Saturday, March 29, 2008

The feeble strength of one

The Union express, the paper of the National Distribution Union, is one of the better union newspapers. They've had some excellent coverage of the raids.

But there was one appalling article about climate change in their latest issue (not available on-line but it's February-April 2008 with a Bunnings protest on the front cover). I've been thinking about it ever since I read Anne Else's excellent piece about Plastic Bags, and realise I had to say something.

The article is called Be The Change and is based on the website of the same name.

My main objection is to the section called Save Money and the Planet, which gave all sorts of advice about what union members could do. Much of the advice assumed that you own your own home, and have capital to make upgrades, with suggestions to install insulation, and consider solar water heating. Then there's the advice to turn off your heated towel rail and your second fridge.*

I am angry to read this nonsense in a union magazine, which is going to some of the lowest paid workers in the country. While some of NDU workplaces, such as mills, are well paid enough that workers might own their own home and a heated towel rail, many are not. The assumption

I regularly turn off my hot water heater, not for energy efficiency reasons, because it's the only way I can pay my electricity bill. The idea that workers need to be lectured at how to save electricity is ridiculous. Low paid people know from saving money. What they don't have is capital, some people can't afford to buy a $6 light bulb now to save $20 over the course of the year.

There was nothing about landlords and government's responsibility to provide better quality housing, and what unions are doing about that (which is probably because the answer is 'nothing'). There wasn't even any information about the schemes that some councils are running which subsidise landlords to install heat-pumps and installation.

I would expect a union magazine to be the one place you could find discussion of environmental issues that goes beyond individualistic moralising. That it didn't, that all the Union Express had to say was the banal 'be the change' is a really bad sign. Recently discussion about climate change and carbon footprints have gone mainstream. Airlines and power companies want us to believe if we do our little bit then everything will be fine. Some environmentalists seem to see this as a victory, but it's not, it's distraction and co-option. Individuals can't save the planet, anymore than they can end war. The way the world's resources are used is not decided by consumers, but at by companies at the point of production. Action around climate change which ignores this isn't so much rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic, but telling the passengers to lose weight so it'll sink slower.

* It makes me want to write a whole series of climate change advice in a similar vein: "Turn off the heating system in your spa pool when you are going to be away for a few days. Consider an energy efficient air conditioning system for your second home." etc.


  1. Please tell me the heated towel rail thing is a humorous hyperbole, and not an appliance that actually exists in some homes.

  2. Great post Maia, couldn't agree more (but you already knew that)...

  3. but paragraph 5 doesn't finish, you end it at "The assumption"

  4. Anonymous9:12 pm

    I agree totally with your argument that the manufacturers of or homes and appliances are the best target for government energy efficiency strategies. The best proof of this approach is the huge improvements in safety and urban air quality that have been achieved since governments imposed regulations on car makers.

    While many union members will be in the dire financial straits you mention many older members will have been able to take advantage of the subsidised first home mortgages that were offered before Muldoon stuffed the economy. They can and should be making these energy efficiency improvements simply because they are crucial to anybody who becomes dependent on National Super for their income.

    Can't afford to invest $6 to save $20 a year (for six years) is a frightening and appalling argument. To use it as a serious argument that you obviously believe in leaves me gobsmacked. If I was a capitalist I would be patting you on the back and saying thank you very much. Most people who can't afford $6 probably can. But it takes a lot of work and a change in mindset to find that $6. If unions and government invested the time and effort needed to find all those $6, and the $60 for cyclinder wraps that you can take with you from rental home to rental home, then you would start to seriously alarm capitalists who depend on being smarter (as in better informed) than workers or beneficiaries to make their profits.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Those "energy efficient" lightbulbs are a pain, anyway. They take a while to warm up to get to full brightness and they only last a really long time if you leave them on for a number of hours (3 minimum, I think) at a time. Compared to just flicking a normal lightbulb on and off for a minute or two say, to use the bathroom, the amount of power you'd burn to leave the light on in the bathroom for 3 hours so as to not burn out the lightbulb is not worth it.

    I completely sympathise with anyone who has trouble paying the powerbill for hot water. If hot water tanks were replaced with those heat as you need water systems (whatever they are called), the cost of hot water wouldn't be such an issue for people.

  7. Stentor - heated towel rails actually exist, when I worked for a property valuation agency typing up reports heated towel rails would be listed . I have one in my flat (I think I have turned it on a couple of times, but as an emergency drying solution as I don't have a dryer, because I can't afford one). The thing about New Zealand houses is that they're built on the assumption that winter is a freak event that happens once a decade. So most don't have insulation, and I've probably been in two houses in my life that have central heating. THe idea behind a heated towel rail is that a warm towel helps make the transition from the warm bath to the freezing rest of the house easier. Anyway, they really exist.

    Kevyn - I agree that the article could have contained information there have been times in my life where I couldn't afford $6 extra on my grocery bill. There are certainly weeks at the moment where if a light bulb went it would be replaced by a standard bulb, because I don't have an extra $5.

  8. Anonymous12:22 am

    I had never heard of energy savers burning out if they're only turned on for a couple of minutes. The ones in our toilet and laundry lasted twelves years or about 4000 hours, give or take a thousand. Ordinary light bulbs only last 1000 hrs according to Phillips. Some brands are very slow to light up at all which can be annoying. I think one big barrier to their use is the number of people who have been caught out by not realising that they come in different shades of white, equivalent to incandescent, halogen and daylight. Anybody who mistakenly bought a daylight one for an indoor light would probably never buy another enrgy saver ever again.

    I don't own my own home but I got an extra page added to my rental agreement stating the energy efficiency features not installed when I moved in. This so that I can safely remove the energy saving lights, thermal drapes, cylinder wrap and extra layer of bats that I provided myself. If I'd been really smart I would have put the money I save on my power into an investment account. In the dozen years since I got sick of relentlessly increasing power bills and did something positive about it I could have accumulated several thousand dollars. Sigh, the wisdom of hindsight.

    Incidentally, not that I am much good at planning ahead, but using the money you're not spending on power in summer to buy energy saving things if you see them on special is a good way of breaking out of the cashflow treadmill.

    Fortunately I have a vege garden tolerant landlord.

  9. Nice post, Maia. I get very bored with all these helpful hints about how to feed my children / save electricity / keep my career going / save my marriage / whatever, delivered patronisingly from on-high by people who have never had to live my life.

    I think that imagination is a very important moral capacity - that ability to think yourself into another person's shoes (if they are so lucky as to have them) - and really understand what might matter to them, what the world might look like to them, what knowledge they might already have, just because their lives are different from your own. Only if you can make that imaginative leap can you then truly offer them help / sympathy / advice whatever.

  10. I used to turn off my hot water heating to save money, but an electrician friend told me it doesn't really save you any money to do it, so I stopped. I never use the heated towel rail, though. Those things really eat electricity. I won't use those energy-efficient light bulbs, either. It's not that they cost more - it's that the light from them is very harsh and gives me a headache when I'm reading. Plus, they're mostly imported from China, which doesn't strike me as exactly environmentally friendly when you consider the carbon costs of transporting them. And they've got mercury in them, which makes disposal environmentally hazardous unless you have a safe place to take them, which probably not that many people do.

  11. Anonymous1:53 am

    Where can I get a cylinder wrap? Plumbing outlet? Sounds brilliant, if I can wangle the $60 sometime. Can't see extending to my own batts though!

    I do have a house lot of thermal curtains I take from rental to rental - first made when briefly in a state house, which came, as they still do, I think, with no curtains or carpets and was, without exception, the coldest house I've ever lived in.

    Polished floorboards are all very nice of course, but really only if the sit atop an underfloor heating system *cough*splutter*

  12. Anonymous2:33 am

    Sorry, Maia, so rude of me to have gotten all excited about a cylinder wrap, which I'm now realising is probably not a pre-made thing that can be purchased in one of many appropriate sizes?

    Somewhat related, I recall feeling the same sort of dismay you express here when the city missioners column in my town's free paper was all about how lower income folks should be 'saving up' for their monthly bank fees.

    That was one of the first and surest signs, to me, that the world had gone arse about face, when only those who really couldn't afford to lose around $15 a month were the only ones paying.

    Recently, after more than a decade of never having the several hundred dollars balance that would negate those fees, my bank phoned and offered me what seems to be a more or less fee-free account. I wondered, is this my trickle down, at last, though in all honesty I don't trust it yet, and am waiting for some catch or other to hit home.

  13. Anonymous3:09 am

    Anonymous, All of the big hardware chains stock cylinder wraps. If you're renting I'd suggest getting the biggest size. I can't see it doing any harm if it ends up going twice round on a smaller cylinder.

  14. Anonymous3:31 am

    sofiya, Does the light from flouro tubes in shops and offices and the library also give you a headache? If not then there might be a solution to your predicament.
    1) Never buy an energy saver labelled daylight or 6400k. That's a real harsh light.
    2) Ordinary lightbulbs throw their light evenly in all directions, energy savers don't do that. If you're good at crafts you could experiment with making a convex (or is it concave?)lampshade to diffuse the light to do the same job done by the covers on flouro tube housings.

    Hope this helps.

    I thought our last lightbulb manufacturer had closed down because they couldn't compete with cheap imports from China.

    That just leaves the mercury issue. I know the company I work for classifies flouro tubes as hazardous waste and uses a hazardous waste disposal company and there is a similar facility at the waste transfer station. But you're right to ask how many householders use these facilities and is this another bit that needs to be added to the council's recycling collections.

  15. Anonymous8:56 pm

    Pity you haven't been exposed to the joy of underfloor heating then!

  16. Another gripe about "energy-efficient" lightbulbs: they don't work with dimmer switches, and in my rented house there's only one light switch without a dimmer. I've heard mutterings of standard bulbs being phased out and I wonder at the logistics of such a scheme.

  17. Anonymous3:37 pm

    Underfloor heating is great, it certainly makes it more comfortable walking on the tiled floors in the kitchen & bathroom in the middle of winter. We also had central heating installed before last winter, it works off a timer, so it comes on before we get home from work, even on the coldest days I can wander around in shorts and a T shirt. It is very cheap too, only adds about $150 - $200 per month to run.

  18. Anonymous11:05 am

    Oh, that's brilliant -

    Dean, I try to keep my power bill under $150-$200, not aspire to adding something to my environment that will add that much to my bill.

    The biggest message out of climate change action is consume less, which the poor are already doing, very efficiently.
    Now it's up to the comfortable, climate-change-denying middle class to pull finger and work out that all those gadgets are just unsustainable, and markets are just promoting greed to get a short-term benefit from consumers - again, another instance of unsustainable behaviour.

    Maia -
    *smirk* NDU media person was flatmate of Greenpeace Climate Change campaigner - not so much a scoop as a 1-degree-of-separation event!

    luv ya,

  19. Anonymous4:41 pm

    Anon - Whats your problem, during winter I like to be warm I have central heating and it keeps me warm, go to any other civilised cold climate country and your home will have central heating. I can afford the lifestyle I lead and presumably my taxes pay for your lifestyle. But I thank you on by behalf for doing your bit while I drive mt turbo charged v8 Bently. As for green peace they are nothing more than a multi national money making corporation they have a vested financial interest in climate change.

  20. Anonymous6:47 pm

    Hi Maia,

    I'm the first person to complain about lifestylism.

    The person above is correct, it was a story for my flatmate. Sometimes when you're working late hours on a project like this it's difficult to get stories, so you turn to your flatmates.

    If you would like to write an article on any topic or you would like to post your blog article, I'd be happy to include it in the next Express. (That goes for you too Asher or anyone else here.)

    Thanks for the feedback,

    Express Journo

  21. Very Nice Stuff!!

  22. Nice article. I got to learn some important things about house to save money and energy. I book this blog and promote it to my colleagues.

  23. It is clear all about care that we should take care while remodeling the house. Suntouch floor warmer systems keeps your home warm and safe without any side effects.