Never leave a number alone

Never leave a number alone

Is 90,000 a big number?

It could be.

If 90,000 were the number of…

  • children who died from preventable diseases in the last month it would be both big and tragic and unacceptable
  • passengers aloft in commercial airliners at any given time, then a whole heap of airlines would go bust overnight given there are roughly a million people in the air at any one time
  • potholes per km of road you would be in Zambia

The problem is that on its own 90,000 has no context or comparison. It is meaningless.

I could tell you that 90,000 ha of native vegetation cleared for agriculture is a policy review trigger. Farmers apply to legally manage or clear native vegetation on their properties and when the cumulative area of approvals reaches 90,000 ha it is agreed in advance to take a close look at the policy. Noting that during the policy development any agreement on the trigger number was hard-fought, for there are advocates for zero hectares and those who believe that no number is big enough.

At least this 90,000 has context. It represents an area of land and has a purpose.

Even with context 90,000 will have advocates who claim the economic progress from agricultural development and detractors who lament the loss of native plants from the landscape. On its own, 90,000 ha just garners opinions, even as a trigger number.

What 90,000 really needs is some company.

To know its place and find meaning in its existence the 90,000 needs to have some other numbers. For example, the area of native vegetation under conservation, restoration or active management (12,863,450 ha), the area of winter crop for 2018 (3,100,000 ha) or a string of numbers such as the area converted to arable agriculture each year for the last 50 years (curiously this value is difficult to pin down). Only when 90,000 ha has other numbers can it find itself, make sense and contribute to society.

This is true of almost all reported numbers.

Suppose a Minister announces with great fanfare a further $4 million in funding for schools. Not bad you might think. It would take the average Joe a couple of working lifetimes or a lottery win to get that kind of cash.

In Australia, $4 million is enough for the salaries and overheads of roughly 40 teachers for one year. These teachers would be expected to look after 560 students, quite a few it would seem. Only there are 1.52 million high school students in Australia making 560 a tiny proportion of those seeking erudition and selfies.

So the 40 extra teachers recruited from the Minister’s largess would teach 0.036% of the high school population for one year.

After that, the Minister would need to make another announcement.

Now back to the 90,000 ha.

It is certainly a precautionary number in its context of area treated under a native vegetation policy. As a proportion of the area of NSW (80.9 million ha) it is minuscule, even as a proportion of area under arable production it is small.

Then there is an unprecedented fire season and over 5 million hectares is burnt by bushfires that rage for months, the largest covering more than 800,000 hectares of continuous forest.

This time 90,000 ha has a very different context. Fire is not the same as clearing for most trees will recover from fire and seedlings will establish in the ash beds when it rains but the point is that the area needs context.

It is worth discussion if the trigger is just 10% of the area of a single fire.

Comparison is always critical when dealing with numbers. On its own, a number makes no sense, its naked, self-conscious and insecure. It needs some context for clothing and some friends to compare against.

Next time there is an argument over a single number — like there will be over the 5 million+ hectares of bushland burnt in the NSW summer of 2019 — remember you can’t leave it on its own.


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Activism might actually work this time

Activism might actually work this time

Whenever something frightening is real and present, people tend to cooperate. This is remarkable.

All that needs to happen for cohesion to overtake personal gain is danger felt by everyone… within the same tribe.

Cohesion through connection with others when the going is tough appears to be a hard-wired behaviour that probably saved the species more than once over a tortuous evolution.

I have experienced the feeling when a bushfire, whipped into house felling ferocity by a windstorm, passed close by our home and then, turning back on itself, came into our neighbourhood. People were scared. Everyone feared for their lives and their possessions, even as they helped each neighbour, in turn, protect theirs.

Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real and you look similar enough to the folk needing or giving help.

This behaviour is exploited by activists the world over. The threat of this, the fight against that, dangerous climate change, the death of the oceans.

Wait. That last one isn’t dangerous to me, surely.

The idea being that if enough danger is realised by each individual then emotions are triggered and we all get together to fight the good fight.

Unfortunately with the environment, it fails every time.

The fight is only in the extreme and for many of the most serious environmental issues, such as running out of rock phosphorus — ah-ha not expecting that one, hey — there is no personal extreme.

This systemic rather than acute pain applies to climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, soil degradation and a host of other issues.

It is very hard to fight something that you cannot see.

So the activists latch onto the koala, the tiger or the manatee.

At least you can get a visual on these critters and imagine the loss of cuteness.

This need for personal danger or at least a visual that is relatable, is starting to happen in the climate change debate.

This is partly through the ‘climate emergency’ idea that is declared by an increasing number of jurisdictions and organisations. It is also, more tellingly, through the very real feeling among the youngsters that the current system is mortgaging their future. That their parents are letting the powers that be, political or otherwise, raid their legacy for profit under the notion that economic growth is a necessity.

It also helps that forests are burning into suburbs and whole cities are choked with toxic air from the smoke.

The logical and the morals of this premise are now in the frame as much as the nebulous and unrelatable 3 degrees of warming.

It means we can get real activism. The sort of thing that will bring people together and bring forth leaders with progressive thinking and a sense of urgency. Not through the current generation of stupid white men who have a disproportionate impact on the world, but the kids who will grow up to take their place.

For the first time in a long while, there is hope that leaders will not be predominantly white or men or stupid.


If you enjoyed this and other Alloporus posts please consider reposting to you social networks… It’s lonely out in space.

Misleading claims for the future of koalas

Misleading claims for the future of koalas

“to ensure the future of koalas we are planting a tree for every new home insurance policy”

NRMA television advertisement

So says the Australian insurance company NRMA.

What a complete load of cobblers.

This is a complete and total lie. There is no way that the planting of trees at this scale will make any difference to the survival of this species. This would be true even if the koala was actually in real danger of extinction. It isn’t by the way.

Let’s just run some numbers to uncover the lie.

There are roughly 9 million private dwellings in Australia. Let’s be generous and assume that they all have the need for insurance and owners who are prepared to pay the premiums. Now we can be generous to NRMA and say the brand has 20% of the home insurance market. Then let’s say that 10% of the market turns over each year with the opportunity for ‘new’ policies and NRMA grows their book at 5% each year – they would be stoked with that level of new business growth given most people are either already well insured or can’t afford insurance on the first place.

9 million policies all up, 1.8 million for NRMA with 90,000 new policies each year.

So what will 90,000 trees look like for a koala? It sounds like a lot.

Roughly 20 mature eucalypt trees are needed by one koala. This is an arbitrary amount that tries to combine what space they need, what shelter they must have from the elements and predators, and, of course, food supply.

It looks like NRMA could, if the trees they promise are planted and grow to maturity in a hurry, supply trees for 4,500 koalas.

Not bad.

We don’t actually know how many koala are living wild in Australia right now. The estimates vary by two orders of magnitude with the lowest at 43,000 and the commonly expected 100,000 to anything over a million. So again, let’s be generous and assume the lower number of 43,000.

NRMA tree planting, once the trees are mature in 20 to 30 years time, will provide enough food and shelter for 10% of the koala population.

Again this is not bad, the caveat that the trees need a coupe of decades to get big enough. Maybe they will save the species after all. Perhaps I was too hasty.

Adding 10% to the population — although it could be as little as 4% or even 0.5% — may happen as long as we can also assume that the trees planted are the right species and that they are in habitats that koalas like and that they grow really fast.

We will also assume considerable skill in ecological restoration and that the people planting have these skills so that the right trees are planted in the right places with a high chance of survival.

And the koala has the patience to wait for the trees to mature.

A 10% risk buffer in 20 years time is noble. Better than not trying but the greenwash is palpable for with or without those insurance trees, the koala will not go extinct any time soon. It’s a generalist survivor after all.

Then we come to the fire season in 2019.

At the time of writing, it’s early January 2020 and there are months of the fire season left. So far over 5 million hectares of bushland has burned in NSW alone, one fire to the north-west of Sydney has incinerated 846,000 ha of wilderness forest.

At a conservative rate of 200 trees per hectare, this one fire has damaged at least 169 million trees. Most of these will recover through epicormic growth and there will be recruitment from seeds when the rain comes. Good for future koalas but not so great for those alive right now assuming they could have lumbered away from the fire fronts.

The 90,000 trees planted by NRMA, that sounds like such a huge number, is just 0.05% of the trees damaged in just one of the fires in NSW.

Sorry to have to tell you but “to ensure the future of koalas” is pure greenwash or hogwash if you prefer.

It is false and so out of touch with the scale of environmental issues, it is not even funny.

Get a grip everyone.