Labour leaders

At this time of confusion over political leaders in Australia that highlights a frightening vacuum in leadership, I though I might point back to a post from last year entitled Don’t argue the mechanism, set the target.

It hints at why the Australian Labour Party finds itself in such a mess today and at why, when the Liberals return, they will show themselves to be equally disheveled.

What will it take for real opinion to spark real debate to result in real policy?

Answers on a postcard to….



Thought I might share this passage from page 393 of Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth.

On a scale of 500 years the planet is warming after the Little Ice Age 500 years ago.

On a scale of 5,000 years there have been many periods of warming and cooling.

On a scale of 5,000,000 years there have been numerous periods of intense cold and many short periods of warmth.

The average global temperature over the past 2.67 million years is less than the current global temperature. Why? Because we are living in the Pleistocene glaciation which has not yet run its full course.

This logic is sound.

Plimer’s cogent argument is that on geological timeframes the climate has been both hotter and significantly cooler than at present and that to really understand climate change, it is geological time that provides the best context and insight.

The earth is, after all, very old leaving plenty of time and opportunity for a range of climate conditions everywhere. It is hard to imagine that not so long ago in geological terms the current continents were in a very different configuration, that in an epoch mountains can form and erode away, and all the time sediments form and are consumed into the mantle of the earth at plate margins.

It is the rare the talent of the geologist to think on the time scales that matter to the formation of sediment, rocks and ore bodies.

What is interesting is to map global human population size onto the points in time that Pilmer quotes to illustrate his understanding of climate change.

For this purpose ‘human’ means both the species Homo sapiens that first appeared around 250,000 years ago and the genus Homo that the fossil record suggests has been present as various species since around 2.3 million years ago.

  • 500 years ago after the Little Ice Age at 1500 AD there were 500 million humans. This is roughly the present day population of the United States and Indonesia combined, 7% of the current global total.
  • 5,000 years ago there were just 5 million humans, or roughly the population of present day Finland and today there are over 100 countries with more people than Finland.  At the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago there were perhaps 1 million H. sapiens.
  • Around 70,000 years ago there is genetic evidence that H. sapiens went through a population bottleneck when for some reason, perhaps the eruption of the supervolcano Toba in Indonesia, numbers went as low as 15,000 individuals.
  • 5,000,000 years ago there were no recognizable humans.

Calculations suggest that there may have been 110 billion humans that have ever lived and a full 6% of them are alive today. Human population growth is an explosion in comparison to geological time.

So when discussion stalls on the causes of climate change or even on its existence, it is worth remembering that the real challenge for humans is to handle the resource needs of 7 billion souls alive today, the 6% of those that have ever lived, without destroying the resource use opportunity for the descendents of this 7 billion.

This is, of course, the standard definition of sustainable development.

It would be a shame if we forgot about sustainable development to focus on the latest fad that, if we think about it on the time scale of the geologists, we can do little about.



Environmental issues for real – Environmentalism

We should find news footage of men and women in orange jump suits slashing with scythes at genetically modified crops disturbing.

And what was our response when the taxpayer foots the bill to “rescue” activists who board whaling vessels?

I was always told that the end cannot justify the means. Clearly it is not that simple.

Read my latest Ezine@rticle to see why environmentalism might be an environmental issue.

A food security challenge

I have been writing a few articles lately about food.

Oddly not in the culinary sense, given the profusion of cooking shows and what seems like an exponential growth in the number of celebrity chefs.

I am more interested in ‘How we will grow enough food‘ and whether we can cope with a global dietary change given ‘What we eat‘.

An observation made by a friend of mine who recently retired from a distinguished career as a public servant in agriculture and natural resource management gave me pause.

After observing the agricultural community in Australia for several decades his comment was that farmers take up practices that improve productivity and sustainability when times are good.

When it’s tough they just do what it takes to stay viable.

The implication of this logical and insightful observation is that future food production is dependent on how well farmers are doing now, in the immediate.

Those of us who get our food from commercial agricultural production (nearly everyone in agricultural economies) have become quite used to highly reliable food quality, variety and supply. And to keep the supply consistent the farmers relax and adopt sustainable practices when the weather is good and the seasons have behaved.

The likely response to drought, flood, frost and heat waves, or soil degradation is do what you can to get some kind of crop to market. This is because the market demand requires it and, as a business, the farm must at least cover its costs or it goes out of business.

The same response occurs when input costs rise. Do what you can to keep the business viable. In short, get some product to market.

This understandable response is a food security challenge, especially where the bulk of food production comes from the small to medium size businesses that we call farms.

If farm viability is so important to both the market and the individual business then there is little to stop exploitative practices when times are tough. At the margins risks will be taken just to keep the business going; because the alternative is the businesses go under. We do it in manufacturing, retail and service sectors so it should be no surprise that we do it in agriculture.

We will save the government subsidy issue for later. What we might think about is the challenge to good practice presented when times are hard.

The reality is that good practice will only be good if it results in some buffering of economic returns when times are tough. Sustainable practices are those that keep inputs to a minimum, make optimal use of the conditions even when its warm and doesn’t rain, and end up with some salable produce.

Where this is not possible, then the farm ceases to be a business. And given that in our current model we buy almost all our food, business failure makes food supply far less secure.



No valentine

If you are an environmentalist it is a scary thing to call anything natural an asset. This is because assets create wealth given the right investment, and, historically at least, investment meant exploitation.

In one way or another environmental assets are converted in order to realise their value.

  • Trees become railway sleepers, pit props, roof trusses, furniture and firewood.
  • Flower filled meadows become livestock factories.
  • Ore bodies and coal seams become giant holes in the ground upstream of depleted and polluted waterways.

The environmentalist paradigm has been about saving the last remaining patches of unspoilt nature from this type of asset (resource) exploitation.

Preservation and conservation of nature has required extraordinary commitment, tenacity and sacrifice. Either from those who pushed for and created the legislation for environmental protection that helped knock back pollution and create national parks or from the more radical individuals who had to hug trees.

The arrival of global warming as the next serious threat to the environment has proven more difficult to fight. The only acceptable solution has been to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and this should have created another route for environmentalism, a partnership with the investment community to trade carbon.

An unlikely alliance parodied in green has moved on

Only she hasn’t.

So far the financiers have not joined in the unholy alliance. Perhaps they have been distracted by more immediate economic woes or simply got cold feet.

Market mechanisms for trading carbon are in place, accounting rules have been tested and projects in forestry, agriculture and energy are ready. Environmentalists have relented but still nothing.

Are we losing faith in markets just when we thought they might help solve environmental problems?

That would be quite an irony.



Easy or not

Meercat taking it easyIn his book ‘Hot, flat and crowded’ Thomas L. Friedman rails against the glorification of easy. His main complaint is that anything we do to support ourselves in an increasingly hot and crowded world is not going to be easy. And those who say there is an easy way are just kidding themselves.

Humans are notoriously hard to motivate without some form of reward. Most of what we need to do to keep producing natural resources and accommodate climate change when there are so many of us will require some sacrifice. The only reward will be the hope that we have done the right thing. Saying it will be easy is at best naive and at worst irresponsible.

To illustrate his point Friedman quotes Michael Maniates of Allegheny College.

Maniates makes the following assertions about what we ask of ourselves and one another:

  • we should look for easy, cost-effective things to do in our private lives as consumers because
  • if we all do them the cumulative effect will be a safe planet, because
  • by nature, we aren’t terribly interested in doing anything that isn’t private, individualistic, cost-effective and, above all, easy.

I reckon Maniates is on the money.

In default mode we are lazy. We would rather not sacrifice but if we have to then please can we do it from the couch. Please do not ask us to actively sacrifice.

Friedman’s frustration is understandable because it was this lazy default mode that has seen us consume with abandon and take ourselves to the edge of the resource use precipice.

In his book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ Daniel Kahneman even has an explanation for why lazy is the default.

Cognitive research seems to be telling us that we think in a couple of different ways. We intuit most things. This action is easy and fast and works well for the bulk of our everyday decisions.

Only our intuition is not very good at complex thought, especially where we need to analyse for or calculate a result. For this we have to engage the thinking brain. The only problem is that this type of thinking takes work – real physical work apparently – and we find it difficult.

Our environmental challenges are very new and not in the default program. Our intuition has evolved for us to know that food, water and shelter are either here now, or just around the corner. We are not used to thinking about where these things are going to come from; yet we are forced more and more to think analytically about the basics. Indeed we have to think twice: first to tell us that we have a problem and second to figure out some solutions.

Friedman suggests it is irresponsible to say that our environmental challenges are easy to solve when, in fact, they are hard. Potentially more challenging than the problems themselves is that we prefer to solve things in our default mode. We prefer to intuit answers because it is a lot easier that way. Thinking is just too hard.

Take a moment to recall your experiences in the workplace or at home. Ask yourself what proportion of your time and that of your colleagues and family members is spent in default mode

Yep, we prefer not to have to think hard. No surprise that we glorify easy.

Only there is a reason why talking up easy is so common. My guess is that any call to think hard about anything will fall on deaf ears.

Leaders not heroes

Leadership is hard to define, not easy to learn and is, perhaps, only gifted.

True leaders inspire us and we trust them. We listen to what they say and we accept what they decide. This is because leaders do and say things that make us feel good about ourselves. And what they do we believe in, often without need of explanation or a spelling out of logic.

Heroes are a little different. They motivate us because they are admirable. They do what we would like to do. We can imagine ourselves slaying the dragon and winning the adoration of the damsel or, if you prefer, as a heroine beating up the patriarchy to create equality and emancipation. Our heroes actually do these things. Heroism generally requires conflict.

In our modern ritualized world, our heroes do our fighting for us or they act bravely in the face of danger. Leaders can do these heroic things for they too have courage. Only they do them without having to fight.

Leaders show the way forward as not only the logical but the truthful path. They do this instinctively; picking their way with ease through the complexity of options to choose those that really make sense. They can slay the dragon if needs must, only they will more likely convince it to live happily on the top of the mountain.
They also have vision. A clear notion of what the future looks like that is not an idealized utopia but achievable and likely futures. And leaders are not afraid to explain the future to followers and skeptics alike. The dragon will live on the mountain and will not visit the valley unless invited.

And there is one more critical element that sets leaders apart from both heroes and mere mortals: they can combine fearless vision with timing. They know instinctively how to act and when to act to achieve the desired outcome. Heroes are presented with their opportunity and instinctively move to the front of the cowering throng sword in hand. Leaders anticipate the dragon’s arrival and go outside the village to engage the foe on neutral ground.
It takes courage, smarts and conviction to be a leader. It also needs a certain lightness of hand (and word) dispensed with ease and grace. And wisdom helps, preferably born of experience, or where time has yet to allow for this, then from instinct.

There have always been leaders who have most of these things and these people have become important in our societies. You could probably name your own favorite. And if we did a survey of favorites, the majority of the many leaders that people would chose to name as inspirational come from the past. Many favorites will be historical, a few will be modern, but hardly any will be in public office. Bar the notable exception of a few charismatic entrepreneurs, our current leaders do little to inspire us. This is especially true in politics.

And then there is one final, and perhaps the most critical, quality of leaders, one that seems to be missing from all modern political leaders. That is the ability to realize that leadership is not about them, even though they must be strong, stand out and even be heroic. Leadership is actually about the outcome, the means proposed to get there and the timing of the actions. So true leaders must have humility. The quality of knowing that it is just a channel that they present to the people who look to them.

People follow what they intuitively know to be right. All they need is for it to be presented. Sometimes we are conned. A few infamous historical leaders have taken their people down horror roads through force of rhetoric and oratory but have all fallen when the truth came out. When it became clear they lacked humility they were ousted. It sometimes took a great effort but they did not survive any more than the pathways they proposed.

So in the end leadership cannot be about being heroic because actually we lead ourselves. All that leaders really do is show us the way. Outcomes happen as each one of us as individuals take responsibility.

Mental musings on leadership might help a little. The real issue is what the future holds and who will lead us to it.

In our children’s lifetimes we will reach 9 billion souls, oil will be $200 a barrel making alternative energy an economic imperative, agricultural soils will show the symptoms of overuse and we will have to wrestle with the consequences of land, water and food shortages. These things will happen with or without climate change and we will want wise heads to lead us through the challenges with confidence and surety.

Can we expect this from our political elite? Yes we can. Indeed we should demand it.

We should ask for courage, smarts, timing and, most of all, humility.

What we eat

The other day I had a conversation with a friend that came to a conclusion. We decided that the environmental issues of biodiversity and climate change would be transient and replaced in the public consciousness by food security and the consequences of oil at $200 a barrel.

My point, conceded, was that food and the price of oil will stick until we find viable, safe and long-term alternatives to our current food production systems and energy sources.

We talked over an obvious and probably necessary option to improve food security, which is to eat less meat.

Animal protein requires many more times the space and water to produce than plant protein thanks to a simple and inevitable consequence of thermodynamics. Animals convert plants to protein at roughly 10% efficiency however good the farmer is at his husbandry. When both space and water become scarce it makes sense to eat the plant that is equally nutritious to us than. It would be easy enough to increase the proportion of plant protein in our diets.

Despite the logic being so obvious, my knee-jerk response to the suggestion that we could alter our diets and even grow some of these fruit and vegetables at or closer to home was:

“In whose lifetime?”

Maybe it was the cynic in me, that nasty resident who has become more cranky and vocal as the years pass, or knowledge of what has gone before that made me so negative.

Quite rightly my friend did not concede.

The exchange reminded me of two articles I read a year ago that did give me some justification.

The first was on the flip side of the food security argument saying that some foods such a meat and fish should be eaten in moderation because there is an environmental cost to their consumption.

The second described the outrage people would feel at being told they must go against all the advice of the nutritionists and eat less fish and lean meat. These foods are good for our health. The article then went on to claim that the environment is free and bountiful so what is all the fuss about.

The ‘but it’s healthy’ argument will be strong and will kick back against rising prices when meat and fish become scarce. It is the kind of entitlement logic we have come to expect in modern societies.

In the end though we will learn some tasty preparation of vegetables, eat meat only occasionally, and curb our sweet tooth because most of us will not be able to afford anything else. And, of course, we will also become healthier.

It has already happened in Cuba where the drastic reduction in oil imports when the Soviet Union broke up forced the population to grow food locally. The diet of urban Cubans shifted to include more beans, pulses and vegetables. A big chunk of the produce is grown organically but intensively in urban farms.

It can be done. Maybe even in our lifetime.