We are three days from anarchy. A five dollar shackle snaps at a power sub-station. With no eftpos or electronic tills, first come the food riots. With no sewerage, next are the horrific diseases. With no water, everyone is thirsty and dirty. After that, we begin murdering each other. "If you wanted to turn New Zealand into a pit of turmoil, drive a Datsun full of dynamite into the South Auckland sub-station," says Russell Judd.
On a hillside just outside Taupo, in bright warm sunshine, traffic rumbling past, this apocalypse seems unlikely, but Judd is delivering his dystopian vision with persuasive gusto and conviction.
Should it come to pass, he could be one of the few New Zealanders to be smugly immune from the carnage. Correction: if it doesn't happen for a while, he'll be right. Give it five years, and Judd intends to be the first citizen of a new town, entirely off-grid, bristling with wind turbines, solar panels, wetback fireplaces and natural sewerage and water systems, resolutely unbuffeted by the fragilities of the everyday world. "A modern-day Noah's ark, if you will," he says. He would be building it right now, if it were not for the "idiots and ignoramuses" of the Taupo District Council, who have refused him permission to construct the village on this very hillside. Instead, they have leased it to a farmer to bale hay.
This is not Judd's only frustration with bureaucracy. He may just be one of our most innovative thinkers, a man with the right answers on how we transform our economy, survive the meltdown and become world-leading. Or he could be a complete nutter.
Judd is a qualified forester, a luxuriantly haired separated father-of-one, a rather controversial former Rotorua town councillor (excoriated for saying Australian tourists didn't like Maori culture or the haka and if you sold the place to them on those grounds, "you'd be pushing poo uphill"), a former United Future parliamentary candidate (a respectable seven per cent of the Rotorua vote in 2005) and a polytech lecturer. But, most pertinently, he was until recently the solutions manager at the New Zealand Clean Energy Centre, on the aforesaid Taupo hillside.
A shiny beacon of modernity, the centre showcases and offers advice on every possible cleantech idea on the market, from solar panels to hay-bale insulation. Judd still operates from the site, but after a takeover by council-owned interests, he's now working as an independent consultant, advising companies on how to turn "green", and save money. This power shift, and what he sees as council intransigence, may have temporarily stymied his green village concept, but hasn't dampened his fervour for the innovation, or his other revolutionary ideas.
Foremost is his desire to completely reinvent the New Zealand economy and end our dependency on dairy: in his New Zealand, there would be a lot fewer cows and a lot more trees.
Judd argues the profit from our net dairy exports is essentially cancelled out by the cost of our net oil imports, leaving us at the mercy of the Arab nations and climbing barrel prices. Instead, he says, we should keep only enough cows and sheep for our own needs (thus saving us the agony of seeing the English pay half the price for a leg of lamb) and use the land saved – say an area the size of Waikato and Taranaki – to plant trees.
Those trees would provide us with the replacement energy to power electric and ethanol-fuelled cars and would offer an export market in pre-prepared biomass fuel – essentially, compacted wood-waste pellets – apparently much in demand in countries like Germany seeking alternative fuel sources after voting to go nuclear-free. Incidentally, the world's beef needs would be met by huge herds of happy cows in sophisticated sheds in the Saudi desert.
As the energy centre's solutions manager, Judd was paid to crunch the numbers on what technology – in an industry he says is "full of snake oil" – worked financially and what didn't. So while dismissive of many products on the market, he likes biomass.
He was a professional forester for 10 years (after a specialist four-year degree at Canterbury), before he "got sick of the waste": every year, he says, the equivalent of 1.7 million barrels of oil rots to nothing in our forests – the stumps, old branches and leaves of trees left behind after they are cut for logging. Compacted, this detritus could provide a cheap, clean and efficient energy to burn at specialist power plants.
The issue, says Judd, is he cannot secure long-term supply contracts with forestry owners and without that there isn't the certainty required to build the plants. The forestry owners won't commit because nine of our 10 biggest forests are owned offshore (this is another debate, about valuing our assets, which exercises him) and because they are disposable assets, don't want to be locked into long-term contracts for their least profitable product. Judd says Government and Maori trust-owned forests have proved equally difficult to debate with.
And yet, he says, each such power station would return $7m in tax and GST from year one, provide 40 fulltime jobs, burn 300 hectares of tree stumps, provide energy for 5000 homes and produce enough dried material for export to replace the equivalent of two units at the Fukushima power plant. The return to investors would be 20 per cent a year and he claims three have already walked away in despair. His own forestry block in Gisborne, bought a decade ago, has 1000 tonnes of biomass "lying rotting" because there is no market for it. He is, as you can imagine, deeply frustrated.
As a former United Future candidate, Judd wrote to Peter Dunne explaining the situation. Dunne passed the letter to Associate Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy. Judd has had no reply yet, and isn't expecting one. "They spend $70m on a bike track; $70m would set up 10 of these plants which would provide jobs from here to eternity, power and exports."
All this, says Judd, is "absurd", one of his favourite words. He has the attitude of being locked in a dystopian world and being the only person who realises anything is wrong. He's very convincing.
He's similarly persuasive about the green village idea. He is spreading the word. I ask what his job title would be now he's not on the energy centre payroll. He laughs, and says "prophet", then says his consultancy work, not advertised but steady, pays the way – mostly advising people, like the couple running a backpackers who saw him this past week. Frustrated by high lines charges, they want to go off-grid. Making your own power, he says, now makes sound economic sense.
Look at this past week, he says, where snowfall caused people to lose power. Or the Christchurch earthquake, where power and pipes were knocked out and still aren't properly restored. Without the need for power lines, or sewerage or water pipes, those risks would be reduced. And yet, he says, Christchurch will be rebuilt the same way with the same risks. He shakes his head. "This whole idea is extremely new and councils cannot understand it, cannot get their heads around it."
If there is a green shoot of hope, it's the acolytes he's producing from the course in sustainable energy he lectures at Waiariki Polytech: graduates are capable of installing solar systems, assessing rivers for hydro potential, working on biomass projects. They have 12 enrolled but have been told the Government wants them to expand. "There is probably 100 on the hairdressing course. We don't need more hairdressers."
We also don't need farmers, he reckons. He says the recent purchase of a local farm by Michael Fay for $18,000 a hectare has effectively destroyed the financial logic the farming sector is built on; farmers have paid themselves from capital gains on the expectation their land is worth something closer to $35,000 per hectare. "That gives them a paycut of zero dollars for the past decade and made every farmer in New Zealand serfs, slaves to Australian debt organisations. We are a nation of slaves to Australian banks and while we borrow more each year to pay for our lovely things and social policies, we continue to increase our indebtedness. Michael Fay rubbed our noses in it, and none of us, except a couple of guys like Gareth Morgan, understand it."
He's not just down on farmers. He says every New Zealander has their priorities wrong. Judd subscribes to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a pyramid devised by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, which measures human needs: breathing, food, water, sleep and sex are our basic needs; the tip of the pyramid covers such fripperies as creative arts. Until the base is sorted out, he says, we shouldn't be worrying about the rest. This comes from his forestry background: "Foresters know how to think long-term, because we have to think 30 years out."
And that means ensuring our power, water, sewerage and food production are assured in an uncertain world. But Judd believes a short-sighted national approach prevents us countenancing the initial extra investment in biomass, electric cars or a "green" village. Judd talks in terms of payback – how quickly your investment is returned by profit or savings, and he says all of his ideas offer significant long-term savings. We have, he says, a "Warehouse mentality, buy cheap as chips crap then spend high on operational costs into the future", while the Germans invest in high-quality, high-tech upfront and save long-term.
"We're kings with no clothes in this country, eh," he concludes. While he thinks the denizens of Rotorua would welcome him back with open arms and offer him the mayoralty after being the only councillor to oppose the construction of their controversial international airport, he reckons he will never again stand for office, seeing the futility in becoming a lone, unheeded voice. Always tough being a prophet.
He's joking when he smiles and says "I could solve all New Zealand's problems instantly", but I think he really means it. I also think he could be right.
- © Fairfax NZ News