The case against Project Hayes

In this edited extract from Brian Turner's new book Into The Wider World, the author sets out his opposition to the wind-energy electricity scheme proposed by Meridian Energy for the Lammermoor Range.

I've lost count of the number of people who have told me that opposing energy companies and their projects is a waste of time and money, an exercise in futility.

"The odds are stacked against you," they say, and by and large I agree with that, especially when the proponents have, relative to their opponents, huge financial resources, an unswerving belief in their own importance, and often speak as if they are sure that they have a mortgage on knowledge and objectivity.

"We don't know why you bother," people tell me.

A significant number of those I know of my generation - born in the 1940s - admit that they fear there are good grounds for alarm, but that they'll likely be dead before the proverbial really hits the fan.

So they've decided to enjoy themselves and make the most of the time they have left.

There's not a lot left to embrace once we're gone to the grave, as Marvell pointed out.

I often wonder why I still bother.

The reason has something to do with an inclination to believe there's truth in the quip that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

I don't want to go to the grave knowing I didn't try to do my best for future generations.

I've long been grateful for the efforts of past environmentalists in this country, and felt a duty to them.

Also, having read and listened to some of the remarks passed by Keith Turner when he was Meridian Energy's stingily remunerated CEO (only four times or more the salary of the Prime Minister), and the company's then "External Relations" spokesman Alan Seay, I told a Southland Times journalist when she rang that I had concluded that Meridian was run by "condescending monsters".

I accept that Turner and Seay and those they represent may genuinely believe that what they advocate is essential, and environmentally good as gold, but I think they are wrong and their focus is too narrow.

There is also real gold in it for them, mere colour for the likes of me.

I wonder if they would be so ardent and dismissive and patronising if there wasn't so much gold in it for them.

To me they are overpaid: there are many like them in New Zealand today, and too many who are, by comparison, underpaid.

Some of these thoughts ran through my mind in June 2007 when I drove the 60-odd kilometres down from where I live to Alexandra to appear on behalf of the Upland Landscape Protection Society (ULPS), then later on my own behalf, in front of the Central Otago District Council's consents panel hearing those presenting evidence for and against Meridian's application to build a giant windwhatever ("Project Hayes") on the Lammermoor Range to the west of the Old Dunstan Road.

In our increasingly troubled society, it is preferred that citizens be restrained and measured and compliant rather than angry and defiant.

The peasantry is required to behave itself; that suits the business patricians and their body of paid professional "experts".

Some might call a number of them prostitutes, but we're not allowed to say that in case roofs are lifted off by the steam of indignation.

How many of these "experts" don't take the money? And how many of those opposing Meridian and other companies get adequately recompensed for their time and effort? You know the answer.

As for anger and defiance, I'm all for them, especially the latter.

At the very least those at whom it's directed are ensured a bit of discomfort and, now and then, someone takes notice.

But one gets sick and tired of behaving oneself, being a Nice Boy rather than a Bad Boy, or a Rude Boy.

Knowing how much rude boys are deplored here, I was well mannered, reserved, my presentations heartfelt; as nice as a boy like me can be.

I said what I had to say as forcefully and sincerely as I could.

I hadn't combed my hair but I had turned up wearing a decent jacket and respectable trousers.

I briefly observed two young lawyers in the employ of Meridian.

Very presentable they were, too; well groomed, soberly if a little severely dressed, attentive, assiduously taking notes.

I would have enjoyed quizzing them, finding out what they knew about this place of ours, the landscapes of Central Otago and the south, the history of its environmental desecration, what they knew about environmental issues and the pros and cons of wind power when compared with other energy sources, whether they gave a shit.

It's likely they were very clever, in one sense of the word, and quite unworldly and ignorant in other ways.

Here are some of the things I said to the panel in my personal submission:"The other day someone told me that the actor Orson Welles was gigantic by the time he died.

He was a monster, a glutton.

When Welles was in Greece, so the story goes, he threatened to eat entire villages out of house and home, so much so that he was told to leave.

Why? Because, in one small village, he had been eating eight to 10 chickens a day. They literally couldn't afford to have him stay.

"Energy companies are like that. Meridian is like that. It is determined to continue to feed New Zealand's gluttonish appetite for power, will stop at little to try to persuade New Zealanders that their perception of progress, prosperity and a glittering future depends upon satisfying, and encouraging, our society's insatiable appetite for energy.

"Meridian has proven itself determined to mislead and fudge. Take its claim that Project Hayes would power more than 200,000 `homes'.

"The use of the word 'homes' is a cynical attempt to psychologically massage the masses: in the context of the Hayes proposal, `homes' is a feel-good expression, one meant to console and reassure.

"It tells me that, rather than setting out to openly and honestly illuminate and inform the public, Meridian is intent on gulling and misleading.

"As the Dutch engineer J A Halkema has pointed out, wind energy is unreliable, and it is not possible to accurately measure the number of households. He says such measurements are 'fantasy' and those who use them are misleading us and intentionally hiding the facts. (When promoting its Makara wind farm, Meridian claimed that site was "the best internationally". As regards the Lammermoor site, Meridian says it's "second to none" in New Zealand. Strikes me Meridian will say anything.)

I drew the panel's attention to Tom Wessels who, in his book The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, "demonstrates how our current path toward progress, based on continual economic expansion and inefficient use of resources, runs absolutely contrary to three foundational scientific laws that govern all complex natural systems".

He goes on to discuss these, which he terms the "three Laws of Sustainability: (1) the law of limits to growth, (2) the second law of thermodynamics, which exposes the danger of increased energy consumption; and (3) the law of self-organisation, which results in the marvellous diversity of such highly evolved systems as the human body and complex ecosystems".

"Wessels argues that: 'These laws, scientifically proven to sustain life in its myriad forms, increasingly have been cast aside, first by Western economists, political pragmatists, and governments attracted by the idea of unlimited growth, and more recently by a global economy dominated by large corporations, in which consolidation and oversimplification create large-scale inefficiencies in the use of materials and energy.'

"Sadly, this seems to sum up the actions and thinking of a lot of those in control of New Zealand's future. This country is chocka with boffins and bandits who don't appear to have considered the views of the likes of GK Chesterton, who believed that 'The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us'.

I told the panel I was "reminded of thoughts expressed by Bill McKibben in his book Wandering Home, an insightful, informed account of a three-week walk through the Adirondack Mountains in the US.

McKibben wrote that `we need to set aside land from our use simply to prove to ourselves that we can do it, that we don't need to be in control of everything around us.

The battle for the future is precisely between those who are willing to engineer every organism for our convenience', would rather not `risk any damage' to our economy, 'and those who are willing to say there is something other than us that counts'.

"McKibben asks us to acknowledge the `surpassing glory in our right habitation of a place', something that is, these days, `drowned by the roar of thoughtless commerce, pointless ease'.

"Another American, Curtis White, put it ironically, when he wrote in the April 2006 issue of Harper's, 'the more energetically we pursue our individually, socially isolated right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness', the deader the social and natural worlds become'.

"All right, some say living standards have lifted. But by what measures?

We're an increasingly disease-ridden, consumption-besotted lot.

And how ethical are our large companies? It wasn't very long ago that a chief executive of Telecom as good as said it was normal business practice to dupe, or confuse, the citizenry. Wasn't she saying, in effect, 'Everyone does it'? Can we say Meridian is any different?

"Would government ministers have been so eager to instruct the Ministry for the Environment and the Department of Conservation to support Project Hayes if the government were not receiving substantial income from Meridian's activities?"

"Our economy should be required to serve the natural environment, not the other way round.

"Everything we do should be in accord with that rule. So far the opposite has usually proven to be the case.

"Clean and green, environmentally responsible and savvy New Zealand? Bollocks.

"For decades now New Zealanders have listened to soothing prattle about 'balanced growth and development', only to find that much of what occurs has lacked balance.

"Is it any wonder many of our so-called 'close-knit communities' have become divided communities? So far, balanced growth and development has mostly proven to be an illusion.

"It is true that the magnificent uplands that include the Rock and Pillar Range, and the Lammerlaw and Lammermoor ranges, are not in the same state that they were before the advent of humans.

"But, relative to most of the countryside, they retain more of what we recognise as uniquely part and parcel of what is distinctively southern New Zealand. By contrast, much of the landscape east of the area proposed for Project Hayes has been greatly altered.

"When I was a boy, most of the country from on top of the hill above Outram and all the way across to the western skyline to the Lammerlaw, Lammermoor and the southern end of the Rock and Pillars was a shining, rhythmic sea of springy tussock grasslands.

Now it's mainly green pasture. When will our urge to alter, modify, stop? Those ranges belong, deserve to be seen, as part of what we know and love as iconic Central Otago. For Meridian to say otherwise is sophistry.

"As sentient creatures we have duties for the term of our natural lives. A core duty is to take responsibility for more than just increasing the material well-being of today's generations.

"As the Native Americans asserted [and as I observed in an earlier section of this book] we don't inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.

"This doesn't mean that people are unimportant; it means that unless they treat our natural environment with due respect then they are unworthy of respect themselves, and will be held to account.

"We've long been too big for our boots.

Which is what Eugenio Montale, the Nobel prize-winning poet, meant when he wrote:

Twilight began when man thought
himself of greater dignity than moles or crickets.

"Or, to quote from another poet, Edward Thomas:

When gods were young
This wind was old.

"In other words it's about being, as a people, as a species, more humble."

Brian Turner's Into The Wider World: A Back Country Miscellany is published by Random House (Godwit), and out on Friday, August 15.


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