Friday, March 29, 2013

Eco-Thrifty Numeracy

I used to wonder how columnists could come up with relevant things to write about week after week after week. Now that I am a columnist, I wonder how to fit all of my ideas into one column!

Two weeks ago I related a number of eco-thrifty stories from the international press, and last week I hailed the election of an eco-thrifty pope. This week I’ll keep it local, using examples from the Chronicle to illustrate my points. No, I am not going to enter into the ongoing global climate change debate on the editorial pages, although I do find it amusing that one local retired farmer claims to know more about atmospheric science than thousands of practicing climate scientists.

Instead, I’ll pull my examples from the front pages of the Chronicle. I’ll apologize up front by saying they have to do with maths. But then again, two stories involving numeracy graced the front page on the 21st of March: one on rates rises and one on children’s maths learning.

Reading the two articles side by side, one question came to mind: I wonder if children are taught ‘the banker’s rule of 7’? Be aware, this question may have come to mind because my mother and brother are both maths teachers. Maths is in my genes.

 It's all about the maths

The banker’s rule of 7 is that a 7% interest rate will double any figure in 10 years. It has to do with logarithms that are beyond my current maths skills, and the following equation: n = 70/R

The rule indicates that the approximate number of years (n) for an amount to double is 70 divided by the rate (R).

The common example I have been sharing in this column is the rate of electric fee rises, about 7%.

n = 70/7 = 10 years

In other words, at a constant rate of 7%, the price of electricity in New Zealand has doubled in the last ten years, and is likely to double again in the next ten years. Are children taught this in school? It may have bearing on their adult lives.

Using this handy equation, I turn my attention to the article on rates in which a reported rates hike of 6.5% will be applied to properties valued at $152,000.

n = 70/6.5 = 10.8 years.

Stated in plain English, at this level, rates on modest homes will double in under 11 years, while power is forecast to double in less than 10 years. Add to these the insurance hikes we have seen after the Christ Church earthquakes, and the cost of fixing the ‘pong’, and something has got to give.

Be aware, however, that higher rates rises will be imposed on lower value properties and lower rates rises will be applied to higher value properties. Under this formula, the poor and working class will be paying an increased proportion of Whanganui’s budget year after year.

Why the greater rates hike on lower value homes than higher value homes? 

The rates article appeared less than a week after the Chronicle profiled Sarah, in “Managing life on the bread line” (Saturday, 16-03-13). That article described that after paying rent, power and gas, Sarah “has $130 left to provide food and any other essentials.” Given the current rates rises, many struggling families like Sarah’s will find it even more difficult to cope. 

I wonder what Sarah, and other low-income householders think about paying a higher portion of our city’s budget year-on-year, for things like running lights in front of the Central Library during daylight hours. I was pleased to hear recently that by mentioning this apparent waste of power and money in my column a few weeks ago, I have instigated a bit of a debate. Reportedly, some say the lights are on for “security reasons” (during hours of bright sunshine and heavy foot traffic?). Another reported explanation is that the light fixture is art. I admit that I had not thought of that when I first noticed the bulbs illuminated on a bright, sunshiny day two and a half years ago and mentioned it to library staff.

If eight light bulbs burning directly under a glass skylight with sunshine beaming through it is indeed art, I would suggest two potential titles: “Ironic”, or “Money to Burn.”

Ironic? Or money to burn? 

For excellent, free advice on how to protect your family against electric rates rises, please see the sidebar.

Peace, Estwing


Project HEAT: Home Energy Awareness Training

Neighbourhood presentations highlight seven excellent, low cost / high performance strategies that anyone can use to make homes warmer, drier and healthier while saving power and money.

30th March, 1-2:30 pm. Wanganui Community Arts Centre, City. (Taupo Quay)
4th April, 7-8:30 pm. All Saints, 70 Moana Street, Wanganui East. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Autumn Workshops

ECO School Workshops
Autumn, 2013

20th April, 9-5 Thinking Like a Swale: Advanced Permaculture Workshop
27th-28th April. Suburban Permaculture Weekend
5th May, 3-5. International Permaculture Day. Introduction to Permaculture
11th May. Home Energy Savings DIY Workshop

More details below.

Registration essential:; 06 344 5013; 022 635 0868

Thinking Like a Swale: Advanced Permaculture Workshop

Water has been a teacher to humanity for millennia. Now that humanity faces unprecedented challenges, water remains our teacher, particularly in the form of the humble yet powerful swale. Beyond its function of slowing the flow of water through a landscape, the swale can be used as the design inspiration for sustainable homes, abundant small-scale food production, community resilience, teaching and learning, and more. This workshop provides examples of ‘thinking like a swale’ and encourages participants to engage this type of thinking in their own lives and communities.

20th April, 9-5. $60, includes lunch.

Suburban Permaculture Weekend, 27th-28th April

This two-day workshop covers the main aspects of a suburban permaculture installation: an energy-efficient home; low-input / high-productivity vege gardens; food forests; water management; poultry; and, community relationships. The weekend translates theory into practice, using an exemplary suburban permaculture property, the Eco-Thrifty Renovation:

Tutor: Nelson Lebo has developed one of the most sustainable rural properties in North America and one of the most sustainable suburban properties in New Zealand. He holds a PhD in permaculture education.

27th April, 10 am – 28th April, 5 pm.
Cost: $160 per person, $260 per couple. Includes meals. Free camping available, or choose other local accommodation.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Eco-Thrifty Popes and Buddhists

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Vatican goes Eco-Thrifty! Pope shuns chauffeur-driven limo for the bus.

I am humbled by the humility of the newly elected pope: Francis the 1st. I am not a pope-watcher, and usually have no more than a peripheral interested in the comings and goings of the Vatican, but just one sentence changed all that: “The Argentine is known for taking the bus to work and cooking his own meals in his small apartment.” This was in stark contrast to the one thing I knew about his predecessor, Benedict XVI: that he wore designer red shoes.

I confess that I am not a Catholic, but I fully-endorse the teachings of Jesus, especially those in support of the poor and those condemning moneychangers. Over the last decades the wealth gap between these two groups has expanded to a breadth that would make ancient Roman elites blush. This gap prompted the Occupy movement (the 99 percent), countless European protests in the last 4 years, and probably the Arab Spring. Good on the Cardinals for electing a pope who appears to put social justice issues – including the impacts of globalization on the poor – at the forefront of the Catholic Church.

And choosing the name Francis: icing on the cake, but not a decadent cake, more of a pancake with a pat of butter and maybe a tab of real Vermont maple syrup.

While not a practicing Buddhist, I have Buddhist tendencies, although you may not believe it if you have seen me play softball for Whanganui’s Athletics Softball Club. One of my favorite ‘teachings’ from Buddhism is an eco-thrifty ‘lesson’ that goes something like this:

When their robes become too worn to wear, the Buddhist monks use them as blankets on their beds. When they become too worn for blankets, they use them as mats on the floor. When they become too worn to use as mats, they use them a chinking in the walls to keep our draughts.

Along those same lines, we have come up with a use for old towels and off-cut bits of wood for draught-proofing the bottom of the doors in our home. This is a variation on what can be found in everyone’s Gran’s home: the cloth tube filled with beans. I prefer my version for a few reasons. First, a piece of timber wrapped in a towel has a square edge whereas a bean tube – even when squidged up against a door – still has a rounded edge. In most cases – even our wonky home – the junction between a door and a floor is a right angle. Second, my version can be made virtually for free, as almost everyone has some odd bits of timber or can get them from a friend, or even free from a lumber yard. And old towels, everybody has one or two of those. Third, call me crazy but I believe food should be used for eating and not draught-proofing. (Also, what if the mice eat it?)

Another method of draught-proofing doors (and windows) is applying a ‘store-bought’ foam seal. At less than $4 for two rolls at a number of local merchants, this approach is practically free. This is suitable for all timber doors and windows where you can feel draughts, but most aluminium doors and windows are manufactured to be draught-proof.

These strategies for low-cost / high-performance energy savings are included with many others in the Project HEAT presentations that are making their way through Whanganui one suburb at a time. Please see the sidebar for more upcoming events.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, March 15, 2013

Can We Mimic the Success Stories in Energy Savings?

Over the last two months I’ve been collecting articles on energy that relate to many of the topics I write about in this column. At this point I have enough of them to share some recent developments and innovative programmes from around the world.

But first I’ll start with a bit of a no-duh for anyone who has ever visited the United States of America. Forbes magazine reports, “America: The worldwide Leader in Wasting Energy.” Writer, Eric Savitz, suggests “Chronically low energy productivity – the level of output that our economy achieves from the energy we all consume – is costing U.S. businesses and households an estimated $130 billion per year.” I don’t know much about N.Z. business and industry energy-efficiency, but I would suggest that household energy waste here would be comparable per capita to the U.S. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that individual states in the U.S. are implementing innovative programmes, and saving businesses and residents millions of dollars. Savitz reports that one small Massachusetts community helped families save over “$10 million in electric and gas bills by providing personalized information, with neighborhood benchmarks and advice about how they can use less energy.”

In another state, and another magazine (Yes!, probably a lot like NZ’s Good Magazine), Erin McCoy reports that Kentucky in saving power, cutting carbon emissions, and creating jobs by facilitating a win-win-win situation between homeowners, contractors, and the planet. A programme called How$mart provides home energy audits, works with contractors to perform the recommended work, and then checks the work to make sure its been done properly. The average How$mart home has cut energy usage by 20%.

Translating the two articles above to a Wanganui context, this could mean $8.5 million in savings per year (homes only, not business or industry).

NZ average household electricity use: 10,000 kWh/year (, 2008)
20% of 10,000 kWh = 2,000 kWh
2,000 kWh X $0.25/kWh = $500
$500 X 17,000 homes in Wanganui = $8.5 million

In my opinion, the coolest thing about taking this perspective is that this money already exists in our community, and we don’t have to ‘attract new dollars’ as Council seems continually trying to do. Instead, we would be retaining dollars now sent to power companies in Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington.

The other cool thing is that investments in energy savings today pay themselves back at faster rates in the future as power prices rise. In other words, the faster rates rise, the faster energy-efficient investments pay for themselves through savings. For example, under ‘normal usage’ a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb now pays for itself in about 6 months (200% return on investment!) As electricity becomes dearer, the payback period for CFLs gets shorter.

And what is even cooler, Consumer magazine reports that the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority has introduced minimum performance standards for CFLs (05 Feb, 2013). “All general-purpose CFLs must pass requirements for energy performance, light quality, bulb durability, mercury levels and their impact upon the country's electricity networks.”

Now the bad news – not so cool – comes from an article I read in the Herald on Sunday, 10th March in Nelson’s Café in Stratford. The headline: Power price rises unlikely to ease: Government warned users must pay for new electricity plants.

Given my observations on governments’ ability/inability to embrace sustainability (shared in last week’s column), and my experience with innovative power programmes overseas, I would argue that a simple strategy of eco-thrifty education/incentives/management would render this headline unnecessary because saving power is cheaper than producing power.

Take the 34 million kWh potentially saved in Wanganui per year, and add Feilding, Marton, Bulls, Turakina, etc. and the amount saved is more than the output of a new electricity plant, and at a fraction of the cost. Does that make sense?

The power companies themselves were pushing this type of strategy 25 years ago in Massachusetts, USA, and reaping the financial benefits of not building costly new plants. But here we are 25 years later in ‘clean, green New Zealand’ and the main strategy appears to be building costly new plants. Does that make sense?

At this rate, N.Z. may replace the U.S. in the Forbes headline at the top of this piece: “The worldwide Leader in Wasting Energy.” Unlike our All Blacks, Black Ferns, and the recent Black Sox world championship victory in Auckland, I suggest this is one category we may not want to be number one.

Peace, Estwing

Monday, March 11, 2013

Early Autumn Update

Here is a bit of a photo tour of the property almost 2 and 1/2 years into our project... Oops, there appears to be a problem uploading some of the pictures. So, this may be an abbreviated tour, starting with the first wave of our pumpkin harvest. Here they are curing in the sun for about three weeks before putting them into cool storage in the back bedroom.

One of our Monty's Surprise apple trees is producing nice size fruit in our duck enclosure.

Perhaps our last garden bed being prepared with a piece of plastic killing the grass, and covered with grass scythed by Xander last week.

Our front yard.

Wow, peaches in the dunes within 100 metres of the Tasman Sea. Free food!

The wasps have found the free food too.

Here is that amazing peach tree.

A nice harvest in our kitchen.


Blackboy peaches, Yum!

Sorry the other pics would not load, Estwing

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Grumble Grumble

It would be naïve to suggest that the type of win-win-win thinking associated with eco-thrifty renovation is new or original in any way. Over 200 years ago, a famous American coined the phrase, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Many older Kiwis would simply call it “common sense.”

But sometimes common sense can be awfully uncommon. For example, last week I was doing a home energy audit in Saint John’s Hill at a home built in the 1950s. It had low ceilings with pelmets stretching down to just below the top of the windows. But sometime during the last half-century, the insulating curtains and curtain rails were removed and replaced with vertical blinds that offer virtually no insulation. I suspect this coincided with an era of cheap electricity and a changing aesthetic.

But what goes around comes around, and while I will not argue that pelmets have come back into fashion (yet!), by most accounts, electricity is no longer “cheap,” and the woman for whom I was doing the audit has decided to replace the vertical blinds with thermal curtains. Her decision-making was based on making her home warmer, reducing condensation, saving power and money, and reducing her impact on the environment, however small that may be.

This is an example of an ordinary Wanganui woman exercising the eco-thrifty, win-win-win part of her brain. But she is not alone. Almost everyone, I would argue, practices eco-thrifty design thinking on a daily basis, sometimes without even noticing it. For example, the car park between the Boys and Girls Gym Club and YMCA Central has a few spaces under a large shade tree that fill up before the un-shaded spaces.

This qualifies as eco-thrifty design thinking because it: improves human comfort; saves petrol (by not having to run the air conditioner on high when starting up a hot car); and, saves money because less petrol is used. Other employees at YMCA Central practice eco-thrifty thinking by riding bicycles – and in one case an electric bike – to work.

In all cases above, individuals appear to recognize one, two, or all of the components of the sustainability triangle: human needs; economic viability; and ecological health. I would argue the first two components are examples of enlightened self-interest. In other words, living better while saving money may be considered by many ‘selfs’ as in their interest. 

But this type of thinking appears to break down when government gets involved. Spending other peoples’ money appears to be different than spending one’s own, and decision-making that suits the sustainability triangle appears to break down.

For example, I’ve been noticing the lights outside the Central Library burning all day long since I moved here two and a half years ago. The good news is that they are compact fluorescent light bulbs. The bad news is that it still costs rate-payers about $230 per year for running these eight outdoor lights during daylight hours underneath a skylight that lets in free sunlight. I raised this issue at the library over two years ago and was told they had no ability to turn out the lights.

Another example of the unsustainability of government decision-making is so comical that it deserves to appear in the New Zealand Herald ‘Sideswipes’ section, if the ‘new look H’ still has it. Last week, I went up to Hamilton to defend my PhD thesis (call me Dr., now), and took a side trip to Raglan to visit friends and surf. And there it was, sitting on the beach in all its glory: a blatant example of unsustainability proudly bearing the web address: 

To the best of my recollection, the rusted recycle bin has been in place for less than four years.

Someone please answer this question: If the government requires me to use stainless steel nails on my home 200 metres from the Tasman Sea, why would it place a non-stainless, non-galvanized recycle bin within throwing distance of a body of salt water in a region known for strong, seasonal onshore winds?

These are both examples of other people spending your money. Does anyone think either one is: a) enlightened; b) in their best interest? 

Grrr, Estwing

Monday, March 4, 2013

Guest Post: Xander, our new intern

Editors Note: I am humbled by the words below from our new intern, Xander. I think this is a great, fresh perspective from an American 21 year-old. It shows the first stages of a transformative learning process: a 'cognitive crisis' or 'disorienting dilemma.' Change is good, but not easy. - Estwing

Eco School Blog Post #1

My first inclination when hearing about my internship placement at the Eco School was something along the lines of surprise and excitement. What is more exciting than eco-thrifty renovation, manual labor, and gardening? Since my work started, my excitement has grown due to what I have learned so far, what I will continue to learn, and how it can be applied back home in America (which is the most exciting aspect).

I come from Reelsville, Indiana, USA. There’s a great chance that you will never meet a person from Reelsville, that’s how small it is. I grew up in the spectacular Indiana bush. I am a friend to manual labor, especially yard chores, building porches, and putting up walls. At Earlham College, I am close to finishing my Bachelor of Arts in Biology.

No more than seven weeks ago I was destined to achieve a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, teach at the university level, and conduct independent research. A couple of years before now, I had mapped out my educational trajectory for the years to come and the potential resume-builders necessary to meet this goal. It was not until last week that these plans began to dissolve as a result of my disillusionment in biology and science as a whole.

My sole intention with this career was to end the dichotomy between humans and nature, better described as an “us” and “them” relationship, in light of the current and global environmental crises. For me, it is hard to explain why I ever decided that scientific research specifically would be able to do such a thing. On the whole, scientific research very rarely provides solutions to problems such as global climate change or over-exploitation of natural resources insofar as it is strictly research intensive, aiding little to the betterment of the human-nature relationship.

At this stage in my life, I am uncertain about how I wish to take my first steps into the real world. I have been in New Zealand for the past seven weeks on an environmental program that expires in the beginning of May. We’ve been studying the various environmental issues of the country, Māori history and culture, and conservation biology. Among all of these courses and my experiences at the Eco School and in the community, something on this island has influenced my change of heart.

As a matter of fact, it is no easy task to pinpoint the direct causes of my personal development, or dilemma. For instance, it is likely that there are numerous variables in this equation; however, I can only see the product. From what I do know (or what I think I know) is that a major contributing factor is Nelson and the Eco School. I know that I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or point fingers, but the Eco School is the culprit.

Out of my entire curriculum-based educational experience so far, I have never once learned anything as practical as what I have learned at the Eco School in the past three weeks. My time at the Eco School has provided me not only with various lifestyle changes but also the skills and means to provide for a family, a community, and myself. Not only that, but it has given me hope that in the face of forces more powerful than me, namely global climate change and politics, all is not lost. Moreover, where my ideas of scientific research failed my overall goal in life, the mission of the Eco School has prevailed and demonstrates the means for me to meet my goal back in the States.

I know that I haven’t described any of the small projects or tasks that I worked on in the past three weeks. It is not because they are insignificant, it is because they make up a much larger picture that has, to some extent, changed me on a deep and personal level. The work that is being done at the Eco School is inspiring. It goes to show that every person has the potential to make a difference in the community and the world (e.g., think global, act local). And, by community, I mean the social, economic, and environmental aspects. It is in this kind of work that the future is a little brighter for everyone.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Seeing the Glass Half Full

There has been a lot of press dedicated to a ‘Living Wage’ lately, with a number of articles and editorials addressing the issue in the Chronicle. For our fair city, that designates a ‘hot topic,’ although I reckon our malodorous melodrama stands no chance of being displaced as the top press-getter. To alleviate the risk of upsetting advocates of $18+ per hour, I’ll try to present my contrary position as carefully and clearly as possible.

Please be aware that I am not opposed to raising wages for the lowest paid workers, but I see it as the same old glass half empty thinking that appears to pervade most thinking on the national, regional and district levels. The problem with this type of thinking is that everyone else is thinking the same way, and ‘growth’ (wage rises in this case) becomes a competitive proposition between every municipality in the country and the world. In other words, when every town, city, and country says, “We’ve got to boost ‘economic development’,” they are competing against one another for a limited number of industries and jobs.

What appears to happen is that tax incentives and other sweet deals are used to attract industry and the associated jobs. In most cases, the industry relocates, which means that jobs are lost in another community. In terms of the number of jobs, it is usually a zero sum game. This is called ‘globalization’, and in most cases it is a race to the bottom for wages. The recent ANZ announcements in Australia and New Zealand of shifting call centre jobs to India provide good examples of this.

At the same time, industry can hold municipalities and nations ‘hostage’ by threatening to leave, unless… For example, I believe some of Wanganui’s industries have said they would leave us if they had to pay for a separate treatment facility for their wastes. Not to beat a dead horse (or what smells like one!), from what I understand it was a protein dump from one of these industries that has lead to our hell smell.

Who is to blame industry to taking such a position, when ‘everyone else is doing it’, and corporations can justify anything on the grounds of maximizing profits? But what this leads to is increasing income inequality: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This trend has been going on worldwide since the early 1970s, and, from what I understand, in New Zealand since the mid-1980s. New Zealand now ranks among the top countries in terms of income inequality. (See The Spirit Level, Wilkinson & Picket, 2009).

What this also leads to is a zero sum game between the wealthy and the poor regarding wealth. In other words, proposing a ‘living wage’ of $18/hr means a battle over wealth transfer, because increased wages have to come from somewhere. They are not created out of thin air: an extra dollar in one’s pocket means an extra dollar from another’s pocket. This does not mean that advocates for the working poor should not advocate a ‘living wage’, but that it should not be the only, or perhaps even the main argument they advance.

Because I like to look at things from different perspectives, I would like to advance the notion of Wage Living. This is a glass half full approach to improving peoples’ lives, because it empowers them to live better here and now on their current incomes instead of wishing, waiting, hoping for more money. Researchers have found that once basic necessities of food, water, and shelter are met, subsequent advances in income do not lead to advances in happiness. Some may argue that these basic needs are not being met for some New Zealanders at present. I would argue that for these people, and any other Kiwis interested in improving their quality of life while saving money, an eco-thrifty approach to home energy-efficiency, and/or an eco-thrifty approach to lifestyle could lead to healthier, wealthier, wiser (?) individuals, whanau, and communities. If you would like me to expand on this perspective in another column, please let me know.

Some of the top tips for low-cost / high performance strategies to improve energy efficiency, thermal comfort, and bank balances will be shared in a series of 10 community presentations that kick off Monday, 4th March at the Josephite Retreat Centre.

Peace, Estwing