The other morning as I was heading out the door the TV was on, and I happened to catch part of what seemed to be a "focus on energy & heating issues for the winter" segment on breakfast television .
There was a live feed to a flat of four (male) engineering students in Riccarton, Christchurch. Three of them were sitting on a couch huddled under a worn tartan blanket, while the fourth was lying by the couch under a winterweight sleeping bag, wearing an "EnSoc" woolly hat. The blond, fortyish woman presenting from the Auckland studio proceeded to interview them in an extraordinarily patronising manner.
One of the guys sitting on the couch explained that the house was 97 years old; it had been a student flat for 33 years. Sometimes, he noted, it was "colder inside than out" (in old ChCh flats, a true cliche).
"Sounds re-volting" grimaced the presenter. "Well, it's not really revolting" corrected one of the students. "It's just cold".
"Oh yes" said the presenter. "And I'm sure you're all just lovely to live with".
Now, I probably wouldn't ever have wanted to live in a flat with four engineering students either, but at this point I started to get offended on their behalf. The presenter (who is she, someone?) knew nothing about them, and was supposed to be interviewing them about the struggle to stay warm, not making snide digs with her supercilious Ponsonby-cafe-admiring-the-decor manner. Was she just an arrogant bitch, I wondered, or was she getting flustered talking to four strapping young chaps huddled under a blanket, a bit guache in her attempts to flirt?
The most talkative of the students went on to explain that they had an open fire, and things weren't too bad when they could get it going, but firewood was a bit expensive. "Though we did go out west the other night and, hee hee, liberate some firewood" he said.
"And of course, now in Christchurch" (which she pronounced rather like "Uzbekistan") "there are restrictions on burning in open fires, aren't there" said the presenter. One of the students explained that there were in fact restrictions on putting open fires in new houses.
"So why don't you just buy a heater?" she asked.
"Hmmm, can't really afford the electricity" said one student. "Probably can't afford the heater either" added another.
Before ending the interview, the presenter spotted the weathered fabric of the tartan blanket covering the three on the couch. "That blanket has holes in it" she clucked. "Don't your mothers take care of you?".
Touche. There you have, in a nutshell, much of what I detest about TVNZ and its lumbering, state-corporate, mother-of-the-nation arrogance. Insulated both from real public service requirements and genuine competition, it still seems trapped in an alternate universe where you don't have to respect people's intelligence. May CanWest continue to eat into the market share; in my view the success of TV3 and C4 - though it may have something to do with "targeting the youth market" - is definitely linked to a greater tendency to treat the viewer as an intelligent human being.
I could go on. But this post is not really about the severely irritating presenter or her ilk, so much as the content of the piece, and how it links back to NZ energy issues. How can it be, that in a supposed first-world country, people still can't afford to stay warm in winter?
I froze through ChCh winters as a student, and it seems this continues to be a rite of passage. Which is probably ok if you're young and can go to the university library to stay warm. When the presenter asked if the engineering students experienced any health problems as a result of their glacial environment, they replied (I quote) "Nah, not really". She was able to stay on topic long enough to note that it might be different if you're old or have young kids.
This is still considered par for the course. Government and electricity company websites offer tinkering-round-the-edges recommendations about putting in insulation (bit difficult if you're renting), stuffing draughty cracks, and not heating rooms you're not in. Huddling in front of a three-bar heater in the living room continues to be the norm.
Meanwhile, in Britain, a country of 60 million people and no major hydroelectric schemes, buildings are routinely centrally heated at low cost and are toasty warm during the winter. How do they manage this? Well, you might answer, they were lucky enough to discover a huge pool of gas sitting just off their coastline. Yes, but so did we...and it's only now, when it's running out, that we're seeing household use of gas promoted.
What have we been using it for in the meantime? BBQs, the odd LPG-converted vehicle, some gas heaters. But mostly, it's been burnt in power plants to create electricity. Am I missing the point, or wouldn't it have been smarter to use it directly?
Debates on energy supply continue to use as a measuring stick the possibility of the lights going out . If we can just avoid that, the assumption is, we'll be ok. I would suggest a more ambitious benchmark: People being able to afford to heat their houses.
Here's the comparison: in London Simon and Jill had a combined gas and electricity bill for the last quarter of about 100 pounds, which included as much heat as they needed to pump out during the cold northern winter to keep their whole apartment toasty warm (and dry all their laundry in the process). By contrast, in my flat we've just got a bill of $130 for a month (i.e. $390 a quarter) which - I swear - does not include *any* space heating. So even on straight exchange rates we're paying about 25% more, before you factor in the much higher incomes in the UK. And that's *without* trying to heat anything.
We all know that there are health impacts of sitting round shivering for months at a time. Warm people are healthier, more productive and need to eat less. So why don't we stop faffing around with stuffing towels into cracks and raise our expectations?