinking that will likely cost over a million dollars when interest is factored in to the total cost of the fence.

This would be a good time to point out to Whanganui ratepayers and voters that two large U.S. metropolitan areas have recently sought bankruptcy protection because of grossly mismanaged municipal projects. Montgomery County, Alabama, ended up over $4 billion (U.S. $) in debt because of a disastrous sewer project, while Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (the state capitol) faced over $300 million (U.S. $) of debt over a rubbish incinerator.

Sadly, it appears that a long history of reductionist thinking has boxed Whanganui into a debt corner from which council sees only one escape: growth. Put another way, WDC has racked up so much debt that it would be politically unpalatable for the current ratepayers to pay it off. Indeed, my combined WDC and Horizons rates are already on track to double in about nine years. How sustainable is that?

Let me make this perfectly clear: I think we should fight for every job and every dollar to stay in Whanganui, and that we should seek to create meaningful employment for those who seek it. But continued reductionist thinking is unlikely to get us there.

For example, I do not know if I have ever read a more generic, unimaginative statement than one attributed to Cr. Laws in a Chronicle article (26-02-14) regarding council’s “vision of growing the economy and a better lifestyle.”

Someone please name a city in New Zealand or a country on Earth that does not hold these exact goals? Given what appear to be misguided decisions and poor execution by WDC on a slew of issues that have appeared in the press recently, do they really think they can out-compete Palmy, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Australia at the same game?

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Signs of the times: Vacant “Enterprise House” on Victoria Ave.

I recently told a well-attended Rotary luncheon that our council suffers from glass-half-empty thinking: constantly claiming that if we could only fill the glass…

Eco-thrifty design thinking, on the other hand, would be considered glass-half full. It seeks out and eliminates waste within systems that serve neither people nor the planet, and also waste money. A good example of this was turning off the lights in front of Central Library during daylight hours. That simple act will save ratepayers thousands of dollars in the years to come, but sadly could not save the thousands already wasted over the decades since the poorly designed system was installed.

As one always willing to give credit where credit is due, I acknowledge council’s decision to dowse the light, as I also acknowledge what appears to be the holistic thinking of senior stormwater engineer, Kritzo Venter, and the foresight of Cr Visser regarding the reductionist practice of continually pushing sand to windward on Castlecliff Beach.

May I suggest to my editors that I would rather see council “in the black” than “going green”, and that I’d prefer an army of “worrier warriors” in this city, because our unsustainable debt load is very scary.