Friday, October 31, 2008

Life in future "climate retreats" for survivors of global warming -- fact or fiction?

Life in future "climate retreats" for survivors of global warming -- fact or fiction?

Locations: USA, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, Africa

Photo above of the Princess Elisabeth Station is (c) 2008 International Polar Foundation / René Robert

By Rachel Chan
CNA staff reporter, TAIPEI

Not a conjecture or a theory, climate change is with us. With the future unfolding before our eyes, more humans could end up living in national or UN-funded "climate retreats" as they might be a last resort with tolerable temperatures should there be a mass human die-off due to the impact of global warming.

Although to most people it is no more based on fact than a sci-fi movie synopsis, one Taiwanese artist and an American blogger have teamed up to visualize the idea of a possible future world -- "climate retreat living pods" or " sustainable population retreats (SPRs) " -- in three-dimensional illustrations, to call for the public's attention to the issue.

After two months of pondering over the idea, Deng Cheng-hong, a visual designer living in Taiwan, put climate activist Dan Bloom's imagination into a series of three-dimensional illustrations using computer software.

One 26-year-old in Tahiti blogged on the Web site set up by Bloom, saying that he was so touched by the pictures that he wants to work harder to stop global warming, starting now.

Deng, who is the first person in the world to make these climate retreat living pod images about what the future might look like, said that as global warming is an "inconvenient truth" that humans are forced to face, he hopes his illustrations can serve as an alarm bell.

Deng said: "I hope this will give people a clearer idea of what climate retreats could be and get their attention to do something about global warming."

Working with Deng, Bloom has been blogging about the concept of climate retreats for two years. He said the idea of climate retreats are a possible adaptation strategy for survivors of global warming in the far distant future -- perhaps by the year 2100, according to him.

Bloom said his idea was inspired by acclaimed British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, who has done pioneering work on global warming issues.

Writing in the British newspaper The Independent in January 2006, Lovelock argued that as a result of global warming "billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable" by the end of the 21st Century.

Bloom said climate retreats are designed to house humans in the future, in the event that global warming causes some regions near the equator and in some temperate zones of the Earth to become uninhabitable for a long period of time.

"I feel this is a wake up call about the future," he said.

Bloom admitted that his proposal is no more than a "what if" scenario, but said he wanted to make people aware of the issue of global warming.

"I'm not talking about the end of the world and I don't want young people to feel hopeless, " he said. "I'm talking about in case of emergency, people can survive in climate retreats and carry on."

Describing Deng as a genius for putting his concepts into visual illustrations, Bloom said he was energized by Deng's work, which has become his tool to communicate around the world.

"I do not want to scare people. They might well call this science fiction, but they can look at the pictures and make up their minds slowly, " he said, adding that climate retreats are an idea of emergency shelter that can be built anywhere in the world -- such as England, Iceland, Greenland or Norway.

"Deng and I and a small team we have assembled are trying to do something to help people in the future work to make a better world, " according to Bloom, who added that this is also a long-term work that takes everyone's effort to push it further.

"I hope to attract a larger team of designers and scientists to continue work on the idea for generations, " Bloom said, urging anyone interested in the concept to visit, a Web site he created to showcase images and ideas about climate retreats.

Deng said that "many people know that global warming is true and I think my illustrations of climate retreat living pods can help to them to do something."


Anonymous said...

I got there first...

-- Gareth Renowden,

author of Hot Topic - Global Warming & The Future of New Zealand

"Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable, let's prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all." (Douglas Adams)

Anonymous said...

On 31 Oct, 4008, at 2:47 pm, Danny Bloom wrote:

Ever hear of my polar cities project? I now call these places "climate
retreats for climate refugees" and the images, Lovelock has seen them,
he said to me in email "It may very well happen and soon." This was
back in February.

Yes, I've seen your various forays onto the net at RC and other places.

I imagine there will be about 10 top 15 climate retreats in NZ by year
2500 or so, with others in Tasmania, too. Does anyone in NZ think
along these lines yet, other than you? and where do you suggest these
"climate retreats" be located in NZ, in highlands but where?

We have a few people who are looking ahead to that sort of thing - one's called "Fortress NZ":

I've met the author - an ex-Army man, so his solution to the full lifeboat is a citizen's army.

One thing strikes me: you always pitch your futures several hundred years out, but Lovelock (and me) think the crunch will come a whole lot sooner. We may not get the big sea level rise, but there could be serious climate dislocation...

In NZ we have plenty of mountains, we're surrounded by big cool oceans that will moderate the rate of change here, and we're a long way way from most places. You could have any number of "retreats"...

if time and space, maybe you can blog one day with pics about my polar
city images, climate retreats ideas....for NZ, and where they might
located there. i have tried to send info to NZ newspapers but they
refuse to answer my emails.....why? at least say NO. but they don't
even answer me......scary!

NZ press is pretty small and inward looking, and doesn't do a lot on climate issues beyond the usual political posturing - though the Emissions Trading Scheme has generated a huge amount of press...

Gareth Renowden,

Anonymous said...

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations may offer a useful perspective on what’s coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today’s perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 – different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale – may be in the offing.

If that’s likely – and I believe it is – we’re in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody’s making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they’ve spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I’m thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he’ll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I’m thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents’s farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in 20°F weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

Anonymous said...

Lifeboat Time
One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who’s looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world’s rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History. If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization – and it’s hard to think of a reason why it should not – the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire’s outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it’s hard to miss the signs of decline.


Bags packed for doomsday
08 December 4007

All aboard: New Zealand's isolation and natural resources make it an obvious refuge in an ocean infested with danger and uncertainty.

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AdvertisementIs the end really, finally nigh? And if it is _ what are you going to do about it? JOHN McCRONE meets some South Islanders who are getting ready for the end of the world as we know it.

The ``twin tsunamis'' of global warming and peak oil could spell TEOTWAWKI _ the end of the world as we know it.

And already, quietly, some people are getting prepared because they believe we are talking years rather than decades.

Helen, a petite 42-year-old Nelson housewife, is racing to build her own personal TEOTWAWKI lifeboat.

Earlier this year, she and her American husband cashed-up to buy a 21ha farm in a remote, easily defensible, river valley backing onto the Arthur Range, north-west of Nelson.

The site ticks the right boxes. Way above sea level. Its own spring and stream. Enough winter sun. A good mix of growing areas. A sprinkling of neighbouring farms strung along the valley's winding dirt-track road.

The digger was to arrive this week to carve out the platform for an adobe eco-house. A turbine in the stream will generate power. A composting toilet will deal with sewage.

Then there is the stuff that could really get her labelled as a crank (and why she would prefer to remain
relatively anonymous, at least until she is completely set up). Back at her rented house in Nelson, Helen shows the growing collection of horse-drawn ploughs, wheat grinders, treadle sewing machines and other rusting relics of the pre-carbon era, she believes she will need the day the petrol pumps finally run dry.
There is the library of yellowing books from colonial times, telling how to make your own soap, spin candlewicks, care for clydesdale horses.

``In the kitchen now, I'm always thinking, well, how am I going to do this job if I'm not plugged into the
power? I've been scouring Trade Me for the things we'll need.''

And weapons to defend the homestead? Helen's hands rise to her face in a mix of distress and bemusement.

That it should come to this. That this is the kind of decision you have to make if you are prepared to think future events through to their logical conclusion.

Yes, she will be getting a gun licence and a gun. A rifle will be needed to deal with the feral pigs, goat
and deer that would otherwise raid her crops. But _ oh dear _ she can well imagine also having to deal with feral Nelsonians, if there is complete economic and social collapse.

Just how long have we got exactly?

``I don't know. It could be 10 years. But I think I've got to get moving while I can. I want to start while I can still hire a 20 tonne digger to do the work. Lots of things are going to bite in maybe just five years,'' she says.

Jurgen Heissner is another Nelsonian who is seeing the writing on the wall.

A founder member of the New Zealand branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (Aspo), Heissner says it was like a blow to the stomach when he first comprehended how close we are to the brink.

He immediately began the process of selling out of his thriving bio-paint business and getting ready for a new world order.

Heissner's young son crawls into the room, one foot tangled in the leg of his romper suit, and gazes up at us.

Heissner's Japanese wife is in the kitchen making his 50th-birthday cake. Roses bloom at the window. Sun floods across the polished wood floor.

And we're talking about TEOTWAWKI.

Thank God we are in New Zealand, Heissner says in an accent still gruffly Germanic after 18 years
here. The whole damn country is a lifeboat really.

Did I know New Zealand is the only country in the world with spare human-carrying capacity _ the
luxury of surplus water and land? The only one? You may have a few smaller islands
like Tasmania and the Falklands. But so far away from everywhere, and one large farm already, New Zealand will be tomorrow's lucky country.

However, says Heissner grimly, right round the world, others will be making the same calculation.
We have been here before: Chicken Little panicking the sky is going to fall in. Remember when the global-scale threat was nuclear war, over-population, and not global warming but the return of the ice ages?

Or what about Y2K _ the Year 2000 millennium bug that was going to strike every computer dead and
send the Western world rocketing back to the stone age?

Helen laughs and says she knows some Y2K refugees, rich Americans who took flight and built their ``bug out'' citadels around Nelson and Golden Bay, complete with safe rooms and food bunkers. That is how she learnt about adobe mud-wall construction techniques _ on a house tour of one of these properties.

Psychologists call it ``catastrophising''.
Sure there are some worrying trends. But let's not exaggerate. Only the nutters would uproot
themselves and their families, abandoning their widescreen TVs, flush toilets, holidays on the Sunshine
Coast _ the whole suburban idyll _ to head for the hills, awaiting the end of civilisation.

Heissner scowls at such talk. He trained as a psychologist, so he knows about catastrophising, but also about other standard responses such as inertia and denial.

He says the world is facing a double whammy with climate change and the end of cheap oil.
One problem is too many people think of TEOTWAWKI in terms of Mad Max and other post-apocalyptic
B-movies. This certainly seems the case for US survivalists. Drop in on a website like _ ``The daily web log for prepared individuals living in uncertain times'' _ and it is filled with po-face discussions about how to set up your Armalite AR-10 semi-automatic with a night scope
and long barrel for perimeter defence.

One contributor complains that of course everyone has their BOV (bug-out vehicle) sitting loaded with
supplies in the garage, ready to light out the instant the SHTF (shit hits the fan), but what is their fallback plan, if it hits the fan while they are on a business trip or holiday?

In New Zealand, too, there is internet questioning about how we are going to handle the boatloads of
Japanese and Indonesian refugees who will surely be headed our way.

Robin Scott, author of a new book, Fortress New Zealand, and a website of the same name, says national security has to be a future concern.

With a regular army of just 4500 troops and 15,000km of coastline to defend, the introduction of national service seems a must at some point.

Scott, a 59-year-old British accountant, was another whose life was turned around the day he heard
about peak oil. ``It was September 2004. I just happen to get chatting to the guy to whom I was selling my house.''

Scott went ahead with a shift from Cornwall to Scotland, but then as soon as he could, brought his wife and grown son and daughter to the safer harbour of New Zealand. He started in Karamea on the West Coast until the sandflies got him down. ``I came out in great boils. It wouldn't work for
me there.''

Now renting a little bit of paradise, a swanky beach house overlooking the sand dunes in Christchurch's North Beach, (``I wouldn't buy here of course. It'll be the first place to get washed away. But I can enjoy it for the moment.'') Scott is busy negotiating on a small self-sufficient farm block in a quiet corner of West Canterbury. Yet while security is a worry in a fast-changing world, Helen, Heissner and Scott, all stress that gun-toting survivalist fantasies just won't wash.

They say there is no point in attempting to stand alone, creating a private fortress stacked with
ammunition and baked beans.

The only solutions worth considering will be community-based ones.

So they see their roles as being the pathfinders, developing the models of how to cope, which they can then teach the rest of us, if the worst does happen.

Helen says there is a bit of a grassroots movement going on, one that shares buzzwords like permaculture, relocalisation and home-scale technology.

And the movement has some idea of how the future may actually pan out based on the precedent of Cuba's ``special period'', the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
and the sudden halving of Cuba's oil supply.

A film about that time, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, has caused more of a stir in some quarters than Al Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

In Cuba, power stations were shut down for much of the day. Trade nearly ceased. The threat of mass
starvation was real.

Helen says it was exactly the kind of disruption that New Zealand could face if the global economy turns nasty because of oil wars or fast climate change.

But Cuba pulled itself together by giving up on the car and tractor, and turning to bicycles and oxen. State farming was replaced by self-sufficient home gardening _ communities
growing their own food, even in the cities, using parks, balconies and roof-
tops. Nearly half of Havana's food now comes from within its city limits.

The Cubans were helped by a team of Australians who taught them the
principles of permaculture, a system of sustainable, small-scale agriculture, developed in the 1970s.
Helen says it is all about having the knowledge. Pioneers 150 years ago had to be able to look after themselves with small mixed farms. These are the skills we will all need to relearn.

She has been interested in permaculture for 20 years and has nearly completed a horticultural
degree. Her plan is to experiment to find what would be the right combination of crops and animals to allow for year-round living off the land in a place like Nelson.

In her vegetable patch, Helen is trying with small stands of wheat, sorghum and other cereals. On the
patio, avocados, mangos, bananas and baby coffee trees grow in pots. She thinks she may need to know how to cultivate tropical plants if the weather is changing. ``I see it as creating a Noah's Ark of different species. I will have plants for fibre, plants for medicines, plants for fuel.''
There is much to learn if we are being practical about TEOTWAWKI.

Where will the know-how come from if the average Kiwi has to dig up the back garden to feed the family? Or build the composting toilet _ an outdoor dunny _ to feed the garden once there are no more fertilisers.

Helen says people may laugh at her now. But as in Cuba, one day small efforts like hers could be the seed from which a new society will have to grow.

Heissner also feels it is about creating the examples from which others can learn. So one of the prodh
jects he is now involved with is Atamai Village, a sustainable homes development to be built near
Motueka, if the plans are approved.

About 35 houses will share chicken runs, a goat herd, orchards and a foraging forest. Heissner says the
settlement will be largely self-reliant for food and power.

In a post-oil world, Heissner says craziness like Nelson tanking its milk to Christchurch to be pasteurised before it makes a return trip to the shops will have to end.

Communities must be reinvented, so they work on a local scale. This is another of the lessons of Cuba where universities were broken up _ three became 50 _ so they became largely walking distance.
Scott says, perhaps they are all being too alarmist. Perhaps the optimists are right when they say we will find new oil fields, that climate change will not be so severe, that other
technologies will come to our rescue.

However, he believes now is the time to be considering the scenarios and reacting in a practical way. ``I don't want me and my family to be sleep-walking into a disaster,'' Scott says, as we sit staring out at the million-dollar view of Pegasus Bay, a southerly whipping up the waves and sombre clouds darkening the sky.

Anonymous said...

Science and the art of journalism

Going Inside: A tour round a single moment of consciousness by John McCrone. - John McCrone's personal website
John McCrone describes himself as an “obviously senior” writer whose journey to feature writing is the “usual long story”.

It is and it isn't: McCrone did start as a cub reporter where half his days were spent filing clippings, but graduated to agency writing with Australian Associated Press, was a computer and technology magazine writer and editor, wrote four science books - as well as features.

"Eventually you mature," he says. "When features get too small you start writing books…"

A novel desire
McCrone has always admired Tom Wolfe, well-known as an exponent of narrative journalism before he turned his hand to fiction. McCrone says fiction was at one stage the staple of his reading diet, but from the age of about 25 he has read almost entirely non-fiction.

“I actually wanted to be a novelist at 19 or something, and I started three or four books. I got bored after three pages. I thought 'I can’t be bothered … I’m not excited… I like reading but…' In the end it’s just a chore.

“You can’t beat real life – especially as the world’s become so much more complicated. I ended up specialising in science – there’s so much there that fiction seems to pale in comparison.”

The perils of science …
Science writing is hard to do well, McCrone says.

“You are going into very complex areas and you have to make it very simple. I was quite disappointed with science writing in the end – I saw that being dumbed down all around me. I did stuff for New Scientist for years, and by the end I just got totally fed up with their approach.

“It’s one of the big reasons I gave up and came back here and did stuff that I think was more honest and straight. Science is all about pretending to understand things in simple terms – it’s like the whole genome project, the neuroscience brain mapping projects – they all made things seem much simpler … they actually had very simple mental approaches themselves, they hadn’t gone deep. They’re not doing anything too fancy. That to me is quite disappointing.”

Despite the disappointment, McCrone keeps his hand in via his website, It's described as an "attempt to define a new logic based on asymmetric dichotomisation or symmetry breaking."

If that sentence ties your head in knots, it will also give you an insight into what life as a science writer is like. The attempt has taken 25 years, and counting.

And the joy of journalism
“[Scientists] are experts in a small domain … but they don’t have the overview. I chose to be a journalist in the end because – if you want the whole story, I was going to go back to be a scientist before being a novelist – I had to choose between the two. In the end I worked out that journalism does everything for me. You do something different all the time – you can go and stick yourself into other people’s lives. You can go where you want, you’re not confined to a small niche and you’re getting the big view and you’re getting the small view.

“If you’re a scientist, you have to build yourself painfully up from the beginning, specialise in something very small. If I’d gone back to university I’d be doing the time clock of a weta or the breeding habits of gambusia, the mosquito eating-fish. It would be something really tiny which would bore you out of mind for five years. Once you’d done that apprenticeship you’d be allowed to do something slightly more complex and by the time you’d retired you could start talking about the big questions.

“I just wanted to get into the big questions right from the start. Don’t fritter away your life – get straight in there.”

Features a 'privilege'
Features must suprise and engage the reader, he says, and which means considerable research and employing a variety of writing techniques.

"To carry someone right through a long piece takes more technique. There’s quite a few different sort of mental templates you might use.

“That’s where I’m lucky, I’ve got a whole week to do the one article. No-one else in the paper has that luxury of time – that’s a privilege. In the old days people might have had two weeks to do what I do, so like everyone else I have to do more than I used to. A week for an article to me seems quite speedy, but in the modern world, no it’s not.

Writing features is certainly speedier than books, one of McCrone’s tomes took him five years.

“It was 300 pages long and I could have written 1,000 pages, so by that stage I thought it was time to move on. Now I’ve got a website, which has probably got five books worth on it – you can spread forever on there. It’s satisfying, but it’s not commercial.

Stories to capture emotion
Whereas Mike Crean focuses on the heart-warming and the historical feature, McCrone's are widely varied, from think pieces to simple background features. Leaky homes, answering the Lord’s call, and a day in the life of an MP are all in a week's work. While the content may be different, the desire is the same - to capture the reader with a mix of information and emotion.

“First it’s got to be different every week. People don’t want a sameness, if you’re writing a feature you’ve got to surprise people. I’m always looking for something that captures peoples’ emotions as much as anything else. You want to tap right into the heart of what people care about. It’s usually things to do with personal identity – things which say ‘what is it like to be a Kiwi’, everyone wants to read that."

The trick is to put the reader's interests first, he says.

“If you’re thinking about who your readers are, and they are a certain age group, a certain lifestyle, a certain income and all the rest of it, you think well what are the things that trouble them? What would they be interested to know about?

"You want to write about stuff that either exactly captures something about their own lives that they’ve half thought of and they’re pleased to see it actually articulated, or something they’ve been interested about that’s on the other side of the fence. A world they don’t know about but they’d be interested to see from the inside. You’re always thinking from your reader’s point of view, what would they be most tickled by?”

A recent piece on the drug P tickled readers not for the lurid exposition of Christchurch's dark underbelly, but the chance to give simple background to a regular news story.

"The P one was really popular. What they liked about that was that it was very simple and straightforward. We have stories every week about drugs or some story like that and the feature is a chance to actually step back and give all the simple background – the stuff that gets missed out of news stories and that people don’t really know the ins and outs of. That sort of thing works because you’re stepping abck and giving people that total picture – a sort of helicopter view which puts the news into context."

Demanding job
Writing two-to three thousand word features isn't everyone's cup of tea, and McCrone says the job has fairly high turnover.

"They’ve had trouble in the past keeping people in the feature writer job because each week you come in, and you’re basically starting from scratch in an area you know nothing about. If you’re a reporter you get a beat – so you’re doing police every week, you’re doing council every week, you’re doing environment every week – you build up a set of contacts, a set of story ideas, you have a familiarity.

"I come in – I usually do stuff which I know nothing about, that’s what keeps me interested – that just means you’ve got to read everything that’s been written, an extra day’s work to get up to speed.

“It’s the secret of being a journalist – you go in and are quite up-front with people. You say 'I’m stupid, I don’t know anything, tell me about … I’m going to ask you really dumb questions'. Most people don’t dare ask those questions. That’s the opportunity you have as a journalist, to drop in on people’s lives and ask the really basic stuff. And also, hopefully, ask some of the strategic big questions which people don’t have time to think about."

Mainlander a big canvas
Standard news writing is a highly standardised format - most newsworthy at the top, followed by next most relevant fqact and reaction down to least relevant. It allows sub-editors to cut from the bottom to fit stories into available space. In the Mainlander section of The Press the writers have greater scope and freedom with the way they write.

"It’s a big canvas you’re painting … the composition gives you the broadest sweep, and then you’ve got nice little detail, you’ve got time to sort of fiddle round. So you re-write everything three or four times, whereas a news story you just bang it out and it’s gone.

McCrone generates about 70 per cent of ideas for his stories, with the remainder assignments from features editor Ewan Sargent. The freedom appeals.

“You go with your own mood. You get away with it if you deliver. You earn the privilege, so long as you don’t abuse it. It’s a good job.”

Editors come in useful he says, not for putting their own words in place of the writer's, but for helping balance the styles and stories in the section.

"A section’s got five or six features. A good editor will have a mix – if someone’s doing the heavy feature, you want to do the light feature; if someone’s doing the out-of-town feature, you do the urban feature. A good editor is someone who can make that balance, that’s where you really need to work in with other people.

McCrone returned to New Zealand in 2004 has been writing for the Mainland section since September 2007. The year has flashed past, he says.

“It’s become a blur … the [stories] I've really enjoyed are the ones that are finding out about New Zealand and finding out about Christchurch and what Kiwi identity means. I was away for so long it’s interesting to catch up on the history of a place and the meaning of a place and where it’s going. Anything to do with that – I never thought of being Kiwi as being distinctive. Then you come back and you realise – ‘I am. I recognise the South Island … the way I am is the way people are down here'. Whereas around the world I just thought I was a bit odd and didn’t fit in.

Libraries and the digital revolution
McCrone marvels at the way his profession has changed over the last 15 years:

"I couldn’t live without Google now. Even to check a spelling I’ll use Google. Any time I put a fact in a story I almost instinctively Google it … It’s unbelievable how much that’s changed life. Libraries – I used to be a big library user – I used to spend weeks in the British Library, which is a beautiful place, but it took literally three days four days for the books I wanted to actually arrive.

"That’s only fifteen years ago – that was the pace at which things worked in the old days. When I first was a cub reporter I was in charge of the filing system for the office. At least half a day putting paper clippings into different files. Things were rigorous in those days, and I carried that habit over as a journalist. I used to accumulate boxes and boxes of Xeroxed files. I literally had a roomful of Xeroxed articles all very neatly labelled and stacked and now completely useless casue I can Google stuff faster than I can find it on my shelves. It’s a different world now."

Does more information equal better writing?
Has writing changed in digital age? Does the fact that other people have access to the range of information that you do as a writer change the way you write? McCrone isn't sure:

"The hard thing to work out is whether you do things better because of it. You think ‘I wasn’t that much worse in the old days – I got the information somehow’. How you got it – when you had to go round and see people on foot – or even use the phone and things – it’s hard to know whether that has made a big change to the quality of what people produce.

“It’s fascinating to me because I lived through it and I always was an early adopter of anything new. The first thing that happened with the internet was that you could suddenly get into touch with the top people in fields. There were a few years when I was purely going to libraries and photocopying and to speak to someone who was a top professor was a real chore. You had to write letters … there was no email; to get papers would take six months. If you were writing a feature next week there was no wat you could get their latest thoughts.

"Within the space of five years I was in daily correspondence with people and you could find your way to people who were exactly what you wanted. That changed a lot of things for me as a science writer – it shifted up several gears because of who you could get access to.

"As a specialist writer, I think possibly the internet has even more impact. My website is so niche now… For the paper I’m actually going in the opposite direction. Having to write in the most general way, in the most accessible way – it’s the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Is digested analysis lacking in New Zealand?
With more and more information available - not only to journalists but to the general public, is the feature, with its mixture of information plus thought, is becoming more important. Do we need more considered takes on the world and less columnists? Is that what's missing in New Zealand newspapers?

“I certainly think so, but I would say that. It’s a question of how much people pay for it and what format they’ll pay for it. Advertising pretty much pays my wages, and subscription pays twenty or thirty per cent of them. The argument would be people should pay 80 per cent of wages and the advertising could fade away and you’d get much more of that weighty analysis.

“People think only a very few people will be bothered trying to digest the world as it is and therefore [feature writers] will be a vanishing species. Other people realise they can’t do without proper, digested information and say it will come back into fashion.

“I’ve been stunned by how good the journalism is here in New Zealand. For the size of the population we probably way out-punch everyone else. I think that’s because there is a slightly old-fashioned approach – we are interested in the big issues and want to understand them, whereas in England I saw things become very simplified, very tabloid. Celebrity news dominates – completely dominates. The big daily papers are celebrity news start to finish – all seriousness is going out of them.”

Trivialisation of news and the rise of the blog
Analsyis is available to the interested reader, McCrone says, in a corner of cyberspace known as the blogosphere. Ideally newspapers should fill the middle ground - well-thought out analysis for a wide audience.

"There’s a real trivialisation going on in the world – but that’s balanced by the special interest groups. With blogs and things, that’s the counterbalance. If you want really interesting analysis you’ve got it, but it’s in very specific domains.

"Hopefully newspapers will be in between those two levels – it’s intelligent but general. Hopefully there’s a niche there. No-one’s going to pay for the stuff I do online – it would probably be too long and wouldn’t fit the format very well.

Teenagers on the dark side
One of McCrone's recent features is the about the end of the emo craze – with illustrations by his teenage daughter. It came, as may interesting features do, from personal observation.

"I was watching neighbourhood kids actually making the change. I’m interested in styles and trends. It’s really just a think piece, 'what is it all about?' Why does everyone hate emos? Why would you put on such an irritating persona? It’s getting in behind the psychology."

Teenagers have long been annoying to and criticised by their parents – was this the latest step in a long formed evolutionary staircase?

“What’s different about it is that they’re so weak and wimpy. It’s that sort of spinelessness about it which really irritates people. Most teen images are quite strong – punks and skinheads and teddy boys and all the famous old ones, they were all about standing up and waving two fingers at you. Emos are all sort of limp and in the corner and sorry for themselves.

“Even Morrissey was doing it in a ‘I’ll smack you in the face with my daffodils’ sort of way – belligerently – he was emo in a much more aggressive way. He would be a legitimate forerunner, but emo’s more from the US – that’s another reason it’s annoying…”

Structure is the puzzle, the feature the fun
Writing anything of considerable length that keeps the reader's attention to the end can be a real challenge - McCrone's standard attack is to collect more than he needs and drop what isn't needed.

"I fill my head with so much stuff that structure almost becomes not a problem. The difficult thing is to connect the dots when you have very little – and you must connect the dots. When you’ve got so much the problem becomes leaving most of it out. You’re left with just telling the bare bones. I’m not sure if everyone does it that way, but it is that sense that you’re leaving so much out you’re desperate to get the key points across and the story’s told.

“It becomes a habit I guess. You can’t see to the end of something, the story does have a bit of a life of its own. As long as you start at the right ends it sort of shakes itself down and most of it gets left out at the end.

"You’ve got to have one central question in your mind. Features are long, but you’ve still got only one thing that people go away remembering. You’ve got to get that fixed in your head and let the story flow from that. The more focused you are about what the central question you’re asking is, the easier writing it becomes. You’re not confused all the way through – you’re one side or the other of that question, even as the feature takes you through different voices, different bits of information."

The final instalment in this three-part series features former Listener books and arts editor Philip Matthews, now a senior writer at The Press.


Hi Dan

Thanks very much for getting in touch.

Like you, I am a great admirer of James Lovelock and agree with his
predictions. I moved to New Zealand with my family because I believe it is
one of the safest places on earth. Our focus is on self-sufficiency and
building strong communities.

You can read about my ideas and my book at

I looked at your website - very interesting,.... but our emphasis is on the next
fifty years. There are a few like-minded people here in New Zealand, and we
were featured on national TV only last week:

Warmest regards,

Robin Scott

Anonymous said...

Global Warming and New Zealand

Fortress New Zealand addresses global warming, climate change and the environmental issues that represent a danger to New Zealand. These environmental threats to New Zealand’s present way of life are posed by escalating global warming and climate change, along with the rapidly dwindling supplies of oil, over-population, and political and economic instability around the world.

Fortress New Zealand starts off with the premise that there are tough times ahead for all of us, around the world and right here in New Zealand. While we are currently enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, unfortunately this cannot last for ever, and may start to unravel sooner than we think.

The whole idea of Fortress New Zealand is that New Zealand needs to start preparing itself now to withstand the dangers of global warming and other environmental threats; otherwise we are liable to be caught unawares. New Zealand needs to be able to withstand the dangers of global warming and climate change, provide everything its citizens require, and be able to defend itself against external dangers – rather like a mediaeval fortress.

Anonymous said...

National Service and the military defence of New Zealand will become important because, as the global climate worsens over the coming decades, New Zealand will be seen increasingly as a green oasis in a hot and dry planet. Military defence and National Service will be essential as hundreds of millions of unfortunate people around the world are displaced from their traditional homelands by flooding and drought; the pressures on attractive countries like ours will become severe.

Fortress New Zealand argues that this pressure will eventually take the form of aggressive migration and even, in time, military invasion from countries with vast populations and no way to feed them all. While this may seem like a remote possibility at this point, it will take many years to build up well-trained armed forces – the New Zealand Army, Navy and Air Force - and civil defence networks through the introduction of National Service; so the process must begin immediately.

New Zealand must become a fortress in the sense that it may have to sustain itself through its own food production and industry. New Zealand must also consider National Service to provide military defence, as it may have to survive external military aggression. Fortress New Zealand is a concept that is literal in the military sense, as well as in an economic and social context.

Anonymous said...

''yes however I think that your climate retreat images all of them should have backgrounds that are real anyway, with real backgrounds in them, like NZ or Alaska or Russia.... the current images you show on your site are so clinical,..... to hit home with people they need to be more real...well I think so anyway, I have always thought that..otherwise they look too much like they are fantasy, when in fact they could be real.......the first ones I ever saw where so clinical and so unreal they looked like they came out of a futuristic comic book...I am a marketer by trade so therefore I think in marketing terms.!! you are a reporter so you think in reporters terms, your bloke is a graphics person so therefore he does not think in marketing terms
horses for courses...I am in the trade of reaching and selling, getting across and reaching people...........

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Re the first photo on this blog post:

Thanks for your interest in the International Polar Foundation and in what we do.

There is no problem with the use of a picture of the Princess Elisabeth Station on your blog but we would appreciate if you could include the following copyright along with it: International Polar Foundation / René Robert.

The IPF owns the rights for the image of the station and we try to make sure that basic credits are mentioned everywhere.

Thank you for your understanding,

Jérôme Coupé
International Polar Foundation
Multimedia & Communication
Phone : +32 (0)2 543 06 98
+ IPF: +
+ Science: +
+ Adventure: +
+ Education: +
Technical knowledge is not enough.
One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art,
growing out of the unconscious.

- Daisetsu Suzuki, J. Hyams (1979, 99).

Anonymous said...

Doug Alder has left a new comment on your post "Climate Retreat Living Pods for "Climate Refugees"...":

interesting concept Danny - thanks for pointing me to it

Posted by Doug Alder to Northward Ho(t)! at November 5, 2008 6:46 PM