You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit and I’ll prove it to you.

Have a little think about these questions.

  • What’s your net worth?
  • How much money does the taxman appropriate from your paycheck?
  • What’s the current balance of your retirement fund?
  • What businesses does your superfund invest in?

All over your finances, fair enough. Try these.

  • How about the name of your local member of parliament?
  • What’s the policy on the aforementioned income tax held by the party your local member represents, do you even know the party?
  • Can you list the top three things that your tax dollar helps pay for?
  • Who’s the Minister responsible for spending the biggest chunk of taxpayers dollar?

Struggling a bit now? I bet.

Here are some more knowledge questions on a different tack.

  • What music does your brother/son/nephew/kid next door listen to?
  • Does he even listen to music?
  • If you mentioned Paul McCartney to him would he even blink?

And toward more detail, how about these…

  • Can you say with certainty that the koala is going extinct?
  • Do you know if clearing 20,000 ha of forest is a good thing to do or even if 20,000 ha is a big area?
  • Can the planet support the needs and wants of 7.5 billion human beings?

Phew, that’s intense. My apologies.

You don’t know your shit do you? No, neither do I.

The thing is that nobody does.

It’s a given that we are all mostly ignorant about many of the most important things in our lives from the big to the small. And clearly this doesn’t matter a jot.

Ignorance has not stopped progress, the economy, wealth creation or Sir Paul’s 17th solo album (no, I didn’t know that either). At least not yet.

Human beings are remarkable in that we cannot know our shit, partly because there is just so much of it, and yet we can still be successful and even satisfied. We have enough innate savvy and bullshit detection ability to survive the many situations where knowledge would actually help us a lot and lack of knowledge is a hindrance. This skill in decision making by instinct rather than evaluation is so well honed that we not only survive but we prosper on it. As Steven Pinker will show you at length in any of his books, all the metrics of societal wellbeing show progress and lots of it.

Perhaps we are survivors extraordinaire because somehow we learn just enough.

Snakes are bad, koalas are good. Paycheck goes into my account, no need to know what the taxman took so long as I get a rebate at tax time. The kid next door adores Anne-Marie, so what, I did the same with Debbie.

Knowing that the minister for health in the NSW state government is responsible for a $17.3 billion budget hardly helps me choose the best school for my son. I can get more relevant ‘information’ through the opinions on a local Facebook group of concerned parents like me.

We learn and know enough of the things that we perceive as relevant. The rest we can trust to what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘thinking fast’ because it actually doesn’t matter. There is no perceptible gain to taking our time over it.

You don’t know your shit. And you got over it already.

Who needs answers to questions when instinct guides you in a heartbeat.

An ‘ah ha moment’ for me

This is a critical realisation for me. People don’t need information to answer questions. They have instinct for that.

So as a purveyor of evidence that I would like people to absorb, understand, and use to help them be more objective, I have a big problem. People don’t need what I have to offer and, therefore, they don’t want it.

At times evidence is a surreptitious influence that gently permeates the psyche to change a mind or two over time. This would be how Rome was built. Information is sometimes stored for use as ammunition in an argument, although simple slander is more potent and easier to use now we live in Trolland.

But in general, evidence is not needed for general awareness and going about one’s business. No matter that the 15 year old can sing along to ‘Let it be’ without knowing Paul McCartney wrote it half a century ago. All that matters is it’s still a good song.

The ‘ah ha’ bit is this truth…

Shit does not matter except when it does.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, a respected 20th century philosopher famous among the scientific fraternity, true scientific theory makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

The superhero status of testable predictions has made good sense to me ever since I was exposed to it as an undergraduate back in the Carboniferous. Unless a theory can be tested it falls to the lowly status of opinion where only dubious predictions live; admittedly an overcrowded residence these days.

An idea, supposition or prediction attains the lofty moral position of a scientific theory a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained — if it can be empirically tested, ideally through manipulations in controlled conditions with heaps of replication.

This much is grasped by most students of science, even the naive ones around when the trees were laid down for coal. It is the basics of the scientific method taught in every good high school.

Unfortunately, this is often as far as it goes. But there is more.

What Popper also realised was that scientists can never prove a theory to be true because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory they cannot prove it. Empirical tests can only falsify.

This is way more subtle. Evidence from a controlled experiment might reject the hypothesis the experiment was designed to test but the alternative outcome (where evidence is not sufficient to reject the hypothesis) does not make the alternative (accepting the hypothesis) true. Empirical tests can only disprove, never prove.

Suppose I have a large field that I subdivide into twenty equally sized fields.

Into 10 of these small paddocks, chosen at random, I place five sheep for five days, remove them for 10 days and then put them back in. This rotational grazing goes on for a year. The other 10 paddocks contain no sheep at all.

The hypothesis is that grazing by sheep will decrease the amount of carbon in the soil. So before the sheep are introduced several soil samples are taken from all the small paddocks and tested for their carbon content. More soil samples are taken at the end of the year and their carbon content statistically compared with carbon content in the soil samples taken at the start.

It turns out that after a year the average carbon content from the grazed paddocks averages about 3%, slightly more than it was at the start, a small but statistically significant increase. In the paddocks without sheep, soil carbon also increased too but by no more than would be expected by chance (as determined by the statistical properties of the numbers generated from the soil carbon samples).

The hypothesis – sheep grazing will decrease the amount of soil carbon in the soil – is rejected given the empirical evidence.

The evidence is enough to reject the hypothesis and the temptation is to accept the theory that sheep actually do good things to soil carbon. Only Karl Popper would wriggle a little in his coffin if you made this call because should you do this experiment again, who knows what the outcome would be.

This example is phrased to follow the conventional wisdom. Current theory is that livestock grazing will reduce soil carbon over time as the animals metabolize the primary production and the farmer removes animals or their fleeces to market making for a net loss in soil carbon over ungrazed paddocks.

But if we rephrased the hypothesis as ‘grazing by sheep will increase the amount of carbon in the soil’ and the results of the experiment stay the same, then we accept the hypothesis. Again we are tempted to accept the theory that grazing by sheep is good for soil carbon levels only this time by claiming the results are a proof not a falsification.

Popper gets to wriggle again.

Interesting isn’t it. Even when science is done through determined experiments the outcome is not a given. Conclusions are also dependent on how the empirical test is conceived. This is why theory only gets such a lofty badge when there is repetition of empirical tests sufficient to reduce doubt but even then there is no proof, only falsification.

The sheep grazing example is naive of course and was phrased around hypothesis testing rather than theory. In reality, theory only achieves acceptance after many tests of many specific hypotheses. The process of iteration provides the rigor that allows scientists to rest easily at night without Popperian spectres messing with their dreams.

Only the example is also real.

We are not actually sure of the theory in this case despite the importance of grazing to food production and the reality that soils need as much carbon as possible to maintain that production.

Falsification is very difficult to do in environmental and ecological science, especially where soil is concerned. There is very little in the way of Popperian truth where fields, paddocks and remnant native vegetation is concerned. There have been way too few tests leaving fertile ground for opinion.

However, the risk in leaving issues of food security to opinion should scare the socks off you.

Fear and danger

Fear and danger

“Because “frightening” and “dangerous” are two different things. Something frightening poses a perceived risk. Something dangerous poses a real risk. Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous—that is, paying too much attention to fear—creates a tragic drainage of energy in the wrong directions.”

Hans Rosling “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

As I get older I have become frightened of travelling.

This feels like a peculiar admission for a fortunate person who has lived on three continents and in half a dozen countries, visited over 20 more and walked through remote deserts, swamps and rainforests on any number of field trips to compile ecological research.

It is real though this fright.

I don’t like leaving home that much anymore. And it’s the prospect of it that seems to make me nervous. Once I’m on the road, train or plane I’m fine. My ‘get the job done’ gene kicks in and that’s what happens, the job gets done and almost always I enjoy the process.

The fear is irrational.

I have been there, done that way too many times for it to be a problem for my logical brain. I just have to think for even a moment and I can remember how enjoyable travel is and, indeed, what a privilege it is to see, smell and sense the world’s differences.

Only these days I am frightened before I leave home. I stress. My decision making goes awry and crankiness enters. It is annoying to me so it must be painful for my family. And there is a real ‘drainage of energy in the wrong direction’ as Hans Rosling insightfully put it. I’m sweating over nothing and yet it saps the juices like a thirsty aphid.

Now I’m trying to understand why this quote about danger and fright got me onto my middle-aged travel phobia. I think it is another feeling that is growing up from the deepest recesses of my gut; poking through the logic and evidence that I send down to suppress it. Something that is trying hard to get some air and to make some noise. And I think it is dangerous.

My problem is that I am frightened of what I know.

I will try to explain.

I know that…

Thomas Malthus was right.

Ultimately critical resources that humans need are finite and even as we get ever more numerous and effective at keeping entropy at bay there will come a point when we fail by falling down the wrong side of a peak in one or other critical commodity or ecosystem service before we invent an alternative.

Only I also know that our ingenuity, adaptability and downright bloody-mindedness finds solutions to resource constraints. History is a long list of confirmation that this is inevitable. When we know there is a shortage some enterprising individual will invent an alternative often before the shortage kicks in because there is money to be made and kudos granted.

So my fear is not the one Malthus presumably had, fear of shortage, however rational this is on a finite planet shared by 7.5 billion ravenous human souls. My fear is the bit where Malthus says that humans convert resources into more humans or as he put it “mankind has the propensity to utilize abundance for population growth”

This means that technological advances to save and innovation to substitute resources just results in more people. Potentially a lot more until we get through the squeeze of 10 or 11 billion and start falling back towards 5 or 6 billion by the end of the century – Hans Rosling explains this eloquently.

This demographic transition (a slowing of birth rate as infant mortality declines and overall life expectancy rises from increased wealth) rescues us from the exponential numbers that Malthus saw coming but 11 billion still requires unfathomable resourcing for at least three or four generations.

I know that…

Humans do not channel abundance into prudence, we channel it into more abundance. We have to make more; it is a dictate of our biology.

The demographic transition may slow our reproductive more making but we cannot turn off these stubbornly successful genes and so we channel our more making into acquisitions. We gather stuff, copious amounts of it. Frightening is a useful word to describe the contents of the average western teenager’s bedroom, especially when we realise that said teenagers could not possibly have earned the funds to acquire all the gizmos and pink accoutrements. Their parents and relatives stumped up the money.

I also know we cannot blame the kids. They are facilitated into their consumption like the generations that preceded them. It has been a long time now since the days of forced labour for at least half the global populous and all the generations are complicit in the progression to modern consumption.

So the demographic squeeze is not just of 11 billion souls requiring sustenance, it is 11 billion individuals wanting to improve their lot in life.

Our unique success as a species is that this drive works. It produces gains in wealth that increasingly manifest in material things. The transition is not just about the numbers, it is what the people who make up the numbers want and will have. It is inescapable and dangerous.

I know that…

Food production systems and supply chains are far more fragile than we realise despite the extraordinary power of the marketplace.

Anyone who follows Alloporus posts here, on Alloporus Environmental or on LinkedIn has read epistles to every tribe on this issue. There is no need to extend the pain now other than to recognise fragility in production systems as truly dangerous.

Food insecurity might not be felt every day amongst the western wealthy as it is by the seven out of ten humans living on less than $10 per day but it is as real and present as any other danger worthy of the description.

I know that…

Nobody knows anything of these true dangers.

Many people are frightened of course. They waste energy on any number of highly unlikely scenarios from being hit by a bus to the imminent extinction of the koala but mostly on drama, as in ‘an exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance’; most often on those that tap the emotions. She was such a bitch.

And I know that this is the facet of human nature most dangerous to our existence.

Our ability not to see what is in front of our noses or to understand how important the issues are is legendary, indeed it is the muse of legends from the Greeks onwards. This opacity is not about to change. A wave of enlightenment is but a dream.

All that can be done is to plug away, perhaps lift a veil for a handful of people at a time, one even.

And finally.

I know that…

Rummaging for Elpis in Pandora’s box is risky but worth it.

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.

Dust storm over Sydney

Dust storm over Sydney

When the wind blows hard from the south-west it can get murky in Sydney. Dust is picked off paddocks across the vast inland and carried way away from where it belongs fouling the air for Sydneysiders as it goes.

The wind was blowing this week when I went to visit colleagues in Mildura, an outback town in northern Victoria right on the border with NSW. The countryside around the town donated at least some of the dust that reached Sydney. I saw it happen.

Bare soil frisked up and spat skyward at the corners of paddocks is quite a sight. Immediately you say, “Good on ya, Mildura. Giving it up for Australia” without any hint of sarcasm. At least that’s what the Qantas lady at the information desk said when she found out I had just visited her hometown. She really thought it was a good thing even as the wind and dust played havoc with her companies flight schedule.

How can this be?

A schoolkid should know that topsoil blowing up into the sky is not a good thing at all. It is expense and potential for production leaving the land for the ocean contaminating the air as it goes. The farmer is in despair. He just spent a fortune on fertilizer and a lot of that nutrient left too.

It is dry in the outback just now, with drought conditions declared for most of NSW. Without rain, it is hard to keep the ground cover that holds onto the soil unless the farmer plans well in advance and takes care to choose the right cover crop and grazing regime. The blanket over the soil needs to roll out early, otherwise production declines and with it income. It is a perennial problem in drought-affected areas.

What would it take for the Qantas staffer to instinctively say “Oh no, that’s not good. Those poor farmers”?

Or better still, “Oh no, that’s not good. Why can’t the farmers put on a cover crop”?

This should be everyone’s immediate response.

Whilst topsoil careering off into the Tasman Sea is a natural process of erosion that has whittled Australia down for millions of years, it hampers the production of crops and livestock. Speeding upwind erosion by leaving fields bare just makes it worse.

And so one of this year’s great ironies rounds off this conundrum. On the flight, the cabin crew member announces that Qantas will match all donations up to $1 million for drought affected farmers.

Perhaps they could spend some of the funds on an awareness program.

Species

Species

…the fact that ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover, and that consequently some species will not only fluctuate markedly but also become either locally or globally extinct, is something that, while well appreciated by ecologists generally, is often omitted from popular news stories. 

Mugurran et al 2010

By research paper standards this is an accessible quote. You may only need to read it a couple of times to get the gist. It means what it says.

Everything in nature changes and species disappear from both the backyard and from the planet.

Ask any ecologist who has more than a few minutes of fieldwork on their resume if they agree with this premise and they will say yes. There is change over time. They would concede that if you stare at a patch of nature long enough, it will start to move. Organisms will come and go, sometimes never to return, their place taken by an equivalent.

In my own garden that backs onto eucalyptus forest in the Blue Mountains of NSW I have seen this happen with the seasons as the grass stops growing in winter, during drought when even the trees droop, and also through the decade we have lived in the house.

When we moved in the garden was blessed with tree creepers, fairy wrens and wagtails. There were regular visits by resplendent satin bower birds and even occasionally a lyre bird or two. I have stared at a frogmouth in its daytime roost and had glossy black cockatoos drop casuarina cones on my head. Delightful.

Then, three years ago the noisy miners arrived. An especially aggressive social breeder that with brazen behaviour worthy of a panzer corps will chase all the other species away. Only the big beaked cockatoos and the butcher bird are unmoved.

None of the aforementioned chorus are extinct but they are not longer in my garden.

More recently some new neighbors moved in next door. They have a nervous pointer and a black labrador with a limp. The swamp wallaby no longer hops up from the creek to pick at our herb garden.

There are several important things in this simple everywhere reality of ecological change.

The first is change itself.

Nothing in nature has ever been or ever will be stable. It is not how nature works. At times the dynamic is subtle and hard to see with human perception of time and space. Typically though we can see, smell or hear it. All it takes is a little patience and some observation.

If a human who might live three score years and ten can perceive this change with just a little patient observation, then…

the second important thing is that change is fast.

Incredibly fast on an evolutionary or geological time scale. Happenings that take decades are the blink of an eye equivalent for a planet that is billions of years old.

Such rapidity means that the idyllic lilly pond with the weeping willow tickling the water will not be there in a thousand years or so. Sedimentation and succession will make dryland of it unless there are humans with the spare time to occasionally dig it out.

This is the third important reality, stability requires inputs.

The main reason that nature is so dynamic is due to entropy, more strictly, the constant struggle organisms must undertake to counteract it. It takes an enormous effort to keep things the same. Energy must be pumped in to prevent chaos.

Humans have, of course, become true masters of this use of energy to counter entropy. We have figured out where to find and use external fuel sources to change the world to suit ourselves. It’s our superpower. But it has also duped us into believing that we can keep things the same, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We even think we can save species from local or real extinction.

This is the fourth of the important things, the often crazy notion that we can save species from ourselves, the most severe new driver of ecological change in aeons.

Change as the norm is “omitted from popular news stories” because the acknowledgement not only questions our god-like ability to rule the planet, it would mean admitting our role in the acceleration of change.

After all, the noisy miner spread with the suburb.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

It is a short time into the future, nowhere near an aeon. Against all likelihoods, Homo sapiens did not join the hundreds of thousands of species that have crossed the extinction finish line because miraculously there was a meme that spread through the social fabric of every nation on the planet faster than pictures of Harry and Meghan.

The meme said, “ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover”.

The miracle of course was twofold. People not only understood this gibberish but they extended it to the practicalities of the real world.

Everyone recognised change everywhere and embraced it. They let species move around, leaving some places and moving into others. They saw vegetation as fluid not as a vase on a shelf, still but fragile.They realised that there were some species that would go extinct and that if a particularly cute one was popular enough to save, then this was going to need effort specific to that species. It was a choice.

And they saw the whole landscape, all at once, despite its altered state, and they focused on what that landscape could do, not what was in it.

It was truly remarkable.

It even made the news.

Meat

Meat

“Less Meat Less Heat (LMLH) is a grassroots, non-profit organisation dedicated to shifting societal attitudes towards meat consumption and as such curtailing agriculture’s damaging influence on the global climate. Our work encompasses educating the public through sound science about the massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb. Through helping individuals transition to low-carbon eating habits we aim to leverage the power of individual action as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.

From the home page of Less Meat Less Heat website

Cows belch often.

They are ruminants, mammals that enlist microbes to ferment plants they ingest in a specialised stomach prior to digestion. This symbiosis means they able to exist on a diet high in cellulose, a key constituent of grass.

Only it also means that cows belch a lot. The bacteria that assist the cow to digest cellulose include methanogens that produce methane as a metabolic byproduct. This gas builds up and has to be let out. It’s similar for us only we tend to fart more than belch.

The problem for the climate change conundrum is that methane is a greenhouse gas over 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And methane is what ruminants burp.

An average dairy cow puts out around 100 kg of methane each year. Depending on how you calculate it, this is roughly equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from a car. Beef cattle belch a little less so it takes two to match up to a car. The global numbers are interesting though. There are a little over 1 billion cars on earth and somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 billion cows.

As far as the greenhouse gas balance goes, human consumption of meat and dairy products is roughly equivalent to the impact from our cars.

Note that this is without counting emissions from the clearing of woody vegetation to find or grow enough grass for the livestock.

Methane from ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) makes up over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and up to 14% of all global emissions.

This is a big deal.

So much so that some people, such as those responsible for the quote above, are adamant that meat from cows and sheep is an environmental disaster. Only there is a significant reason why agriculture is often left out of any national carbon accounting even though it is the source of a third of global emissions.

People have to eat.

In the next hour as souls depart and new ones join the human diaspora there will be a change. In an hours time, there will be at least 9,700 more souls on the planet than we have right now. Funerals and births are not yet in balance.

Assuming that these souls are nourished around 500ha of productive land will be needed to grow enough calories for their daily needs.

A year from now when 83 million new souls have joined, the planet has to give up 4.6 million ha of productive land to feed them.

This crude calculation makes some simple assumptions. Calorie intake is 20% more than is needed to avoid starvation but half that consumed by the average US citizen. Calories come from growing wheat, and not from animal products. All else is equal, so the 7.5 billion souls already here are being fed and watered too.

Having meandered away to the big picture reality, let’s look again at the “massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb” and “low-carbon eating habits… as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.”

If we all grew dreadlocks and avoided meat, then the calorific conversion from land to the plate would be improved. No need for the respiration of animals burning the calories before we got at them. And no need for their nasty methane emissions.

But we still need 2,500 calories per person per day.

If all this energy came from plant products, agriculture was near perfect efficiency and all else was equal, the 7.5 billion souls need a little over 4 million km2 of productive land to generate enough vegetarian calories.

There are roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth, so we should be fine. Plus there are ever more sophisticated technologies that can intensify food production to deliver greater yield from smaller areas. Hydroponics is a fine example.

So in theory at least there is enough land to feed perhaps 9 or even 11 billion souls. No worries and no fuss.

And as ‘less meat, less heat’ proclaim, without meat, we can mitigate the threat of climate change.

If only it were that simple.