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.

Dust storm over Sydney

Dust storm over Sydney

When the wind blows hard from the south-west it can get murky in Sydney. Dust is picked off paddocks across the vast inland and carried way away from where it belongs fouling the air for Sydneysiders as it goes.

The wind was blowing this week when I went to visit colleagues in Mildura, an outback town in northern Victoria right on the border with NSW. The countryside around the town donated at least some of the dust that reached Sydney. I saw it happen.

Bare soil frisked up and spat skyward at the corners of paddocks is quite a sight. Immediately you say, “Good on ya, Mildura. Giving it up for Australia” without any hint of sarcasm. At least that’s what the Qantas lady at the information desk said when she found out I had just visited her hometown. She really thought it was a good thing even as the wind and dust played havoc with her companies flight schedule.

How can this be?

A schoolkid should know that topsoil blowing up into the sky is not a good thing at all. It is expense and potential for production leaving the land for the ocean contaminating the air as it goes. The farmer is in despair. He just spent a fortune on fertilizer and a lot of that nutrient left too.

It is dry in the outback just now, with drought conditions declared for most of NSW. Without rain, it is hard to keep the ground cover that holds onto the soil unless the farmer plans well in advance and takes care to choose the right cover crop and grazing regime. The blanket over the soil needs to roll out early, otherwise production declines and with it income. It is a perennial problem in drought-affected areas.

What would it take for the Qantas staffer to instinctively say “Oh no, that’s not good. Those poor farmers”?

Or better still, “Oh no, that’s not good. Why can’t the farmers put on a cover crop”?

This should be everyone’s immediate response.

Whilst topsoil careering off into the Tasman Sea is a natural process of erosion that has whittled Australia down for millions of years, it hampers the production of crops and livestock. Speeding upwind erosion by leaving fields bare just makes it worse.

And so one of this year’s great ironies rounds off this conundrum. On the flight, the cabin crew member announces that Qantas will match all donations up to $1 million for drought affected farmers.

Perhaps they could spend some of the funds on an awareness program.

Species

Species

…the fact that ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover, and that consequently some species will not only fluctuate markedly but also become either locally or globally extinct, is something that, while well appreciated by ecologists generally, is often omitted from popular news stories. 

Mugurran et al 2010

By research paper standards this is an accessible quote. You may only need to read it a couple of times to get the gist. It means what it says.

Everything in nature changes and species disappear from both the backyard and from the planet.

Ask any ecologist who has more than a few minutes of fieldwork on their resume if they agree with this premise and they will say yes. There is change over time. They would concede that if you stare at a patch of nature long enough, it will start to move. Organisms will come and go, sometimes never to return, their place taken by an equivalent.

In my own garden that backs onto eucalyptus forest in the Blue Mountains of NSW I have seen this happen with the seasons as the grass stops growing in winter, during drought when even the trees droop, and also through the decade we have lived in the house.

When we moved in the garden was blessed with tree creepers, fairy wrens and wagtails. There were regular visits by resplendent satin bower birds and even occasionally a lyre bird or two. I have stared at a frogmouth in its daytime roost and had glossy black cockatoos drop casuarina cones on my head. Delightful.

Then, three years ago the noisy miners arrived. An especially aggressive social breeder that with brazen behaviour worthy of a panzer corps will chase all the other species away. Only the big beaked cockatoos and the butcher bird are unmoved.

None of the aforementioned chorus are extinct but they are not longer in my garden.

More recently some new neighbors moved in next door. They have a nervous pointer and a black labrador with a limp. The swamp wallaby no longer hops up from the creek to pick at our herb garden.

There are several important things in this simple everywhere reality of ecological change.

The first is change itself.

Nothing in nature has ever been or ever will be stable. It is not how nature works. At times the dynamic is subtle and hard to see with human perception of time and space. Typically though we can see, smell or hear it. All it takes is a little patience and some observation.

If a human who might live three score years and ten can perceive this change with just a little patient observation, then…

the second important thing is that change is fast.

Incredibly fast on an evolutionary or geological time scale. Happenings that take decades are the blink of an eye equivalent for a planet that is billions of years old.

Such rapidity means that the idyllic lilly pond with the weeping willow tickling the water will not be there in a thousand years or so. Sedimentation and succession will make dryland of it unless there are humans with the spare time to occasionally dig it out.

This is the third important reality, stability requires inputs.

The main reason that nature is so dynamic is due to entropy, more strictly, the constant struggle organisms must undertake to counteract it. It takes an enormous effort to keep things the same. Energy must be pumped in to prevent chaos.

Humans have, of course, become true masters of this use of energy to counter entropy. We have figured out where to find and use external fuel sources to change the world to suit ourselves. It’s our superpower. But it has also duped us into believing that we can keep things the same, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We even think we can save species from local or real extinction.

This is the fourth of the important things, the often crazy notion that we can save species from ourselves, the most severe new driver of ecological change in aeons.

Change as the norm is “omitted from popular news stories” because the acknowledgement not only questions our god-like ability to rule the planet, it would mean admitting our role in the acceleration of change.

After all, the noisy miner spread with the suburb.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

It is a short time into the future, nowhere near an aeon. Against all likelihoods, Homo sapiens did not join the hundreds of thousands of species that have crossed the extinction finish line because miraculously there was a meme that spread through the social fabric of every nation on the planet faster than pictures of Harry and Meghan.

The meme said, “ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover”.

The miracle of course was twofold. People not only understood this gibberish but they extended it to the practicalities of the real world.

Everyone recognised change everywhere and embraced it. They let species move around, leaving some places and moving into others. They saw vegetation as fluid not as a vase on a shelf, still but fragile.They realised that there were some species that would go extinct and that if a particularly cute one was popular enough to save, then this was going to need effort specific to that species. It was a choice.

And they saw the whole landscape, all at once, despite its altered state, and they focused on what that landscape could do, not what was in it.

It was truly remarkable.

It even made the news.

Meat

Meat

“Less Meat Less Heat (LMLH) is a grassroots, non-profit organisation dedicated to shifting societal attitudes towards meat consumption and as such curtailing agriculture’s damaging influence on the global climate. Our work encompasses educating the public through sound science about the massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb. Through helping individuals transition to low-carbon eating habits we aim to leverage the power of individual action as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.

From the home page of Less Meat Less Heat website

Cows belch often.

They are ruminants, mammals that enlist microbes to ferment plants they ingest in a specialised stomach prior to digestion. This symbiosis means they able to exist on a diet high in cellulose, a key constituent of grass.

Only it also means that cows belch a lot. The bacteria that assist the cow to digest cellulose include methanogens that produce methane as a metabolic byproduct. This gas builds up and has to be let out. It’s similar for us only we tend to fart more than belch.

The problem for the climate change conundrum is that methane is a greenhouse gas over 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And methane is what ruminants burp.

An average dairy cow puts out around 100 kg of methane each year. Depending on how you calculate it, this is roughly equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from a car. Beef cattle belch a little less so it takes two to match up to a car. The global numbers are interesting though. There are a little over 1 billion cars on earth and somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 billion cows.

As far as the greenhouse gas balance goes, human consumption of meat and dairy products is roughly equivalent to the impact from our cars.

Note that this is without counting emissions from the clearing of woody vegetation to find or grow enough grass for the livestock.

Methane from ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) makes up over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and up to 14% of all global emissions.

This is a big deal.

So much so that some people, such as those responsible for the quote above, are adamant that meat from cows and sheep is an environmental disaster. Only there is a significant reason why agriculture is often left out of any national carbon accounting even though it is the source of a third of global emissions.

People have to eat.

In the next hour as souls depart and new ones join the human diaspora there will be a change. In an hours time, there will be at least 9,700 more souls on the planet than we have right now. Funerals and births are not yet in balance.

Assuming that these souls are nourished around 500ha of productive land will be needed to grow enough calories for their daily needs.

A year from now when 83 million new souls have joined, the planet has to give up 4.6 million ha of productive land to feed them.

This crude calculation makes some simple assumptions. Calorie intake is 20% more than is needed to avoid starvation but half that consumed by the average US citizen. Calories come from growing wheat, and not from animal products. All else is equal, so the 7.5 billion souls already here are being fed and watered too.

Having meandered away to the big picture reality, let’s look again at the “massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb” and “low-carbon eating habits… as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.”

If we all grew dreadlocks and avoided meat, then the calorific conversion from land to the plate would be improved. No need for the respiration of animals burning the calories before we got at them. And no need for their nasty methane emissions.

But we still need 2,500 calories per person per day.

If all this energy came from plant products, agriculture was near perfect efficiency and all else was equal, the 7.5 billion souls need a little over 4 million km2 of productive land to generate enough vegetarian calories.

There are roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth, so we should be fine. Plus there are ever more sophisticated technologies that can intensify food production to deliver greater yield from smaller areas. Hydroponics is a fine example.

So in theory at least there is enough land to feed perhaps 9 or even 11 billion souls. No worries and no fuss.

And as ‘less meat, less heat’ proclaim, without meat, we can mitigate the threat of climate change.

If only it were that simple.

Opposites

Opposites

I am fortunate enough to live in one of the world’s great modern cities, Sydney, Australia.

There is every amenity you could ever need, a true diaspora of food and culture, and as cities go, Sydney is stunningly beautiful. It is even trying its best to gather up some history. Visitors pile in from all around the world and they love it.

The day before the Vivid festival of light and delight, it was date night. I went with my wife – shame on you to think otherwise – to the theatre. We were both left open-mouthed at Still Point Turning, a beautifully written bio-play of courage and fragility performed with great skill and compassion. It was fantastic. Even if you can’t get to see a production, read the play. It will be worth the effort.

On the way, we stopped for dinner at our newly crowned ‘best Italian eatery’ and blew our wheat quota on proper pizza. Yum.

Walking to the theatre, a gas-powered bus pulled up at the kerb, beeped and announced that “the mobility ramp is in use”. An array of respectful youngsters waited their turn before moving off into the night.

It was easy to feel blessed. Almost pinch-worthy just to be sure it was not all a delightful dream.

The next morning I had a meeting in the city and tuned into the ABC morning radio en route to the train station. The NSW state opposition leader Luke Foley was crapping on about the need for infrastructure for refugees. I use this term because he was having a whinge, using a minority to make his point and by doing so crossing the line into racism. He sounded like a total tool and it was shameful.

I turned off the radio.

As I write this post on the train that is comfortable and running on time, reflecting on delight and disgust, it seems that no matter how much good there is and how much of it there is too take in with all your senses buzzing, there has to be the opposite.

There will be someone, sometimes myself, finding as much bad stuff as is humanly possible. It is the human condition.

My advice is to drown in the good stuff when you feel it.

Let the warm feelings seep deep into your bones and let them glue themselves into the matrix of your being so that when the morning comes and reality brings the opposite to attack you, there is a defence, a barrier that you can retreat behind and smile.

Then do the right thing and don’t vote tools into office.

POTUS

POTUS

The POTUS has continued to distribute his unique brand of international relations around the world, including a summit with Vladimir Putin. In that meeting he chose to be conciliatory and ignore recent excesses by the Russians, even to the point of publicly accepting the ‘it wasn’t us’ excuse.

This is not what Americans do. They are bold, brash and brave. They bully their way to the moral high ground and hold it with god by their side. They don’t acquiesce for that smacks of weakness.

In saying what he did when questioned during the summit, Trump poked a fair few commentators, for example

“You can love Trump, you can be thrilled he vanquished Hillary, you can be right that Obama’s foreign policy was clownish, but call it here: this was atrocious and no American president should ever behave this way.” Karol Markowicz, New York Post columnist

There is a growing consensus across the land tonight … that the president threw the United States under the bus” John Roberts, Fox News White House correspondent.

European allies are uneasy. US-Russia relations are uncertain. And the US political world – and even the White House’s own communications team – is unsettled. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This could go any number of ways from here.

First, Trump is nothing if not consistent. He always does what the mainstream least expect so as not to appear mainstream to his support base. He also goes far enough so that even the least perceptive among his followers believes he’s different and doing it all for them. No coincidence that this style also soothes Trump’s own immediate and end game aches — he will leave office far wealthier than when he arrived and his post-presidency earnings will be staggering. On this route expect more of the same. An indelicate parade of gaffs designed to upset convention.

Second, Trump could go a step too far. An action or the combined weight of actions could see his base upset enough to rejoin the mainstream incredulity. Except he has been pretty extreme so far and no one comment or behaviour has even dented his armour plated followers. So, short of committing a felony on live TV, any one action is unlikely to change much. The weight of actions could be a problem if the actions were cumulative but, perhaps by design, they are dispersed across any number of issues and, whilst they all smell a bit off, the nose is an accommodating customer. New smells become familiar ones pretty quickly. A step too far is always possible and yet ,in this age of the instant, it might have to be a stride before the POTUS is irreparable.

Third, a felony is actually called. Be that from a murky past, electioneering or something yet done, if Trump is actually indicted it might undo him. Only might, because the evidence will have to be so solid, clean and fresh as a daisy in a summer field. Anything less will not stick to teflon. Why else is the ‘fake news’ ploy played so keenly. Few of that famous support base would believe anything said or written or even judged in court if it went against their core. It would be fake. And this is the truly clever play that was hard to do in the past. Spreading disinformation meant paying off journalists or dropping leaflets from airplanes or buying media companies. It was costly, risky and did not always work. Now all you need is a tweet. ‘Fake news’ is a the ultimate risk mitigation that will be played right to the end.

Fourth, a political renaissance happens in the US bringing a surge of interest in scholarship and values. Yeah, exactly. This is the least likely way things will go, akin to claiming an intercession from the virgin Mary.

Blessed be the fruit.

So what will happen?

Alloporus suspects that the limit is far away in the distance. A two term POTUS delivering an increasingly isolated and insular country that will, ironically perhaps, be more stable than in its expansionist past, is more likely than not. It will take much fake news, many intentional and unintentional blunders, and some heavy covering up to get there but the path is clear enough.

Welcome to the atrocious bus.

Average CEO salary

Average CEO salary

Here is a startling average CEO salary info graphic from the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors reported in a recent ABC post on CEO pay deals reaching their highest level in 17 years

That’s 11 blokes, and they are all blokes, paid $187 million between them.

An average CEO salary on the list might make the recipient declare $327,000 per week to the tax man.

As is usual on this blog, we’ll try and put these incomprehensible sums of money into context.

A delivery driver for Dominos starts at $15 per hour and might earn as little as $200 per week. That $187 million is roughly 6,309 person years worth of time for money at delivery driver rates working a 38 hour week.

Is the CEO worth the time of 631 people at the bottom end of the staffing pyramid?

A CEO would argue his case with vigor. Decisions, risk, and responsibility are all his and he’ll claim that this comes with an unfair level of stress. Indeed the jobs of all the workers depend on his calls that keep the company stable and trading profitably.

The delivery boy just has to get the pizza to the customer before it goes cold.

Disparity between those making decisions and those following them is nothing new. Throughout history leaders of all hues were in privileged positions that came through the support of their followers. People like being led and they are usually quite grateful for it.

If the leader takes people where they want to go, in the case of Domino’s Pizza Enterprises this was to a 7% profit increase despite lower than expected sales and a 9% loss in the share price, then they are happy and perhaps overlook what that direction might cost. More importantly they might not consider if the cost was worth it or even fair.

Then, of course, it’s a question of who is being led toward happiness. Not that many presumably given that the whole thing is legally designed to generate profit for shareholders who chomp on the profit dividends.

I suspect that average CEO salary will start to smell pretty soon. The majority of people are not led by ASX200 CEOs and they don’t understand why such remuneration levels exist. Indeed, I would be asking questions if I were a shareholder in any of these enterprises. Ironically I probably am without knowing it through the aforementioned superannuation investors.

At some point though, the majority will start to say enough is enough. There was an inkling of this with the Occupy Wall Street movement against wealth inequality, corruption and the influence of corporations on government. Not least the propping up of companies with public funds only for these companies to give bonuses to their executives.

And then that effort faded.

It will surely come again.

And anyway, what’s so special about pizza? What makes Mr Meij worth 33% more than the next highest earning CEO?

Maybe it’s the healthier, tastier menu.