Discernment

Discernment

My mum, who is chin wagging with the angels, always used to say that you should not judge people. Sage advice.

We are not supposed to pass judgement even though it means we have considered matters and reached a sensible conclusion because if we get it wrong or judge harshly all that happens is that we sour relationships and upset people. And, as we all know, people are easily upset especially when they feel judged.

On legal issues, we leave judgement to the judge because she should be across everything presented for both sides of a case. On everyday issues… well, none of us is really in possession of the facts and we let opinion rule. My mum was against opinion despite having a few of her own.

So we should avoid judgement in the everyday or risk getting it wrong. You never really know the truth of a person’s motivation unless you’re really good at reading behind their eyes.

Only there is more. There is also discernment, the ability to judge well. As Wikipedia states…

“Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

Berated for judging, heralded for nuanced judging, because if you are good a discernment then you have wisdom.

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

Reminds me of Joe Jackson’s ‘It’s different for girls’ lyric

Mama always told me save yourself
Take a little time and find the right girl
Then again don’t end up on the shelf
Logical advice gets you in a whirl

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

  • Make it a habit not to judge
  • When a judgement is required keep it to yourself
  • Only tell anyone your judgement when forced by a sharp object
  • Don’t try to explain your judgement
  • Never try to justify any judgement even if it is forced out of you
  • Practice discernment on yourself
  • Remind yourself that discernment is so rare it is nearly extinct
  • Smile instead

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Food security

Food security

A key food security issue went through without much comment in a recent Alloporus post on meat.

Via a calculation on the carbon footprint of omnivory, an estimate of the amount of productive land needed to provide all the humans on the planet with enough calories from plants to meet their daily needs came out at 4 million km2.

Next to this number we can put the FAO estimate that says there is roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth and a simple conclusion is reached: we should be fine.

All we have to do is eat plants.

According to this juxtaposition of area estimates, we have 10 times the land area we need to grow enough food to feed everyone. Surely all the chatter and concern about food security is unnecessary.

We grow more than we need, waste a whole bunch, and still have land to spare. Get over it.

There appears to be more than enough productive land to meet human needs. Perhaps as much as an order of magnitude more meaning we could go beyond needs towards our wants too… rib-eye and chocolate moose anyone?

Well perhaps.

Thanks to energy inputs, technology and a global supply chain there is remarkable capacity to feed people – the global requirement for roughly 14 trillion calories per day is a lot of food. That this happens every day with a declining failure rate is miraculous. Yet it happens and this supply seems to be keeping up with increasing demand. All the indices of poverty, hunger, the size and frequency of famines are heading in the right direction. Proportionally fewer people go hungry today than 5 years ago and serious regional famines are historical.

There is always more to do of course. Hunger and poverty still exist, even within wealthy societies, but the pragmatist will see food security as a social or political problem, not a problem of production.

So why does a Google Scholar search on food security pull up 729,000 research articles from the last 5 years alone with 60,000 of these published in the first 9 months of 2018?

Presumably a lot of researchers and the people behind the systems that fund their work believe we have a problem. Perhaps we need to go deeper than simple ratios.

The first confounding factor is in the 4 million km2 calculation where all the calories come from plants, the most energy efficient food source.

We know that people like to eat animal products in all their myriad forms. If a quarter of the required calories for each person’s daily needs come from animals (meat, milk and eggs) then the area requirement jumps dramatically thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. Meat contains calories but the animal also needed calories to maintain itself and grow before it gave up its tissues to the food chain.

This energy requirement is roughly 9 to 1.

So if a person eats 600 calories worth of meat and dairy products per day, then the animals that created this protein needed to consume 5,400 calories. They get this from plants (and the occasional meat based protein pellet).

If everyone consumed a quarter of their daily calories from animals instead of plants then the 4 million km2 requirement becomes 13 million km2. This is 27% of the available area.

Still plenty of buffer, right?

Well yes and no. The original calculation assumed that production was efficient. Crops produced predictable yields at near average levels. Averages are a useful metric in this type of calculation because they absorb the inevitable variation from one region to another, one landholding to another and even among fields.

Just as important though is the variance in production.

Suppose that the average yield of wheat is 3.0 t/ha, near enough the global average. However, in the low input, low output production systems of Australia the average is 1.9 t/ha, whilst the global average is 3.3 t/ha Yield is double. A drought or a widespread plant disease in Germany, where wheat production is over 24 million tonnes and the average yield over 9 t/ha, would have a disproportionate effect on global production than dry times in Australia.

Also averages can change over time. It happens that average grain yields have risen consistently for several decades at up to 1% per year for some commodities. More security you would think. Only there is a physical limit to yield, and, in time, averages could easily decline for any number of reasons. There is also the risk of catastrophe.

Among the many interesting numbers generated by the FAO is a critical one for our calorie count. The FAO report that 40% of soil in production systems is degraded. Below average in other words.

So let’s suppose than over the next decade yield averages decline on these degraded soils, let’s say by 50%. The 13 million km2 to grow enough calories becomes 15.6 million km2 and we are up to a third of the available area.

Then there are the climate change effects that will mess up average yields as well as increase catastrophic risk from drought fire and flood. If 2 million km2 of production area fails due to local catastrophe there is a 15% shortfall in calories. This amount will be hard to even out across the global supply chains.

These are enough production side challenges to tweak nerves. Next though we have to look at demand. First is the 1 billion or so people who consume far more than 2,400 calories per day; the average American ingests 3,600 calories. This pushes the area up to 19.8 million km2.

Not to forget the 8,000 new souls every hour of every day.

All this doom and gloom calculator craziness can go on and on. There is still a land buffer. At the moment there is land to spare and to absorb all the inevitable inefficiencies.

However, the 200 research articles per day on food security through 2018 is both reassuring and an alert. We need sharp minds on this real and present risk.

Think about all of this the next time you see a kilo of onions on sale for a dollar.

Soil degradation

Soil degradation

Soil degradation is defined as a change in the soil health status resulting in a diminished capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services for its beneficiaries. Degraded soils have a health status such, that they do not provide the normal goods and services of the particular soil in its ecosystem.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

No wonder you have never heard of soil degradation.

How the Food and Agriculture Organisation describes the concept is as impenetrable as a dry chernozem, replete with dull jargon and weak science. Since when can dirt have “soil health status” or sentient status sufficient to have beneficiaries. It makes soil sound like a shop or an accounting firm when it is actually a mixture of minerals, water and biology.

How about this definition?

Soil degradation has happened when soil grows less food less often.

I admit this simplification does not hint at the why of the outcome; something about soil being unwell, but I am sure you paid a little more attention to a focused definition. And you should. When soils grow less food less often it represents a risk to the wellbeing of us all.

Fortunately, this definition also allows the positive mirror

Soil degradation is reversed when soil grows more food more often.

So if you are of the positive thinking set there is a version for you where the graph goes from bottom left to top right.

Less facetiously, this definition is closer to the practical reality: humans use soil for their benefit. Natural vegetation converted into productions systems that capture solar energy into food, our own specific source of energy, is still the most efficient and cost-effective (or profitable if you prefer) method to feed people on mass. In these systems soil is the growth medium of choice.

Soil is still the cheapest, most ubiquitous and (usually) the most resilient option to grow food at a profitable volume. In short, we use it for profit.

Soil is gold, bitcoin even.

When soil degradation is defined as a loss in that use value it is logical at least. It fits with our notions of value – philosophical antagonism over human values applied to nature notwithstanding. ‘Health status’ is just silly but at least the FAO got the goods and services bit right.

Let’s run with the economics for a while.

If I make money from soil because I use it to grow food that is sold in a market, then my business needs the soil to continue to provide conditions for commodity production for as long as I need to run the business. This is as true for a subsistence farmer taking some excess melons to his village square as it is to a 5,000 ha precision agriculture operation in the Australian wheat belt. At first glance, soil degradation is not good for either business.

What if there is a time horizon on the business?

The subsistence farmer would rather have a job that pays more than tilling his field and hopes his children will break out of the hand to mouth cycle of his own life. Sales of the melons help buy his kids school uniforms.

Intensive agriculture must make money to satisfy creditors and benefit investors. Modern farms require immediate and increasingly significant capital and liquidity to function. Creditor terms run to months at best and investors are expecting annual dividends. Whilst the banks are happy to help with lumpy cash flow and insurance taken out against more acute disruption from acts of god and the market, even in a financially planned farm business, money goes in and out all the time.

All this means that the time horizons are short when it comes to growing food. So whilst I might want to grow melons for generations and wheat far into the future there are concerns right now. Production has to happen soon. It might be desirable for the business to be sustainable, that is to continue for as far into the future as we can realistically imagine, but cash is king and cash is immediate.

More food more often fits this model of course and ‘less food less often’ does not, so the last thing I need is soil degradation…. but the first thing I need is production. And this takes precedence whether it means food for a family or interest payments on the loan for the centre pivot. Farmer sustainability has a short time span, way shorter than the farm business and the soil that supports it.

This is the true problem with the “goods and services for its beneficiaries” definition of soil degradation. It will sneak up on you before you even know it is a problem. The average couch potato is functional but unhealthy and is fine with it. He would be less fine if you cut his Netflix allowance by half and restricted viewing to three nights a week (less food less often).

So now you have heard of soil degradation at least. It is a problem sneaking up on us all with ‘diminished capacity’ about to make all our lives more difficult.


There is something you can do.

Soil degradation is usually reversible through prudent production, encouragement of soil carbon, allowing soil biology to flourish and taking the long view.

And you can help with this by gearing yourself up to pay more than $1 per kilo for your onions.


You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit and I’ll prove it to you.

Have a little think about these questions.

  • What’s your net worth?
  • How much money does the taxman appropriate from your paycheck?
  • What’s the current balance of your retirement fund?
  • What businesses does your superfund invest in?

All over your finances, fair enough. Try these.

  • How about the name of your local member of parliament?
  • What’s the policy on the aforementioned income tax held by the party your local member represents, do you even know the party?
  • Can you list the top three things that your tax dollar helps pay for?
  • Who’s the Minister responsible for spending the biggest chunk of taxpayers dollar?

Struggling a bit now? I bet.

Here are some more knowledge questions on a different tack.

  • What music does your brother/son/nephew/kid next door listen to?
  • Does he even listen to music?
  • If you mentioned Paul McCartney to him would he even blink?

And toward more detail, how about these…

  • Can you say with certainty that the koala is going extinct?
  • Do you know if clearing 20,000 ha of forest is a good thing to do or even if 20,000 ha is a big area?
  • Can the planet support the needs and wants of 7.5 billion human beings?

Phew, that’s intense. My apologies.

You don’t know your shit do you? No, neither do I.

The thing is that nobody does.

It’s a given that we are all mostly ignorant about many of the most important things in our lives from the big to the small. And clearly this doesn’t matter a jot.

Ignorance has not stopped progress, the economy, wealth creation or Sir Paul’s 17th solo album (no, I didn’t know that either). At least not yet.

Human beings are remarkable in that we cannot know our shit, partly because there is just so much of it, and yet we can still be successful and even satisfied. We have enough innate savvy and bullshit detection ability to survive the many situations where knowledge would actually help us a lot and lack of knowledge is a hindrance. This skill in decision making by instinct rather than evaluation is so well honed that we not only survive but we prosper on it. As Steven Pinker will show you at length in any of his books, all the metrics of societal wellbeing show progress and lots of it.

Perhaps we are survivors extraordinaire because somehow we learn just enough.

Snakes are bad, koalas are good. Paycheck goes into my account, no need to know what the taxman took so long as I get a rebate at tax time. The kid next door adores Anne-Marie, so what, I did the same with Debbie.

Knowing that the minister for health in the NSW state government is responsible for a $17.3 billion budget hardly helps me choose the best school for my son. I can get more relevant ‘information’ through the opinions on a local Facebook group of concerned parents like me.

We learn and know enough of the things that we perceive as relevant. The rest we can trust to what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘thinking fast’ because it actually doesn’t matter. There is no perceptible gain to taking our time over it.

You don’t know your shit. And you got over it already.

Who needs answers to questions when instinct guides you in a heartbeat.

An ‘ah ha moment’ for me

This is a critical realisation for me. People don’t need information to answer questions. They have instinct for that.

So as a purveyor of evidence that I would like people to absorb, understand, and use to help them be more objective, I have a big problem. People don’t need what I have to offer and, therefore, they don’t want it.

At times evidence is a surreptitious influence that gently permeates the psyche to change a mind or two over time. This would be how Rome was built. Information is sometimes stored for use as ammunition in an argument, although simple slander is more potent and easier to use now we live in Trolland.

But in general, evidence is not needed for general awareness and going about one’s business. No matter that the 15 year old can sing along to ‘Let it be’ without knowing Paul McCartney wrote it half a century ago. All that matters is it’s still a good song.

The ‘ah ha’ bit is this truth…

Shit does not matter except when it does.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, a respected 20th century philosopher famous among the scientific fraternity, true scientific theory makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

The superhero status of testable predictions has made good sense to me ever since I was exposed to it as an undergraduate back in the Carboniferous. Unless a theory can be tested it falls to the lowly status of opinion where only dubious predictions live; admittedly an overcrowded residence these days.

An idea, supposition or prediction attains the lofty moral position of a scientific theory a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained — if it can be empirically tested, ideally through manipulations in controlled conditions with heaps of replication.

This much is grasped by most students of science, even the naive ones around when the trees were laid down for coal. It is the basics of the scientific method taught in every good high school.

Unfortunately, this is often as far as it goes. But there is more.

What Popper also realised was that scientists can never prove a theory to be true because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory they cannot prove it. Empirical tests can only falsify.

This is way more subtle. Evidence from a controlled experiment might reject the hypothesis the experiment was designed to test but the alternative outcome (where evidence is not sufficient to reject the hypothesis) does not make the alternative (accepting the hypothesis) true. Empirical tests can only disprove, never prove.

Suppose I have a large field that I subdivide into twenty equally sized fields.

Into 10 of these small paddocks, chosen at random, I place five sheep for five days, remove them for 10 days and then put them back in. This rotational grazing goes on for a year. The other 10 paddocks contain no sheep at all.

The hypothesis is that grazing by sheep will decrease the amount of carbon in the soil. So before the sheep are introduced several soil samples are taken from all the small paddocks and tested for their carbon content. More soil samples are taken at the end of the year and their carbon content statistically compared with carbon content in the soil samples taken at the start.

It turns out that after a year the average carbon content from the grazed paddocks averages about 3%, slightly more than it was at the start, a small but statistically significant increase. In the paddocks without sheep, soil carbon also increased too but by no more than would be expected by chance (as determined by the statistical properties of the numbers generated from the soil carbon samples).

The hypothesis – sheep grazing will decrease the amount of soil carbon in the soil – is rejected given the empirical evidence.

The evidence is enough to reject the hypothesis and the temptation is to accept the theory that sheep actually do good things to soil carbon. Only Karl Popper would wriggle a little in his coffin if you made this call because should you do this experiment again, who knows what the outcome would be.

This example is phrased to follow the conventional wisdom. Current theory is that livestock grazing will reduce soil carbon over time as the animals metabolize the primary production and the farmer removes animals or their fleeces to market making for a net loss in soil carbon over ungrazed paddocks.

But if we rephrased the hypothesis as ‘grazing by sheep will increase the amount of carbon in the soil’ and the results of the experiment stay the same, then we accept the hypothesis. Again we are tempted to accept the theory that grazing by sheep is good for soil carbon levels only this time by claiming the results are a proof not a falsification.

Popper gets to wriggle again.

Interesting isn’t it. Even when science is done through determined experiments the outcome is not a given. Conclusions are also dependent on how the empirical test is conceived. This is why theory only gets such a lofty badge when there is repetition of empirical tests sufficient to reduce doubt but even then there is no proof, only falsification.

The sheep grazing example is naive of course and was phrased around hypothesis testing rather than theory. In reality, theory only achieves acceptance after many tests of many specific hypotheses. The process of iteration provides the rigor that allows scientists to rest easily at night without Popperian spectres messing with their dreams.

Only the example is also real.

We are not actually sure of the theory in this case despite the importance of grazing to food production and the reality that soils need as much carbon as possible to maintain that production.

Falsification is very difficult to do in environmental and ecological science, especially where soil is concerned. There is very little in the way of Popperian truth where fields, paddocks and remnant native vegetation is concerned. There have been way too few tests leaving fertile ground for opinion.

However, the risk in leaving issues of food security to opinion should scare the socks off you.

Fear and danger

Fear and danger

“Because “frightening” and “dangerous” are two different things. Something frightening poses a perceived risk. Something dangerous poses a real risk. Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous—that is, paying too much attention to fear—creates a tragic drainage of energy in the wrong directions.”

Hans Rosling “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

As I get older I have become frightened of travelling.

This feels like a peculiar admission for a fortunate person who has lived on three continents and in half a dozen countries, visited over 20 more and walked through remote deserts, swamps and rainforests on any number of field trips to compile ecological research.

It is real though this fright.

I don’t like leaving home that much anymore. And it’s the prospect of it that seems to make me nervous. Once I’m on the road, train or plane I’m fine. My ‘get the job done’ gene kicks in and that’s what happens, the job gets done and almost always I enjoy the process.

The fear is irrational.

I have been there, done that way too many times for it to be a problem for my logical brain. I just have to think for even a moment and I can remember how enjoyable travel is and, indeed, what a privilege it is to see, smell and sense the world’s differences.

Only these days I am frightened before I leave home. I stress. My decision making goes awry and crankiness enters. It is annoying to me so it must be painful for my family. And there is a real ‘drainage of energy in the wrong direction’ as Hans Rosling insightfully put it. I’m sweating over nothing and yet it saps the juices like a thirsty aphid.

Now I’m trying to understand why this quote about danger and fright got me onto my middle-aged travel phobia. I think it is another feeling that is growing up from the deepest recesses of my gut; poking through the logic and evidence that I send down to suppress it. Something that is trying hard to get some air and to make some noise. And I think it is dangerous.

My problem is that I am frightened of what I know.

I will try to explain.

I know that…

Thomas Malthus was right.

Ultimately critical resources that humans need are finite and even as we get ever more numerous and effective at keeping entropy at bay there will come a point when we fail by falling down the wrong side of a peak in one or other critical commodity or ecosystem service before we invent an alternative.

Only I also know that our ingenuity, adaptability and downright bloody-mindedness finds solutions to resource constraints. History is a long list of confirmation that this is inevitable. When we know there is a shortage some enterprising individual will invent an alternative often before the shortage kicks in because there is money to be made and kudos granted.

So my fear is not the one Malthus presumably had, fear of shortage, however rational this is on a finite planet shared by 7.5 billion ravenous human souls. My fear is the bit where Malthus says that humans convert resources into more humans or as he put it “mankind has the propensity to utilize abundance for population growth”

This means that technological advances to save and innovation to substitute resources just results in more people. Potentially a lot more until we get through the squeeze of 10 or 11 billion and start falling back towards 5 or 6 billion by the end of the century – Hans Rosling explains this eloquently.

This demographic transition (a slowing of birth rate as infant mortality declines and overall life expectancy rises from increased wealth) rescues us from the exponential numbers that Malthus saw coming but 11 billion still requires unfathomable resourcing for at least three or four generations.

I know that…

Humans do not channel abundance into prudence, we channel it into more abundance. We have to make more; it is a dictate of our biology.

The demographic transition may slow our reproductive more making but we cannot turn off these stubbornly successful genes and so we channel our more making into acquisitions. We gather stuff, copious amounts of it. Frightening is a useful word to describe the contents of the average western teenager’s bedroom, especially when we realise that said teenagers could not possibly have earned the funds to acquire all the gizmos and pink accoutrements. Their parents and relatives stumped up the money.

I also know we cannot blame the kids. They are facilitated into their consumption like the generations that preceded them. It has been a long time now since the days of forced labour for at least half the global populous and all the generations are complicit in the progression to modern consumption.

So the demographic squeeze is not just of 11 billion souls requiring sustenance, it is 11 billion individuals wanting to improve their lot in life.

Our unique success as a species is that this drive works. It produces gains in wealth that increasingly manifest in material things. The transition is not just about the numbers, it is what the people who make up the numbers want and will have. It is inescapable and dangerous.

I know that…

Food production systems and supply chains are far more fragile than we realise despite the extraordinary power of the marketplace.

Anyone who follows Alloporus posts here, on Alloporus Environmental or on LinkedIn has read epistles to every tribe on this issue. There is no need to extend the pain now other than to recognise fragility in production systems as truly dangerous.

Food insecurity might not be felt every day amongst the western wealthy as it is by the seven out of ten humans living on less than $10 per day but it is as real and present as any other danger worthy of the description.

I know that…

Nobody knows anything of these true dangers.

Many people are frightened of course. They waste energy on any number of highly unlikely scenarios from being hit by a bus to the imminent extinction of the koala but mostly on drama, as in ‘an exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance’; most often on those that tap the emotions. She was such a bitch.

And I know that this is the facet of human nature most dangerous to our existence.

Our ability not to see what is in front of our noses or to understand how important the issues are is legendary, indeed it is the muse of legends from the Greeks onwards. This opacity is not about to change. A wave of enlightenment is but a dream.

All that can be done is to plug away, perhaps lift a veil for a handful of people at a time, one even.

And finally.

I know that…

Rummaging for Elpis in Pandora’s box is risky but worth it.

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.