Why do we bury the important stuff?

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Most days I will browse the Guardian news app for a dose of reasonably considered articles.

This is a futile addiction. It means that I will find any number of depressing instances of fuckwittery until I get to the end of the feed, where each day I can find a collection of photojournalism that is fascinating and inspiring for what it shows about the world.

The other day I was on this quest toward the amazing images when I came across this headline…

Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply

It was a long way down the feed and I had perused any number of articles on meaningless politics before this old-school title, the sort that used to be standard newspaper copy, peeked out at me from among the trivia.

A ‘crisis’ you say?

Does this mean that it is a real crisis or an air quote crisis, the sort that isn’t really?

As any followers would know it was the ‘world food supply’ topic that got me but only because this is the subject of my profession as an applied scientist. If I was a dental nurse or an insurance salesman, this topic would pass by anonymously.

Anyway, we click through and start to get the gist of the content.

Essentially there are two issues that make up the crisis.

Issue 1 — supply of phosphate is finite

The supply of phosphate, a key nutrient that gave us the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and has sustained agricultural production ever since is finite at around 70 billion tons. Sounds like a lot but at the current rate of use, supply will run out in a generation, maybe 30 years at a push.

Issue 2 — the supply is mostly in one place

Second problem is that the five locations across the world with the largest reserves hold almost 60bn tons and most of this is in Western Sahara. One place with nearly all the reserves of a resource that could ransom the world is a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Think Straits of Hormuz and you will get the idea.

Indeed, as I write there is a crisis in Hong Kong triggered by uncertainty over governance that has a deadline 28 years hence. People are mobilised over rights and lifestyle they fear is being eroded even though the deadline is decades away. The same timeframe for running out of a crucial agricultural nutrient.

There is zero chance of mobilisation over the phosphorus crisis.

Only the threat to rights, lifestyle and wellbeing from a phosphorus shortage is just as acute and would apply across the globe, not just within a jurisdiction. Yet instead of a headline, we get a half-hearted call to action two-thirds of the away down a standard newsfeed.

Maybe this is the reason. The crisis is too diffuse to register anywhere other than next to a piece on ‘Footage reveals Savoy Hotel doorman’s ‘assault’ on homeless man’.

Not to worry.

The global supply of food just has to increase by 2% per annum for the next 30 years to feed all the people. All that will do is bring the cliff closer and speed up the vehicle we are driving towards it.

So what should be done?

Well, there are some things that will help.

Solution #1 — increase efficiency

Currently, many farmers add more phosphorus than they need to because they want to avoid the risk of not adding enough and losing yield. We could make farmers much more efficient at using phosphorus in cropping systems by getting smarter at when plants need the nutrient and how the soils deliver it so as not to over-fertilize. This will have the added advantage of lowering pollution from farm runoff, a significant issue for waterways in agricultural landscapes.

There is some work in this both in understanding how phosphorus moves around in different soils and contexts as well as the tacky psychology of changing the way the farmer goes about his business.

Solution #2 — be frugal

Add phosphorus but not with the aim of maxing out the yield, more to achieve a production gain and so spread the benefit over a longer time frame. This is more attractive than it sounds for when we go long there are benefits to soil and business resilience.

Solution #3 — use alternative sources of phosphorus

There are very few alternatives to rock phosphorus that generate industrial-scale volumes.

There is one, the bones and offal of livestock that pass through abattoirs. Although, this is more recycling than a minable stock it has to be done as does the nutrients in human waste that should not end up in the ocean.

Solution #4 — reduce waste

Global food supply chains are typically profitable mostly thanks to externalities and mining of the resource base. They are enabled by modern transport systems and use huge amounts of energy for each calorie of food that is consumed.

Profitability often goes with profligacy. You would imagine that the profit-hungry would look at all options for efficiency only they don’t when those actions mean more work. Why organise redistribution prior to the use-by date when dumping the out of date food is easier.

Estimates are that at least a third of food produced is wasted. That represents a huge amount of phosphorus used for not benefit.

Solution #5 — all of the above

Multiplicity is essential in most global crises for the scale and risk do not match a single silver bullet option. All solutions for greater care and efficiency are needed as are all options fro recycling and novel sources.

In the meantime let’s hope that those with designs on global dominion leave Morocco alone.

When craziness is too much

When craziness is too much

Sometimes the craziness is too much, it blows your synapses away. You are left in a bucket of incredulity.

Cop this quote from the former Australian PM Tony Abbott reported by SBS online from a summit in Hungary trying to explain the real threat to the existence of his kind…

“It seems to me that it is not so much our failure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but our failure to produce children that is the extinction reality against which we really need to work against”

Tony Abbott, Former Australian Prime Minister

Let’s just pause a moment.

This blatant click-baiting is trying to trick us that even though Australia failed to reduce emissions, that’s not the biggest problem. That accolade goes to our inability to produce enough white people.

Seriously, enough white people. You are kidding, right?

At first, I thought that I should write the obvious rebuttal that we are already reproducing 8,000 people per hour. An hourly net increase into the grand diaspora of the world, and it should matter little what tribes they come from. There are more than enough people to go around and satisfy every neoliberals wet dream.

Only when we last looked, the distribution of people and resources is uneven across the world. This means that some places will be crowded and run out of resources. And when the population growth rate is high, crowded places will become difficult to live in and people will want to leave to find a better opportunity. Emigration is inevitable and these people have to go somewhere.

Do you want to live in these crowded places? No, neither does Tony.

But then I thought again.

This kind of craziness is too common compared to the proportion of people who might actually believe the nonsense.

Here is a fascinating graphic from Statista chart of the day

What it says is that less than 1 in 20 people actually deny the existence of climate change in most developed countries. A party representing this minority would never win an election and yet the rhetoric from the deniers remains powerful in the social mix.

This is what Abbot and his cronies bank on.

They know their opinions are not shared by most but that is not what matters. Influence is the game and, no matter there are kids on strike and a 16 year old girl calling out the UN, these noisy minorities are good at it.

It turns out I can’t push the incredulity aside. It is gut-wrenching because these people are incorrigible.

What I have to learn is that numbers are not enough.

Did the Daleks really mean it — Do we?

Did the Daleks really mean it — Do we?

“Exterminate! Exterminate!”

So shrieks the violent, merciless and pitiless cyborg aliens that Terry Nation invented to populate the Dr Who television universe. These complete metal-clad gits demand total conformity as they seek conquest of the universe and the extermination of what they see as inferior races… just like the Nazis.

Engineered by Davros to have nothing but hate in their souls, the Dalek is the archetype villain that can only be stopped through destruction. Be or be killed. Throw all that anger and disgust toward the source of hostility and exterminate them or they must destroy you. No half measures.

Jeff Sapprow thinks that our current global environmental crisis embodied by warming and biodiversity loss is an ‘extermination event’ and claims that the people killing nature know what they are doing.

Here are just two snippets from his piece in the Guardian.

In 1988 George HW Bush promised on the campaign trail to fight climate change. “I am an environmentalist,” he declared. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”

Jeff Sparrow

HW wasn’t an environmentalist and the White House? Well, it is just a residence with ineffectual tenants. No matter than some were well-meaning.

“In 1997 the world’s leaders signed the Kyoto protocol, with Bill Clinton declaring “a commitment from our generation to act in the interests of future generations”. More emissions have been released since that agreement than in all of previous history.”

Jeff Sparrow

Yes, in all previous history.

The last twenty years have seen us all burn, belch and clear to release more greenhouse gas than the combined efforts of all the people gone before. The Daleks would have nodded if they could.

That we have done this with intent, along with the habitat conversion, pollution and resource depletion that goes with it, is a bold call. Did we do it to exterminate and control the universe or just to make a buck and fuck?

The evidence is that we have not been blind. The warming and the loss we have known about since the 1950’s making ignorance a poor excuse. If we knew what was happening, then we knew what we were doing.

Obviously we knew (know) that we were (are) pillaging but our intent was (is) probably personal.

We each want a better life for ourselves and, maybe at a push, for our children. Better means more food, a bigger house, bolder cars and streaming services. Those in less blessed places just want some food and a bicycle. Either way, it is personal motivation, not exactly global domination at the expense of the weak and inferior that guides our behaviours.

However, it is bold to say that our intent is to exterminate.

The Dalek caricature strips back any mediating emotions to leave hate as the primary source of power for raw hate is blind and ruthless.

Surely we have some mitigating emotions within us. There is a kernel of goodness in there. We connect, love and live amongst each other most of the time. That you can dial 000 and get help remains quite remarkable evidence that we are not all bad.

Indeed, when my tooth broke this week and my wife booked a dental appointment for the next day from her phone at the beach it was awesome. Then when the treatment was super high-tech and the dentist first-class fixing the tooth within 24 hours I knew I was both fortunate but also grateful.

So I do not believe it is an extermination event, even though it looks like one.

Humans are not pitiless cyborgs but we are easily led by the stupid, ignorant and morally corrupt. The result might be the same.

I’ll leave with a reminder from Jeff Sparrow’s piece of how fine the line is between the two motivations.

“How petty, how small, how childish do those politicians with the temerity to attack Greta Thunberg look! She speaks for science, idealism and hope; they embody an ignorance or cynicism so deep as to constitute depravity.”

Jeff Sparrow

More on the CEO salary issue

More on the CEO salary issue

In a previous Alloporus post on average CEO salaries Alloporus commented on reports that $187 million was paid to the top 10 CEOs in Australia in FY17.

That is a whole heap of cash.

It made sense to try and put this number into context. A quick calculation revealed that the $187 million pocketed by the CEOs was roughly 6,309 person-years worth of time for money at delivery driver rates.

Over 6,000 person-years for the work of 11 men.

The comment was that this amount of money was smelly, very smelly indeed.

Here is what happened in the FY18

That little lot adds up to $148,343,764. A bad year for the CEOs. Heaven forbid a terrible year, drought and pestilence on us all.

The top dude earned $13 million less and the overall total was well down.

Only it still stinks, especially as many of the same blokes are on the list.

Not sure what happened to the pizza guy though.

At some point it will be clear that whilst there is some sense in paying people to make tough decisions and to take responsibility, there is a limit to what is reasonable and respectable. What we have in Australia at the moment is neither.

Some numbers you should know

Some numbers you should know

In May 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report with this headline for the media release

Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

No doubt this is designed to be scary.

Any sentence that includes ‘dangerous’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ strategically placed among the eight words is not a feel-good aphorism.

I could be glib here, but for once I will not.

Cooked or not, the numbers are bad. And despite the hyperbole, the UN technocrats didn’t put ecosystem services in the title of their organisation for nothing.

It is true.

We are eroding natural capital that includes biodiversity at a rate that will hurt us through declining ecosystem services that include everything from food production to clean air. This is happening just when the demand for these services is greater than ever before and grows by the day along with an expectant population.

The loss of turtles, koalas and pandas will dominate the media comment and fuel the angst but there are a couple of summary numbers that you should also know about.

300% increase in food crop production since 1970

This is a remarkable gain.

Even the stingiest financier would take annual growth of 6% over 50 years. It is more remarkable considering that by 1970 the Green Revolution had peaked thanks to extensive adoption of fossil fuel inputs via tractors, fertilizers and pesticides.

The implication of the 300% for ‘nature’s dangerous decline’ is that along with technologies for production efficiency land has been appropriated for crops. This worries the IPBES because land converted to agriculture not only reduces the land available for wildlife, it also increases habitat fragmentation, water pollution from nutrient and pesticide runoff, encourages weeds, and creates additional greenhouse gas emissions.

So the biodiversity losses from the growth in agriculture will be the headline.

Pause for a moment though and remember that since 1970 more than 4 billion people have joined in the global fun and games, more than double the number around when Barry White was gonna love you just a little more baby.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here but we would be lost without all that additional food.

Here is another number to ponder.

23% of land area that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation

This is a remarkable number alongside the 300%. All that food production gain came in spite of nearly a quarter of agricultural land becoming degraded.

At the core of this contradiction is that we clear land for production all the time. This helps keep the production curve going up even as we mine and degrade the soil in one in four of the fields and paddocks where the food is grown.

This will have to stop at some point when there is no more land to clear.

This land shortage will happen. It already has in some parts of the world. Then we have to get smarter in how we use the agricultural land we have so that it is restored or, better, does not degrade in the first place.

We can do this. We know how to do it. There is even a simple premise to cover all the specifics — restore soil carbon. Do this across all landscapes and many of the biodiversity and climate issues are eased. It is not a silver bullet but it is darned close.

“Soil,” you say. “What does dirt have to do with anything?”

Well, this is the foundation of all things – our food, clean water and pure air. Soil is the foundation because it is where the plants grow.

Whilst we learn to replace the soil with hydroponic and aquaponic food systems and proteins from bacteria, the bulk of our food for the next 100 years or more will need soil.

The IPBES report does mention soil several times. But, as is usual, soil is not in the headlines.

It really should be.

Perceptions are everything we need to question

Perceptions are everything we need to question

I just read a fascinating book entitled Radical Help by social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. This woman, a maverick with a heart of gold, is taking on the establishment in ways it hates, by questioning everything.

What she has discovered is gold.

She begins her descriptions of what she calls ‘experiments’ with a social statement, here is one…

Wages for more than twenty million British families – 64 per cent of the population – are too low to live on. It is worth repeating that a far greater proportion of benefits are paid to those in work on low wages than to those out of work, as for millions the categories of work and welfare collapse into one another.

Hilary Cottam, Radical Help

In other words, the economic system is failing the majority, including those who find fulfilment and purpose in gainful employment.

Add to this 64% figure the fact that payments to those out of work account for just 1% of the UK welfare budget – equivalent to less than £3 billion a year – and the clear implication is that people are not bludgers, they want to work for a fair wage, enough to live and raise their families.

Thinking on these numbers some more, Cottam adds another key insight. People want purpose. Give them this and they will not only work hard but at almost any task aligned to their purpose.

How easy should it be to harness this immense power? When people can connect, cooperate, innovate they will solve what seems intractable. Everything is possible with aligned people power. Except that this is not some neo-socialism virus about to infect us all, it is actually about each person and how each one of us goes about our everyday lives. It is the power to grow our own wellbeing.

At the core of this power is the human connections we make.

When we are close to one another we literally move mountains. When I tell my wife this dramatic insight she simply smiles knowingly. A retired couples therapist, her entire career gave evidence to the power of connection. Deep connections are what hold us up and keep us together.

George Monbiot, in typical acerbic style, tells it more simply — no human on the savanna would have survived one night on their own.

Putting people together so that they can form connections that matter to them is what Hilary Cottam does in her experiments. It matters little if the people are old, young, disadvantaged or disabled. It seems that even the bored and the disillusioned will succumb to the salve of genuine human connection.

Back in the real world, the perception we are sold is that people are lazy, preferring the couch and a games controller to work and responsibility.

This may be true for some but it is not our natural state. Humans would not be so populous and prosperous today if our ancestors were innate bludgers with no connections. Our genes would have gone the way of the dodo and maybe neanderthals would be thumping their way around the globe.

So next time you hear that we are obese, lazy slobs with diabetes… do not, and I repeat in big letters, DO NOT believe this nonsense.

Instead, go get yourself a copy of Radical Help, read it and then go lobby your local politician.

Don’t tell them to change the system, just let them know that people are all-powerful, they just need a helping hand, not a handout.

Seriously, go read it. You will be amazed.

What it means to have more people in the world

What it means to have more people in the world

Here are a couple of anecdotes of what it means to have more people in the world than seems possible.

Spiders

‘A-Ping’ are a popular edible treat in Cambodia. For the uninitiated, ‘A-Ping’ are fried tarantulas that are, apparently, irresistible. The females are especially prized. Apparently the eggs in the abdomen are the really good bit. This odd street food is popular enough for sellers to shift 100 spiders on a good day.

Loss of forest and over-hunting means that local supplies of tarantulas near towns and cities are spent. Supply is falling as demand grows and inevitably the price rises. Spiders are sourced far from the cities where people are poor so the high prices make collection attractive. Something similar happens in many parts of Africa and is labelled poaching.

The combination of demand, supply and price leads to what ABC journalist Zoe Osborne calls an unsustainable demand. More strictly is unstainable supply for demand is a function of the number of people (growing) and their purchasing power (rising).

Either way, it is bad news for tarantula species.

Side note

Tarantula is the term used here. Sellers fry ‘A-Ping’, the large hairy spider. There are over 800 tarantula species in the world meaning that numerous species make up the ‘A-Ping’ trade. Certainly, some of them will be rare naturally, even before the additional hunting pressure. Several species will be rare now.

Donkeys

The Norwegians can be a generous bunch. Turns out that Norway is in the top ten countries for development aid giving over $4 billion in 2018 putting them second to Sweden as a proportion of gross national income and first in dollars spent per capita. They are good folk.

Many years ago one of the Norwegian aid projects gave donkeys to the people of Botswana who are fond of donkeys. The herd boys ride them and they are often used to pull carts. It made sense to provide poorer communities with free donkeys.

The gift was well received and for a while provided the intended benefits. As time passed the donkeys prospered along with the Botswana economy — a coincidence not a consequence. Soon there were many more donkeys in Botswana than were needed as prosperity from diamonds gave the herd boys other things to do and donkey carts were replaced with four-wheel-drive trucks.

Spare donkeys became a traffic hazard for they are as stubburn as their mule cousins and refuse to get out the way of the aforementioned trucks zipping along at 140 clicks.

Then the Chinese decided that there was a huge market for donkey gelatin in their country where it is known as ‘ejiao’. It is better not to ask why but we are talking rice delicacies and use in herbal medicine to treat a range of ailments from bleeding, dizziness, and insomnia to a dry cough. The demand for ‘ejiao’ is growing rapidly thanks to population growth and affluence, in this case in China. As the Chinese prosper economically so the demand for remedies to improve health and well-being, proven or anecdotal, goes up.

A few years ago donkey prices around the world began to rise sharply due to this rising demand from Chinese herbalism. Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal banned donkey exports to China because, not unlike the spider example above, poor people could get a favourable price for their donkey.

Arguably the removal of donkeys from the roads in Botswana is not such a bad thing so long as the herd boys are still on the internet. But, as always, the disadvantaged are further repressed when they find themselves in need of draught power.

Photo by Henry Desouza Nelson on Unsplash

What it means to have more people

Spider species joining the lists of rare and endangered, cruelty to donkeys and desperate measures for rural poor.

Who would have thought it?