The quiet carriage

The quiet carriage

You are commuting to work on a train along with a few hundred others. It is quiet, a Monday morning. So quiet in fact that there are few sounds. The hum of the air conditioner, a rustle of a breakfast bar wrapper, an occasional cough, and the guard announcing rules for the quiet carriage.

At the next stop a young woman boards. Her phone is in her hand and she is deep in conversation. She blurts out a whinge against her family and it is loud. Her normal voice probably. She is not especially angry or agitated, as the complaining seems natural and well practised.

Now imagine what would happen if the commuters, still all quiet and respectful, were to arrive at this woman’s home this evening. They would not do anything. They are there to just stand in the corners and along the walls of the room and listen to the private conversation.

Of course, there would be incredulity and bedlam. The police would be called and the incident recorded in gossip for a generation.

The woman is easily aware of an invasion of her space but is totally oblivious to her invasion of others. In fact, if you point out to her that she might be disturbing the peace she would tell you to fuck off to the quiet carriage.

This is an insidious challenge.

Awareness of self and others is the core ingredient of both personal happiness and societal success. And it seems to be slipping away from us. As individuals retreat into their technology so they lose touch with themselves and everyone else.

Many have written about this and many more will suggest solutions. So here is mine.

Teach yoga to school kids.

Really poor leadership

Really poor leadership

Direct action on climate change is costing the Australian taxpayer over $2 billion to achieve around 177 million tCO2e or one years worth of abatement to meet the emission reduction target Australia presented in Paris.

A few people are being paid a lot of money (more than double the global market rate) to generate abatement while emitters continue to externalise their contribution to a warming world.

Policy that is in the interest of a few and the detriment of most is not good policy whatever your political leanings. Direct action is even worse because the government of the day is not committed to climate action at all. And instead of owning this position, they pay a sop to the voters, pretending to do something that is actually a way to line the pockets of a few.

The painful satire from Ross Gittings that sums up just how stupid modern politics has become tells us just how pathetic our political leadership is. And for once there is no mention of The Donald.

When something is really bad it does not tend to persist. This is true of really good things too because there is a regression to the mean in most things. The average eventually reasserts itself.

This will happen to our current leaders and perhaps to the current political system. Parliamentarians and those feeding off them should be worried.

Claiming coal is the answer in a record-breaking countrywide heatwave is as stupid as it looks. Everyone can see it.

Soon they will also see that many other policies, such as the ERF, are useless and unfair.

Disruption is at hand.




The biggest global challenges revisited

The biggest global challenges revisited

I am an ecologist of the academic kind so this typical list of the significant challenges facing humanity makes perfect sense to me

  • global biodiversity loss
  • anthropogenic pollution and associated climate change
  • land allocation
  • energy generation
  • growing global human population

Here are some similar lists from the United Nations, the Millenium Project and the World Economic Forum.

The usual suspects crop up that are mostly about loss and degradation from resource use by an ever increasing human population.

What is interesting though is how this type of list often conflates cause and effect. In the one above most of the biodiversity loss is a result of past land allocation (most people call it land clearing) itself driven by demand for food and space from a rapidly growing human population.

If we stopped population growth there will be lags before any tangible change in the consequences. There is also the small matter of resourcing the current population. So the challenges will not resolve simply by removing the driver. This is also true for many conservation issues too.

Somewhat ironically the most effective way to slow population growth is through wealth creation. When parents can see a future for their children they have fewer of them. This involves worsening the problem in order to fix it; always a risky proposition.

I propose a new list of biggest global challenges and here it is

  • raising awareness

That’s it, a list of one and only one item. If we raised awareness of self and of situation for everyone there is a good chance that the human race could persist alongside a functional environment indefinitely.

The issues on the usual list would persist for a while, but with everyone aware of them, creative solutions would be found. The reason is that awareness comes from a loss of ego. It makes most people far less concerned about themselves. They feel good from the greater good. Weird, but true.

What I really like about this list is not brevity, although that is a handy property, it’s that awareness is the solution to the fundamental producer of global challenges. The human psyche.

Awareness messes with our values, beliefs, prejudices and any number of other emotional and logical thought consequences of our brains. It challenges us to be more than slaves to ego.

This makes it a huge challenge. It dwarfs any of those on the lists of biggest global challenges.

Because it is up to you.

High-speed commuting

High-speed commuting

Here is an interesting idea that uses a solution to one problem to solve another.

House prices in the major cities of Australia are pretty much out of reach for working families not already in the market. Just to keep the roof over the kid’s bedroom is costing well over 50% of the family income for renters or buyers.

The latest solution to housing affordability is a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne financed predominantly from private capital.

Come again.

Well, the idea is that very fast transport links, such as covering the 878 km between Melbourne and Sydney in an hour of travel, would allow people to work in the city and live in the countryside where, of course, housing is much cheaper.

And should they cough up the infrastructure funds, the private sector can cash in on the growth in land values all along the route to easily cover the return on investment.

Now I should point out that the current commute from Penrith, an outer west suburb of Sydney, to the Sydney CBD, a distance of 55 km, takes at least 50 minutes on the fast train. The notion of getting to Melbourne by rail in just a few more minutes is fanciful.

You don’t want to know how long it takes to get to Canberra by rail, a destination not even half way to Melbourne. Let’s just say you’ll need to take a book.

But there are fast trains in the world and they move people around very efficiently indeed, famously so in Japan and continental Europe. And the new technologies for rapid transport systems make the working options look like a horse and cart.

Infrastructure at this scale does cost a lot of money. But there is also a lot of capital about looking for a return. So you can see why the idea emerges.

Except that it is crazily dumb.

The reason housing is so expensive is the concentration of wealth. The high paying jobs are in town and so people want to be in town. They pay rent (or a mortgage) for being close to work and this retains wealth in the city that stays in the hands of a relative few. Don’t forget the bank owns your house until the mortgage is paid off.

What would be better is if the jobs were more evenly distributed, then the people would happily move to the jobs. Demand in cities would slow and so would prices.

So instead of commuter trains, what about a high-speed rural train network designed to move produce rather than people. Give the aquaponics entrepreneur in Albury the ability to sell produce to the Sydney market where there are plenty of people still occupying the existing housing stock.

This would also get around the problem of an agricultural production system currently capital saturated. Farm business debt-equity ratios and production growth potential are maxed out under current practices. New production is needed to attract capital.

So rather than move the people to the capital why not move the capital to the people.

And this might even release some housing affordability pressure because capital has somewhere other than real estate to make a return.

Disillusioned with politics

Disillusioned with politics

Apparently, it’s not just supporters of the Donald and Pauline who are upset about the state of political leadership. The rich and influential are disillusioned with politics too.

And fair enough.

Lack of direction, courage and conviction eventually drains everyone’s resolve. We all need something or someone to look up to, compare against and even aspire to become. It is the psychological glue that keeps most religions from fading into extinction.

Australia has had a decade of hope, false starts, and farce from its federal politicians. When all leaders can do is badmouth each other for sucking up to those with real influence, then the last hope is lost.

The problem is what to do about it.

Electing in the opposition just means more of the same. It simply fuels the downward cycle. Frustrated US citizens squeaked Donald over the line and he will disrupt in ways unimagined. But little of it will be desirable, even for his supporters. At some point, that experiment will pass.

The rich and influential group mentioned earlier are up for a new democracy that involves random selection and deliberation – the jury model – as a central process rather than elected representatives. A kind of back to the ancient future.

There is merit in this. A jury reaches a decision based on evidence and the inference they draw from it. Logic, reasoned argument and debate come together into consensus solutions that should make decisions more trustworthy. They should, at least, be less affected by partisan or vested interest.

The problem is the quality of the inference. Can a citizens assembly or jury have enough capacity to sift the evidence supplied to them for complex decisions like the design of the national broadband network or defence procurement or health funding? It would be instructive to find out.

It cannot be any worse than the ministerial Merry-go-round.