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.

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