The biggest global challenges revisited

The biggest global challenges revisited

I am an ecologist of the academic kind so this typical list of the significant challenges facing humanity makes perfect sense to me

  • global biodiversity loss
  • anthropogenic pollution and associated climate change
  • land allocation
  • energy generation
  • growing global human population

Here are some similar lists from the United Nations, the Millenium Project and the World Economic Forum.

The usual suspects crop up that are mostly about loss and degradation from resource use by an ever increasing human population.

What is interesting though is how this type of list often conflates cause and effect. In the one above most of the biodiversity loss is a result of past land allocation (most people call it land clearing) itself driven by demand for food and space from a rapidly growing human population.

If we stopped population growth there will be lags before any tangible change in the consequences. There is also the small matter of resourcing the current population. So the challenges will not resolve simply by removing the driver. This is also true for many conservation issues too.

Somewhat ironically the most effective way to slow population growth is through wealth creation. When parents can see a future for their children they have fewer of them. This involves worsening the problem in order to fix it; always a risky proposition.

I propose a new list of biggest global challenges and here it is

  • raising awareness

That’s it, a list of one and only one item. If we raised awareness of self and of situation for everyone there is a good chance that the human race could persist alongside a functional environment indefinitely.

The issues on the usual list would persist for a while, but with everyone aware of them, creative solutions would be found. The reason is that awareness comes from a loss of ego. It makes most people far less concerned about themselves. They feel good from the greater good. Weird, but true.

What I really like about this list is not brevity, although that is a handy property, it’s that awareness is the solution to the fundamental producer of global challenges. The human psyche.

Awareness messes with our values, beliefs, prejudices and any number of other emotional and logical thought consequences of our brains. It challenges us to be more than slaves to ego.

This makes it a huge challenge. It dwarfs any of those on the lists of biggest global challenges.

Because it is up to you.

High-speed commuting

High-speed commuting

Here is an interesting idea that uses a solution to one problem to solve another.

House prices in the major cities of Australia are pretty much out of reach for working families not already in the market. Just to keep the roof over the kid’s bedroom is costing well over 50% of the family income for renters or buyers.

The latest solution to housing affordability is a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne financed predominantly from private capital.

Come again.

Well, the idea is that very fast transport links, such as covering the 878 km between Melbourne and Sydney in an hour of travel, would allow people to work in the city and live in the countryside where, of course, housing is much cheaper.

And should they cough up the infrastructure funds, the private sector can cash in on the growth in land values all along the route to easily cover the return on investment.

Now I should point out that the current commute from Penrith, an outer west suburb of Sydney, to the Sydney CBD, a distance of 55 km, takes at least 50 minutes on the fast train. The notion of getting to Melbourne by rail in just a few more minutes is fanciful.

You don’t want to know how long it takes to get to Canberra by rail, a destination not even half way to Melbourne. Let’s just say you’ll need to take a book.

But there are fast trains in the world and they move people around very efficiently indeed, famously so in Japan and continental Europe. And the new technologies for rapid transport systems make the working options look like a horse and cart.

Infrastructure at this scale does cost a lot of money. But there is also a lot of capital about looking for a return. So you can see why the idea emerges.

Except that it is crazily dumb.

The reason housing is so expensive is the concentration of wealth. The high paying jobs are in town and so people want to be in town. They pay rent (or a mortgage) for being close to work and this retains wealth in the city that stays in the hands of a relative few. Don’t forget the bank owns your house until the mortgage is paid off.

What would be better is if the jobs were more evenly distributed, then the people would happily move to the jobs. Demand in cities would slow and so would prices.

So instead of commuter trains, what about a high-speed rural train network designed to move produce rather than people. Give the aquaponics entrepreneur in Albury the ability to sell produce to the Sydney market where there are plenty of people still occupying the existing housing stock.

This would also get around the problem of an agricultural production system currently capital saturated. Farm business debt-equity ratios and production growth potential are maxed out under current practices. New production is needed to attract capital.

So rather than move the people to the capital why not move the capital to the people.

And this might even release some housing affordability pressure because capital has somewhere other than real estate to make a return.

Disillusioned with politics

Disillusioned with politics

Apparently, it’s not just supporters of the Donald and Pauline who are upset about the state of political leadership. The rich and influential are disillusioned with politics too.

And fair enough.

Lack of direction, courage and conviction eventually drains everyone’s resolve. We all need something or someone to look up to, compare against and even aspire to become. It is the psychological glue that keeps most religions from fading into extinction.

Australia has had a decade of hope, false starts, and farce from its federal politicians. When all leaders can do is badmouth each other for sucking up to those with real influence, then the last hope is lost.

The problem is what to do about it.

Electing in the opposition just means more of the same. It simply fuels the downward cycle. Frustrated US citizens squeaked Donald over the line and he will disrupt in ways unimagined. But little of it will be desirable, even for his supporters. At some point, that experiment will pass.

The rich and influential group mentioned earlier are up for a new democracy that involves random selection and deliberation – the jury model – as a central process rather than elected representatives. A kind of back to the ancient future.

There is merit in this. A jury reaches a decision based on evidence and the inference they draw from it. Logic, reasoned argument and debate come together into consensus solutions that should make decisions more trustworthy. They should, at least, be less affected by partisan or vested interest.

The problem is the quality of the inference. Can a citizens assembly or jury have enough capacity to sift the evidence supplied to them for complex decisions like the design of the national broadband network or defence procurement or health funding? It would be instructive to find out.

It cannot be any worse than the ministerial Merry-go-round.

The lilly pad puzzle

The lilly pad puzzle

Imagine a small pond that has clear blue water reflecting the summer sky.

In the centre of the pond are two Lilly pads, the emergent leaves of an aquatic plant, floating safely on the surface of the water, curled up edges keeping the surface of the leaf dry.

On one Lilly pad is a green frog.

The frog is hard to pick out on the green pad but a yellow stripe on its back gives it away.

Chance happens that a week later you pass by the same pond and stop to admire the scene. Sure enough, the frog is still there only you notice that there are now four Lilly pads; the number of leaves has doubled. In a week the frog has gained surface real estate.

A week later you happen to pass by the pond again and even before you spot the frog you see that there are now eight Lilly pads. These aquatic plants are quite prolific.

You have to go away for a while and forget the frog and his growing number of Lilly pads. A few months pass. Delighted to return home you saunter by the pond again. The first thing you see is that the pond is now mostly green as half of it is covered with Lilly pads and rather less of the blue sky is reflected in the water.

Sure enough the frog is still sitting proud in the middle.

The puzzle question is this.

How many more weeks until the pond is completely covered with Lilly pads and the frog can hop to shore without getting wet?

The Lilly pad puzzle answer is…

One week.

When the pond is half covered with Lilly pads and they are doubling every week, the pond will go from being half covered with Lilly pads to totally covered in just one week. It is the reality of doubling.

Two to four seems like nothing much. Four to eight is mostly trivial too. But when the number is large and the doubling time short, then it is a different thing.

3,500,000,000 is a large number.

It happens to be the number of people on earth in 1967 just 44 years ago. Since then the human population has doubled to 7,000,000,000 (7 billion).

Unlike the pond, we cannot make the Earth any bigger that it already is. So we must hope that should the population double again, there is space enough.

The cute animal postscript

Hans Rosling explains why the human population is unlikely to double again. There are demographics at play that will see family size decline as kids survive better in the poorer countries and most of the world passes through the demographic transition.

But 12 billion people is a distinct possibility.

Do you know what you want?

Do you know what you want?

A long time ago I was at a seminar by an upbeat American whose particular brand of snake oil was about how to get what you wanted in life. His specific pitch was creative visualisation.

Waved along by an expensive Italian suit he had people tell him exactly what they wanted in life. It was not enough to want a house with a picket fence. The deal, he said, is to know exactly where the house is, which suburb, street, and all the details right down to the shade of white paint and the distance between the rails on the fence out front.

Most of the people he asked to describe such detail did not have a clue. They had only a vague notion of what they wanted out of life.

Of course this worked like a charm for the charmer. “It’s all about visualisation you see.” He said, once again waving his arms. “If you can’t describe exactly the items you want you will never be able to get them.”

No surprise this has become a popular concept and not just because we are besotted with goods and chattels. Knowing what we want does motivate and guide our actions. Back in the day it got us out from the relative safety of the thicket onto the open plains where there was more risk but also success to be had, perhaps even a tasty warthog.

Today’s versions of warthog might be a new flat screen or the European coupe with the cute front grill and alloys, but the visualisation of things remains a strong motivator.

What do we want politically?

Wanting for things is easy but there is no reason it should not stretch to wanting a certain type of society with specific combinations of rights, freedoms, economic leanings and relationship to the past.

My hunch is that we don’t think of politics this way and have just as much trouble visualising what we want for society as imagining the most desirable garden border.

Clearly it is hard to see the radical-left or far right or Third Way as a tactile thing and so it is easy not to visualise our political stance at all. We don’t discover the detail of what our innate political leaning looks like in the smartphone world.

This is not about how you vote — the choice you must make among your countries versions of major party left or right or centre or even wether to pitch up to the voting booth. This is about what your leanings actually look like. How far apart are the rails on your radical-centre fence?

First you need to know how to place your innate political leanings. Where on the confusing spectrum of ideologies will you feel most comfortable?

Grab your smartphone and ask Google or Siri to search ‘political ideologies’ and click on the Wikipedia entry to see a very long list of the options. More simply you can follow these links to the main flavours

Left wing politics

Centrist politics

Right wing politics

Remember this is not about whether Wikipedia gets the ideological description correct, leave that never-ending argument to the political philosophers. Just pick the description that resonates.

In a jiffy you will have a description of the philosophies that align with feelings that always made you a staunch republican or so excited by Bernie Saunders vision of progression.

You will get to know what you feel about the tricky balance between personal and social responsibility — how much the government should interfere.

You’ll find yourself thinking about just how much capital should be allowed to flow and businesses encouraged with or without a social safety net. And, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was want to say, just how much of ‘a fair shake of the sauce bottle’ people should get.

You might even make sense of the Brexit decision and the new US president-elect although these events might be a stretch.

What you will find is that visualisation is hard.

Even if you land firmly in an established ideology that describes a political system with strong personal responsibility and a social safety net built on a free market economy [left-centre in case you were wondering]. What does that look like for policy on terror, boat people, exploitation of coal seam gas, or tax bracket creep?

So just like most of the people who had no idea that there were even shades of white in a picket fence, political visualisation is not for the lazy minded. It takes effort.

Only it is time to start making those mental images.

What do you want citizenship laws to look like? Should farmland be dotted with gas wells or modest pay rises tipping you across into the next tax bracket?

It is a very good time to do this because the shake up is upon us. The sauce bottles are out.

Just ask Donald.

If this is leadership, heaven help us

If this is leadership, heaven help us

At various times I have ranted about the politics of climate change in Australia

The climate change action thing

Climate change policy – does Australia need it?

The Kardashian Index

And I am not alone. Many are tearing out what remains of their hair.

So I thought I would bring to your attention the latest from the current direct action policy option in place in Australia. This is the policy setting that hopes to achieve emission reduction targets through the purchase of greenhouse gas abatement at auctions.

At the end of 2016 the vehicle for this, the Emission Reduction Fund, had paid for 177 million tCO2e of abatement purchased across four auctions at an average price of $12 per tCO2e.

Yes, you read it right. Close to $2 billion, that is $2,000,000,000 or roughly enough to pay the annual salary of 100 cabinet ministers for over 50 years, has been spent to purchase roughly the amount of abatement needed to meet the emission reduction target Australia presented in Paris… for one year.

Let’s make this clear. Emitters of carbon are not paying for this abatement, the taxpayer is.

Now you could be generous and say that the taxpayer is really the economy, so the economy is footing the bill, but that is a very long bow. Industries that were previously under the carbon price and reducing their emissions to save money are not anymore. Instead, various activities from other players in the economy are offered to reduce emissions or to capture carbon into vegetation and the CO2e tonnage presented for sale.

The concept of ‘polluter pays’ that has been so successful in a host of situations, from cleaning up rivers to closing the hole in ozone layer, is not in play here. Polluters carry on polluting as they merrily pass on the externality to the taxpayer.

This is neither good policy nor good governance.

There is no incentive to reduce emissions across the economy only an opportunity for a few to make a fast buck if they have access to some abatement.

At current prices, $2 billion will buy you 400 million tCO2e of offset credit on the international markets, nearly 2.5 times the local option. So not only does the policy fail to incentivise prudence, it pays way over the top for mitigation.

You cannot help think that a few people are laughing all the way to the bank.

One million people

One million people

Consider a city of roughly 1 million people, Adelaide, Australia for example — Calgary, Canada; Bonn, Germany; Tuscon Arizona; or Bristol in the UK would do equally well.

Adelaide has two Australian Football League teams, a pro soccer team, two professional basketball teams, three Universities, a cathedral, numerous hospitals, many shopping malls, around 440 schools, an International airport, and a zoo.

There are over 400 suburbs arranged around a CBD that has high-rise office blocks that provide a common destination for a metropolitan public transport system that includes a fleet of over 1,000 buses.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, Artisans and actors; and enough skilled tradesmen to build or engineer almost anything.

In short, Adelaide is a self-contained community surrounded by enough farmland to feed everyone.

If it were possible to gather all the people who live in Adelaide into one, standing room only location it would be quite a spectacle. It is hard to imagine what it would look like.

There would people as far as the eye could see. Lay them down head to toe and the line would stretch 1,800 km — 400 km further than a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney.

Stand them in single file and the line would be 30 km long, similar to the queue at the post office.

Now having conjured the image of so many people in your mind’s eye put them all onto commercial aircraft.

Because 1 million is roughly the number of human beings who are, at any one time, airborne in commercial airliners making vapor trails around the globe.

This is both staggering and scary at the same time.

It is enough just to illustrate the scale of the challenge to provide life support to all the people we have made and still retain some environmental integrity.


First posted on LinkedIn