Lives matter

Lives matter

The Buddha addresses the monks in Sarnath, modern Uttar Pradesh, India and tells them how he had first preached the Four Noble Truths there. He exhorts them to follow Sāriputta who takes up the teaching and gives a detailed explanation of the Truths

And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.

— Saccavibhanga Sutta

Buddha condemned killing or harming living beings and encouraged reflection or mindfulness (satipatthana) as right action (or conduct), therefore

the rightness or wrongness of action centres around whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others

Killing is harmful then, to both self and others.

You do not need to be a Buddist to recognise this truth.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a black American, died in police custody. He should not have lost his life.

This gross injustice resulted in a tragedy that has galvanised a lot of people to protest, to gather in spite of the health risk to themselves and others to speak out against an institutional prejudice that goes back to the dawn of humanity.

How far back does racism go?

As a species, we are ingenious, tenacious, hard-working and smart. As individuals, we offer most of these things too in varying degrees. And we love competition, especially winning. This is the critical ingredient in our recipe for global success. We are motivated to compete and win.

This means that we need a competitor. It can be a rival in the scramble for a resource such as a job, a partner, and back in the day for food and shelter.

In our hunter-gatherer-scavenger past, there is interesting evidence from our acid guts that we were pretty efficient scavengers on the not so fresh produce, as we competed with other species, lions, hyenas and other primates all on the lookout for nutrient-dense food sources.

We also competed with each other. Other tribes, other family groups, even our brothers and sisters even when needs must.

This instinct is hard-wired into our biological more making. Our genes look forward to the next generations and our bodies and minds help them get there.

This means that racism when defined as

prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized

is an extension of inevitable competition goes way back into our evolutionary past.

Of course, I am assuming here that Darwin was right. That the evolutionary record, the genetic mapping and even the archaeology backs up the theory that we are a species that is several hundred thousand years old and that our genus, Homo, is several million years old.

If you think it was all made in a week then this explanation is meaningless.

We are designed to compete and with this, there has to be a competitor. A person or a group of people that we must fight and beat to gain access to the resource. Winning becomes critical and the psychology of winning is as important as the physical strength, cunning and fighting skills needed for the actions themselves. Loathing and hate of the competitor make for helpful logic in the will to win and in teaching the young how to fight.

That this becomes prejudice and a ‘better than’ attitude is inevitable.

We might think of racism as a recent albeit historical phenomenon, a relic perhaps of the horror days of slaves and slaves trades and humans exploited and denigrated on plantations and farms in the new world.

Likely it is very old and has been in the human psyche through evolutionary time.

This argument suggests we might all be innate racists.

A troubling thought.

Along with most amateurs, my golfing buddies are not that great at golf.

We are always looking for ways to get better, to swing it like the professionals. I try to persuade them to watch the LPGA professionals, the ladies. They are outstandingly good athletes but they hit the ball closer to our distances, not the interstellar drives of their male counterparts. Interestingly when I showed them videos of the some of the best in the world, all seven world number ones since 2014 are of Asian ancestry, they were not that interested. Show them Jessica Korda, a caucasian and a very fine golfer but with the highest world ranking of 13 and they were very interested indeed.

Innate bias I guess.

Not all bad

The human enigma is that we are not all bad or biggoted.

Along with our competitive urges we have instincts to cooperate, be kind, look after each other, put in place safety nets for those less fortunate.

We give to charity, volunteer for all sorts of noble causes and even go out on the streets to protest that black lives matter.

We fight our own innate prejudices. They are not a given. They can be changed, moulded and even banished altogether.

It was not so very long ago that the definition above could read

prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their gender

Indeed we still have work to do on gender equality as we do with racism and many other expressions of our fear of losing out directed at minorities.

So we have come a long way and we continue to get better at challenging our fears and prejudice.

All lives matter

It is not politically correct to say this right now. The right have appropriated it to their own ends, shift the blame, lay down some excuses for their excesses.

Only it is as the Buddha says

the rightness or wrongness of action centres around whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others

Buddha

A person’s colour, gender, creed or orientation should make no difference to how they are treated; no matter where they or their ancestors come from.

Do no harm.


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US$12 trillion of opportunities

US$12 trillion of opportunities

A large number attracts attention.

Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension

16,000,000,000,000,000

Put a dollar sign in front of it and you get the United States national debt.

As of December 31, 2018, debt held by the public was $16.1 trillion and intragovernmental holdings were $5.87 trillion, for a total of $21.97 trillion.

Don’t you just love credit?

The ‘buy now pay later’ attitude that generates a number so large that there is no end to it other than for the invention of another economic system so it can be written off under a giant bankruptcy proceeding, is classic ostrich behaviour.

Here is the history of that debt as a proportion of GDP noting of course that during this timeline GDP has grown to over 40x its 1960 value.

100% of GDP in 2019 was 40 times bigger in dollars than 100% of GDP in 1960.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/itFbk1Aqe4sSvJi36

And another slightly different presentation of the same data that shows this absolute dollar increase more clearly, the debt adjusted for inflation divided by the number of housholds

Source: https://www.darrinqualman.com/us-national-debt-per-family-1816-2016/

Just for comparison the national entry-level average house price in the US for the last quarter of 2019 was $200,000 meaning a huge chunk of US households were up to their eyeballs in their own debt as well as copping an equivalent amount borrowed by Uncle Sam.

The pattern of when debt increased and fell is interesting too.

After both world wars debt was paid down, rapidly in the case of WWII on the back of a newly minted industrial base. Reagan and Bush spent a few dollars that Clinton tried to pay down only for Bush Jr and his successors to take on a couple more expensive wars.

Obama spent big and, not to be outdone, so has Trump.

Alright, so without getting all political about it, the curve is going up… exponentially.

Here is a neat explanation from Investopedia of how the US government pays for spending more money than it earns from taxes

To operate in this manner of spending more than it earns, the U.S. Treasury Department has to issue Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These Treasury products finance the deficit by borrowing from the investors—both domestic and foreign. These Treasury securities also sell to corporations, financial institutions, and other governments around the world.

By issuing these types of securities, the federal government can acquire the cash that it needs to provide governmental services. The national debt is simply the net accumulation of the federal government’s annual budget deficits. It is the total amount of money that the U.S. federal government owes to its creditors.

So in simple terms, the government borrowed the money.

It is said that really this is printing money and that would be the case if in the future the government foreclosed. It reneged on its obligation to pay bond interests and the house of cards fell over. But for now, it is claimed to be a debt system and not a printing system where there is some notion of future returns and recovery of the principle.

The investors do not seem to mind.

They buy and trade government bonds making a clip in the process so they have no qualms about how big the debt is or the risk of default. They will be on their yachts when it all goes belly up.

And so the debt number that just gets bigger each day is owed to creditors.

Governments who are in control of the central bank could just print the money instead of borrowing it, but history tells everyone that this risks a crazy level of inflation that can cripple economies. Ask the Zimbabweans about that one.


Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation has two main causes

  1. an increase in the money supply
  2. demand-pull inflation

When a government has a spending bill and decides to print money it increases the money on the economy. When there is more money around people have it to spend and goods and services can raise prices without losing custom generating regular inflation. A little of this is seen as a good thing because most people feel like they are growing financially.

Demand-pull inflation is when demand for goods and services outstrips supply so scarcity pushes prices higher. This can happen as a result of increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.

If inflation gets going through an increase in the money supply but the government continues to print money it generates more of cause one and prices can rise very rapidly. When consumers start to realise that continued inflation is likely they buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. This increase in demand further aggravates the inflation through cause two.

A nasty spiral results.


Is national debt a bad thing?

Well, I am a ‘money in the bank’ kind of guy.

I struggle to have credit card debt without freaking out so much that I burry the bills in the cupboard.

Economists are not such wimps; it’s other people’s money after all. Only they don’t seem to agree on the issue of debt.

They do agree that governments that run fiscal deficits have to make up the difference by borrowing money. This they know eats up a fair chunk of capital investment in private markets. They also agree that debt securities issued by governments to service their debts affect interest rates, although this can, until recently be manipulated to some extent through monetary policy tools.

After this, it gets a bit ‘cake and eat it’

The Keynesians believe that it can be beneficial to run a current account deficit

in order to boost aggregate demand in the economy.

However, the neo-Keynesians tend to support government deficit spending only after the monetary policy has proven ineffective and nominal interest rates have hit zero.

On the other hand macroeconomists from the Chicago and Austrian school argue that

government deficits and debt hurt private investment, manipulate interest rates and the capital structure, suppress exports, and unfairly harm future generations either through higher taxes or inflation.

Some economists on the fringes are still ok with central banks printing fiat money, despite the historical evidence for inflation.

The fear of inflation appears to keep policymakers from monetizing debt entirely. Instead, overspending governments either have to continue to borrow, sell assets, raise taxes, renegotiate terms, or default to resolve debt issues.

As the federal debt number in the US reaches the outer reaches of our solar system there has to be a limit to what can be fiddled to soak it up with selling down and borrowing. The most likely end result is to default.

Oh, terribly sorry, but we can’t make those repayments.

So is all this debt good or bad?

Inject money into an economy and it will prosper so long as that money of made from something. Print it and it sends values into a spin.

Currently, the world is compromised in the middle, through the third option. Spend but pay for it with debt. Under the current rules, sooner or later that debt is either paid back or not.


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The grass is always greener problem

The grass is always greener problem

If I tell you that the grass is greener over there you will laugh at me. That’s just the old wives having a go. The grass is just as green as it wants to be. You’ll rightly say that I’m just jealous.

However, if I keep saying it, a sliver of doubt will creep in.

Could this guy be right?

I did see his neighbour with a bag of fertilizer the other day. Maybe he does have a greener lawn. It certainly looks greener. Maybe it is.

This doubt can grow if my claim of extra verdancy is delivered with passion and commitment… and often.

Everyone knows the adage though.

It is easy to think that others have it better than us but this is rarely, if ever, the case. The grass is not greener at all. And anyway, who cares? It is irrelevant if my neighbour has splashed out on fertilizer. It is his lawn, not mine.

I need to look down to my own grass and not over the fence.

In other words, I might find out that the grass is indeed greener but there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not my grass.

Let’s take this notion a little further.

Here is a section from a lengthy paper on the necessary and complex dialogue on climate change and sustainable development…

By excluding any obviously, social or political matters, the scientific
reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result
is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. So, for example, the science of climate change can agree about the physical sources of carbon emissions, but only by refusing to consider the far more important and deeply political question of why they are increasing and how (or if) they should be curtailed.

Cohen, S., Demeritt, D., Robinson, J., & Rothman, D. (1998). Climate change and sustainable development: towards dialogue. Global Environmental Change, 8(4), 341-371.
Emphasis added by Alloporus

Alright, this is interesting.

It says that the evidence — and the level of inference in that evidence (what can reliably be said given the numbers) given the degree of reductionism (amount of inference) — should be enough to convince everyone that climate change is both real and the current warming event a result of human activities. The numbers are unequivocal.

We know where the emissions came from and we know what levels they are at in the atmosphere and we know what this does to the back radiation of energy from the sun.

The problem is that this is not what matters.

The real questions for climate changes are

  • why are the sources of greenhouse gas emissions increasing?
  • should we try to curtail the warming trend through greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration?
  • is it even possible to curtail the worse of the climate changes given the scale at which humans can take action?

These are the psychological consequences of the emergence of a problem. It triggers strong emotional responses. The real questions are not about the truth of the matter but what we feel needs to be done if we accept the truth.

I might know intellectually that ‘the grass is greener over there’ adage can’t help me sort out my own grass, however, it does not stop me being jealous.

Here is another example…

Agricultural production

Take a look at this image of some paddocks in central NSW, Australia

This is sheep country and has been pretty soon after the Europeans arrived in 1788. This land has seen generation after generation sheep and the graziers that manage them.

The area in the image is around 400 ha (1,000 acres)

In the image, you can see the water source in the northeast with its bare perimeter reminiscent of water holes in game parks and the rectangle in the centre of the image is a holding pen. This is grazing on native vegetation but there is little grass among the patchy and occasionally dense trees and shrubs. Stocking rates are low and much of the land would be classified as degraded.

The land is tired after such a long period of production on what were initially old and nutrient-poor soils. The carbon content of the soil has declined and the production of grass become more and more volatile from year to year, season to season, in a hot, drought-prone region.

Given this, what happens if there is a run of poor years?

What does the grazier do?

Well, first of all, he will let any staff go for there is no money to pay salaries so any employees move on. Any slack in the operation he will take up himself. His long hours will just get longer — a poll by Agriland showed that 72% of farmers say they work more than a 60-hour week.

He might sell some of his herd or even loan them to other graziers with more grass and cut down as much as possible on any inputs he has from deworming to fence maintenance. His priority will be to keep what animals he has fed and watered enough for them to survive.

What he won’t do is give up.

His farm means more to him than a business. It is his home, livelihood and sense of place all in one. There is more to his bare paddocks than a place to grow some meat for the city folk, there is the opportunity that when it rains again there is serious money to be made, maybe a house on the coast or a holiday in Europe. The things that those city folk have begun to take for granted.

The farmer actually has no time to consider the greenness of his neighbour’s grass.

He is flat out trying to keep his animals alive… on his own.

This is important to know

The grazier can do well to tap into some of his real questions. He doesn’t need to know about the greenness of his neighbour’s pastures or the cause of climate change, we actually want him to ask

  • what are the sources of my declining productivity?
  • should I try to curtail these sources or change production altogether?
  • is it even possible to curtail the sources given the resources available to me right now and my needs for the next few years?

It is in his interests to focus on his own grass.

It is in our interests too and we should help however we can. We need every grazier to be producing as much food as possible without reducing the chance of producing food in the future not just to feed ourselves but to feed everyone.


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Are we a product of the times?

Are we a product of the times?

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) was a product of his times

Mr Wallace was truly remarkable, a gentleman in the time when such a description meant something, and a traveller when getting from one town to another in England was a feat of endurance.

In the mid-1800s he covered the length of the Malay Archipelago on limited means. Which actually meant he was wealthy beyond belief to most of the indigenous peoples he met but had limited old money when compared to his peers back home.

Wallace was a naturalist and collector of exotic animal specimens caught or shot in the jungles and mountainsides at dozens of locations on remote islands. He made what money he could from the sale of preserved bird skins, mammal skeletons and pinned insects to museums and his less adventurous fellow gentlemen collectors back in Europe.

He was also an extraordinary observer able to recall almost at once if a butterfly or beetle was new to his collection. Anyone who has dabbled in natural history collections will recognize this skill. A good naturalist needs to be proficient at it and Wallace was, by all accounts, exceptional.

But what made Wallace truly remarkable was that he didn’t just observe nature, he observed people too. He saw the forms, behaviors and habits of all the locals he met on his travels. Indigenous peoples and colonists alike, they all fascinated him. And then he tried to explain the patterns and behaviours in the people with the same logic he applied to nature.

No doubt he also carried with him the prejudices of his peers. His times were of colonial rule, the greatness of empire and knowing one’s place in the pile. It is unlikely his observations were not clouded by at least some prejudice.

His seminal work “The Malay Archipelago” is well worth its 500+ pages. At once a primer on natural history, a window into thinking on the theory of evolution, a catalogue of the biology and peoples of the region, a gentleman’s travelogue, a commentary on economics and an insight into how the Victorians saw the world. Often the prose carries all these things in the space of a few pages.

By Unknown author – Marchant, James (1916) Alfred Russel Wallace — Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, pp. Plate between p. 36–37 Retrieved on 16 October 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372562

Famously Wallace figured out what Charles Darwin, his contemporary, himself became famous for, the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Crossing the deep and treacherous straits between Bali and Lombok in 1859 he landed and began collecting no doubt with an expectation of what he would find. Only there was a large number of species that to the west were organisms related to Asiatic species and to the east a mixture of species of Asian and Australian origin.

Wallace saw in that line, later named the Wallace Line after him by Thomas Huxley, a disruption to the pattern that he expected to see. The continuous variation that he followed in the myriad diversity of animals that fell into his traps should not have such an abrupt disjunct.

The genius of Wallace, that he shared with Darwin, was not only to recognise the disjunct but to realise it meant something profound.

Gathering his observations together he figured out what Darwin had also discovered, the concept of evolution by natural selection.

His views diverged from Darwin’s but the two through both private correspondence and published works exchanged knowledge and stimulated each other’s ideas and theories over an extended period and they both agreed on the importance of natural selection, and some of the factors responsible for it: competition between species and geographical isolation. They diverged on why. Wallace gave evolution a purpose in maintaining species’ fitness to their environment, whereas Darwin hesitated to attribute any purpose to a random natural process.

Although we now agree with Darwin on the randomness part, Wallace remained an ardent defender of natural selection all his life. And remember this was highly contentious stuff at the time. In 1889, Wallace published the book Darwinism as a response to the scientific critics of natural selection.

It was what a gentleman would do.


This gushing account of Alfred Wallace was written a year or so ago after I had read the Malay Archipelago.

I was and still am amazed what some of the old-timers managed to get done and more, to figure out what a bunch of it meant. They are inspirations.

As I finally got around to editing the post, I am struck by how little the gentlemen and women of today inspire me. Where are they? I have to assume that they exist.

They do not seem to be among the celebrities or the internet influencers who are driven only by narcissism.

Heaven help you if you try to find them in seats of government.

They are not in the business community that continues to promote the economic model that is both precarious and gives not a jot about the resource base — much of the biology that Wallace saw is gone forever.

They are not among the clergy. I cannot even bring myself to go there.

Perhaps, and here is a left-field assertion that I never thought was possible. Perhaps they are hiding among the scientists.

I know, crazy suggestion right.

We are talking about the fence-sitting nerds who have bamboozled us for decades and failed miserably to get their messages across.

Well, there is an idea going around promoted by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is to cause science to be done differently with collaboration, speed and efficient up there as the biggest changes.

That in this time of crisis it is the scientists who are working together to us get through it all as fast as possible while their fellow technical specialists doctors, nurses and support staff on the front line provide the heroic bravery.

That sounds like what gentlemen would do.


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Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times, and are essential to the ecosystems humanity depends upon. They pollinate plants, are food for other creatures and recycle nature’s waste.

Damian Carrington, Environment editor, The Guardian, 24 April 2020

Nearly two years ago Alloporus first noted some worrying research on the decline of insects in Europe. with the key finding

More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas

Hallman et al (2017)

Alloporus’ comment was this

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase the risk to our already precarious food security.

At around the same time this post and research came out, two US researchers returned to a forested conservation reserve in Puerto Rico after 35 years and this is what they said…

We compared arthropod biomass in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest with data taken during the 1970s and found that biomass had fallen 10 to 60 times. Our analyses revealed synchronous declines in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat arthropods.

They published their results in a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences

Lister, B. C., & Garcia, A. (2018). Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(44), E10397-E10406.

The declines the authors put down to climate. It was too hot too often for the ground-dwelling invertebrates creating an upwards cascade through the food web.

In Europe insecticide use and habitat change, in a rainforest, climate change. Either way a serious problem.

Just to make sure this was not just an isolated result, Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, together with colleagues from around Germany and Russia completed a meta-analysis and

‘compiled data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 globally distributed sites and confirmed declines in terrestrial insects, albeit at lower rates than some other studies have reported and concluded that ‘Patterns of variation suggest that local-scale drivers are likely responsible for many changes in population trends, providing hope for directed conservation actions.’

So it’s happening. Roughly 25% declines in insects across the board in a generation, with insects faring only slightly better in nature reserves than outside protected areas.

The conclusion, terrestrial insects are declining in numbers and variety and, as is typical for nature, this loss is patchy, occurs at differing rates and from multiple causes.

Klink and his colleagues took hope from this result. You can see why. If climate change was the cause everywhere, then there is a serious global catastrophe in the offing where the rates of decomposition and nutrient transfer are altered across a wide range of biomes and habitats affecting many land uses, especially primary production.

This would not be about species loss in the way it is for the koala. A cute thing that we like to see in the zoo and maybe take a selfie with one held up by a zookeeper, the cuddly critter that might become extinct. This is about the loss of function, loss of ecosystem services that we cannot do without or easily replace.

Instead, Klink and his colleagues found multiple, often local causes. This they interpret as a solvable problem. Conservation and restoration efforts could help local populations recover.

As regular readers will know, Alloporus has to work hard to be this optimistic.

Until the economy through the supply chains feels the hit of the loss of services little will be done. The efforts of the few with the koala saving gene will be epic, they will try their best, but it will not be enough.

If lockdown with its boredom, ingenuity and the appearance of clean air all around the place tells us anything, it should be that we can survive on relatively little.

Only part of that little has to be food and water.

Imagine lockdown with the supermarket shelves empty of food. That would put toilet paper shortages into perspective for us.

It is trite to say it, and sad that it has to be said again and again, but it is true — nature matters to our very existence.


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Social cohesion in a time of isolation

Social cohesion in a time of isolation

A few years ago now a serious bushfire passed just to the north of our house. It destroyed over a hundred homes and our back fence. We are still hyper-vigilant in spring when the hot westerlies push hard across eastern Australia and yet what I remember most from that tense experience is the sense of community that appeared spontaneously during the crisis.

Neighbours helping neighbours and everyone helping the firemen and rural fire service volunteers tackling the blaze. People variously wielded rakes, took turns on the garden hoses, made tea or simply offered nervous encouragement. It felt like a group effort.

David Shearman talks of something similar that happened in Britain during WW2 where people came together through far more severe and prolonged trauma.

“Britain was a united and cohesive community. Young and old worked daily in small ways for the common cause. But most importantly, in the free world, two countries — Britain and the US — had leaders in Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt who could explain the need for duty and sacrifice.”

David Shearman

Our bushfire experience of cooperation was certainly coordinated. The RFS Commissioner was constantly in the media providing information and advice. On the ground, the fire crews listened to their seniors and whoever was on the other end of the radio. Civilians readily followed their lead.

Firebreaks were raked, back burns set and helicopters dumped water judiciously to slow the fire enough for the hoses to protect houses. It was planned and calmly executed with everyone chipping in with what they could.

Most of the people in the street had seen bushfire before. It comes with the flammable treed territory we chose to live in. Recognition of the threat was ingrained through experience, so there was little need for Churchillian scale motivation.

This is probably true whenever something frightening becomes real and dangerous. Humans clearly have the cooperation gene even if it may only express itself in extremis. Even so, some leadership is required. There has to be some sense of need or a clear explanation of it.

Danger felt by everyone is the core ingredient for cohesion. Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real. Fear can bring people together.

Not all the neighbours were in on the group effort. At least one family were too frightened to leave their home. We actually thought they were out or had left, until at the height of the crisis with a fireman hosing down their wooden deck as some protection from embers, there was movement inside the house. Perhaps they needed the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.

Despite this, I easily recollect the cohesion that created much more than the sum of the parts. What I also recall is how fast it dissipated.

It took a day for the fire to burn most of the fuel in the bush around our homes. That night there was still eery red glows from scattered tree stumps. A day later and it was just char and ash. The threat had passed.

Heroic rural firefighter doing a great job in our backyard

Then we began to realise that this wildfire was a devastating event for the community. Everyone knew someone who had lost their home. A collection point for food and clothing was soon overflowing with gifts and volunteers. The fire was the topic of conversation wherever people met purging themselves of their fearful experiences. It was a human emergency for several months and then it wasn’t.

A great purveyor of entropy cut a swath through us and people responded to defy it. They rallied and returned things to our sense of normal with great speed.

Then we all forgot about it.

At least that is what it feels like. Every now and then memory is triggered or a newcomer is told the stories of the fateful day but mostly it is history. Some regulations have changed, fire preparedness is reinforced and we all look up at the sound of a helicopter. But the cohesion has gone.

I imagine that it will come back when the next fire comes along. It will because bushland in this part of Australia burns regularly, every decade or so on average in these parts. So in a short while cohesion will be called and I have no doubt that the residents will respond as spontaneously as they did in 2013.


Sure enough 2019-20 bushfire season was horrific.

Our little community escaped the worst but we had two monster fires, one to the north that burned within a few kilometres of our suburb and one to the south that threatened to do the same for the best part of a month.

People were cohesive. They helped each other out and were endlessly grateful to the fire services and the volunteers that provided assistance to the hundreds of people who lost homes, livestock, infrastructure and in a some tragic cases their lives.

No political leaders emerged during this crisis. The prime minister went on holiday to Hawaii and had to rush back with his tail between his legs. The state leadership did their best but really did not know what to do.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, stood up and showed everyone how it should be done. He was truthful, blunt and yet caring all at the same time. His leadership got the collective through.

Locally, it was the mayors that stood up. Ours, Mark Greenhill, Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, took to FB to give daily updates of the operations in our district. He was tirelessly present with the firefighters and the support staff and went above and beyond to provide the cohesion people needed.

People really do rally around individuals or each other when the heat is on but then readily dissipate into their own worlds when the crisis passes.

The drought crisis that turned into a bushfire crisis that has turned into a pandemic crisis means we have been overdone with cohesion of late.

The question is will vacuum return. Will leadership that is only present in extremis fade away when the calm returns as it surely will.

This is a rare opportunity for it to stick around.


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Is the economic imperative sustainable?

Is the economic imperative sustainable?

This post was written before the COVID-19 conundrum changed a few things… and yet it still applies.


The Australian economy is in a funk. We are told that annual growth in retail trade of 2.4% in trend terms is the lowest since December 2017.

Throughout 2019 households have not increased their volume of retail purchases at all.

In short, we are all strapped for cash and are not buying stuff.

Woh, hold on. Not quite.

Of course, we are consuming, we do it each and every week.

The problem for the economy is that we are not doing more of it than we did last year. Consumption is going on all the time, it is just not growing in percentage terms.

So it’s not consumption that economist’s are worried about, it is growth in consumption. Growth is considered essential for without it everything collapses in a heap. At least that is what we are told.

Let’s just look at that 2.4% again.

In 2019, retail trade — selling merchandise in the state that it is purchased, generally to a customer base of private individuals — will be double what it was in the year 2000.

When ABBA were in the charts in 1974 consumer spending by Australians was four times less than it is today. There are more people on Australia now than in the mullet and square shoulder days, but to quadruple spending in 40 odd years.

Come on, think about it.

Growth is not sustainable. It cannot go on forever. Not least because there will be nothing left for me to consume. I’d be consumed out.

Unless prices skyrocket there is a physical limit to the stuff that one person can consume even if I am littering, throw away, who gives a shit kind of consumer.

Sooner or later everyone has all the things they can think of and wish to possess. Does it mean that they just keep going round and round upgrading every time? Are we really that shallow — maybe!

Endless growth is just an extraordinary premise when you really examine it.

It is obvious why it is there.

Companies have to keep selling or they go out of business. Unless there are new people around to buy your widgets you will need your current customers to buy widget 2.0 or you diversify into insurance and the airline business.

A business can get away with it if prices rise. Their unit costs might go up but so does the retail prices and so growth is maintained. Indeed inflation is part of the growth deal, too little being as bad as too much.

So we teeter on the delicate balance of perpetual growth being imperative to our survival


Teetering a lot

Recently there was a step-change in the Australian continent.

An extended drought in the east created hot, dry conditions in spring when frontal systems create strong westerly winds. Dry air, hot temperatures, tinder-dry forests and strong winds produced devastating bushfire.

At the time of writing more than 11 million ha of bushland has burnt in NSW alone, an order of magnitude more than the whole of the previous fire season. Across Australia, an area the size of the Netherlands and Belgium has burnt in just a few hot, scary and brutal months.

Many of the forests that went up in flames, sometimes 70m tall, were supposed to be wet, they are even called rainforest and rarely burn, some of them not for hundreds of years.

This year they did. Several of the fires are 500,000 ha each.

It will take a while to assess the consequences but I suspect that these events have nullified decades worth of conservation effort and billions of dollars worth of natural resource management actions.

It should also be a wake up to the economists who are going OMG “annual growth in retail trade of 2.4% in trend terms is the lowest since December 2017″.

If the countryside burns like it has this summer the economy will struggle to achieve any growth at all for a long time.


And now the virus

So here we are in mid-March 2020 and COVID-19 is about to be declared a pandemic.

Australians have cleared the supermarket shelves of toilet rolls because they are absolutely bonkers — the toilet roll supply for the country comes from Adelaide, not Wuhan — and are about to freak out good and proper.

Already global markets have freaked out too and taken a massive plunge. This is actually a necessary correction from an over-inflated bull run that has gone on from the GFC, partly a response to the cash injections from jurisdictions. But ni matter, we can blame nature.

This new virus will not cease economic growth. The flu virus does something similar every year, this one is just more acute. People’s reactions to this unknown make a recession is a given. 


Postscript

Even though there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, most people are more likely to catch and spread influenza.

In the 2019 flu season, there were nearly 30 million cases of flu and 17,000 deaths.


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What’s with all this individual enrichment?

What’s with all this individual enrichment?

Capitalism is a powerful force.

Simplistically, it mobilises funds — capital — to secure peoples time and effort — labour — that converts or generates goods and services, often from a natural resource or two, that when sold becomes more capital.

The basic idea is the conversion of one thing to another for monetary gain.

The deal with capitalism is that for this process to work, the enriching part, some capital is needed to begin the process. There is an investment required in the extraction or conversion or creation of a resource that can be rented or sold.

How to start becomes the problem if you have no access to capital.

Hence for centuries workers felt exploited as they lacked access to the monies to get themselves off the treadmill. In modern times more westerners feel they have access to capital, sufficient at least for a house, a car, and the luxuries of life.

That they are indentured to the banks for this cash seems to pass them by as they trudge along to the workplace as enslaved as the poor buggers who used to do it for peanuts. Quite literally in the slave systems of the 1800s.

Then there is the inbuilt reality to capitalism that is starting to bite very hard.

When capital is used to create more capital, the original owners of the capital stand to gain the most from the process — the rich get richer.

The argument that wealth creation raises all boats, the more money made, the more money there is to pay workers and their lives improve is also true to a degree. The average wage in mature economies tends to rise over time and the standards of living along with them.

The problem is that individual enrichment is still at the core of the process. The owners of the capital gain the most, the get bigger boats as all the little rowboats slosh about on the tide.

A report published by Oxfam in January 2020 ‘Time to care’ found that the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people.

In other words, a little over 2,000 people hold more wealth than over 60% of the world’s population.

These numbers show what has and continues to happen. Fewer and fewer people have a greater and greater proportion of the wealth.

A riddle

Suppose the board of a large company has seen some good numbers from the CFO and decides to redistribute some of the profit to the workforce as a bonus.

Rather than do this on some arbitrary merit score they decide to give everyone at the company a one-off bonus that is 10% of their gross salary.

Is this fair?

Check out one answer at the end of the post.


A moral conundrum

Should this aspect capitalism be allowed to continue, this appropriation that is an inevitable consequence of the paradigm?

Well, obviously there are plenty of people busting everything to be one of the 2,000 with more money than any one person could realistically spend.

Then there is just about everyone else who would like more money than they have. They might not need billions, even millions, but most people would like even a little bit more to help with the school fees, the rent and maybe even a holiday sometime.

The 4 billion people living on less than $10 per day certainly would. For them over half the money they earn is likely to go on food.

The 800 million of these people that the United Nations says live in extreme poverty are desperate for more cash simply to not go to sleep hungry and maybe a leg up to get themselves out of their poverty.

Unless there is a better way to redistribute, it would seem that we need an alternative to creating wealth for these people.


Are there alternatives to capitalism?

A question asked many times by folk far more erudite in these matters than Alloporus will ever be.

The answer is, of course, several alternatives. Here are a few of the common ones.

Communism

Communism was tried and failed the pub test. People hate being told what to do, especially when it comes to money.

Variants on the tried communist model have been proposed including a few based on anarchism

  • Anarchist communism, that advocates decision making by consensus democracy, the abolition of the state, and the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.
  • Post-scarcity anarchism, an economic system based on social ecology, libertarian municipalism and an abundance of fundamental resources.
  • Anarcho-syndicalism, an ideology centred on self-management of labour, socialism and direct democracy.

Heritage Check System

Then there is the retention of the market economy but with banks stripped of their lending power and with constraints on governments printing money and when they do the money is only used to “buy materials to back the currency, pay for government programs in lieu of taxes, with the remainder to be split evenly among all citizens to stimulate the economy”. This is termed a “heritage check”.

No doubt the originator Robert Heinlein, the American science-fiction author, knew what he meant.

Economic democracy

Economic democracy is where the workers control the companies in some sort of democratic system and social investment is carried out by a network of public banks.

Sounds good until we all suffer death by democracy for the crowd is not always operating in its own best interest let alone the interest of the individual.

Knowledge economy

In a book Post-Capitalist Society published in 1993, Peter Drucker described a possible evolution of capitalistic society where knowledge, rather than capital, land, or labour, is the new basis of wealth.

The thing about this option is not everyone, including an orange-haired president and his supporters, respect knowledge enough. People are quite good at rejecting evidence they don’t like.


Individual enrichment

We could go on for there are dozens of others and maybe one day there will be one that has a chance.

That system will have to allow people the chance for betterment no matter where they currently sit within the system. This is the essence of capitalisms success — even the lowly janitor has a chance of making it.

It’s a slim chance but it is not zero.

This is how people are at the core. They want, desire, need the opportunity to get better, to be better and to live better.

This great urge for betterment is understandable for those whose life is a struggle. However, it does not stop when you get the Porsche and the air-conditioned mansion with heated indoor pool

Maybe not even when your incense burns and your chakras are in blessed harmony, for your ego will still be lurking somewhere deep in your psyche just waiting for you to slip out of nirvana.

Whatever the system it has to allow for individual enrichment.

Answer to the riddle

Is a 10% pay rise across the company fair?

Well, it sounds fair enough. But 10% for the office junior might buy a weekly trip to the fast-food court. The CEO, on the other hand, gets a new car.

Not so fair after all.


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We have let

We have let

The Guardian online is running a series of 2020 Visions from prominent Australians about the future of a country that is in a mess.

We are flapping our arms around as if after years of surfing we suddenly forgot how to swim.

Our politics is morally bankrupt and devoid of ideas, the people are hiding behind a mountain of household debt so high you need oxygen at base camp, and the outback has had enough sending drought, dust, obscene heat, fire, smoke and finally flood just about everywhere.

Bugger, if it wasn’t for air conditioning, filters and heroic emergency services personnel the place would be unlivable.

It’s been one hell of summer down under.

Any kind of vision for the future is welcome in such dire times.

Here is a quote from the 2020 Vision Series looking for serious answers

Instead, we have let untruths, half-truths, misrepresentations, hypocrisy and hyperbole become the currency of our age. Secrecy is now standard operating procedure in politics. The public interest and the right to know is too often subordinate to some alleged higher interest, grandly and sometimes scarily defined as “security” or “on water” or “in the bubble”, so of little relevance to anybody declared to be outside it: the rest of the country

Professor Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former chief scientist of Australia

Only three words really matter in this otherwise truthful statement from a senior scientist who spent time with political numpties…

we have let

Yep, we sure have. The people have allowed the irresponsible to break the tiller of the sailboat and failed to repair it. We have let the boat come adrift at the mercy of an angry sea.

It’s our fault.

Don’t blame the politicians or the lefties or the neo-Nazis or the abbos or the DINKys or the Landcruiser MILFs or even the neighbour’s french bulldog that barks like a cat.

Blame yourself.

Yes, you. And me. And every other card-carrying citizen who has stood by and let all this happen.

You know I am right.

Just look at the outpouring of praise for the Rural Fire Service volunteers who have performed miracles to save lives and properties on over 18 million hectares of the country that burnt.

It was effusive and genuine gratitude because we all knew they saved our arses, literally.

We let his risk of catastrophe escalate and then when the crisis came it was local volunteers who bailed us out. They deserve a medal and some serious pay. So much by so many to so few, a famous dude once said.

We have let.

Here is a summary of the 2020 bushfire season

As of 14 January 2020, fires this season have burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. An estimated one billion animals have been killed and some endangered species may be driven to extinction. Air quality has dropped to hazardous levels. The cost of dealing with the bushfires is expected to exceed the A$4.4 billion of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, and tourism sector revenues have fallen more than A$1 billion. By 7 January 2020, the smoke had moved approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 mi) across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile and Argentina. As of 2 January 2020, NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes (337 million short tons) of CO2 was emitted.

Just for comparison, the Australian government estimates that Australia’s net emissions in 2017 were 556.4 million tonnes CO2-equivalent.

Ian Chubb thinks the solution is our re-engagement with democracy when ‘we have let’ becomes ‘no we don’t let’, we demand better.

The sixteen-year-olds are on the case, thank goodness — go Greta.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the 30 odd years it will take before they get strong enough to kick our sorry arses out. So, it is up to us to help them.

Here is what Ian Chubb suggests we do

When we wake up, we will demand leadership: one that is bold, courageous and open, with an unswerving commitment to our right to know. We will need leaders with the ability to build an appropriate vision for our country, along with the competence and capacity to persuade us why we need to do what they propose we do – all the while exposing their evidence base to us so we can see why one option was chosen over another.

Professor Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former chief scientist of Australia

In short, we must demand logic and accountability.

Actions that make common sense.

No more bubbles and bullshit and pork barrels, just honesty and common sense.

‘We have let’, believe it.

How opinions become facts

How opinions become facts

Our becoming emotionally wedded to our opinions mutates them into indisputable facts. That’s when they become dangerous. When our beliefs possess our feelings and we cement them as truth, we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others. Undue feelings of superiority take hold. And in that condition, it’s impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in.

Partrick King

If Patrick King is right then opinions readily become ‘facts’ even without proof. When we are invested through a feeling our minds and hearts begin to narrow our world view and make it our immutable own. We start to believe our own thoughts, notorious for their flights of fancy, and consolidate them into our truths. Add to this any number of powerful forces in the modern world that play with our emotions, tapping into and sometimes mutating our core beliefs to fill us up with rigidity. We become closed and, as my own therapist tells me, judgemental and negative. Ouch.

If even half of this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.

When opinions solidify into cement they corral us into like-minded groups creating the steel reinforcement for the concrete. The really important awareness and empathy suffer and limit our connections to other people. Ouch again.

Before the sky falls in, let’s back up a little.

Opinion is defined as “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. We all have them because we use judgements to help us navigate our lives.

It helps not to have to think things through from first principles all the time for that would be tedious and inefficient. We need the thinking space saved for emergencies. And if there are no crises to resolve, then thinking can be used for creative outlets. Not having to think until we want to is powerful support for opinions.

Facts are defined as things that are known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence. In other words, they are objective.

Facts come from a logical process of proof that the proposition (or belief) is true or valid. This involves observation or the creation of information through an agreed process that goes beyond the individual and is repeatable. It should also be agreed that the logic process and the information reflects reality. This is all a bit technical and not touchy-feely at all, far more Mr Spock than Captain Kirk. Most people would rather be Kirk than Spock.

Given these definitions, we can see that opinion is easy to come by for all we have to do is attach to our core and run with what it tells us. Facts are much harder to grasp for we must understand the logic process that generates them in order to accept them as proven and following this logic is hard work.

As far as our minds are concerned, opinion is easy, facts are hard.

There is an evolutionary advantage to the easier, lower-risk path. So it should be no surprise that judgements that are easier to come by and yet are still useful will persist.

This makes the first premise, of mutation of emotion into facts, logical even likely, especially for the pleasant feelings; such as being above average for example.

If they continue to work for us then their persistence makes sense too. The reinforcement of the good vibes that this brings will make the next premise likely too… “we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others.” This is the genesis of dogma. Fine when it is mutually beneficial (conservation of elephants is fine aspiration) and not so good when it is not (my religion is better than yours, in fact, yours sucks). This is bad enough for it creates any number of opportunities for conflict as people join their tribes and disagree with the opinions of other tribes.

The final premise is the one that really matters. Excluding others and feeling superior make it… impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in. In other words, our opinions become very hard to change even when the evidence is strong that they are wrong or nonsensical.

As a scientist this is challenging. It is already difficult to explain scientific facts to the non-scientist who is not familiar with the logic revolutions of the renaissance or the technical details of your subject. They believe your white lab coat more than your statistical explanation. If we are also up against an evolutionary pressure — the easiest path will lead the genes along it — then we are in serious strife.

Donald, on the other hand, is laughing.