Islands of Congruence: meeting Molly Melhuish

Islands of Congruence: meeting Molly Melhuish

I sat down with Molly Melhuish who has been commenting on ecology and the electricity market for as long as I can remember. I first heard her on Radio New Zealand in the 1990’s.

But no one is interested in hearing dissenting views any more.

Her speciality is statistical thermodynamics. She believes thermodynamics are behind not only the physical world but economics as well.

She has lived in New Zealand since the early 60’s and made ecology and criticising the standing electricity market her life.

The following is a transcript of a discussion I had with he

So, basically, the idea – that the government is wanting to push through all of these changes to fight climate change – and partially or to a large extent it’s predicated on the use of electric vehicles. But we’ve already had some blackouts and I can’t really see for the life of me how they’re going to be able to produce the electricity needed to to fuel a whole fleet of electric vehicles.

And I’m just wondering how you see that and how you see the electricity market in 2022..

Okay, well, I believe that the plan is government is strongly supporting a plan to nearly double our electricity generation capacity.


Somewhere between two thirds and two thirds again – as much generating capacity, and up to twice the generating capacity.

And how do you think that they are going to do that?

By charging residential consumers higher and higher power bills and subsidising the ones that are not related to actually providing new kilowatt hours

I think government is happy to subsidise Lake Onslow which does nothing more than act as a battery.

It does not provide new power. 

I think that they just believes that consumers can pay higher and higher power bills.

That’s what the industry wants, and government wants it because government is 50% or 51%. owner of the power stations, which means that the government’s own asset values will increase with those of the corporates.

Government is right behind that.

And if you think it’s crazy, it’s happening elsewhere in the world.

We’re not alone in this.

We don’t really make things up, do we? We follow

No, we follow. I think that their belief that they can build up to double or two thirds as much generating capacity is impossible.

I believe we can’t do it.

What’s that going to be based on? Hydro, coal, wind power? it’s about 6%


And unfortunately, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to build new wind and solar plant.

And they don’t last forever.

And so they’ll have to be renewed after 20 to 40 years, and 40 years isn’t that far away?

And the attempt to keep on growing, which is known politically as green growth, is a fraud

Total fraud

So and I am happy to be quoted anywhere and everywhere as saying that.

Yes, it is a fraud.

And there is only one way to keep some society working after however many years this fraud is able to continue before people think through it.

And that way will be energy conservation.

Nobody talks about conservation do they? I haven’t seen any talk about energy conservation for 20 years

Of course, it’s off the agenda.

And EECA argues that energy conservation is subject to what they call the Jevon’s Paradox whereby the more you conserve, the more money you have to spend on something else, and therefore energy conservation cannot help us.

Well, things will happen until they don’t.

Yeah, well, I think that the principle is of infinite growth and let’s use the climate crisis to promote more and more growth.

And that is what the IPCC continues to argue.

But remember, the IPCC is a club of mainly rich nations and a whole lot of underdeveloped nations that have no intellectual representation.

They cannot represent what they think the world is doing.because everything is dominated by the corporate agendas, so the IPCC is not too different from the World Economic Forum, which holds a regular meeting in Davos, which is represented primarily by corporate heads, who together control a very high proportion – maybe 80 or 90% of the asset value, of the big countries.

So, all these business meetings – and the WEF is the worst, but the IPPC is getting on to as bad.

They only represent business.

The environment is represented by a handful of people who somehow get funded to go, and small consumers don’t even exist.

So my position on growth is considered too radical to be discussed in polite circles.

There is a group called Degrowth Greens, which I do contribute to, and the most radical of the papers that they promote, are exactly the papers that I believe are correct. Yes, yes is one of the groups there are several international groups who promote true Degrowth Green ideas.

One is Ted Trainer of the Simplicity Institute; you can find any of his papers by googling them.

And then there is somebody else called Nate Hagens ; he is even more extreme than Ted Trainer.

And I happen to believe that he is closer to the truth.

One of Nate Hagen’s papers is called  the Super Organism.

It’s a paper which analyses human history as being driven not by science but by narrative – narrative as promoted by art on the cave walls by churches in the medieval area. by the colonising efforts of the Brits, who are the worst – but you know, the Spanish and Portuguese before them.

All of these efforts are part of the way the human brain thinks.

Well, science is against how the human human brain says.

We should be driven by science, not driven by narrative..

All of these efforts are part of the way the healing brain thinks. 

Well, science is against how the human human brain says “yeah, well, no, it we should be driven by science, driven by narrative”.

As part of that is I saw some comment yesterday; they were talking about the EU and how everything is predicated on desired outcomes; everything exists on PowerPoints, but they never really say how they’re gonna get there.

That’s right.

And the IPCC is as bad as anyone else.

Yes.  I wrote a private official information request to the Climate Change Commission after there was a news run article on wind generation advocating offshore wind turbines rather than onshore wind turbines.

I made a single simple request; “Would you please find an analyst who can give a credible assessment of the EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) of those two technologies. Please compare offshore with onshore”

And what was the result?

Oh, wait for 27 days.

It’s always a wait.

Wait another 27 days?

Yes, and never get it. 

So I have challenged some on EROI, but I believe the superorganism is a good description of how the human species as developing its civilisation. 

So that’s a description that I believe is what’s happening. 

Nate Hagens says that he believes civilisation will collapse.

It’s well on its way.

And he says the best help we can do is to develop Islands of Coherence within a collapsing society.

And he quotes Ilya Prigogine who, by the way, is part of my scientific background, the person who was regularly quoted by my PhD advisor.

Prigogin was part of my understanding of how thermodynamics really drives all things, including ecology, and even economic development.

So really, we’re moving in a completely wrong direction.

We should be localised; we should be looking at how we localise electricity, energy production, not thinking big.

And that’s exactly what I advocate and I’m openly advocating it to all sorts of groups.

I heard you mention about Lake Onslow. I might have to ask you a wee bit about that.

Yes, it is something very similar to Manapouri..

It is an area which is high above the Clutha River.

It’s an almost empty landscape which used to be a wetland, but got drowned when somebody wanted to put a little power scheme in.

So, there’s a little lake there now, but it is in the lowest rainfall region of the whole country, and Central Otago.

And now it runs two or three very useful little, small power stations.

But it’s a big basin. And it is based on schist rock., which is very non-erodible.

So, if they were to build a 200- 300 foot high dam right there in Central Otago, it would probably not erode the shorelines and therefore it means that they could pump the water up and down without causing people to complain of big muddy flats.

Update on $4b Lake Onslow project expected next month

So, the idea is to store surplus water in times of plentiful rainfall. and make it available when water levels are low?


Well, there’s only one thing that’s hard about this idea. They will have to pay for every kilowatt hour they store.

Who Pays ?

Meridian, or whoever runs the Manapouri – Meridian and Contact.

They being whoever pays for this wonderful storage scheme, which is probably the government.

We are back to that awful dilemma of having privatised our energy providers and we’re at the whim of them…

But you see government’s on side because they’re 50% owners.

Yeah. It comes back to the principle of capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich

That’s right. We socialise costs and privatise profits.

From what you’ve said, Molly there are not too many ecological problems that you will see associated with that.

Well, it was an important wetland and it still is important.

There are probably rare species that they don’t even know about.

And it was a whole ecology which is fairly unique.

So yes, there are ecological problems.

So that brings me back to the article you showed me and your response to which you haven’t yet got a reply. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Well, the the Newsroom article is expressing sadness that there is no consumer representation. I am saying it is no surprise because consumer representatives would say you should not raise power prices to build big assets that you don’t need.

Yeah, that’s right.

That’s all I was saying.

So it relates to just what we’re talking about before.

The industry wants green growth. Government wants green growth, because that’s economic growth.

Any form of economic growth they will have.

So they say we want growth, but it’s probably better that it’s green growth.

And in fact, we must have degrowth if civilisation is going to survive as we know it.

And increasingly, it is getting to the point where civilisation will not survive, period, and the best we can hope for is to create Islands of Coherence within a collapsing society.

And I’m doing everything I can to create Islands of Coherence.

Well, that’s all we can do., isn’t it?

That’s right.

Try to have more and more people understand that this can work, that there are ways to live a good life, indeed a socially – complex and interesting life within a localised economy which grows most of its own food, but in particular grows its own energy.

And the mechanism that I am now proposing is extraordinarily helpful. 

I propose to repeat the ecology of the carboniferous era in which trees are so aggressive that they grow as tall as they possibly can, as close together as they possibly can. And we end up with forests, which are enormously large forests, right within the city.

Will residential electricity price rises funds the plan or will it be subsidised by taxpayers as may be required for the 4 billion plan?

It seems the government is reluctant to allow a truly representative consumer voice to influence its choices until the industry’s growth plan is better than it is what I said today.

And nobody has commented on. Nobody has responded to my comment.

I just have one thing. As we were sitting here, you started talking about the debt economy. Can you just repeat those comments?

It’s a point that’s been made in several articles by maybe three or four different research people and organisations to say that the growth economy is invariably funded by debt.

That’s where everything is funded now.

In order to raise more capital, to go out and do more oil exploration, you have to fund it by debt.

And you have to build. If you want to increase your asset growth you need to do – basically the capitalist system aims for growth and it creates growth by tying resources to debt and by debt-funding, the development of the resources.

Now, I cannot explain it in its full simplicity, because I’m not familiar enough yet with the literature, but that’s the conclusion – that the growth economy is driven by debt and the more we grow, the more debt we will incur –  and sooner or later, there won’t be enough resources, because of interest on capital.

Money represents real resources on the ground, and in particular it represents energy.

And if we want to acquire more energy we have to raise enough money to build the new power stations, with offshore rigs, and sooner or later, since the system is unreal, completely unreal.

We won’t have the energy.

And it is just EROI which could be analysed right now and produce obvious results.

There are geopolitical aspects that come into play that will bring this to an end.

Could be.

A lot of this is based on the petrodollar, is it not? .

That’s right..


Just a little bit more about my history.

So, I did the submission to the Royal Commission I was right and for my labours I was invited for my submission to the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power.

I made a bunch of interviews with both the power station builders at what was then NZED (New Zealand Electricity Department) and was a power forecasters guy named Dave Cook.

It took me 11 tries to get an appointment with Dave Cook.

He did not want to talk to me.

But I stuck with it in the end; I talked with him and I got him to get some data from his the the Centre of Data Collection – it was up in the Waikato and he got his official guys to send me some graphs.

And I calculated everything. I wanted to know what was the lowest that the demand was sent to in the middle of the night in summer.

That was a bit of data that I needed.

And in the end, the data showed that the lowest demand ever was 100 megawatts.

And I said but “what’s using that 100 megawatts“?

He was a an economist and a forecaster, not an engineer.

He had no idea.

It turned out the transformers just sitting there use that power.

He didn’t know that. 

And I found his missing 100 megawatts.

And from then on, he respected my understanding of science.

And I was then invited on to various working groups, which had to do with what to do about growing electricity demand.

So I was on one after another working group was in the electricity industry, right through the 80s right through the 90s and through till about 2010.

But, I didn’t agree with the basis for which the working groups were working.

What’s the economic model?

With the neoliberal reforms after 1984 a lot of people were chucked out of their positions…

There is even less interest in listening to anybody than ever before.

The neoliberal model is all power to the corporates. They set out whatever the market they like, which takes power away from consumers.

The first time I ever heard you, I think was on Radio New Zealand and you used to appear quite regularly. So I just like to ask as an introduction, how you came to all of this and came to be.

I married and came to New Zealand.

I was doing a PhD in I used to call molecular sociology, which is how molecules get along with each other within the cell.

And the molecule I was studying was DNA.

And I was doing it with experimental work measuring its viscosity under certain conditions. It requires very precise experimental work, which I enjoyed.

But I had met a person who worked in the lab, Hugh Melhuish, who was working on photochemistry which is really is the chemistry of light and photons.

And, in the end, our love superseded any effort to go for a doctorate and it was marriage and come to New Zealand.

That was in 1963.

And we were married in the home of my research director. So, he supported my marriage and we had a lovely marriage in his home and then went to New Zealand.

And, I had two children, two babies here in New Zealand and I had to learn how to be a housewife and a mother because I had no family at all to guide me.

Hugh and I were different.

And we just found our own way. In fact, the people we felt closest to were his his mother’s cousins who lived in York Bay.

We were able to get a flat in York Bay and within a year, we are able to buy a section in York Bay and we built our house, so I was very happy as a young mother, and Hugh and I walked all the time in the bush in York Bay.

But I had to go for my walk before my work.

So my PhD was going to be in statistical thermodynamics – that’s the name for it. But I call that molecular sociology, how molecules get along together.

But before that, in 1956, I took a course in bioecology at Connecticut College, which was very close to Yale University.

Yale had some of the most forward-looking ecological research ever, and still does.

And I took bioecology with people who had been at Yale and were deeply into proper experimental ecology, supported by statistics and by mapping and really professional ecology.

So I never recovered from that course.

Deep down I was an ecologist all my life.

And we quickly learned the nature of plants.

We stole native plant seedlings and grew them on our section, which was south-facing and natural for growing back bush anyway.

And those trees are now 50- 55 years old, almost 60 years old.

Where did the electricity came in?

I did a submission to the Nature Conservation Council supporting native forestry and opposing conversion of native forest to pine.

To do that submission, I went to the Forest Service library to find out all about how pine works in New Zealand.

It had been thought that pine made soils acid.

Turned out I didn’t –  beech trees make a much more acid soil than the pine.

Never mind, pine is still a monoculture, and still wrong.

People were then predicting the second crop, or the third crop of pine would not be as vigorous as the first. In a way, this hasn’t been proven because they’re getting so many varieties that the new pines grow faster and taller than the old varieties – but they are more subject to disease. 

It’s going to kill their plans, sooner or later.

So I still believe that pines are completely wrong for New Zealand.

We should be growing the native species for timber, but also for energy and that’s what I’m now beginning to move into so many years after I got known.

So I did the submission to Nature Conservation Council.

I then got invited to join the Forestry Working Party on Planning for extensively increasing pine.

And on the working party, I took a different view.

In fact, I wrote a dissenting opinion to their big report, and in my dissenting opinion, I said this monoculture is going to catch us in the end – it’s no good.

But then I found out that the government was going to encourage (you know, they own the whole electricity sector) – they were going to almost double their power generation in order to fund the pulp mills which were planned.

And so I got onto the Power Planning Committee.

You better believe I criticised them.

But then the Royal Commission for Nuclear Power came came up and it was the Royal Commission FOR Nuclear Power.

And I criticised that.

I did analyses, supported by Hugh who had just bought an HP hand calculator which was able to do statistical analysis, just with the press of a few buttons.

We took power generation trends and the funding and all sorts of trends and we analysed them.

What is it going to cost to follow this trend which was predicted?

So we figured it out on the calculator

They were originally proposing seven and a half percent per year growth of power generation and the Burns Committee brought that down to 6.8% growth.

And I did all these analyses with the graphs accordingly, and predicted that no more than 2% per year growth was feasible. 

I remember they wouldn’t accept something done just on an HP hand calculator, so, we talked to somebody in the university to do exactly the same calculation, but now on university paper to prove that 2% growth was that the most possible – very last most recent year it was only 2%. And I predicted the 2% growth would continue.

No more.

And I remember standing with quaking knees.

As it happened, the printing system went down – he could not print the graph. So, he had to dump the entire output of his program and I had to stand with his dump and say the operations research at Victoria University has predicted that following trends in a sensible way we would have no more than 2% growth.

And I had circled the things that added up to 2%.

Anyway, I was right of course.

It was 2% growth.

But the person who supported it, a little guy called Ed Somebody, was very sympathetic to my argument. And he managed to get something into the appendix, which said something about what I said. He was most sympathetic but the Commission itself was dead was against it.

But I was right, all the time.

I have included the full audio of the conversation together with the clattering of plates from the kitchen

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