Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.

Why?

Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Optimist

Optimist

My friend is an optimist with prostate cancer. He is in his eightieth year and given that he felt healthy, played golf every day, and had no obvious symptoms, had to think long and hard before deciding to undergo the debilitating treatment that is chemotherapy.

He is also an inspiration. Few would accept and respond to such a difficult emotional challenge of deliberately poisoning your own body because someone else told you it was necessary with the grace and magnanimity that he has shown not just at first when the whole thing is raw, but every time you see him. The good days and the bad are greeted with a spark of clarity and thanks to his god.

The other day another of my golfing buddies brought John over for a yarn and a cold one. The three of us sat for an hour, or maybe two, talking our usual nonsensical theories on how best to hit a small round object forward in a straight line, with the occasional digression into politics and a shot at the breeze. Meaningless drivel among old blokes is truly one of life’s pleasures.

At one point we got onto the environment and from there to my own latest incarnation supporting evidence-based policy. John was enthralled and then effusive. Trying to put accessible finance into the hands of landholders was the best idea he had heard in years. He was genuinely excited.

As you can already tell, John is a ‘half full glass’ type of person, a genuine optimist. Indeed, for him, the optimism and evidence conundrum does not exist to the point his glass brims over not from an excess of positivity but from putting things in their rightful place.

That he found my ideas exciting was the most encouraging thing I’d experienced for a very long time. Most days I face naysayers, antagonists and straight up enemies. I have even begun to wonder if there was any liquid at all in people’s glasses for most are not just negative they are downright aggressive towards our ideas to better understanding the management of natural resources.

Before I get too carried away though, it is true that old men drivel and mates are prone to both rib and big each other up to excess. Most of the greatest ever golf shots known to man have happened on a Sunday afternoon at Springwood Country Club. Only this seemed very different. Maybe it was the chemo or the beer or some hokey pokey between the two but what I felt was level-headed enthusiasm. A point of truth had been made.

I have known for a while that with our afterbefore thinking we are onto something.

The combination of ecological research evidence and counterfactual scenarios, all hanging about in the cloud, can make a difference. Whether we do it or not, critical decisions on sustainable production and future food security will increasingly use more evidence and less gut feel.

So thank you, John. Thank you for being one of the very few to genuinely see what needs to be done and if not by me or by afterbefore, then by someone, soon.

And may that clarity stay with you through your challenges for you have helped more than you know.

Brumby

Brumby

Recently I sent an email to Professor David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University, who had just resigned from the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

I don’t know David although he is a fellow scientist, ecologist and peer of sorts. He resigned because the NSW Government passed the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses, the brumby, a bill that not just goes against the Scientific Committee’s advice, it’s diametrically opposite to it.

Professor Watson’s resignation letter said he had better things to do with his time than provide advice that is ignored. Fair enough.

So my email was of support for an important personal decision by someone I don’t know and, for me, that is not something that happens every day.

So why reach out?

Well, the Committee had a draft determination to list wild horses as a Key Threatening Process. This means that there is sufficient scientific evidence that feral horses have a detrimental effect on native plants, animals and ecological communities, especially in alpine regions. In other words, horses are a degradation driver contributing to biodiversity loss.

Horses are like many other exotic species, they are not compatible with the objectives of protected areas. Instead, they make it much harder to protect native species because they are an unusual disturbance, one that the native plants and animals have not evolved alongside. In this instance grazing and hard-hooved trampling that alpine plants in Australia had not previously been subjected to in their recent evolution.

Think about this reality for a moment.

Everywhere that humans go they introduce species. Many of these introductions bring an evolutionary pressure not previously or at least recently present in the native communities of plants and animals. It changes the balance of evolutionary and ecological pressures. Some species benefit, for others, existence and reproduction can become more difficult. In time they are predated, eaten or competed out of the mix.

If the NSW Scientific Committee were looking at listing feral horses as a threatening process, this means there is enough research evidence that wild horses are doing this in NSW national parks, enough to see some native plants and animals at greater risk of extinction than before.

The bill, however, legislates for protection of wild horses. Passing the bill means NSW will have an Act to protect a key driver of biodiversity loss alongside a Biodiversity Act that is supposed to protect native plants and animals from the very same drivers.

It seems very odd to be so contrary, even for politicians. So why do it? It is politics of course.

Many of the wild horse in NSW occur in national parks in bellwether electorates. Seats that often swing hard at state and Federal elections and politics is sensitive just now, perhaps more so than for a while. NSW is about to enter an election, the Federal government has by-elections to worry about and is not long off its own visit to the polls. Then there is the more general turmoil around the world making a mockery of the neo-liberal political norms we have just gotten used to. The politics of horses becomes about those folk who like them for the frontier icon of rural solidity that, to many, they have always been. No matter that they trample a few native plants under-hoof. At this time the sensibility falls towards those folk with an Akubra and a whip and not the dreadlocked ones.

Unfortunately for Professor Watson, his understandable stand for sense over sensibility will only be a gesture, more important to him than anyone else. This is despite the fact that the government has just made a law to protect a driver of biodiversity loss.

It’s all desperate… and rather sad.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

Human beings continue to make illogical decisions that hasten the collapse of the natural world that supports us. Most of us die.

After several hundred years, with only a few million humans reduced to ancient style hunting, gathering and skirmishing, nature shows signs of recovery with greenery more verdant than before and wildness returning to the earth.

After a thousand years, the humans have settled into a less prolific growth cycle than before, perhaps learning from their own ancient history.

A new normal has emerged that allows evolution a bit more space to breath. New species evolve to fill the gaps left empty by the millions of species that humans eradicated.

Nature recovers from the sixth mass extinction just as it recovered from the previous five. It takes time of course, but that is nature.