Collisions of coal: an author’s perspective

My biography of coal in New Zealand was published this month by David Bateman Ltd. It’s a book taking as its subject a ‘thing’, but in reality telling the human side of that ‘thing’ in all its dimensionality.

Coal 200 pxReview comments so far have been excellent – ‘this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark‘ and ‘a fascinating read…such a good way of understanding NZ history‘ among them.

It was certainly fascinating to write. I’ve been trunking on in this blog about ways and techniques of writing – well, this book represents one way I put those things into practise.

All writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – must have structure, a theme, a dynamic around which to take the reader on an emotional journey. In fiction, that’s the character arc. In non-fiction, the author has to find something else; and for me the obvious angle was the intersection between humanity and this unique – almost chance – product of nature. That gave me the organising principle for the book, the thread around which I could weave the story. To do that I had to draw together a whole lot of thinking in areas that – on the face of it – seem quite disparate, but which in reality are all expressions of the one thing, our relationship with the world and with ourselves.

It was a story of collisions. You can’t tell the story of coal without delving into how it came to be, product of peat swamps and geological processes that, in New Zealand’s case, stretch over sixty million years. To give that context I decided to set it against the span of human existence – which, at best, is a tiny fraction of that time. The time during which we have dug up and burned that coal is shorter still, a tiny eye-blink against the span of years during which our coal resources formed.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

The question follows – why have we been so profligate in our burning? The answer, also explored in the book, flows from our nature and the way we think. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, when New Zealand’s coal was first exploited on an industrial scale, was an age of a particular style of thinking. It was common across the industrialising world but particularly evident on the whole colonial frontier from the United States to Australia and South Africa – and one of the key drivers of the impecunious pace with which we dug up and burned the coal.

That same thinking also introduced another side of the human story of coal – our attitudes to it; the way we relied on it and yet also saw those who dug it as a social threat; and the way we relentlessly found news ways of exploiting it.

One theme became increasingly clear throughout. We have been digging and burning coal, not just in New Zealand but around the world, with ever-increasing pace in the last 250 years. The fact that coal is no longer burned in domestic homes has disguised the fact that in the last few dozen years particularly, that pace has skyrocketed.

Today, coal combustion produces 43 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half. And the jury is back on climate change. It’s happening – and it’s an own goal. Big time. Making coal the chief villain.

That was why I ended the book the way I did. With – a well, you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Why New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a zombie apocalypse

New Zealand has been hit by three significant earthquakes in the last two days. Luckily not strong enough to do damage, and remote enough that even a larger shake would have been more nuisance than apocalypse. But they are a sharp reminder that we live on some very ‘shaky isles’. The next one might well bring tragedy.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

The Christ Church Cathedral – icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin.

It’s to get a better handle on that looming apocalypse that GNS Science have been exploring the Alpine Fault this past few months – drilling far down to set up an early warning system that will give us some prior hint when is about to rupture. Not if, but when – this fault moves every three centuries or so, and it last ruptured in 1717. Go figure.

Well, actually you don’t have to. A study published in 2012 indicated there was a 30 percent chance of a devastating quake occurring on that fault some time in the next 50 years – before 2062. Because probabilities are calculated as bell-shaped curves, this did not mean a quake would occur precisely in 2062; it meant the quake might occur any time from 2012 (low probability) through the mid-twenty-first century (high probability), to the early 2100s (a low chance of it happening that late, but a very high probability of it happening, if it hadn’t happened by then).

This fault is thought capable of generating quakes with magnitude of up to 8.3. Huge. A Civil Defence exercise held in 2013, built around that potential, can best be described as scary. While researching my book on earthquakes, I contacted the author of the exercise – who filled me in on the details. Uh…ouch.

For obvious reasons the science of earthquake engineering is well developed in New Zealand. Some of the world’s leading systems have been invented here, notably the lead-rubber base isolator. This is designed to keep a building ‘floating’ above its foundations. When an earthquake hits, the ground moves – but, thanks largely to its moment of inertia and the reduced energy being transmitted to it, the building doesn’t. Not so much anyway. The first system was installed in the early 1980s in what was then the Ministry of Works building, and major structures to receive it since have included Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum; and Parliament buildings.

It’s a clever idea. And tricks like this – along with a raft of others – all have to be applied quite seriously in earthquake zones. One of the outcomes, certainly as far as civil defence planning is concerned, is that the likelihood of casualties during the quake is reduced. Buildings constructed with proper attention to earthquake-proofing won’t collapse, and if they’re done right, they also won’t shed parts that crush people beneath. That’s what caused most of the casualties in the 1931 Napier earthquake, for instance, which provoked New Zealand’s first serious earthquake-proofing regulations.

Study, inevitably, is ongoing. But what I can say is that New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a ‘zombie’ apocalypse. The ‘earthquake’ apocalypse we’re actually facing is serious enough. For more…well, you knew I’d say this – it’s all in my book.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Forecasting New Zealand’s seismic apocalypse

This weekend’s tragedy on Japan’s Mount Ontake reminds us that life around the Pacific ‘rim of fire’ is often risky.

That string of tectonic plate collisions stretches around the whole circumference of the Pacific and has shaped life in many ways. It was cause of the 2011 tsunami that devastated eastern Japan. It gave the US Yellowstone. It provokes earthquakes. It has also shaped my home country, New Zealand – and has been doing so for at least the past ten million years. The obvious question is ‘what next’ – something that has exercised seismologists and vulcanologists for generations. One way of finding out is to look back into the past, figuring out where fault lines are and how often they move.

Karaka Bay - on the eastern side of the city where Port Nicholson opens out to the sea through a narrow channel.

Karaka Bay – on the eastern side of the Miramar ‘was-an-island-before 1460′ Peninsula

That’s certainly been a focus of ongoing work in New Zealand, which straddles the collision between the Australian and Pacific plates and is prone to massive earthquakes. And of all the historical quakes, it seems few were as spectacular as the series that ripped through the country around 1460, as an indigenous Maori culture began to emerge from its Polynesian settler origins. All of them were around magnitude 8 or higher. They began, it seems, in the south as the Alpine Fault moved. Then there was a quake off what is now Wellington. And another in the Wairarapa. And another at Ahuriri, creating the Te Whanganui-a-Orotu lagoon. Wham! Tsunami followed, 10 metres or more high.

Maori refer to the 1460 Wellington quake as Haowhenua – the ‘land swallower’. Superficially that’s a paradox; the quake created land, raising the channel between Miramar, then an island. But the quake also triggered tsunami, washing far around the coasts and inundating settlements and gardens on the south coast of the Wairarapa. For Maori, the key issue was the loss of food-stuffs by a disaster that had, literally, swallowed their land.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

This movie studio in central Miramar was underwater before 1460.

A succession of quakes of this magnitude remains unprecedented. Seismology, to date, has usually treated quakes as independent events. And yet it’s clear that earthquakes occur in clusters, and seismologists have been asking questions of late that point to connections. One of those is interactions between fault lines. A quake on one fault might deliver enough energy to a nearby fault to trigger it, providing that fault was already under stress. There is also the effect of ‘slow quakes’. This only emerged in the early twenty-first century when GPS measurements revealed that, at certain points where the Pacific plate dives under the Australian – usually east or west of the New Zealand land mass itself – there are areas where the two slip slowly, but not smoothly. Huge earthquakes follow, but the energy released is spread out over months and not detectable by conventional instruments.

What these quakes seem to do is stress shallower fault lines, east in the plate interface. Current analysis indicates that a slow-slip quake under Kapiti island in early 2013 was likely cause of the succession of conventional quakes that struck in a semi-circular arc around Kapiti from mid-2013 – the Cook Strait and Grassmere quakes of July and August; the Eketahuna quake of January 2014; and the Waipukurau quake of April 2014.

All were severe quakes, but not in the league of the 1460 series. As yet the jury’s still out on the linkages. If the hypothesis is right though, the issue is obvious. Slow quakes might provoke successions of conventional shallow quakes in New Zealand. And if the 1460 sequence was one of those, it’s clear these quakes can be large indeed.

That begs a question: what would happen were New Zealand to suffer a similar quick-fire succession of huge quakes? That’s something I’ve tackled in my book Living on Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House). I won’t repeat the details here – suffice to say, it’s spectacular and I can’t help thinking that Mars looks appealing about this time of year.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

I spend quite a bit of time wondering about the zombie apocalypse. Like why I and a few drinking buddies will be sole humans out of 7 billion who aren’t turned into zombies? If I put gym treadmills outside every window on my house, will that be enough to stop the zombies coming in, and can I generate electricity that way? And why do we suppose it will be a ‘human’ zombie apocalypse? Maybe we’ll be inundated with zombie llamas. Here in New Zealand someone made a movie about zombie sheep. Very funny it was, too.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

But really I shouldn’t worry. Zombies aren’t real. Unlike the ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is very, very real – and no laughing matter. So why the zombie thought? Well, a friend of mine suggested that the social impact of the ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has a lot in common with the way we imagine a zombie apocalypse in the west. Everybody you know and love is suddenly snatched away by a quick and lethal infection that seems to have come out of nowhere. It spreads by touch. If you help them – as you must, because we are all human and care is the highest human virtue – you risk getting it. It devastates families. It destroys organised society. And nobody is immune. Nobody.

This is actually true of any pandemic – ebola, of course, is far from the first serious disease to erupt in a population. I suspect that the fact that we envisage the social impact of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ in terms that so closely match a real uber-pandemic disease outbreak is indicative of the depth to which our fear of pandemic is etched into our cultural make-up.

None of that reduces the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. There is only one up-side. Viruses transmit in two ways. There’s airborne – usually meaning you breathe them in after somebody nearby has sneezed. Or sometimes the infected mucus settles on a surface, you touch that surface and fail to wash your hands, then transfer the virus to your mouth when eating. The other main mechanism of transmission is ‘serum’, meaning the virus is carried in body fluids.

Ebola is of the latter variety. You have to make direct contact with the patient’s body fluids. That makes it hard to catch. Medical professionals run a high risk while treating victims, as do family in close promixity to a victim; but it’s not in the ‘catchability’ league of airborne viruses.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Down side is that ebola remains live and infectious after the victim has died. That’s why health officials have been carrying bodies away with full bio-hazard procedures.

So why has it been happening? Ebola was first noticed in West Africa in the mid-1970s, though it was around before then. But it was always isolated. The disease was SO quick and SO lethal that outbreaks burned themselves out. But this time it hasn’t. From the viewpoint of the virus it’s a great survival mechanism. For humans? Not so much.

That’s not the only reason why it’s been so difficult to contain the outbreak. By one of the ironies that dog the real world, the countries it’s hit are the least able to handle an emergency of this kind. Borders are arbitrary and spanned by social groups, a function of colonial-age map-making – making ‘border closing’ difficult. Infrastructure is poor by western standards. Crowded living conditions and poor urban sanitation make serum transmission easier. Another issue is that it takes a week or ten days after infection for the symptoms to show – but during that time, the victim is infectious. And that makes for a perfect storm.

Ebola is unlikely to spread widely in the West as it stands. But if ebola becomes entrenched across populations in West Africa, as seems likely, it’s got more opportunity to mutate. And that’s where the bad news starts. Just to put ebola into perspective, the current lethality of about 90 percent is well above the 30-60 percent of the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. It’s way above the 10-20 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sure, there are vaccines in the works. It takes time to develop them, time to manufacture them – and time is something that just isn’t available right now. Certainly not for the poor folks affected in West Africa. Maybe for the world. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Ego igitur puniar: my childhood adventures at Nelson Park School, Napier

My old primary school, Nelson Park School, is marking its centenary this weekend. Am I going to the various events? Go figure. My earliest memory there, from 1968, is of being slammed across the face by my teacher. Wham! I’d never been hit before. I was five.

Hi. I'm your teacher...

Hi. I’m your teacher…

I have no idea why the teacher hit me, but back then it didn’t take much to evoke the wrath of teachers. A friend of mine from Nelson Park School days, just this year, told me how he was punished for accidentally running into an ‘out of bounds’ area while trying to escape the school bullies. One of my wife’s colleagues, who I didn’t know as a kid – but who went to Nelson Park School at the same time – was punished for skipping for joy in jingly sandals, aged five. I am not joking.

This was the era when school had little to do with nurturing children to learn according to their strengths, and much to do with smashing them into submissive conformity to a prescribed and quiet ‘normal’, via petty army-style ‘bullshit’ routines, worth-denial, nit-picking, sarcasm and class-front humiliation, all backed with a relentless threat of pain.  I still remember the teacher who kept offering to take boys privately out the back where they would be ‘shown’ his personal ‘strap’ – the heavy leather belt with which teachers were allowed to beat children. Other staff didn’t ‘strap’ children in secret – I remember the teacher who used to whip his out and smash kids around the legs with it. The same teacher also prowled the class with a broken blackboard ruler he called his ‘Walking Whacker’. Wham! 

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969. Can you spot me? Clue: I'm the only one whose face hasn't fallen into a belt-sander.

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969, in regulation pose, including the substitute teacher. Can you spot me? Clue: I’m the only one who hasn’t face-planted into a belt-sander.

The doyen of childhood terror at that school was the deputy principal, an archetypal drill sergeant, who belted out orders and whose wrath fell on any kid that did not obey instantly to the letter. Think Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s a military technique. But instead of brow-beating adults so they’d walk into gunfire, this teacher used the method to traumatise children into submission. I heard that he even made kids go to the local dairy to buy him Alfino cigars.

Apparently some kids – and parents – admired this teacher for his ‘drill sergeant’ decisiveness, and apparently he had a ‘nice guy’ persona he used to switch on. But I never saw that side, and everyone was terrified of him. Just this year I discussed him with former pupils at Nelson Park School with me over forty years ago. The most complementary opinion was ‘he was an asshole‘. 

The school system in action, circa 1970...

The school system in action, circa 1970…

It took me years to understand my experience at Nelson Park School – I didn’t really get a handle on it until I researched the school system professionally, publishing my conclusions in 2004 and again in 2013. The problem was that the New Zealand primary school system of the late 1960s was well past its use-by date. It was built around early twentieth century notions of uniformity – a narrowly defined ‘right’ way of doing things; writing in a specific way with a specific hand, and so forth. Woe betide anybody who diverged. Practical human reality, of course, is far broader and more complex – the more so as time goes on and generational change brings new attitudes. But the school system hadn’t caught up, and by the time I got there it was dominated by teachers who had spent a lifetime bashing square pegs into round holes.

School routines clung to the pseudo-military ethos that had characterised the system through both World Wars, when school was looked on as a foundation for cadetship and territorial service. When I was there in 1968-72, children were still made to march into class, in lines, to the strains of marches such as F. J. Ricketts’ Colonel Bogey (1914). If the kids messed up that drill, they were marched into the school-ground and made to practise.

What made the whole thing so destructive was that this setup fostered opportunities for some staff to exploit the power the system gave them over those defined as powerless, the children. A recent – as in 2014 – review of data collected during a 1961 experiment by John Millward reveals that some ordinary adults become monsters in such circumstance because dominating those over whom the system has given them total power makes some people feel good about themselves. My own professional work suggests that one does not have to run an experiment to show this. It is part of the wider human condition. And moral compass, alas, is lost by increments.

Doubtless some kids had a good time at Nelson Park School at the turn of the 1970s. Nobody I knew there did, and my left-handedness ensured I also hit the sharp end of a tired system. The sad part is that the staff of Nelson Park School at that time had a choice. They could have tried to be reasonable, tried to view children as human beings and tried to nurture their development. By my measure, they did not. But perhaps these teachers found happiness for themselves later in better and more caring ways. One can but hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Living On Shaky Ground

I’ve got three books being published between now and February.

Here’s a preview of Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes. It’s being published by Penguin Random House on 26 September. My advance copy arrived a few days back. And after thirty years and over 50 books, I have to say that the thrill of receiving the advance, unseen by anybody else except the publishers and the printers – never goes away.

My advance 'author copy' of Living On Shaking Ground - with its delivery packaging...

My advance ‘author copy’ of Living On Shaky Ground – with its delivery packaging…

And here it is in its 'natural habitat', a bookshelf, lined up with both editions of my last book on earthquakes.

And here it is in its ‘natural habitat’, a bookshelf, lined up with both editions of my last book on earthquakes.

The book includes over 50 photos I took myself, a lot of science text on earthquakes, and the story behind some of New Zealand’s bigger ones. The main – er – thrust of it it isn’t about the past, of course, but the future – what’s going to happen next?

More soon. And if you want to buy…it’s available for pre-order now, via New Zealand’s online bookstore Fishpond.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond.

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Can we view 9/11 as history? A Hobsbawmian perspective.

Do you remember what you were doing at the precise moment when you heard about the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington? I do – and I’m not American. I’m a Kiwi. But I remember. Here in New Zealand, on the other side of the date-line, initial news broke in the early hours of 12 September. My wife – listening to overnight talkback radio on earpieces – heard the news and jabbed me in the ribs. ‘Wake up, a plane’s hit a building in New York.’

Thinking about tragic accidents, we got up to see whether anything was on TV. It was. And then the news got worse. Way worse. The fact that there was live coverage, here in New Zealand, underscored the scale of the tragedy as a world event.

A fireman calls for 10 more colleagues amidst the ruins of the World Trade Centre, 10 September 2001. US Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A fireman calls for 10 more colleagues amidst the ruins of the World Trade Centre, 10 September 2001. US Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

That reveals the huge dimension of those events 13 years ago. A human tragedy of appalling scale that became a defining moment not just for New York, not just for the United States – but for the planet. One that helped shape the first decade of the twenty-first century for everybody in the developed world, not least because of the behaviours, attitudes and oppositions that followed, ranging from tighter security for air travellers to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The time is not yet ripe to consider these events history, for they are not. But when they are – in two, three generations, when young children view 2001 much as we view 1941, a distant time of grandparents and great grandparents – how will we see the 9/11 attacks then?

The answer, to me, emerges from the way that history, for professional historians, is all about meaning – about finding the broad shapes and patterns that turn the world of the past into the world of the present. These patterns seldom match the number system we use to count the passing years.

When we look at history that way we cannot go past the work of Eric Hobsbawm, who was to my mind perhaps the greatest historian of the twentieth century. I do not make such statement lightly. He took the long view. The historian’s view. A view divorced from the round-number dates into which we usually divide the past, like the end of a decade or a century.

For Hobsbawm, centuries were defined by the patterns of social and economic trends. That was why he called the nineteenth century a ‘long century’, marked by its ‘age of revolution’. To him, this century began in 1789 with the revolution that ended the ancien regime in France and which began a pattern of industrial-driven social dislocation and revolt. It ended in 1914 when the ‘guns of August’ heralded the end of the old European order in its entirety. Of course the trends that led to these pivotal moments pre-dated the specific instant by decades. Nothing, historically, comes out of a vacuum. But these dates offered defining events that, for Hobsbawm, brought the wider underlying trends into a decisive and overt reality.

USS Arizona, 7 December 1941. Public domain, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/ OnlineLibrary/photos/images/ac00001/ ac05904.jpg

Distances of history. In 2087, the tragedy of 9/11 will be as far removed in time as Pearl Harbor is today. How will people view it? Public domain.

Following the same logic, Hobsbawm also argued that the twentieth century was ‘short’ – beginning in 1914, with that collapse of the old order and the rise, in its place, of a tripartite world in which democracy was initially on the losing side of totalitarian fascism and communism. That resolved with the victory (luckily) of democracy – an event Hobsbawm argued was marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revolutionary state that had emerged from the First World War.

The decisive date, for Hobsbawm, was the formal end of the Cold War in 1992. By this reasoning the twenty-first century began in 1993. But I wonder. We cannot know our future – cannot say whether there will be any long and over-arching socio-political pattern to the twenty-first century. But so far, one does seem to be emerging, for the early part of it at least.

Like Hobsbawm’s long and short centuries, this shape has been defined by trends bubbling away well before the pivotal moment. They were evident for quite some time through the late twentieth century, partially masked by the over-powering priorities of the Cold War. But if we want to point, in Hobsbawmian fashion, to a defining moment – a point where those underlying issues suddenly became present and urgent in everyday consciousness, it has to be 9/11. Sure, that leaves us with a 9-year interregnum after the end of the twentieth century – but, as I say, history at the thematic level never does tidily match up with numeric dates or round numbers.

And will future historians look back on the twenty-first as a long century? A short one? That’s up to us, really – meaning, everybody on the planet – and the choices we make.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014