Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Scepticism | a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something

doubt, doubtfulness, dubiousness, a pinch of salt, lack of conviction; disbelief, cynicism, distrust, mistrust, suspicion, misbelief, incredulity; pessimism, defeatism; raredubiety, Pyrrhonism, scepsis, minimifidianism

Integrity | the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles

honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, upstandingness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, nobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness, noble-mindedness, virtue, decency, fairness, scrupulousness, sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness

Recently I have been asking myself a lot of questions, some of them pointy.

What is going on in the world? Why are we blind to the impending right-wing takeovers? Why is history repeating? Why do we believe lies? How did I get here?

This is partly a time of life thing and partly a WTF triggered by the state of the world, the country I live in, and my profession. Meantime some workplace nastiness has stalked in from the field and to hit me on the blindside.

In short, I am stressed out.

I have turned to my favourite supports. The butt skyward frame of the downward dog has provided solace, likewise, the gifted Mary Maddux from Meditation Oasis has been a huge help.

Meanwhile, my friends and loved ones have blessed me again and again.

I am starting to feel better.

This time around though my malaise was deep. The forces of the dark side gently yet steadily messing with my balance. I felt like I would fall over at the slightest push.

In this situation, there is only so much the supports can do. They can lift me up each time I fall but they cannot always be there for protection when the winds blow even as they show me how I can be more robust to the gusts and bend more easily. So this time I also sought out and benefited from some professional help.

Therapy is still a little shameful.

It suggests weakness because at the time you are. The point of talking through your inner emotions with a trustworthy stranger is because you need to build or rebuild mental strength. So, yes, I am weak right now. I need help and time to regain my fortitude.

The first couple of sessions went deep. This surprised me a bit. Maybe my subconscious was ready for it, more like ‘screaming to get out’ I think, and one word kept cropping up both during the sessions and as I processed and the therapist listened.

I became fixated with integrity.

My initial conclusion — initial because I suspect that this exploration has only just begun — is that honour and honesty mean a great deal to me, chased closely by character and morals. Integrity is a word to catch deep feelings in a jar and close the lid.

Then I realised that my profession of applied scientist embraces the qualities of integrity, of course, but it demands something else. My work also requires scepticism — the seeking of truth by applying doubt, then displacing it with evidence.

Scepticism is good, at least it should be. Scepticism is the foundation of science and is what separates science from opinion and lies.

As a seeker of truth, you have to question what you hear, see and smell. Even what you touch can deceive and so you apply logic to these things. This is the best way we know to convert information into evidence. My hand smells of lavender because I grasped the seed head of a lavender plant in the garden. The hand wash has the same smell but not necessarily because it had anything to do with a lavender plant.

Integrity and scepticism.

A huge ah-ha arrived when I put these two words together.

Scepticism is a huge threat to integrity.

Integrity functions as a given. You cannot test for it or prove it. Integrity appears through your words and your actions. It is hard to earn and maintain and is lost in a split second. Question a person’s integrity and you wound him. It matters not if there is no foundation, just to ask the question is wielding a weapon.

Yet sceptics cannot help but ask a question for this is what scepticism is, the asking of questions.

It appears I am trained to wound myself.

This is my interpretation and my current landing. My therapist did not suggest this and bears no responsibility other than what can be attributed to gentle prodding and a listening ear. I have decided that I have created a contradiction in myself.

I am latched onto integrity as a core value, if not the core value in my life. And yet all the time I go around questioning almost everything. In the simple act of scepticism, I am wielding a powerful emotional weapon, and just like anyone who would wield a real lightsaber, I am at constant risk of injury.

So far this realisation of self-harm is raw.

It is not really helping me given that I can’t relinquish integrity any more than I can give up scepticism. Both are integral to who I am.

A conundrum must exist. At least I know that now.

Needless to say, I immediately applied my black and white mind to this conundrum in search of a solution. I could give up integrity or scepticism or perhaps both. This would be difficult as a new persona is never easy to build and I would need a new career. Suggestions are most welcome.

Alternatively, I can figure out a better way for them to coexist.

I guess the real problem is that even Master Yoda must have singed a hair or the end of an ear in his fight with Dooku.

Obsessions with endangered species?

Obsessions with endangered species?

Regular readers will know that a long time ago now I wrote a book with Ashley Bland entitled Awkward News for Greenies. It sold a handful of copies but failed to go viral. This could be because we had zero marketing budget or it was a poor book or luck would have it thus. Either way, few read it in 2009 and fewer in the decade since.

Recall this was the time that Al Gore produced ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and we played on that sentiment in our title. Perhaps it was a poor choice.

Not one of us is fond of being told truths that we don’t want to hear, especially things that we will feel bad about. Indeed humans are expert in avoiding the awkward. This sentiment has taken hold now to the extent that we even elect presidents and prime ministers who are olympian in the skills needed to avoid and deflect awkward truths.

The main argument in Awkward News was that this avoidance behaviour stems from a lack of awareness. We no longer feel or understand the very basis of our existence, now or into the future. Humans in modern societies do not realise that we are here because of nature and the resources it shares with us and we will only stay here in one piece if the natural forces that create clean air, filter water, generate food and moderate climate run at rates to support our burgeoning numbers.

Implicit in this explanation was that environmentalists focus on the wrong things. This is best summarised by what Ursula Heise in her book ‘Imagining extinction’ calls ‘elegies and tragedies for loss of species’. Worry for the fate of cute, furry or feathery species is what we obsess over when we should be most concerned about the ability of nature to keep supplying all those goods and services that keep us alive and well.

When in 2012 I followed up Awkward News with Missing Something, a book that was read by even fewer people, the message was similar.

Humanity has an awareness deficit that science has confirmed and our guts are agonising over. Again the distraction of elegy and tragedy can be overlooked for a pragmatic approach. If we think about our environment and the well-being it delivers, then the evidence we need to convince ourselves of the importance of nature is everywhere we care to look. The truth about nature will speak to us and all will be well.

Well, this nirvana of enlightenment with nature seems less likely by the day.

As we near the end of another decade it feels as though the drift is away from awareness rather than towards it, especially in the formal worlds of bureaucracy and academia. Indeed, drift is a generous adjective.

In the land of policymakers, huge blunders continue along with ostrich behaviours of the sand type. In the ivory towers, a stream of evidence flows on how troubling it all is. Unfortunately, it is easier to generate evidence of loss and degradation than it is to use that evidence to find ways to slow, stop or reverse any undesirable trends. Even a casual glance at the climate change literature confirms this conundrum.

Anyway, here I am, a few years on from my last non-fiction least seller, wondering about the merits of another book on this theme of scaring the horses.

On the downside, should I be spending time on more of the same?

Surely the first two epistles did the job. Anything more is just repetition. And if nobody read the first two, why would a third suddenly shatter the ebook sales records? I am not selling the sure-fire best way to become an overnight squillionaire online.

On the upside, nobody read the first two meaning that very few were scared.

Any messages would be fresh, at least from my peculiar voice, and maybe the passage of time has warmed a few to the general topic of impending doom and how to avoid it. There is also the personal benefit of writing that is cathartic enough for me to feel purged of my personal environmental guilt. That is worth it on its own.

On balance, I have to think that yes I should write it out all over again.

At some point, ideally quite soon, humans will need a realignment with nature that is less about obsessions with the koala and polar bears taking a rest on a tiny iceberg and more about what nature does. If everyone understands that it is the services that nature provides for human well-being that we need to obsess about because the processes matter more than the products.

This message of concern for process over products, especially the rare ones, still needs to be said and heard.

If humanity is to get through its demographic transition without obliterating nature, without creating a future world where even the air is manufactured, then nature and its services must be in our everyday thoughts. We will need to get over our obsession with endangered species with all its misplaced effort into just a handful of nature’s charismatic actors because all that really does is salve a collective conscience.

The neat irony being that the best chance for the koalas, elephants and macaws is if the processes that support them are retained and enhanced. Meaning that a focus on the processes will not always be about exploitation.

It will be a tough gig.

These critters — the endangered species that we truly care about are almost always animals with backbones — are held tight and deep. They represent our guilt even as we continue with wine, dine, waste and flights to Bali.

If you find that waiting for this new work that will only make you feel more guilty and helpless in the face of doom is too much, that you have to know now, then there is always Missing Something to tie you over.

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia really is a tough place to grow food.

It is invariably hot and dry and the soils lack nutrients. Then the next day there is a storm that flattens the spindly crop and floods the roots.

This has always been the case.

Australian soils are old and the continent big enough to make for a truly continental climate. The dry times are long and deep and the storms bring golf ball hail. The soils are low in carbon and many are friable with a tendency to want to fly across the Tasman sea to New Zealand on the strong westerlies.

And then, the climate is changing. There will be less water, more extreme storms, and even hotter temperatures.

It makes sense that the agricultural sector would be concerned. They should be. Many farm businesses will struggle to cope.

One concerned group of producers, Farmers for Climate Action, launched a report Change in the Air that claims ‘Australia’s agricultural production will fall and food insecurity will rise without a climate strategy’. They managed to persuade the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, to launch the report.

The local media made a big deal that National Party MPs — the minority party in the coalition government — refused to attend on the notion that some still doubt the science of climate change and are not sure if human activity was contributing.

Remember that the right-wingers in the Australian government are making the country the global climate laggard and, yes, it’s now beyond laughable and irreprehensible. We are in the realms of criminal negligence.

Now before you read on, regular readers will know that Alloporus strongly agrees with the premise of a coordinated response to climate across all sectors, especially agriculture, and that part of this response needs policy support.

In other words, Alloporus believes that both the state and federal governments have a key role in both climate mitigation and sustainable food production.

The government part of the coordinated response will begin with an acknowledgement of the problem — the climate is changing — and then some policy options that support climate adaptation, not just emission reduction for that alone is nowhere near enough.

Laughing is not ok. It is time to take serious action.

This makes the next comment unfortunate.

The Change in the Air report is dreadful.

I meant it, it is terrible.

What claims to be a ‘research report’ is, at best, a weak catalogue of already published evidence without meaningful review or summary.

The highlight recommendations are for ‘more research’ and ‘a national strategy on climate change”.

Oh my lordy.

There is no time to stuff around with more research and even if there was we already know more than enough about what to do.

Again, why wait for a national strategy when the government has been bumbling around without one for more than a decade.

Here are the key dot points in the report:

  • Risk minimisation
  • Focus on potential opportunities
  • Strong RD&E
  • Transition to clean energy generation in agriculture
  • Capture and storage of carbon
  • Address climate policy gaps

Only one of these is a tangible solution. The rest are aspirations at best. Indeed this was the real problem with the report, it whinged.

Basically, there were no solutions offered just a plea for the government to fix the problem.

This is not ok.

Right now, at the pointy end of the problem, it is time for solutions.

The weird thing is that if you scroll down the report to Appendix 2 on page 64 you will find a lengthy and reasonable list of adaptation and mitigation strategies sourced from the research literature.

Here is the section for grains…

Shame they didn’t lead with this.

Alright, enough moaning.

Most likely the people behind Farmers for Climate Action are well-meaning and believe what they are doing is important. However, we have to consider the possibility that the minister was happy to promote the report because it does what the government wants, namely to kick the issue further down the road by asking for more evidence.

Better would be some simple tractable solutions.

How about an across the board 2% gain in soil carbon in all production soils through production practices that retain vegetation cover, promote deep-rooted perennials and support the addition of organic or inorganic carbon in cropping systems.

This is just one of the many options available.

No more messing about. It is time to get on with it.

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Most days I will browse the Guardian news app for a dose of reasonably considered articles.

This is a futile addiction. It means that I will find any number of depressing instances of fuckwittery until I get to the end of the feed, where each day I can find a collection of photojournalism that is fascinating and inspiring for what it shows about the world.

The other day I was on this quest toward the amazing images when I came across this headline…

Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply

It was a long way down the feed and I had perused any number of articles on meaningless politics before this old-school title, the sort that used to be standard newspaper copy, peeked out at me from among the trivia.

A ‘crisis’ you say?

Does this mean that it is a real crisis or an air quote crisis, the sort that isn’t really?

As any followers would know it was the ‘world food supply’ topic that got me but only because this is the subject of my profession as an applied scientist. If I was a dental nurse or an insurance salesman, this topic would pass by anonymously.

Anyway, we click through and start to get the gist of the content.

Essentially there are two issues that make up the crisis.

Issue 1 — supply of phosphate is finite

The supply of phosphate, a key nutrient that gave us the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and has sustained agricultural production ever since is finite at around 70 billion tons. Sounds like a lot but at the current rate of use, supply will run out in a generation, maybe 30 years at a push.

Issue 2 — the supply is mostly in one place

Second problem is that the five locations across the world with the largest reserves hold almost 60bn tons and most of this is in Western Sahara. One place with nearly all the reserves of a resource that could ransom the world is a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Think Straits of Hormuz and you will get the idea.

Indeed, as I write there is a crisis in Hong Kong triggered by uncertainty over governance that has a deadline 28 years hence. People are mobilised over rights and lifestyle they fear is being eroded even though the deadline is decades away. The same timeframe for running out of a crucial agricultural nutrient.

There is zero chance of mobilisation over the phosphorus crisis.

Only the threat to rights, lifestyle and wellbeing from a phosphorus shortage is just as acute and would apply across the globe, not just within a jurisdiction. Yet instead of a headline, we get a half-hearted call to action two-thirds of the away down a standard newsfeed.

Maybe this is the reason. The crisis is too diffuse to register anywhere other than next to a piece on ‘Footage reveals Savoy Hotel doorman’s ‘assault’ on homeless man’.

Not to worry.

The global supply of food just has to increase by 2% per annum for the next 30 years to feed all the people. All that will do is bring the cliff closer and speed up the vehicle we are driving towards it.

So what should be done?

Well, there are some things that will help.

Solution #1 — increase efficiency

Currently, many farmers add more phosphorus than they need to because they want to avoid the risk of not adding enough and losing yield. We could make farmers much more efficient at using phosphorus in cropping systems by getting smarter at when plants need the nutrient and how the soils deliver it so as not to over-fertilize. This will have the added advantage of lowering pollution from farm runoff, a significant issue for waterways in agricultural landscapes.

There is some work in this both in understanding how phosphorus moves around in different soils and contexts as well as the tacky psychology of changing the way the farmer goes about his business.

Solution #2 — be frugal

Add phosphorus but not with the aim of maxing out the yield, more to achieve a production gain and so spread the benefit over a longer time frame. This is more attractive than it sounds for when we go long there are benefits to soil and business resilience.

Solution #3 — use alternative sources of phosphorus

There are very few alternatives to rock phosphorus that generate industrial-scale volumes.

There is one, the bones and offal of livestock that pass through abattoirs. Although, this is more recycling than a minable stock it has to be done as does the nutrients in human waste that should not end up in the ocean.

Solution #4 — reduce waste

Global food supply chains are typically profitable mostly thanks to externalities and mining of the resource base. They are enabled by modern transport systems and use huge amounts of energy for each calorie of food that is consumed.

Profitability often goes with profligacy. You would imagine that the profit-hungry would look at all options for efficiency only they don’t when those actions mean more work. Why organise redistribution prior to the use-by date when dumping the out of date food is easier.

Estimates are that at least a third of food produced is wasted. That represents a huge amount of phosphorus used for not benefit.

Solution #5 — all of the above

Multiplicity is essential in most global crises for the scale and risk do not match a single silver bullet option. All solutions for greater care and efficiency are needed as are all options fro recycling and novel sources.

In the meantime let’s hope that those with designs on global dominion leave Morocco alone.

When craziness is too much

When craziness is too much

Sometimes the craziness is too much, it blows your synapses away. You are left in a bucket of incredulity.

Cop this quote from the former Australian PM Tony Abbott reported by SBS online from a summit in Hungary trying to explain the real threat to the existence of his kind…

“It seems to me that it is not so much our failure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but our failure to produce children that is the extinction reality against which we really need to work against”

Tony Abbott, Former Australian Prime Minister

Let’s just pause a moment.

This blatant click-baiting is trying to trick us that even though Australia failed to reduce emissions, that’s not the biggest problem. That accolade goes to our inability to produce enough white people.

Seriously, enough white people. You are kidding, right?

At first, I thought that I should write the obvious rebuttal that we are already reproducing 8,000 people per hour. An hourly net increase into the grand diaspora of the world, and it should matter little what tribes they come from. There are more than enough people to go around and satisfy every neoliberals wet dream.

Only when we last looked, the distribution of people and resources is uneven across the world. This means that some places will be crowded and run out of resources. And when the population growth rate is high, crowded places will become difficult to live in and people will want to leave to find a better opportunity. Emigration is inevitable and these people have to go somewhere.

Do you want to live in these crowded places? No, neither does Tony.

But then I thought again.

This kind of craziness is too common compared to the proportion of people who might actually believe the nonsense.

Here is a fascinating graphic from Statista chart of the day

What it says is that less than 1 in 20 people actually deny the existence of climate change in most developed countries. A party representing this minority would never win an election and yet the rhetoric from the deniers remains powerful in the social mix.

This is what Abbot and his cronies bank on.

They know their opinions are not shared by most but that is not what matters. Influence is the game and, no matter there are kids on strike and a 16 year old girl calling out the UN, these noisy minorities are good at it.

It turns out I can’t push the incredulity aside. It is gut-wrenching because these people are incorrigible.

What I have to learn is that numbers are not enough.

Did the Daleks really mean it — Do we?

Did the Daleks really mean it — Do we?

“Exterminate! Exterminate!”

So shrieks the violent, merciless and pitiless cyborg aliens that Terry Nation invented to populate the Dr Who television universe. These complete metal-clad gits demand total conformity as they seek conquest of the universe and the extermination of what they see as inferior races… just like the Nazis.

Engineered by Davros to have nothing but hate in their souls, the Dalek is the archetype villain that can only be stopped through destruction. Be or be killed. Throw all that anger and disgust toward the source of hostility and exterminate them or they must destroy you. No half measures.

Jeff Sapprow thinks that our current global environmental crisis embodied by warming and biodiversity loss is an ‘extermination event’ and claims that the people killing nature know what they are doing.

Here are just two snippets from his piece in the Guardian.

In 1988 George HW Bush promised on the campaign trail to fight climate change. “I am an environmentalist,” he declared. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”

Jeff Sparrow

HW wasn’t an environmentalist and the White House? Well, it is just a residence with ineffectual tenants. No matter than some were well-meaning.

“In 1997 the world’s leaders signed the Kyoto protocol, with Bill Clinton declaring “a commitment from our generation to act in the interests of future generations”. More emissions have been released since that agreement than in all of previous history.”

Jeff Sparrow

Yes, in all previous history.

The last twenty years have seen us all burn, belch and clear to release more greenhouse gas than the combined efforts of all the people gone before. The Daleks would have nodded if they could.

That we have done this with intent, along with the habitat conversion, pollution and resource depletion that goes with it, is a bold call. Did we do it to exterminate and control the universe or just to make a buck and fuck?

The evidence is that we have not been blind. The warming and the loss we have known about since the 1950’s making ignorance a poor excuse. If we knew what was happening, then we knew what we were doing.

Obviously we knew (know) that we were (are) pillaging but our intent was (is) probably personal.

We each want a better life for ourselves and, maybe at a push, for our children. Better means more food, a bigger house, bolder cars and streaming services. Those in less blessed places just want some food and a bicycle. Either way, it is personal motivation, not exactly global domination at the expense of the weak and inferior that guides our behaviours.

However, it is bold to say that our intent is to exterminate.

The Dalek caricature strips back any mediating emotions to leave hate as the primary source of power for raw hate is blind and ruthless.

Surely we have some mitigating emotions within us. There is a kernel of goodness in there. We connect, love and live amongst each other most of the time. That you can dial 000 and get help remains quite remarkable evidence that we are not all bad.

Indeed, when my tooth broke this week and my wife booked a dental appointment for the next day from her phone at the beach it was awesome. Then when the treatment was super high-tech and the dentist first-class fixing the tooth within 24 hours I knew I was both fortunate but also grateful.

So I do not believe it is an extermination event, even though it looks like one.

Humans are not pitiless cyborgs but we are easily led by the stupid, ignorant and morally corrupt. The result might be the same.

I’ll leave with a reminder from Jeff Sparrow’s piece of how fine the line is between the two motivations.

“How petty, how small, how childish do those politicians with the temerity to attack Greta Thunberg look! She speaks for science, idealism and hope; they embody an ignorance or cynicism so deep as to constitute depravity.”

Jeff Sparrow

More on the CEO salary issue

More on the CEO salary issue

In a previous Alloporus post on average CEO salaries Alloporus commented on reports that $187 million was paid to the top 10 CEOs in Australia in FY17.

That is a whole heap of cash.

It made sense to try and put this number into context. A quick calculation revealed that the $187 million pocketed by the CEOs was roughly 6,309 person-years worth of time for money at delivery driver rates.

Over 6,000 person-years for the work of 11 men.

The comment was that this amount of money was smelly, very smelly indeed.

Here is what happened in the FY18

That little lot adds up to $148,343,764. A bad year for the CEOs. Heaven forbid a terrible year, drought and pestilence on us all.

The top dude earned $13 million less and the overall total was well down.

Only it still stinks, especially as many of the same blokes are on the list.

Not sure what happened to the pizza guy though.

At some point it will be clear that whilst there is some sense in paying people to make tough decisions and to take responsibility, there is a limit to what is reasonable and respectable. What we have in Australia at the moment is neither.