The Washington Post fact check column has been following the false or misleading claims Donald Trump has made while in office.
Recall that he has been in the Oval Office since 20th January 2017 which to the 7th July 2020 is 1,264 days or roughly 30,336 hours.
Now in those three and a half years, how many porkies would you say was reasonable. One a week, one a day?
This is the POTUS we are talking about.
The incumbent in one of the highest-profile leadership positions in the world where integrity and a certain amount of honesty would be desirable. This is the white house where some credibility, some respect for the office, some leadership are part of the job description. Most Americans might expect at least that from their president, some level of decorum.
Leave aside for the moment that the incumbent in the oval office also has the code to the red button that can unleash mayhem on the planet that would last for centuries.
So how many little white ones did the Washington Post journalists count?
Twenty thousand. That is a 2 followed by four zeros, a little shy of 16 a day, one every 90 minutes.
Now we have all been ‘economical with the truth’, told the odd white one, even a few of the grey variety perhaps. Justified often because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Indeed the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying was startling because it showed how often we tell a fib or two. It is part of human nature.
But 16 a day, each and every day for the whole time you are in office.
What does it take to tell that many lies? That many false or misleading claims?
Compulsive liars have very little control over their lying. They may be saying the same lies as the pathological liar, but their intent is different. Usually compulsive liars lie out of habit. They have no goal in lying, but they cannot stop. Compulsive lying may be relatively harmless, but is still alarming to those who witness this behavior. They lie with such consistency that they are usually discovered by others in their social circle.
Alright so Donald Trump might have a habit of lying, a pattern so ingrained he cannot stop doing it. Why would he if it got him into office? He was outed as a liar but it has not affected him at all. Indeed the Washington Post journalists report that the frequency of lying has increased in recent months up to 80 per day currently three months out from an election.
What about the pathological liar? Psyche central again…
The difference between pathological and compulsive liars is thin, but distinct. The intention of pathological liars differs from compulsive liars when their sense of empathy is questioned. Pathological liars demonstrate little care for others and tend to be manipulative in other aspects of their life. They lie with such conviction that at times, pathological liars can actually believe the lies they tell. Pathological lying is frequently found in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
More sinister certainly. Manipulative and with little care for others. They believe the lies they tell. And if the lie is believed by the teller then it ceases to be a lie; a convoluted logic that is only smoothed out if the recipients are diligent and sceptical.
As we get closer to the election Trump is cranking it up. Not only is the frequency going up but so is the intensity.
Whilst he used to say it was the best economy in US history, lately that little porky has grown into s stall sow who has achieved ‘the best economy in the history of the world’.
If this is the way to get re-elected then heaven help us all.
Our prime ministers and premiers wield far less power than most people believe… Instead, power is distributed across multiple actors – business leaders, media, unions, peak bodies and political factions in addition to the individual political leaders. Most leaders today operate a never-ending mental calculus of how they accommodate the competing demands of these groups in a way that will extend their period of office. Simple as that.
David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita
Succinctly put Mr Hetherington. Our political captains are not the only hands on the tiller. Indeed they are arguably not able to move the tiller at all.
At least that is what we thought until they told us to go home and shut the door, which almost all of us did without blinking.
So, yes they are powerless in the face of competing demands when their primary objective is to stay in office. And they really like it in office, it feeds their egos that have voracious appetites. But no, they are not without power. They told us to jump and we said, “how high?”.
This was a fascinating response.
Clearly we were spooked by a nasty virus that at best would make us sick or could signal the end, if not for us, then grandpa. It made sense to stay home and bake.
Only something similar happened in the early 1930’s in Germany.
People were spooked by a massive and disastrous global recession that for the Germans meant that foreign investors, who had come in to help rebuild an economy battered by WWI and the reparations that followed, left in a hurry, taking their money with them, the Americans who are always sniffing an opportunity in particular.
Along came a political opportunist and mesmerising public speaker who exhorted the German people to jump and they did. History tells us what happened next.
Before this connection turns you off as completely nonsensical. Pause for a moment.
The people who jumped back in the 1930s were highly educated, well to do citizens, familiar with success and a high standard of living that they enjoyed in the boom period of the 1920s.
They believed they were living in a democracy and that their leaders had their best interests and the country at heart. They also knew that somebody needed to take tough decisions to deal with what was spooking them; the prospect of economic ruin.
The point is that modern politics may well be at the mercy of multiple actors, especially those with money, but it is not entirely toothless. Leaders can turn on a dime and make remarkable things happen. Not all of them nice or in our best long term interests.
Even if our politicians were genius-level decision-makers, the global disturbance from this pandemic will deliver recessions and depressions with horrible suffering for those already struggling. They will be joined by way too many folks who have not known unemployment, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in their adult lives.
My buddy and I applied for over 100 jobs each in a little competition to see who could land one first. We both failed and ended up in further education seeking higher degrees to help us along, he in atmospheric physics, me in ecology. So smart enough but not employable enough. It seems a long time ago now but it was a real struggle at the time. One in ten was felt by everyone.
When unemployment reaches 14% we are at one in 7.
When it reaches 20% we are at one in 5
These are the numbers of serious discontent.
If at least one dude in the round at the pub is unemployed, there is unrest among all the pub-goers. At any moment any one of them will join the queue for the dole check.
This, of course, is what is driving the political decisions to lift restrictions. Unrest is never pleasant. But to lift them only to go back to the ‘simple as that’ would be a massive opportunity missed.
Alright, enough doom and gloom.
Here is a slightly brighter note.
A new normal
This would be very nice.
How about the renewal of safety nets some redistribution of wealth to pay for it and much greater attention to issues that affect all of us.
Only we can’t expect that to come from the politicians who are telling us every day about stage 2 or stage 3 restrictions and when they might be lifted to get everyone back to normal. The one that we just left behind, potentially forever.
The politicians need normal to be what it was otherwise their juggle among the vested interests will be too hard and the balls will fall.
Unless they have got it all wrong.
There is an idea going around that Modern Monetary Theory might offer an alternative, a radical economic theory that budget deficits are are good, not bad and that government debt is necessary as the source of healthy economic growth. The idea is that investments that enhance productivity such as better health, greater knowledge and skills, improved transport are worth funding, even if it results in a budget deficit.
The theory is that spending is necessary to put money into the economy before governments can tax or borrow. Government spending actually precedes taxation. Then taxation is used to keep everyone in employment.
In Covid times this sounds like a plan.
And it presents a way to avoid a rapid return to political influence from business and the peak bodies that they pay to cheer for them with unstinting help from their media lackeys.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.
At Alloporus we are not that fond of koalas. Well, more strictly we don’t like people’s responses to them from the ‘ah they are so cute’ to the ‘OMG they are about to go extinct’.
In our view, they are neither cute nor about to shuffle off into oblivion.
The main problem for the sceptic with a fascination for pragmatology is that these responses are normative. They are emotional which in the objectivity hierarchy is a step down from opinion and a long way short of evidence.
We should expect people to get their heart involved in things, it makes the world go around, so I am told.
More difficult to handle is the lack of objectivity. The reality is that the koala is not going to go extinct any time soon and certainly not in the next five minutes.
Here is what the fossil evidence tells us
Fossil evidence identifies as many as 15–20 species, following the divergence of koalas (Phascolarctidae) from terrestrial wombats (Vombatidae) 30–40 million years ago. The modern koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, which first appeared in the fossil record ~350,000 years ago, is the only extant species of the Phascolarctidae.
Johnson, R. N., O’Meally, D., Chen, Z., Etherington, G. J., Ho, S. Y., Nash, W. J., … & Peel, E. (2018). Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nature genetics, 50(8), 1102-1111
Alright, so we also know that this species is a specialised feeder, prone to certain diseases and has been squeezed by genetic bottlenecks, especially with small founder population in the southern parts of Australia.
However, as Johnson et al (2018) also point out
Current estimates put the number of koalas in Australia at only 329,000 (range 144,000–605,000), and a continuing decline is predicted.
Again ‘only’ is a classic normative word, it is an opinion. And as Alloporus has noted way too many times before, an error range of plus or minus 300,000 is simply too coarse to make any claims of disaster valid. The first task must be to tighten the estimates to something closer to the real numbers and the real rates of change.
All this is a rehash of what we have droned on about before. But then I heard a chat on the radio today.
Some journalists were commenting on the devastating consequences of COVID-19 for the $60 billion Australian tourism industry.
What they said was that Australians are unlikely to take up the slack created by the loss of the Chinese market by tourism from the locals. They thought that Australians are just not excited by the wildlife they grew up with, unlike the overseas tourists who are fascinated, often enough to travel thousands of kilometres to see them.
Now, this is interesting.
It suggests that the real reason for all the koala bruhaha from both state and Federal governments is nothing to do with its extinction at all.
It is all to do with attracting foreign tourists back to a market designed for them and not for the locals.
That $60 billion represents a lot of jobs including in regional areas. It is the same logic that brings offers of largess to Hong Kong citizens who want to come to Australia and bring their businesses and investment with them.
It is money that matters. Evidence of extinction, not so much.
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I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.
Only I think they lack courage.
Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.
Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote
A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous
The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.
This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.
Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.
This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.
This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.
Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.
More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.
What does this look like for a society?
The brave souls
The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.
Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.
And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.
No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.
The courageous souls
Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.
What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.
The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.
A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.
A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.
More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.
There really is something noble in that.
Brave but not courageous
Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.
We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.
They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.
We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.
We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.
And, and, and….
So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.
Ever wondered if the POTUS and his family were rorting the system?
Do you think he might be? Yep, I think we all have our suspicions. I’m not talking about the ability to leverage notoriety to go on lecture tours or sell autobiographies. We allow that sort of thing as a small ‘thank you for your service’ along with the secrete service costs of keeping him and his family safe
A small aside here is that former Australian prime minister John Howard is often seen strolling around the CBD of Sydney en route to his office in the MLC building. No police, no bodyguard, just his unmistakable self. I have seen him half a dozen times.
Anyway back to the current POTUS.
Maybe he is just getting ready to use his notoriety to go a step or two further than a book tour to plunder the relationships his position affords for a slice of oil pipelines, hotels, golf resorts, towers and whatever else might make a bob or two, in parts of the world where such things are still twee.
Yes, I think so too.
Not a good look at best and worse, an abuse of his position. That is before we get into the back end deals that might be going down as we speak.
Obviously he doesn’t care a jot about our puny thoughts. Our indignation at his abuse of power. Here is some evidence of just how little he cares.
The number of family trips taken during his tenure is through the roof compared to his predecessor, like an order of magnitude larger.
Admittedly he has a huge extended family in the white house, all jumping around in unelected positions, but really, an order of magnitude more trips with the secret service in attendance.
Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension
Put a dollar sign in front of it and you get the United States national debt.
As of December 31, 2018, debt held by the public was $16.1 trillion and intragovernmental holdings were $5.87 trillion, for a total of $21.97 trillion.
Don’t you just love credit?
The ‘buy now pay later’ attitude that generates a number so large that there is no end to it other than for the invention of another economic system so it can be written off under a giant bankruptcy proceeding, is classic ostrich behaviour.
Here is the history of that debt as a proportion of GDP noting of course that during this timeline GDP has grown to over 40x its 1960 value.
100% of GDP in 2019 was 40 times bigger in dollars than 100% of GDP in 1960.
And another slightly different presentation of the same data that shows this absolute dollar increase more clearly, the debt adjusted for inflation divided by the number of housholds
Just for comparison the national entry-level average house price in the US for the last quarter of 2019 was $200,000 meaning a huge chunk of US households were up to their eyeballs in their own debt as well as copping an equivalent amount borrowed by Uncle Sam.
The pattern of when debt increased and fell is interesting too.
After both world wars debt was paid down, rapidly in the case of WWII on the back of a newly minted industrial base. Reagan and Bush spent a few dollars that Clinton tried to pay down only for Bush Jr and his successors to take on a couple more expensive wars.
Obama spent big and, not to be outdone, so has Trump.
Alright, so without getting all political about it, the curve is going up… exponentially.
To operate in this manner of spending more than it earns, the U.S. Treasury Department has to issue Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These Treasury products finance the deficit by borrowing from the investors—both domestic and foreign. These Treasury securities also sell to corporations, financial institutions, and other governments around the world.
By issuing these types of securities, the federal government can acquire the cash that it needs to provide governmental services. The national debt is simply the net accumulation of the federal government’s annual budget deficits. It is the total amount of money that the U.S. federal government owes to its creditors.
So in simple terms, the government borrowed the money.
It is said that really this is printing money and that would be the case if in the future the government foreclosed. It reneged on its obligation to pay bond interests and the house of cards fell over. But for now, it is claimed to be a debt system and not a printing system where there is some notion of future returns and recovery of the principle.
The investors do not seem to mind.
They buy and trade government bonds making a clip in the process so they have no qualms about how big the debt is or the risk of default. They will be on their yachts when it all goes belly up.
And so the debt number that just gets bigger each day is owed to creditors.
Governments who are in control of the central bank could just print the money instead of borrowing it, but history tells everyone that this risks a crazy level of inflation that can cripple economies. Ask the Zimbabweans about that one.
Hyperinflation has two main causes
an increase in the money supply
When a government has a spending bill and decides to print money it increases the money on the economy. When there is more money around people have it to spend and goods and services can raise prices without losing custom generating regular inflation. A little of this is seen as a good thing because most people feel like they are growing financially.
Demand-pull inflation is when demand for goods and services outstrips supply so scarcity pushes prices higher. This can happen as a result of increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.
If inflation gets going through an increase in the money supply but the government continues to print money it generates more of cause one and prices can rise very rapidly. When consumers start to realise that continued inflation is likely they buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. This increase in demand further aggravates the inflation through cause two.
A nasty spiral results.
Is national debt a bad thing?
Well, I am a ‘money in the bank’ kind of guy.
I struggle to have credit card debt without freaking out so much that I burry the bills in the cupboard.
Economists are not such wimps; it’s other people’s money after all. Only they don’t seem to agree on the issue of debt.
They do agree that governments that run fiscal deficits have to make up the difference by borrowing money. This they know eats up a fair chunk of capital investment in private markets. They also agree that debt securities issued by governments to service their debts affect interest rates, although this can, until recently be manipulated to some extent through monetary policy tools.
After this, it gets a bit ‘cake and eat it’
The Keynesians believe that it can be beneficial to run a current account deficit
in order to boost aggregate demand in the economy.
However, the neo-Keynesians tend to support government deficit spending only after the monetary policy has proven ineffective and nominal interest rates have hit zero.
On the other hand macroeconomists from the Chicago and Austrian school argue that
government deficits and debt hurt private investment, manipulate interest rates and the capital structure, suppress exports, and unfairly harm future generations either through higher taxes or inflation.
Some economists on the fringes are still ok with central banks printing fiat money, despite the historical evidence for inflation.
The fear of inflation appears to keep policymakers from monetizing debt entirely. Instead, overspending governments either have to continue to borrow, sell assets, raise taxes, renegotiate terms, or default to resolve debt issues.
As the federal debt number in the US reaches the outer reaches of our solar system there has to be a limit to what can be fiddled to soak it up with selling down and borrowing. The most likely end result is to default.
Oh, terribly sorry, but we can’t make those repayments.
So is all this debt good or bad?
Inject money into an economy and it will prosper so long as that money of made from something. Print it and it sends values into a spin.
Currently, the world is compromised in the middle, through the third option. Spend but pay for it with debt. Under the current rules, sooner or later that debt is either paid back or not.
That means I am moving ever closer to retirement and I can’t wait.
It also means that I’ve been around long enough for a fair few things to have happened to the world in my lifetime.
Here is one.
Back in 1961, the average adult consumed 2,194 calories per day and around 6% of this intake came from meat. Fifty years later caloric intake has risen to 2,870 per day and 9% comes from meat.
In less than a lifetime, the average global Joe had gone from eating 93 grams of meat per day to 173 grams per day. Nearly double by weight.
Ok, so we eat more burgers and chicken drumettes than we did back in the day. We also eat more than we did back then. So we are better fed overall. It goes along with the falling rates of famine and fewer people going to sleep hungry.
Back in 1961, global demand of 93 grams per day per person required the supply of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year given there were 3.07 billion people around at the time.
In 2011 global demand was from 7.04 billion people chomping on 173 grams per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.
Multiply these numbers and you get 445 million tonnes per year of meat demand.
All good too for the meat producers, supply chain jockeys, retailers and consumers. More product, more revenue. Supply meeting demand is what makes the wheels of commerce turn.
And yes, of course, not everyone is lucky enough to secure the 173 g per day. There are still a billion or more who go to bed hungry and another billion or so who only eat meat occasionally so the straight multiplication is an overestimate — production was around 320 million tonnes in 2013.
The exact numbers on these volumes are not the issue. The point is that the rangelands, pastures and feedlots of the world now produce more than four times the quantity of meat that they did fifty years ago.
This is a huge change in a very short time.
In absolute volume terms, the supply that took care of the demand for the whole of 1961 only kept us going to the end of April in 2013. Supply for the other eight months of the year was not produced.
Again, it is not the absolute amounts but the proportional change that matters.
What about HANPP?
HANPP is the acronym for ‘human appropriation of net primary production’ an indicator of the amount of land used by humans and the intensity of that land use, specifically HANPP measures…
to what extent land conversion and biomass harvest alter the availability of trophic (biomass) energy in ecosystems.
It has grown from 6 to 16 Gt carbon per year in a century.
Global HANPP throughout the last century. (A) Development of global HANPP by major land use type and human induced fires from 1910 to 2005. (B) Sensitivity of global HANPP trends to data uncertainty and different model assumptions. The standard estimate of HANPP (black line) is compared with a low and a high estimate and to an estimate excluding changes in NPPpot due to CO2 fertilization (constant NPPpot of 1990). HANPP is measured in GtC/y (1 Gt = 1 Pg = 1015 g or 109 t). See SI Appendix for details. (C) Biomass harvest (HANPPharv) and final consumption of biomass products (plant and animal based food, food, timber, fuel wood, and other industrial biomass use; tC/cap per y) grew largely in parallel with population. (D) HANPP intensity measured as HANPP per capita (tC/cap per y), HANPP per unit of GDP (kgC/1990 constant international dollars $ per y) and total HANPP per unit of biomass harvest (HANPPharv) (gC/gC) declined, indicating increasing land use efficiency.
Source: Krausmann, F., Erb, K. H., Gingrich, S., Haberl, H., Bondeau, A., Gaube, V., … & Searchinger, T. D. (2013). Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 110(25), 10324-10329.
These numbers show that humans have appropriated NPP primarily through the expansion of cropland and grassland, and that the rate of appropriation parallels population growth.
NPP Net primary production
Net primary production (NPP) is
the amount of carbon and energy that enters ecosystems. It provides the energy that drives all biotic processes, including the trophic webs that sustain animal populations and the activity of decomposer organisms that recycle the nutrients required to support primary production.
Gross primary production (GPP) is the amount of chemical energy, typically expressed as carbon biomass, that primary producers create in a given length of time. A proportion of this fixed energy is used by primary producers for cellular respiration and maintenance of existing tissues, what is left of the fixed energy is NPP.
NPP = GPP – respiration [by plants]
This means that NPP is the rate at which all the autotrophs (mostly plants) in an ecosystem produce net useful chemical energy that is available for consumption by herbivores.
Both gross and net primary production are typically expressed in units of mass per unit area per unit time interval.
For example, mass of carbon per unit area per year (g C m−2 yr−1) is most often used as the unit of measurement in terrestrial ecosystems. There is a distinction between “production” the quantity of material produced (g C m−2) and “productivity” the rate at which material is produced (g C m−2 yr−1).
There is some projected levelling off of HANPP in the future but not before further substantial increases
Global HANPPharv rises to between 8.5 and 10.1 Pg C/yr in 2050 in the four scenarios, 14−35% above its value in 2010, and some 50% of HANPPharv is calculated to be crop residues, wood residues, and food losses in the future. HANPPharv in developing regions (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) increases faster than that in more-developed regions (North America and Europe), due to urbanization, population growth, and increasing income
Zhou, C., Elshkaki, A., & Graedel, T. E. (2018). Global human appropriation of net primary production and associated resource decoupling: 2010–2050. Environmental science & technology, 52(3), 1208-1215
Note also that appropriation does not mean use. It means that waste and residues account for 50% of the appropriation making a huge efficiency opportunity a prospect.
Under the current systems of production and the rate of increase in demand, humans look like maxing out HANPP within a few generations hence.
Now we will not do this of course. There will be constraints, such as the need for reserves, land-use choices and inevitable fluctuations in NPP from soil nutrient mining and changes to climate. There will also be innovation and intensification so that food production will somewhat decouple from NPP, perhaps it will completely and this post is just fear-mongering.
But I don’t think so, at least not before some substantive changes to the global capacity for NPP have occurred.
The reason is that we always pick the low hanging fruit. All organisms do. We have an inbuilt requirement to take the easiest route to resources. Just like the lioness who walks down the roads through the reserve to avoid getting her paws wet, humans always walk the path to the easiest money. So we’ll mine the soil, grow food through the simplest methods and externalise as much cost as we possibly can. And because this is innate it takes a lot to overcome.
As it has since 1961, this slows the transition to smarter use.
Just a reminder.
We are eating 4x more meat than we did in 1961.
The average person eats 80 grams per day more and, given there are close to 4 billion more people, the tonnage is now over 350 million t per annum.
I know, I know, I crap on about this sort of thing all the time. It’s just that I don’t hear anyone else talking about these numbers in this way. This simple math with profound implications
The implications of food consumption
We can do very little about global demand. People have to eat and the more resources they have the more they want to eat well. This means nutrient-dense food, especially meat.
Will we all starve? No.
Will we all become vegans? No.
Are we increasing the risk of catastrophe? Yes, all the time.
I had a problem with this political slogan from the beginning.
The assumption, of course, is that America was at one time great. In the minds of its citizens perhaps, but, in reality, when America dominated the world it was a bully with extraordinary economic power thanks mainly to the industrial makeover after WW II.
The problem, even if you concede that industrial and economic might is indeed a great thing, is that in order to make America great again, the orange man has turned to an isolation approach based on an ‘us and them’ kindergarten psychology where the ‘them’ are bad and ‘we’ are good. It is innately racist.
Chasing the slogan has worked, at least for his support base. He spent government money, no matter that there was none to spend and a $26 trillion debt on the books, and for a time pumped a certain amount of confidence in the economy. Things were indeed moving towards his definition of great.
Only now a threat has arrived that he can’t control, a pandemic, where being economically great simply doesn’t work to protect anyone against its consequences — just ask Boris how he felt in the ICU.
It might be smart to reconsider the concept of being great under such circumstances. The global world of lockdown has given us any number of creative definitions from the humorous to the smart.
The US is in an election year and obviously Trump is moving to make sure he is reelected. I say obviously because we didn’t think he would make it to the office or survive five minutes, so we perhaps shouldn’t assume he would automatically want another four years of being the biggest cheese… only joking. Of course, he wants it.
Re-election in a pandemic would be a challenge for anyone. The US economy has tanked, unemployment is through the roof, and many people have no idea when or if there will be a return to normal.
In the meantime, under the encouragement of the president, people are taking their guns and demanding that state governors lift the lockdown measures. At over a million cases and counting that seems reckless at best.
Professor Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labour and Professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley has recently come up with what he believes is Donald Trump’s four-step plan for reelection
Step 1 is to remove income support so people have no choice but to return to work
Step 2 hide the facts
Step 3 pretend it’s about freedom
Step 4 shield business’ against lawsuits for spreading the infection
This, of course, is a Democrat talking about a Republican president but the points he makes in those four steps are troubling.
Removing income support at a time when people are worried about their employment status is cruel in the extreme.
We know that the Trump administration hides the facts as a matter of course and when facts appear that they don’t like, they play them as fake news.
The problem with COVID is that the facts deal with death.
When Trump first put his hand up to become president, pretty much everyone laughed. I for one failed to realise how far the denial of facts and the lambasting of the media as fake could take you all the way to the White House. No surprise then that this tactic of hiding the facts will apply in the case of the virus.
Pretending it’s about freedom so that gun-toting individuals can rock up at government offices to demand their rights and for that behaviour to be seen as ok is crazy. As Robert Reich points out, making this about freedom is absurd. Freedom is meaningless for people who have no choice but to accept a job that risks that health.
And the fourth step to get business back on track and the economy in the direction that will get me reelected, is to protect them from lawsuits that might occur if they remain open and their staff contract the virus
I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine how any of this is great.
There have been millions of words written about the craziness of this situation that the US finds itself in with leadership that really has no concern for the people or just a small proportion of those people who are there to support the ego of an individual.
I suspect that we’re actually witnessing the ongoing decline of a once-powerful nation. The British Empire has gone and the American one looks like it will follow suit. This will take time because you can’t just turn off the influence of 350 million people and the world’s largest economy but the passions and the motivations that got them into that position of greatness have been corrupted beyond recognition.
America will not be great again at least not on this path.
Now there is another disruption. The next chapter in a terrible saga of racism that has blighted the so-called greatness for the countries entire history. There is hope this time around, there always is when the righteousness in people is roused by tragedy.
If I tell you that the grass is greener over there you will laugh at me. That’s just the old wives having a go. The grass is just as green as it wants to be. You’ll rightly say that I’m just jealous.
However, if I keep saying it, a sliver of doubt will creep in.
Could this guy be right?
I did see his neighbour with a bag of fertilizer the other day. Maybe he does have a greener lawn. It certainly looks greener. Maybe it is.
This doubt can grow if my claim of extra verdancy is delivered with passion and commitment… and often.
Everyone knows the adage though.
It is easy to think that others have it better than us but this is rarely, if ever, the case. The grass is not greener at all. And anyway, who cares? It is irrelevant if my neighbour has splashed out on fertilizer. It is his lawn, not mine.
I need to look down to my own grass and not over the fence.
In other words, I might find out that the grass is indeed greener but there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not my grass.
Let’s take this notion a little further.
Here is a section from a lengthy paper on the necessary and complex dialogue on climate change and sustainable development…
By excluding any obviously, social or political matters, the scientific reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. So, for example, the science of climate change can agree about the physical sources of carbon emissions, but only by refusing to consider the far more important and deeply political question of why they are increasing and how (or if) they should be curtailed.
Cohen, S., Demeritt, D., Robinson, J., & Rothman, D. (1998). Climate change and sustainable development: towards dialogue. Global Environmental Change, 8(4), 341-371. Emphasis added by Alloporus
Alright, this is interesting.
It says that the evidence — and the level of inference in that evidence (what can reliably be said given the numbers) given the degree of reductionism (amount of inference) — should be enough to convince everyone that climate change is both real and the current warming event a result of human activities. The numbers are unequivocal.
We know where the emissions came from and we know what levels they are at in the atmosphere and we know what this does to the back radiation of energy from the sun.
The problem is that this is not what matters.
The real questions for climate changes are
why are the sources of greenhouse gas emissions increasing?
should we try to curtail the warming trend through greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration?
is it even possible to curtail the worse of the climate changes given the scale at which humans can take action?
These are the psychological consequences of the emergence of a problem. It triggers strong emotional responses. The real questions are not about the truth of the matter but what we feel needs to be done if we accept the truth.
I might know intellectually that ‘the grass is greener over there’ adage can’t help me sort out my own grass, however, it does not stop me being jealous.
Here is another example…
Take a look at this image of some paddocks in central NSW, Australia
This is sheep country and has been pretty soon after the Europeans arrived in 1788. This land has seen generation after generation sheep and the graziers that manage them.
The area in the image is around 400 ha (1,000 acres)
In the image, you can see the water source in the northeast with its bare perimeter reminiscent of water holes in game parks and the rectangle in the centre of the image is a holding pen. This is grazing on native vegetation but there is little grass among the patchy and occasionally dense trees and shrubs. Stocking rates are low and much of the land would be classified as degraded.
The land is tired after such a long period of production on what were initially old and nutrient-poor soils. The carbon content of the soil has declined and the production of grass become more and more volatile from year to year, season to season, in a hot, drought-prone region.
Given this, what happens if there is a run of poor years?
What does the grazier do?
Well, first of all, he will let any staff go for there is no money to pay salaries so any employees move on. Any slack in the operation he will take up himself. His long hours will just get longer — a poll by Agriland showed that 72% of farmers say they work more than a 60-hour week.
He might sell some of his herd or even loan them to other graziers with more grass and cut down as much as possible on any inputs he has from deworming to fence maintenance. His priority will be to keep what animals he has fed and watered enough for them to survive.
What he won’t do is give up.
His farm means more to him than a business. It is his home, livelihood and sense of place all in one. There is more to his bare paddocks than a place to grow some meat for the city folk, there is the opportunity that when it rains again there is serious money to be made, maybe a house on the coast or a holiday in Europe. The things that those city folk have begun to take for granted.
The farmer actually has no time to consider the greenness of his neighbour’s grass.
He is flat out trying to keep his animals alive… on his own.
This is important to know
The grazier can do well to tap into some of his real questions. He doesn’t need to know about the greenness of his neighbour’s pastures or the cause of climate change, we actually want him to ask
what are the sources of my declining productivity?
should I try to curtail these sources or change production altogether?
is it even possible to curtail the sources given the resources available to me right now and my needs for the next few years?
It is in his interests to focus on his own grass.
It is in our interests too and we should help however we can. We need every grazier to be producing as much food as possible without reducing the chance of producing food in the future not just to feed ourselves but to feed everyone.
Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) was a product of his times
Mr Wallace was truly remarkable, a gentleman in the time when such a description meant something, and a traveller when getting from one town to another in England was a feat of endurance.
In the mid-1800s he covered the length of the Malay Archipelago on limited means. Which actually meant he was wealthy beyond belief to most of the indigenous peoples he met but had limited old money when compared to his peers back home.
Wallace was a naturalist and collector of exotic animal specimens caught or shot in the jungles and mountainsides at dozens of locations on remote islands. He made what money he could from the sale of preserved bird skins, mammal skeletons and pinned insects to museums and his less adventurous fellow gentlemen collectors back in Europe.
He was also an extraordinary observer able to recall almost at once if a butterfly or beetle was new to his collection. Anyone who has dabbled in natural history collections will recognize this skill. A good naturalist needs to be proficient at it and Wallace was, by all accounts, exceptional.
But what made Wallace truly remarkable was that he didn’t just observe nature, he observed people too. He saw the forms, behaviors and habits of all the locals he met on his travels. Indigenous peoples and colonists alike, they all fascinated him. And then he tried to explain the patterns and behaviours in the people with the same logic he applied to nature.
No doubt he also carried with him the prejudices of his peers. His times were of colonial rule, the greatness of empire and knowing one’s place in the pile. It is unlikely his observations were not clouded by at least some prejudice.
His seminal work “The Malay Archipelago” is well worth its 500+ pages. At once a primer on natural history, a window into thinking on the theory of evolution, a catalogue of the biology and peoples of the region, a gentleman’s travelogue, a commentary on economics and an insight into how the Victorians saw the world. Often the prose carries all these things in the space of a few pages.
By Unknown author – Marchant, James (1916) Alfred Russel Wallace — Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, pp. Plate between p. 36–37 Retrieved on 16 October 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372562
Famously Wallace figured out what Charles Darwin, his contemporary, himself became famous for, the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Crossing the deep and treacherous straits between Bali and Lombok in 1859 he landed and began collecting no doubt with an expectation of what he would find. Only there was a large number of species that to the west were organisms related to Asiatic species and to the east a mixture of species of Asian and Australian origin.
Wallace saw in that line, later named the Wallace Line after him by Thomas Huxley, a disruption to the pattern that he expected to see. The continuous variation that he followed in the myriad diversity of animals that fell into his traps should not have such an abrupt disjunct.
The genius of Wallace, that he shared with Darwin, was not only to recognise the disjunct but to realise it meant something profound.
Gathering his observations together he figured out what Darwin had also discovered, the concept of evolution by natural selection.
His views diverged from Darwin’s but the two through both private correspondence and published works exchanged knowledge and stimulated each other’s ideas and theories over an extended period and they both agreed on the importance of natural selection, and some of the factors responsible for it: competition between species and geographical isolation. They diverged on why. Wallace gave evolution a purpose in maintaining species’ fitness to their environment, whereas Darwin hesitated to attribute any purpose to a random natural process.
Although we now agree with Darwin on the randomness part, Wallace remained an ardent defender of natural selection all his life. And remember this was highly contentious stuff at the time. In 1889, Wallace published the book Darwinism as a response to the scientific critics of natural selection.
It was what a gentleman would do.
This gushing account of Alfred Wallace was written a year or so ago after I had read the Malay Archipelago.
I was and still am amazed what some of the old-timers managed to get done and more, to figure out what a bunch of it meant. They are inspirations.
As I finally got around to editing the post, I am struck by how little the gentlemen and women of today inspire me. Where are they? I have to assume that they exist.
They do not seem to be among the celebrities or the internet influencers who are driven only by narcissism.
Heaven help you if you try to find them in seats of government.
They are not in the business community that continues to promote the economic model that is both precarious and gives not a jot about the resource base — much of the biology that Wallace saw is gone forever.
They are not among the clergy. I cannot even bring myself to go there.
Perhaps, and here is a left-field assertion that I never thought was possible. Perhaps they are hiding among the scientists.
I know, crazy suggestion right.
We are talking about the fence-sitting nerds who have bamboozled us for decades and failed miserably to get their messages across.
Well, there is an idea going around promoted by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is to cause science to be done differently with collaboration, speed and efficient up there as the biggest changes.
That in this time of crisis it is the scientists who are working together to us get through it all as fast as possible while their fellow technical specialists doctors, nurses and support staff on the front line provide the heroic bravery.
That sounds like what gentlemen would do.
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