Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.

Why?

Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Optimist

Optimist

My friend is an optimist with prostate cancer. He is in his eightieth year and given that he felt healthy, played golf every day, and had no obvious symptoms, had to think long and hard before deciding to undergo the debilitating treatment that is chemotherapy.

He is also an inspiration. Few would accept and respond to such a difficult emotional challenge of deliberately poisoning your own body because someone else told you it was necessary with the grace and magnanimity that he has shown not just at first when the whole thing is raw, but every time you see him. The good days and the bad are greeted with a spark of clarity and thanks to his god.

The other day another of my golfing buddies brought John over for a yarn and a cold one. The three of us sat for an hour, or maybe two, talking our usual nonsensical theories on how best to hit a small round object forward in a straight line, with the occasional digression into politics and a shot at the breeze. Meaningless drivel among old blokes is truly one of life’s pleasures.

At one point we got onto the environment and from there to my own latest incarnation supporting evidence-based policy. John was enthralled and then effusive. Trying to put accessible finance into the hands of landholders was the best idea he had heard in years. He was genuinely excited.

As you can already tell, John is a ‘half full glass’ type of person, a genuine optimist. Indeed, for him, the optimism and evidence conundrum does not exist to the point his glass brims over not from an excess of positivity but from putting things in their rightful place.

That he found my ideas exciting was the most encouraging thing I’d experienced for a very long time. Most days I face naysayers, antagonists and straight up enemies. I have even begun to wonder if there was any liquid at all in people’s glasses for most are not just negative they are downright aggressive towards our ideas to better understanding the management of natural resources.

Before I get too carried away though, it is true that old men drivel and mates are prone to both rib and big each other up to excess. Most of the greatest ever golf shots known to man have happened on a Sunday afternoon at Springwood Country Club. Only this seemed very different. Maybe it was the chemo or the beer or some hokey pokey between the two but what I felt was level-headed enthusiasm. A point of truth had been made.

I have known for a while that with our afterbefore thinking we are onto something.

The combination of ecological research evidence and counterfactual scenarios, all hanging about in the cloud, can make a difference. Whether we do it or not, critical decisions on sustainable production and future food security will increasingly use more evidence and less gut feel.

So thank you, John. Thank you for being one of the very few to genuinely see what needs to be done and if not by me or by afterbefore, then by someone, soon.

And may that clarity stay with you through your challenges for you have helped more than you know.

Brumby

Brumby

Recently I sent an email to Professor David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University, who had just resigned from the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

I don’t know David although he is a fellow scientist, ecologist and peer of sorts. He resigned because the NSW Government passed the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses, the brumby, a bill that not just goes against the Scientific Committee’s advice, it’s diametrically opposite to it.

Professor Watson’s resignation letter said he had better things to do with his time than provide advice that is ignored. Fair enough.

So my email was of support for an important personal decision by someone I don’t know and, for me, that is not something that happens every day.

So why reach out?

Well, the Committee had a draft determination to list wild horses as a Key Threatening Process. This means that there is sufficient scientific evidence that feral horses have a detrimental effect on native plants, animals and ecological communities, especially in alpine regions. In other words, horses are a degradation driver contributing to biodiversity loss.

Horses are like many other exotic species, they are not compatible with the objectives of protected areas. Instead, they make it much harder to protect native species because they are an unusual disturbance, one that the native plants and animals have not evolved alongside. In this instance grazing and hard-hooved trampling that alpine plants in Australia had not previously been subjected to in their recent evolution.

Think about this reality for a moment.

Everywhere that humans go they introduce species. Many of these introductions bring an evolutionary pressure not previously or at least recently present in the native communities of plants and animals. It changes the balance of evolutionary and ecological pressures. Some species benefit, for others, existence and reproduction can become more difficult. In time they are predated, eaten or competed out of the mix.

If the NSW Scientific Committee were looking at listing feral horses as a threatening process, this means there is enough research evidence that wild horses are doing this in NSW national parks, enough to see some native plants and animals at greater risk of extinction than before.

The bill, however, legislates for protection of wild horses. Passing the bill means NSW will have an Act to protect a key driver of biodiversity loss alongside a Biodiversity Act that is supposed to protect native plants and animals from the very same drivers.

It seems very odd to be so contrary, even for politicians. So why do it? It is politics of course.

Many of the wild horse in NSW occur in national parks in bellwether electorates. Seats that often swing hard at state and Federal elections and politics is sensitive just now, perhaps more so than for a while. NSW is about to enter an election, the Federal government has by-elections to worry about and is not long off its own visit to the polls. Then there is the more general turmoil around the world making a mockery of the neo-liberal political norms we have just gotten used to. The politics of horses becomes about those folk who like them for the frontier icon of rural solidity that, to many, they have always been. No matter that they trample a few native plants under-hoof. At this time the sensibility falls towards those folk with an Akubra and a whip and not the dreadlocked ones.

Unfortunately for Professor Watson, his understandable stand for sense over sensibility will only be a gesture, more important to him than anyone else. This is despite the fact that the government has just made a law to protect a driver of biodiversity loss.

It’s all desperate… and rather sad.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

Human beings continue to make illogical decisions that hasten the collapse of the natural world that supports us. Most of us die.

After several hundred years, with only a few million humans reduced to ancient style hunting, gathering and skirmishing, nature shows signs of recovery with greenery more verdant than before and wildness returning to the earth.

After a thousand years, the humans have settled into a less prolific growth cycle than before, perhaps learning from their own ancient history.

A new normal has emerged that allows evolution a bit more space to breath. New species evolve to fill the gaps left empty by the millions of species that humans eradicated.

Nature recovers from the sixth mass extinction just as it recovered from the previous five. It takes time of course, but that is nature.

Fairness

Fairness

It would seem that humans beings are innately fair-minded.

They are drawn more to transactions that are fair, if not necessarily equal, over those that might appear economically rational. Social economics research says that if you have $100 and are prepared to share it with me if I’m offered anything less than about $40, I’d rather go without.

This subconscious ‘fairness test’ translates across any number of social transactions.

At the 19th hole after a friendly fourball, it is better to risk the ire of the breathalyzer than for any one member of the group to shirk the fairness of getting in his shout. So when, in order to keep to my self-imposed ‘maximum of 2 beers a day’ rule, I get my round in first or second, then say no thanks on the third and fourth round.

My golfing buddies are incredulous.

“No worries”, I say, “I’m good”.

They insist and with ever-increasing voracity, for I have unwittingly deprived them of fairness. The lime and soda duly arrives as a less than complete compromise.

We have this fairness requirement even if our social systems are steadily imposing the opposite. Wealth, income and opportunity disparities have created ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots’ a plenty. And we all know it to be true, so much so that it can even get some odd folk elected to public office.

No doubt this innate ‘fairness test’ is a driver for any number of historical resets where the ‘have’s’ took too much, beyond what was considered fair, and the masses rose up to change things. There is also no doubt that fairness is hard-wired into every generation. It might even leak across into entitlement.

So the questions to think about are these.

When will the next reset happen?

My guess is that the current return to a political polarisation of sorts is the pre-dinner drinks. It is not the main meal at all. That will come when the old school approach typified by the stupid white men who actually think that if you offer $1 from your $100 it is better than nothing and so you will be grateful for the gesture, finally withers away.

So my guess is not in this but perhaps the next generation. Sometime towards the middle of the century when the reality has bitten a little harder and there has been time for some alternative politics to be invented by the young.

And how will it reset?

A social revolution of course. It is the way… usually.

Biodiversity and conservation are not the same thing

Biodiversity and conservation are not the same thing

Surprising as it may seem, biodiversity and conservation are not the same things. Most importantly biodiversity does not mean biological conservation.

Biodiversity does not mean rare or endangered either and it is not a synonym for an environmental value of your choice.

As the original international Biodiversity Convention agreed way back in 1992, the formal definition of biodiversity is

the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Rather than be so cumbersome, most biologists define biodiversity as the

totality of genes, species and ecosystems of a region

or more simply still, from the title of Ed Wilson’s 1992 book…

The Diversity of Life

though these definitions are very clear – biodiversity is about variety – the term has morphed in the eyes of the public and the media to mean conservation of rare things or just conservation, period.

This shameless hijacking of one technical term to mean something else in order to promote a specific agenda is all too common and I have lamented on this general topic many times before…

I even went on about it in Awkward News for Greenies and Missing Something

Lack of objectivity has become the bane of modern society that grows as each day of staring down at our devices passes, but I digress.

Not satisfied with pinching the term biodiversity for nefarious purposes, it would seem that another appropriation is afoot.

The technical term ‘natural resource management’, or more commonly the acronym NRM, is not familiar outside the cadre of land and environmental managers who work with the way nature can support a wide range of values that humans find useful, from production of food and fibre to clean water and a myriad of other ecosystem services.

There is no settled definition of NRM but this one would pass muster with most specialists…

the management of natural resources such as land, water, soil, plants and animals, with a particular focus on how management affects the quality of life for both present and future generations

NRM is about people and how they interact with landscape, the complex interplay between nature, production and values. Technically this makes it about land use and land use planning, land management, water management, biodiversity and biodiversity conservation, but also the many industries that are based on the production of food and fibre from fisheries to forestry. It is about understanding how the many complex values that people need landscapes to deliver can be realised, even maximised, now and into the future.

In short, NRM is applied ecology.

Lately I have noticed a lot of definition creep with this term. More and more it is being used to mean the environmental value of conservation, especially the protection of remnant native vegetation.

In many landscapes developed for agriculture, remnants of native vegetation are small, isolated and infrequent, often increasingly so as production takes precedence. Remnants are perceived to be where the rare and endangered hang out, the last places where conservation values can be found. Through this association remnants of native vegetation have, for many people, grown in value and importance. Many NRM decisions have become about how to protect these patches and control the drivers, especially  weeds and pests, that degrade them.

In a few short steps, this focus on native vegetation as being NRM, makes it a simple surrogate for saving species.

NRM = conservation.

Some people feel good about this appropriation. After all they are in the minority and need all the tools at their disposal to protect the conservation values that they hold dear. In a way it is important that they do this for the majority of people are staring down at their phones blissfully unaware and unconcerned that biodiversity is crashing down around us. Somebody has to hold the torch.

The problem I have is that NRM is supposed to be a holistic concept, one that considers all values at the same time and tries to understand the consequences of resource use decisions for all of them. This requires great technical breadth, a moderate mindset, and a pragmatic view of the human landscape interaction.

Almost by definition, this is not how the conservation-minded think.

If this trend for ‘NRM = conservation’ continues it would be a great shame. NRM should be about the challenging decisions needed to balance resource use for multiple outcomes. We have to grow food and fibre but it makes so much more sense if we do this without destroying other environmental values.

But if NRM becomes yet another synonym for conservation, then immediately there is a bias away from achieving a balance of values at sites and across the landscape in favour of conservation.

 

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

Natural resource management becomes the dominant paradigm in rural landscapes.

Every land management decision is made with knowledge of the implications from resource use trade-offs, with the overall objective of achieving long-term balance in all values – utility and preservation.

Native vegetation is cleared only when it enhances production values and as a last resort after all other options for production efficiency on existing agricultural land are exhausted or where there is likely to be excess of environmental value that is easily recovered through restoration or rehabilitation. Even then any clearing is compensated with an increase in management actions that enhance either production efficiency or landscape health.

Resource conversion becomes governed by understanding value trade-offs and the implications for current and future ecosystem performance. There is no need for heavy regulation because everyone understands that to follow smart NRM decisions is the only way to maintain and enhance all values.

There is also no need to hijack the term NRM because everyone knows what it means.


If you found some ideas for healthy thinking here, please share this post with your networks and check out a few of the other ideas in the back catalogue

Aid

Aid

In 1970, The 0.7% ODA/GNI target was first agreed and has been repeatedly re-endorsed at the highest level at international aid and development conference

What on earth does this mean?

Well ODA is overseas development aid, the amount of money governments spend to support people in other countries through official agencies. Here is the agreed definition of ODA

  1. provided by official agencies, including state and local governments, or by their executive agencies; and
  2. each transaction of which a) is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective; and b) is concessional in character and conveys a grant element of at least 25 per cent (calculated at a rate of discount of 10 per cent).”

GNI is the acronym for gross national income, the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country. It’s a combination of gross domestic product discounted for overseas earnings and repatriations.

Australia has a GNI just shy of $47,000 per capita and with a population of 24.13 million, that’s a little over $1 trillion ($1,134 billion) per annum.

A tidy sum.

The ratio of ODA to GNI is an indicator of how much money is spent on overseas aid as a proportion of income available. Proportionality is important here because it encodes the notion that it’s not the absolute dollar amount that matters but the proportion of the dollars available that becomes a test of innate fairness.

And for a long time the global community has settled on 70c in every $100 as a reasonable target spend.

This graphic from An Australian Institute report Charity still ends at home found that in 1974 Australia allocated 0.45% of GNI to foreign aid, sliding to just 0.23% today, and projected to fall even further to 0.20% by 2021

0.23% of Australia’s GNI is about $5 billion per annum or 10% of the recently announced budget for new submarines

Official development assistance (ODA) and a proportion of gross national income (GNI)

The rich get richer, maybe

Australia’s GNI has doubled in the past 20 years. We are getting richer by the day despite what the media and various advocacy groups would tell us. Of course, those dollars don’t buy what they used to is very true. The cost of living goes up alongside income and not always proportionately. It depends very much on your situation. Home owning baby boomers who have paid off their mortgages are not seeing these numbers the same way as a hipster barista pouring double shot macchiatos at 7am on a chilly July morning.

However, the fact that the ratio has, on average, gone down and markedly in recent times, to around half the long term OECD average effort, and less than a third of the agreed 0.7% target ratio, is instructive.

It means that we have budgeted more for the absolute dollar spend than the proportion. If we allocated the OECD average there is close to $5 billion more in hard cash. A sum that buys tangible amounts of medicines, water purifiers, schools and the like. More than enough to make a real difference.

This is a choice. It is a hard one certainly for there are any number of local uses for that $5 billion in social welfare alone. We could easily justify that this money has gone to the local disadvantaged and underprivileged individuals all across Australia funding drug clinics, special education programs, social justice and support for mental health or any number of worthy causes that need help to help others.

If we are encouraged to buy local, why not spend local too?

Because there is a bigger picture to see here. Throughout human history, people have stuck to their tribe and found adversaries in others. Skirmishes between nomadic groups became conquering armies and global wars for resources and dominance of my tribe over yours. Society is always on the brink of this kind of conflict.

One of the very few ways we have to dampen this tendency is to be kind to those who are different to us. It is not innate. And so it is never an easy thing to do but supporting others, even if it can easily be corrupted into a play for influence, actually helps the global glue. An interdependency that reduces the risk of conflict. We see it in commerce and we should also seek it through aid.

That we are looking inward is a disturbing trend. It may seem logical as times get harder but it will not work. Spending less on others weakens us and them. It makes us more vulnerable and we know what happens then.

Values again

Values again

What do you value most?

Your loved ones, your health, Sheba the cat, your favourite cashmere jumper or even, perhaps, your screen time.

If you think about it, even for a moment, lots of things are likely to be on your list of valuables.

Alloporus has discussed this kind of thing before. And in thinking about how we perceive value, concluded that value is always relative and personal.

The question here is how far down the list of things we value is nature?

You know, all the plants, animals, hills and streams, the flowers that bloom and bees that buzz, the cute and the cuddly, and even the icky bugs and slugs, together with all the vitality that they bring.

I side with’ is a website aimed at increasing voter engagement in issues of the day. It’s ‘popular issues’ page lists 100 most popular issues filtered from, they claim, a million unique survey answers per day.

When I had a look at the site a few months ago, just 8% of the issues listed were nominally about the environment and none were directly about nature (note that this is an active polling site, so the current lists may differ substantively).

‘Environmental regulation’ makes the front page but you have to scroll down to find ‘mining water use’, and further still to ‘foreign land ownership’, ‘plastic product ban’, and ‘nuclear energy’. Way down the list we get ‘whaling’, ‘fracking’, ‘GMO foods’, ‘coal seam gas’, and ‘nuclear waste’.

More popular than environmental regulation when I looked were equal pay, gay marriage, abortion, mandatory vaccinations, terrorist citizenship, LGBT adoption rights, and welfare drug testing.

Let’s just pause a moment for this to sink in.

Nature, the cornucopia of organisms, services and wonder that gives us clean air, fresh water, food, and any number of raw materials that collectively provide us with the opportunity to contemplate values, does not make the list of 100 most popular issues of the day.

This is not an isolated finding.

Nature languishes way down on many lists of environmental issues even though aspects of nature are implicit in so many of our most acute challenges, not least in providing solutions.

Somewhere along the way we have become so disconnected from what nature does for us that we do not even think it is important.

This is quite remarkable.

I’m going to give in to my incredulity and harp on this one.

Our collective term for the very thing that sustains us, the place we evolved into and shaped our characters, beliefs and our psyche, is not even on our intellectual or moral radar.

Let’s just consider one of the things that happens in nature each and every moment of every day and what would happen if it stopped.

Decomposition is the process by which complex organic material is broken down into its constituent parts. These chemicals become available for recycling by plants back into organic matter or, if you like, food for heterotrophs including people. Bacteria, fungi and a host of invertebrates in soil and leaf litter are responsible for this natural process that only keen gardeners and farmers are likely to notice.

What if decomposition stopped? In a short time we would be knee deep in dead things. None of the carcasses would smell of course because the process of decomposition releases the odorous gases of decay. Instead they would just pile up along with the dead plant material.

In dry periods the most likely outcome would be fire. A sobering proposition given the heavy fuel load of dry biomass.

But this is not the half of it.

Without nutrients there are no building blocks for plants. Once the burst from nutrient stored in the seed is over, seedlings would simply stop growing. Deciduous trees would not flush and evergreen plants would become dormant.

Photosynthesis would shut down and oxygen production would slow to a halt. Oxygen deficits would compete with starvation as the means to kill off all the animals.

In just a few months most of nature would be changed forever. Humanity would not survive.

Of course this is not going to happen because it is impossible to stop decomposition. Bacteria and fungi are way too pervasive for that.

And maybe this is it.

We believe that nature is unbreakable. It has so much built in resilience and redundancy we see it as a perpetual motion machine that can never stop.

But human actions can slow nature down by drying out soil, changing vegetation, over-exploiting the soil nutrients, reducing soil organic matter or through pollution.

Our actions also channel nature into delivering the products we need. Nature becomes fields, farms, plantations and reservoirs. Places where we convert nature into commodities. This reduces overall redundancy and resilience because so much of the energy and nutrient flows are directed into things that humans need.

We value these things of course, only not in quite the same way as we value nature. Commodities are literally valuable because we convert them into cash. Land is valuable because it can be used to generate commodities. Soon we are down with the dollar.

The reality is that the economic focus is with us, stuck like araldite to our present and future. There is no credible alternative or, more significantly, no credible way to transition to an alternative, that can give us back a focus on nature without looking through a commercial lens.

So, for now at least, we do not value nature. It’s not on our radar and that is a big problem.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

The global wheat crop is decimated by a fungal disease that is immune to all attempts to control it. After three years of next to no wheat anywhere, there is a food crisis that affects everyone, even those who shop for their food in supermarkets. No bread, no pasta, no cake and no wheat beer. All the gluten free alternatives are consumed by the rich.

In a remote part of Australia, an organic farmer called Bruce is the only producer still growing wheat. His crops remained healthy even after all his neighbours went out of business. Soon he was spending way to much time describing his methods to a succession of scientists and media. The world got into the way Bruce did things, his pasture cropping approach, his decades long attention to building soil carbon and his attention to slowing down runoff all across his landholding.

Bruce became a new kind of celebrity. He was world famous as the saviour of bread but he stayed calm and matter of fact about it all. He kept growing wheat even when there were many other easier and more lucrative options.

What did happen that nobody expected was that his style and his humility touched people. What was happening on his paddocks went viral. Everyone became aware of how important it was to grow food with empathy for nature.

Instead of ignorance and apathy people paid attention to where their food came from. They asked questions about how food was grown. Did the farmer do it like Bruce? They paid realistic prices for produce because it was obvious that cheap meant mining the nutrients and water out of the system just to break even. It was a tsunami of change.

The wheat cropping system recovered but the health benefits of going without wheat meant that most consumers stayed with alternatives.

What happened though was that organic became mainstream because everyone now knew it was about carbon and not yoga and dreadlocks.