You are what you are and not what you have

Springwood golf clubThis week I am in a state of high anticipation. Secretly I am quite excited and counting down the sleeps to two very different and hugely contrary events.

Next weekend is my first yoga workshop. This will be the first time I have been to class more than once in a week let alone a day. Such a concentration of unpronounceable asanas has the potential to transport me from a stretch class attendee to a full-fledged hemp kaftan wearer… or not, depending on how it goes.

The second event is the arrival at the local shop of my brand new, custom fitted, top-of-the-range golf clubs. Now I am having trouble counting this one down as the delivery from the US can take anything up to a month… ‘or less’ said the guy in the shop who was so helpful he now feels like a good mate. Not knowing exactly when they will get here makes the anticipation even more acute. I can’t wait.

So you see my quandary and perhaps a wonderful example of middle age.

Yoga is about finding the truth within and I love that, even when my ribs cramp up in the middle of some unnaturally contorted pose. And I also love that I get so excited by my own penchant for consumer goods even though it is so contrary to mountaintop contemplation.

Mostly I love that I am in the hugely privileged position to do both these things and that that is what I am, a hugely fortunate individual born in a good time and place.

Environmental value | perception is everything

Not a HyundaiSuppose for a moment you are in the market for a new car, a nice sporty hatchback to help you ease into mid-life.

And what if, due to some bizarre rift in the fabric of reality, I told you that for one week only a Mercedes and a Hyundai were the same bargain price. You could snap up either a zippy, sexy and undoubtedly metallic new Mercedes or equally zippy and metallic Hyundai for $20 grand.

What make would you choose?

It would be the Mercedes of course — and why not? The Merc has prestige written all over the badge on the bonnet.

As it happens and despite similar specs on performance, size and reliability, there is roughly $15k difference in the retail price in Australia between a standard Hyundai and the bottom of range Mercedes hatch.

In the real world without rifts where most folk are budget conscious it is no surprise that more Hyundai units are sold. And yet there are still enough people who value the Mercedes enough to fork out the extra cash — almost twice the amount to do essentially the same job.

Perception of value is obviously a powerful force.

The extreme of this for me is the handbag. Its functionality is always that same. Sure its looks vary from brand to brand but enough for the name on the clip to mean a handbag could retail for $50 or $5,000? Bizarre.

Here is another example.

Suppose you are accused of a crime that you did not commit. It’s a complex fraud charge and the police arrest you. Right away you call the best lawyer you can afford for even though you are innocent you know it will need the $500 per hour worth of expertise to prove it. Naturally as you are innocent and the judge agrees, the court awards you damages and you recoup all your expenses.

My point though is that at the time you gladly pay what it takes. In that circumstance of false accusation there is plenty of value in that $500 an hour.

Perception of value is also a highly contextual and personal thing. This is just as well. Individual preference for value helps create much of the complexity and variety in our society and we are the better for it. If you have the means and derive sufficient pleasure from a $5,000 handbag, go for your life [although part of me can’t get past the reality that $5,000 is roughly what it costs to keep 7 Ugandan children in school for a year].

So we come to environmental value and the same rule applies: perception is everything.

In western economies the majority of people who live on and off the land value it because it provides their livelihood. A paddock is a sheep factory and a field a grain production unit where primary production is harnessed to deliver goods for sale.

Of course there is some heritage, love of the great outdoors, feelings of wellbeing and social good that comes from growing food but ultimately it is about the production and sale of a commodity. And this production value is reflected in the price of goods and the production potential that is reflected in land value of rural properties.

Except that the end buyer of the goods, the consumer, never sees the paddock. She only sees the produce and the price sticker in the supermarket. The value to her is in what she can get to feed her family for her weekly budget, or in this metrosexual age, his weekly shopping budget.

The retailer does not see the paddock either. He [or she] just negotiates a wholesale farm gate price or better still enlists a supplier to do all that dealing. These business people see value in cost reduction and the ability to bargain down. And they use the powerful levers of volume and distribution to achieve the best price.

Their perception of environmental value is profit and we are grateful that they focus on it. Without this system of wholesale production and efficient retail we would have far less money to spend at the movies.

We could say that in this scheme of producing, buying and selling produce environmental value does not exist. The value is in the goods that we manipulate the environment to produce.

‘Ah but…’ I hear you shout. We do value the environment for itself. Why else would we have national parks, laws to prevent clearing and pollution and whole bureaucracies assembled to manage all our development activities?

Well yes, there are some picturesque, relaxing or wild patches of the environment that we ‘value’ and sometimes pay good money to visit. There are also places of cultural significance that mean a great deal to us. And yes, we have planning in place to allocate and sometimes restrict activities to preserve and maintain areas that we hold dear.

But, and it’s a Kardashian sized butt, these are not direct, back pocket values.

We ‘value’ conservation, wilderness, cultural heritage and are prepared to forego some development to retain it — an opportunity cost that we collectively wear — and yet we rarely ever feel that we have actually paid money for this. Nor I would suggest would we pay directly if pushed.

Back in the day in a lecture I gave to my biodiversity class, I asked the students what they would be prepared to pay to know that elephants still existed in the wild in Africa [the technical term is ‘existence value’]. What from their wallets or purses would they prepared to give, right there and then? $5, maybe $10 they said, with concern on their faces.  That was until I actually went round with a hat as though moving through the church pews and tested their commitment. None were actually able to part with their cash.


Radical suggestion

So here is a radical suggestion.

In our modern, city orientated system for living, there is no environmental value beyond a small suite of goods and services what we are prepared to pay for. No fiscal value to what the environment gives beyond what we can buy and sell because we have no system beyond cash to detect value and without cash our valuation senses have become numb.

If true I would say that this is not a failure of economics or even an unhealthy preoccupation with profit. It is actually a failure of perception. We simply do not know that we have a debt to the environment. We are not aware that we have been and continue to mine its resources without accounting the full cost.

No one has put in the marketing dollars to create the brand ‘environment’ equivalent to the Mercedes logo stamped onto the bonnet. Not surprisingly most people do not see the environmental value and happily continue to purchase the goods at bargain prices.

Even though we know that we are degrading soils, wasting almost half the food we produce and sending valuable resources to landfill, none of these things matter at the checkout. There will be few folk willing enough to buy the $4 net of sustainably produced onions when there is a net of equally good looking onions in the same isle at $1 because our perception of value is right there in the store. It happens as we compare the price per kilo to what is in our back pockets. We find it hard to make purchasing decisions on values that are distant and intractable.


A challenge

Here is a challenge for you.

Every time you make a purchase of anything from a tomato to a television, force yourself to consider the environmental value in the goods that you are about to buy.

Do not use these thoughts to make yourself feel guilty, go ahead and buy anyway, but do have a thought for what happened in or to the environment to make your purchase possible.


Carbon farming | when to rant and rave

carbon farming farmland

The other day I received an invitation from the Australian government’s Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education to a forum with the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee (the DOIC). This is the committee that approves carbon accounting methodologies for the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) scheme that was touted as providing Australian farmers with the opportunity to earn carbon credits from land management change.

The invite was keen to point out that “there are now 16 methodologies available for farmers and landholders to undertake carbon offsets projects” and that “The CFI is a ground-breaking scheme offering Australian farmers and landholders the opportunity to earn carbon credits while potentially achieving environmental and productivity benefits”.

What to do?

My first rational thought was not to go. Why should I spend my own funds and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions by travelling from Sydney to Melbourne to attend a 2 hour discussion on a policy that so far has delivered nothing that a farmer could actually use. The 16 approvals to date are for methodologies related to capture of landfill gas [that most landfills had the infrastructure to do anyway], various approaches to growing trees that you cannot cut down, and avoided emissions from a few specialist activities such as piggeries. These have nothing to do with the bulk of real-world farming practices.

My instinct, however, was to attend and at some point in the proceedings stand up and bellow at the top of my lungs a string of obscenities to vent my frustration at what has been a slow and hugely inefficient process of bureaucratic numbness — not to mention the unnecessary reinvention of a wheel already fashioned by international carbon offset schemes.

Unfortunately such actions would only give me temporary relief and would be be swiftly followed by long-term personal damage. Even writing down my thoughts in this post is probably not very smart.

So instead of the rage filled rant, I will reply to the invitation politely saying, “unfortunately I am unable to attend”.

It is worth looking more closely at my frustration [and maybe at my copout].

The frustration

I have never been wholly convinced by the global approach to climate change policy.

I accept that 7 billion humans plus 10,000 years of agriculture and 200 years of global commerce have had an impact on the climate system and I know that we need to take some action.

What has always troubled me is the premise of the chosen policy that we can actually fix the damage we have caused simply by reversing our actions. As I have blogged before, King Canute really had a better chance.  That we can take an engineering solution as naive as emission reduction to a problem of this magnitude seems to be a scandalous inflation of our capability.

Does it also mean we going to fix Milankovich cycles by tweaking the tilt of the planet or take on the variation in the solar wind [both major climate drivers]? Craziness.

That said, emission reduction is prudent for two key reasons: 1) it will help economies transition away from fossil fuel energy sources to sources that are cleaner and less likely to run out and 2) in the short run will help make business more efficient. Both of these are important outcomes that have little to do with the climate.

What is missing from the policy is an understanding of the need to adapt to climate change particularly in the way we manage landscapes. Yes indeed, the very landscapes that supply almost all the food and water for all those people.

So for the CFI not to have methodologies that give farmers an opportunity to sequester carbon into soil, to rehabilitate vegetation in grazing lands, and to obtain co-benefits from more sustainable land management practices is a huge failing of the policy. And not least because these actions will also deliver adaptation as the climate changes.

So carbon, and by extension the CFI, is really about creating more sustainable and resilient landscapes and helping farmers leave behind unproductive practices  – and by the way, there is the potential for around 100,000,000 tCO2e per annum on the positive side of the national carbon account.

What is more, should carbon permit price track the international markets and come in below $10 tCO2e, land management practices that deliver carbon sequestration into vegetation and soil as well as avoiding emissions may still be cost-effective. Most land management activities sit towards the left of most cost-abatement curves and so are cheaper per ton of abatement than many of the engineering solutions.

The cop out

So why did I choose not to accept the invitation when it provided a great opportunity to scream and shout?

There is an element of shooting the messenger. Public servants are there to deliver the policy frame not necessarily to create it. It is likely that there are higher political forces that have chosen to slow down policy delivery and to steer away from the farming sector, higher than those charged with delivery.

Attending only to have a shout at the wrong people makes no sense.

There is also a feeling that attending would both validate a process that I do not agree and have little impact, particularly as providing feedback seems to have had little effect in the past. The system is still slow, lacks focus, and technical clarity.

An example from the many challenges faced by methodology developers is that the positive list cannot actually be a list of activities to take care of additionality if each methodology has to prove the validity of an activity already on the list. That negates the whole concept of a positive list approach [one tried and rejected by other schemes] seems to fall on deaf ears.

Ultimately though, I have folded and chosen not to point out the faults but to stay silent.

This does not make me feel any better.


Whilst I was drafting this post I received n update from one of the major laws firms with an interest in the carbon market. Their take on the status of the CFI is quite contrary to mine — it seems that everything is dandy. In fact they must be drinking out of a glass so half full it’s overflowing.

If only I still had the energy to talk it up.

Book title pain

MissingSomethoing3DcoverSChoosing the title of a book is huge challenge and about as troublesome as writing the thing in the first place. It should never be left to the author, as that is just cruel. Instead a dispassionate personality preferably with a commercial bent but minimal investment in the project is required. Otherwise you just generate material for standup comics who get laugh at angst.

I wallow in said angst.

So far my book titles have been as changeable as Australian prime ministers. Usually a working title sticks only to be rejected in the final hour to be replaced by option after option created, edited and also rejected.

It is a classic symptom of self-publishing pain.

Whilst playing the title game with Missing Something that, as regular readers will know, is now available from Amazon as hardcopy and Kindle ebook at terrific prices, I came up with Empathy for a warm, crowded world.

It went the way of numerous other attempts but I regret that it did. Given the book is a non-fiction account of what it means for a planet to have so many people growing ever more affluent it actually makes good sense.

Rather than rail at the environmental degradation we cause or ignore all of that because resource use is our right, maybe we just need some empathy for ourselves

We could give ourselves a hug and say:

“Well, there a lot of us now. We didn’t ask for it and we can’t change that fact or that we will need to use a whole bunch of resources. And so we mustn’t beat ourselves up about it. It is what it is. Let’s take a deep breath, accept that we have a big challenge ahead, and work together.”

Pity this is too long for a title.