Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Tomorrow I will tootle off to my local primary school to vote in the NSW state election. It is a legal obligation I have as an Australian citizen and I am grateful for it.

At a deep level, I know that to vote is a privilege that I must take seriously.

I find it easy to honour this feeling thanks to growing up through the Thatcher years in the UK and then witnessing at close hand South Africa change from apartheid to a majority democracy with a global legend as its first president. Whilst politics is always messy, there is a much bigger reality with democracy, the recognition of individuals and that they have a right to speak.

Voting is a public display of that right.

This time, more than all the others, I have no idea which of the muppets should get my vote. None of them gives me any confidence that they can speak for me, even for part of me. They are all incompetent, out of touch, and passionate about the wrong things. The better ones try hard and may even have their hearts in the right place but enthusiasm alone is not enough to earn anyone’s vote.

The benefit from my public display of democratic right should go towards outcomes, real benefits to society. That is I’d like to vote for policies.

I recognise that policies are attached to politics and therefore candidates. And I know that this means I can’t cherry pick my policies, they’re a job lot, but I would like to know what they are, even in general terms.

I consider myself reasonably well read and someone who pays attention. I know the names of the local candidates, at least for the major parties and the leaders of those parties at state and federal level, but I do not know the policy positions of the parties or their candidates. This is not good.

What do I know?

Well, I know that the posturing and attempts to manipulate me are rampant.

Witness the idiocy of the Federal prime minister unable to say the word ‘coal’ in public when a year ago as treasurer he held up a fist-sized piece of coal in the parliament to wave aggressively at the opposition. See a witty summary of this coal lunacy by Katherine Murphy.

I also know that outside the Canberra comic book the manipulation in other parts of the world is creating chaos (Brexit), erosion of the rule of law (Trump and the US attorney), extremism (Brazil, Trump again), poverty (North Korea, far too many countries in Africa), overconsumption (everywhere) and, well, the list could go on and on. There is no doubt we ‘live in changing times’ to quote the old Chinese curse.

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Knowing you are cursed is one thing. What you choose to do about it is another.

The other day I sat with a colleague in a delightful coffee shop on the second floor of the Queen Victoria Building in downtown Sydney. More privilege that we acknowledged as we drifted onto the topic of the vacuum in global politics.

It was easy to agree that we are in changing times and that what we see now in Trump, Brexit and aimless Australian politics are symptoms of the vacuum. We also easily agreed that nature hates a vacuum and will rush to fill it.

What we couldn’t figure out was what nature would come up with: more extremes, a progressive middle, something different altogether.

Our conclusion, that there will be a holding pattern while the stupid white men die off and then the youngsters come up with something wonderful, felt shallow and, frankly, a cop-out. Why abdicate in favour of the next generation when we are the ones with the batten?

I think because we are actually at a loss.

My generation and the couple that came after mine does not have an alternative.

We cannot give up capitalism because we actually like what it gives us (we like wealth and privilege a lot) and, more or less, capitalism is steadily doing it for more and more people. We actually don’t have a realistic alternative to mobilising capital and labour for profit.

We cannot ditch democracy for similar reasons. We like it, for the most part, and we know that the alternatives are risky and erode our liberty.

We certainly cannot lose the right to speak through our vote. That would be going back to the dark ages, literally.

Instead, we can just hobble along because it’s what we’ve always done and, hey, it has worked so far. Who’s to say it can’t keep on working.

So the answer is no, we don’t have an alternative.

This both scares me and ensures that nobody will like this post.

Happy thinking.

Fighting for me

Fighting for me

If I get into a fight in a pub at best I’ll be thrown out, maybe banned or if the police arrive, arrested and given a legal clip around the ear.

If I fight a family member and someone finds out the law should prosecute me for that too, although not enough of such actions are punished.

Suppose I am a wimp and decide I need someone else to fight for me. I can hire a more robust type and for a fee they would achieve the biffings I need done.

It could be a bigger fight that requires the services where the taxpayer pays the fee for so-called legitimate fights knowns as wars, and that is fine. War is the worst kind of fight hurting everyone involved for a long time. People die and those that survive are scarred forever.

None of these typical uses of the term fight are pretty. Indeed most fights are not either worth it or the best way to resolve matters.

So why does my local politician have a campaign slogan ‘fighting for you’?

Well obviously she wants to be on my side. Perhaps be the hired biff to do my dirty work for me so I can be at arm’s length from the law.

Maybe she sees me as a wimp.

Obviously she wants me to think that there is something worth fighting for, that the services and legal systems that parliaments legislate are actually a fight for one against another. If you fail to fight you fail to get your share.

I don’t want that at all.

Biffing the other guy because he wants a different policy to me is not what I want.

I’d like robust and intelligent discussion that uses of all available evidence and then a set of solutions chosen to maximise the collective best interest for today, tomorrow and generations to come. I’d like this to be a constructive process, one that builds relationships and supports as much diversity of views and ideals as is possible with the common ground of health, wealth and happiness supported for everyone.

Surprising as this may sound, I don’t think that wanting this outcome makes me a wimp.

Pragmatic resolutions require considerable courage and fortitude, not to mention patience and tenacity.

Fighting is the last resort not the first and certainly not a slogan I can vote for.

Good evidence

Good evidence

It’s fake news.

That is all I need to say to put doubt into your mind about anything in the media. Fake news is rhetoric that is nothing to do with the actual news item, who knows if the President did or did not spend private time with scantily clad Russian ladies, the point is for you to doubt the source. Just by calling anything fake the seeds of doubt are sown. Whatever evidence there is now has a much more difficult task.

The FIFA world cup in Russia was great entertainment for the soccer tragic. No doubt the aforementioned ladies also enjoyed it. The use of VAR technology to replay the action and review the minutiae of key decisions by the referee changed results but not the players behaviours towards the ref. They still jumped all over his decisions, and his person too. Players protestations to reverse a decision are even more vehement in the VAR age than they were before. They would claim it was fake even as the visual evidence played to a global audience.

Why do players protest so aggressively?

No referee has changed his mind because he was shirt fronted by an expensive haircut. In oblong ball codes such behaviour ends up in the sin bin.

The soccer boys do it to get into the referees head. Maybe he’ll be less inclined to decide against them next time. And it works more than we realise. Even in the world cup with VAR looking over the referees shoulder there have been post protestation biases.

Fake news and haranguing the referee are just two of the tactics in the seeding of doubt game. It began with the mad men of advertising and is now everywhere.

There is a larger game at play here too. Consider this quote about the use of evidence.

In any decision–making setting there will be people with greater power than others to assert what counts as good evidence, but this does not mean that the less powerful will agree.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

The President of the United States has more decision making power than most. He can start a war, release a nuke, pardon a criminal and gain any number of retweets. But it does not mean we will all agree with his decisions even if he presents credible evidence for his choice. In other words he could demonstrate the real and immediate threat of global annihilation from WOMDs and not everyone would agree with a pre-emptive strike.

I can still run in my head the footage of missiles landing on Baghdad to start the first Iraq war. It was wrong.

So if the less powerful will not agree despite the evidence, a smart play is to discredit all evidence. Then agreement defaults to feeling and all you need then is enough people to feel like you do about your decision. Tariffs for example.

Again evidence, that is facts that generate real inference, struggles even for a voice. This applies no matter how good the evidence is.

There is no simple answer to the question of what counts as good evidence. It depends on what we want to know, for what purposes, and in what contexts we envisage that evidence being used. Research data only really become information when they have the power to change views, and they only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain. Thus endorsements of data as ‘evidence’ reflect judgements that are socially and politically situated.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

Shouting ‘fake news’ has the effect of weakening evidence however good the evidence is, just as the protestations and rolling around in fake agony of the $10,000 a week boys gets into the referees head to weaken the evidence he see with his own eyes.

What to do?

The instinct is to rail against the ‘fake news’ tirade and seek ways to show that evidence matters, do the fact checking, use only credible sources and spend enough money to keep honest reporting somewhere near the front page.

This should be done but it is not enough on its own. Demonstrating fact from fake is unlikely to change hearts.

Tackling the psychology is the go, only that is a much longer play.

Submarines and taxes

Submarines and taxes

It’s election time in Australia. Soon the country must decide which colour muppets they would like to enter the Canberra bubble and argue amongst themselves over inanities that only they care about.

It is a depressing prospect.

Equally disturbing is our pain over the weeks leading up to the election. There will be TV ads, online adds, robo calls, more twittering than in Grandmas aviary and excruciating nodding by the professional head-nodders in the photo op entourage. It will strain the most stoic soul. The only interesting part will be my ad hoc study of the correlation between nodding styles and electoral swings.

In the ‘vote for me’ speeches from the prospective muppets there will be any number of announcements from the pork barrel. “See how much taxpayers money we are spending on you” they will say using different words. Wait, that is the money the law says we have to give you before anyone gets a paycheck. Yep, that money.

It is worth remembering that this allocation of taxes to support a healthy society is a key function of government, perhaps the key function. Lawmaking matters of course but the funding allocations affect everyone, every day. So knowing what the policies are and how much they will cost is important to know before making a voting choice.

Only there are numbers you are never told.

For example, the tax revenue. That is the annual amount they get to allocate. Perhaps it would be good to know the extent of the fiscal reserves or the amount of dosh actually in the pork barrel (as opposed to what might go into it).

Tax revenue is published of course. So we can go online and find that it was $489 billion in the 2016-17 financial year.

What proportion of this vast amount is already accounted for to support services, debt and any new commitments from the barrel is harder to glean. It’s available though should you have the patience to sift through budget papers.

The point is that these companion numbers do not make it to the hustings.

Yet we need them to make sense of any claims.

When a Minister announces that the government has committed A$50 billion to the purchase of French nuclear submarines, it is very hard to understand this number. It is vast of course, way more than the average lotto payout and several orders of magnitude larger than the numbers on our tax returns. So it is hard to find companions for sums this large without blowing the mind.

How about A$2,000 for every man woman and child in the country?

That’s A$5,200 for a typical household.

Imagine the politician on the hustings coming up with “Hi folks, this year we want each household to give five grand to the French. Don’t worry it comes out of your taxes and in return we get some submarines to protect us from the many hostile forces in our region”. The expression on the nodding heads would be priceless as they witness the political suicide before them.

But it shouldn’t be like this.

Defence is an important issue. People have a right to feel safe and be safe as far as the current military deterrents and diplomatic landscape allows. That $50 billion could a bargain.

It is possible to break the rhetoric and make sense of it all when the heads nod at the next monetary announcement.

Just remember that the governments spend roughly $20,000 per person per year if the tax revenue is shared equally and most of that goes on health, education, an array of social services, and infrastructure.

This will help put into context the offer of a grant to upgrade the local library and the bigger spending on military hardware.

The biggest news story in the world

The biggest news story in the world

The biggest news story in the world would be its end.

So is the end of the world nigh? No is the short and reassuring answer.

It is about 5 billion years before the sun turns into a red giant and consumes the planet and before then, perhaps 1 billion years or so, the sun will have increased its radiation levels enough to evaporate the oceans on earth. Homo sapiens will be long gone before then so no worries there either.

Careful observation of the fossil record suggests that a typical mammal species persists for about 1 million years, although it can be as long as 10 million years. Suppose that Homo sapiens makes it as an outlier it would mean we have roughly 9,650,000 years to go. Even as an average mammal we have 650,000 years to go, more than enough time to figure out how to mess up other planets.

So the world will end but not anytime soon and even then we will not be around. Not such big news then, the end of the world, unless it comes early.

Is the world changing? Yes and a lot faster than is healthy for human beings. But we know this already, there is no need to keep banging on about how different it was in Grandad’s day. Change is a given.

Only the changes we are seeing are big news, at least they should be.

A year ago I posted a comment on a truly scary percentage; namely the 75% decline in the biomass of flying insects in Europe.

And whilst I know that fewer yucky critters in the world might sound wonderful; picnics in the park without flies, moonlit strolls on the beach without sandflies, barbecues without mozzies and oh the joy of not getting stung by a wasp or bitten by an ant… surely these are all benefits to send us into rapture.

Well yes, some activities will be more pleasant for us.

Farmers are less upbeat.

A few things must happen before a crop makes it to the packaging facility. Farmers must prepare the ground, plant, nurture the plants as the grow, protect them and then harvest the part of the plant that people eat or use. The seed comes in big packets and the seed spreader or direct drilling machine helps the farmer avoid stony ground. He can rely on ever more reliable weather forecasting and turn on the irrigation just at the right time and use growth models to apply fertilizers just when the plants need it. All sophisticated and controlled stuff.

There is one key process that the farmer relies on nature to deliver. Most fruit, vegetable and nut crops (the foods that give us most of our essential vitamins and minerals) do not pollinate themselves, they rely on animals to transfer pollen.

Some greenhouse crops are pollinated by hand. Easy enough but still labour intensive. Outside it’s the flying insects that do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Beekeeping sounds like a honey-making business, but it became that way because bees are great pollinators, especially of fruiting trees and shrubs.

In natural habitats over 80% of the plant species rely on animal pollinators for fertilization.

So the loss of insects should be the biggest news story in the world; just ask the First Dog on the Moon.

Only there is more…

A 75% loss of flying insects is serious business. There will be a direct link to pollination and profitability whenever this happens and the suggestion is that is is a global pattern.

As I write this post I am on the outside deck at home. We are privileged to live in the Blue Mountains of NSW and surrounded by nature I expect a few insects to alight on the screen, perhaps buzz around my ear. Nothing, nada. Same on a recent camping trip to the NSW north coast. Anecdotal but notable for someone with an eye for this kind of thing.

Only there is more.

What if this loss of insects applies to those that live in the soil?

Many of the flying types have larval or pupal life stages in the soil, but there are also plenty of permanent soil dwellers. If worms, mites, springtails, woodlice, millipedes and the many other types of invertebrates in the soil food web have declined by 75% too, then the world will be fine but we are all in serious trouble.

These soil animals are essential to decomposition and nutrient transfer to plant roots as well as much of the physical structure of soil that we recognise as essential for plant growth.

I’ll leave the details for later as this post is already too long but the link between soil biology and soil fertility is established through research and known to every farmer who runs soil through his fingers.

However, we don’t know the extent of soil animal numbers or diversity so it is impossible for us to know if they are in decline.

It should be a Kardashian sized news story if they are.

Yet more…

Nearly 20 years ago I co-authored an article about how to measure the diversity of invertebrates in an academic volume entitled “The other 99% The conservation and Biodiversity of Invertebrates”. Our paper was moot, the ‘yet more’ point here is that most of the non-microbial biodiversity on earth is invertebrate.

There are more species of creepy crawly critters than there are birds, mammals and reptiles put together, and then some.

So if soil animals are in decline in the way that their flying brethren are, then species loss rates are going to be through the roof. Saving the koala will be the least of the conservation issues if we are serious about saving species.

Discernment

Discernment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

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

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

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

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

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Food security

Food security

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

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

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

All we have to do is eat plants.

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

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

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

Well perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This energy requirement is roughly 9 to 1.

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

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

Still plenty of buffer, right?

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

Just as important though is the variance in production.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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