Values again

Values again

What do you value most?

Your loved ones, your health, Sheba the cat, your favourite cashmere jumper or even, perhaps, your screen time.

If you think about it, even for a moment, lots of things are likely to be on your list of valuables.

Alloporus has discussed this kind of thing before. And in thinking about how we perceive value, concluded that value is always relative and personal.

The question here is how far down the list of things we value is nature?

You know, all the plants, animals, hills and streams, the flowers that bloom and bees that buzz, the cute and the cuddly, and even the icky bugs and slugs, together with all the vitality that they bring.

I side with’ is a website aimed at increasing voter engagement in issues of the day. It’s ‘popular issues’ page lists 100 most popular issues filtered from, they claim, a million unique survey answers per day.

When I had a look at the site a few months ago, just 8% of the issues listed were nominally about the environment and none were directly about nature (note that this is an active polling site, so the current lists may differ substantively).

‘Environmental regulation’ makes the front page but you have to scroll down to find ‘mining water use’, and further still to ‘foreign land ownership’, ‘plastic product ban’, and ‘nuclear energy’. Way down the list we get ‘whaling’, ‘fracking’, ‘GMO foods’, ‘coal seam gas’, and ‘nuclear waste’.

More popular than environmental regulation when I looked were equal pay, gay marriage, abortion, mandatory vaccinations, terrorist citizenship, LGBT adoption rights, and welfare drug testing.

Let’s just pause a moment for this to sink in.

Nature, the cornucopia of organisms, services and wonder that gives us clean air, fresh water, food, and any number of raw materials that collectively provide us with the opportunity to contemplate values, does not make the list of 100 most popular issues of the day.

This is not an isolated finding.

Nature languishes way down on many lists of environmental issues even though aspects of nature are implicit in so many of our most acute challenges, not least in providing solutions.

Somewhere along the way we have become so disconnected from what nature does for us that we do not even think it is important.

This is quite remarkable.

I’m going to give in to my incredulity and harp on this one.

Our collective term for the very thing that sustains us, the place we evolved into and shaped our characters, beliefs and our psyche, is not even on our intellectual or moral radar.

Let’s just consider one of the things that happens in nature each and every moment of every day and what would happen if it stopped.

Decomposition is the process by which complex organic material is broken down into its constituent parts. These chemicals become available for recycling by plants back into organic matter or, if you like, food for heterotrophs including people. Bacteria, fungi and a host of invertebrates in soil and leaf litter are responsible for this natural process that only keen gardeners and farmers are likely to notice.

What if decomposition stopped? In a short time we would be knee deep in dead things. None of the carcasses would smell of course because the process of decomposition releases the odorous gases of decay. Instead they would just pile up along with the dead plant material.

In dry periods the most likely outcome would be fire. A sobering proposition given the heavy fuel load of dry biomass.

But this is not the half of it.

Without nutrients there are no building blocks for plants. Once the burst from nutrient stored in the seed is over, seedlings would simply stop growing. Deciduous trees would not flush and evergreen plants would become dormant.

Photosynthesis would shut down and oxygen production would slow to a halt. Oxygen deficits would compete with starvation as the means to kill off all the animals.

In just a few months most of nature would be changed forever. Humanity would not survive.

Of course this is not going to happen because it is impossible to stop decomposition. Bacteria and fungi are way too pervasive for that.

And maybe this is it.

We believe that nature is unbreakable. It has so much built in resilience and redundancy we see it as a perpetual motion machine that can never stop.

But human actions can slow nature down by drying out soil, changing vegetation, over-exploiting the soil nutrients, reducing soil organic matter or through pollution.

Our actions also channel nature into delivering the products we need. Nature becomes fields, farms, plantations and reservoirs. Places where we convert nature into commodities. This reduces overall redundancy and resilience because so much of the energy and nutrient flows are directed into things that humans need.

We value these things of course, only not in quite the same way as we value nature. Commodities are literally valuable because we convert them into cash. Land is valuable because it can be used to generate commodities. Soon we are down with the dollar.

The reality is that the economic focus is with us, stuck like araldite to our present and future. There is no credible alternative or, more significantly, no credible way to transition to an alternative, that can give us back a focus on nature without looking through a commercial lens.

So, for now at least, we do not value nature. It’s not on our radar and that is a big problem.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

The global wheat crop is decimated by a fungal disease that is immune to all attempts to control it. After three years of next to no wheat anywhere, there is a food crisis that affects everyone, even those who shop for their food in supermarkets. No bread, no pasta, no cake and no wheat beer. All the gluten free alternatives are consumed by the rich.

In a remote part of Australia, an organic farmer called Bruce is the only producer still growing wheat. His crops remained healthy even after all his neighbours went out of business. Soon he was spending way to much time describing his methods to a succession of scientists and media. The world got into the way Bruce did things, his pasture cropping approach, his decades long attention to building soil carbon and his attention to slowing down runoff all across his landholding.

Bruce became a new kind of celebrity. He was world famous as the saviour of bread but he stayed calm and matter of fact about it all. He kept growing wheat even when there were many other easier and more lucrative options.

What did happen that nobody expected was that his style and his humility touched people. What was happening on his paddocks went viral. Everyone became aware of how important it was to grow food with empathy for nature.

Instead of ignorance and apathy people paid attention to where their food came from. They asked questions about how food was grown. Did the farmer do it like Bruce? They paid realistic prices for produce because it was obvious that cheap meant mining the nutrients and water out of the system just to break even. It was a tsunami of change.

The wheat cropping system recovered but the health benefits of going without wheat meant that most consumers stayed with alternatives.

What happened though was that organic became mainstream because everyone now knew it was about carbon and not yoga and dreadlocks.

Solutionless

Solutionless

When you see the trajectory of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade or so, the pattern is a storyboard for the country’s political journey.

There was the ‘biggest moral challenge of our age’ in 2007 when a long period without emission reduction was obvious.

The carbon price that actually started to slow and then reverse emissions through the late 2000’s to the point that the country was tracking to meet its internationally agreed targets

Then the trashing of that ‘great big tax’ in 2014 to send the numbers upward again, and most recently, the apathy that has kept them climbing.

Here are the numbers as graphed.

The current numbers would have Australia with a cumulative failure to meet Paris commitments target by at least 40 million tCO2e a year or 7% of the annual emissions.

Not a good look. Arguably a renege.

It feels like right of centre governments can only understand graphs that project from bottom left to top right and so they create them, whatever the metric. And when it comes to emissions we have seen before how easy it is for them to have Lost the plot. So here we are with a government apparently unconcerned or oblivious to the combined facts that emissions are rising again, despite the growth in renewables, and the country is about to fail badly on an international commitment. Meantime the evidence continues to pile up that the planet is indeed warming and there are very tangible consequences for the people who live on it.

There are many Australians concerned about this tendency to abdicate on the issue of greenhouse gases. Even the medical profession who presumably have little interest in atmospheric physics are talking about the consequences of a warming world for health and safety.

So on the one hand there is evidence that denial has won and policies that do little and still question that there is even a climate problem, have won out, notwithstanding the rhetoric from podiums.

On the other, there is a growing sense of urgency that the problem is not only real but is with us in our daily lives, affecting our health and wellbeing.

This schizophrenic state is confusing to the majority of people, who, let’s face it, are not thinking much beyond their next Maccas or chai latte. And the handful of folk with part of an eye peering up from their screens toward the periphery of their personal bubble, don’t think with numbers.

So the coolaid speeches easily distract them.

Coolaid, the product of a tendency to spout excessive praise so as to massage the egos of anyone close enough to hear and in doing so ignore or deny any negativity

It is much easier to drink in the rhetoric than to question it. Especially as all the subtext is aimed at making you feel safe and eager to spend your money. Why else would you “vote for me”.

Instead the majority are able to ignore the reality of the numbers and the specifics that happen every day, even as we watch streaming shows like Homeland, The Handmaids Tale, and, ever so gently, Designated Survivor, that try to show us what is around the next corner.

It is actually rather sad. The human condition is so prone to being duped that almost anyone can do it. We can even believe the real housewives.

Unfortunately, sadness is an emotional blink from despair.

Poor choice

Poor choice

Suppose you are marooned on a desert island.

Luck would have it that, on the island, there is a stream with fresh water, a seemingly endless supply of fruits on the trees close to the beach and, bizarrely given you don’t smoke, you remembered to pack a cigarette lighter.

Other than the ability to make fire, you have very little else. Not even a sunhat.

Chances are you could survive for many days, weeks even. Malaria or other insect vectored lurgy notwithstanding, you could even survive to Crusoe-esque timeframes.

There will be any number of specific challenges to overcome beyond the boredom and the need to find food and water. Avoiding cuts and sprains, not getting bitten by a shark or a spider, avoiding any unknown foods and being sure to cook the shellfish as well as you can. Most of these are, to some degree, under your immediate control. They are avoidable through choice.

Your island is iconic.

A tiny, low lying place with no real high ground to speak of and as you explore you notice evidence of past storms. There are more fallen trees than seems plausible. The biggest trees aren’t really that tall. There is debris from the beach everywhere, even when you think you are as far away from it as you can be. The reality is clear. Come the next storm there might be very few places to hide. Should there be a hurricane, survival would be slim.

So whilst there is no immediate danger, you certainly are in a pickle.

Against all the odds the government hears of your predicament. Phew, rescue is on the way. Perhaps there might even be an airdrop of provisions and a temporary hurricane shelter before the relief vessel arrives.

Turns out that the government appraised the policy position on your predicament and rather than deal with your immediate challenges and imminent risk, they are sending you a lifetime supply of sunblock.

From a policy perspective this makes perfectly good sense. Todays danger is the taxpayers responsibility and if there is unavoidable danger then it is the fault of previous governments for failing to plan ahead.

Providing sunblock is exactly the kind of future thinking that is needed. It means that while you are out there so exposed on the island you are far less likely to develop a melanoma and will stay out of the healthcare system. Not to mention the benefits of government contracts to the local sunblock manufacturer and supplier.

The problem of increasingly more severe and frequent storms or, heaven forbid, a rise in sea level or hotter sea temperatures killing the coral that fringe your island with an underwater wall of protection from the ocean swell, or any other proximate causes of your likely demise, are not issues for the local jurisdiction. They are for everyone else to resolve.

The obvious issue to fix is skin care.

Early the next morning on the faint sound of an engine you jump up from under the simple palm frond tent you cobbled together and, gorilla like, replace every other night. Scanning the horizon the sun reflects off something into your eye.

It must be an aircraft.

It must be.

Sure enough, a few minutes later a transport plane flies directly over your tiny island disgorging a package that floats down gently on a bright yellow parachute to land in the sea, halfway between you and the coral reef.

Fortunately the package floats but it drifts away from the shore far further out that you have dared to go until now. Not expecting anything more than the obvious food and shelter provisions you decide to take the risk, wading and then swimming toward the welcome gift that fell from the sky.

It takes far longer than you would like but weary, you make it to the yellow package. On the side it says “Banana Boat” which strikes you as odd but it’s a float that stays on the surface even when you hang on so you really do not care. Kicking toward the shore is way to hard with the parachute still attached and precious energy reserves are used in trying to free the tangled ropes. Your mind registers that your arms and legs are aching.

All of a sudden you are in the most real and present danger you have been in since you arrived on the island.

Panic begins. It takes courage that you have never used before to stay calm enough to hang onto the banana boat and kick. You keep kicking, frantic at first and then more measured as the panic subsides a little once your brain registers the palm trees inching closer.

In the end your legs are moving on a reflex until one kick hits sand.

The scariest event of your entire life is over. You are belly first on the shore with the boat beside you.

A plastic catch flips easily at the end of your finger and the lid opens with a slight click. Inside there are several boxes with the same logo as the side of the boat. Inside the boxes are tubes of sunscreen. At least one hundred of them all up. And nothing else.

Bewildered but still comforted that an aircraft flew by knowing you were there, you return to the shade of the palm tree and your makeshift shelter. You wait more alert than before for at any moment real help will arrive.

A week later the storm you knew would come is there on the horizon. A wall of black in the middle of the day. Already the waves on the coral sand are rising higher up the beach. You retreat to the leeward of the biggest tree on the island and crouch down into its bowl and start to pray.

It is the only thing left to you.

The storm hits with such ferocity it uproots your shelter tree. You escape the falling fronts and other flailing debris but the waves are crashing over where you used to spend the night. The sea continues to rise on the storm surge and washes the banana boat out to sea. Despite any number of drenchings from what felt like walls of water you survive the tempest by clinging onto ancient coral that the water revealed under the sand.

The next day you limp around your island home. There are deep gashes in your hands and you have blurred vision out of your right eye. The spring is covered in sand and it takes an hour of digging to find it again. The water is salty.

In less than a week you die of dehydration. It was a painful, soulless end.


If you think this story is absurd, then of course you are right. It is ridiculous.

Only this announcement from the Australian government Minister for Environment on how to “save” the Great Barrier Reef is just as absurd.

The real problem is not about nutrient runoff or starfish, even though these are known risks, the problem is that the water is too warm, too often. And that cannot be easily fixed, if at all, without some serious forward thinking and a commitment to the reality of climate change.

On your island sunblock is not even useful, what you needed was a vessel to take you back to the real world.

Insects

Insects

All around the world there are entomologists, people who study insects. We should be very proud of these fine folk for without their understanding it would be harder to manage many diseases transmitted by insects, resolve many pathogens, figure out how to assist insects pollinate crops and, most importantly, support insects and their invertebrate cousins maintain soil fertility.

Then there are insect people you might know about. The pest control folk who make sure the fly spray kills the flies and not us.

Sounding a bit posh and, dare we say a little ivory tower, ‘entomologist’ usually refers to the researchers who gather the data and sift through it to find evidence for the good, bad and ugly on the insects that share our spaces. So we can listen to them with some confidence. Not only are they spending their days with ‘bugs’, yuck, they are also the right kind of skeptic using the numbers to find inference.

Lately the number of insects observed by entomologists are in decline. This is not because the entomologists are getting lazy, spending more time watching TV than setting malaise traps or peering down microscopes, but because there are fewer insects around to be studied.

A recent publication confirmed from long-term trapping data in 63 German nature reserves, what many have casually observed in many parts of the world. Insect numbers are going down. And not just by a little bit, they are plummeting.

Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., Stenmans W., Müller A., Sumser H., Hörren T., Goulson D., de Kroon H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12(10), eo185809

Three quarters in a generation.

If such a collapse had happened to the Dow Jones the sky would have fallen in. Imagine trying to survive on a quarter of your wages you earned when you started out. Heaven forbid if the defence budget from the 1990s was reduced by all those billions, how scared and vulnerable would we feel?

“Not a problem” the observant reader cries out. “The crawling insects will simply fill the space left by the loss of the flying ones, that’s what you ecology types tell us all the time.”

Perhaps.

Equally a loss in numbers does not necessarily mean a loss of function. Pollination only needs one bee to transfer pollen from stamen to stigma. Fewer mosquitos has to be a good thing and those beetle larvae can’t be doing that much to soil when we have fertilisers.

It is always very easy to play the ostrich. Only they are remarkable and very dumb birds.

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase risk to our already precarious food security.

We need to enable our entomologists to find out why the numbers went down and if the decline is going to affect the key ecosystem services we rely on.

Or, of course, we could ignore them and buy more submarines.

Probability

Probability

If a coin is tossed in the air, caught and flipped onto the back of the hand, most people know that there is a 50% chance of calling ‘heads’ and getting it right.

Some will also know that no matter how many times the coin is tossed, and whatever previous sequence of heads and tails has occurred, the probability of calling heads on the next toss and getting it right is still 0.5 or 50%

Alloporus contends that this is about as far as it goes.

Not many of us understand any more of the whys and wherefores of probability than the likelihood of calling head and getting it right, notwithstanding the few who take to the racing tracks. That so many others push coins into slot machines is a bit of a give away. No pun intended.

The next step on the ladder of probabilities requires intuition and so is rather hard to learn.

Suppose I have a group of 100 people.

I know that 50 of them have Irish grandparents and the other half have Scottish grandparents but there is no way of knowing the recent ancestry of an individual without asking them.

I select 10 people at random from the 100 in the room and 8 of them tell me that they have Irish heritage.

I’m expecting it to be 5 but chance can always throw things off a little. Picking just two Scots is unexpected but not impossible.

I select another 10 people at random.

Should my expectation of finding five Irish folk be the same as it was at the start?

Of course, it depends.

If I return my first 10 people to the room to resume their canapes and conversation and I select another 10 people entirely at random with no bias towards those I have already asked, then the answer is yes.

But if I send the first 10 individuals out into the carpark and sample the remaining 90 people at random then the answer is no.

Because by sending the first 10 away (sampling without replacement), I have changed the proportion of Scots in the remaining population of the room. It’s only a small amount but its no longer a 50:50 chance because the proportions of Scots to Irish is now 53:47

Hardly material to any future results. However, if I continue to sample a small population without replacement the proportional change due to my random process of sampling could affect future interpretations. Sample 30 more people and if 20 of them are Scots before we know it its a majority of kilt wearers munching on the salmon pate.

There are any number of thoughts that this simple example should generate from thinking about political poll numbers to whether or not another spin on the pokies is really worth the gamble.

Here is one that may not be at the front of mind.

It’s a truism that most of us do not get probability. My recent ‘ah ha’ moment made me realise that this ‘not getting it’ is pervasive and prevalent even among the technical folk who have been trained in it.

And people don’t get a bit of probability, it’s an all or nothing type understanding. You got the idea behind sampling with replacement not changing the likelihood of sampling a Scot or you didn’t. And it seems that if you didn’t that’s quite OK because, in all probability, you are in the vast majority.

So the thought is this.

How on earth are humans so successful when most of them do not understand chance?

Science and Policy

Science and Policy

In a recent article on why science gets shut out of policy Anthony Bergin from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute contends that

“The extent to which scientific knowledge gets traction in policy will depend partly on the state of science knowledge on the issue, and partly on the degree of controversy surrounding the issue under consideration. It will also depend on the degree of public and political attention the matter gets.”

He goes on to suggest a few reasons for why scientists are not all that good at getting the message across in what is always a consensus and value driven process. Similar to the thinking in Are scientists ready?

In short, scientists too often revert to their necessary scepticism in the face of uncertainty and so come across as weak communicators.

Alternatively Bergin suggests that

“Too often, scientists tend to think they know what is best or what is needed, and then they are disappointed, frustrated or angry when their ideas and hard work are rejected or put on the shelf.”

In other words, they also form and promote values too, just like all the other players in the game. Then their egos get in the way, just like all the other players in the game. Lovely.

I doubt that Bergin is correct in his claim that policymakers do care about scientific evidence if it helps them make decisions. If it helps them make the decision they want to make, perhaps, but that is not quite what he meant. My experience with natural resource management policy is that policymakers understand very little of the science despite their access to considerable in-house and review style expertise. Their political masters understand even less.

Needless to say they all care when evidence helps the spin.

And before everyone whines that policy makers are not in the business of politics, dream on people. It’s 2018, the decade when fake became more influential that fact and public servants found it harder than ever to serve the public when the minister of the day wants her own specific outcome.

So Bergin is right in his tone.

Science into policy is very difficult especially for the scientists.

Scientists do have to front up with confidence, develop communications skills, and learn that their audience has never understood a probability, let alone an inference level.

The use of scenarios makes good sense. It’s the approach that helps AfterBefore Systems to understand options for investment in land management, as does delivering advice in multiple forms. Only my academic experience suggests very few scientists are any good at either of these things. They are hypothesis testers not scenario modellers. They are geared towards output as peer-reviewed papers that create some of the most turgid reading experiences known to man. The poor dears are staring at a very steep cliff.

As with most opinion pieces in this space, the conjecture is easy. In this instance, policy and science are hard to reconcile given the nature of the people involved.

Equally the suggestions are sound. They are easily summarised into “chill out and communicate”.

But wait. The premise here is that inference and evidence will be used should they be understood and available. There is an assumption that human beings are so rational that in the face of evidence they will make the decision pointed to by the evidence.

I doubt it.

Sometimes the evidence is clear. The voluntary inhaling of smoke into your lungs affects your health. Cut down the forest to make arable land and, in time, you will have to fertilize to get a crop. Burn enough fossilised carbon and it will change the composition of the atmosphere. But even blindingly obvious evidence will not always be heeded.

This creates the biggest psychological challenge for the scientist. Trained to find evidence and believe in inference, the scientists is incredulous when obvious evidence is ignored for the short-term expediency of the policy. And this will happen. It has many times already and will continue to happen for as long as there is politics.

The real challenge is making sure that the important evidence gets noticed. Perhaps by being truthful about what happens if it is ignored.


More on this general topic

Are scientists ready?

Post revisited – Leaders not heroes

Time for scepticism

Macron

Macron

The French president was in Sydney recently, fresh from his triumph in Washington DC. He was in town for talks and, by all accounts, his signature. Any number of bilateral agreements were made legal.

Just to remind you, this is the French president, the figurehead of the country that the English fought wars with for centuries. Only in modern times have they become best buddies, at least officially.

Only “this is Australia, not England”, you say.

True. But an Australia still run by the remnants of the British, the white heritage dudes who, whilst nodding to the multicultural attributes of the people, keep reminding everyone of the empire and those who died to defend it. The very same empire that colonised and suppressed so many peoples for so long.

And what was the President to say, in French of course, to his Australian host Prime Minister Turnbull. My translation from his speech outside Kirribilli House on a gloriously sunny autumn day with the harbour shimmering in the background was something like…

“We love you bro, and your missus.

We are well chuffed to sign just about anything you like if it makes you feel good.

After all we are miles away up there in the real world and you are far away down here and for some reason you were gullible enough to buy a bunch of our submarines at great expense.

Thanks mate, good on ya.”

Now I am sure that underneath my cynicism there are more conventional messages.

For example, it is always good to be friendly towards foreign powers whether they speak French or not. Bullying or annoying them is obviously detrimental to any current or future bonhomie.

Chatting pleasantly to the French president helps realise the opportunity for really good deals with a European Union just as they are about to look closely at trade agreements once the British exit. Pleasantries might even secure the odd bilateral with France.

The French are good at high tech industry and Australia has thought it might like to try that too, so cozying up to a player in that game has any number of benefits. Defense materiel, si vous plait.

The more mates you have, the easier it is to keep the bad guys at bay and off your internet allowing you to be the main social media influence. Although one has to think that cyber crime and indeed, cyber warfare, are the arenas of the future.

All up, keep the boys club alive and all will be well.

It will not. We need better than this. We need discussion and agreements about refugees, food security, universal income, changing the workforce, technology to keep people alive rather than kill them, and a host of solutions to keeping multitudes of affluent people happy and off the streets.

A couple of would be chums buying and selling arms is not the answer.