On the brink

by Peta Carey / 22 April, 2013
Long-time opponents of power companies’ low-carbon generation plans have formed a new environmental group to try to get politicians to “wise up”.
Anton Oliver, photo/Brett Phibbs

April 22 is Earth Day. Learn more at www.earthday.org

Investing in ‘business as usual’ is gonna kill us. No bull.” Susan Krumdieck, associate engineering professor at the University of Canterbury, speaks bluntly. She’s on stage outside the Otago Museum calling for her fellow engineers to figure out how we’re going to not only survive in the near future but actually enjoy life.

She alludes to the world having “peaked” oil-wise just as massive truck and trailer units’ gears grind and diesel engines roar up Great King St. The irony’s not lost on her. She leans closer to the mic. “The economy is going to get slam-dunked by oil and what we’ve done to the environment is going to kick arse.”

Krumdieck is one of several academics lined up outside the museum on the dry grass. This is the day the worst drought in 70 years has been declared in the entire North Island and on the West Coast of the South Island. She’s there alongside climatologist and geologist Professor Peter Barrett (“When I was in Antarctica in 1962, it was inconceivable that humans could change the climate”), orthopaedic surgeon Professor Russell Tregonning (“Climate change is the greatest threat to global health”) and ecologist Mike Joy (“Many of our dairy farms would be shut down if they were in Europe”), among others.

They’re here for the official launch of “Wise Response”, a group calling on the Government – all political parties, in fact – to “wise up”. What they’re asking for, first up, is an objective assessment of the risks across five major areas that threaten the future of New Zealanders.

They’re talking about economic and ecological security, general well-being and the two big elephants in the room: climate change and peak oil. The conclusions in over an hour and a half of presentations are tough to swallow: that if we fail not only to reduce CO2 emissions but also to ensure they peak no later than 2016, we’re buggered; that if we don’t start using whatever energy we can source now to transition into low – if not zero – carbon forms of energy, we’re stuffed.

And then there’s water. Joy, renowned for taking on the Government in the International Herald Tribune over the 100% Pure slogan, scoffs at his “controversial” tag. The long list of statistics he presents is damning: “Over the past two decades, we have had the highest rate of increase in fertiliser use in the OECD and have doubled the number of dairy cows (the South Island a seven-fold increase)”, with the result being heavy metal contamination and “our children now exceeding the European standards for the weekly intake of cadmium”.


Critics have already labelled Wise Response a bunch of “left-wing moaners” who have opposed plans for power plants that would emit little or no CO2. But it has the backing of over 100 prominent New Zealanders – academics, writers, broadcasters and sportspeople, including Dame Anne Salmond, Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and ex-All Blacks coach Wayne Smith – as signatories to the appeal. The committee behind today’s launch has been working for two years before going public.

The working committee? Unsurprisingly, it’s the Otago cohort we’ve heard from time and again: the southern think tank without the suits and ties. For more than 40 years they’ve battled power companies, including Meridian on the Waitaki River, Pioneer Generation on the Nevis River and TrustPower over a wind farm on the Lammerlaw Range.

Brian Turner, photo/Richard Robinson

The central figure is ecologist Sir Alan Mark, renowned for the Save Manapouri campaign. He’s flanked by water engineer Dugald MacTavish (“I don’t want to believe in a world where we all behave like animals, no disrespect to animals”); poet Brian Turner (“It’s time to get some sense without the usual bickering of politicians”); physics Professor Bob Lloyd (“We’re not gambling on small things here. The problem we’re looking at is the survival of the human race”), doctors, ecologists and economists.

Ex-All Black Anton Oliver is on the line from London. For over a decade of trying to stop various power generation projects, “we were coming up against the same bunch of assumptions – assumptions on economic growth, on energy consumption and around fossil fuels and global warming. In every case there was a cost/benefit analysis with flawed assessments and scant regard for the environment. The environment was simply something to make money out of. It was a load of bollocks.”

Oliver is upbeat about the appeal, despite the magnitude of the challenge. “The problems seem insurmountable, deflating. But in true southern style, it’s simply a case of putting one foot in front of the other.”


Mark is now well over retirement age. This emeritus professor of botany, who throughout his near 60-year career has kept his eye on the minutiae of the world of alpine flora, has never lost sight of the bigger picture. Too many battles – some won, some lost. David vs Goliath on this particular appeal is an understatement. Optimist? He stops himself from saying no. “We’ll give it our best shot,” he says, edging his tone of voice up just a little in an effort to be upbeat. Simply “doing nothing is not an option”.

He’s not speaking at the launch, merely introducing the others. “It’s difficult to talk openly about serious big-picture ideas without appearing apocalyptic,” he says. But as Professor Peter Barrett presents a graph showing the exponential drop-off in both the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves, the implications are obvious. Or as economics professor Tim Hazledine conjectures on the future without a ready supply of oil – and therefore food – “apocalypse” is certainly not an overstatement. He questions how life will be in less than a hundred years, of “urban dwellers like feral nomads, scrabbling for existence like rats”.

Louis Chambers, photo/Duncan Brown

Mark’s tone of voice brightens, however, as he announces the final speaker: Louis Chambers, who has just been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. It’s as if Mark is handing over the baton. Chambers, a 23-year-old law graduate, speaks of growing up in “a fair and proud country, which had led the world … For hundreds of years one generation has left a better world for the next … but as our generation has gotten older, we have watched that sacred compact between generations being broken.”

Chambers leads Generation Zero, an organisation of young people working towards a future of zero dependence on fossil fuels, confronting and admittedly fearful of climate change. Chambers is more than aware that making individual lifestyle choices can effect little.

“The scale of the problem means it can be a little bit like fiddling with switches on the Titanic,” he says, pointing out that this is an issue requiring a coherent national if not international response.

Chambers witnessed the near impossibility of those global agreements in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2009. He’s a realist in terms of the mammoth public awareness campaign before him. “We’re doing this because we must. Our generation are the canaries down the coal mine.”


Professor Bob Lloyd, of the University of Otago, says, “Peak oil is already hitting. Certainly, you have to keep the stock market going, a bit like a Ponzi scheme, in order to create perpetual optimism. But that’s going to break sooner than later. When? We’d make a lot of money if we knew.”

Climate change, similarly, is beginning to kick in. “Drought and forced immigration is hitting us already,” Lloyd continues. “Read the latest reports on Australian temperatures and you can foresee that within a decade there’ll be mass migration of Australians to New Zealand. That’s because the rural economy won’t be able to cope.”

He says peak oil and climate change are interlinked. “It’s going to be touch and go as to which one is going to affect us more. You can live without oil, or rather some of the people can live without oil. But you can’t feed seven billion people if the world’s agriculture changes dramatically.”

With many New Zealanders struggling to pay their mortgage or rent, what can they do about the future scenario affecting their children? Is it not easier to blithely continue on, “business as usual”?

Krumdieck: “The only way of managing risk is to open your eyes to look at it. Hiding from it is totally unacceptable, thinking that there’s nothing we can do. The fact is that there is plenty we can do. We can invest in reduced demand, we can figure out how to use less. And we can make strategic plans for the future. Making huge decisions like giving away power companies is a form of insanity. It’s not looking ahead at all.”

The appeal to the Government for a multi-party risk assessment doesn’t sound too tricky. But the solutions to managing those risks may well prove unpopular. Mark: “The solution will inevitably be at some cost to our current standard of living, and that makes it hard for the current generation and makes it hard for politicians. We’ve got to satisfy all politicians that people of New Zealand require this of them.”

Three politicians – from Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First – responded to the invitation to attend the museum launch. A spokesperson from National is noticeably absent despite Mark having “prevailed upon them” repeatedly.

Mike Joy, photo/Claire De Barr

Where this risk assessment leads may run counter to building a $630 million expressway north of Wellington while rail disintegrates elsewhere; to partially selling renewable energy resources; and to being obsessed with GDP and producing even more milk solids. “You can live without flat-screen TVs or your Sky subscription,” says Joy, “but try getting on without fresh water.” Krumdieck is similarly unapologetic. “Ultimately the real economy is about how much energy we have left versus how much we use.”

In a short lesson in peak oil, Krumdieck says it’s all about EROI – energy return on investment (the energy you get back from the energy you put in). When oil was first discovered and tapped, gushing out of Texan oilfields, the EROI was well over 100:1. Now, as we manoeuvre oil platforms into the deep ocean, that ratio has dropped to 10:1 and is falling fast.

Forget the lignite and biofuels as a temporary lifeboat, suggests Krumdieck. “The energy return on lignite is about 1.5. Biofuels? Maybe 1.6 if you’re lucky. Fracking? Certainly way less than five, and that’s not taking into account having to pump the toxic waste water elsewhere. It’s not gonna cut it. We’re still going to run out at present rates of consumption. We simply need to reduce demand.”


But among the group of speakers at the launch, Krumdieck, originally from Colorado, is the ray of hope. “We’ve done it before,” she says of her engineering colleagues. “And we’ll do it again. Engineers have been responsible for figuring out all manner of inventions to use oil to the max – planes, trains and contact lenses. Now we’re going to figure out how to survive, if not prosper, without it.”

Ask Krumdieck how she factors climate change into her equation and she stops short. “Not my area of expertise. [But] we can manage with a lot less oil, that’s fixable. Climate change isn’t fixable.”

Mark, a veteran of saving small pieces of the planet, remains undaunted. “We’ve led the world before,” he points out. “Save Manapouri was a world first in terms of integrating conservation with hydroelectric development. The public convinced the Government that nuclear-free was a requirement of New Zealand citizens. David Lange accepted that and we’re now hailed around the world. So now we have another challenge far greater than those. But only if the public speaks out.”

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