The Sustainability Principle
 of Energy


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This website is devoted to revealing the essence of energy so humanity may thrive and our daily lives be filled with wonderment and awe. 
It is a labour of love, dedicated to our children.



Review of Do the Maths
Reflections on Bill McKibben's presentation 
in the Embassy Theatre 
Wellington New Zealand  15 June 2013)


In 2010 the Boston Globe called him "probably the nation's leading environmentalist” and Time magazine described him as "the world's best green journalist."  Last night (13 June) Bill McKibben spoke to a packed Embassy theatre in Wellington. Waged people paid $NZ22.50 and unwaged $NZ12.50 to hear him speak about the dangerous impacts of human activity on Earth’s climate. An unknown number missed out on getting tickets or could not afford them. What’s with this crowd?

As Bill said, none of us would have had to be there if we were a civilised society and he made it clear he would far rather be home enjoying his family and land in Vermont. For whatever reason, many young people and a wide smattering of grey-heads like me attended the show. Forty year olds did not seem to be so well represented but then perhaps those present just look much older or younger than they are. 
A woman and her daughter who had hitchhiked from Nelson to the Picton Ferry sat beside me. The back of the daughter's T-shirt was emblazoned with slogans exhorting us to recycle, use renewable energy etc.
An ex-Prime Minister sat behind me, a man who had been at the centre of a Government that had in an unprecedented way subsidised private cars and jet travel with their immense waste and pollution.

Who knows why these various people were gathered here? All I know is there were many activities I would have preferred to be doing and I attended with no intention of writing a review of the event. However I woke this morning feeling that the show had been an important, hopeful occasion worthy of deeper reflections. So here I am assembling this review despite the fact I took no notes, I am diplopic and there is so much else for me to do. And, unlike Bill, I am not a wordsmith.

So why was I there? Like Bill, by the 1990s I had concluded our use of our carbon potential is totally unsustainable. Then in 2000 I got the job of summarising the New Zealand 2000 Climate Impact Report into poster form for 11-12 year olds. I was then in my fifties and I was shocked to realise the scale of the failure of our educators and journalists to communicate the nature of the atmosphere to me. Worse, much worse, I realised the communication of our climate experts completely lacked science too.

One conversation remains indelible. I was incredulous of the statistics I was presented with. These suggested that the existence of a few gases constituting less than 0.1% of Earth’s atmosphere made the difference between the present life-enabling average temperature of 15C and an Earth averaging minus 18C in their absence. This was at once an amazing, awe-inspiring and terrifying realisation that changed me to the core. I still could not believe the maths and rang Martin Manning, then head of NIWA, to confirm the figures before further propagating them in our schools.

Martin confirmed the figures and I expressed my dismay at how our media had completely failed for over five decades to communicate to me that these potent warmer gases were calculated in parts per million (ppm). Martin replied with considerable passion down the phone line, “If only, if only someone could get it across that we are talking about trace gases here”. So in that moment I decided I would be that someone.

From Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy

For the next two years I researched and dreamed what I came to call Trace Theory. I discovered that no one talked about the Warmer Trace Gases. Even our top climate experts like Martin and Andy Reisinger refused to speak about trace gases, instead preferring to speak of “greenhouse gases”, thus evoking images of Earth’s atmosphere as a greenhouse. I slipped the information about the trace gases into the teacher's guide. I later learned those guides were not distributed with the posters to our schools. 
I observed that some educators and climate experts became extremely irritated when I questioned this behaviour. Eventually I concluded this greenhouse belief system constituted a major new global religion.

By October 2002 I had researched the learning activities this use of the “greenhouse” symbol generates at all levels of our education system and shown how it is unsustainable. I also performed a parallel exercise researching the learning activities generated by the use of the “trace” symbol and was convinced these better communicated the dynamic nature of our atmosphere. Helen Clark, then our Prime Minister, often expressed her concern about “climate change” and so I wrote to her offering to show her this work.

As mentioned, I had become aware of a most interesting phenomenon. Our leading Environmental Educators and climate experts did not welcome this work. Indeed the almost universal reaction was one of dismissal, sometimes outrage. In November I got an urgent invite to address a meeting of representatives of Government Departments concerned with climate communication. I prepared flow charts showing the impacts of both Greenhouse Theory and Trace Theory on our education curriculum. However I had not got two lines into my exposition when New Zealand’s most powerful Environmental Educator tore down my charts, shouting that I did not have a clue what I was talking about. The meeting broke up in disarray and no minutes were ever recorded.

I now realised the work was touching onto a vital element of our psyche that is a driver of our vast system of waste and pollution. It was to take another three years of work and dreaming to distil these insights into the Sustainability Principle of Energy. As part of that investigatory process I created an Internet cartoon strip to explore our psyche, which Alastair Thompson of SCOOP News ran for a year or two. A decade later those primitive cartoons have had millions of hits and the first page of Google image searches of “greenhouse effect”, “greenhouse earth”, “trace gases” etc still throws up several links to the strip.

From Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy

Every so often I learn those cartoons had an impact I could not have imagined but in general I assumed from my New Zealand experience that I had completely failed in my attempts to communicate to our educators and journalists the vital, trace nature of our atmosphere.
There are a few positive signs. For instance, Internet image searches in 2003 of the “greenhouse” symbol used to generate a page consisting of up to 70% of pictures of “greenhouse Earth”. Now these are less than 10% of the pictures on the first page. 90% of results are pictures of greenhouses. 
Of course some of the change may reflect Google’s refinement of personalised search results. However a search of the “greenhouse gas” symbol still generates pictures of Earth in a greenhouse.

1 2 3   4 
1 NOAA 2Livescience  3Gstriatum   4Mudahfiska

In general though, in 2008 most of the evidence indicated our leading educators, journalists and policy makers were not ready to embrace Trace Theory. It was too inconvenient.  Indeed our rising pollution statistics, our formal adoption of the ETS regime, our escalating debt and the general hostility of Environmental Education agencies to Trace Theory offered little reason for hope.

In this context Bill’s idea of came as a bolt of genius that year. As he explained last night, the idea came from a letter he received from his good friend, James Hansen. James had calculated the highest safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be about 350 parts per million. So last night I was present to pay homage to this human being through which such genius had flowed. Why is it genius? A debate about 350 is a debate about parts per million. A debate about parts per million is a debate about trace gases. A debate about trace gases generates discussion of Trace Theory – tiny proportions with enormous leverage...the essence of Earth’s highly dynamic atmosphere.

Great challenges remain before we have a science in the communication of climate processes. The communication of climate care and civics is a vastly complex process because the ego can easily subvert our finest intentions. I risk being obscure when I state that in terms of symbols, we are our lifestyle and information is physical. Our actions form potent metaphors that our conscious minds can never truly fathom. The truth of the sustainability of our actions will always be revealed in some way or another. Thus our real messages can easily be quite different to what we think they are. They may even be completely contradictory.

Billions of people in Developed Economies lead sustainable lives and so are not subject to this conundrum. However people in Undeveloped Economies (or Diseconomies) like the USA and New Zealand are very unsustainable and this is reflected in the correlation of our lifestyles with our use of language.

So even though Bill’s notion of is genius and he is a considerable artist at communicating climate processes he is still vulnerable to denial of change/stewardship. In 2007 he was still lecturing and writing books entitled “Fight Global Warming Now”, which of course frames his discussion in the ultimate denial of the thermodynamics that enables our existence. His lecture in Wellington in 2009 was still framed in this non-science (or, if you like, nonsense). Somewhere lost deep in my piles of notes I have a detailed analysis of his lecture. My memory is that it ticked many of the boxes of unsustainable language use.

Even in his interview last week with Kim Hill on New Zealand national public radio Bill confused global warming with a human-induced thermal build-up and he evoked the common delusion of “renewable energy”. Working with our media is very difficult as the journalists conducting the interview tend to frame the discussion in ways convenient to them and there is the natural tendency on the part of the interviewee to reflect the interviewer. However in the absence of such a framework last night I observed at the end of Bill’s lecture that I had not ticked a single box of unsustainable uses of word symbols except his confusion of an economy with a diseconomy and one evocation of “renewable energy”.

Indeed I often had cause to enjoy the care with which he used words.  He did not demonise carbon, that essential building block of life, as many climate educators do in so many ways. It is possible he did speak nonsense such as  “putting a price on carbon”. It is more helpful to speak of "valuing fossil fuels" and  “taxing air pollution”.  I define the latter as taxing our emissions of Warmer Trace Gases that damage the climate balances that sustain humanity.

The show was not maths lesson as most might imagine it. The fundamental equation is that $$$ plus burning fossils is unsustainable. Burning just the known fossil fuels in corporation inventories could raise average global temperatures up to 4˚C. Already it is probable that in the last two centuries our activities have raised the average global temperature by nearly 1˚C and possibly caused more extreme weather events. Current carbon dioxide emissions could well result in a 2˚C increase.
Bill quoted research by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which estimates that our combustion of all this known store of coal, mineral oil and gas would release into the atmosphere five times the amount of carbon needed to stay under the two-degree threshold. Bill told us Jim Hansen has now written a paper suggesting that if the Canadian tar sands alone were quickly burned then carbon dioxide levels would rocket from 390ppm to 540ppm.
Bill warned us to we should be very, very concerned about the risks generated by such behaviour, for Earth’s atmosphere is a highly dynamic and potent system.

I describe Bill’s presentation as a show rather than a maths lecture. It began with an introduction by ambassador at large to the South Pacific, Aaron Packard, who spoke of Bill’s great humility and tireless work. Aaron then invited, his mentor, Associate Professor Ralph Chapman of Victoria University to introduce Bill.  I wondered if Bill knew the irony of this.
Ralph and a group of his Victoria fellows have been leading proponents of local market reforms that disenfranchise us. They formed a significant global force, especially at Kyoto, that ensured pollution taxes have been rejected and a Carbon Trading regime adopted instead. Contrary to the claims of its proponents, Emission Trading Schemes are designed to reward polluters and punish non-polluters. They are fatally flawed psychology that destroys sovereignty, equity and stewardship.

The show began with video clips of some of the people being punished – our own Pacific neighbours. We sat back in the plush seats of the Embassy and watched them dance and sing their protest at the threats to their welfare on the huge screen. Clips showed tidal surges sweeping into their villages.
A series of breakdowns in the projector room plus the sight of the mouse cursor racing around the screen in search of the start and audio buttons reminded us that though we sat in plush surroundings this was a low-tech presentation and not some slick corporate presentation. The glitches also  served to remind us of the low-tech lifestyles of our Pacific Island neighours and their general vulnerability to more extreme weather events.

Bill often adopted a conversational manner, especially as he discussed how we might respond to the activities of the most polluting corporations. We were treated to scenes of street demonstrations against the Keystone Pipe proposal in the USA and he challenged the elders among us to act as elders, to engage in civil disobedience to stop further dangerous air pollution and waste of fossil fuels.

We were shown a video featuring a New Zealand Environmental Expert, a leader of the recent protests against the drilling for mineral oil in the ocean off East Cape, New Zealand. I do not recall what she said, perhaps because I was listening for what was not said. This was followed by a video of John Minto, a veteran of the 1981 Anti-Tour protests. He spoke of how the street demonstrations then were part of moral crusade against Apartheid that showed once New Zealanders understand what the issues are then we rise to the challenge.

It seems John, like most New Zealanders, still does not understand the central issue that caused the nationwide civil strife in 1981. Apartheid, horrendous as it is, was a peripheral cause. The central driver of New Zealand’s conflict was, as now, our abuse of our carbon potential. The steep rise in mineral oil prices in 1979 exposed the dangers of our addictive use of this potent material. The resulting widespread implosion into debt and unemployment threatened the National Government and it exploited our inherent racism divides to divert the growing anger and frustration.
Subsequent Governments have exploited and promoted this addictive use of our carbon potential to the point where we have sold off many of our greatest assets to sustain our addiction. We have converted most of the fabulous wealth potential of easily extracted fossil fuels into air pollution in just two generations.

I do not recall anyone last night pointing out the legislative changes that enabled this to happen. No one spoke of the huge subsidies now given jet and private car users. No one mentioned that since the 1993 Electricity Industry Reform legislation the practice of energy efficiency has become effectively illegal; since 1998 all our communities have been effectively stripped of their rights to own the intelligence of their local electrical potential; in 2008 the ETS legislation was enacted; in 2011 our Electricity Authority instituted a regime placing significant obstacles to our ability to use our solar potential etc. I doubt Aaron or Ralph informed Bill of these interrelated details of the derelict state of our nation.
Street protests against fossil fuel combustion will continue to occur in a cultural vacuum until people understand the uncivil nature of our contemporary corporate-driven culture and legislation. Our language will continue to make us our own worst enemies.

Wordsmiths are as vulnerable as any other human being to the trickery of the ego. Indeed their skill with words means they can become potent generators of unsustainable language.  So it was pleasing to note Bill’s sentience of some of the contradictions of our media. For instance, he pointed out that the people who oppose burning fossil fuels on scale are not the radicals of our society. Rather they are the true conservatives. He suggested the real radicals are people like the CEOS of corporations like Chevron who are engaged in a radical experiment generating vast amounts of air pollution in unprecedented way that puts all of humanity at risk. 

The Sustainability Principle of Energy offers even deeper insight into this phenomenon. It reminds us that our sustainability is ultimately measured by our actions. Are we conservatives or non-conservatives of the flows and balances that sustain humanity? This measure transcends all our common measures such as stated social, political, religious and other beliefs. Often it makes nonsense of these measures.

Despite his wordsmith skills and insights into the importance of language Bill still did not suggest it is critical to our survival. Thus he did not warn, for instance, that it is unhelpful if people protesting in the streets against something carry placards and banners protesting for it. As a consequence he did not address the unsustainable role of our education system, which is producing generations of profound non-conservatives imbued in the belief we live in a Greenhouse World. Perhaps his own non-conservative lifestyle prevents him seeing the true genius of

The notion that that our comfortable existence on this planet is enabled by a few trace gases measured in parts per million of the atmosphere makes our most central education policies dangerously obsolete. Most of our teachers are non-conservatives. They tend to generate more pollution and waste in a week than most people on the planet generate in a year. Trace Theory puts great focus on teaching how tiny quantities of a substance can generate massive change, whether they are Warmer Trace Gases, genes or interest rates on loans. 

As a seeming aside, I will mention one of New Zealand’s leading climate experts - Dr Andrew Matthews, a significant player in establishing the 1987 Montreal Protocols that bans the emission of substances that deplete Earth’s vital ozone layer. It was Andrew who pointed out to me the importance of Trace Theory for understanding the exponential nature of interest rates and communicating stewardship of debt. This was in 2002, well before most of the current debt had been created.

New Zealand household financial liability 1976-2006


What is interesting is I was unable to engage Andrew’s interest in applying Trace Theory to the education of stewardship of our climate. The trace gases of the ozone layer and their depleting molecules are measured in parts per billion of the atmosphere! ( The politics of the Montreal Protocols were unique - white, rich people are more at risk from ozone depletion, a switch in refrigerant gases had relatively impact on the wealth of the big industrialists and the vision of a hole in greenhouse earth was a potent one, even though it is ultimately unhelpful.)

This reticence brings up a question Bill did not address. Who can educate stewardship of our atmosphere when our ultimate message is our actions? Where will we get the teachers from who can correct the current unsustainable cycle of communication? Always the truth of whether we are conservatives or non-conservatives is reflected in our language. Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, ends with a promotion of carbon trading, Kevin Trembeth (a preeminent New Zealand climate expert working at NOAA) gave an excellent lecture on climate processes here in Wellington and at the end left a lingering illustration of planet earth in a Greenhouse (See the Livescience illustration above) and one of Bill’s last actions last night was to evoke an image of him flying from Dunedin to Wellington.

The inconvenient reality is that the human mirror neuron complex generates and imbeds these images deep in our psyche. They form rich fodder for the ego with its incredible, ingenious trickery. When Trace Theory is applied to our psychology we find that climate experts play a pivotal and disproportionate role in behavioural change and stewardship of the atmosphere. The 15% of “change makers” take their lead from a few climate gurus, the 60% of “change followers” take their lead from the 15% and a society changes its general behaviour.

The only way I can see to get around this conundrum of our actions being our most profound message is to vow to never to fly again, which I did twenty years ago. My home overlooks Wellington’s busy airport and there are a million justifications I can find to board those jets. Only that unconditional vow prevents me.

Which brings up another vital area Bill did not address: family.  One of the most powerful rationales I could adopt for boarding those jets is to share overseas travel experiences with my family and visit relatives residing around the planet. This morning I woke mindful of Bill’s speech and also facing the conundrum of family pressures to act.
My closest family has invited me to travel with them by car to a family reunion tomorrow. I can easily travel using mass transit, which generates a fraction of the pollution, waste and debt per capita of car travel. I am mindful that our vote at the petrol pump is far more potent that our vote in the ballot box. What to do?
After some wrestling with the conundrum I decide to offer to pay for everyone to travel by train. However I know if the consensus of my family is still to travel by car then my desire to share the day with them will somehow justify my non-use of mass transit. Even my offer risks me being perceived as judgemental and morally superior. It is not easy. 
Traditionally family is one of our most sustaining institutions. In our current diseconomy it becomes a dangerous liability. How do we address this situation with compassion?

In some ways these are quibbles about Bill presentation. I believe history will credit him with the genius of providing us with a profound and sustaining tool – the notion that a few trace gases existing in parts per million enable life as we know it on Earth. Inherent in this notion is the potential to communicate what an amazing, dynamic and exquisitely formed structure our atmosphere is.

I shouted a friend to the Do The Maths and he has just returned the favour by pointing me to the reaction to the tour on New Zealand’s dominant newsite –Fairfax’s Stuff website.

On June 4 there is an article titled Climate expert explains cost of fossil fuel future.  It provides a quick summary of Bill’s argument and a few details about the tour. Yesterday on June 15 there is an article titled Climate change math doesn’t add up. This is a New Zealand-Canadian collaboration by Jo Fone and Tom Harris and in many ways it reveals the dismal state of our Anglo-American education system. The article concludes with the argument that Earth’s atmosphere is a greenhouse and we are not harmed when carbon dioxide concentrations in our greenhouses are 1500 ppm i.e. “more than four times McKibben's so-called "safe" limit.”

Any education system that produces people with the delusion that life in a greenhouse is the same as life in the atmosphere is fatally flawed. Such delusions deny the fundamental principles of physics. Greenhouses do not have temperature variations of hundreds of degrees in any moment or roiling oceans or great reflective ice masses or 300ph jet streams. We do not experience typhoons, tornadoes, ice storms and similar extreme weather events in a greenhouse.

A couple of years ago I flicked Bill a draft of what a climate education curriculum for 5-10 year olds might look like. He replied he could not imagine it being implemented in the USA and asked how it is received in New Zealand. I had to reply in sadness that there is a zero response to it at every level.

I believe future generations will regard Bill’s innovation as genius though perhaps its impact would be greater if were called It may well prove that the upper safe levels of carbon dioxide levels are 300ppm or 500ppm. What matters is that we are now a small step away from talking of “trace gases” as we learn what ppm really means.

“350ppm” presents our educators and policy makers with an enormous challenge. It demands a revolution in education, for it requires us to source people who lead sustainable lives and thus are more free to teach what parts per million and leverage really mean.
It requires the adoption of a new language that works to generate and reflect sustainable behaviour in the more wasteful and polluting teachers. And we are all teachers to some degree.

We are fortunate because in many cases we do not have to look far for sustaining word symbols, as they were inherent in the language of previous generations previous to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. And we have great guides to sustainable language uses in the grand principles of physics. Therein resides great hope. Our use of sustainable symbols will tend to generate sustainable lifestyles so we and our children are better able to enjoy greater harmony with the immense forces of our sun and planet. Do we not owe it to future generations to open ourselves to this possibility?  
Thanks a million, Bill.

Some background links
Cartoon strip Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy 2002-2004
Celebrating Our Climate
An Essential Climate Education Framework
Bill McKibben: doing the maths
( 37′ 24″ )
American environmentalist, author, and journalist who led the organisation of, and will visit New Zealand on his Do the Maths Tour.
Do the Math - The Movie | Official Trailer











Updates and Additions


18 May 2013

Energy ?! - Chapter five -The Ego and Global Warming
Our confusion of warming with warming up deprives us of a wonderful, vital dimension of the thermodynamics of the universe(s).


16 April 2013

Energy ?! - Chapter four -The Ego and Potential Energy
Our estrangement from the universal potential by our division of kinetic energy from potential energy.


5 March 2013

Energy ?! - Chapter three -The Ego and Forms of Energy
The grand confusion of forms and perspectives of energy.


26 Jan 2013

Energy ?! - Chapter two -The Ego and the Conservation Principle of Energy

The incredible inconvenience of this great principle.


8 Jan 2013

Energy ?! - Chapter one -Introducing The Ego and Energy
A cartoon exploration of our psychology and the the nature of energy.



22 Sept 2012

The Sustainability Principle of Energy
The Compassionate Curriculum.

(An Illustrated Essay - A brief Historical Overview)



 3 August 2012

Towards a sustainable education system

A graphic comparison of the New Zealand Curriculum Framework with the Compassionate Curriculum Framework with brief comment


31 January 2012

A Practical Guide to Enjoying True Hope

An essay exploring how the great principles of physics can help identify false hope and enable the experience of sustaining hope.


5 October 2011

"An Orwellian Climate"

Letters to Australasian Chief Science Advisors explaining contemporary confusion in climate care communication (Prof Peter Gluckman, Prof Ian Chubb, Prof Tim Flannery, Dr Andrew Glikson ) 


15 September 2011

The 2011 New Zealand Election Campaign

(A letter to New Zealand people alerting them to the dangers of the huge hidden yet in-your-face advertising campaign promoting the sale of our national assets.)


16 March 2011

Thought Experiments re the Carbon Trading Ethos

(Originally designed for the Office of the New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.)


26 February 2011

Letter to Radio NZ

(Contains  reflections on broadcasts and ratings of the sustainability of a wide range of its programmes.)


29 November 2010 
The Joy in the Art of Civics

(Brief reflections on this state of being and the dangers of Environmental Education)


24 November 2010

Celebrating Our Climate   
(Draft one: A climate education framework founded in the Sustainability Principle of Energy offering an alternative vision of how we can communicate the role of humans in Earth's climate processes.) 


13 October 2010

Conversation with NZ Minister of Education (Anne Tolley) re the sustainability of the national education system. Read the Minister's letter and reflections on the flaws inherent in the Education Ministry's response.


4 November 2010

Letter to the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment
Introduction to the Sustainability Principle of Energy  with discussion of the nature of science.