Career choices

career-choiceEver wondered why you do what you do?

Maybe back in your youth you thought carefully, analyzed the options, took stock and then embarked on a career path clearly chosen. Later you were probably equally thoughtful about if and when to veer off the path. Such conscious thought may even extend to immediate issues of when to push for promotion [or not] and when to change jobs [or not].

Equally likely is that the career chose you. There was no need for any fancy analysis or second-guessing, your vocation beckoned and you responded like a moth to a light.

Today I was struck by an observation that suggests that whether we think of ourselves as pragmatic or instinctual, more subtle forces may be at play to explain what we do.

Complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. In all systems there are properties that emerge simply because of complexity.  Add flour, salt, yeast, water and some energy in the right sequence and a loaf of bread emerges. This much is intuitive and we easily relate to the idea that there really is “more than the sum of the parts”.

In human systems that are crazily complex, there is a school of thought that the most important emergent property is an inertia that resists innovation and change. Put people together in an organization and very soon there is resistance to new ideas that you would not see if you just talked to people one on one. The collective personality shuns change and protects the conventional wisdom far more than individuals do.

This emergent property has far reaching implications for human society as our numbers grow, resources deplete and organizations get bigger and more complex.  It also means something to why we do what we do. I suspect that many a career is chosen through our degree of attraction or aversion to this inertia. It explains why so many professions are populated by people who fit the stereotype for that career — no need to be smarmy here with examples of lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats and the like for you know what I mean.

What is interesting is the relatively small proportion of career options for those with an aversion to this inertia. It is strong in entrepreneurs, the self-employed and maybe some branches of the arts.

The majority of us are at work in an organization. We even join organizations in our spare time to play, worship and give back. There is clearly something about that inertia that is soothing and makes us feel safe. At some level we recognize the emergent property and quite like it.

And maybe our grumpy gripes about these organizations that we spend all our time involved, together with our chirping about those that govern the societies in which we live, are actually our aversion response. Unable to cope with the relative insecurity of risky careers we go to work for an organization then satisfy our concerns that inertia might have a downside by complaining much of the time.

At the heart of this is that we instinctively know that the growing complexity and the inertia that goes with it will back us into a corner. We will loose the nimble problem solving abilities that made us so successful as a species as resistance to change erodes our ability to adapt.

Facing our growing pile of environmental issues without this skill will be far more troublesome that how to select a career.

Sounds crazy #6 | Policy choice

The current world population is 7,174,691,000 growing at around 9,000 per hour.

Roughly 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day — 1 billion is also the estimate of the world population size in 1804

Policy choices…

Paid parental leave and the baby bonus.

Stop the boats.

Sounds pretty crazy to me.

Present moment awareness

confused confucius questionsAll the new age gurus that have managed to score a publishing deal tell us that most of our emotional troubles come from the twin fears of anxiety over the future and holding on to the past.

Somewhat surprisingly they are all pretty consistent in this message. This could be because they all borrowed it from the same old sage who sat and mused for a while under a fig tree, or it could be because there is truth in it.

They are also pretty consistent in their suggestions for solutions. Live in the present, the now, for that is all there is. Cultivate present moment awareness and all will be well. You will still feel all the same fears only they will have their place and so cause far less emotional pain, and, ultimately, should enlightenment come, no pain at all.

The books that now clutter the self-help shelves are mostly about the myriad tactics to achieve this awareness. They include  the tried and tested yoga, meditation and four agreements, to any number of whacky options with products peddled via websites in Kazakhstan.

So here is a question. If all we need to do is live in the now. Indeed, if all that is possible is the now, aren’t we already in it?

If so, and contrary to the observations you can make on any commuter train carriage, we are all walking around in a state of enlightenment with no need for a broom in a mountain monastery.

This is the kind of renaissance logic you might expect from Alloporus, all scientific and rational without even a piquant of metaphysics. Except it might be worth a thought.

We all walk around in the now — we have to for there is nothing else. And yet we also perambulate in blissful ignorance of most things that will actually influence the future we fear.

The conundrum that faces us is the requirement to leave the now so as to consider and prepare ourselves for the future. How else would be able to arrest the current erosion of natural capital, avert conflict over scarce resources, and, more fundamentally, even become aware that such risks assail us?

Leave the now so as to be in the now when it arrives in the future.

It is all mind bending trickery that explains why the packed shelves of guru wisdom have nothing much to say about the environment.

A guru of our own

By the way, Alloporus has searched far and wide under many a fig tree to find a guru worth sharing with its loyal readers. After many miles, many false alarms, pretenders and brushes with dodgy acolytes, finally we have a guru worth quoting.

Confused Confucius is its gender-neutral name.

This wise one has yet to sell out to the publishing world proudly posting regular pearls of wisdom from and to the universe for free on Confused Confucius.

Whilst this acceptance of social media is surprising in a sage, more so is that ConCon is not afraid to leave the now and speculate on our environmental future.

Check it out | Confused Confucius

Sounds crazy #5 | Carbon price forecasts

August 2013 is silly season here in Australia. We have a federal election in just a few weeks time and the inevitable merry-go-round of vacuous media grabs and absence of policy debate is upon us. It is actually rather depressing as the main parties jostle to hog the middle ground to spend money they don’t have whilst no one else can come up with anything better than “vote for me”.

It is also rather absurd. On the rare occasion when media do delve beyond the rhetoric, or for some unknown reason you dig yourself for evidence to help make a voting choice, what emerges are gems like this pre-election outlook from Treasury.  Somehow the economic boffins that work for the ministry have managed to predict that the carbon price that in Australia is currently fixed at $23 will first fall to $6.20 in 2014/15 [fair enough as the start of the flexible price period when the domestic scheme is pegged to the EU market has been brought forward a year] and then rise to $18.90 by 2016/17 reaching $38.0 by 2020.

Now we should remember that this is what is supposed to happen to a carbon price. The whole idea was that to ensure steady emission reduction the carbon market is capped so that supply is squeezed over time causing prices to rise. A rising price on carbon would encourage energy thrift and starts to make clean energy sources economically viable with the net effect of lower emissions. Except that the political will to set, stick to and steadily lower the cap has been conspicuously absent.

Alloporus borrowed a graph of the historical carbon price in the EU published by Point Carbon and appended the Treasury projections.

It looks like this:

CarbonPriceProjections

As regular readers will know Alloporus is no economist, but whilst $20 seems possible, $40 by 2020 is hugely over-optimistic. It would require a significant step change around 2015 to reverse a market that has a t best been steady but mostly fallen. Such a change would need considerable and coordinated global political will to achieve. No single nation would stick their neck out that far [probably why the Australian government linked the domestic scheme to the international market so as to neatly sidestep the pressure to go it alone].

Then consider that by 2020 we will have seen price shocks in oil [and possibly coal too] that, even if temporary, will have the required effect on emission reduction without the need for a separate policy. In other words fluctuations in energy needs in response to inevitable pulses in the global economy will allow the modest emission reduction targets to be met most of the time.

Of course politically it is best if the carbon price is low, but for any cap-and-trade policy to be effective the price needs to rise steadily. Alloporus suspects that the carbon price forecast from Treasury sound like some middle ground plucked from the ether for political expedience.

The craziness here is that a lot of money has been spent and committed to deliver emission reductions — a ‘clean energy future’ as the policy was tagged. Except that the cap-and-trade approach chosen only works if the price of permits [the carbon price] rose steadily over time. And this required that the market was manipulated buy controlling permit and offset credit supply. Now that governments have shied away from that part of the plan, the whole policy falls over and monies spent on free permits for exposed sectors and, in the case of Australia tax threshold adjustments and cash payments to households, turn into welcome handouts that have no impact on emissions at all.

$38.0 by 2020 is what they would like it to be, except wishful thinking cannot make it so. You actually have to implement the policy.

Slow, slow, quick, quick

It was 1987 at the end of the dry season, 26 years ago almost to the day that I first visited a non-descript patch of miombo woodland near Marondera on the Highveld of Zimbabwe.

Scattered amongst the mature Brachestegia and Julbernardia trees were many wooden boxes all set on stilts ready and waiting to catch anything that fell from above. On the woodland floor beneath the cathedral canopy were mesh bags containing known volumes of leaf litter steadily decomposing, some with and some without the attentions of termites, ants and their tiny critter cousins. Everywhere there were small plastic flags of pink and yellow popping up from the lichen covered soil like daffodils in spring.

As a bushy tailed postdoctoral fellow my job was to take all this in. I then had to figure out how to make reliable counts of all the soil animals in this small patch of savannah and, for good measure, in the adjacent maize field.  Over the coming months many a sweaty day went by digging through that sandy Marondera soil but also much joy when sometime later the results were published in a peer-reviewed journal. The paper entitled ‘Abundance, biomass and diversity of soil macrofauna in savanna woodland and associated managed habitats’ was published in Pedobiologia [a journal title that sounds a bit dodgy but is actually quite legit as pedon is the Greek word for soil] and provided much academic satisfaction and a handy unit of kudos.

CO2 enrichment Cumberland Plain WoodlandEarlier this week I visited a rather similar patch of woodland. Only this time it was in Australia just 30 minutes drive from home where a parcel of Cumberland Plain woodland owned by the University of Western Sydney had been similarly commandeered for scientific research.

The litter traps and mesh bags were all present along with the ubiquitous daffodil like flags. The major difference was that there were also vast steel cages that formed circular sampling plots around clusters of trees designed expertly and with considerable precision to enhance the carbon dioxide levels throughout the vegetation. Once I forced myself to ignore the $40 million outlay for the infrastructure and the $1.5 million per year just to supply the extra carbon dioxide, it was a real back to the future experience. All that was missing was the soothing aroma from the tannins as they volatilize from the floor of the African bush.

Aside from the complex technology and infrastructure to enhance CO2 levels it felt like not much had changed. Today’s researchers were sampling the soil biology in pretty much the same way.  The challenges of understanding the complex biology that goes on under our feet were still there and no amount of high-tech wizardry had yet helped to break us out of the sampling constraints.

We like to think of research as being at the cutting-edge. It is after all where we find out solutions to our problems and create greater understanding that can be used to improve our lives.

Certainly since 1987 there have been major advances in a whole range of fields — back then the iPad or even the mobile phone were not even imagined let alone in use by everyone. What I took away from my déjà vu visit the notion that even when well resourced, progress is not a given.  Advances are just as likely to be patchy or steady and rarely come in spurts.

Back in 1987 the idea that soil could be defined as much by its biology as its structure was an exciting ‘new’ thing. There were a host of applications from understanding the basics of how natural systems functions to practical advances for agriculture and forestry.

Interestingly it is still a ‘new’ thing. Progress has trundled rather than sprinted along. Somehow all those benefits of understanding and managing soil biology failed to reach the farm gate [perhaps because it was easier to throw in some fertilizer].

Fortunately there is a new generation of the bright and bushy tailed. Only this time I suspect there really will be serious attention outside the close world of academia. We cannot achieve the push toward the next doubling of agricultural production that demand projections say we will need by 2030 without a hefty input from soil biology, not least because we are reaching the limits of yield benefit from fertilizer application.

So more power to those modern pioneers pumping CO2 into Cumberland Plain woodland and to their research colleagues around the world and let’s hope we can get a foxtrot happening.

Here are the citations

Dangerfield J.M. (1990) Abundance, biomass and diversity of soil macrofauna in savanna woodland and associated managed habitats. Pedobiologia 34: 141—151

Dangerfield J.M. (1990) The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann)(Isoptera; Termitidae) within a miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology 28: 15—20

Soil productivity | maxing it out

dung-maize-fieldHumans are extraordinary competitive creatures. We have found myriad more or less peaceful ways to challenge ourselves from sports to corporate takeovers. We even harass each other for parking spots at the shopping mall.

And everyone does it, even nerdy types. They will play ‘Warhammer’ or go for best online score on their ‘Words with friends’ app. My own nerd gene forces me to log my golf score into a spreadsheet after every round for a record of my personal best, all in the knowledge that because I avoid the club competitions, the only person I can beat is myself.

This requirement to compete means we are not programmed for moderation. We like the best, fastest, strongest, and would be those if we could.

A World Bank project in Kenyan used this instinct to help subsistence farmers grow more food on their tiny 1 ha plots. If a farmer adopted more sustainable land management practices he would receive a payment for the additional carbon his actions sequester into the soil. More importantly his yields of maize, yams and beans increase.

The instinctive requirement to outgrow your neighbor helped enormously in getting the project started and with uptake. No small feat considering a rural community of some 60,000 needed to change some life-long habits in order to receive money from air!

I learned about this interesting example [one of the few successful land-based carbon projects activities that are not about growing trees] at an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change’ Forum held in Sydney recently.

Whilst the mood in the room was congratulatory toward the guest presenter who had made the long journey from Washington, there was a question for the presenter from a vastly experienced CSIRO agronomist with firsthand knowledge of the project area.  He wanted to know why, even though productivity improved, the maize yields were just one third of the potential for the district. Did the farmers not have access to inorganic fertilizer? “No they didn’t” was the predictable answer.

But what struck me was the intent behind the question. It was though the ‘increase yield by a little and enough to encourage the farmers’ was not right. If the potential yield is three times that, we should try to max it out.

Why stop at just a small yield gain when there was all that potential left in the ground?

No matter that the question was posed politely. There was no doubt it was a criticism. The project was underselling that soil potential — surely the farmers would be better off with three times the yield rather than modest gains off a low base.

Well no they wouldn’t.

Even if the soil productivity potential was much higher than realized, it was only possible with more intensive farming at significant financial cost.  Taking on a growing reliance on inputs, farmers would risk the debt spiral that afflicts so many of their cousins in the West [including Australia]. And, needless to say, subsistence meant there were no resources to purchase inputs anyway.

Whilst moving to a high input system might increase yield, it would also put pressure to adopt other profitable options such as economies of scale. Surely it would be better to merge those 1 ha plots into much larger units that could accommodate mechanization.

You see the point. Our CSIRO friend had a paradigm in his head based on what he knew would work best from his viewpoint — and that involves commerce, commerce that feeds on competition.

Maxing it out might increase yield but it would put great strain on both the human and the physical system. It seems unlikely that those 60,000 people in the project area could reallocate the 40,000 ha without most of them having to suppress their innate competitive instinct. In other words we would be asking most of them give up their options to participate in the competitive paradigm that spawned the solution we have suggested. Bizzare.

When it comes to feeding the global population both locally and that commercial scale, we will need to suppress the competitive gene and think more pragmatically. Maxing it out is just brinkmanship. We need to come up with far more equitable and environmentally benign solutions.

A modest incentive to adopt sustainable practices buys time for us to figure it out.

 

 

Soil carbon | What we think

I wonder what went through Steve Jobs mind just after the image of the iPad came into it?

Perhaps it was an original idea that formed in a flash of inspiration from the ether — the sort of thing that happens to imaginative types.

Or it could have been a steady accumulation of images, ideas and bits of less elegant technology that came at him from all and sundry that suddenly coalesced into something elegant.

Maybe it arrived as he peered over the shoulder of an Apple designer.

No doubt Wikipedia or the upcoming biopic knows the answer to what the origins were, but we can only speculate as to what he was actually thinking.

It was probably something like…

Hey, I’m really onto something here. Finally a device that everyone will want to have and fits our brand so well our competitors will just have to make copies. And hey, there’s big bucks in it.

You can bet he wasn’t thinking…

Oh boy, I have seen this all before. Crazy how it takes so long to get good ideas to stick, I mean I dreamt this little design up years ago. It will cost so much to develop that I can’t see anyone wanting to buy one from a store or even eBay — that is if the hardware people can even make the thing.

I reckon a big part of the reason Mr Jobs enjoyed so much success is that he didn’t ever think the glass was half empty.

And I don’t mean this in the ‘ra, ra, ra’ kind of can do attitude that Americans are so prone. I get the feeling that his was more a sense of knowing when the idea is right and that it would work.

Recently I attended an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change Forum’

organized jointly by the United States Study Centre, University of Sydney and the DIICCSRT [the Australian federal government department of many acronyms that includes the bureaucrats responsible for implementing climate change policy]. There were 80+ people present who all had more than a passing interest in promoting soil health. Some were just crazy passionate about it… and good on them.

Soil heath is a timely and critical topic. In many ways it is a ‘Jobsesque’ idea being simple, elegant, functional and ultimately something that we cannot live without. A global population that will rattle around 10 billion for at least half a century will go hungry if we stick with the current paradigm of soil as a place to put plant roots and inorganic fertilizer. The biology of soil is what gives its potential to sustain and provide, and whilst we do not fully understand why, managing for soil biology is the agricultural equivalent of an iPad.

So it was depressing [a carefully chosen word] to listen to an apologetic speech outlining how DIICCSRT, who as part of their atmospheric responsibilities also deliver the Carbon Farming Initiative, have failed to get soil carbon management onto its list of CFI offsets.

It wasn’t that there are technical challenges to soil carbon accounting for everyone knows there are. They are as fundamental as decisions to measure or model or even to go with simple activity reporting. They also involve gathering in uncertainty about what agricultural management does to soil carbon stocks [although here I believe we know more than we realize].

It wasn’t even that it has taken so long. We all knew it would.

What was so depressing was that the glass was half empty… and oh so hard to fill

Whatever Steve Jobs thought when the iPad first registered in his mind, you can be sure it was hugely positive.

Luckily the tone of the soils workshop was rescued thanks to a presentation from an overseas guest from the research arm of the US Department of Agriculture. His was a glass ready to be filled. He knew we had a problem with soil and that it was a big one. He knew that it was going to be hard to convince his research staff that they didn’t yet have all the answers and that the solutions would probably come from left field, possibly even from the ‘snake oil’ salesmen. It was going to be about going where we might not be wholly sure of ourselves because that was where the answers would be found.

He didn’t quite say, “boldly go”, but that was what he meant. I was hugely enthused.

It could be argued that we need both of these opposing attitudes to challenges. We need the naysayers to keep out feet on the ground and we need the ‘gung ho’ types so we can keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I think that we don’t yet know how to get the balance right and, in Australia at least, we are stuck. When it comes to environmental policy we have become paralyzed, exquisitely versed in stalling tactics and so fearful of innovation that we fear it like the devil. This is not good and may well be our undoing.

Mr Jobs would have shaken his head.