Discernment

Discernment

My mum, who is chin wagging with the angels, always used to say that you should not judge people. Sage advice.

We are not supposed to pass judgement even though it means we have considered matters and reached a sensible conclusion because if we get it wrong or judge harshly all that happens is that we sour relationships and upset people. And, as we all know, people are easily upset especially when they feel judged.

On legal issues, we leave judgement to the judge because she should be across everything presented for both sides of a case. On everyday issues… well, none of us is really in possession of the facts and we let opinion rule. My mum was against opinion despite having a few of her own.

So we should avoid judgement in the everyday or risk getting it wrong. You never really know the truth of a person’s motivation unless you’re really good at reading behind their eyes.

Only there is more. There is also discernment, the ability to judge well. As Wikipedia states…

“Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

Berated for judging, heralded for nuanced judging, because if you are good a discernment then you have wisdom.

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

Reminds me of Joe Jackson’s ‘It’s different for girls’ lyric

Mama always told me save yourself
Take a little time and find the right girl
Then again don’t end up on the shelf
Logical advice gets you in a whirl

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

  • Make it a habit not to judge
  • When a judgement is required keep it to yourself
  • Only tell anyone your judgement when forced by a sharp object
  • Don’t try to explain your judgement
  • Never try to justify any judgement even if it is forced out of you
  • Practice discernment on yourself
  • Remind yourself that discernment is so rare it is nearly extinct
  • Smile instead

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Food security

Food security

A key food security issue went through without much comment in a recent Alloporus post on meat.

Via a calculation on the carbon footprint of omnivory, an estimate of the amount of productive land needed to provide all the humans on the planet with enough calories from plants to meet their daily needs came out at 4 million km2.

Next to this number we can put the FAO estimate that says there is roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth and a simple conclusion is reached: we should be fine.

All we have to do is eat plants.

According to this juxtaposition of area estimates, we have 10 times the land area we need to grow enough food to feed everyone. Surely all the chatter and concern about food security is unnecessary.

We grow more than we need, waste a whole bunch, and still have land to spare. Get over it.

There appears to be more than enough productive land to meet human needs. Perhaps as much as an order of magnitude more meaning we could go beyond needs towards our wants too… rib-eye and chocolate moose anyone?

Well perhaps.

Thanks to energy inputs, technology and a global supply chain there is remarkable capacity to feed people – the global requirement for roughly 14 trillion calories per day is a lot of food. That this happens every day with a declining failure rate is miraculous. Yet it happens and this supply seems to be keeping up with increasing demand. All the indices of poverty, hunger, the size and frequency of famines are heading in the right direction. Proportionally fewer people go hungry today than 5 years ago and serious regional famines are historical.

There is always more to do of course. Hunger and poverty still exist, even within wealthy societies, but the pragmatist will see food security as a social or political problem, not a problem of production.

So why does a Google Scholar search on food security pull up 729,000 research articles from the last 5 years alone with 60,000 of these published in the first 9 months of 2018?

Presumably a lot of researchers and the people behind the systems that fund their work believe we have a problem. Perhaps we need to go deeper than simple ratios.

The first confounding factor is in the 4 million km2 calculation where all the calories come from plants, the most energy efficient food source.

We know that people like to eat animal products in all their myriad forms. If a quarter of the required calories for each person’s daily needs come from animals (meat, milk and eggs) then the area requirement jumps dramatically thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. Meat contains calories but the animal also needed calories to maintain itself and grow before it gave up its tissues to the food chain.

This energy requirement is roughly 9 to 1.

So if a person eats 600 calories worth of meat and dairy products per day, then the animals that created this protein needed to consume 5,400 calories. They get this from plants (and the occasional meat based protein pellet).

If everyone consumed a quarter of their daily calories from animals instead of plants then the 4 million km2 requirement becomes 13 million km2. This is 27% of the available area.

Still plenty of buffer, right?

Well yes and no. The original calculation assumed that production was efficient. Crops produced predictable yields at near average levels. Averages are a useful metric in this type of calculation because they absorb the inevitable variation from one region to another, one landholding to another and even among fields.

Just as important though is the variance in production.

Suppose that the average yield of wheat is 3.0 t/ha, near enough the global average. However, in the low input, low output production systems of Australia the average is 1.9 t/ha, whilst the global average is 3.3 t/ha Yield is double. A drought or a widespread plant disease in Germany, where wheat production is over 24 million tonnes and the average yield over 9 t/ha, would have a disproportionate effect on global production than dry times in Australia.

Also averages can change over time. It happens that average grain yields have risen consistently for several decades at up to 1% per year for some commodities. More security you would think. Only there is a physical limit to yield, and, in time, averages could easily decline for any number of reasons. There is also the risk of catastrophe.

Among the many interesting numbers generated by the FAO is a critical one for our calorie count. The FAO report that 40% of soil in production systems is degraded. Below average in other words.

So let’s suppose than over the next decade yield averages decline on these degraded soils, let’s say by 50%. The 13 million km2 to grow enough calories becomes 15.6 million km2 and we are up to a third of the available area.

Then there are the climate change effects that will mess up average yields as well as increase catastrophic risk from drought fire and flood. If 2 million km2 of production area fails due to local catastrophe there is a 15% shortfall in calories. This amount will be hard to even out across the global supply chains.

These are enough production side challenges to tweak nerves. Next though we have to look at demand. First is the 1 billion or so people who consume far more than 2,400 calories per day; the average American ingests 3,600 calories. This pushes the area up to 19.8 million km2.

Not to forget the 8,000 new souls every hour of every day.

All this doom and gloom calculator craziness can go on and on. There is still a land buffer. At the moment there is land to spare and to absorb all the inevitable inefficiencies.

However, the 200 research articles per day on food security through 2018 is both reassuring and an alert. We need sharp minds on this real and present risk.

Think about all of this the next time you see a kilo of onions on sale for a dollar.

Soil degradation

Soil degradation

Soil degradation is defined as a change in the soil health status resulting in a diminished capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services for its beneficiaries. Degraded soils have a health status such, that they do not provide the normal goods and services of the particular soil in its ecosystem.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

No wonder you have never heard of soil degradation.

How the Food and Agriculture Organisation describes the concept is as impenetrable as a dry chernozem, replete with dull jargon and weak science. Since when can dirt have “soil health status” or sentient status sufficient to have beneficiaries. It makes soil sound like a shop or an accounting firm when it is actually a mixture of minerals, water and biology.

How about this definition?

Soil degradation has happened when soil grows less food less often.

I admit this simplification does not hint at the why of the outcome; something about soil being unwell, but I am sure you paid a little more attention to a focused definition. And you should. When soils grow less food less often it represents a risk to the wellbeing of us all.

Fortunately, this definition also allows the positive mirror

Soil degradation is reversed when soil grows more food more often.

So if you are of the positive thinking set there is a version for you where the graph goes from bottom left to top right.

Less facetiously, this definition is closer to the practical reality: humans use soil for their benefit. Natural vegetation converted into productions systems that capture solar energy into food, our own specific source of energy, is still the most efficient and cost-effective (or profitable if you prefer) method to feed people on mass. In these systems soil is the growth medium of choice.

Soil is still the cheapest, most ubiquitous and (usually) the most resilient option to grow food at a profitable volume. In short, we use it for profit.

Soil is gold, bitcoin even.

When soil degradation is defined as a loss in that use value it is logical at least. It fits with our notions of value – philosophical antagonism over human values applied to nature notwithstanding. ‘Health status’ is just silly but at least the FAO got the goods and services bit right.

Let’s run with the economics for a while.

If I make money from soil because I use it to grow food that is sold in a market, then my business needs the soil to continue to provide conditions for commodity production for as long as I need to run the business. This is as true for a subsistence farmer taking some excess melons to his village square as it is to a 5,000 ha precision agriculture operation in the Australian wheat belt. At first glance, soil degradation is not good for either business.

What if there is a time horizon on the business?

The subsistence farmer would rather have a job that pays more than tilling his field and hopes his children will break out of the hand to mouth cycle of his own life. Sales of the melons help buy his kids school uniforms.

Intensive agriculture must make money to satisfy creditors and benefit investors. Modern farms require immediate and increasingly significant capital and liquidity to function. Creditor terms run to months at best and investors are expecting annual dividends. Whilst the banks are happy to help with lumpy cash flow and insurance taken out against more acute disruption from acts of god and the market, even in a financially planned farm business, money goes in and out all the time.

All this means that the time horizons are short when it comes to growing food. So whilst I might want to grow melons for generations and wheat far into the future there are concerns right now. Production has to happen soon. It might be desirable for the business to be sustainable, that is to continue for as far into the future as we can realistically imagine, but cash is king and cash is immediate.

More food more often fits this model of course and ‘less food less often’ does not, so the last thing I need is soil degradation…. but the first thing I need is production. And this takes precedence whether it means food for a family or interest payments on the loan for the centre pivot. Farmer sustainability has a short time span, way shorter than the farm business and the soil that supports it.

This is the true problem with the “goods and services for its beneficiaries” definition of soil degradation. It will sneak up on you before you even know it is a problem. The average couch potato is functional but unhealthy and is fine with it. He would be less fine if you cut his Netflix allowance by half and restricted viewing to three nights a week (less food less often).

So now you have heard of soil degradation at least. It is a problem sneaking up on us all with ‘diminished capacity’ about to make all our lives more difficult.


There is something you can do.

Soil degradation is usually reversible through prudent production, encouragement of soil carbon, allowing soil biology to flourish and taking the long view.

And you can help with this by gearing yourself up to pay more than $1 per kilo for your onions.


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.

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.

Rational meaning

Rational meaning

Richard Flanagan is just one of many thinkers whose work explores rational meaning. Flanagan worries for our collective future. Alloporus has pointed out this out before in a little gem from Flanagan on Australia and now there is another piece on the erosion of rational meaning as it is swamped by a rising tide of vitriol.

This is the world we live in.

Whatever you say in public, in a post, an email, quietly to your dog as you let him off the leash in the park, it’s all fair game for comment and critique.

It is as though opinion (check the definition below) is no longer allowed even though it is just mine, can be completely off the wall with no truth to it whatsoever or is grounded in experience and knowledge. It matters not. Opinion is open to ridicule as soon as you express it.

The thing is its an opinion people. Get over it.

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

Now I am not proposing that opinions go unchallenged. Not at all. Failure in challenges to the opinions of the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini resulted in some of the most trying periods in human history. The problem is how we go about it.

We know that modern media gives everyone visibility but also anonymity that allows folk to unleash their inner Ghengis on a whim. What Richard Flanagan is worried about is how much this is leaking into places it shouldn’t. It’s attacking the floorboards of our intellectual thought and weakening our capacity for rational meaning.

Just the other day in an email update to colleagues I made a comment about the deepening drought in NSW. The exact phrase was…

And it will rain again. It always does.

Perhaps this is insensitive. Perhaps it is the truth. It was not intended to be anything more than a statement of fact that was hopeful. The rain will return and the challenging conditions for the farmers and rural people of eastern Australia will ease.

This was not how people saw it. I was a stupid city slicker with no idea of how tough it is to feed the sheep from the back of a truck on your weekends and still fear for the survival of the sheep and your business.

Does this mean I must think not twice, but many times before I write anything? Should the words be censored for every ounce of judgement even when the facts are irrefutable? ‘It will rain again, it always does’ is not even an opinion. It is rational and it has meaning.

Instead, I could have gone full bore toward the stark truth that some farms will fail in the harshness that is the Australian weather as Ross Gittins did in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial saying that our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum.

I hope that I will be this brave but I know from each small experience that what is being said about what writers write will affect what they write next. It has too. For it is human nature to be affected by the opinion of others. And online there are no referees so chances are that the writer will be personally attacked.

So here is the thought on rational meaning…

What about for every post or comment you leave that is negative towards another’s opinion, how about you leave another comment somewhere else that supports a writer.

Just say “thanks for bringing that thought to my attention” even if it’s an opinion you don’t share.

Maybe if we even out the vitriol a bit we might create some space and time for intellectual thought and in turn, create some ideas that are good for everyone.

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.