Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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9 Feb 2009

Transition Training on Tour Blog Post 5

Aotearoa‘s Transition

Manawatu Gorge Windfarm with Naresh and interested looking sheep

Manawatu Gorge Windfarm with Naresh and interested looking sheep

We are staying up the Pohangina river valley with my sister and family. They live in the rich, rural heartland of the North Island of New Zealand. They have a small holding; 5 acres and run a few lambs and a couple of beef cattle and have a small vege garden and horses for the kids. It’s potentially very resilient and has the makings of a sustainable lifestyle if the rest of their lives weren’t so resource hungry. Like most Kiwis they live a normal unsustainable life amidst a potentially easily sustainable and resilient land, a real contradiction to my eyes.

A New Zealand fern

A New Zealand fern

Gas (petrol) is cheap here and people use it like in America with no regard, and the country itself has such a small population that it’s probably within its eco footprint. According to a recent World Wildlife Fund report- Europe 2005 The Ecological Footprint NZ ranks as 14th highest footprint in the world, with a per capita footprint of just under 6 hectares. I suspect there is more than 24 million hectares of productive land in NZ, so they are within their countries footprint, but way over the world sustainable footprint of 1.8 hectares.

As they are living on between 3 and 4 planets, but within their own countries sustainable limits – this will explain the widespread complacency ecologically speaking. There are ample resources and rich land, and lots of water and loads of unused potential for RE generation. There is a wind farm on the horizon near my sister’s place and that’s new. Australia and the USA know that they are coming up against big problems, but here the rest of the world and its problems are far away and the land is rich so why worry?

There was a article in the paper today pointing out that peak oil was 2020 and mentioning the recent report by the IEA and George Monbiot’s grilling of Faith Birol, the chief economist of the IEA, who admitted (for the first time) that 2020 is the peak, and padded that with lots of wishful thinking. The author of the article went on to mention that there will be great solar electric cars shortly and then second generation bio fuels in the form of algae which will solve all of our problem, so no worries. I suspect that it’s a way to avoid engaging with the obvious problem NZ faces with peak oil; a dispersed population, a heavy dependence on long distance tourism, and a farming sector that is heavily oil dependent.

And Sophy pointed out that NZ could conceive solutions to the problems facing it that would include remaining within the current paradigm. Their problem is essentially a liquid fuels problem. However they would have to assume that they are truly isolated from the rest of the world, which they aren’t, that long distance tourism would continue which it won’t, and that they could go running a hugely energy inefficient farming sector which will be impossible. [???] And there are a myriad of other problems and challenges. And what happens when climate refugees start arriving en mass from places like Bangladesh?

Many people from all over the world are buying up New Zealand real estate and several people in the USA mentioned to me that if things got really bad in the US they would hop it to guess where?? NZ. A country many are seeing as the place to be post peak oil over run with refugees rich or otherwise is no longer a bolt hole.

Makara Windfarm near Wellington New Zealand

Makara Windfarm near Wellington New Zealand

We stayed with a friend and her partner who were also at the centre of the campaign to stop Meridian putting up windmills outside Wellington, in one of the windiest land based wind resources in the world. I can understand the frustration and the desire to keep a pristine and very beautiful and wild place just that. And she proposed that they didn’t need big windmills to convert to a low carbon society, small scale local solutions and off grid seemed to her the way forward. And it makes some sense.

Big business wants big solution like large scale wind because that’s its way of keeping control of the energy sector. It doesn’t like solar panels because once you have sold someone a panel then you give them energy independence. A utility would much rather going on selling you wind power forever, it make more money and business sense. Her assertion was that wind is being pushed by the government and no doubt driven by big corporate interests.

However the part that she and most people (anti wind mills or otherwise) don’t get is that small scale, re-localised, and local energy independence is the route to a Transitioned, powerdown future. It is also the route to a no growth or steady state economy. If that’s what you want then small scale off grid, local energy independence is the answer. But her lifestyle is not a powerdown one. If you want the present arrangement; economic growth and all the goodies that come with it, then you have to have large scale solutions to large scale problems. It’s a choice, and that’s the choice facing us. I suspect we will see lots more large scale wind and large scale attempts at ‘solving’ our ‘multiple collisions with reality’.

Many of them will fail and many will be seen to be a step in the wrong direction. But maybe this is part of the transition process and maybe that where we will need to go, or try to go, as the energy crunch intensifies and we clutch at solutions. But how do you explain that simply? Opposing large windmills, big business and large scale attempts at keeping it all going is commendable- but not if we want our comforts and our high energy lifestyle (which in any event is by in large destined for the scrap heap). How do you get across to the anti wind brigade that forgoing large scale wind means living frugally, giving up your cars and foreign holidays?

(Rob’s Note: Below is a talk that Sophy gave as part of their tour in New Zealand, filmed and posted online by Infectious Films)

Part Two | Part Three