March 09, 2007

LOST IN THE MATRIX INVESTIGATE: JUN 03

From Donald Duck to Donald Dark, is a new breed of cartoon a threat to our childrens’ mental health? IAN WISHART brings together research from around the world that suggests violent cartoons and interactive games are turning kids into killers...

Once upon a time there were cartoon shows. You remember them, Mickey and Donald, Roadrunner and Wylie Coyote, even Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Bright, bold and usually hilarious, those early Warner Brothers and Walt Disney hit shows had generations of kids cackling over their Cornies on a Saturday morning. Sure, they were violent, but in a harmless, toony sort of way. Back in those days, a burglary in Auckland was front page news, murders were running as low as three or four per year, and wagging school was an occasional "treat", not an occupational choice. Youth suicide was virtually unheard of. In 1972, the suicide rate for 15 to 24 year old males was just 9 per 100,000 of them. Today it runs as high as 39 deaths per 100,000 in that age group.

For a long time, media watchdog groups have claimed a link between television violence and aggression in teenagers and adults. Now the international studies are lining up thick and fast - not only is there a link, but some experts believe television has declared psychological warfare on children and is literally training children to kill, as you’ll see shortly.

But first, a clue to the problem can be found in the spin surrounding it. For years, New Zealand TV executives have denied any link between TV violence and violence in society. "We reflect society, we don’t lead it," has been the industry position for more than two decades.

However, while both TVNZ and TV3 have endeavoured to comply with a viewing watershed of 8.30pm before screening adult material, a much bigger problem has slipped below the radar for most people: the huge increase in violence and the occult in childrens’ programmes, screened directly in childrens’ viewing hours.

Donald Duck has given way to Beast Wars, Digimon and the latest craze hitting New Zealand, Yu-Gi-Oh. What most of the groundbreaking new childrens’ cartoon shows have in common are two things: Japanese animation and extremely dark, violent, occult and brooding themes.

Yu-Gi-Oh has already hit the news headlines in New Zealand after alleged counterfeit playing cards associated with the programme as merchandise were seized at Auckland by customs agents at the request of the authorised importer..

How dark is Yu-Gi-Oh? Well, for a start, it is unashamedly religious programming aimed at children, although admittedly no religion you ever grew up with. Instead, 41 year old Kazuki Takahashi, the show’s creator, wanted to revive "ancient Egyptian mysticism" as the underlying force in his programme.

The show follows the adventures of a young boy named Yugi:

"When Yugi was growing up, his Grandfather gave him an ancient Egyptian artifact called the "Millenium Puzzle" to try and figure out. It is said that whosoever manages to solve this puzzle will be granted dark and mysterious powers. Yugi eventually was able to solve the Millenium Puzzle, and when he did, something amazing happened!

"When the Millennium Puzzle activates, Yugi is filled with its magical energies and becomes Yami Yugi, his much more powerful alter ego. Not only is Yami Yugi a master dueler, but he is full of confidence and courage."

In what must have been a merchandiser’s dream, Takahashi uses the artistic device of a magical card game that is played by Yugi and his friends, and, pf course, by tens of millions of children around the world who purchase the cards in bookshops and toystores.

"Duel Monsters is a card-battling game in which players pit different mystical creatures against one another in wild, magical duels! Packed with awesome monsters and mighty spell-cards, Yugi and his friends are totally obsessed with the game.

"But there’s more to this card game than meets the eye! Legend has it five thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian Pharaoahs used to play a magical game very similar to Duel Monsters. This ancient game involved magical ceremonies, which were used to foresee the future and ultimately, decide one’s destiny. They called it the Shadow Game, and the main difference back then was that the monsters were all real! With so many magical spells and ferocious creatures on the earth, it wasn’t long before the game got out of hand and threatened to destroy the entire world! Fortunately, a brave Pharaoh stepped in and averted this cataclysm with the help of seven powerful magical totems.

"Now, in present times, the game has been revived in the form of playing cards..."

And you can pretty much guess the rest. Yu-Gi-Oh has become an international obssession for kids everywhere.

Central to the show, and the card game, are the dark haunting characters and artwork typical of the Japanese comic style known as "Anime" (pronounced AH-nee-may). So popular has anime become in the US that several universities now offer lecture courses on the style and its origins. Wrote the Seattle Times recently:

"Anime often tackles such themes as death and betrayal, and the stories sometimes are so intense that they are edited for children in the United States.

"The animations are shown as television series or feature-length movies in Japan, where adults are as likely as children to be the core audience.

"The academic movement in the United States reflects the fact that so many students had already become anime aficionados on their own. As elsewhere in the country, the University of Washington and most colleges around the state have student-run anime clubs.

"While parents sometimes decry anime for its violence and gory graphics, anime fans argue that those more intense animations are geared toward adults, not kids.

"The craze borders on obsession for some. At Washington State University, a handful of students gather weekly to learn conversational Japanese simply to understand anime better. And diehards watch anime with subtitles instead of dubbed versions because they feel the dialects and the voice inflections get lost in translation."

So if shows like Yu-Gi-Oh are part of the staple television diet in Japan, perhaps there are some clues there as to the long term effects on society. Correspondent Michael Zielenziger reports Japanese youth culture is in deep depression:

TOKYO - Kenji has seldom left his bedroom in five years. On a good day, when he forces himself, he can almost get to the front door of his mother’s small Tokyo apartment before fear overtakes him.

"It requires a lot of courage just to go downstairs and get the mail," said the 34-year-old shut-in, who is thin as a twig and nearly as fragile. "I have two personalities: One who doesn’t want to go out and one who does. They are fighting with each other constantly."

Kenji’s self-imposed confinement is surprisingly common in Japan today, after a decade of economic and social decline that has produced many worrisome effects. At least 1 million young Japanese adults, the vast majority men, imprison themselves in their rooms for months or even years at a time, according to Tamaki Saito, the first therapist to write a book on the subject. They sleep during the daytime and pace their rooms at night, hardly ever leaving except for a quick run to the 7-Eleven, if they can manage that.

Counsellors and psychiatrists say Kenji’s reclusiveness, known in Japan as "hikikomori," is an illness that exists only in Japan and was unknown even there until a decade ago. Hikikomori sufferers shut themselves off from siblings and friends, even parents, whom they sometimes attack in violent outbursts.

Kenji’s behaviour is a symptom of Japan’s decline. A growing number of professional counsellors and other experts worry that the nation itself is becoming a lot like Kenji: isolated, apprehensive and unable to interact with the outside word.

"I fear that Japan, as a nation itself, is becoming hikikomori," says psychiatrist Satoru Saito, who treats shut-ins and counsels families in his Tokyo clinic. "It is a nation that does not like to communicate. So what these young adults are doing is a mirror of what they see around them in adult society."

Japan’s trains still run on time, its streets are safe and most people live comfortably. Handguns are illegal, drug problems do not permeate schools or streets, and random violence is virtually unknown.

Still, deep pessimism has infected many aspects of Japanese society:

- Japanese are killing themselves in record numbers, more than 31,000 per year, three times the number who die in traffic accidents. Their suicide rate is the highest among industrialized nations and is steadily climbing. The rate among workers in their 30s has risen nearly 45 percent since 1996.

- Japan’s birthrate is among the lowest in the industrial world and still declining, because young women are avoiding marriage and refusing to bear children. By 2005, Japan’s population will begin to shrink, a trend that demographers say will be nearly impossible to reverse. The labour force, likewise, will dwindle drastically.

- Alcohol consumption is declining across the globe, but not here. Though alcoholism is rampant and accepted as a release from work and social pressure, it is almost never discussed by opinion leaders or at the workplace.

- Japanese workers are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives, stressed out and depressed, and modern antidepressants have become legal only recently. A survey of 43 nations by the Pew Research Centre, released this month, found that Japanese are far more pessimistic about themselves and their children’s future than the people of any other relatively prosperous nation.

- The demise of Japan’s extended family structure is causing unprecedented strains. While divorce rates are low, couples are growing apart, living in sexless marriages, often in separate bedrooms. Stressed-out mothers force their children to study and go to "cram school" in order to pass competitive entrance exams to high school and college, while absentee fathers spend their time and energy at work.

"Whether it’s hikikomori, alcoholism or sexless couples, these are all different manifestations of the same problem," says Masahiro Yamada, a prominent sociologist. "These are all symptomatic of the social and psychological deadlock of Japanese society.

"When you look around at Japanese society, you see that more and more people have just given up."

Men such as Kenji appear desperate to fit into society. Yet when they pursue even modest individuality, they generate friction that leaves them burned out or too weak to cope.

Though Kenji seldom leaves home, he agreed to speak about his condition after twice begging off, tearfully explaining on the telephone, "I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just can’t come." When he finally did agree to talk, he said it was the first time in five years that he had left his apartment or spoken to anyone except his mother.

After just two trips outside their apartment, he became angry and "unstable," his mother said. He since has retreated to his room again, and his mother refuses to let him come to the phone, speak to outsiders or be photographed.

Kenji once was a mischievous child who loved playing third base. But he remembers being suddenly "frozen out" by classmates at his Tokyo grade school at age 12, when they inexplicably stopped talking to him.

"First it was just the boys, but within a week it was the girls, too," he says. "I thought it would pass after the winter school vacation, but it didn’t change at all. Since I wasn’t a student who studied hard, without having any friends I couldn’t find a reason to go to school. It was too painful."

Today, some 20 years later, he talks about those events as if they had happened yesterday.

Articulate and thoughtful, now he spends his days reading newspapers, watching TV and thinking.

Psychiatrists describe hikikomori as a syndrome in which young adults, usually men in their 20s and 30s, shut themselves off from the world, away from friends, school or work, for six months or more. These individuals do not suffer from other known psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism or panic disorder. Hikikomori is different from agoraphobia, which occurs in the United States, whose victims fear leaving home to visit an unsettled social environment but can mix with friends or relatives in their homes.

Stress and fatigue also trigger the social isolation. Dai Hasebe dropped out of junior high school after his parents enrolled him in a juku designed to help him pass the competitive high school entrance exams. In elementary school, the 12-year-old hadn’t gotten home until after 10 at night.

"After a while, I just got tired," says Hasebe, now 19, who has spent most of the past six years secluded in his parent’s three-room Tokyo apartment. "There was no particular incident," such as bullying or a harsh conversation with a teacher, that made him stop going to school, he said. "I was just relieved not to have a schedule."

Hasebe now wears shoulder-length hair and a moustache and whiles away each afternoon building scale models in his bedroom. He constructs Japanese Zero fighter planes and French helicopters, draws precise diagrams of military equipment and designed a sort of 21st-century fantasy gladiator, a silvery pterodactyl with a rocket launcher that stands sentry in the entryway of his family’s home. Hasebe hardly eats; his pants barely stay on his hips even when they’re tightly belted.

Dr. Kosuke Yamazaki, a professor of child psychiatry at the Tokai University School of Medicine, thinks hikikomori patients’ frustration is the leading cause of domestic violence in Japan, as lonely, isolated and troubled adult children lash out in a cry for help. "They behave like brutal tyrants," he said.

Many of his patients often expressed fear that they would kill their parents by accident. "They say they have a personality that sometimes rages out of control."

Masahisa Okuyama, whose son suffers from hikikomori, founded the KHJ support network, which now has 31 chapters across Japan. Its name is formed from the initials in Japanese for obsessive neurosis, persecution mania and personality disorder.

"Parents are also victims of this disease," explains Okuyama, a former advertising executive, who was beaten by his 27-year-old shut-in son. He abandoned the family’s suburban home for a small apartment out of fear that his son would kill him.

"He hates me, but the relationship between parent and child is so strong," Okuyama says. "He can kill me or I could kill him. Let’s face it, we’ve been dissolved as a family."

More than half the parents in one suburban group of 120 affected families say they’ve been attacked by their children. One woman pulled up her sleeve and revealed an ugly black-and-blue mark, the result of being assaulted by her son. Another woman sleeps in her car for fear that her son will beat her.

Around one table, a group of 11 parents discussed how best to reach out to their children. Most cooked dinner for their children and left food outside their bedroom doors. Some said their children left their rooms only when their parents went to bed. With tinges of guilt, many admitted that they found it difficult to communicate with their children when they were younger.

Kenji desperately wanted to find a way to rejoin society. "I sometimes look back and say, `How did I become like this?’" he said.

"When you are raised by a wolf you grow up a wolf," Kenji said. "You can’t go back into normal society. That’s how I feel. Teachers tell you, `You are free to grow up and become what you want.’ But adults can’t show us any example where that’s true."

While it would certainly be unfair to blame all of Japan’s growing social chaos on its dark, occult-obssessed youth television, it would also be a mistake to ignore its impact. And lest New Zealanders get too comfortable, it is worth remembering that New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is nearly four times higher than Japan’s.

Is Yu-Gi-Oh going to make it any better? Not if the names of some of its game cards are an indicator. The programme screens at 4.30pm in New Zealand, making it "prime time" accessible to all children. And according to international reports, children are lapping up television’s new obsession with the occult like there’s no tomorrow:

It was a report in the Times of London that first illustrated the extent of the problem. Journal-ist Daniel McGrory discovered the huge range of pagan TV programmes for kids was encouraging many to begin exploring paganism, and even satanism, by searching websites on the internet.

"Teachers’ groups are worried that nobody is monitoring the effect this fascination with the occult is having on its teenage followers. There are no official figures in Britain for victims driven to suicide, but experts have no doubt that some young people have suffered from the malign influence of satanic cults.

"It took 15 suicides in two years before the authorities in Saxony demanded an investigation. Here, teachers’ unions and experts say that the authorities do not take the menace seriously enough. They warn of the dangers to teenagers of dabbling unsupervised with sinister websites. Some of these describe in lurid detail how they should drink blood or carry out blood-letting to seal their pact with Satan. They also encourage impressionable teenagers to join in "chat rooms" to express how miserable they are," wrote McGrory.

"Parents are advised not to rely on Internet filters to prevent their children from accessing sites featuring satanism and witchcraft.

"For many young people interest was aroused, innocently enough, through television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a teenage girl does battle with all manner of satanic forces.

"In a recent survey of 2,600 children aged 11 to 16, more than half said that they were interested in the occult. The worry is that more than 15 per cent of those questioned by Mori said that they were worried about what they had discovered on the Web.

"The Association of Teachers and Lecturers wants schools to introduce classes advising young people of the risks of delving into the occult on the Internet. Peter Smith, the general secretary, said: "This goes beyond reading a Harry Potter story. This represents an extremely worrying trend among young people. Parents and teachers should educate children and young people about the dangers of dabbling in the occult before they become too deeply involved."

"Experts believe that there are now more than 1,000 cults operating in Britain and that their popularity has spread through the Internet. They are becoming adept at snaring young professionals through so-called self-help websites—for stopping smoking, losing weight, meeting a partner or playing the stock market.

"Ian Haworth, general secretary of the London-based Cult Information Centre, tours schools to dispel the idea that only vunerable youngsters fall prey to satanic cults. He says that recruiters are also active at college and university campuses, distributing free magazines that offer links to scores of Internet sites. "There is no doubt the Internet means that many more youngsters can dip into areas of the occult without realising what they are letting themselves into," he said.

In the case of Buffy, copycat psychosis appears to be the order of the day. In one celebrated case last year, a British teenager was arrested after becoming convinced that he, too, was a vampire, and beheading his elderly neighbour before drinking her blood. A young German couple were similarly found guilty of the ritual vampire murder of a man - they drank blood from his corpse before having sex in a coffin they’d purchased for the occasion.

Similar strong followings for Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are also making an impact. Britain’s Pagan Federation recently reported it was receiving more than a hundred calls a month from children and teenagers wanting to know more about joining an occult group.

Pagan Federation spokesman Andy Norfolk told journalists youngsters’ questions had become "much more mature" than those of the "how do I cast a spell?" variety, and tended to deal with "the religious aspects of witchcraft."

"We don’t get asked how to become a witch, but rather we get asked what a young witch should do.

"Many of those who write seem to have already found their spiritual path and wish to learn more."

Although the Pagan Federation denies actively recruiting children, it has appointed a "youth affairs" officer who also happens to be a school teacher, and its adult members have published a series of books for children, some available in New Zealand, with titles like The Young Witches’ Handbook, which includes spells for passing school exams or attracting a lover, or Spells for Teenage Witches, "a self-help book for young people".

In the US meanwhile, prominent newspapers like the Miami Herald have begun to investigate the rapidly plunging standards of broadcast television:

MIAMI - Fifty years ago, when a married Lucille Ball was having a baby on I Love Lucy, network censors wouldn’t allow use of the word "pregnant." This past year, on Friends, Rachel had a baby resulting from a one-night stand - and on the day it was due tried to speed up the delivery via a quickie sexual encounter with her male roommate.

Forty years ago, Ozzie and Harriet never had a scene of any kind take place in the Nelsons’ bedroom. This year, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fistfight between Buffy and a vampire turned into roughhouse sex so violent that it literally knocked the house down around them.

Thirty years ago, network officials told singer Helen Reddy they would cancel her show unless she started wearing a bra. This year, contestants on Fear Factor were ordered to strip naked on camera to stay in the game.

Twenty years ago, an outraged NBC censor vetoed a Saturday Night Live sketch where Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s nerdy characters put on a dopey high school nativity pageant: "You can’t give noogies to the Virgin Mary!" This year, Cameron Diaz hosted SNL and sang dirty children’s songs that purported to be about hirsute shellfish and rain-soaked kitty-cats.

It’s not puritan paranoia: This is not your father’s broadcast television. TV, once expected to be a polite guest in our living rooms, has turned into more of drunken party-crasher. Sex, violence and language that in earlier days would have triggered FCC threats and congressional investigations is now routine. Says show-biz historian and critic Michael Medved of TV standards: "I’m not sure I would use the word SHIFTING. I think the word COLLAPSING might be more appropriate."

You think he exaggerates?

Every week the CBS crime show CSI features mutilated corpses that would gag a maggot. Televised urination has become so routine that when FX’s The Shield had a cop whizzing on a suspect, producer Shawn Ryan bragged that "we shot it in a very tasteful way, as p——— scenes go."

That’s the sort of comment that outrages Laura Mahaney, vice president of the conservative Parents Television Council, which is lobbying advertisers to boycott The Shield. "What you’ve seen is a run to the bottom of the barrel, where the networks are seeing who can put the filthiest stuff on the fastest. You never would have seen references to oral sex or inferences of oral sex even five years ago. Now you do all the time, even on shows at 8 p.m ... It’s like a freight train run amok."

Whether you share Mahaney’s disgust, it’s hard to argue with her facts. A brief, chaste lesbian kiss on the 10 p.m. L.A. Law scandalized the country in 1991; this season, when lesbian witches on the 8 p.m. Buffy the Vampire Slayer levitated because the oral sex was especially good, it passed almost unnoticed.

Producers, network executives and other TV experts say there are several reasons television’s standards, which were relatively static for its first 40 years, have changed so dramatically over the past decade, but prime among them would have to be a disappearance of the will to fight the flood anymore.

Adds Medved: "There’s always been this sort of push-pull between Broadcasting Standards people and producers. Obviously people in the creative community want to test to see what they can do. There’s almost an element of gamesmanship to it. But what’s been happening in the past few years is that the creative people push, but on the other side, no one pushes back."

Critics argue it’s because the very people hired to be censors have themselves grown up on a sex and vio-lence TV diet and become inured to it, blind to what now surrounds them.

But while levitating nude witches engaging in oral sex on Buffy doesn’t make them bat an eyelid, those same TV censors are quick to leap on anything seen as non politically-correct. In the US, black comedian Arsenio Hall got a big laugh after cracking a black joke on the Tonight show, while one of David Letterman’s scriptwriters found herself censored for trying to tell a similar one-liner. An example in New Zealand this year was the ongoing furore over whether two Christian videos should be banned.

In a column for National Radio’s Mediawatch programme, commentator Karl du Fresne picked up the story:

"Those videos expressed views that were understandably unpopular with gay activists. One was that the gay activist lobby was demanding not just equal rights, but special rights; the other was that homosexuality was a factor in the spread of HIV and Aids.

"Neither of these, you might think, qualifies as an outrageous or even exceptional proposition. Yet the videos ended up before the Chief Censor, who considered them so potentially injurious to the public good that he imposed an R16 restriction. Not satisfied with that, a gay activist group appealed to the Film and Literature Board of Review, which declared the videos objectionable in anyone’s hands."

A court fight ensued, and eventually the Court of Appeal ruled that the videos should be cleared for release, but the Film Review Board then asked the Government to consider outlawing what it calls "hate speech".

In March, while most of New Zealand’s attention was on the Iraq crisis, a parliamentary select committe chaired by MP Diane Yates, released its own report on the issue, "and oddly enough," writes Du Fresne, "the main thrust is that the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act should be modified to encompass hate speech.

"That would mean politically incorrect opinions such as those expressed in the Living Word videos could be banned without the pesky Court of Appeal getting in the way. And the Chief Censor wouldn¹t have to bother himself with nitpicking, high-flown notions about freedom of expression.

"Interestingly enough, nowhere in the report is any attempt made to define "hate speech". It’s one of those wondrously loaded phrases, like "social justice", that can mean whatever the user wants it to mean. In the context of the committee’s report, it seems to mean anything that might offend a minority group.

"Presumably it would be left to the Chief Censor to define hate speech, and in so doing to determine what New Zealanders are allowed to say, see and hear. This places unprecedented and dangerous power in the hands of a bureaucrat and casts him in the role of a commissar in Soviet Russia. It also tugs the censorship laws in an entirely new direction, and one that I suspect Parliament never intended when it passed the Act in 1993."

Amid the irony that the chief target of censors may soon be the so-called "morals cam-paigners", rather than programme-makers, dark entertainment like Yu-Gi-Oh continues unchallenged to prep the pre-teen market with violent occultism while Buffy and Charmed do the trick for their older siblings.

One very harsh critic of the high-violence, high occult kids shows is Lt. Colonel David Grossman, a military pschologist who used to study methods of brainwashing US soldiers to make them better killing machines. Now he tours the US like a voice in the wilderness, warning that today’s television content and violent role-playing computer games are on a par with the best military technology in training kids to murder.

Grossman has studied social and crime trends in a range of countries, including New Zealand, and his diagnosis is grim.

"To understand the why behind outbreaks of this "virus of violence," we need to understand first the magnitude of the problem. The per capita murder rate doubled in the US between 1957—when the FBI started keeping track of the data - and 1992. A fuller picture of the problem, however, is indicated by the rate people are attempting to kill one another - the aggravated assault rate. That rate in America has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for two major factors.

"First is the increase in the imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. According to criminologist John J. DiIulio, "dozens of credible empirical analyses…leave no doubt that the increased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes." If it were not for our tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrialized nation), the aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly be even higher.

"The second factor keeping the murder rate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of ten soldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam. Thus, by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medical technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is.

"The magnitude of the problem has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesaving skills and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics, cpr, trauma centers, and medicines.

"However, the crime rate is still at a phenomenally high level, and this is true worldwide. In Canada, according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increased almost fivefold between 1964 and 1993, attempted murder increased nearly sevenfold, and murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countries in the per capita violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and 1993.

"In Australia and New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximately fourfold, and the murder rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assault rate tripled in Sweden, and approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark, England-Wales, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Scotland, while all these nations had an associated (but smaller) increase in murder.

"This virus of violence is occurring worldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is occurring in all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none should be discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. But violence is rising in many nations with draconian gun laws. And though we should never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one new variable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit: media violence presented as entertainment for children."

Grossman’s identification of media violence as a catalyst for child violence is bourne out by confirmation that the two teenagers who committed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado were addicted to the computer game Doom. It is worth noting that at the time Grossman was making these comments, back in 1998, the Columbine massacre had not yet happened. Grossman says the reason modern media violence is insidious is because it indoctrinates, glorifies and desensitises mass murder.

But haven’t we always had killing? Haven’t soldiers always gone into far more brutal battles than video can match? "Dur-ing World War II, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier," explains Grossman.

"That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this "problem."

"From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.

"The method in this madness: Desensitization. How the military increases the killing rate of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing the same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling. I will explain these in the military context and show how these same factors are contributing to the phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.

"Brutalization and desensitization are what happens at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.

"Something very similar to this desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence in the media—but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months when a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch something happening on television and mimic that action. But it isn’t until children are six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks in that lets them understand where information comes from. Even though young children have some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.

"When young children see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or five watch a "splatter" movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. And this happens to our children hundreds upon hundreds of times.

"Sure, they are told: "Hey, it’s all for fun. Look, this isn’t real, it’s just TV." And they nod their little heads and say okay. But they can’t tell the difference. Can you remember a point in your life or in your children’s lives when dreams, reality, and television were all jumbled together? That’s what it is like to be at that level of psychological development. That’s what the media are doing to them.

"The Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened in numerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nations and regions without TV. The two nations or regions being compared are demographically and ethnically identical; only one variable is different: the presence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television, there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a three- to five-year-old to reach the "prime crime age." That is how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a three-year-old.

"Today the data linking violence in the media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact of brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that "the introduction of television in the 1950’s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhood exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one half of the homicides committed in the United States, or approximately 10,000 homicides annually." The article went on to say that "…if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults" (June 10, 1992).

"Classical conditioning is like the famous case of Pavlov’s dogs you learned about in Psychology 101: The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.

"The Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet "their" prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another human being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in months, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate committing violent acts with pleasure.

"The Japanese found these kinds of techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it."

Operant conditioning, for the record, is rote learning to kill. Stimulus, reaction. Stimulus, reaction. In airforce training, it is flight simulator computer games - missile lock, fire. Training to operate purely on instinct and adrenalin. Something, says Grossman, that interactive computer games do so well with today’s kids.

So what sort of traction is the issue getting in New Zealand? We invited TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser to comment, but there’s been no response. However, a working party is due to report back to the Government this September on whether children’s television is too violent.

Investigate approached the Broadcasting Standards Authority for comment on whether our programme standards covered protecting children from the occult.

"We’ve never really thought about it. No one’s ever complained," reported the BSA. Maybe no one’s ever realised they could.

additional reporting: Glenn Garvin, Michael Zielenziger, KRT


Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:28 AM | Comments (3)

RESCUING 111 INVESTIGATE: JUN 03

Leaked documents suggest the collapse of the police emergency communications system is imminent, and as HAMISH CARNACHAN reports, public lives may already be at risk...

Picture this: A police officer gets an urgent dispatch to a violent domestic involving a woman and her enraged partner. He speeds to the address, lights flashing, siren wailing, and arrives on the scene - a run-down house slap-bang in the middle of a nasty neighbourhood. Onlookers start to crowd around the patrol car, some start taunting the officer with obscenities, and unrestrained rogue dogs start barking menacingly. Even above the commotion outside vehicle the officer can hear the battle raging inside the house. He picks up the radio to call for back-up only to met with a staccato retort from a flustered call centre operator. "Standby units." Seconds turn to minutes and there’s still no reply from the operator. What does he do? Does he risk getting injured going in alone, or does he wait until the dispatcher is free to send help?

It may be hard to believe, but this is a dilemma that many of New Zealand’s frontline police officers are forced to face on a daily basis. And while the police have had a pretty tough time of time it lately, what, with questionable time delays in response to burglary callouts and then a high-speed pursuit ending in civilian casualties, this investigation suggests things are whole lot worse.

Backed up by leaked documents and testimony from within the ranks of the New Zealand Police Force, Investigate details a - frankly - shocking series of allegations which raise grave concerns about the efficiency of the current police communications system, and highlights the futile battle frontline officers are fighting to get the tools they need to do their job properly – keep the public safe.

The internal police reports, sent to Investigate by an officer working in the Bay of Plenty Police District, spell out a clear warning that the situation is so bad it is only a matter of time before lives are lost as a result. While blame is pointed squarely at low staffing levels in the Northern Communications centre, which covers the upper half of the North Island, and the resulting overloaded system, we discover the issue is by no means isolated to this region alone.

The reports we reveal here are not one-off inci-dents either. A few phone calls to random police stations around the country opened up a Pandora’s box of dissatisfaction, criticism, and widespread misgivings about the current communications system. And alarmingly, given the sober nature of the declarations, this is an issue that has plagued the police for years because, argue some critics, the bureaucrats who hold police purse strings are more interested in accountability than officer safety. Hung-over from the excessive budget blowouts of the 1990s, concerns are being raised that the culture of police spending has gone from one extreme to the other.

Although it happened more than four years ago, fresh in the mind of most officers is the fate of Constable Murray Stretch, who in 1999 was brutally bludgeoned to death in Mangakino whilst trying to apprehend a burglar on his own. As these reports reveal, there is a growing fear that a similar tragedy is imminent.

In one of our leaked internal reports, filed by a Bay of Plenty Senior Sergeant to one of his superiors, he complains that poor staffing levels are leaving officers unable to attend callouts and isolated in the field – a situation police are becoming increasingly wary of given the violent nature of today’s crime and criminals.

He writes, "This…is submitted to bring to your attention the dangerous situation of linking channels. Channels were linked through the period when I was working until 2300 hrs. The one female operator was running Whakatane, Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo areas. We were fortunate that it was a quiet night yet [at one stage] she was running burglars in Tauranga and Rotorua, then a robbery in Taupo.

"Prior to these jobs occurring I came across youths fighting on the street. Attempts to get through to inform comms [communications] what was happening was met with ‘standby units’. I couldn’t even get through to Opotiki base to let the member there know what I was doing. I was met with a choice of sitting in the car for 10 minutes, watching these guys smacking each other around whilst waiting to get through, or going to sort it out. I did the latter and as anticipated was able to deal with it myself. My concern is what if the outcome was different?"

The Bay of Plenty officer goes on to state in his report that it was the third consecutive day in which police lines of communication had been clogged for "hours on end".

"As I type this," notes the Senior Sergeant, "the operator has told everyone to standby, that she has six jobs coming through. She is talking at 100 miles an hour to keep up and co-ordinate cordons. Staff could not do [personal and vehicle background checks, or inspect the occupants] etc due to the jobs coming in.

"My concerns are:

· The safety of staff on the street that cannot get on the air due to heavy airtime traffic (even on a relatively quiet night).

· The welfare of the operator. This report is in no way critical of her. She was doing an excellent job in the circumstances and I wonder how long she could keep it up without burning out.

· Criticism has been levelled at staff not …letting comms know where they are. Having spoken to my staff and then experiencing it myself whilst working swing shifts, I can see they can’t get through. It is difficult on a normal night but impossible when linked.

"Whilst I appreciate how difficult it is when we are short staffed, we cannot allow this situation to continue with the linking occurring on an ever frequent basis. One day it may cost the life of a colleague."

Another report leaked to Investigate, from the same area of operations, raises concerns about "an identifiable hazard under the Health and Safety legislation", and concludes with near identical concerns about officer safety.

"I wish to bring to your attention the fact that Whakatane/Tauranga are experiencing more and more occasions of our radio channels being linked with Rotorua/Tauranga, to the detriment of our work capabilities and safety.

"It is only a matter of when, not if, an officer is injured because he cannot get on the radio for help or backup."

Again, this officer raises the issue that police staff are failing to call in background checks because the "problem of [long communication delays] has become that common".

And perhaps most surprising, as the report reveals, is the fact that the communications centre is failing to inform frontline officers of future problems. On this occasion, it failed to arrange any advance measures to tackle low staffing levels despite knowing about pending shortages five weeks in advance.

"They also advised me that the channels were having to be linked between the hours of 0300-0700hrs for seven days… Around 0800hrs in the morning is the time when we experience the drunks coming out of the nightclubs and violence erupts quickly and from nowhere. Very unnerving when working by yourself and you cannot call on the radio because all the channels are linked."

These findings come in the wake of another complaint, from Palmerston North police, detailing similar concerns about the Central Communications centre, situated in Wellington and covering the lower half of the North Island. The unnamed officer was recently quoted in the Herald saying, the situation was putting lives at risk and "ultimately it’s the public getting stuffed by it and they don’t even know. The reason cops are standing off a bit is because we’re not getting any backup. They can’t get on the radio".

Phone calls to police stations in the South Island reveal similar discontent with the Southern Communications centre based in Christchurch. One disgruntled South Island officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Christchurch call centre is invariably clogged as staff simultaneously juggle police communications, triple one emergency calls and dispatches.

"We only have one channel for the greater part of the top of the South Island. When we have a major incident we want to be able to split off to another channel so we can resolve it, not have all this interference. I can’t do that from my end – it’s got to be done through Southern comms [responsible for the entire South Island]. That’s part of the problem. They’ve regionalised the communications whereas once we dealt with it ourselves."

It was eight years ago that police communications were centralised into Southern, Central and Northern command units, re-placing regional networks in which each of the 12 police districts ran their own operations room. The process took place in conjunction with the failed $100 million Incis project to upgrade the police force’s mainframe Wanganui computer in the 1990s. This centralised Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) system was supposed to be linked into Wanganui when Incis came on line.

As we now know, Incis was a monumental failure that never eventuated. Its only legacy is the piecemeal national communications set-up now in place - established from the outset to be heavily dependant on the technology Incis was supposed provide. As Police Associations president Greg O’Connor explains, when the plug was pulled on Incis in the late 1990s, the rationale for CAD disappeared.

"While Incis was being built a national comms centre was also being built. The problem was, it was a technology led programme from the start. The Deputy Commissioner [of Police] said to me at the time that the rest of the country should have the same service as Auckland. That was a prophetic statement at the time because Auckland had lousy service."

According to O’Connor, another issue with the CAD system adopted by the New Zealand Police was that it had originally been developed for Melbourne – solely for a metropolitan area where everyone has a street address. This, he says, created "massive problems when we grabbed it and tried to make it work for the whole country" because of computer recognition difficulties with rural locations.

Additionally, O’Connor says the system has always been under-resourced and during the planning process "no one really defined the role of the new comms centres – there’s confusion around what their task is supposed to be".

That point is backed up by a police study, released in 2001, on the ‘Strategic Evaluation of the New Zealand Police Position Concerning the Use of Force When Responding to Potentially Violent Situations’ – in short the ‘Shuey Report’, named after one of the authors, the Assistant Commissioner of the Victorian Police.

One of the recommendations highlights that "urgent decisions be made and formally announced to districts concerning the command role (or otherwise) of the three communications centres during the course of operational deployments".

The review also found that "the three communication centres have been in place for over four years and the vexing question of their incident command/control role has yet to be resolved… Many anecdotal incidents were also raised by those interviewed, sufficient to reinforce this concern".

And yet, despite O’Connor’s certainty that "police managers are well aware of the problems", two years on it seems there still hasn’t been any action taken to address these apparent deficiencies.

"Most of the district commanders I’m sure would go back to the old system if they could," he says. "The biggest complaints I get are from provincial towns where one dispatcher is expected to cover three areas. Nobody that works in a city that used to have their own comms centre believes they’ve now got it any better."

As far as O’Connor is concerned, the lack of redress in this area can be directly linked back to the budget blow-out over the Incis project – a monster that regularly returns to haunt the police with "crippling accountability".

"The police have got a poor reputation with their investment in technology and the New Zealand Police will pay for Incis for a long time. I think police spending under the current regime is a lot tighter today. Under this commissioner, police spending has now got credibility back."

But, while that might be heart warming for the bean counters in Wellington, frontline officers have been left out in the cold, still worried for their lives and the lives of the public. So does O’Connor accept their concerns? The answer is a predictable "yes" but he also warns "that with the treasury people having so much influence in running the police" it is going to be detrimental to the force as a whole.

As the leaked reports show, it is already having a detrimental affect on frontline officers’ field capabilities. Yet, according to most police who spoke to Investigate, a solution to the situation of overloaded communications centres would not require a substantial investment. They suggest that providing frontline officers with a secure radio frequency, which can’t be decoded by criminals monitoring police channels as is the case at present, and mobile data terminals, to quickly run background checks, would certainly ease pressure on the three central communications networks.

Unfortunately, despite a $4billion surplus, Budget 2004 was somewhat parsimonious with the latest round of funding for police, and the communications issue has once again been overlooked for a spot on the Government’s list of top ‘priorities’ for the sector.

In a recent speech at the opening of a new police station on Great Barrier Island the Police Minister, George Hawkins, proclaimed that while there are many ways the government can spend money on police "the most satisfying is investing in police property".

"A solid and committed police capital works programme ensures staff enjoy comfortable, satisfying conditions in which to carry out the work they do. I am pleased to say that the current Government is investing around $12million per year on the refurbishment and rebuilding of stations nationwide."

It’s statements like these that have some critics fuming. They say suggesting officers’ comfort is a higher priority than safety shows that the Minister is about as in touch with policing issues as he was with housing when the leaky building crisis surfaced – or sank.

But regardless of what his detractors imply, it appears Hawkins has no idea of the communications problems police are facing. He informs Investigate that there are "no known issues that require attention" and that "police are not aware of any major issues involving the communications centres".

"Police are confident in the knowledge that the Comcens [communication centres], which are a mission critical function of policing, are working efficiently, effectively and producing the required outcomes," he says. "Police have deployed sufficient resources to these areas to achieve the required outcomes."

Although Hawkins was the MP who initiated a select committee inquiry into INCIS in 1999, these latest assurances might seem a little flimsy given there is little sign that apparently persistent problems are being rectified. Four years ago he openly criticised police under the National Party for failing to pull the plug on the doomed project.

He was quoted in the Herald saying, "I think by 1997 the police had realised this was a nightmare, but instead of doing something they fluffed up their pillows and rolled over."

In a more recent finger-pointing exercise he notes that police infrastructure and morale has "been gutted under the previous National-led government". And, in the same March 2003 briefing paper, the Minister again goes on to express confidence that under Labour the "police have the resources necessary to focus on crime prevention and resolution throughout New Zealand".

Clearly he isn’t getting his information from the same sources. Back on the communications issue he tells Investigate that the centres have "ongoing programmes to improve business and technology process and practices".

He also asserts that "performance targets are being met and customer surveys both internal and external have not highlighted any major issues", which seems to fly in the face of the Shuey report findings.

And yet this examination isn’t the first time the national communications network has been called into question. Sadly, overloaded systems have already been blamed for deaths in the past, and many questions still remain unanswered.

In 2001 a 12-year-old boy whose father lay dying after a diving accident near Whangarei had his emergency call diverted to Wellington’s Central Communications Centre because the northern call centre was overloaded. The diver’s death prompted concern that re-routing calls was causing life-threatening delays in access to emergency services.

Investigate’s latest revelations show the persistence of a serious problem that has continually failed to be addressed. Perhaps, too, they may shed some light on the recent search and rescue operation off the coast of Oamaru. Five men were left stranded in the water for hours, even after activating a rescue beacon when their boat was swamped. Two were subsequently rescued, one body was retrieved and the other two remain missing.

While the episode is currently under investigation by the Search and Rescue Council, reviews of internal processes by the National Rescue Coordination Centre and police are also being examined. Communication discrepancies were initially blamed for the delay, but the report, which is expected to be complete in six weeks, should shed more light on such claims.

Meanwhile, O’Connor, like the officers who filed the leaked reports, makes a clear point that the systematic failures in no way reflect the level of commitment that communications centre staff put into an "incredibly demanding job". He says they are doing the "absolute best they can" given the limitations of the tool they’re expected to work with.

"It’s when things aren’t working that we talk about them. Most of the time it does work but Murphy’s Law says it will always fail at the worst possible time."

So does that mean lives are potentially being put at risk?

"Yes, but lives are always at risk when police are out there dealing with criminals. It’s an inherently dangerous occupation. Policing is about risk minimisation though and you do that by using the best technology available so that every officer has contact with their home base. Anything that reduces that communication with home base increases the risk."


Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:25 AM | Comments (1)

ELECTRIC DREAMERS INVESTIGATE: JUN 03

You know the drill: cold shower threats every two years, government warnings of a "1 in 60 year drought" every 18 months - are solar and wind power really the answer to our power prayers? HAMISH CARNACHAN reports

In terms of history repeating itself, it’s hard to find a more perpetual example than New Zealand’s power crisis woes. The last time the situation was so bad that Auckland ex-perienced near-crippling power blackouts the rest of the country was merely amused. However, it was still somewhat mind-boggling to comprehend the situation unfolding in the City of Sails, the supposed ‘powerhouse’ of the New Zealand economy.

Here was one of those stories you tend to associate with third-world countries, either crippled by poverty or tearing themselves apart through civil war, as you skim over the ‘news in brief’ column in the world section of the national newspaper. But when "crisis" is plastered all over the front page, it’s generally a lot closer to home.

Nationwide, similar sentiments of exasperation were expressed: "It’s not the sort of thing that happens here – we learn from our mistakes." Apparently not. That was a little over four years ago but today New Zealanders again find themselves having to pull together, in the mould of some monumental wartime effort, to try and avoid another winter of seemingly imminent power cuts.

Should we be surprised? Not really, say some critics, the signals have been there for some time, perhaps the most significant of which was recent news that the Maui gasfield, that provides nearly 80 percent of the country’s natural gas, is due to run out in just four years’ time: 2007.

Most of us would have had no idea of the significance surrounding the announcement of the looming, but inevitable, demise of Maui. However, a matter of weeks ago, when it was coupled with "dry winter" forecasts and warnings of very low hydro-lake levels, alarm bells started ringing – for the second time in three years.

Although news of the Maui gasfield running dry was followed by an apparent consolation - the Pohokura field, we found out, is due to come online in 2005 - there is a problem in that the replacement is only a third the size of Maui. Additionally, energy boffins expect the gas will be considerably more expensive. While Pohokura will almost certainly leave a massive shortfall in energy supply, greater concern surrounds the hydroelectric schemes, which are the major source of power in New Zealand.

The impending power crisis is now the most significant we have had to face in what has been a well publicised, chequered history of power demand and supply, and many people have been left to ponder the question: "Where to from here?" Well, government has finally set a course, but it remains to be seen whether they are steering us in the right direction.

While some commentators continue to argue that we would be all right but for the lack of rain, that clearly is not a solution. Power generation in New Zealand has been in a sorry state of flux for quite some time despite warnings of a situation similar to what we now find ourselves in having been heralded, and signalled, well before the rock-bottom blackouts that hit the Auckland central business district in 1998 – remember the 1992 power crisis?

In more recent times, two years ago, Energy Minister Pete Hodgson was touting the same magic figure of 10 percent power savings we are again being told will help us avoid cold showers and missing out on our favourite TV soap operas this winter. Conservation measures worked in 2001 – just – but how much longer are New Zealanders expected to tread this well-worn winter path? Have we learnt nothing from the past?

Believe it or not, this is a question that has been posed in Parliament, yet invariably discourse degenerates into a finger-pointing exercise with blame being passed around like a light bulb hot out of a live socket.

Hodgson has stated publicly that there are no more rivers to dam for hydroelectric power schemes and, bound by the Kyoto Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it seems unlikely that the Government will endorse the increased use of coal, gas or oil-fired power generation favoured by the electricity industry as a means of meeting escalating energy demands.

The government’s Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority (EECA) paints a vivid picture of this voracious appetite for energy consumption. Its figures show that between 1996 and 2001 energy demand increased by roughly 1.5 percent per annum (others put it as high as 5 percent) from 425 petajoules (PJ) to 458 PJ. To put that in some sort of context, 30 PJ translates to the annual energy consumption of 840 000 households or 30 times the total annual energy consumption of a town the size of Nelson.

When viewed in such light, it is not too hard to see that demand has clearly outstripped regional growth but, perhaps more concerning is the fact that while the trend shows no sign of abating, generating capacity has been static for the past two decades.

Unfortunately, history suggests the solution is not equally as simple, otherwise New Zealand would not be seen by some as the only ‘first-world’ country to neglect what our counterparts view as an essential service worthy of continual monitoring and upkeep.

Prior to the problems stemming from demand outstripping capacity, hydroelectric power generation had been a faithful servant to New Zealanders, and could explain why we are one of the few countries in the world to use water for most of our power. It provided households with a reliable and comparatively cheaper source of electric energy than that offered in other countries. And aside from the initial damage to river systems and valleys during dam construction, it is still accepted as a ‘clean’ method of energy production. Now though, it appears evident that we have been guilty of storing all our eggs in the one basket.

According to Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, our single-minded reliance on hydroelectric power generation is one of central parts of the present crisis. She suspects that the valleys flooded for the hydro system were too narrow and steep, resulting in inadequate storage.

"If it doesn’t keep raining we soon run out. If it does, we spill water over the dams."

Relying on the weather gods is futile (at best) in a place like New Zealand, but by today’s standards the majority of the country’s dams are probably inefficient too. Clyde, the most significant and recently commissioned hydro dam, was built 20 years ago, before the advanced technology now utilised in overseas hydro schemes had been developed. Modern dams in Wales have been fitted with reversible pump/turbines that use off-peak electricity to recycle water from the lower reservoir back to the top to use again – the system is ideal for coping with periods of reduced flow.

Technology aside though, critics also suggest the problems link back to legislation set in place three decades ago. In 1973 the Labour government of the day signed a contract to use up the Maui gas deposits over the following 30 years, in order to secure the fuel at the cheapest possible unit price. Says Fitzsimons: "This meant we could only get through the contract amount by using it very wastefully. We built up a huge dependence on gas and no planning was ever done to replace it when it ran out, as it is now doing."

Over the same period, successive governments have deregulated the electricity sector into what is (arguably) a competitive market. However, as Fitzsimons points out, Ministers from Doug Kidd to John Luxton to Max Bradford to Pete Hodgson have set in place and perpetuated a market structure where no one is responsible for the security of supply. Left in the wake of sweeping market ‘reforms’ have been the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (ECNZ), the Electricity Department, and their associated planning and forecasting authorities. Even the Minister of Energy no longer has a Ministry – the portfolio has a department located somewhere in the murky depths of the all-encompassing Ministry of Economic Development.

Now a quest for renewable and sustainable power-generating alternatives seems to be the Government’s chosen answer to tackle the issue of developing a consistent power supply.

While energy production via ‘alternative’ measures has been in parliamentary pipelines for years, past considerations have resulted in little more than a lot of wasted hot air. Like the recently embarrassing Beehive episode, the lights have been on but no one has been home.

That was, at least, until October last year when Cabinet confirmed a ‘renewable energy target’ stipulated in the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (NEECS). Currently New Zealand generates 133 PJ a year from renewable sources. The goal of the strategy is to produce an extra 30 PJ of renewable energy by 2012 – equivalent to the energy produced by an additional 3.5 Benmore dams or 60 Tararua wind farms.

One might be forgiven for thinking the Government had a sense of the impending gloom, however, the Energy Minister’s address given at a conference on the topic two weeks before Cabinet’s announcement, suggests otherwise. While Hodgson acknowledged the probable demand/supply shortfalls by stating, "New Zealand will need significant new generation capacity by about 2005 if we are to adequately cover the risk of a dry year", he assured the audience that "there is no suggestion New Zealand’s electricity system will be unable to meet business-as-usual demand about three years from now".

At the time of his "Energy: the way forward" speech, modelling by Transpower (the national grid operator) suggested 2005 as the point at which the current system might have difficulty meeting demand in a seriously dry year. But through his work with Canterbury University’s Centre for Advanced Engineering, energy consultant Bryan Leyland had come to a markedly different conclusion. He suggested that Transpower was being too optimistic and warned that in 2003 and 2004 the country would have serious problems.

"This is not particularly surprising," quipped the Energy Minister in response, "as Bryan has been releasing his forecasts every two years for nearly a decade now and they always ring alarm bells." Perhaps it could be construed as a little surprising then that no one has paid Leyland due attention.

Local industries, which have recently been forced to periodically shut down their processing plants because of soaring electricity spot prices, will review Hodgson’s statements with bitter irony considering they come from, in a roundabout sort of way, the Ministry of Economic Development.

At the very least, the Minster’s remarks, made only six months before this current crisis, now serve to highlight the seriously flimsy nature of the country’s electricity sector. So, in an attempt to firm it up, a number of renewable energy alternatives have subsequently been earmarked as the preferred ‘way forward’.

For industrial process heat, both geothermal and wood waste com-bustion can compete well with fossil fuels, especially for large high-load plants. The NEECS highlights this as an area of "significant opportunity" for the wood processing industry and of high potential for increasing New Zealand’s overall use of renewable energy sources.

The United States has realised the potential for geothermal energy for years now. The US Department of Energy (like most OECD countries America still has one) has sponsored an initiative called ‘GeoPowering the West’ since the early 1990s. Basically, the scheme is a commitment to dramatically increase the use of geothermal energy in the western United States and aims to have seven million homes using the energy by 2010.

Washington has already invested considerable amounts of capital into the scheme. It views geothermal energy not solely as a reliable source of heat and power for the growing American West, but as a major economic opportunity too – US$500m in new income has been estimated for western landowners over 20 years.

But also favoured in New Zealand are wind farms. In early March, the Government approved two new projects: Trustpower’s proposed 36 megawatt (MW) extension of its existing 32MW Tararua wind farm and a new 40-80MW wind farm proposed by Meridian Energy. These are expected to roughly triple New Zealand’s current wind generation capacity of just under 40MW.

Meridian Energy proclaims that its wind turbine project will be the country’s most productive wind farm, generating enough electricity for 32 300 homes. The scheme won’t come cheap though, at an estimated cost of $100m, and it will be at least two years before power is flowing into the national grid.

In much the same way that we are behind the US in terms of developing our geothermal energy resources, New Zealand is also well behind European nations in terms of generating power from wind, despite these recent initiatives. Last year, Europe increased its wind-power capacity by more than 35 percent and now wind farms deliver enough energy to support 10 million households. Additional offshore wind farms are also in the pipeline - nearly a hundred such ventures are currently being planned to come into operation before 2015.

European electricity suppliers are investing heavily in wind power, which they view as a mature industry with a growing potential to make a significant impact on the energy scene. European wind farms have 17,000MW installed, and Germany tops the list, housing half of Europe’s wind-power capacity.

The Dutch company DNV has just commissioned 80 wind turbines, each with a 2MW capacity, in Denmark at a cost of EURO 250 million, and plans to invest several million EURO per year in wind-power projects over the coming years. It accepts the "considerable investment" needed to implement such schemes because Europe, like New Zealand, is bound by environmental emission standards and both the EU and OECD are moving towards including the cost of pollution in the overall price of electricity. Renewable energy sources are therefore expected to become more competitive when this legislation is set in place.

Additionally, an EU directive, which recently became law, stipulates that 22 percent of the Union’s electricity consumption should be generated by renewable energy sources by 2010. Such stringent environmental legislation has encouraged some rather lateral thinking when it comes to alternative energy production and European nations have subsequently become world-leaders in the field.

German company Farmatic is one such example. It has developed into a market leader for the industrial conversion of biomass and manure into regenerative energy. In Devon, England, the first farm incorporating the company’s technology has recently commenced operating. The plant, which cost £7.7m, uses effluent from 30 local farms to generate 2MW of electricity – enough power to supply 900 households. Waste heat, a by-product of the process, can be routed to local buildings for heating, and the solid waste is safe to spread on fields as fertiliser. Biogas produced by Farmatic’s bio-power plants can alternatively be refined into fuel to power motor vehicles.

It seems almost reminiscent of a certain beer commercial (currently screening on television) in which a group of Kiwi lads utilise the services of a four-legged methane factory and a length of hose to fire their barbeque. Comical? Certainly. Nonsense? Not necessarily.

With more than five million head of cattle in New Zealand some commentators suggest the answer to our power crisis is right under our nose. Dairy farmers, already copping high electricity bills (around $10,000 each year for a 400 cow dairy farm) and set to be hit with emission taxes dictated by the Kyoto Agreement, would look at their farting Friesians in a different light if the Farmatic alternative was given serious consideration.

And New Zealand is ideally situated for what experts at the Scottish engineering company, Wavegen, refer to as the largest untapped energy resource on the planet – waves. Oceans cover approximately 75 percent of the world’s surface and according to Wavegen represent "a vast natural energy resource in the form of waves". In the United Kingdom alone, it has been estimated that the recoverable wave energy resource exceeds total UK electricity demand, and the World Energy Council estimates that 2TW of energy – the equivalent of twice the world’s total electricity production - could be harvested from the world’s oceans.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it may be. Critics argue that the turbines used to generate the electricity are notoriously expensive and only economically viable in isolated areas, far from conventional power supply. Then again, calling New Zealand’s current power supply anything close to "conventional" would be bold.

There is little detail of research into the feasibility of wave generated power in New Zealand because, Fitzsimons suspects, "international work in the area shows it is much less developed commercially than wind or biomass and not likely to contribute much in the short term".

"[However] biogas is particularly well suited to New Zealand but it would be a terrible waste to burn it in power stations which waste at least half, and often more, of the energy value in the fuel. [It would be] better to use it as direct fuel instead of electricity.

"Its suitability to New Zealand is that you can make it from a wide range of agricultural and forestry wastes."

In the 1970s biogas initiatives were investigated in New Zealand and several large industry players incorporated the technology into their processing practices. The Alliance freezing works near Invercargill made biogas in a one million gallon digester and used the fuel to replace 17 tonnes of coal that would otherwise have been burned each day in its wool drying plant. Tirau dairy factory digested whey and other milk wastes to produce fuel to help run the plant. However, because of the historically low cost of natural gas, biogas has not generally been seen as an economic alternative – until now perhaps.

While the alternative energy production ‘breakthroughs’ in Europe have occurred relatively recently, they are the result of a decade-long concerted drive to develop new initiatives – even though some of these countries utilise highly efficient nuclear power. Clearly New Zealand’s resolute stance on nuclear energy is not about to be changed any time soon, but the enterprise being shown overseas underlines the neglect with which successive governments have treated the alternative energy sector.

Sadly, we need not have got ourselves into this situation, argues Fitzsimons.

"Over the 30 years I have been involved in energy policy debate the opportunity has been there to take a different path. Any time during that period we could have done it. We still can, but the longer we leave it the more cold showers we will have to put up with," she says.

"The answer is not large-scale generation anymore. That’s a thing of the past. The answer is many smaller developments built close to where the load is to reduce line losses. Wind and wood suits this very well. We also have to stop thinking how to generate electricity and think how to provide the service electricity does in other ways. Solar water heaters don’t generate power but they do heat water and save power. Insulation will keep your home warmer so you need less electricity. There are hundreds of these examples."

There may be hundreds of examples but the Government’s Energy Wise Home Grants scheme, part of the energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies, focuses on two key areas: insulating the homes of low-income families and encouraging the use of solar water heating.

"Hot water heating accounts for 45 percent of a home’s power use, which means there is significant potential for savings," says the Energy Minister in a briefing paper. "The grants scheme will help develop the market for solar water heaters, which will enable us to utilise more of this renewable resource to meet household energy needs."

In addition to the $1.2m allocated to projects that will insulate the homes of low-income families, the Government has committed $200,000 to the Solar Hot Water Grants scheme - in the next year it plans to install 400 solar water heaters.

But are such relatively minor investments going to pull the country from the clutches of chilling winter power crises? For many, the level of funding is a pitiful response relative to the scale of the problem. Fitzsimons suggests the Government could be doing a lot more. Instead, she says, it is being left up to industry.

And while the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy has set in place a target of a 15 percent improvement in energy efficiency in the public sector by 2006, even Hodgson admits the goal is "ambitious" – hardly encouraging when we are being threatened with blackouts if we fail to reach what has almost become an annual 10 percent power savings threshold.

Time for the million dollar question then: Can the New Zealand public expect that recent renewable energy developments and initiatives, and proposed renewable energy targets, will realistically meet future power demands?

"This is highly dependent on the future growth in the economy and as such, no concrete answer is available," admits Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority spokesman John Boyd. "However, recent energy use projections, by EECA and MED [Ministry of Economic Development], indicate that if both the NEECA targets are achieved, total consumed energy will have increased by a total of 30PJ. Thus the growth in the economy, and the resultant increased power supply demand, could be entirely accommodated by renewable [sources]."

But with the NEECA target nine winters away and the proposed power-generating alternatives due to be phased in over the same period, what happens in the interim, particularly if we have more dry spells and less natural gas?

Boyd won’t comment on the prospect of winter power crises in the near future, but he says a number of actions of the renewable energy programme have already been initiated. According to EECA these include:

· Regulatory barriers – a work project to investigate and address legislative barriers to renewable energy development, undertaken in conjunction with the Ministry for the Environment.

· Industry development – ongoing support of the renewable energy industry associations (including the development action plans for future priorities) to encourage the uptake of renewable energy covering wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydrological.

· Biomass – an investigation into the opportunities for biomass through liaison with forestry and other relevant sectors.

"The project’s mechanism," adds Boyd, "which is part of the Government’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, includes the introduction of a carbon emissions charge from 2007 and opportunities for carbon credits to help ensure the economic viability of proposals. The Minister of Energy has recently awarded carbon credits to two proposed new wind farms."

Under investigation it still appears a little thin on substance because, say some critics, these strategies are more closely aligned to meeting Kyoto commitments than sourcing a reliable power supply for the New Zealand public.

Fitzsimons doesn’t buy into such attacks. She says take the Kyoto Agreement out of the equation and investments in alternative power generation still pay off. The Green Party co-leader may have a point. Presumably Meridian would not be building a large wind plant if it were not going to pay dividends – the company’s shareholders simply wouldn’t agree to it.

Yet, despite the extent of the power supply problems in New Zealand, it is still questionable whether the Government’s renewable energy strategies represent a response to the issue as serious as that taken by members of the European Union, or even the United States. While the US is often, many would argue justly, vilified for excessive energy wastage, Washington is investing billions into the research and development of renewable energy resources.

There is little doubt that alternative energy-generating infrastructure does consume significant capital investment. But if New Zealand wants an uninterrupted supply of power we are going to have to fork out for it. The wind of change is blowing but at the moment it seems little more than a breeze - it could take some time to fill in on our shores too so don’t dust off the electric blanket just yet.


Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:21 AM | Comments (0)

THE LIFESTYLE BLOCK BOOM INVESTIGATE: JUN 03

Is it the call of the wild, or something even more primal? HAMISH CARNACHAN investigates a growing phenomenon in population drift:

They call it downshifting. A word evocative, per-haps, of a steel blue Porsche 911 whipping through the mountain passes of the Southern Alps, just open space as far as the eye can see across the Canterbury plains below out to the ocean beyond, and on the roadside drifts of snow that the distant winter sun has tried but failed to claw from the alpine landscape. Downshifting, a word that spins you up in its vortex and virtually screams "escape", "freedom", "lifestyle".

If it wasn’t dreamt up by some marketing spinwizard, it should have been. Because these days they’re talking about "downshifting" in relation to lifestyle choices – kicking the big smoke bye-bye, and staking out that ten-acre block in the country you’d fantasised about owning ever since those lazy summers of your childhood.

Fed up with all that city-living entails, an alternative existence is rapidly luring an ever-increasing swathe of intransigent townies away from suburbia. Throughout the country, former city slickers are finding their field of dreams lies not amidst the corporate high rises but out in the paddocks, beyond the confines of the cityscape. They’re ditching the constraints, the hustle and bustle, of metropolitan life for the privileges country solitude can offer, and they’re finding it often at a cost considerably less than in most parts of suburbia.

These people are heading for the prospects of a better life for their families, fresh air, open spaces, bigger properties that tend to hold the pledge of swimming pools, tennis courts, and large gardens with plenty of land leftover for free-range children, and grazing horses or a small flock of sheep.

And yet, the delights of grassroots New Zealand culture are often only a stone’s throw away from the city centres. Venture out of the suburbs of any major city and you’ll come across delightful locales like Amberley on the outskirts of Christchurch, Brighton to the south of Dunedin, and Clevedon just out of Auckland.

Situated on the city fringe where suburbia melts into the rolling rural landscape, these are places where the locals live a hybridised existence influenced by their environs - close enough to commute to the city for work, far enough removed to enjoy the solitude of country life. This is the region of the "weekend farmer".

The houses, generally a mix of neatly renovated colonial homesteads and sophisticated new developments, are mostly large, with gardens immaculate. Mud splattered BMWs and Mercedes fight for parking space in the garage with late model utes and farm bikes. Timberland shoes and Red-band gumboots stand side-by-side lining the front-door foyer. Here is eclectic yet idyllic lifestyle as peaceful as any.

With more high-density housing encroaching on personal space, escalating property prices, and ever-increasing traffic congestion, pollution, crime and violence, more and more people are leaving the city in search of the ‘good life’, and who can blame them? But while rural life is the stuff many people’s dreams are made of, is the grass necessarily greener on the other side, and what of this phenomenon of lifestyle block sprawl?

For Terry and Beatrice Nuthall, leaving the city behind was everything they had dreamed of. They found their slice of paradise on a 10 acre block in the Kumeu region, another lifestyle stronghold, northwest of Auckland. With their three children having flown the nest, Terry and Bea purchased ‘Falconhurst’, an idyllic property bordered by mature macrocarpa trees and nestled amongst orchards, vineyards and a myriad of other agricultural endeavours.

The property is only a half hour drive from central Auckland – five minutes from Kumeu town centre – but it seems a world away from the city. The secluded solitude of Falconhurst is a lifestyle block at its quintessential best. A stream meanders through the middle of the section, past a generous homestead with flowing gardens and immaculately groomed lawns, protected from a small holding of stock by split-post fencing stained to match the architraves of the house.

But while the couple don’t typify the young families of ‘2.7 children and a dog’ that are heading for the hills, their motives for moving were the same – a more leisurely lifestyle. Terry says that aspect of the purchase was the greatest success and he is enthusiastic about encouraging others to pursue their dream if this is where it lies. "Get out of the dirty, cramped, car-polluted city I say."

He still marvels at some of the charms of country life that simply cannot be equalled in the city too.

"They’re simple things like when you go out you don’t have to worry about locking everything up. You make lasting friendships out of the close networking that goes on in the rural community. We even used to trade openly because people around you are all doing different and interesting things on their land. And one thing you really notice is how the locals seem to pull together to help each other out – how often does that happen in the city? I remember once I got the tractor stuck. I left it overnight and the next morning it was sitting there in the driveway."

The Nuthalls bought their property in 1997 for $800,000, which is at the higher end of the market. Still, they admit making a profit when they were forced to sell earlier this year for health reasons. Subsequently, they have retrenched to the city and though they both dearly miss what they left behind, Terry has words of advice for newcomers to lifestyle block living.

"People need to move to a lifestyle block well before they retire because there’s a lot of work involved – much more than they think. Also, the cashflow is a surprising drain. We spent around $20,000 a year on maintaining the property and machinery. You can run out of water and have to buy it in, there’s fencing material and metal for the drive, it’s never ending really," he says.

"Still, for us the positives always far outweighed the negatives."

Today there are a host of resources to help landowners come to terms with the requirements of their new investment. Lifestyle block farmers even have their own association – The New Zealand Association of Smallfarmers – formed nearly 30 years ago. It has 15 branches throughout the country and claims to represent the interests of more than 60 000 smallholders. If that network can’t provide enough information and advice then there are magazines on the subject and a multitude of websites on the Internet.

One of the most popular websites is www.lifestyleblock.co.nz, set up and operated by Kay Swann, a farmer from Brighton just south of Dunedin. In fact, Kay’s site is the second most popular agricultural website in New Zealand. She puts the interest down to the activity of the site’s discussion group where tips and hints are fired back and forth over cyber-space. The insatiable appetite for information on the subject gives some indication of how popular lifestyle farming has become.

Kay emigrated to New Zealand from England 12 years ago and lived in the Waikato until purchasing her 14 acre lifestyle block and moving south last year. She now runs a small herd of cattle on her land, breeding them for the gourmet veal market "more as a hobby" than anything else.

"You never going to make a lot of money," she says. "I think most people get a lifestyle block because they want more room for their families, their kids, their dogs, maybe a couple of ponies.

"There seems to have been a change in people’s values. They’re seeing that there’s more to life beyond the city. Also, with the advances in the Internet and technology these days, people are a bit more flexible - they don’t have to be living right on the office doorstep."

Like Kay, many of her close neighbours are from Europe and the United States. "They’ve come out here following a dream", she says, one that is too costly back in their native countries.

And they, like many Kiwi dreamers, are often unaware of the issues that affect lifestyle block owners here. She says that water supply is becoming a problem in some areas because the increasing development of farmland into smaller lots is draining bore water levels.

"The lifestyle people don’t have the network of support that the farmers do. People find it hard to get hay and when we have a drought, like we have had down here, we can’t organise to get feed from the North Island like they do.

"Conventional farmers often get tired of constantly being asked for help and advice. They also tend to think that people living on lifestyle blocks don’t look after their animals and cause a lot of animal welfare issues. I think that’s mainly through ignorance but the two don’t tend to blend. That’s why you find the lifestyle blocks grouped together in the same areas."

Kay also suspects the dream often overshadows the practicality of small farm ownership.

"Most people go into it not really understanding what’s required. People have a rosy picture of the country and they’re not really aware of the negative side of it. You have farmers’ dogs barking at all hours, the smell of silage, low flying crop-dusters – it’s not always as peaceful as they imagine.

"There are statistics that show the average length of time people stay on a lifestyle block is five years. The main reason they leave is because they weren’t aware of how much work and responsibility is involved, or one partner gets fed up with it and tells the other, ‘This is you dream – not mine’."

However, many still seem willingly to give it a shot. The latest statistics from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) show the lifestyle block sector is one of the star performers in the property market with both values and sales volumes consistently experiencing strong and healthy growth.

Three years ago 503 lifestyle properties were sold nationwide for a median price of $185,000. The five regions with the highest prices were all in the top half of the North Island. Bay of Plenty properties were the most expensive, followed by Auckland, Northland, Waikato and Gisborne.

In March this year, 716 blocks sold for an average price of just under $250,000, but the figures show the market has moved. Auckland is on top, followed by Marlborough, Otago, Waikato and Wellington. If you had a purchased a section in the Auckland region in March 2000, at the average price of $252,000, and sold it in March this year you would have made yourself close to a cool $100,000 profit. And today you’ll be forced to fork out $314,000 on average for a section on which to set up a boutique vineyard in Marlborough.

The rural spokesperson for the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand, Murray Cleland, says the level of sales is currently limited only "by a distinct shortage of listings".

In areas such as West Melton, Canterbury, where traditionally there have been an abundance of ‘bareland’ blocks priced from $100,000 upwards, the Bayleys property group say it is now difficult to find such a section for sale. Prices of $150,000, and over, are reportedly commonplace today. Bayelys says strong demand from migrants, particularly from the United Kingdom and Europe, is one of the drivers of this market.

While the market has shifted further south in recent years, Auckland hasn’t slipped below second place on the standings. One of the strongest performing markets in this region is the area northwest of the city. Sales Manager at Bayleys North West Auckland Margaret Curnow says she has noticed a steady increase in the demand for lifestyle properties in the region over the past four or five years.

While she says that demand is predominantly being driven by families seeking a life in the country, "more and more people who work out this way, particularly in the growing Albany business area, want to avoid hours of travel."

Most of the lifestyle blocks being sold in this area are subdivisions of larger chunks of land and concerning for some is the fact that, as Curnow admits, "most people we work with just mow it."

"What they want," she says, "is country life and space without the work."

Some farmers in the ‘right’ locations, like northwest Auckland, are finding the property market more alluring than fluctuating meat and wool prices. So, with subdivision becoming more profitable than traditional land use in some areas, what effect is this having on the productivity of the conventional farming sector?

Well, there’s not a great deal known about the phenomenon, which is part of the reason why the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) is about to commission an extensive study on the subject.

One MAF spokesperson says at present no one even knows exactly how many lifestyle units there are in New Zealand – it is approximated to be between 90,000 -110,000.

"We’ve done a number of broad consensus studies on commercial properties but we don’t have a handle on lifestyle blocks."

He says the study, which is expected to be out in June next year, should help clarify the economic impact small farms are having on the economy, if any, as well as what use the land is being put into and what previous land use the blocks have been formed from.

Five years ago a similar study was conducted, but that was done on a regional, not a national, basis. MAF carried out the survey, in conjunction with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council to look at productivity and land use on lifestyle blocks in the western Bay of Plenty region.

What they discovered was that "for every pony paddock put up, a glasshouse was built too", suggesting that there was probably no net loss of productivity.

Phil Journeaux, one of the authors of the study, says it was hard to assess the effect on overall productivity because of the many variables.

"The land had come out of sheep and beef farm property and gone into a myriad of uses. Initially our findings showed a 2–3 percent increase in productivity but when we scrutinised our methods and went back over some of the issues we discovered a 2-3 percent decrease.

"The other thing the study showed was that the smaller blocks, less than 2 hectares, tended to go into glorified gardens with a couple of cattle and few sheep. Quite clearly, those cases would contribute to a productivity drop."

But, as MAF sources points out, often productivity is increased on small farm lots because, in the case of glasshouse horticulture for example, it is a more economic form of land use with outputs significantly greater than traditional grazing. Still, they caution about drawing national parallels from the Bay of Plenty study because some regions are better suited to a certain type of land use than others, each of which vary in efficiency.

While the jury is out until next year on whether or not the increasing demand for lifestyle blocks is affecting mainstream agriculture, there are more tangible concerns. Some farmers, whose properties border the expanding lifestyle belt, say inflated land valuations, which are being fuelled by a growing demand for rural property, are hiking up their rates.

One farmer in the Coatesville-Riverhead area northwest of Auckland is reported to have had his rates increase by more than 100 percent in a year. The owner suspects a valuation based on his property’s potential for subdivision is behind the massive rates rise. Though that was for a 40-hectare property, similar increases have reportedly whacked lifestyle block owners too. Federated Farmers fear that such an escalation in council rates charges means farmers will have less money available to invest back into productivity and income returns.

Environment Waikato Regional Council has even warned that existing farms in the district need protection from the encroachment of lifestyle blocks. Contrary to Kay Swann’s comments about the negative impacts of conventional farming on small farm owners, Councillor Neil Clarke says he has sympathy for farmers when lifestyle blocks are established close by.

"There needs to be some form of indemnity for people buying lifestyle blocks close to farms. They could sign a document noting that they understand the nature of rural living, just as coastal property owners signed waivers when they lived in coastal hazard zones."

But Murray Cleland of the Real Estate Institute believes the increasing popularity of lifestyle blocks is having a positive effect on the rural economy. He says it has contributed to an influx of people and capitol into local businesses, both services and retail, and "adds a lot of colour to the New Zealand rural experience".

It will be some time before we truly understand what effect the lifestyle block explosion, currently carving up tracts of prime agricultural landscape, is having on the backbone of the nation’s economy. However, now, and in the immediate future, it seems certain that the irresistible prospect of the ‘good life’ will show no sign of losing its appeal to those who can afford it. It’s just a question of whether the transition to a country life is really all that it’s made out to be.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:12 AM | Comments (0)

THE LIFESTYLE BLOCK BOOM INVESTIGATE: JUN 03

Is it the call of the wild, or something even more primal? HAMISH CARNACHAN investigates a growing phenomenon in population drift:

They call it downshifting. A word evocative, per-haps, of a steel blue Porsche 911 whipping through the mountain passes of the Southern Alps, just open space as far as the eye can see across the Canterbury plains below out to the ocean beyond, and on the roadside drifts of snow that the distant winter sun has tried but failed to claw from the alpine landscape. Downshifting, a word that spins you up in its vortex and virtually screams "escape", "freedom", "lifestyle".

If it wasn’t dreamt up by some marketing spinwizard, it should have been. Because these days they’re talking about "downshifting" in relation to lifestyle choices – kicking the big smoke bye-bye, and staking out that ten-acre block in the country you’d fantasised about owning ever since those lazy summers of your childhood.

Fed up with all that city-living entails, an alternative existence is rapidly luring an ever-increasing swathe of intransigent townies away from suburbia. Throughout the country, former city slickers are finding their field of dreams lies not amidst the corporate high rises but out in the paddocks, beyond the confines of the cityscape. They’re ditching the constraints, the hustle and bustle, of metropolitan life for the privileges country solitude can offer, and they’re finding it often at a cost considerably less than in most parts of suburbia.

These people are heading for the prospects of a better life for their families, fresh air, open spaces, bigger properties that tend to hold the pledge of swimming pools, tennis courts, and large gardens with plenty of land leftover for free-range children, and grazing horses or a small flock of sheep.

And yet, the delights of grassroots New Zealand culture are often only a stone’s throw away from the city centres. Venture out of the suburbs of any major city and you’ll come across delightful locales like Amberley on the outskirts of Christchurch, Brighton to the south of Dunedin, and Clevedon just out of Auckland.

Situated on the city fringe where suburbia melts into the rolling rural landscape, these are places where the locals live a hybridised existence influenced by their environs - close enough to commute to the city for work, far enough removed to enjoy the solitude of country life. This is the region of the "weekend farmer".

The houses, generally a mix of neatly renovated colonial homesteads and sophisticated new developments, are mostly large, with gardens immaculate. Mud splattered BMWs and Mercedes fight for parking space in the garage with late model utes and farm bikes. Timberland shoes and Red-band gumboots stand side-by-side lining the front-door foyer. Here is eclectic yet idyllic lifestyle as peaceful as any.

With more high-density housing encroaching on personal space, escalating property prices, and ever-increasing traffic congestion, pollution, crime and violence, more and more people are leaving the city in search of the ‘good life’, and who can blame them? But while rural life is the stuff many people’s dreams are made of, is the grass necessarily greener on the other side, and what of this phenomenon of lifestyle block sprawl?

For Terry and Beatrice Nuthall, leaving the city behind was everything they had dreamed of. They found their slice of paradise on a 10 acre block in the Kumeu region, another lifestyle stronghold, northwest of Auckland. With their three children having flown the nest, Terry and Bea purchased ‘Falconhurst’, an idyllic property bordered by mature macrocarpa trees and nestled amongst orchards, vineyards and a myriad of other agricultural endeavours.

The property is only a half hour drive from central Auckland – five minutes from Kumeu town centre – but it seems a world away from the city. The secluded solitude of Falconhurst is a lifestyle block at its quintessential best. A stream meanders through the middle of the section, past a generous homestead with flowing gardens and immaculately groomed lawns, protected from a small holding of stock by split-post fencing stained to match the architraves of the house.

But while the couple don’t typify the young families of ‘2.7 children and a dog’ that are heading for the hills, their motives for moving were the same – a more leisurely lifestyle. Terry says that aspect of the purchase was the greatest success and he is enthusiastic about encouraging others to pursue their dream if this is where it lies. "Get out of the dirty, cramped, car-polluted city I say."

He still marvels at some of the charms of country life that simply cannot be equalled in the city too.

"They’re simple things like when you go out you don’t have to worry about locking everything up. You make lasting friendships out of the close networking that goes on in the rural community. We even used to trade openly because people around you are all doing different and interesting things on their land. And one thing you really notice is how the locals seem to pull together to help each other out – how often does that happen in the city? I remember once I got the tractor stuck. I left it overnight and the next morning it was sitting there in the driveway."

The Nuthalls bought their property in 1997 for $800,000, which is at the higher end of the market. Still, they admit making a profit when they were forced to sell earlier this year for health reasons. Subsequently, they have retrenched to the city and though they both dearly miss what they left behind, Terry has words of advice for newcomers to lifestyle block living.

"People need to move to a lifestyle block well before they retire because there’s a lot of work involved – much more than they think. Also, the cashflow is a surprising drain. We spent around $20,000 a year on maintaining the property and machinery. You can run out of water and have to buy it in, there’s fencing material and metal for the drive, it’s never ending really," he says.

"Still, for us the positives always far outweighed the negatives."

Today there are a host of resources to help landowners come to terms with the requirements of their new investment. Lifestyle block farmers even have their own association – The New Zealand Association of Smallfarmers – formed nearly 30 years ago. It has 15 branches throughout the country and claims to represent the interests of more than 60 000 smallholders. If that network can’t provide enough information and advice then there are magazines on the subject and a multitude of websites on the Internet.

One of the most popular websites is www.lifestyleblock.co.nz, set up and operated by Kay Swann, a farmer from Brighton just south of Dunedin. In fact, Kay’s site is the second most popular agricultural website in New Zealand. She puts the interest down to the activity of the site’s discussion group where tips and hints are fired back and forth over cyber-space. The insatiable appetite for information on the subject gives some indication of how popular lifestyle farming has become.

Kay emigrated to New Zealand from England 12 years ago and lived in the Waikato until purchasing her 14 acre lifestyle block and moving south last year. She now runs a small herd of cattle on her land, breeding them for the gourmet veal market "more as a hobby" than anything else.

"You never going to make a lot of money," she says. "I think most people get a lifestyle block because they want more room for their families, their kids, their dogs, maybe a couple of ponies.

"There seems to have been a change in people’s values. They’re seeing that there’s more to life beyond the city. Also, with the advances in the Internet and technology these days, people are a bit more flexible - they don’t have to be living right on the office doorstep."

Like Kay, many of her close neighbours are from Europe and the United States. "They’ve come out here following a dream", she says, one that is too costly back in their native countries.

And they, like many Kiwi dreamers, are often unaware of the issues that affect lifestyle block owners here. She says that water supply is becoming a problem in some areas because the increasing development of farmland into smaller lots is draining bore water levels.

"The lifestyle people don’t have the network of support that the farmers do. People find it hard to get hay and when we have a drought, like we have had down here, we can’t organise to get feed from the North Island like they do.

"Conventional farmers often get tired of constantly being asked for help and advice. They also tend to think that people living on lifestyle blocks don’t look after their animals and cause a lot of animal welfare issues. I think that’s mainly through ignorance but the two don’t tend to blend. That’s why you find the lifestyle blocks grouped together in the same areas."

Kay also suspects the dream often overshadows the practicality of small farm ownership.

"Most people go into it not really understanding what’s required. People have a rosy picture of the country and they’re not really aware of the negative side of it. You have farmers’ dogs barking at all hours, the smell of silage, low flying crop-dusters – it’s not always as peaceful as they imagine.

"There are statistics that show the average length of time people stay on a lifestyle block is five years. The main reason they leave is because they weren’t aware of how much work and responsibility is involved, or one partner gets fed up with it and tells the other, ‘This is you dream – not mine’."

However, many still seem willingly to give it a shot. The latest statistics from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) show the lifestyle block sector is one of the star performers in the property market with both values and sales volumes consistently experiencing strong and healthy growth.

Three years ago 503 lifestyle properties were sold nationwide for a median price of $185,000. The five regions with the highest prices were all in the top half of the North Island. Bay of Plenty properties were the most expensive, followed by Auckland, Northland, Waikato and Gisborne.

In March this year, 716 blocks sold for an average price of just under $250,000, but the figures show the market has moved. Auckland is on top, followed by Marlborough, Otago, Waikato and Wellington. If you had a purchased a section in the Auckland region in March 2000, at the average price of $252,000, and sold it in March this year you would have made yourself close to a cool $100,000 profit. And today you’ll be forced to fork out $314,000 on average for a section on which to set up a boutique vineyard in Marlborough.

The rural spokesperson for the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand, Murray Cleland, says the level of sales is currently limited only "by a distinct shortage of listings".

In areas such as West Melton, Canterbury, where traditionally there have been an abundance of ‘bareland’ blocks priced from $100,000 upwards, the Bayleys property group say it is now difficult to find such a section for sale. Prices of $150,000, and over, are reportedly commonplace today. Bayelys says strong demand from migrants, particularly from the United Kingdom and Europe, is one of the drivers of this market.

While the market has shifted further south in recent years, Auckland hasn’t slipped below second place on the standings. One of the strongest performing markets in this region is the area northwest of the city. Sales Manager at Bayleys North West Auckland Margaret Curnow says she has noticed a steady increase in the demand for lifestyle properties in the region over the past four or five years.

While she says that demand is predominantly being driven by families seeking a life in the country, "more and more people who work out this way, particularly in the growing Albany business area, want to avoid hours of travel."

Most of the lifestyle blocks being sold in this area are subdivisions of larger chunks of land and concerning for some is the fact that, as Curnow admits, "most people we work with just mow it."

"What they want," she says, "is country life and space without the work."

Some farmers in the ‘right’ locations, like northwest Auckland, are finding the property market more alluring than fluctuating meat and wool prices. So, with subdivision becoming more profitable than traditional land use in some areas, what effect is this having on the productivity of the conventional farming sector?

Well, there’s not a great deal known about the phenomenon, which is part of the reason why the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) is about to commission an extensive study on the subject.

One MAF spokesperson says at present no one even knows exactly how many lifestyle units there are in New Zealand – it is approximated to be between 90,000 -110,000.

"We’ve done a number of broad consensus studies on commercial properties but we don’t have a handle on lifestyle blocks."

He says the study, which is expected to be out in June next year, should help clarify the economic impact small farms are having on the economy, if any, as well as what use the land is being put into and what previous land use the blocks have been formed from.

Five years ago a similar study was conducted, but that was done on a regional, not a national, basis. MAF carried out the survey, in conjunction with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council to look at productivity and land use on lifestyle blocks in the western Bay of Plenty region.

What they discovered was that "for every pony paddock put up, a glasshouse was built too", suggesting that there was probably no net loss of productivity.

Phil Journeaux, one of the authors of the study, says it was hard to assess the effect on overall productivity because of the many variables.

"The land had come out of sheep and beef farm property and gone into a myriad of uses. Initially our findings showed a 2–3 percent increase in productivity but when we scrutinised our methods and went back over some of the issues we discovered a 2-3 percent decrease.

"The other thing the study showed was that the smaller blocks, less than 2 hectares, tended to go into glorified gardens with a couple of cattle and few sheep. Quite clearly, those cases would contribute to a productivity drop."

But, as MAF sources points out, often productivity is increased on small farm lots because, in the case of glasshouse horticulture for example, it is a more economic form of land use with outputs significantly greater than traditional grazing. Still, they caution about drawing national parallels from the Bay of Plenty study because some regions are better suited to a certain type of land use than others, each of which vary in efficiency.

While the jury is out until next year on whether or not the increasing demand for lifestyle blocks is affecting mainstream agriculture, there are more tangible concerns. Some farmers, whose properties border the expanding lifestyle belt, say inflated land valuations, which are being fuelled by a growing demand for rural property, are hiking up their rates.

One farmer in the Coatesville-Riverhead area northwest of Auckland is reported to have had his rates increase by more than 100 percent in a year. The owner suspects a valuation based on his property’s potential for subdivision is behind the massive rates rise. Though that was for a 40-hectare property, similar increases have reportedly whacked lifestyle block owners too. Federated Farmers fear that such an escalation in council rates charges means farmers will have less money available to invest back into productivity and income returns.

Environment Waikato Regional Council has even warned that existing farms in the district need protection from the encroachment of lifestyle blocks. Contrary to Kay Swann’s comments about the negative impacts of conventional farming on small farm owners, Councillor Neil Clarke says he has sympathy for farmers when lifestyle blocks are established close by.

"There needs to be some form of indemnity for people buying lifestyle blocks close to farms. They could sign a document noting that they understand the nature of rural living, just as coastal property owners signed waivers when they lived in coastal hazard zones."

But Murray Cleland of the Real Estate Institute believes the increasing popularity of lifestyle blocks is having a positive effect on the rural economy. He says it has contributed to an influx of people and capitol into local businesses, both services and retail, and "adds a lot of colour to the New Zealand rural experience".

It will be some time before we truly understand what effect the lifestyle block explosion, currently carving up tracts of prime agricultural landscape, is having on the backbone of the nation’s economy. However, now, and in the immediate future, it seems certain that the irresistible prospect of the ‘good life’ will show no sign of losing its appeal to those who can afford it. It’s just a question of whether the transition to a country life is really all that it’s made out to be.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:12 AM | Comments (0)