The next time you’re out and about in nature, sidle up to the nearest tree that you can’t quite get your arms around.
This mighty organism will tower above your head and its trunk will feel rock solid even as the branches sway gently in the wind.
Now take yourself back to the time just before humans invented metal tools.
This is about 6,000 years ago around 4,200 BC.
Imagine you were there with a few fellow hunter-gatherers or perhaps your clan was amongst the earliest primitive farmers and look again at the tree.
Ask yourself “I wonder if we can cut this thing down, with my stone axe?”
The answer, of course, is not really. Unless you have an enormous amount of time on your hands or there’s an extended family around willing to help with the herculean task.
Obviously, if the tree fell down of its own devices, in a storm or because it had reached the end of its natural life, this would help a lot. Not least reducing the dangers of several tons of timber falling on one of the helpers.
The problem would then become shaping it into useful material, for example, a canoe to take you out onto the swamp to gather food or beams for a shelter. This processing still requires an enormous amount of effort with stone tools.
The fact that our ancestors tried it anyway even with simple technology is a testament to human ingenuity, tenacity, and our skill with tools.
Hard yards even with steel tools
Run forward a few thousand years and imagine what it would have been like for some of the early European settlers in Australia in the late 1700s. When they arrived on the east coast they were presented with vast forests of massive trees that they recognized as a resource, but only had limited tools and not much machinery.
Until around 1850, red cedar, native softwoods, and eucalypt trees were felled by axe or crosscut saw and sawn into lengths using pit saws. Timber was also hewn or split with broad axes and wedges. Transport of the timber to mills and markets was by animal power and so forests closest to market areas were logged first.
Cutting down 30 m trees with handheld saws and axes is hard work when it’s 35 degrees in the shade. You need to be one tough cookie to be able to do that on a regular basis.
But they did it.
After 1850 the use of steam power including powered sawmills and road transport enabled higher productivity and access to areas previously uneconomic to harvest such as some of the coastal rainforests.
It was not until electrification and diesel power, which first appeared in the 1940s, did wood-chipping plants, pulp and paper from plantation softwoods, eucalypts, cypress pine, and rainforest timbers make the whole process of access to timber products easier.
By this time most of the forests in Australia had lost their biggest trees that were taken out first, particularly the hardwoods, and many of those huge trees that they began with no longer exist except for in a few isolated parcels of the inaccessible country that the tractors cannot reach.
There’s a video going around on the social feeds at the moment showing what happens in a sawmill. Not a particularly large one but a modern one with all the efficient high-tech tools.
The trunks of the trees, about the size of the one you tried to get your arms around, arrive at the yard neatly trimmed of all their branches and squared at both ends. This of course is done by a machine in the forest, no longer is it required for a tree to be cut down by hand. A tree lopper and strimmer and cutter will do that job in a fraction of a second.
The cleaned logs are piled on the back of a B double and deposited at the sawmill outside in a hopper. That hopper moves the logs in such a way that they end up on a conveyor belt, separated and aligned ready to go into the mill.
The conveyor belt takes each log one at a time through into the mill. As it arrives it is scanned to accurately record width and length and shape. This information is fed into the next machine, essentially a huge and very fancy band-saw, that begins to cut the planks from the round trunk, taking slices in both directions thanks to a double-sided saw blade. The slices are measured precisely, cut and fall onto another conveyor belt as neat planks.
The machine then flips the log four times until the square pole in the middle is left and goes down the belt that takes the timber into the stacking yard. In a matter of minutes, each log is measured, cut, and stored.
What would have taken our ancestors weeks or months of very hard labour just to get a canoe. Our modern technologies can produce timber of any size and shape in a matter of minutes.
Here is another example on an even bigger scale.
Imagine what this capability does to resource use and to the supply of resources.
It is much much easier to exhaust supply when processing efficiency is so high. And if the objective is to convert a resource into cash — the name of the game for every business — then that is what happens so long as the process is profitable.
The conversion of capital into cash is a powerful force. Modern technology advances make the conversion process for natural capital super-efficient.
That tree you hugged is no match for a chain saw let alone a forestry tree lopper.
Using up natural capital
Commerce plus technology is why natural capital is used up.
And we generally call it development. And even if the rhetoric is for sustainable development the power of commerce and technology makes that ideal a challenge.
The reality is that these systems of production are so efficient and so hungry for resources to maintain their profitability and deliver return on investment in the lumber yard machinery that it is not just the trees that need to worry.
Please share on your socials. It might be a bit depressing to read but these realities need a spotlight.
There, like an addict in rehab, I admit that cognitive dissonance has got the better of me and I am looking the other way from a host of societal and environmental ills.
As a career scientist who works with the evidence of climate, food security, and the social reality of nature’s exploitation, I am still in denial. I am no more ready to give up my morning latte or my afternoon stroll across the links than the next over indulged Westerner.
I console myself with this admission.
At least I know that my ecological gumboots are stomping on the world even if there is little that I can do about it. And, of course, there is further balm in knowing that l am not alone but a member of the vast majority.
A pandemic, a climate crisis, the Taliban, and 40 million Americans on foods stamps notwithstanding, here are three randomly selected things from recent news feeds that I let happen…
- In the decade from 2010-2020 diplomacy decreed that the nations of the world attempt 20 targets for the protection of global biodiversity including protecting coral reefs and tackling pollution. We failed. And in response to that abject failure negotiators are now working on a better plan with new goals for the next decade and beyond. Einstein just turned in his grave.
- Republican governors of Florida and Texas have stopped schools, colleges and local authorities from the requirement for vaccines, proof of vaccination, a Covid test or masks. Any Florida school administrator who demands the wearing of masks could lose their pay. Just one of the many things that should never be politicised.
- The national security advisor in the White House this week asked global oil producers to increase production so that US motorists can buy gasoline more cheaply. This week is 8 months into the Biden administration, he of the green deal and a pledge to ban new drilling and fracking on federal lands, yet his administration has granted more than 2,000 new permits.
“Ah,” I hear you say, “but it wasn’t just you. It’s not your fault,” coming to your own as well as my defence.
Well, it was.
I am part of the system that allowed and continues to allow such ineptitude, lies and selfishness to persist.
The only solace is that I can admit it now. The first but the most important step to making things better.
Please share with others who might want to own it.
Talking about the ‘man child’.
Sometimes conversations just meander along into some interesting territory. Here is one between myself and my buddy Chris in July 2020 prior to the US election and 6 months into the pandemic.
Good morning, Chris.
How are you doing?
We have to stop meeting like this people begin to talk.
They do already. So until we grow up and become a republic we have to put up with foreigners interfering in our democracy… Seems to be the news this morning.
I get all of this reporting about the Royals and everything, but they are just the law under themselves. Mind you they always have been news, for centuries literally.
They are just celebrities now, aren’t they?
They are now but they never used to be. Not so long ago it was the power struggle, the wrestling around of power. That’s really what gets people off once money is no longer an issue then it’s all about the power.
I mean you can see that with our own Malcolm Turnbull, you know, there was nothing he would gain from being Prime Minister except some feathers in his cap and maybe a place in history. He’s already worth 150 million bucks or something so he doesn’t really need the money. It’s about the glory and the power?
Yeah, and you wonder what people get out of that it obviously drives so many people. I mean, I think power drives people in business more than profit. In my experience, the people in charge of businesses are there more because they like to be in charge than they are to make profit for shareholders.
Hmm… I get the ‘in charge’ thing.
It’s seductive. No question.
I guess power is what’s really there but what’s the power for in your particular case? I can see the difference between, I don’t know, Gandhi and Donald Trump, they both want to influence people. But very different circumstances that got them to be leaders with very different styles. Gandhi was obviously not in it for the glory or maybe was I don’t know. We certainly didn’t gain anything material out of it.
No, but that’s what I think I’m getting at. I think it’s these people like to be respected and you get that in a position of power. Almost by definition you’re respected because empowering at the end of a gun is respect of some sort or another even if I respect you because you could take my life. I don’t respect you for your moral high ground. I respect you because I’m s*** scared of that AK-47 you’re holding.
So power is the thing, isn’t it?
And we talked about that before, the difference between the sort of positional power and personal power and maybe that’s you know, Trump has no personal power but he’s craved it and so he’s got himself positional power.
I think that’s a good summation of him. It’s why the media like calling him a man child because he is.
This is a bit of a diss to children because children can be quite pure and Trump is clearly not pure but he is an emotional child. No question that he hasn’t grown up at all. What he does is all for that sense of power in himself. Not from what the presidency provides. I remember when I stood in front of the White House on a visit to Washington and thinking ‘this is an interesting place, you know, it’s kind of locked away’. You can’t get at it, you know. Inside of that place, it would be easy to maintain a small army of sycophants just you just prop you up. And if you have no sense of what you’re doing for the other 350 million people in the country it doesn’t matter.
Yes and every utterance that army of people coming out to say what he really meant was ‘blah’ to clean up his mess.
Yep. I was thinking about the 20,000 lies. That’s one every 90 minutes of his tenure. It’s kind of phenomenal, isn’t it?
Is it in the Guinness Book of Records?
An untruth every 90 minutes of his tenure ought to be.
But Kaylee will never lie to the press
Except she does it every day.
She mops up his s*** that is just spread everywhere. But yeah, I mean he’s crashing and it’s really interesting to hear Biden talk about making steel for wind generators and jobs in renewable technologies, battery cars, which out of America just seems like just crazy talk, you know.
But in a way, it’s an obvious platform, isn’t it? Because their problem is that they lost last time because Hillary was considered to be just more of the same, right?
Yeah, she was.
Right? So he’s got to be different this time around. Otherwise, they’ll lose again only he’s not because he’s an old white man?
Agreed, he’s just from the same, Central Casting that produced Hillary.
Exactly. And ironically she was probably a better candidate from that mould.
Yeah, she probably was. Certainly, she was more in touch with her sensibilities because Trump is losing his but yeah, it’s interesting that Hillary was more of the same, but the public chose a scenario worse than that.
Yes, it is extraordinary, isn’t it? Populism might have a short life though. COVID-19 is really sorting them out. I mean all of the populist leaders will be found wanting if they try to be in charge of this virus which will just tell them to stuff off.
Yeah, you can just see it because populism requires you to be popular and so you have to say popular stuff like ‘the stock market is rising’ and ‘interest rates are great’, ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’. And, of course, you have to say that freedom is important and all the other things that are popular. The last thing is to tell people to stay home and you have to shut your business.
Ouch, very unpopular.
It obviously isn’t gonna work for the populist style.
Except you only need to be a bit popular. Remember Margaret Thatcher won less than 40% of the vote or whatever it was. A tiny majority that gets you over the line. Just learn the system you’re in.
Hmm and maybe Biden has to talk green new deal and the like because he needs the support of his side of politics who are going there.
Well, he has to lock in his core base too. Democrats have to get out of the house, brave the virus, and go vote. That’s always their problem. Turnout in numbers and they win.
Yeah. Republicans have said it. If everyone votes we don’t win.
That’s right, which is probably why they don’t have compulsory voting.
Yeah, and why they play all sorts of jiggery-pokery with booths and where they are and how many there are and when they’re open and whatever…
Yep. Yep, illegal, illegal.
Well, you need and all that stuff when it’s all about manipulating the vote.
To bring back the man child!
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Imagine a bizarre military coalition between China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia.
Between them, these countries spent $762 billion on their military during the lockdown year of 2020. This is 38% of the global military spending that was nearly $2 trillion in 2020, a 2.6% increase in real terms on 2019 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Such an unlikely alliance would be a formidable adversary. There is not much firepower left in the world to go up against such a combined military force.
However, there is one potential adversary capable of taking on such an alliance, at least in terms of military spending.
At $778 billion, the United States accounted for 39% of total global military expenditure in 2020.
Break down this colossal expenditure by country and the US outspends its nearest rival, China, by three times and spends an order of magnitude more (10.6x) than the next nearest rival, India.
It is hard to see China as the aggressor when these numbers are in the frame. Especially when the disparity between the US and the rest has been going on for decades.
Naturally, the west is grateful for access to such muscle.
There is little doubt military might has been a deterrent, especially when combined into collective defence. For example, NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 30 European and North American countries to implement the North Atlantic Treaty that was signed on 4 April 1949. But the collective defence NATO countries enjoy is thanks to the US paying for most of the expense.
Such generosity is remarkable. If only it was altruism.
Better use of military spending
Clearly it is hard to put aside advocacy by the military men who are passionate about the need for big boy’s toys deterrent, the wealth creation from such a large military machine, and the influence such apparent generosity buys the US in foreign affairs.
There is no altruism, just some history in being the big cheese combined with social and political advantage from staying ‘strong’.
All this is not confined to the United States.
Australia has a fraction of the population of the US and a puny US1.4 trillion GDP that cannot even touch California (US3 trillion in 2020). Yet the government can spend US$37 billion on French submarines at a cost of US$1,500 for every person in the country.
Everyone is in on it.
Maybe there are better ways of mobilising the fraction of GDP that becomes government spending.
How about a Universal Basic Income?
Recent research shows that an annual payment to all Australians of A$18,500 a year (US$13,500) would cost the taxpayer roughly A$126 billion a year or A$20 billion that the current cost of unemployment benefit and three times the current defence budget.
It would need an unpalatable jump in the overall tax rate from 28% to 34% to pay for it.
But the A$20 billion more than the current payments to the unemployed is just half the military budget.
Maybe it is more about priorities than absolutes.
But as this ramble began with the extreme US military budget, this is the point. Does the world need to spend so much on deterrents and does one country need to overwhelm the rest?
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The theme of death and taxes we gave an evidence argument in a previous post. This one is about the hip pocket.
As a private citizen in Western democracies, you are certain of two famous things: death and taxes.
Except for those independently wealthy, to survive in the system you have to earn income and that income is taxed. Modestly for low-income earners and at a greater proportion as your remuneration grows.
This ‘work for money that is taxed’ keeps going until the inevitable happens and your body can’t fight entropy anymore.
The weird part of this is that, after some thought, most people would be more than happy to pay a million dollars a year in personal income tax.
Obviously, it would mean that earnings are high enough to spend at least 10 grand a week and still have change. Compared to the low-income individual who plays $20,000 a year in tax, your bum is in the butter.
Similarly, a business paying tax is a good thing.
Corporations have many more ways of avoiding the tax dollar than the individual, but the reality is that net profit after tax, NPAT, where profit is the operative word, is the objective of the business, the reason it exists.
The company will have directors who, should they fail to maximize profit for their shareholders, risk prosecution. That NPAT number, the profit measure should be as high as possible.
A business not declaring a profit is very creative in its accounting or has previously made losses or isn’t a very good business.
Either way, the shareholders are not too happy if profit is not declared because that is their reward, their dividend for risking their own hard-earned to invest in the company.
Once the accounting smoke and mirrors are over, paying little to no tax is not a good thing.
Taxes benefit everyone
All this preamble comes before any moral argument about whether or not taxes are for the public good.
Remember that tax pays for collective benefits: roads, schools, police, defence plus a whole raft of services and structures that are hard to pay for as individuals, but that benefits everyone.
Tax is an integral part of the modern democratic system. It supports the social structure and a whole chunk of individual well being. Drive out of your front gate and you benefit from the tax dollar as soon as you hit the tarmac.
Without a tax system, we can say goodbye to the current quality of life that we enjoy. Arguably there is a moral obligation through the social contract for all legal entities and individuals to pay their way.
What is a fair share?
A fair share of tax is designated by the policies and the politics of the day.
And sure there’s no reason to pay more than your fair share according to the rules. As long as the tax system is equitable then everyone at some point in the process will have benefited from the taxes that they’ve paid. There should be a certain pride in paying tax toward the public good.
So to claim that you’ve paid no tax. Or to even hint that such a thing is good does not stack up in any sensible argument.
Paying no taxes as an individual means that you’re either at the very low end of the income scale in need of support or you’ve diddled the books somehow and claimed payments or shifted money around to avoid paying your fair share.
If a company pays no tax then at some point in the process the business has failed to disclose a profit or manipulated the books to sail very close to the wind and, again, avoids a fair share.
There is no doubt that corporations do this. They use all sorts of systems and hire expensive lawyers and accountants to move money around to avoid paying tax and one of the things that society has struggled to do is to reign in that avoidance behaviour.
But when no tax is paid for a very long time then the company is poor at what they do or they’re extremely good at dodging their fair share. Which even if it’s not illegal has certain moral nefariousness.
The graph below can speak for itself.
Alloporus would suggest tax is a good thing.
Paying your fair share according to your means should be everyone’s responsibility.
If a political party wins an election with 60% of the popular vote it is a landslide. In almost all democratic systems 60% of votes would deliver enough seats to form a government.
If any individual candidate received 60% of the vote in her electorate she would win the seat in parliament. That seat would be considered ‘safe’ given that there is at least a 20 point margin over the nearest competitor. And likely much more if there were many candidates. A huge margin in anyone’s political language.
Such results are rare.
Politics is won at the margins, not with those kinds of numbers. Democratic elections are often won with less than half the vote going in favour of a single party.
I recall back in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher first came to power and we lived through her initial years of changing things up. The legacy of those changes we’ll leave for another conversation, but I remember when her government was returned for her second term the Tory party received less than 40% of the votes from the people who voted. But in the ‘first past the post’ Westminster system the Tories gained a majority in the Parliament.
Elections for who governs us are marginal a lot of the time.
Donald Trump was elected having lost the popular vote in the 2016 US election, but having more than a hundred more electoral college votes than his rival. Whichever way you look at it, half the people or more did not want the person or the party that was elected.
If politics is just tinkering around the edges and the fundamentals are roughly the same then the result makes little difference. If a party comes in and is unable because of the legal system to dismantle the rules and regulations and is simply providing a little bit of a tweak here and there. Not too much damage is done.
But if we go back to divisive politics. Where electing one party over another is quite a radical change in the way that the world is run. And the way that the country or jurisdiction is run then those margins make a big difference.
It means that nearly half or over half in some instances of the people will not be happy with those in power.
Engagement with politics matters
All this should encourage political awareness.
If you want your party and the principles that they support to win elections, then it’s time to get out and about and make them happen, engage in the political process and perhaps that will be part of the future story.
But what it also means is that whoever loses, there is still a large number of people who support the losing side and don’t agree with the way that the politics is run.
So the convergence of ideas is an important stability factor for societies. If we are to be stable over the long run when we need to have a convergence of ideas and an ability to ensure that everybody benefits from those ideas.
Back to Thatcher again, and you can argue that she changed things up at a time when a change was required. She took advantage of the opportunity to bring to an end the period when socialist reform had run its course.
A new idea was needed to energise the economy.
We’re in the same situation again. The legacy of that neoliberal idea that began in the 1980s is now old and tired. And whilst it’s created wealth it’s also created disparity. The super-wealthy have appreciated the bulk of the gain and the trickle-down effect runs out of steam before the poorest benefit.
We are close to the wealth disparity present at the time of the early socialist revolutions when the people were much poorer than the elite.
Floodwaters of the Okavango River soaking into the sand — Photo by Alloporus
Engagement with the future
The pandemic presents an opportunity.
We already have governments doing u-turns on fiscal deficits, locking down whole communities, and fast-tracking vaccines that used to take years to deploy.
That suggests that radical options should be very much on the table. Some of the sacred cows we’ve been sold are not as holy as imagined.
If money can be spent to shore up livelihoods in a crisis, why not all the time? A universal basic income perhaps?
The opportunity is to reflect on the future. What it could, might or is likely to be like. Where humans have the advantage over all other creatures is that we can not only gaze into the future but we can do things to shape that future.
We could inject another paradigm into global politics and global economic structures. And given the juggernauts coming down the road, such a shift is critical.
The pandemic has already shown us that we can change paradigms and still survive.
And recall that winning big is not always necessary.
Change can happen at the margins.
Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from
It has been 30 years since the 1987 stock market crash that pulled the carpet from under any number of brash high-fliers of the day. Many analysts have compared the precursors of that momentous day to the current conditions in overvalued stock and real estate markets around the world.
The main point seems to be that money is no longer real.
It has been a long time since gold, the hard precious metal, was held in reserve to match with the currency issued. Today 90% of the world’s cash is electronic and unconstrained by the need for a gold standard so central banks print the stuff by the trillions. They did this to save the system after the 2008 financial crisis and have just kept going ever since, with no obvious slowdown.
The global debt load is now three times greater than it was at the turn of the century and grows by staggering sums each year.
Governments, companies and households raised $24 trillion in 2020 to offset the pandemic’s economic toll, bringing the global debt total to an all-time high of $281 trillion by the end of 2020, or more than 355% of global GDP, according to the Institute of International Finance.
Here are the gross national debt numbers for the US over a longer time period showing recovery from the impact of WW2 and then some political decisions by both Republican and Democrat presidents since the 1980’s.
Now here is the thing.
Most of this cash has been used for speculation to give us booming stock markets, crazy house prices and, arguably, Donald Trump.
Convention says that markets will correct, bubbles will burst, and the politics will burn.
Or will they?
If money is only loosely tied to material things (resources, products or services) and governments can print it at will then any correction is bailed out by more ‘printing’. Whatever it takes to ensure the economic system survives.
Why not go all out?
Print more and more. Give citizens a basic income and do away with welfare for the unemployed. And while at it spend some more money to encourage decentralisation of people away from the big cities by subsidies to services in rural areas.
After all, many of us just learnt to work from home. So home could be anywhere, maybe even somewhere with a kind rural outlook.
Here is my question…
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