The bible tells me so

The bible tells me so

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things

1 Corinthians 13:11

The Bible tells us that grownups put away childish things.

You have to wonder about that. When they’re young and before they’re beaten into submission by all the cultural norms and frightened to death by their egos, kids are still innocent. They have a remarkable ability to call out elephants and to say what they think, unfiltered. They come up with great common sense. Sure they don’t have the experience and they don’t have all the details, but they’re still in tune with their instincts for what is right and wrong and what makes sense to them in their particular frame of reference.

In other words, they are honest.

Even if their little personalities might be a little bit sus, they are still able to tell it as it is. So when we put away childish things, what does that actually do to us?

Half the time it makes us into closed, guarded individuals who are fearful of actually saying what we think. In truth because it might go against everyone else’s truth or might be a career-limiting move.

Recently, I was. In a position where I was forced to call out a few childlike behaviors, but not in the sense of those innocent youths, more in the sense of the petulant adolescence who were now grunting into their coca-cola because they’d prefer to have a triple scotch. There was a requirement to call out the fact that we should be having adult conversations about certain policy and scientific matters. And not simply throw our toys out of the cot because we heard something that we didn’t like.

I thought about that a little. What is adult conversation? What is it, that putting away of childish things concept? I’m assuming that it is, take what you now know about the real world about humans operate as adults, gather more information about topics, and begin to act sensibly not with petulance or with innocence, but knowing what the world is like. Removing some of the naivety and having objective conversations about things.

Cultures have the dinner party or the pub or the conversation around the fire, where these matters can be discussed among elders where youngsters listen in or where people are able to extend their knowledge and test out ideas with others.

In the workplace healthy conversation needs to be part of the process. Everyone has a common agenda set by the organization they’re working for and it shouldn’t be a problem to put aside every small nuance and put down your ego for a little bit and have those intelligent adult conversations about the current and the future.

It’s disconcerting when this is not possible. And if this is how society is going, where we can no longer have adult conversations even though the good book told us that that’s what we should do, then we’re in a bit of strife.

Those adult conversations are critical in order to explore options and to decide what is an opinion and what is fact and to work through the logical flow of things. Understand parts of the process that you might not have thought about but someone else has.

If we can’t be adults about it. And we can’t be children because we left all of that behind. And we are left with the petulant adolescent who is grunting away because he’s not the centre of attention…

Then we’re in a great deal of strife.


If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Over two years from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people in four successive waves, representing one in three of the world’s population at the time.

The death toll was estimated at somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

At the time, there was no cure or vaccine. Indeed people didn’t really understand how contagion from airborne particles happened. Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene, all exacerbated by the recent war, promoted a bacterial superinfection that killed most of the victims. It also impacted young adults as well as the young and old. Everyone will have known someone who’d been sick and many would have known someone who passed. The high infection and death rates made those two years an extraordinarily scary time for people who had only just suffered through WW1. People must have thought that the world was coming to an end.

No doubt levels of psychological damage, depression and anxiety in the population must have spiked. But back then wellbeing issues were not big for the medical profession. People were tough, they thought, used to a hard life and living from one day to the next.

Nobody could have imagined that one hundred years later society would be larger, more wealthy and more populous with extraordinary and impossible technologies. Mass transport across the globe, information streamed into tiny hand-held devices with all of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.

Or that there would be another pandemic severe enough to change behaviors and the collective outlook on the world.

As at 11 October 2020, COVID-19 has reached 37 million confirmed cases with 1.07 million deaths. So far an order of magnitude fewer infections and deaths than the Spanish flu and a much smaller proportion of the global population is infected, although this will no doubt rise as future waves of infections emerge. The impact though is just as severe, the sadness of deaths, the pain and suffering of those with symptoms and the chaos of the global disruptions to jobs, lifestyles and economies. It is not going to be the same again. The death rates may be not so high as they were for the Spanish flu, but still many are dying and the number of infections continues to rise across the world.

Politicians have taken all sorts of different approaches to coping with the problem. Most options target the virus and yet the psychological ailments are as acute as they were a hundred years ago; affecting people in ways that we might not fully understand.

Most people seem to be putting on a brave face. Nothing to see here, life is still normal, the new normal.

Only we are all struggling with the change. Struggling to know what it’s all going to look like ourselves, our children and their grandchildren.

Workplaces are dispersed and we’re learning to communicate from separate rooms in the absence of body language. We underestimate that lack of contact in the room at our peril. It will influence the way decisions are made.

Those who relied on the inane meeting to suck up work time. The endless discussions that go nowhere and have little use beyond filling up the day are no more. Somehow there was a way of getting away with that type of unproductive interaction with everyone in the same room. Online they are not the same. Online meetings do not pass the time before beer o’clock in quite the same way.

Online people are disengaged, often not even looking at the screen with the grid of faces on it. But are busy in other activities with their brain not into the content at all — the whole process becomes excruciating for everyone.

Alloporus believes that our lack of focus on the things that matter, and our inability to make core decisions about things, is the most troubling consequence.

How does lack of focus translate?

It exposes people that really don’t have anything to say about topics. Because they either don’t understand the topic they are not across their brief nor do they have a foundation of knowledge that they need to make a contribution.

If added to this is underlying angst and concern over the consequences of the virus. Then we’re beginning to see some very difficult behaviors, subconsciously protecting themselves from their uncertainty. I’m not sure what the solution to this is beyond technology that it’s there.

And for people to begin to accept that. All of us need to maintain our skill sets. And maintain our knowledge base even if we are distributed. It’s an opportunity to actually get a lot better at what we do and hopefully in some workplaces this is happening.

Focusing or spending less time in the meeting and more time understanding their portfolio so that they can make better decisions when they do come together with their colleagues.

Let’s hope that we can use this shift in the way that we do business to engage in the learning process and build up our knowledge again. I suggest one of the places to start in this process is knowledge about the general response of this virus and the consequences for the planet. Not so much the health consequences and how we’re going to beat it or how we’re going to engage in a war with it, but how we’re going to tackle the enormous challenges that face. The problems that were there before the virus impacted that are now more acute because of the pandemic.

The topics that come to mind we talk about on this blog all the while.

Food security — from production gains to meet demand to understanding how we’re going to adapt to climate change.

Land use — how to recognize and acknowledge and then decide what to do about our choice of what to do with land.

Ecosystem services — how they are distributed and delivered across the landscape.

Water — where our fresh water’s going to come from.

Food production methods — what mix of technologies to put alongside traditional methods of food production for the next 100 years. ]

Diet — what we are eating and if this needs to change for a diet that is not achievable but also healthy for ourselves and for the population as a whole.

Education — Are we teaching youngsters enough about the right sort of things.

Healthy scepticism — we need skeptics who do not believe everything seen and heard without finding the facts and the evidence. And therefore ignore the opinion and the gossip.

We also need to acknowledge our angst and anxiety about the state of affairs. The worst possible outcome really is that we bury our heads in the sand and decide not to hear, not to see, and not to speak about any of these matters.

The wise monkeys are not quite as wise as we thought they were.

Failure to communicate about these matters in adult conversation will bring on our worst fears faster. The things we are most concerned and scared of will come to pass.

Now is the time for us to embrace our intelligence and educate each other, learn from each other, and build opportunities and solutions that are going to keep us going into future generations.


Reposting is fine by me.

The bright side of the moon

The bright side of the moon

Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The bright side of the moon

It is early in the morning, crisp spring air cools the cheeks and sends earlobes numb. On the canvas of a beautiful blue sky is painted the moon, still risen and large enough to see it’s sculptured surface with the naked eye.

Against its pale blue background, the dark craters on the surface blend with their grey colour and invite thoughts of what it would be like to visit, a nice place to go, colourful, pleasant, calm.

And then comes the reality of what it is actually like out there. A massive rock orbiting in the blackness of space where no human could survive for more than a minute without the aid of technology.

An orange satellite sitting in a black galaxy.

Alloporus

There’s something about the human condition that means we always see an image rather than reality. I guarantee that most people who look at that moon in its picturesque blue backdrop see an invite to go there. They feel like they’ve been given a ticket on the first rocket ship to carry tourists to such an extraordinary place.

Not in our grandchildren’s lifetime, will we be able to do anything serious in space. We will generate a lot of space junk flying around in orbit above us. And various companies and countries will try to snaffle some resources or make money on the back of the curious. But the reality is the physics and the simple scale of the universe make even visiting our solar system a task beyond our current technologies and the laws of physics as we understand them.

Unless someone can crack moving faster than the speed of light, then we are destined to stay here on our own in this tiny corner of the universe, in our own blip in time.

This should be sobering. Then it should be a delight to recognize our uniqueness.

Sure, there are other life forms out there. Enjoying or not their own blip of existence. But the physics of it all means that we won’t see them and they won’t see us.

And yet the reality is that we are no more suited to be in outer space than we are to dominate planet earth. I know it says in the bible that we should have dominion but that is just some self-assurance. The truth may be closer to our survival chances on the moon.

On earth, we change everything to our own devices for our own purposes and needs. And have done for centuries. We’ve been so good at it that the planet is barely recognizable. The moon has seen the changes on the blue planet and wonders what’s going on down there?

At the moment it seems that what is going on is aggrandisement through a focus on self.

And, as written many times on this blog, there are very sensible and logical evolutionary reasons why that is a default position. Our biology is to make more and we are extremely good at it.

What we fail to realize is how hard it would be to change that biology. So that our blip in time in this tiny corner of the universe would be anything more than a path to our own mutual destruction. We would have to go against our nature in order to persist. Resources must be shared beyond our kin. We would have to restore and rehabilitate land that we had previously pilfered for its benefits.

Most of all, we would need tolerance. Recognize that other people part of the story too. Not because they are likeable or even because they are like us but because they’re here, that’s all.

And without other people onboard, the system breaks down into all the old patterns. It’s an ‘in this together’ kind of game. We either all come and collectively understand the consequences of failure to acknowledge each other and work together or we go extinct.

And I know what you will say. Many people have said this many times before. But we are still here, still creating technologies to keep our supply chains and systems moving — ever bigger, ever better.

We probably have a few decades, maybe even a century or two left to keep doing that to keep on that track. Malthus, Ehrlich and others who prophesied doom from overpopulation are not yet prophets. But they will be. There will be a crash. It will be ugly and whether or not we come out the other side in any sort of shape at all is determined by what we do now.

If we do nothing the crash will be deep and very painful. And what comes out of the other end will be a handful of unfortunate folks scrambling for what’s left. If we behave ourselves and begin to cooperate and talk and identify the things that really matter then there is a chance that the crash can be managed. A softer landing if you like. And what’s left behind could be in better shape.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks. Given the development of a new project around food, ecology and diet — sustainably FED — and fictional writing of climbing to the meet and the conversations of Paul Sorol. Reflecting on what our chances of getting through really are.

Locally the chances are good.

In a crisis, people do help each other. We’ve talked about that on this blog many times before.

But once the crisis is over and the local situation calms that helping hand does tend to fade away.

Keeping that crisis momentum going is also not what you want to do. Nobody wants to live with heightened alertness the whole time unless that happens to be your psychology.

Moving towards something that is worth keeping is the key. That involves our awareness and is the challenging part. It’s not that we don’t have empathy. Not that we don’t have the ability to go operate clearly we do. But just not enough for long enough to see us through to a soft landing.

I do not have an answer. It would be good to find one but I simply don’t have one at this point. As to how we would do that.

And my apologies for another pessimistic post. But hopefully, you can see the kernels of optimism.

There’s still a chance even at this late hour for humanity to not just turn things around but to make the future much brighter than it seems that present.

Right now we’re heading for some dark times. Unpleasant politics, leadership that is either inept or not leadership at all, but authoritarianism by any other name.

A pandemic continues to cause havoc with everything around the world, changing what we thought was our normal lives.

But it’s this time of apparent darkness that it is possible to see the moon at its brightest against that blue background and to think of it as a place worth visiting.


Please share to help us all reach for the stars and find the moon.

Dark days are over

Dark days are over

Photo by Kevin Bluer on Unsplash


These are dark days.

A pandemic is killing people in every country, destroying livelihoods and economies.

The US president is lying as he aims to bring democracy crashing down in his country.

Great Britain, once a powerful nation, is a fetid heap of unpleasantness on the floor and in such a mess that it chooses to appoint a failed, misogynist, ex-prime minister from Australia to get them out of their trade hole. Good luck with that.

And everywhere people are concerned and worried.

Mental health is the worst it’s ever been with almost everyone showing signs of strain.

It’s extremely hard to be optimistic in such times.

Indeed, all population ecologists from Thomas Malthus onwards will tell you this is exactly what to expect. As populations reach and exceed the levels of resources available to them it gets ugly. And whilst this is fine for plant and animal species in the depths of the Amazon rainforest or the arctic tundra, humans are immune for, after all, we are not animals – modern politics notwithstanding.

The technical phrase is density-dependent population regulation, the fancy term for keeping numbers in check.

Density and competetion

As resources become limiting so population growth rates start to slow and eventually go in reverse as a result of lower fertility, infant mortality and mortality from competition among adults in the population, with the most vulnerable going first. It is no coincidence that the consequences of the COVID-19 virus fit these attributes and is an acute problem for aged-care facilities.

There is no doubt we’re beginning to see these patterns in the human population of the world. We’ve beaten off density-dependence for so long thanks to our technology and our ability to absorb resources from nature. But now it’s beginning to bite as we reach the limits of our capacities and offer a resource to nature, our bodies, for it to exploit.

Given these realities, it is very difficult to remain positive. Hard to see the upside in any of these things.

But upside there is, for no matter what happens, it will not happen forever. Even if the worst catastrophes strike, there is a time after them.

Even after the mass extinctions over evolutionary time that we portray as catastrophes, diversity came back stronger. There were always more species on the planet following extinction events than there were before them. Prior to our current attack on the planet, there were more species than at any other time in the history of life on earth. There’s nothing to suggest that once humans have passed, that won’t happen again. The remnants of diversity will spread out recolonise and diversify into the available landscape when humans finally leave the stage.

The problem is not the long-term future of the world. She is quite fine, thank you very much, and will potter along merrily without concern until the sun finally swallows her up.

The problem is ourselves. What do we do to prevent a catastrophe… for humanity? How do we go about making sure that solutions are possible and more than a punt on the horses.

I think our hope lies in our psychological response.

We always revert to our lizard brains when we feel threatened or fearful or insecure. But we have a higher brain which can override that lizard fight, flight or freeze response. And we must tap into that capability more than ever before.

Right now we have to be investing in our mental health, training and encouraging people to be aware of their lizard brains. And give them the tools so as not to give into them.

Of course, anyone can say “zen out” in a blog post.

Achieving it in the population at large is another thing altogether. There are so many reasons why people wouldn’t respond and we cannot expect all people to do so.

Given enough compassionate folk who have recognised the need for awareness and for those people to lead the way then we can move forward with positive solutions.

Over at sustainably FED we have found a way to encourage those solutions through the use of evidence, especially the science behind food, ecology and diet. We believe there are solutions to any number of sustainability challenges if FED comes together in an integrated way.

Here are a few

  • Recycling nutrients
  • Making biochar
  • Changing global diet and food production based on the nutrient density of food rather than profit
  • Calling out the scoundrels mining natural capital
  • Looking long in production systems

Humanity has a great chance of surviving the dark times and coming out the other end the better for it. Any new normal can easily better than the old normal.

But we do need great ideas.

The tools exist for the technical and scientific evaluation of sustainability ideas to find those that will work in a new normal. All we have to find are the youngsters with the great ideas.

In the meantime, we can all try to recognize our lizard brain response and not be consumed by it.

We also recommend a meditation or two, some relaxation in nature, maybe some gentle classical music.

Recognition of what the planet offers rather than the porkies our social media feeds us.

Green up the lawn

Green up the lawn

Last spring we decided to landscape our front garden. We had a contractor level off the slopes and spread a new layer of topsoil before endless rolls of turf went down on the newly flattened area. And then, of course, we endured a dreadful summer of heat, wildfires, and drought requiring water restrictions that eventually meant we couldn’t water the lawn at all. So after a solid start, we lost the turf and now we have a front yard made up of weeds.

Needless to say, you should question why we wanted a lawn in the first place. Sir Walter is not native or even likely to persist for more than five minutes unaided in our bushy corner of suburbia, but peer-pressure is a powerful force, as is the resale value of the property.

Clearly we have to do something. Living where we do one simply can’t have weeds in the front garden for goodness sake. It has to be a pristine patch of green of a single species mown regularly to add to the sound of the suburbs.

A request was made to the treasury for funds to fix the problem.

A couple of hundred dollars worth of fertilizer, machinery-hire to aerate the soil, and some seed with a top dressing and perhaps the turf can come back from the dead.

It doesn’t work. The money is spent and still the weeds come through.

More money was spent on weed killer and yet more seed and top dressing. Still it doesn’t work.

Back to the treasury for more funds to do the job a third time. This time it will work.

Only the lawn still isn’t in any sort of shape and it feels like the more money you spend on it the worse it gets.

No matter, we’ll try again.

A plastic lawn is out of the question as is a return to clumps of coarse natives with a hint of bare patch.

Going green

The lawn debacle is a wonderful analogy for the work of green movements around the world. They’ve chastised the people and the governments for failure to save iconic species and to halt overall biodiversity loss, and yet each time they claim and whinge about it, going back to the treasury for more funds to do more of the same, because the problem continues to get worse.

How is that sensible policy on such a critical issue?

Surely we can resource the protection of nature. After all, it provides critical processes that determine human existence, yet we cannot find funds to protect the environment from our worst excesses. And how is it that people who have a political agenda to support that exact outcome have failed so miserably to achieve anything?

All around the world green parties have near-zero political capital, typically just a handful of seats here and there. In one or two jurisdictions they may, if they’re lucky, hold the balance of power on crossbenches, but the fundamental policy frame has not caught on with the public. Green parties have not been able to gather themselves to hit the mainstream and actually get themselves elected into positions of power.

This is a really big problem.

Damage to the structure of nature’s natural processes is reaching a critical level. Even Sir David Attenborough has decided to come off the fence and tell it like it is, the loss he has seen with his own eyes. He knows that bending nature to our will to the point where key processes fail is suicide. Don’t forget it is the primary production of plants and the secondary production of animals that feeds us all. Until everyone understands that, messing with the fundamentals is a dumb play for us and especially our grandchildren. Until we can get that into mainstream thinking, all of us are teetering on the edge of a very steep cliff with jagged rocks at the bottom.

Only the green doom and gloom story can’t be the message because whilst doom and gloom may sell newspapers, it doesn’t buy votes.

Newspapers create ‘if it bleeds it leads’ so that politicians can stand up and say “we’ll protect you from all that gore, just see our policy on fencing off the edge of cliffs”. It is what gets them elected. Join in the media with their blood soaked headlines and there is no way the public will elect you. The voters think you are blaming them, which, of course, the greens are and they may be right, but they can’t say it to our faces.

What we have is zero progressive policy on the environment.

But what about the green alternatives and green growth and new green deal. Some mainstream politicians, especially in the US, continue to double down on their base in the cities with these ideas.

Perhaps they are hoping that the COVID story will help. It should focus people’s attention on the need for change. Maybe a new way for how society will evolve over the next 50 years in order for things to settle. To give people some hope again. Give them an alternative to the nonsense that we are witnessing with horror in the US and in Europe, particularly in the UK, right now.

That the mainstream are trying to pick this up is an indictment of the environmental movements.

I don’t normally do this, but I lay the blame firmly on all the various political parties around the world with a green coloured logo. For decades they have not done what they needed to do, which was to make themselves politically credible through policies that people could actually hang a hat on.

Instead, they offer all or nothing decisions we’ve talked about before such as the one that brought down the first carbon trading legislation in Australia with greens demanding more and blocking the passage of the bill.

Can you be too green?

Green has moved on – it’s no longer about the environment

What we see is the ‘same old same old’, still trying to protect koalas, still trying to say that everything’s falling in and the sky will heat everything up to the point of disaster and we must do something right now.

Only there is no suggestion of what exactly to do without causing mass panic. What is it that the general public, not your supporters, but the general public must do to actually change their ways and deliver and get behind.

It is easy to criticise. Much harder to actually come up with answers and solutions. The next phase is to begin to tell people about what to do.

Over at sustainably FED there are a lot of examples of what you can do. A lot of practical tweaks, some learnings and a few political and practical ideas.

I encourage you to join in over at sustainably FED and put your own ideas forward as to how this could change, suggest some solutions would actually work.

And if you have an idea about how to fix a front lawn that simply doesn’t seem to want to catch, when wanting it in the first place is a brown as it gets, I’d really appreciate it.


Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

Managing expectations is hard

Managing expectations is hard

For a long time I lived and worked in the tertiary education system.

Universities are peculiar places that gather certain types of personality to them. It sounds weird but academics are full on and wear their subject like a favourite pair of jeans; all the time. Whilst the student body represents the cultural diaspora, academics are a rather narrow minded and small slice of that diversity partly due to that single mindedness of living in the depths of their research. It results in many peculiarities including the left of politics having its last bastion in some of those ivory towers.

My own days of bad hair and dodgy wardrobe as a postgraduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and eventually an academic, were a delight. I loved it. What I did not fully recognise at the time was why I liked it so much. One of the big reasons was that I was surrounded by people who understood, more or less, the topic areas of interest to me.

There I was in a department of biologists and environmental scientists, with people who had basically the same core understanding of how nature works. They didn’t know much about the politics and the social structures of the world, about people in general, but they knew a lot about biology, ecology and the biophysics of the environment.

I often remember that if you didn’t know your basic biology that could cause an embarrassing moment or two amongst your colleagues. As I was trained in my undergraduate years as an environmental scientist not a biologist, a few basics of genetics, photosynthesis and respiration, for example, had passed me by and people noticed.

The point I’m making is that awareness of basic theory and foundational understanding of nature was very high amongst your colleagues. When you had a conversation you could deliver most of what you were thinking and expect it to be understood by the person you were speaking to.

In recent times, I’ve realized that that is by no means a given in the real world.

When you speak to sensible folk in everyday world, awareness of some or all of the foundational understanding that I could take for granted as a trained ecologist chatting in the coffee room of a university department, is missing. Understandably, the technical detail and the deeper theoretical concepts are not there if you have not been through the program. And not everybody has. But the basic common sense of it all was present and correct.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Over the years I have learned to be a little less naive and to deliver potted versions of the concepts. Certainly not to dump all of the knowledge on an unsuspecting member of the public. However, even dialing down expectations of what people will understand to a fraction of what you know yourself may not be enough.

This statement lacks political correctness but stay with me.

At the moment many of the people I work with are educated in the environmental sciences and have decades of experience in rural landscapes. They advise landholders, their colleagues and ministers in matters of natural capital and agricultural production systems. I had made assumptions about what they would know — that soils underpin everything in production, that vegetation delivers livestock and that crops are aliens in most landscapes and need care and attention.

I also assumed an understanding of the policy frame and the politics of landscapes and the use of natural capital.

It seems reasonable to make such assumptions. These were professional people well educated, well-trained and you’d expect them to have some knowledge.

The reality is that my expectation reduction was nowhere near enough.

I had guessed that a reduction of the available knowledge by 80% of what I knew about a topic should be exceeded. That is what expectations should be, low enough to easily be exceeded; a version of the ‘under promise over deliver’ mantra of any good service company. This did not mean dumbing it down nor to assume ignorance just reducing the complexity to fundamentals so that the basics came across.

I had always expected that people would be okay with that and that they would recognize what I was trying to say. I expected responses with intelligence and from their perspective.

It turns out that delivering just 20% of what you know as an experienced academic is nowhere near enough reduction. You’ve got to cut much harder than that if you want your expectations to be met.

Now unmet expectations create a lot of stress for the person delivering information. I realize now that my big mistake was to overestimate the ability of people to understand nature and how humans use it.

I’m not talking about intelligence here, nor the ability to solve puzzles, to do math or the ability to find the tail end of a binomial distribution.

What I mean is a lack of basic understanding of phenomena that are happening in the world and their consequences for the rural landscape. Little things like knowing that we have eight billion people growing at eight thousand an hour. That almost all soil is under human management and at least 40% are in some sort of disarray as a result of that management.

Then there are some basic numbers that suggest future challenges for organizations involved with rural landscapes, even their own backyards. Some fundamentals that they really should know — average age of farmers in Australia is 58 with 50% of them working more than 49 hours per week, the debt to equity ratio of most farm businesses is very high where farmers have leveraged their properties in order to maintain their production systems and therefore giving themselves a very high debt load constraining any future innovation. Overall agriculture in Australia is under capitalised and there is a vast need for improvements to infrastructure particularly transport networks, but also in intensification of certain parts of the landscape and a desperate need to rest other parts.

Everyone should really understand that the challenge is how to get that investment. Where to get it from, what the financial instruments might be, who owns the risk, and who benefits from the risk?

These are the sorts of questions that should be simmering under the everydayness of any environmental role that is involved in any way with natural capital. And be talked about in tearooms and prior to meetings on Zoom. They should be the issues and questions that interest people. Unfortunately, they don’t.

At least not in recent experience. The generation that are currently in managerial and senior positions in environmental organizations, particularly in the bureaucracy, simply don’t have that frame of reference. Perhaps it’s a baby boomer story perhaps it’s a Gen X problem. Few seem to have the ability or the voice to put their organization into the broader context of what must happen in the world to stop humanity from major catastrophe.

People are parochial. I understand that. What’s going on in our backyard, what’s going on in the neighbor’s yard, and what’s going on overseas is increasingly distant to us. Such is normal human behavior ever since we started in tribes. But in the modern age when supply chains are universal — my wife ordered a parcel from the US which has gone via Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and still hasn’t arrived in Australia — these are global systems needing global solutions as well as local solutions.

The questions I have are these…

  • Do I lower my expectation from 20% to 10% or 5% and make things even more simple than I do at the moment?
  • Do I stop writing 20 page reports which have the detail in them and a one-page summary, which is the 20% that people might read and reduce that 20% to a headline?
  • Do I keep plugging away with the 20%, sometimes going to 60%+, and hope for the best?

It goes against the grain to capitulate and it’s not the smart play because detail is important in these matters. There is a lot of information and understanding needed to make good decisions around how we use the landscape, how carbon is managed, how nutrients are managed, how we appropriate net primary production.

So I suspect that I must kick on with the conflict still in my head. Just keep trying.

And we need more people to try. More people to be educated around these matters and be able to communicate that information to others who might not have had the opportunity to learn about it.

More importantly, I encourage you to not shy away from the information and the understanding even if you don’t work in the environment or deal with where our food comes from, you still consume food, you have a diet and what you choose to put into your body is important for not only your own health, but also how we manage resource product resources natural capital use and food production into the future.

I struggle with the stress of trying to be able to make this connection to people over topics that they do not readily understand. And one day I’ll retire and stop doing it.

But for the moment I still keep the fire burning and encourage people to understand more about the world around them, it is after all in their interests and the interests of their great grandchildren.


Help me keep it all going by sharing with anyone you think might be interested

The hinge of history

The hinge of history

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

There is no doubt that it is a troublesome time in history.

Close to 8 billion people are feeling it. There is the everyday chase to stay ahead, troubling politics, and a pandemic that requires some draconian measures just to keep it in check. Most of what we thought we knew about the word has changed.

This level of disruption to so many people all at once is not that common in history. Some have called it a ‘hingey’ moment, even that we may be living through the most influential period of time ever.

It is an easy argument that we live in an especially perilous time for ourselves and what we are doing to the planet.

“Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this century is special: it’s the first when one species – ours – has the planet’s future in its hands.”

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

There are plenty of ways we could do this from pollution to nuclear armageddon and we are already well on the way with our conversion of the landscape for agriculture and emissions to the atmosphere. Then we might engineer killer pathogens or malevolent AI.

But it is fine, the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which is a global ban on developing bio-weapons like a super-coronavirus, has a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s restaurant. And collectively the world spends more on ice cream than we do on preventing technologies that could end everything about our way of life.

Pretty hingey if you ask me.

But none of these is the reason for the pivot point.

That’s much more about population. Only this graphic suggests otherwise with the brave prediction that are trillions of humans yet to come.

Unfortunately, this infographic is horribly wrong.

It is true that should humanity get through the next century there is a chance that we will persist to the average lifespan of a mammalian species or at least make it for another 50,000 years. So the timeframe is fine.

What is incorrect is the assumption that we would get there under our current population growth rate. That is not what will happen.

Populations eventually collapse when they overexploit their resource base. The immediate projection is that the 7.7 billion growing to perhaps 11 billion over the next 30 years will need food. The UN expects that current agricultural production will need to increase by 2% per annum for those 30 years. This is equivalent to a second agricultural revolution; no small ask.

If we meet this demand, and it will get very ugly if we don’t, then all the nutrients in that food must either be perfectly recycled or mined from the asteroid belt because otherwise there is simply not enough plant-available nutrients on the planet to support all those people as they trickle through.

There may be compelling arguments for thinking we live in an unusually hingey moment compared with other periods. But those thinking of the unborn generations would argue that if there are trillions yet to come, the potentially long, long future of civilisation that could lie ahead, the actual hinge of history is most likely yet to come.

No folks.

The hinge is now because we have to get through the demographic transition or more strictly we have to generate one. If the species is to survive then we have to eat for the remaining 700,000 years of expected mammal species existence.

We will do very well to make it from here.


Feel free to share with your friends, neighbours, and your grandma who no doubt would have something to say on the matter of our future…

What to do when values conflict

What to do when values conflict

I was always told that it is a good thing to understand values. My Aunty Eva always said identify them, get to know them, and then live by them. Not in as many words for she was was a spinster brought up in the 1930’s but she had the look that got the message across loud and clear. She wasn’t my relative, just a wonderful woman who looked after me a lot when I was growing up. I loved her to bits.

The question recently came up as to how far a values approach to life should go.

As everybody now knows the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted across the entire planet. Millions of people are infected and hundreds of thousands of people have died. The search for vaccines and treatments is fast-tracked with over 150 different laboratories trying their hardest to be the first.

Given that we could develop technologies that could prevent deaths and reduce the suffering of people who contract the virus, vaccines and treatments seem like a no brainer. No matter there is a commercial imperative, this search for some herd immunity and treatment feels like a moral obligation.

Recently. I was astonished to learn that various religious leaders in Australia had written to the prime minister saying that, according to their values, development of vaccines using stem cells from aborted fetuses was immoral and should not be allowed. The government should step in and put a stop to this type of search for a vaccine.

This sets up an extraordinary situation where a particular moral value goes counter to another moral value held by exactly the same person.

Let’s test this one a bit.

Presumably, the forthright religious individual would attempt to stop a man with a gun shooting another man or if there was a brawl attempt to separate the pugilists. And yet they would also stand in front of a woman who had been raped and prevent her from entering an abortion clinic.

The same moral dilemma faced them with vaccines that use stem cells and they went with the death of many over the past death of one unborn child.

It seemed not to matter that the stem cells in use for vaccine development comes from a stable cell line harvested from a single foetus in 1973.

My first instinct was outrage at the hypocrisy. And as one of the scientists working on vaccines said, “the Archbishop is entitled to his opinion and we are entitled to ignore it”. And so I guess that was an option too, everyone has the right to express their values and I have the right to accept them or ignore them.

But then I thought what is my value on this?

Does the death of one person, even though that person was never born. Does the death of that person justify the saving of other people’s lives? This is a classic philosophical conundrum debated many times over in first-year philosophy class. And the reason it’s debated is that there is no single answer only one that works for each person presented with the dilemma.

In this instance, for me at least, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a foetus that did not make it to term and so was never born.

These days I am often forced into reflections over the many such hypocrisies and conundrums that exist in modern society. In most of them, the values are obscured or obfuscated by the context or the hysteria of the message.

The first task is to find what the core values are before any decision is reached on what I think about them.

What was the value that the religious leaders were asking the PM to promote? The right to life?

Presumably, the relatives of the 6,037 people who died from the COVID-19 virus on 18th September 2020 would want them to promote that value with all their fervour. My Christian friends certainly did, they were incensed by the hypocrisy.

Making value judgements

The only defence the church has is that we are constantly being asked to make value judgments. When there is never a clear value proposition that would suit everybody we are asked to side; to choose a value that we support.

Somehow we have to get over this problem and allow other people’s values to be held as strongly as our own. And reach a compromise in all areas.

Recently the gunman responsible for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand in 2019 was sentenced to the harshest punishment under New Zealand law.

The responses of the people who had lost loved ones in that massacre were remarkable. They expressed a full range of emotions from anger and indignation, to empathy and forgiveness. The important thing was that responses were not delivered by one person but by many different people each expressing their feelings with the unfiltered truth. It was powerful.

There were many values abused by that heinous act.

In the courtroom, all the responses were heard because there was at least one common value breached, the right to life. Nobody questioned the responses because everyone knew that this was a value held close by all.

There was no need to question, there was only room for empathy.

From the point of view of healthy thinking, it helps to know how hard we hold our values to our principles and how often we are hypocrisy personified ourselves. There’s no value in holding on to a principle if you disengage with it yourself at the earliest opportunity.

So let’s take a lesson from those grieving families and have a little bit of balance in these things. Let’s try and see the bigger picture and the broader benefit even as we give in to our own emotional response.

That’s very hard to do but it’s essential in a world of eight billion souls.


If you like these ideas for healthy thinking please share, you never know what it might do.

Why so few experiments in the real world?

…very few studies were judged to be attempts at a controlled experiment where livestock numbers or systems were intentionally manipulated, and even many of these lacked elements such as adequate replication.

Schieltz, J. M., & Rubenstein, D. I. (2016). Evidence based review: positive versus negative effects of livestock grazing on wildlife. What do we really know?. Environmental Research Letters, 11(11), 113003.

This is a ubiquitous lament.

In our exploitation of natural resources, including soil, we rarely use the scientific method, at least in its pure controlled experiment form. This means that robust evidence of the sort that can be accepted readily, even when it conflicts with values that different people hold, is limited in its extent and applicability.

This means we are short on inference.

Most environmental issues lack experimental evidence from a robust applicat­ion of the scientific method and easily become contentious.

The example above is from a review summarizing evidence on the effects of livestock grazing on wildlife.

Here is another one referring to the control of vertebrate pests – principally wild dogs, pigs, goats, rabbits, camels and deer – in Australian agricultural landscapes…

We review the design of 1,915 pest control actions conducted with the aim of protecting native biodiversity in Australia during 1990–2003. Most (67.5%) pest control actions consisted of a single treatment area without monitoring of either the pest or biodiversity. Only 2.4% of pest control actions had one or more treatment and non-treatment areas, and very few treatment and non-treatment areas (0.3%) were randomly assigned. Replication of treatment and non-treatment areas occurred in only 1.0% of pest control actions.

Reddiex, B., & Forsyth, D. M. (2007). Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge. Wildlife Research, 33(8), 711-717.

That is nearly 2,000 pest control actions — pest control activities conducted in a control operation such as poison baits to control wild dogs, not the termites in the basement form of pests — where virtually no evidence is available to decide how effective the actions were to either control the pest or mitigate the disturbances the pest induces.

This is not good.

There is no way of knowing if the control method worked so no way of knowing if it was worth the money or the effort or if we should stop or keep going. The only information to make these important financial and resourcing decisions is anecdotal. Maybe we saw fewer wild dogs this season, maybe not.

When it comes to real-world practicalities, we don’t use the scientific method.

Why is this?

The scientific method is tried and tested. It has given us most of our technology and understanding of nature so it seems odd that we don’t follow it in coming to terms with using nature for maximum value whatever that value might be.

It is especially important when the objective is to balance competing values such as production and conservation, utility and persistence. It is even more important to know the details when the prime value is an emotional one, such as not wanting to wake up and find two calves in the paddock that died a painful death from bites.

Here are three reasons why science in the environment is hard…

  • Replication is a challenge
  • Manipulation is difficult to achieve
  • Controls are hard to find

These are the technical difficulties of using the scientific method on hills and fields and countryside dotted with woodland remnants and craggy moorland.

It is very hard to replicate, manipulate and control any of the critical variables.

These are the fundamentals of the scientific method in its deductive form. Here is what the method looks like

The most important step is the experiment.

This is where one critical variable, let’s say the number of wild dogs, is changed from what it is normally to more or less or both in a series of treatments and the consequences are recorded through measurement variables, let’s say number of lambs lost.

The significance of any change in the measurement variable in the treatments is compared with what happens in the controls where nothing is changed, in this example the dog numbers are left alone.

Logical and simple enough in theory.

In practice, there are many specific challenges.

What should the replicate be in this case? Is it a field, a farm or a district. It clearly cannot be a test tube or a pot in a greenhouse or a plot marked out in a flat field on an agricultural research station.

If we choose fields as the replicates how can we make them the same? Not really possible even if we knew precisely the behaviour of wild dogs and how many there were in each district so as to determine how many times they would visit the fields. The same number of times if the fields are to be realistic replicates.

Always the replicates will be a little different to each other. Nothing like 100ml test tubes. Then they are not true replicates at all.

The solution is to have many replicates after first deciding from an understanding of the ecology of wild dogs how they use a landscape and so what size the unit of replication should be.

Let’s say we settle on fields of between 5 and 10 hectares in size where sheep graze for at least 100 days per year at similar stocking rates and where lambs are raised.

The fields must have at least one other field between them and yet must also be in the same district.

The real problem is that we need plenty of replicates. Three or four is nowhere near enough to bound the natural variation in the treatment and measurement variables. More like forty replicates of each is needed. This is unlikely to be possible due to logistics and cost, even assuming there is a district with enough fields that meet the criteria.

There will also need to be plenty of controls and unlike in a traditional experiment with, let’s say, fertilizer application, the control will have to be in a district where the wild dogs are not controlled. This means they are not strictly formal controls.

Then only one treatment is realistic, reduction in wild dog numbers. Not too many farmers would be up for a treatment where dog numbers are increased.

Not surprising then that

Only 2.4% of pest control actions had one or more treatment and non-treatment areas, and very few treatment and non-treatment areas (0.3%) were randomly assigned.

The first glance at the statistics sends you to a criticism of the wildlife ecologists and pest managers for not using the scientific method and delivering robust evidence.

The reality is that the method is very difficult to implement. And that fundamental challenge is not the fault of the pest managers or the wildlife biologists.

An alternative form of the scientific method

It should be possible to complete some before-after-control-impact studies, sometimes called BACI analyses.

The idea here is to compare levels of both the treatment and the measurement variable before and after an intervention such as a baiting program in the wild dog example.

There are formal statistical procedures to interpret data of this kind and as long as there are sufficient instances of the comparison some robust evidence can be gathered. Not as rigorous as formal experiments but close enough given the constraints of the real world.

This approach takes time and coordination but it can be done, even retrospectively from standard observations and reports of dog sightings and livestock losses.

The science purists will tell you that inference is weak without formal experiments. This is true.

But for this type of expensive interventions even weak inference can help decisions on the necessity or scale of the control programs.

Why so few experiments?

There are few experiments on the use of natural resources because they are hard, sometimes impossible, and always challenging to design and deliver.

Few institutions have the funds to take them on given the levels of replications and the logistics involved.

Few scientists have the time to wait for the results. It is a career limiting step to wait a decade for your experimental results when publishing at least three peer-reviewed papers a year is essential.

Few scientists have the smarts to design experiments on this scale without resorting to pseudoreplication or other shortcuts.

The value sets that the experiments explore are so strongly held that they are hard to shift even if the inference is definitive.

What is the solution?

Be pragmatic about all of this.

Make sure that there is at least some information and apply the various rules to determine how useful it is to the questions at hand.

Help people to see that there is likely an emotional response at the root of their opinions and whilst this is legitimate it will make for tougher than necessary compromises.

Use big data. There is a new source of information that is a combination of remotely sensed data, artificial intelligence algorithms that can see complex patterns and modelling particularly the modeling of ecological processes that can make the inference much stronger than before.

We are much better off than we think when it comes to environmental information.

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What makes a genius and do we need some

genius
noun
1. exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
2. an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity.

Do we need some geniuses or is it genii?

The definition of genius as ‘exceptional’ is a place to start.

Of course, we all have a little bit of above average in us, that is a rule of nature when it comes to human beings. There are no below-average drivers, photographers or singers in the world. Anything a person spends time on will automatically make them better than the norm. So says our ego.

When it comes to genius we maybe need a little more objectivity; to know what we mean by an exceptional intellect, creativity or intelligence.

What level or amount of these qualities and attributes do we say is necessary before the holder is exceptional or out of the ordinary?

It could cover the one in twenty occurrences of an intelligent person, or perhaps the one in a hundred, or one in a thousand individuals. These are the standard probability levels for statistical significance, the P-values that did your head in at school.

Let’s just for the sake of discussion say that genius-level starts at one in 1,000 individuals, that is P<0.001

This would make the genius uncommon, not so frequent as to be among the passengers on a crowded bus, although a commuter train has one or two of them, on average, assuming you are not getting off at the convention centre the week of the National High-IQ Convention.

One person in a thousand is a genius.

The normal distribution

There is research that suggests that intelligence is normally distributed.

That would mean that most of us are around average intelligence and the smarter folks become fewer in frequency as the level of smarts increases. Same for the ‘not so clever’ in the other direction on the variable of smartness.

Here is the normal distribution, the classic ‘bell-shaped’ curve.

This pattern means that of the 50 people on the bus, we can expect 34 of them to be within one standard deviation of the mean (average) intelligence however that might be measured, IQ-score for example.

Only 2 of the passengers would be at the tails of the distribution being either smarter or a little short of a picnic. These are the folk that are better or worse than 2 standard deviations of the mean. The standard deviation being a measure of the spread of the distribution, in this case of intelligence.

Go as far as three standard deviations from the mean and just three people in 1,000 will be really smart or really dumb — 0.28% of the distribution.

That’s close enough to 1 in a 1,000 for our genius estimation.

Alright, so not very many.

This calculation applies to the normal distribution whatever the measurement and whatever the actual mean and variance parameters for the sample. They are a property of the distribution and not the data. Whatever the measurement in a thousand observations just 3 observations would be expected by chance to be greater than and less than the mean plus three standard deviations and the mean minus three standard deviations.

How many geniuses in Australia?

Let’s assume that the normal distribution of intelligence holds for such an eclectic population as that in Australia and the 0.14% is what we are looking for as those in the above-average tail of the distribution.

Given the adult population is roughly 20 million in 2020, then there are around 29,000 adult geniuses in the country over the age of 20 and another 6,700 young geniuses learning and growing into adulthood.

Roughly 35,000 in total.

This should be enough to have a genius or two in the higher echelons of each major walk of life.

Or is it?

As of June 30 2019, there were 2,375,753 actively trading businesses in the Australian economy. This means one genius for every 67 businesses.

Not all of these businesses employed people, indeed there were 4,271 businesses with more than 3,200 employees, so they could at least get a genius each.

It would be good to have a genius on staff at each high school (9,393) and maybe a couple at each university (43) or perhaps each faculty (250+).

Then we need some in government departments (200+), hospitals (1,350) and even a few in the military where there are 58,650 active personnel and 21,700 reservists, so a couple of hundred there at least.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

After a few of these needs are met, the 35,000 begins to get allocated pretty quickly. And if we do use them all up then there are allocations and distribution issues to consider. What sectors should get their full genius allocation?

Do we need any more geniuses?

Australia has plenty of genius-level capacity.

There should be enough smarts to figure out solutions to our problems among the 35,000 plus people who are more than 3 standard deviations above average intelligence.

There is a problem of where they are, who they work for and who listens to them. It also assumes that being a genius will be enough to solve problems and that may not always be true.

Then there is another statistical problem.

Suppose that the average intelligence, 𝞵 = 100

While the average person scores 100 on the intelligence test what the genius will score depends on the variability in test scores, 𝝈

If the variability is high ( 𝝈 = 15) a genius might need a score of over 140 to get into that upper 0.14% of the population. If the variability is lower ( 𝝈 = 5) then a genius need only score over 115 on the test.

The number of geniuses stays the same, scores differ.

If a specific level of genius score is required of a true genius, say 150, and the variability in intelligence in the population is low, then very few geniuses would be present in the population.

A score of 125 is 5 standard deviations above the mean. On average there would be one person scoring 125 in every 3.58 million in the population.

If this were the new genius level there are only 100 in the country.

This really is a problem.

Definitely not enough genii to go around.

Perhaps we should gather these elite individuals together, a bit like we do for sports, put them in a convivial environment and add some folk with a modicum of common sense and management nouse. The set them some of the real problems society has to face.

Worth a try?

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