The Kardashian Index

Take a look at this graphic. It records the number of two somewhat related terms — climate change and food security — appear in Google searches.


The data is for the number of searches over time presented as relative to the peak number of searches that in this case was for climate change in December 2009, the Copenhagen COP [out].

Now we have talked about these trends before [Climate change | Google trends #1 and Biodiversity | Google trends #2 ] and concluded that either everyone now knows all they need to about these terms and so has no further need for the Google Gods, or nobody cares.

What we need is something more positive, something trending in the right direction. All we have to do is add another term to climate change and food security.


Now the numbers are relative to a new peak for Kim Kardashian in June 2013, presumably because we wanted to know about her new beau.

The averages are meaningful here of course. Relative to that heady peak, the proportional averages mean that we need to know 30x more about Kim than the other two boring terms.

And we still want to know more. None of this ‘we know already’ about Kim for there is always something new to find out. People are still interested.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best source of information on how the world is travelling is to follow this Kardashian Index. It is, after all, going in the right direction — none of this decline or flat lining nonsense.

Governments, market analysts, even environmentalists need go no further than keep their eye on Kim’s search rankings to have a reliable, predictable and highly informative measure of the state of the planet.

And respect to Google for providing this index for free.

Ah, the depths to which we fall.

Postscript | I guarantee that with Kardashian as a keyword tag this post will receive orders of magnitude more views than any other on this blog… Thanks Kim.

That’s Africa

Okavango Africa.jpgLast Wednesday night I tuned in to the ABC News24 coverage of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela expecting somber reverence or perhaps the kind of party that only Africans can do.

I should have known it would be something else.

The start was delayed by the requirement for every dignitary to make his or her own special entrance aided by typically inept African organizing but, conveniently, heavy rain could take the blame.

And nobody seemed to mind.

Filling in the airtime was anther matter. The ABC wheeled in a former activist who had struggled against the apartheid regime and then escaped [long before Mandela was released] to become an Australian citizen.

Unfortunately he was sadly bitter. His deep hurt and anger had travelled with him and he still had it in spades. His comments ran as though the oppressors were still oppressing and Nelson Mandela had not existed.  This attitude of hatred and recrimination was exactly what Mandela knew he had to diffuse. The miracle was that through courage and compassion he did it for a nation, but sadly not for this exile.

Quickly we abandoned the ABC and its disrespectful commentator and streamed the coverage.

You had to laugh out loud at the antics.

There were the random guys in the foyer as the dignitaries arrived. These are the traditional ‘hangers around’ that are everywhere in Africa, who obviously had nothing to do but hang around. Presumably they had security clearance… presumably.

There was an extraordinary performance by a gospel cum rap singer trying desperately to energise the crowd to God by being energetic himself. As his antics became more and more exuberant another random guy assigned to hold an umbrella over the singer was finding it more and more difficult to complete his assigned task. He was stoic and hugely comical as he did his best.

Then there was the huge amusement of Ban Ki Moon claiming the applause of another African dignitary as the latter ascended the stage to be embarrassingly ignored by the UN Secretary General.

President Obama showed how to calm the restless crowd with an impassioned speech that closed in on the truth of what Mandela gave us. Cleverly he still managed a sly dig at the current crop of African leaders who cannot hold a candle anywhere near the father of the nation. Only he spoilt it later by helping the Danish PM take a selfie — and we thought only Kevin Rudd did that.

And there were the boos for President Jacob Zuma. Not, as I thought at the time, because there was politics even at the memorial service for one of the world’s greatest, but because he had not made the day a public holiday. Fair enough, he deserves a slap for that.

Then we ran out of steam and let the remaining hours of the ceremony go.

The bit we watched was classic Africa, full of cheer, cheek and irreverence layered over famously sloppy organization. It rained and was obviously cold, went on for hours, and still the people danced to celebrate a great life.

I reckon Madiba was watching all the antics as proud as punch with his famous smile lighting up the heavens.

Shed a tear

NelsonMandelaEveryone has written a eulogy for Nelson Mandela, I unashamedly shed a tear.

I knew that he would pass away as we all must, but I did not expect to feel his passing as though he was my own kin. Sadness, loss, grief and loneliness boil away in my soul as though I had lost my best friend.

Yes he was a hero of mine.

And yes I lived in southern Africa during the decade that straddled his extraordinary transition from prisoner to democratically elected president.

And yes I experienced the palpable change in everyone on his release — it was heady to live through history.

And yes, I could not believe that any one man could be so courageous and so compassionate at the same time, or hold on to both for so long. I still can’t. It was a miracle.

And because in worldly terms he was no saint he should be remembered as one.

All of this I know and many millions more will glimpse these things as the world pays its respects to greatness and genius.

But it does not fully explain my upset.

Somehow nerves have been gripped and emotion seared by the passing of a man I never met on a continent an ocean away. And I think it is the combination of courage and compassion that I lament. Mandela held up for all to see this essence of true leadership that is so despairingly rare. And now he is gone.

I feel the loss deeply. For right now it is leadership that we so desperately need.

No doubt my emotions will settle in time and maybe words will come that might help others understand his greatness, for hope will linger in his remembrance.

Just now it is hard not to weep uncontrollably for Madiba.


Springwood golf clubHow do you know when it is you who has failed or when the system has failed? Is it possible to tell the difference or even what failure is at all?

Everyday life is enough to trigger such anguished questions in all of us. Should we ‘man up’ and take responsibility or go the way of the mountaintop and realize that nothing is ever fired directly at us?

Recently a series of events made my own thoughts about failure acute.

First I enjoyed a delightful [if somewhat rainy] charity golf day to raise money for bushfire victims. The local community rallied as it has done consistently since 193 homes were lost in a fire that an ecologist friend of mine described as a huge blowtorch.

Sponsors showered golfers with freebies and the golfers duly purchased vast numbers of raffle tickets and made generous bids in the auction when the golfing was done. The clubhouse was packed with people and there was a palpable sense of unity in a shared cause… and that isn’t so common in these distracted days.

Out on the course it was a team game [the scramble format for those in the know] and we were doing ok. We had an ideal handicap mix and the will to win that seems to gush out of every golfers pores no matter their [in]ability.

Coming to the last two holes we knew we had a bit of chance but really needed a couple of birdies. Drive, 6 iron, putt gave us one. Then, a 9 iron to two feet. That was two and enough for a credible 4th place. We were quietly chuffed with that.

Not a failure at all and, for me, sticking that 9 iron when it [kind of] mattered made me quite proud of myself. Such moments make the memories of an amateur sporting life.

I’ll pass over the conversation a few days later with a social media marketing guy who politely said I would never make any money from my books along with the ongoing anguish that is every consultants daily grind — clients who, bless their cotton socks, don’t really want the help you are offering — and cut to the chase.

The system of information gathering on how the environment works in the state of NSW is, abruptly, surplus to requirements, along with the conceptual framework that supports environmental decision-making.

The new[ish] state government have thrown out statewide natural resource management targets and cut the guts out of the human capital and budgets that previously gathered data on the health of the environment. A brutal dismantling that stinks of the political polemic.

Why would anyone do this? Knowledge is power and always has been. The environment is and always has been the foundation of our success, not to mention the source of what keeps each and everyone of us alive. So why stop trying to understand it by scrimping on the measly current spend on collecting the data?

Perhaps it is a sinister plot, a backlash against all those closet greenies in the previous government who had run the show [somewhat corruptly as it turns out] for more than a decade. Or, more worryingly, a belief that natural capital is inexhaustible and that humans were invented to mobiise it into wealth, fast cars and tea parties.

Whatever the reason the news hit me as a monumental personal failure. Clearly I had nothing to do with the decision or any influence over it either way and yet I took it personally.

Even as I fought the illogical feelings with personal pep talks and a viewing of Despicable Me 2, anguish was taking hold. It has since solidified into a funk that if I don’t shake it loose will sit for a long time in the pit of my stomach.

Of course there is some justification for my malaise.

Since the early 1990’s I have been variously teaching, researching, advising, criticizing, developing and talking up environmental monitoring — I even switched out of academia into the risky world of entrepreneurship to build an environmental monitoring company that for a time helped accumulate data and understanding.

Wearing my consultant’s hat I have prepared countless reviews of strategy and provided policy advice on MER that has consistently talked it up and tried to explain the value proposition. Recently I even came up with some new approaches to data analyses that will add more value to the raw numbers.

And it feels like it was all for nothing.

Only worse, it also feels like I should have done more to make it obvious, even to blind Freddie, that monitoring the environment was worth it for everyone.

As I write there is still a lead weight in my midriff that I am sure will take some shifting…

But this too shall pass.

Time will lighten the load and another golf game will see a white ball fly and land somewhere near the flag.

I hope.

Sounds Crazy #8 | Wild Planet: North America

Fallow DeerWe all know that Sir David Attenborough has cornered the media market on all things natural history. Especially his TV shows that shine with balanced content, unique delivery and cutting edge camera and sound, all combined expertly to let nature show off.

So anyone trying to compete has to find another way.

We have had the ‘awww, so cute’ approach with every second shot a frolicking offspring of something furry. These shows inevitably spill over into ‘animals are so like us’ commentary to anthropomorphize the world and make us all feel safe and special.

Then we have the ‘OMG its so scary’ take. In this version the world is wild with sharks, lions and venomous biting creatures tugging at the dual thrill of fear and courage in the face of it. This is pretty easy stuff to sell given our innate and now everyday aversion to anything not wrapped in plastic. Nature cannot be anything other than scary from the inside of a McMansion.

Wild Planet: North America is a new natural history series that went to free-to-air in Australia recently. The first episode had more than enough cute and cuddlies with images showing but not telling us that bear cubs are still oh so lovable when they ‘smile’ [don’t get me started].

The narrative, however, was more about the courage and tenacity of nature that, even in the face of extreme hardship, always succeeds without any apparent effort — qualities that humans [or more specifically Americans] also possess in abundance.

Funny enough it was almost believable and I can hear the whoopin’ and hollarin’ along with backslapping and sounds of patriotic zeal bellowing from the lounge rooms of the mid-west even now.

So far so good, especially as some of the footage was excellent [camera technology really has made nature more accessible] and included plenty of unedited raw stuff made with tooth and claw.

Then came the crazy part.

The initially subliminal but in the end overt message of the first episode was that all this nature was out there on our doorstep, wild, untouched, and free. It was still all there doing its thing without threat or risk other than from the teeth of a mountain lion.

Of course I may be jumping the gun here and in fact the producers are softening us to make the punch line stark — nature is in great peril and we need to pay attention to it as we sprawl our cities and fields ever wider. Traditionally of course this ‘save the world’ message is saved for the final episode.

Only I couldn’t help thinking that actually they meant it.

Those who coughed up the cash [perhaps card carrying members of the tea party] really wanted the whoopin’ and zeal they engendered to feel secure. The images of wilderness and wildlife were permanent no matter what. We could go just outside our doorstep and capture such images any time we want — there is nothing we could do to ever lessen Mother Nature.

No need to worry folks, she is still wild and free, just like she has always been.

Now that really is crazy.

Natural capital

Okavango delta Botswana.jpgSuppose you are given $100,000 as an inheritance and told to live off it for a year. You are also told not to worry too much because there would be more money from the estate coming your way in the future.

It would be a pretty safe bet that most of us would happily spend at least some of this $100,000 bonus — perhaps a new car, maybe a nice holiday or two.

The cautious amongst us might put most of the money aside for a rainy day knowing that in the real world such windfalls are rare and we would be right not to be taken in by promises of it being windy again next year.

Now suppose that the $100,000 was definitely a one-off with no unexplained windfalls to follow. Receive the capital as a one off and a few more of us might decide to invest it and only spend the interest — invested wisely $100,000 would yield enough return on investment for a nice vacation each year for years to come.

Now suppose that the relative who left the money to you was not quite so well off or maybe there were a few other relatives to share the legacy and the sum bequeathed was $1,000.

It is unlikely that this amount would be spent on shares, bonds or bullion.

More likely it would be absorbed into the current account of everyday life and barely touch the sides.

Now consider an admittedly rare and unlikely situation where the relative was Buffet-like wealthy and left you a more serious $10,000,000.

You could spend all of this in a year but you would be getting quite a lot of ebay deliveries. Even with the attentions of the taxman, most normal folk would have trouble spending the annual interest on this sum.

If the money didn’t go to your head the interest on investment would see you and your family live like kings indefinitely.

All this makes sense. It has been explained many times over and the subtleties consume the days and nights of many a financier.

So here is a question. Why do we ignore all these fundamentals when it comes to natural capital?

We treat natural capital — the fundamentals of nature that supply useful goods and services — as though it were in the $10 million bracket: infinite, and inexhaustible with endless yield.

Admittedly there is some justification for this. Agriculture has leveraged natural capital most efficiently. We know this because there are now 7 billion of us. The mines and drilling rigs still bring minerals and fossil fuels to help us create goods and power with apparently no end on sight… yet.

Only it is just like the $10 million. It sounds like a huge sum for most people. And yet just like the majority of lottery winners, even big sums can be spent given enough profligacy

It is time that we both learn and accept that natural capital is finite and that we should pay the same attention to nurturing its yields as the investment bankers do attending to their profits.