Barracking for the best

Barracking for the best

Photo by Shapelined on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I was a Leeds United supporter. They were top of the league at the time, had the best players, the best team, and I loved their funky logo, very 1970’s.

I painted it on my school satchel.

This was a risky thing to do given that I went to school in North London, a spit and a shove from White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur, the team most of my school mates supported. And, of course, Tottenham is up the road from Highbury, the home of Arsenal FC and the enemy in one of the biggest local rivalries in soccer.

In fact, it was a huge shock when my son who was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Australia turned out to be an Arsenal supporter. What was he thinking?

My excuse for not ‘go you Spurs’ was that I had no sense of association with the area having just arrived from two years in the north of England and then prior to that as a young kid in South London. No affinity for North London at all really and so I aligned myself to the club that was doing the best at the time, the one at the top of the league.

I’ve noticed that throughout my life I’ve always latched on to the team or the player who was the best at the time. I admired that ability to become the world’s best or recognized as one of the best players of a particular game.

These days when I must decide between England or Australia during the Ashes tests, baracking for the best is a problem. As a cricket buff it’s kind of fascinating to want the home country to win or the best team to win which invariably in recent years at least has been Australia. Often I will cop out and follow the players who I think are the best out of those two teams, again most often Australian.

My focus is on high quality wherever I see it and not just barrack for those people but to follow them and to recognize them for their skill and artistry.

When somebody stands out from the pack because they’re genuinely good then I recognize that straight away and become a fan. Interesting to understand why that’s the case, why I’m going for the best team at the time.

Leeds United of course has been in the doldrums for decades. After relegation from the first division they struggled in the championship only this year to return to the Premier League. I have no idea who plays for the many more. I know they have a dynamic manager who’s given them a new way of playing and their current success. And I wish them well and I hope that they do well but I don’t follow them in the same way as I did as a kid.

Looking back a big part of this risk taking – wearing a Leeds United scarf to Stamford Bridge in the late 1970’s was reckless – was me going against convention. I wasn’t following in footsteps or the tribe. At least not of tribalism that has to do with why people support their local teams through thick and thin. For me, it’s about a search for excellence and an insecurity in my own ability.

I want to manage my own sense of inadequacy by looking up to people with talent, recognising high quality and becoming a fan of not necessarily the individual or the team, but the qualities that they represent.

That way, I always have something to live up to.

I find this motivation useful in just about everything that I do. Even when I tried woodworking, which I’m dreadful at, and put together tools and the skills to try to have a go at it. I went to the great training ground of YouTube and found incredible individuals who were able to not just demonstrate skill in construction with wood, from the basics through to some complicated solutions, but we’re good at explaining it. They made woodworking accessible and the skills learnable through humour or an ability to take a process and break it down into its constituent parts. After many an hour across multiple channels looking at the woodwork material I now have a reasonable idea of how to do it, at least not to make a complete hash of it, and hopefully keep myself safe.

My problem, as regulars will know from the sort of post on Alloporus, there’s always a challenge in there somewhere. The challenge of seeking excellence is this.

I have lost the ability to find excellence in the workplace.

Many of you will know that I work in the environmental sciences. My role as an ecologist is to try and understand how the natural world works in order to better apply policy and practice.

At the moment the application is to agricultural production systems and balancing agricultural production with other values that we gain from the environment.

I have struggled over the last decade or so to maintain that sense of who should I barrack for? Who can I see that is demonstrating excellence in this process. Who is really across there portfolio and understands the processes and what’s happening.

To be honest with you, I don’t have those people anymore.

As a young academic I found such individuals easily. They were the senior professors and the prolific academic writers who were able to talk with true depth of understanding. Whenever they said something I would think, ‘I didn’t get that, you know, I need to learn more from what this person is saying’ and off I would go to the library. Maybe I put those people on a pedestal a little, but they were extremely helpful in guiding me forward.

One of the reasons that top academics achieve success is because they’re knowledgeable. They read a lot. They spend hours and hours and hours reading up on their discipline and unpacking the information. It’s not about smarts, more about absorbing and putting content into context. And individuals good at this were never short of an answer or a pearl of wisdom. So I tried to be like them. I tried to gather as much information as I could and I think that, over the years, I’ve been reasonably good at that.

Perhaps my weakness is that I am interested in so many different things. I have more breadth than depth. That is not so good if you want to be an academic but perhaps not so bad a thing if you’re trying to be an environmentalist or to create genuine sustainability outcomes.

Breadth distances you from the main players. A shortage of these well read people in the latter part of my career is perhaps understandable. Those individuals I admired have either retired or have passed away. The youngsters coming through are out of my reach now that I’m no longer in the academic world.

In the applied work I now find myself closer to the operations of the environment on the ground. The quality of knowledge is different. People know about their local circumstances. They know about the local situations they’re dealing with and are not lacking in knowledge. But they’re mostly ignorant of the sort of theoretical and structural underpinnings of their subject.

I have local knowledge too from the many years spent trudging around in the field collecting data. But it wasn’t their fields, Mostly it was fields on other continents. And it creates a gap in the sense that they don’t believe that I understand what they’re talking about because I don’t know their local circumstances.

And they don’t know what I’m talking about because they lack that knowledge of the theory and applying the theory to the practice.

I feel at a bit of a loss to be honest, desperate for the workplace equivalent of the best player and the best teams. I can’t find them, nobody available to latch onto and regain a sense of motivation and something to work towards.

Unless of course, they don’t exist. And so we arrive at the nub of it.

Maybe we don’t have these people that understand the bigger picture. At least in the way that I’ve been trying to understand it for the last decade with breadth rather than depth.

I hope that I am wrong.

Trump lost but Trumpism didn’t

Trump lost but Trumpism didn’t

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

We’ve seen that Donald Trump was a bumbling politician, had no idea what he was doing, and had no idea of how to win an election. He fluked the first one on the back of heavy popularism and failed miserably to repeat the exercise.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that the US election result in 2020 was a great win for common sense. For the sensible majority to pat themselves on the back for coming back from the brink of disaster.

Except that, number one, Trump was elected the first time around.

Number two, he still won more votes in the election the second time around than any other President has won bar Biden. Seventy million people plus thought he was still a good idea. Even after four years of total nonsense and chaos.

And it would be very wrong indeed for Democrats to simply assume that it’s all back to business as usual. Bask in the joys of a net majority in the population and win on the back of that whilst hoping that the status quo will return.

Heads up, there is no question that popularism will come back.

The right will continue to develop more competent candidates for future presidential elections. It has happened already in other countries around the world: India, Brazil. Russia, Turkey already have competent politicians who fit what you might loosely call Trumpism. A would-be strong populist stance, only they are much better at it than the Donald.

This problem is that division is not going away just because Trump was removed — well, at the time of writing he still hasn’t actually gone, but we’ll assume that justice will be done and eventually the oval office will be vacated. The reason Trumpism won’t go away is because of what it represents. It’s actually all about resources and access to the wealth that those resources create. For with wealth comes power.

The human instinct is to grab and obtain power, maintain it, and grow it. A reflex that has given us success as a species and will never go away.

Breaking down this approach that is so innate in our biology, if we hadn’t grabbed resources and concentrated them in organised units, then we would not be here having this conversation using this technology. To simply remove that approach is not only difficult biologically, but it’s also near impossible psychologically. Hence the failure of communism, evening things out is simply not how humanity works.

Humans are designed to be competitive and to want winners and losers in the system. Politics is about giving a safe place for those winning and losing wars to be fought and for outcomes to be given at least a little empathy and equity. The reality is that in recent times the wars are being won by the right, by people with a lack of empathy and a very strong sense of that wealth creation gene that leads to power — those of us alive in the UK during the decade of Margaret Thatcher experienced something similar.

So don’t be surprised at all if much more competent Trumps appear. They won’t be orange, they won’t tweet all day, and they won’t play golf when it’s time to make a decision.

They will be as hard and as politically savvy as anything we’ve ever seen. And they will push their agendas as forcefully as any other political party that you could imagine. The only way to win against such candidates is to galvanise the majority who we hope, and I say hope because I’m not convinced of this, are fair-minded and empathic to others. Then for everyone to become aware that wealth is not the be-all and end-all and that there is a moral responsibility to look after the less fortunate.

Ironically, most modern societies actually do this rather well.

In many countries, there is a solid and functioning education system, law enforcement, healthcare of sorts, and realistic infrastructure. Many of these services are provided by the taxpayer so they are paid for before households have discretionary funds. These systems provide opportunity and support people.

Obviously, it is not perfect. There are many who are not supported well enough and do not have sufficient opportunity. The thinking is that these were the Trump base, the disadvantaged and the stagnant, those who lost faith that there was an opportunity.

Maybe so but there are 70+ million of them in the US alone. It’s hard to believe that they nearly made a majority, that is ‘most people’.

It means that the things said and done by governments, even the centrist ones, have failed to maintain the well-being of everyone whilst still allowing the system to continue to progress in technology and wealth. What was working ‘rather well’ isn’t anymore.

Centrists beware. Trump was a was not an aberration. He was lucky and he took advantage of an opportunity. But there will be people who will follow him that have a better grasp of the politics and better grasp of the policy in order to push that right-wing agenda of more rewards for the winners and more pain for the losers.

They are unlikely to appease those who lack opportunity but that does not seem to matter. In the time it takes for their popularity to wain a great deal will change.

Are we ready enough to cope?


Thanks for reading these posts, it really helps to know that they might tweak some healthy thinking

Gender reveal

Gender reveal

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Jill is so excited. She has invited the whole family and her besties around on a sunny sunday afternoon for tea.

On the table is a beautiful cream cake.

Her husband Joe joins his heavily pregnant wife at the table along with their son Billy and he announces that it is time to cut the cake. The gender of the unborn baby revealed to the expectant audience.

What will it be?

The excitement builds, will Billy have a brother to beat up or a sister who will run rings around him before breakfast?

In the mother’s belly, the baby is wondering what all the fuss is about and wishing that its mother would stop stressing and go lie down.

The mother and father hold the knife together just like they did all those years ago and plunge the blade into the cake.

Squeaks of delight from all the single ladies while the mothers clip their little Johnnies around the ear for pigging out on the sausage rolls.

A second cut. It is the moment of truth.

The slice emerges from the creamy camouflage to reveal… beige.

It’s a gender-neutral baby.

OMGs all around, what is going on?

Shock and blank stares and a few chuckles from the early adopters.

Joe rotates the cake and quickly cuts another slice, maybe the reveal is sector-specific. He lifts the next slice and the crowd gasps. It is still beige.

This baby has no gender. It is destined to live life on the outer rim of society never fully accepted by any social group.

At this point Joe’s mother-in-law steps in.

She snatches the knife and begins to hack away at the cake as if her hand will obviously find the blue or the pink bit.

But no. There is no colour.

It is either the wrong cake or the baker forgot to add the food colour. The gender of Billy’s bro or sis is still a mystery.

What happens next says everything about the human condition.

Everyone could all have a laugh and do it all again next week with a coloured cake or…

Jill shouts at her husband, bursts into tears and runs up the stairs bawling with embarrassment. She had spent weeks preparing for this only to have a disaster in front of all of her friends. Her anxiety spikes and suddenly the sky is falling in.

The mother-in-law clubs the husband with the phone as though it is all his fault, then calls the cake shop to give them hell as the worst cake shop in the history of the patisserie, only much less politely.

Joe escapes to the barbecue in the garden where a couple of his mates have stashed the cold beers while the guests are left to mill around and come to their own conclusions.

If I tell you that this scene is played out on a YouTube video, then of course we find that funny. We’ll lol with hilarity that the family goes off at an honest mistake and starts to blame those idiots from the cake shop before they realise it’s their own emotions that are triggered.

The scene is entertaining and it gets millions of views.

What concerns me is that the family reacted that way in the first place. Put that situation in front of all the families in the world and half the time you would get the same result with the family suing the cake shop for damages. The other families would have a good laugh about it for years.

Too many of us have lost the ability to put events into context and how seriously to take them.

The disaster that was 2020 didn’t help.

It is a new year.

Let’s smile at the little mistakes in 2021

Have a great one.

Good riddance 2020

Good riddance 2020

The year 2020 is one that everyone will remember and most people would like to forget.

Here are some of what happened to us in the year.

Drought and fire

Our year of 2020 began towards the end of one of the deepest droughts on record in our region. The bush was bone dry. Not satisfied with a deep drought, to the north and the south of us were two huge bushfires with fronts hundreds of kilometers long. The Gospers Mountain fire to our north burnt through an area more than three times the size of Greater London. By the end of the fire season approximately 18,600,000 hectares (46,000,000 acres) of rural land had burned across Australia with the loss of 33 lives including six firefighters, and causing over $100 billion of damage.

The closest the Gospers firefront came to our home was 10km so we got lucky but the smoke was with us every day and along with the tension and our belongings packed up ready to evacuate. Weeks crept along like months. We were locked down in the house with all the doors and windows, shut and the air purifier going full blast.

There is something acute about living under the constant threat of evacuation and genuine danger. Remember we had fire in our back yard in 2013 so we knew what was possible. The stress hormones are produced naturally and you begin to get this level of constant vigilance that drains everything. All our precious goods, packed and ready to load into the car are still stacked in our spare room a year later. We seem unable to bring ourselves to put most of them back to where they normally live.

Along with the fires and the smoke was the heat. The hottest day, January 4th, was 45.1 C with several days over 40 C all through the summer.

Rains

Eventually though the fires subsided as the rains came. And in typical Australian fashion, the drought was broken with massive flooding. We had 214.6mm on the 10th February that flooded everything in the basement but we didn’t care. At least it finally put the fires out. Such relief that finally the fires were not only under control from the extraordinary efforts of the firefighters, but that nature chipped in and a little bit more of normality returned. That it took a deluge was just what we expected.

Relieved now that we were heading towards autumn and winter and out of the fire season when of course, we were locked down again. This time the pandemic, a deeper and wider impact than the fires had been and it meant that most people forgot the summer disasters. No matter that for the first time in recorded history a fire season had impacted not just the rural properties, but also many of the coastal properties and indeed delivered smoke and tension to most of the east coast towns and cities.

COVID Pandemic

We’ve all got our COVID stories.

In our case we were very fortunate, no infections and no need to get tested… yet. The ‘work from home’ directive suited us anyway because we do most of our work from home. And, luckily for the extended family, it was really not much different to normal, save for the mask wearing, no hugging, and shortages of toilet rolls.

The uncertainty early on was debilitating. I recall a particular week when at the start of the week golf was fine, everyone could play, on Tuesday nobody could play and on Thursday you could play with restrictions on how you could go about it. First world problems for sure. Overall we got off lightly.

People worked hard to find the best solutions even when nobody knew what was happening. I think that collectively folk coped with it pretty well. At least in the first lockdown the Australian public seemed to be quite comfortable with restrictions that no government would under normal circumstances even hint at doing let alone actually implement. Essentially a house arrest for the entire population, but we did it and, for the most part, people kept to the rules.

In this household we are in the vulnerable category for the virus so we adopted the mask wearing like everyone in Europe was doing. Not so many Australians were keen on the masks idea and so we got some very weird looks in the supermarkets. People didn’t really get it was to protect them more than the wearer; a civic duty rather than a personal duty.

Crises affect people’s understanding of where things are and what things need to be done for the collective benefit. It also creates a disruption to conventional wisdom. This is a huge opportunity given how entrenched and stale some institutions have become. We will have to wait and see if the crisis brings progressive innovations, especially among our political leaders. Many have gathered considerable political capital with their strong responses to the crisis. There is little point in mentioning the leaders who made a complete hash of it.

Closer to home

Once we started getting used to public health restrictions my year continued with a challenging work environment where what science can offer generates antagonism towards the messengers.

I also stopped doing yoga, put weight on, became very stressed at various points in the year, and so, all in all, it’s been one to forget this 2020.

I was able to continue to write and have produced more material than I can cope with on the editing front. So silver lining perhaps.

We also hired some delightful Chinese guys to lay spotted gum flooring throughout the house replacing a carpet that had done a sterling job but was now tired and ready for retirement… just like me.

The new floor is awesome. Timber really is a wondrous resource.

What about 2021?

The interesting part though is what 2021 will look like. Will it be more of the same with natural disasters, health challenges, and shortages of toilet rolls. Already in the north of the state heavy storms have produced beach erosion and local COVID lockdowns are back.

Obviously normal is not what it was but is now a constant state of flux. Changes happening everywhere. Our focus now is to understand change for economic, environmental and social disruption will be part of our stories for 2021 as the pandemic will continue to play out before a new normality is established. Hopefully we will be wise enough to create population immunity through vaccines or exposure with the least disadvantage to the poor. And by population we’re talking about a global population of over eight billion souls. Maybe some of the political capital could be spent in an egalitarian direction for once.

So we can expect 2021 to be challenging. Best to prepare for difference rather than stability and return to what was normal because it’s not just the virus. We haven’t even touched on the crises that are about to hit us. Here are a few…

  • concentration of wealth
  • peak soil nutrients
  • global food production
  • water use and abuse
  • waste
  • climate change adaptation

These are Alloporus’s favorites, but there are a host of issues that are already huge for the planet is in a state of flux, we really have to get our heads around that reality.

On the bright side

It is best to start the year on a bright note, which of course everybody wants to do as they set their resolutions and get themselves geared up for a fresh start.

There is much to be optimistic about, not least the opportunity created by change. Where one thing falls away there’s a chance for another solution that is better, more efficient, more resilient and dare we say, more sustainable to take its place.

The motto of my alma mater is ‘do different’ and change is a wonderful time to be different, optimistic even.

In 2021 let’s ‘do different’ and try alternatives, embrace change as an opportunity, rather than lamenting the loss of what went before.

I hope you survived 2020 relatively unscathed. We all feel differently now than we did at the start of last year. But let’s hope that we can embrace change and look at opportunity. And engage amongst ourselves to build a fantastic 2021.

Thank you for reading the ‘Alloporus healthy thinking’ blog in 2020. I hope you will stick with me for 2021.

Go well.

In what universe can you believe that?

In what universe can you believe that?

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

According to a Gallup poll, the proportion of Americans who identify as Republicans and are satisfied with the way things are going in the US reached 39% in October 2020 up from 20% in July. This compares to the October number for Democrats of only 5%.

On what planet does 40% of a particular section of a community agree that the way things are going are satisfactory when the US is in such an incredible mess?

There is the COVID problem with world-leading infection and death rates, the racism problem, the sexism and misogyny, the general incompetence of Trump… What more is there?

Well, there is gun control, climate change including some of the worse bush fires on record, domestic violence, trade tariffs, unemployment, incarceration rates, national debt, and the long, long list of western ills that we don’t seem able to fix.

It doesn’t make any sense as to why 2 in 5 Republicans think that everything is going well. What would it take for them to say that it’s not going well?

More to the point what has happened between July and October to double the satisfaction rate? That 20% increase is bizarre. It could be that the polling technique was flawed or maybe the sample size is small or biased. But it’s hard to imagine that during the course of a major pandemic with substantial hits to the economy and personal freedoms through lockdowns along with job losses and massive debt, that everything is satisfactory. What kind of craziness brings out such a statement in people is really hard to figure out.

Should we take notice of polling? Well, most politicians would argue no. But the stark thing here is that only 5% of respondents identifying themselves as Democrats were satisfied with the way things are going. So Democrats are panicked or at least concerned while Republicans think it’s fine.

This is the growing separation of political view in the US which is interesting after decades of convergence onto centrist type policies on most of the issues that matter. A division in the political stance at least gives people something to adhere to and to be against.

Here is…

another astonishing statistic

Recall what QAnon actually is

At its heart, QAnon is a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.

QAnon believers have speculated that this fight will lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.

QAnon: What it is and where did it come from, BBC Reality Check

So 2 in 5 Republicans believe in conspiracy theory and nearly 1 in 5 Democrats do too. This is just as alarming. What goes through a person’s mind to allow these two statistics to appear? What were they thinking?

The answer is that they don’t.

There is a dearth of critical thinking on all sides. Instead, it is easier to think fast in the Daniel Kahneman sense, and not force any detailed analysis or appraisal of the evidence, not even a quick reality check.

People can then exist in a kind of bubble that comfortably fits their current world view and only engage with material that supports it. Confirmation evidence is easy to determine because it feels good. Evidence or views that feel off or a bit uncomfortable is just those nasty GOPs or lefties depending on the colour of your own bubble. These views can be just shouted down or, where necessary, trolled. Heck, if that doesn’t work there is always a demonstration.

Ask any of the 40% if they have thought carefully about what they say they agree with and they will confirm that they have, very carefully. This is the elegance of a bubble. It wafts a gentle lullaby over you to make believe that thinking has happened… by someone else. No need for me to do any heavy lifting, if the POTUS tweeted it, it must be true.

And so here we are at the end of 2020. A frantic and genuinely eventful year. When we need to be thinking about what amazing opportunities the circuit breaker of a global pandemic can give us, 24% of Americans think QAnon claims are accurate.

Get thinking people, truly.


Think about it, you have to repost this one.

Disturbing dream that might help

Disturbing dream that might help

Photo by Gabriel McCallin on Unsplash

I don’t know whether it’s COVID or Trump or time of life or stressful work conditions or all of the above but I’ve been having the weirdest dreams lately.

For a long time, I would have only one dream. The theme was that I had a lot of luggage and a plane to catch. The problem was getting to the airport with all that baggage and getting it on the plane without outrageous excess charges.

Only in the dream I rarely made it to the airport. First-year psychology students could figure out the meaning of that one.

Last night I had a different, rather disturbing dream.

I was in a written exam, something I haven’t done for four decades and the subject, English. The questions on the exam paper were difficult to find and impossible to put into the correct sequence.

It was the weirdest experience as the questions were on different kinds of paper and the words were hard to read. What the questions were actually asking seemed obscure.

I tried and I tried and I tried and in the end, failed to complete the examination.

Me, the ultimate nerd, failing to complete an academic task. It felt like the most incredulous thing ever. After some time deciding whether or not I did actually complete the exam or if I did enough to pass the test, maybe I could reset the examination later on, maybe the next year… After all of that trying to recover from disaster, it was clear that I had failed the examination and would have to deal with it.

Part of the psychology around all this would be that in the real world I have been pushing myself to do more writing and thinking, maybe, I should go back to my educational roots.

The obvious explanation is such a change is frightening. There is something about receiving a comfortable salary that influences your way of being even if you don’t enjoy the work that you’re paid to do.

But it got me thinking about our general state of mind.

Especially how easy it is for people to become unsettled. And there’s no doubt that the COVID crisis is extremely unsettling. Anyone with an eye to global politics or with even a passing interest in American politics has just gone through a terrible and settling period and it’s still going.

Anyone who cares or concerns themselves with equality and egalitarianism is easily in strife because of the continuing racism, misogyny and concentration of wealth that we talk about often.

Given all these stresses on top of the many immediate ones that are part of daily life, there is no doubt that mental health is new cancer. It will affect everybody when they least expect. And, if we were smart at all, then we would be building capacity to help people through such times.

We are helping each other a little. If you go on social media feeds and let the algorithm do its work, having chosen a few inspiring quotes and videos, you can see there are a lot of people engaged with positive messages and this is very powerful. Such grassroots, bottom-up approaches are essential. Empowering the positive messages, maybe with a share or two, is an easy way to help.

Then there is the harder work to make sure that politics can catch up. Maybe something like what Margaret Thatcher did in the first episode of the latest season of the Crown. When she was hounded by the old school, stupid white men, she got rid of them all, replacing them with young white men. So she got halfway there, at least.

Sidenote though, the Johnson cabinet is young, inexperienced and widely considered to be totally incompetent.

Thatcher’s motivations were not pure but that ‘getting rid of the old school’ is something that is imperative in our political systems. We need young imaginative ideas. And it’s time to get those. They’re there, all we have to do is empower them.

But back to my slumbers. Bad dreams are part of life and they send subliminal messages.

Throughout my career, I’ve tried many different obscure paths, and the odd blind alley, only to end up in a very traditional workplace. So in a way, I’m challenging my own response to being innovative and to support the changes that we have to make. Dreams have the uncanny knack of pointing it out with a poke around in the dark corners in the closet of life.

Obviously, to learn is the key.

And in this instance, I think the dream is giving me the courage to pursue this return to education. And to try and pass on some of my experience to the next generations so that they can forge their own paths with a little more confidence.

And obviously to ban all forms of academic examination as they really don’t help.


Thanks for getting this far, a share would be fantastic.

Scientists sitting on the fence

Scientists sitting on the fence

Photo by Gui Avelar on Unsplash

Scientists are the quintessential fence-sitters.

We love the maybe, could be, might possibly be, and the equivocal. This comes about from our training, for we are sceptics.

The idea is that nothing should be taken on face value. There must be evidence in order to understand whether or not there is sufficient information to make a decision. And if a decision is not possible, then to form an opinion one way or the other. Only most scientists are afraid to state opinions in any strong sense when they are wearing their mortarboards. Usually, they will hedge in case they’re wrong. Along with the scepticism, there are the egoic responses of not wanting to get anything wrong at any time. Just normal human behaviour.

The problem with all this is that it gives scepticism a bad name.

It’s as though sceptics are always humming and aahing and never coming up with an answer. But this is not the true meaning of scepticism.

What it really means is to be questioning, review the facts, and run with what the evidence suggests.

This does not mean splinters in the butt from the fence or outright denial. As long as key questions are asked and enough evidence is available to reliably answer them, it’s okay for a sceptic to give that yes or no answer.

The everyday sceptic

Most people in everyday life find evidence gathering disconcerting. It is much easier to just give the yes and no answer without evidence and call it an opinion if questioned about the facts. Our politicians have taken to this with glee.

This puts scientists in a very difficult position in society.

Less and less evidence is in play. Plus the science that generates evidence is delivered by people who are letting their scepticism run away with them, making any advice they give feel as equivocal as the delivery. When we need them to stand up and be forceful, the pressure forces more wallflower behaviour.

Interestingly in the health story, particularly with the current COVID-19 crisis, everyone has been happy to listen to the white-coated ones and governments have taken that advice and run with it. It’s as though they’ve resorted to the science and even though those scientists can be sceptical and never truly sure of themselves or their predictions.

Luckily for the health officials, epidemiology theory is reasonably tight and well understood. The fundamentals are accepted around the world by most of the experts. So the patterns of infection and what to do about them are both well known and quite likely to happen, but even then they can’t make predictions about whether or not infection rates will change in a particular way on particular days or particular weeks.

So they still remain somewhat ‘maybe, could be’ about their statements.

The politicians on the other hand are more than happy to let the decisions on the hard calls on matters of public health be made by scientists standing next to them on the podium. Particularly because it needs to be there to justify some of the actions that otherwise people would not accept.

Being locked down, essentially under a form of house arrest, is a hugely draconian measure. And no politician would be able to get away with that in modern democracies without the strongest justification.

So we have this enigma going on where specific evidence is used and accepted and the politicians in particular leverage it to their advantage. And then we also have the majority of science, which is not considered or adhered to and, typically, ignored.

Ecological scepticism

Ecologists are in a particularly difficult position.

These are the scientists who try to understand nature and how nature works. They have trouble with their experiments as we’ve previously noted. The evidence that they gather is often equivocal itself thanks to weak inference so that hedging and being unsure about the specifics become the norm.

Only we need the ecological scientists to stand up now.

Issues left behind because of that scepticism and nervousness are critical to our survival. We can’t sit on the fence when it comes to soils, to food production, to the ecology that drives that connection, and the diets that we are consuming. It’s time to deliver serious calls about these things. Equivalent if you like to people in lockdown. The level of impact that ecological science needs to have is as strong as that.


Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

The bible tells me so

The bible tells me so

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things

1 Corinthians 13:11

The Bible tells us that grownups put away childish things.

You have to wonder about that. When they’re young and before they’re beaten into submission by all the cultural norms and frightened to death by their egos, kids are still innocent. They have a remarkable ability to call out elephants and to say what they think, unfiltered. They come up with great common sense. Sure they don’t have the experience and they don’t have all the details, but they’re still in tune with their instincts for what is right and wrong and what makes sense to them in their particular frame of reference.

In other words, they are honest.

Even if their little personalities might be a little bit sus, they are still able to tell it as it is. So when we put away childish things, what does that actually do to us?

Half the time it makes us into closed, guarded individuals who are fearful of actually saying what we think. In truth because it might go against everyone else’s truth or might be a career-limiting move.

Recently, I was. In a position where I was forced to call out a few childlike behaviors, but not in the sense of those innocent youths, more in the sense of the petulant adolescence who were now grunting into their coca-cola because they’d prefer to have a triple scotch. There was a requirement to call out the fact that we should be having adult conversations about certain policy and scientific matters. And not simply throw our toys out of the cot because we heard something that we didn’t like.

I thought about that a little. What is adult conversation? What is it, that putting away of childish things concept? I’m assuming that it is, take what you now know about the real world about humans operate as adults, gather more information about topics, and begin to act sensibly not with petulance or with innocence, but knowing what the world is like. Removing some of the naivety and having objective conversations about things.

Cultures have the dinner party or the pub or the conversation around the fire, where these matters can be discussed among elders where youngsters listen in or where people are able to extend their knowledge and test out ideas with others.

In the workplace healthy conversation needs to be part of the process. Everyone has a common agenda set by the organization they’re working for and it shouldn’t be a problem to put aside every small nuance and put down your ego for a little bit and have those intelligent adult conversations about the current and the future.

It’s disconcerting when this is not possible. And if this is how society is going, where we can no longer have adult conversations even though the good book told us that that’s what we should do, then we’re in a bit of strife.

Those adult conversations are critical in order to explore options and to decide what is an opinion and what is fact and to work through the logical flow of things. Understand parts of the process that you might not have thought about but someone else has.

If we can’t be adults about it. And we can’t be children because we left all of that behind. And we are left with the petulant adolescent who is grunting away because he’s not the centre of attention…

Then we’re in a great deal of strife.


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Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Over two years from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people in four successive waves, representing one in three of the world’s population at the time.

The death toll was estimated at somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

At the time, there was no cure or vaccine. Indeed people didn’t really understand how contagion from airborne particles happened. Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene, all exacerbated by the recent war, promoted a bacterial superinfection that killed most of the victims. It also impacted young adults as well as the young and old. Everyone will have known someone who’d been sick and many would have known someone who passed. The high infection and death rates made those two years an extraordinarily scary time for people who had only just suffered through WW1. People must have thought that the world was coming to an end.

No doubt levels of psychological damage, depression and anxiety in the population must have spiked. But back then wellbeing issues were not big for the medical profession. People were tough, they thought, used to a hard life and living from one day to the next.

Nobody could have imagined that one hundred years later society would be larger, more wealthy and more populous with extraordinary and impossible technologies. Mass transport across the globe, information streamed into tiny hand-held devices with all of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.

Or that there would be another pandemic severe enough to change behaviors and the collective outlook on the world.

As at 11 October 2020, COVID-19 has reached 37 million confirmed cases with 1.07 million deaths. So far an order of magnitude fewer infections and deaths than the Spanish flu and a much smaller proportion of the global population is infected, although this will no doubt rise as future waves of infections emerge. The impact though is just as severe, the sadness of deaths, the pain and suffering of those with symptoms and the chaos of the global disruptions to jobs, lifestyles and economies. It is not going to be the same again. The death rates may be not so high as they were for the Spanish flu, but still many are dying and the number of infections continues to rise across the world.

Politicians have taken all sorts of different approaches to coping with the problem. Most options target the virus and yet the psychological ailments are as acute as they were a hundred years ago; affecting people in ways that we might not fully understand.

Most people seem to be putting on a brave face. Nothing to see here, life is still normal, the new normal.

Only we are all struggling with the change. Struggling to know what it’s all going to look like ourselves, our children and their grandchildren.

Workplaces are dispersed and we’re learning to communicate from separate rooms in the absence of body language. We underestimate that lack of contact in the room at our peril. It will influence the way decisions are made.

Those who relied on the inane meeting to suck up work time. The endless discussions that go nowhere and have little use beyond filling up the day are no more. Somehow there was a way of getting away with that type of unproductive interaction with everyone in the same room. Online they are not the same. Online meetings do not pass the time before beer o’clock in quite the same way.

Online people are disengaged, often not even looking at the screen with the grid of faces on it. But are busy in other activities with their brain not into the content at all — the whole process becomes excruciating for everyone.

Alloporus believes that our lack of focus on the things that matter, and our inability to make core decisions about things, is the most troubling consequence.

How does lack of focus translate?

It exposes people that really don’t have anything to say about topics. Because they either don’t understand the topic they are not across their brief nor do they have a foundation of knowledge that they need to make a contribution.

If added to this is underlying angst and concern over the consequences of the virus. Then we’re beginning to see some very difficult behaviors, subconsciously protecting themselves from their uncertainty. I’m not sure what the solution to this is beyond technology that it’s there.

And for people to begin to accept that. All of us need to maintain our skill sets. And maintain our knowledge base even if we are distributed. It’s an opportunity to actually get a lot better at what we do and hopefully in some workplaces this is happening.

Focusing or spending less time in the meeting and more time understanding their portfolio so that they can make better decisions when they do come together with their colleagues.

Let’s hope that we can use this shift in the way that we do business to engage in the learning process and build up our knowledge again. I suggest one of the places to start in this process is knowledge about the general response of this virus and the consequences for the planet. Not so much the health consequences and how we’re going to beat it or how we’re going to engage in a war with it, but how we’re going to tackle the enormous challenges that face. The problems that were there before the virus impacted that are now more acute because of the pandemic.

The topics that come to mind we talk about on this blog all the while.

Food security — from production gains to meet demand to understanding how we’re going to adapt to climate change.

Land use — how to recognize and acknowledge and then decide what to do about our choice of what to do with land.

Ecosystem services — how they are distributed and delivered across the landscape.

Water — where our fresh water’s going to come from.

Food production methods — what mix of technologies to put alongside traditional methods of food production for the next 100 years. ]

Diet — what we are eating and if this needs to change for a diet that is not achievable but also healthy for ourselves and for the population as a whole.

Education — Are we teaching youngsters enough about the right sort of things.

Healthy scepticism — we need skeptics who do not believe everything seen and heard without finding the facts and the evidence. And therefore ignore the opinion and the gossip.

We also need to acknowledge our angst and anxiety about the state of affairs. The worst possible outcome really is that we bury our heads in the sand and decide not to hear, not to see, and not to speak about any of these matters.

The wise monkeys are not quite as wise as we thought they were.

Failure to communicate about these matters in adult conversation will bring on our worst fears faster. The things we are most concerned and scared of will come to pass.

Now is the time for us to embrace our intelligence and educate each other, learn from each other, and build opportunities and solutions that are going to keep us going into future generations.


Reposting is fine by me.

The bright side of the moon

The bright side of the moon

Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The bright side of the moon

It is early in the morning, crisp spring air cools the cheeks and sends earlobes numb. On the canvas of a beautiful blue sky is painted the moon, still risen and large enough to see it’s sculptured surface with the naked eye.

Against its pale blue background, the dark craters on the surface blend with their grey colour and invite thoughts of what it would be like to visit, a nice place to go, colourful, pleasant, calm.

And then comes the reality of what it is actually like out there. A massive rock orbiting in the blackness of space where no human could survive for more than a minute without the aid of technology.

An orange satellite sitting in a black galaxy.

Alloporus

There’s something about the human condition that means we always see an image rather than reality. I guarantee that most people who look at that moon in its picturesque blue backdrop see an invite to go there. They feel like they’ve been given a ticket on the first rocket ship to carry tourists to such an extraordinary place.

Not in our grandchildren’s lifetime, will we be able to do anything serious in space. We will generate a lot of space junk flying around in orbit above us. And various companies and countries will try to snaffle some resources or make money on the back of the curious. But the reality is the physics and the simple scale of the universe make even visiting our solar system a task beyond our current technologies and the laws of physics as we understand them.

Unless someone can crack moving faster than the speed of light, then we are destined to stay here on our own in this tiny corner of the universe, in our own blip in time.

This should be sobering. Then it should be a delight to recognize our uniqueness.

Sure, there are other life forms out there. Enjoying or not their own blip of existence. But the physics of it all means that we won’t see them and they won’t see us.

And yet the reality is that we are no more suited to be in outer space than we are to dominate planet earth. I know it says in the bible that we should have dominion but that is just some self-assurance. The truth may be closer to our survival chances on the moon.

On earth, we change everything to our own devices for our own purposes and needs. And have done for centuries. We’ve been so good at it that the planet is barely recognizable. The moon has seen the changes on the blue planet and wonders what’s going on down there?

At the moment it seems that what is going on is aggrandisement through a focus on self.

And, as written many times on this blog, there are very sensible and logical evolutionary reasons why that is a default position. Our biology is to make more and we are extremely good at it.

What we fail to realize is how hard it would be to change that biology. So that our blip in time in this tiny corner of the universe would be anything more than a path to our own mutual destruction. We would have to go against our nature in order to persist. Resources must be shared beyond our kin. We would have to restore and rehabilitate land that we had previously pilfered for its benefits.

Most of all, we would need tolerance. Recognize that other people part of the story too. Not because they are likeable or even because they are like us but because they’re here, that’s all.

And without other people onboard, the system breaks down into all the old patterns. It’s an ‘in this together’ kind of game. We either all come and collectively understand the consequences of failure to acknowledge each other and work together or we go extinct.

And I know what you will say. Many people have said this many times before. But we are still here, still creating technologies to keep our supply chains and systems moving — ever bigger, ever better.

We probably have a few decades, maybe even a century or two left to keep doing that to keep on that track. Malthus, Ehrlich and others who prophesied doom from overpopulation are not yet prophets. But they will be. There will be a crash. It will be ugly and whether or not we come out the other side in any sort of shape at all is determined by what we do now.

If we do nothing the crash will be deep and very painful. And what comes out of the other end will be a handful of unfortunate folks scrambling for what’s left. If we behave ourselves and begin to cooperate and talk and identify the things that really matter then there is a chance that the crash can be managed. A softer landing if you like. And what’s left behind could be in better shape.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks. Given the development of a new project around food, ecology and diet — sustainably FED — and fictional writing of climbing to the meet and the conversations of Paul Sorol. Reflecting on what our chances of getting through really are.

Locally the chances are good.

In a crisis, people do help each other. We’ve talked about that on this blog many times before.

But once the crisis is over and the local situation calms that helping hand does tend to fade away.

Keeping that crisis momentum going is also not what you want to do. Nobody wants to live with heightened alertness the whole time unless that happens to be your psychology.

Moving towards something that is worth keeping is the key. That involves our awareness and is the challenging part. It’s not that we don’t have empathy. Not that we don’t have the ability to go operate clearly we do. But just not enough for long enough to see us through to a soft landing.

I do not have an answer. It would be good to find one but I simply don’t have one at this point. As to how we would do that.

And my apologies for another pessimistic post. But hopefully, you can see the kernels of optimism.

There’s still a chance even at this late hour for humanity to not just turn things around but to make the future much brighter than it seems that present.

Right now we’re heading for some dark times. Unpleasant politics, leadership that is either inept or not leadership at all, but authoritarianism by any other name.

A pandemic continues to cause havoc with everything around the world, changing what we thought was our normal lives.

But it’s this time of apparent darkness that it is possible to see the moon at its brightest against that blue background and to think of it as a place worth visiting.


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