Numbers that tell a story

  • $70 billion agricultural investment as bank loans to farmers
  • $40 billion on warships to be built in Adelaide
  • $2 million average farm debt in Australia
  • $1 a kilo for onions

Numbers in words…

While Australians have the 15th highest per capita GDP in the world [on IMF estimates] and the 5th highest average income among OECD countries, consumers pay next to nothing for their food [around 10% of disposable income].

Ageing farmers work an average 49 hours per week and are in debt up to their eyeballs.

The bankers insure this lending against the land value and know that global demand will keep the price of prime agricultural land high enough for their shirts to be safe.

Rather than provide food security to the region the Australian government invests in warships that the Chinese navy would overrun in the time it takes to order special fried rice.


Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic


Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.


Liability of disclosure

car-wheelsTony knows something. He glanced down at the floor just before he sat in the passenger seat of his mate Joe’s car. Under the wheel was a rusty nail.

If Joe drives off there is a good chance the nail will puncture the tyre.

“Wait a sec,” Tony says jumping out of the car and removing the nail. “OK, good to go”.

Joe looks across bewildered and drives off barely registering another eccentricity of his old mate. And oblivious to the inconvenience averted.

Tony had no reason to disclose his knowledge of the nail to Joe and as Joe didn’t ask, the incident passed without consequence.

What if Tony noticed the nail but failed to act?

Suppose he sat in the seat unmoved as Joe drove the car over the nail and was forced to spend the next twenty minutes changing to the spare and cussing at the dirt advancing toward his Armani suit.

Joe puts it down to bad luck. These things happen. It didn’t even cross his mind that Tony might have seen the nail and was in a position to prevent the damage and inconvenience.

Tony gets away with what some would consider negligence. If Tony knows that harm will happen if he does nothing then he is obliged to act. Indeed he has a liability if he doesn’t.

Should his mate Joe find out that Tony knew about the nail and didn’t get off his butt to remove it, Joe is annoyed at least and more likely will clock his mate on the nose. No more free lifts for Tony.

More important than the event is the loss of trust from failing to disclose. Joe will always have a nagging doubt about Tony’s integrity.

This is a classic moral dilemma that philosophers have pondered for generations. The problem with knowing is when and what to disclose, to whom, and with what repercussions. The legal profession has dined out at the best restaurants on answers they give to the bewildered.

There are murmurs that the risks to business from a changing climate are a nail under a tyre that everyone knows is there. Directors and trustees cannot be a negligent and not act on what they know. They are liable for this knowledge and required to disclose.

Sarah Barker has written an excellent article explaining what it all means for the champions of business — directors duties in the anthropocene — that won a Sustainalytics Awards for Excellence from the PRI in 2014.

Meantime I wonder if Tony knows what failure to act might bring beyond the loss of a mate.


After 17 hours of negotiation there is a deal. And not the one most people expected. The Greek prime minister is persuaded into accepting a bailout.

Perhaps this was always going to be the outcome. The 17 hours was just a haggle over the details. Or maybe it really was a period of intense negotiation. Only the people who were there have any chance of knowing.

Except the psychologists tell us that we make most decisions in a split second. The new handbag is after all just a click away. Our brains think fast on such matters. Instinct or desire easily and instantly make the decision for us.

Decisions on the fate of a nation must be more methodical. The pros and cons sifted and viewed from every possible angle. You’d think.

Proponents would have to present the options and their consequences, preferably with some evidence. You’d think.

The PM would have to consider, ask many questions and consult with experienced advisors. He’d want to see some numbers. A projection or two on how the deal is likely to pan out. You’d think.

In fact there is no way that 17 hours is enough for serious evaluation. The smartest communicators on the planet could not condense the complexity is so short a time. You’d think.

I have a hunch that actually not much thinking went on, just persuasion.

Or maybe the deal was done already and the talking was just face saving.


coffee-cakeHumans really are bizarre creatures. No other animal can be this smart and this blissfully unaware, whilst straining every sinew to be both.

If you get the chance, hang out in a CBD coffee shop for an hour or so.

It will be easy to tap away at your blog posts whilst eavesdropping unnoticed on the conversations of the business types at adjacent tables. You will hear some wonderful stuff.

There is the youngster with a tight haircut and equally tight pants trying to convince the senior exec that there really is something in the deal with the Saudis.

On an adjacent table a female IT consultant is negotiated out of a decent deal by a hard nosed CEO who took patronising to dizzying heights. “Perhaps you can just offer us a fixed price because, you know, when service providers give us an hourly rate price range they always charge at the high end” he suggests without a hint of a facial expression.

Another upwardly mobile CEO, not quite able to pull off the tight pants, holds forth with a real estate agent hoping to sell some office space. After half an hour of grand ideas and growth about to touch the stars, the deal is done for space only slightly larger than a shoebox. The agent is visibly deflated.

Then there is the pretty young woman on the phone to a guy who couldn’t quite make it for lunch. That was sad.

And just to prove I am not the only practitioner of the eavesdropping art, I was astounded to be interrupted in my own sinew stretching pitch to a VC by a lady on the adjacent table who had listened in and just had to tell us what she knew about our idea. That, of course, is breaking every bit of eavesdrop etiquette.

What an hour of surreptitious listening will tell you is that business people are pretty smart. They know a lot about what they do and how to get their own way.

And it will also tell you that people have no idea of anything outside their bubble. They don’t see the end of their own nose let alone the one on the person opposite.

It is quite a skill actually. To be so unaware requires true devotion to your own head. These practitioners of unawareness must live in blissful isolation lest they notice something off message. It is remarkable.

Eavesdropping can be a lot of fun. Choose a coffee shop frequented by the suited and give it a try some time. Nobody will notice you doing it.