Category Archives: global issues

Going to the Poles

Our Australian neighbours have recently gone to the polls, and the UK’s infamous Brexit referendum is still playing out post voting. And of course the American polls open on 8th November for a historic decision whichever way it goes.

At Kaitiaki Farm we have gone to the poles in a very different way: poplar poles.

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For the second year in a row we have planted poplar poles to hold vulnerable slopes and prevent slips. Here are our interns, Kelly and Patrick, ramming poles last year.

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Poles are planted 600 mm to 700 mm deep and it is critical to pack the soil tightly around the base of each one.

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Here is a slip that occurred last winter during especially heavy rains. We had been on the land less than a year at that time. The slips were a wake up call. This slip now has 18 poplar poles in and around it.

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At the time of the slips we had ordered poles from Horizons Regional Council but had not planted them yet as the storm occurred in early winter. Kelly and Patrick and I planted the first 20 poles in late August. They take about seven years to develop a sufficient root mass to hold slopes, so the sooner they are in the ground the better.

Below is this year’s order of 30 poles that were delivered by Horizons a month ago. The three metre poles cost $7 each.

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They need to be soaked for a week first to ensure they take up plenty of water before planting.

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We planted nine poles as a wind break between two paddocks at the top of the property where it is relatively flat. Our intern, Weis, dug the holes by hand relatively easily. I put the poles in the ground last week.

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This weekend I hired a post hole borer to put in some new fences for our wetland restoration project, and took the opportunity to drill another 21 holes for the rest of the poplars.

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On Saturday I drilled 35 holes into heavy clay soil. I have not been so bone tired in a decade.

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It is not an easy thing to carry up and down hill all afternoon, but the borer got the job done and was back at the hire shop fully cleaned before 5:00 pm.

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Fifty poles and counting.

Peace, Estwing

Donald Trump: Person of the Year

Editor’s Note: This is my last column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

 

Donald Trump is my Person of the Year. Who else has made a bigger splash in 2015?

Pundits say he plays on anxieties that exist among a certain voter demographic. He appears fearless in his attacks on political correctness. Bombastic is a term we hear to describe him.

But I say his most significant accomplishment has been in mastering a communication technique and ideology that has grown to achieve a critical mass of cultural significance: the double down. This is not to be confused with KFC’s Double Down – a beef burger between two pieces of fried chicken breast with cheese and bacon.

Doubling down takes many forms. It can mean making a false statement, and instead of admitting the mistake, vehemently insisting on the ‘truthiness’ of the statement in the first place. Alternatively, it might mean coming up with bad policy and then working tirelessly to try to justify it. It may be throwing good money after bad. In Trump’s case, it also means making outrageous or controversial statements and refusing to backtrack.

Doubling down means never having to say you’re sorry.

Trump is my Person of the Year not because he invented the double down or that he is the only person that does it, but because he has given it a living, breathing form. He is a meme with a comb-over and a personal jet.

Trump’s political success relies on the fact that many people only accept information that fits their existing worldview. Facts don’t matter. Research doesn’t matter. Trained experts don’t matter. As Ray Davies sang in 1981, “Give the people what they want.”

With the Balkanization of political parties worldwide and the rise of the highly effective climate change denier movement over the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing trend in doubling down. Everyone does it, it’s just that Trump is the best, or at least most visible. The Trumpification of Western society has reached its watershed moment. It marks the end of apology.

Climate change deniers double down on the same pre-formulated arguments they find on the Internet. Trickle-down economists double down on this never proven economic theory. Even the Chronicle doubled down on misreporting the origin of events waste management in Whanganui.

I’ve noticed a subtle but consistent form of the double down that may best be described as unprofessionalism. In it’s simplest form it means not answering emails or returning phone calls, and then as a response, not responding to not responding. This is practiced across our community and it especially favoured by local government agencies and health system officials.

I’ve also noticed that double downs work both ways. Think of Shamubeel Eaqub or Duncan Garner. The fact that both men had facts on their side doesn’t matter.

If Garner became public enemy number one for counting the empty shops in Victoria Avenue, yours truly was a close second for working with him to highlight a good news story in our community during his visit. You might think having the top journalist in New Zealand highlight a Whanganui success story to a national audience would have been celebrated. Instead I was criticized in the pages of the Chronicle.

I, myself, may be accused by readers of doubling down, but from my perspective there is a big difference between doubling down on facts or the best available research and doubling down on general opinions. But if in the court of public opinion – or the Letters Page – the two hold equal weight, there is no way to advance a robust argument. It’s a no win situation, and one I’m no longer interested in.

The issues that concern me – healthy housing, community resilience and wealth inequality – get little to no traction in our community. There is no organisation, group, business or government department that takes a serious holistic approach to any of these. I’ve reached out to almost all of them over the last five years and the most common response is – you guessed it – no response.

Sadly, although our local government is in a position to address these issues it chooses not to. I have heard wide-ranging concern from informed members of our community about the so-called “Leading Edge” document, especially the Environment section. I share their concern. As a professional in the environmental field for nearly 30 years I have read thousands of books, papers and documents on the topic. Compared to everything I have read, it is among the worst – much closer to tail end than leading edge.

But I should not complain. After all, we live in a democracy and no candidate running for council at the last election chose to use the words “environment” or “sustainability.” “Give the people what they want.”

Although exceptionally weak on the environment, the Leading Edge is extremely useful for allowing council committees and officers to double down on rejecting holistic solution-oriented projects that promote community health and resilience as they have in the past with five simple words, “It’s not in the plan.” Trumped again!

After 192 consecutive weeks, this is my last column. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

Resilience is the New Black

Sustainability is so 2007. Those were the heady days before the Global Financial Crisis, before $2-plus/litre petrol here in New Zealand, before the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit, before the Christchurch earthquakes, before the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA)…the list continues.

Since 2008, informed conversations on the economy, the environment, and energy have shifted from ‘sustainability’ to ‘resilience’. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this shift, but I’ll focus on just two: undeniable trends and a loss of faith. Let me explain.

Since 2008, most of the pre-existing trends in income inequality, extreme weather events and energy price volatility have ramped up. Sustainability is about halting and reversing these trends, but there is essentially no evidence of that type of progress, and in fact the data shows the opposite.

Plenty of quantitative data exists for the last seven years to document these accelerated trends, the most obvious is the continually widening gap between rich and poor everyone else. The second wave of commentary on the Baltimore riots (after the superficiality of the mainstream media) has been about the lack of economic activity and opportunity in many of the largely African-American neighbourhoods. Tensions have been simmering for years (decades) and overzealous police activity appears to have been just been the spark. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read The Spirit Level, or any similar research on the correlation between wealth inequality and social problems.

You can only push people so far before they crack. For residents of Baltimore’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods the inequities are obvious. People are not dumb. We can see the writing on the wall, and know for the most part that government on every level has not taken significant steps to embrace sustainability be it economic, environmental or social . To me it seems we are running on the fumes of debt on all three: over-extended financially on nearly all levels; over-extended on carbon emissions (and post oil peak); and a powder keg of social unrest waiting for a tipping point.

Which brings me to my second point: a loss of faith.

For most of my adult life I have banged the drum for sustainability. I don’t anymore. Sustainability is about voluntarily balancing three factors: human needs, environmental health, and economic viability. My observation is that it has been a failed movement and that the conversation has naturally shifted to resilience.

These observations do not come casually. I have worked full-time in the environmental/sustainability/resilience field for twenty-five years and I have a PhD in science and sustainability education.

Dennis Meadows, a well-known scientist who has been documenting unsustainable trends for over 40 years puts it this way:

The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

This is the same quote that Illargi recently highlighted here at The Automatic Earth. Clearly it resonated with me.

This is not to say we cannot and should not be proactive. It is more about where we direct our ‘proactions.’ Being proactive about resilience means protecting one’s self, one’s family, and one’s community from the trends that make us vulnerable economically, socially and environmentally, as well as to sudden shocks to the system.

The recent earthquake in Nepal is another reminder of the critical importance of resilience. Before that it was Christchurch and Fukushima. In the wake of earthquakes we often hear about a lack of food and water in the effected area, along with disruptions to energy supplies in the wider region. In Nepal these have lead to significant social unrest.

Whether it is Kathmandu over the last month or New Orleans after Katrina, we know that we cannot count on “the government” for significant assistance in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Along the same lines, we cannot count on governments to protect us from unnatural disasters such as the TPPA and TTIP.

Whether it is a potential earthquake or the next mega-storm and flood, the more prepared (ie, resilient) we are the better we will get through. Even rising energy prices and the probable effects of the TPPA will siphon off money from our city and exacerbate social problems in our communities.

In most cases, the same strategies that contribute to resilience also contribute to a more ‘sustainable’ lifestyle. But where for most people sustainability is largely abstract and cerebral, resilience is more tangible. Perhaps that’s why more and more people are gravitating toward it.

Resilience is the new black.

A resilient home is one that protects its occupants’ health and wealth. From this perspective, the home would have adequate insulation, proper curtaining, Energy Star appliances, energy-efficient light bulbs, and an efficient heater. By investing in these things we protect our family’s health as well as future-proofing our power bills. Come what may, we are likely to weather the storm.

Beyond the above steps, a resilient household also collects rainwater, grows some of its own food, and has back-up systems for cooking and heating. When we did up an abandoned villa in Castlecliff, Whanganui, we included a 1,000 litre rain water tank, three independent heat sources, seven different ways to cook (ok, I got a little carried away), and a property brimming with fresh fruit and vege. These came on top of a warm, dry, home and a power bill of $27 per month. (We did it all for about half the cost of an average home in the city.)

A loss of power and water for two or three days would hardly be noticeable. A doubling of electricity or fresh vege prices would be a blip on the radar. During the record cold week in 2011 our home was heated for free by sunshine.

Sustainability may be warm and fuzzy, but resilience gets down to the brass tacks.

Above all else, I am deeply practical and conservative. The questions I ask are: does it work?; is it affordable?; can I fix it myself?; and, importantly, is it replicable? Over the last decade I have developed highly resilient properties in North America and New Zealand. All of these properties have been shared as examples of holistic, regenerative permaculture design and management. We have shared our experience locally using open-homes, workshops and property tours, as well as globally through the internet.

When the proverbial hits the fan, which all the trends tell us will happen, I know that I have done my best to help my family and community weather any storm be it a typhoon, an earthquake, rising energy prices, or the TPPA.

2014: Signs of Progress

At this time last year I reflected on what appeared to have been the Year of Eco-Thrifty. The Auckland teenager who goes by ‘Lorde’ rocketed to international fame with her song Royals, which rejects the excesses promoted by many others in popular music. Similarly an American rapper who also goes by one name, Macklemore, got considerable radio airtime with his quirky-but-catchy song, Thrift Shop. Finally, Pope Francis spent much of 2013 promoting messages of conservation and thrift, and even took on the beast of wealth inequality.

That was then, this is now. What about 2014? From my observations, Francis has been quieter this year, but certainly not inactive. The recent news that the US would be “normalizing” relations with Cuba came as a surprise to many. Likewise, that Francis had been working behind the scenes to facilitate communication between the two countries also came as a surprise.

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But the more we get to know him the less of a surprise these types of things become. In a word, Pope Francis is progressive. From my perspective, that is about as much as we can ask of anybody these days.

In this world, you are either going forward, going backward, or standing still. If you are a keen observer of current events, you may recognize that standing still is not an option any more.

Take climate change as an example. Doing nothing is not an option for those who believe in peer reviewed science and are concerned about the world their grandchildren will inhabit. The recent agreement between China and the USA on carbon emissions can be seen as progress. Baby steps are important. Screen shot 2014-12-27 at 5.37.19 AM

On the home front, it has been refreshing to hear a couple of District Councillors speaking in progressive terms and even using the word “progressive” in public. It is especially encouraging that some Councillors can reflect on their decisions and change their minds. This is a sign of great progress for our community. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step…

In the year to come let’s hope our community can make progress on a number of important issues such as resilience, inequality, health and the wastewater treatment plant. I suspect it will be difficult for us to progress as a community until there is some accountability for the monumental failure of the treatment plant and the ridiculous decision to spend close to a million ratepayers’ dollars squirting perfume into the air next to a windy coastline. Wouldn’t it be amazing for someone to put up his or her hand and say, “I’m sorry, and that type of bad decision will never happen again”? That would be real progress. Screen shot 2014-12-27 at 5.42.03 AM

Finally, I understand our city is looking for a new slogan and that some moderate progress has been made. To help the process along, here are a few suggestions:

Welcome to Wanganui: H me, Bro!

Welcome to Whanganui: No Longer ‘Family Friendly’

Welcome to Whanganui: Slogans Welcome

Welcome to Whanganui: Lawless

Lastly,

Welcome to Whanganui: The Bhutan of New Zealand*

* The mountain kingdom of Bhutan has become known for its measure of Gross National Happiness as opposed to the reductionist measure of Gross National Product used by most nations. Thanks to Cr. Martin Visser and his progressive ideas about quality of life in our awesome River City and the work he has done with the Social Progress Index.

This outside-of-the-square thinking is refreshing after the uninspired drone of “growth, growth, growth” we have been hearing for years. Here’s hoping 2015 brings more progress on this and other fronts for this beautiful place we all call home.

Peace, Estwing

 

Sidebar:

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2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the REBS stall at the River Market

Everyone loves cheese, especially governments. In a democracy like New Zealand, “block-of-cheese-tax-cuts” have become a popular pre-election promise. Even in dictatorships like North Korea, cheese appears to be essential to the political elite. Recent news reports indicate that Kim Jong Un is addicted to Swiss Emmental cheese – eating large amounts of it to gain weight so as to resemble his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

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Of course cheese must be elemental to the French government, but my own experience has been with an enigmatic orange mass called American Processed Cheese Food Product. “Government cheese” as it was affectionately called, was part of the vocabulary and diet for millions of Americans from the 1960s through the early 1990s. “Government cheese is a processed cheese that was provided to welfare, food stamp recipients and the elderly receiving Social Security.” (Wikipedia)

According to the “Urban Dictionary” (.com), it was “A block of orange-yellow processed “USDA Cheese Food” issued by “Da Gubment” to aid needy families by supplementing their food resources. Used for making grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni & cheese but also causes severe, bowel obstructing constipation, silent but deadly stinky gas, and/or “the runs” diarrhea in those who are lactose intolerant.”

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In the states, the term “government cheese” has come to refer to any type of government handout. The Rainmakers described the situation in song in 1986:

“They’re turning us all into beggars ‘cause they’re easier to please. They’re feeding our people that Government Cheese.”

“I don’t believe in anything, nothing is free. They’re feeding our people that Government Cheese.”

As suggested above, “government cheese” in a contemporary New Zealand context appears to have come to refer to the offer of inconsequential tax cuts at election time while avoiding meaningful changes like removing GST from fresh fruit and vege and/or taxing capital gains. Even in America these things have been in place for decades, and capital gains are listed as “unearned income” on tax returns.

As a child growing up outside of Detroit in the 1970s I was aware that certain items at the grocery store had tax on them while others did not. It was all very confusing at the time, but now I just go to the Internet to find it clearly explained:

“Retail sales of food and food ingredients for human consumption normally considered as grocery items for home consumption are tax exempt. This would include…cheese products, meat, nuts, popcorn, etc. The exemption does not include prepared food intended for immediate consumption.” (Source: fundraisetaxlaw.org)

Somehow, many decades ago and before “smart phones” existed, the state of Michigan figured out a way to differentiate between prepared foods and raw ingredients. Yet if you listen to Talk Radio in New Zealand in 2014 you hear arguments about how onerous and complicated it would be to replicate that process. Really? With barcodes and computer networks? I would suggest a pair of teenagers, an Iphone, and a long weekend would be all that is required to come up with a free app to do just that.

What’s the point? Holistic-thinking economists identify GST on food as a regressive tax on low-income families that serves to widen income inequality, exacerbate social problems and slow economic activity. A regressive tax “imposes a greater burden (relative to resources) on the poor than on the rich” (Wikipedia).

Food, energy and rates make up a larger proportion of the household budget for low-income families than high-income families. As such, the government plays a role in widening income and wealth inequality. To repeat, both central and local governments play roles in increasing wealth and income inequality.

Research worldwide has shown a direct relationship between wealth and income inequality and social problems such as crime, drug abuse, domestic violence, and teen pregnancy (Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2009).

Additionally, certain economists-who-must-not-be-named might suggest that regressive taxes act as a drag on the economy. In other words, when people have fewer dollars in their pockets they spend fewer dollars in local shops. (I admit it is a radical concept.)

For a struggling provincial economy such as Whanganui, I would suggest some of the “new ways of thinking” that local business and government engage in would include moving away from regressive taxes and an inequitable rates structure that stifle economic activity and stimulate anti-social behaviour.

To quote the Big Cheese, Winston Peters, “It’s just common sense.”

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Shades of Green

As heated and “dirty” as this year’s election lead-up has become, I feel a duty to contribute my own “skullduggery” to the fray. Never mind that I do not know what skullduggery means. After all, where does understanding of language, facts, figures, data or research come into play in a political forum?

For example, after 28 months or describing in excruciating detail the win-win-win benefits of eco-thrifty design, I am left flabbergasted at our local government’s staunch rejection of the obvious benefits to our city, its people and its economy. Poor eco-design has already cost ratepayers tens of millions of dollars and will continue to cost us unnecessarily into the future. Put simply, I just don’t get it.

My observations over the last four and a half decades of walking the Earth and listening to people’s jibber jabber is that the further one is to the right of the political spectrum the less likely they are to be open to new ideas, to think holistically, to respect peer-reviewed research, to make decisions based on data rather than emotion, and most ironically, to embrace the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle stipulates that when considering a risky new technology or when facing issues of immense global importance such as climate change, one should be as conservative as possible regarding policies and practices. Ironically, in most of these cases the political right is liberal and the political left is conservative.

Speaking of irony, I love this concept of the National Party’s “Blue-Greens.” When I was in school studying biology, I learned that blue-green was a primitive form of algae known as cyanobacteria. I suppose in that respect, there may not be much difference between the two regarding sound policy on sustainable development. I jest.

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Equally as amusing would be the concept of the “Red-Greens” given my observations of the impotent Labour Party over the last six years. Some readers may be familiar with the popular Canadian DIY comedy “The Red Green Show” that aired from 1991 to 2006. The title character, Red Green (played by Steve Smith), was a bumbling handyman who ended up fixing everything with duct tape. In this respect, I also see some striking similarities to Labour. Of course this discussion would not be complete without a reference to red-green colour blindness.

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But among all the shades of green within the colour palette, my experience is that the most dangerous of all are the Neon-Greens, individuals who tout their eco-credentials but whose behaviours and lifestyles tell a different story. For this group, “Actions speak louder than words” does not hold much meaning. Ironically, they tend to have outsized egos when compared to what they actually have accomplished. On the other hand, I suppose the reason that Jeanette Fitzsimons, formerly of the Green Party, was recognized as New Zealand’s most trusted politician over and over again was that everyone knew that she “walked the talk.”

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On a final note, regarding jobs, sustainability and NZ housing. It is recognized by the experts in building technology and home performance that the quality of NZ homes is so low that the “job” of improving them to anywhere near an OECD standard will take decades and employ thousands. Only an extreme reductionist perspective would see the government insulation scheme and say that, “a big proportion of New Zealand’s older homes must be sorted.” The statement would only come from someone completely unfamiliar with the housing sector.

In my day job I spend hour after hour visiting cold, damp homes that have insulation in the ceiling and under the floor. I also get phone calls from occupants of new homes asking why they are so cold and damp. Finally, I meet with people in the early design stages of their dream homes, and council them toward shifting some of their dollars toward making the future structures warmer and dryer while keeping power bills low.

I reckon 99% of all NZ homes – even those built this year – do not achieve the energy performance they could or should. And homes are still being built this way everyday. From this perspective, I will never run out of work. I’ve got the most sustainable job in the world.

Peace, Estwing

 

 

Climate Change Resilience: Local Council’s Responsibility

That WDC has not shown an understanding of sustainability is less surprising than what appears to be a lack of understanding of it’s role or even procedural rules by which to operate. I have watched with usual amusement the various dramas around the TPPA submission saga involving local citizens and their elected officials. Of the issues brought up during the debate, I’ll address only two.

First of all, to state the obvious, the “walk-out” did more to raise awareness in our community about the TPPA than any other effort over the last nine months. Congratulations to those ambulatory councillors for getting the TPPA onto the front page TWICE for everyone to see, and ensuring protracted coverage by our local news media. Good on you.

Second, and if I am wrong please correct me (especially those councilors who have made the claim), climate change IS, in large part, the responsibility of local government. My understanding is that central government has placed the responsibility of climate change adaptation (head for the hills!) and resilience (brace yourselves!) with local government.

For all intents and purposes, adaptation and resilience are the only responses that any government of any size anywhere in the world can make to address climate change.

The clear message sent to all those paying attention to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009, is that there is not sufficient political will internationally to do anything significant to address the causes of climate change. Since then, the dialogue around the topic has changed from one of avoidance and mitigation to one of adaptation and resilience.

To use a medical analogy, the discussion has shifted from treatment to hospice.

It is now acknowledged that there will be rising levels of human pain and suffering across the globe due to increasing incidences of extreme weather events. It is already happening. It has been happening for decades. The data has been collected and analyzed. The results are in, and they confirm what we all have been observing from personal experience over the last 30+ years.

Northland recently experienced historic flooding. Not long ago it experienced extreme drought.

So when WDC councilors suggest that climate change is not the responsibility of local government it makes me highly concerned for the health and safety of myself, my family, my property, my neighbours, and the future prospects of a city with a major river and a coast.

Highly concerned, yes, but sadly not at all surprised. After all, this is a body that believes the best way to manage a beach ravaged by increasingly strong onshore winds is to use heavy equipment and diesel fuel to push sand back into the Tasman Sea.

Nearly all of the efforts we have made since arriving in Whanganui almost four years ago have been aimed at improving the resilience of our community. As regular readers of this column will be aware, our work focuses mainly on building resilience to rising energy prices, although we also dabble in low-input/high-productivity food production.

As time passes and the radical views of some councilors become more apparent, I find myself becoming increasing concerned about WDC’s ability-or even willingness-to protect our community. I, for one, am not holding my breath for leadership to emerge on this issue. Instead I am taking my family and heading for the hills.

 

Peace, Estwing