The bright side of the moon

The bright side of the moon

Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The bright side of the moon

It is early in the morning, crisp spring air cools the cheeks and sends earlobes numb. On the canvas of a beautiful blue sky is painted the moon, still risen and large enough to see it’s sculptured surface with the naked eye.

Against its pale blue background, the dark craters on the surface blend with their grey colour and invite thoughts of what it would be like to visit, a nice place to go, colourful, pleasant, calm.

And then comes the reality of what it is actually like out there. A massive rock orbiting in the blackness of space where no human could survive for more than a minute without the aid of technology.

An orange satellite sitting in a black galaxy.

Alloporus

There’s something about the human condition that means we always see an image rather than reality. I guarantee that most people who look at that moon in its picturesque blue backdrop see an invite to go there. They feel like they’ve been given a ticket on the first rocket ship to carry tourists to such an extraordinary place.

Not in our grandchildren’s lifetime, will we be able to do anything serious in space. We will generate a lot of space junk flying around in orbit above us. And various companies and countries will try to snaffle some resources or make money on the back of the curious. But the reality is the physics and the simple scale of the universe make even visiting our solar system a task beyond our current technologies and the laws of physics as we understand them.

Unless someone can crack moving faster than the speed of light, then we are destined to stay here on our own in this tiny corner of the universe, in our own blip in time.

This should be sobering. Then it should be a delight to recognize our uniqueness.

Sure, there are other life forms out there. Enjoying or not their own blip of existence. But the physics of it all means that we won’t see them and they won’t see us.

And yet the reality is that we are no more suited to be in outer space than we are to dominate planet earth. I know it says in the bible that we should have dominion but that is just some self-assurance. The truth may be closer to our survival chances on the moon.

On earth, we change everything to our own devices for our own purposes and needs. And have done for centuries. We’ve been so good at it that the planet is barely recognizable. The moon has seen the changes on the blue planet and wonders what’s going on down there?

At the moment it seems that what is going on is aggrandisement through a focus on self.

And, as written many times on this blog, there are very sensible and logical evolutionary reasons why that is a default position. Our biology is to make more and we are extremely good at it.

What we fail to realize is how hard it would be to change that biology. So that our blip in time in this tiny corner of the universe would be anything more than a path to our own mutual destruction. We would have to go against our nature in order to persist. Resources must be shared beyond our kin. We would have to restore and rehabilitate land that we had previously pilfered for its benefits.

Most of all, we would need tolerance. Recognize that other people part of the story too. Not because they are likeable or even because they are like us but because they’re here, that’s all.

And without other people onboard, the system breaks down into all the old patterns. It’s an ‘in this together’ kind of game. We either all come and collectively understand the consequences of failure to acknowledge each other and work together or we go extinct.

And I know what you will say. Many people have said this many times before. But we are still here, still creating technologies to keep our supply chains and systems moving — ever bigger, ever better.

We probably have a few decades, maybe even a century or two left to keep doing that to keep on that track. Malthus, Ehrlich and others who prophesied doom from overpopulation are not yet prophets. But they will be. There will be a crash. It will be ugly and whether or not we come out the other side in any sort of shape at all is determined by what we do now.

If we do nothing the crash will be deep and very painful. And what comes out of the other end will be a handful of unfortunate folks scrambling for what’s left. If we behave ourselves and begin to cooperate and talk and identify the things that really matter then there is a chance that the crash can be managed. A softer landing if you like. And what’s left behind could be in better shape.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks. Given the development of a new project around food, ecology and diet — sustainably FED — and fictional writing of climbing to the meet and the conversations of Paul Sorol. Reflecting on what our chances of getting through really are.

Locally the chances are good.

In a crisis, people do help each other. We’ve talked about that on this blog many times before.

But once the crisis is over and the local situation calms that helping hand does tend to fade away.

Keeping that crisis momentum going is also not what you want to do. Nobody wants to live with heightened alertness the whole time unless that happens to be your psychology.

Moving towards something that is worth keeping is the key. That involves our awareness and is the challenging part. It’s not that we don’t have empathy. Not that we don’t have the ability to go operate clearly we do. But just not enough for long enough to see us through to a soft landing.

I do not have an answer. It would be good to find one but I simply don’t have one at this point. As to how we would do that.

And my apologies for another pessimistic post. But hopefully, you can see the kernels of optimism.

There’s still a chance even at this late hour for humanity to not just turn things around but to make the future much brighter than it seems that present.

Right now we’re heading for some dark times. Unpleasant politics, leadership that is either inept or not leadership at all, but authoritarianism by any other name.

A pandemic continues to cause havoc with everything around the world, changing what we thought was our normal lives.

But it’s this time of apparent darkness that it is possible to see the moon at its brightest against that blue background and to think of it as a place worth visiting.


Please share to help us all reach for the stars and find the moon.

Dark days are over

Dark days are over

Photo by Kevin Bluer on Unsplash


These are dark days.

A pandemic is killing people in every country, destroying livelihoods and economies.

The US president is lying as he aims to bring democracy crashing down in his country.

Great Britain, once a powerful nation, is a fetid heap of unpleasantness on the floor and in such a mess that it chooses to appoint a failed, misogynist, ex-prime minister from Australia to get them out of their trade hole. Good luck with that.

And everywhere people are concerned and worried.

Mental health is the worst it’s ever been with almost everyone showing signs of strain.

It’s extremely hard to be optimistic in such times.

Indeed, all population ecologists from Thomas Malthus onwards will tell you this is exactly what to expect. As populations reach and exceed the levels of resources available to them it gets ugly. And whilst this is fine for plant and animal species in the depths of the Amazon rainforest or the arctic tundra, humans are immune for, after all, we are not animals – modern politics notwithstanding.

The technical phrase is density-dependent population regulation, the fancy term for keeping numbers in check.

Density and competetion

As resources become limiting so population growth rates start to slow and eventually go in reverse as a result of lower fertility, infant mortality and mortality from competition among adults in the population, with the most vulnerable going first. It is no coincidence that the consequences of the COVID-19 virus fit these attributes and is an acute problem for aged-care facilities.

There is no doubt we’re beginning to see these patterns in the human population of the world. We’ve beaten off density-dependence for so long thanks to our technology and our ability to absorb resources from nature. But now it’s beginning to bite as we reach the limits of our capacities and offer a resource to nature, our bodies, for it to exploit.

Given these realities, it is very difficult to remain positive. Hard to see the upside in any of these things.

But upside there is, for no matter what happens, it will not happen forever. Even if the worst catastrophes strike, there is a time after them.

Even after the mass extinctions over evolutionary time that we portray as catastrophes, diversity came back stronger. There were always more species on the planet following extinction events than there were before them. Prior to our current attack on the planet, there were more species than at any other time in the history of life on earth. There’s nothing to suggest that once humans have passed, that won’t happen again. The remnants of diversity will spread out recolonise and diversify into the available landscape when humans finally leave the stage.

The problem is not the long-term future of the world. She is quite fine, thank you very much, and will potter along merrily without concern until the sun finally swallows her up.

The problem is ourselves. What do we do to prevent a catastrophe… for humanity? How do we go about making sure that solutions are possible and more than a punt on the horses.

I think our hope lies in our psychological response.

We always revert to our lizard brains when we feel threatened or fearful or insecure. But we have a higher brain which can override that lizard fight, flight or freeze response. And we must tap into that capability more than ever before.

Right now we have to be investing in our mental health, training and encouraging people to be aware of their lizard brains. And give them the tools so as not to give into them.

Of course, anyone can say “zen out” in a blog post.

Achieving it in the population at large is another thing altogether. There are so many reasons why people wouldn’t respond and we cannot expect all people to do so.

Given enough compassionate folk who have recognised the need for awareness and for those people to lead the way then we can move forward with positive solutions.

Over at sustainably FED we have found a way to encourage those solutions through the use of evidence, especially the science behind food, ecology and diet. We believe there are solutions to any number of sustainability challenges if FED comes together in an integrated way.

Here are a few

  • Recycling nutrients
  • Making biochar
  • Changing global diet and food production based on the nutrient density of food rather than profit
  • Calling out the scoundrels mining natural capital
  • Looking long in production systems

Humanity has a great chance of surviving the dark times and coming out the other end the better for it. Any new normal can easily better than the old normal.

But we do need great ideas.

The tools exist for the technical and scientific evaluation of sustainability ideas to find those that will work in a new normal. All we have to find are the youngsters with the great ideas.

In the meantime, we can all try to recognize our lizard brain response and not be consumed by it.

We also recommend a meditation or two, some relaxation in nature, maybe some gentle classical music.

Recognition of what the planet offers rather than the porkies our social media feeds us.

Managing expectations is hard

Managing expectations is hard

For a long time I lived and worked in the tertiary education system.

Universities are peculiar places that gather certain types of personality to them. It sounds weird but academics are full on and wear their subject like a favourite pair of jeans; all the time. Whilst the student body represents the cultural diaspora, academics are a rather narrow minded and small slice of that diversity partly due to that single mindedness of living in the depths of their research. It results in many peculiarities including the left of politics having its last bastion in some of those ivory towers.

My own days of bad hair and dodgy wardrobe as a postgraduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and eventually an academic, were a delight. I loved it. What I did not fully recognise at the time was why I liked it so much. One of the big reasons was that I was surrounded by people who understood, more or less, the topic areas of interest to me.

There I was in a department of biologists and environmental scientists, with people who had basically the same core understanding of how nature works. They didn’t know much about the politics and the social structures of the world, about people in general, but they knew a lot about biology, ecology and the biophysics of the environment.

I often remember that if you didn’t know your basic biology that could cause an embarrassing moment or two amongst your colleagues. As I was trained in my undergraduate years as an environmental scientist not a biologist, a few basics of genetics, photosynthesis and respiration, for example, had passed me by and people noticed.

The point I’m making is that awareness of basic theory and foundational understanding of nature was very high amongst your colleagues. When you had a conversation you could deliver most of what you were thinking and expect it to be understood by the person you were speaking to.

In recent times, I’ve realized that that is by no means a given in the real world.

When you speak to sensible folk in everyday world, awareness of some or all of the foundational understanding that I could take for granted as a trained ecologist chatting in the coffee room of a university department, is missing. Understandably, the technical detail and the deeper theoretical concepts are not there if you have not been through the program. And not everybody has. But the basic common sense of it all was present and correct.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Over the years I have learned to be a little less naive and to deliver potted versions of the concepts. Certainly not to dump all of the knowledge on an unsuspecting member of the public. However, even dialing down expectations of what people will understand to a fraction of what you know yourself may not be enough.

This statement lacks political correctness but stay with me.

At the moment many of the people I work with are educated in the environmental sciences and have decades of experience in rural landscapes. They advise landholders, their colleagues and ministers in matters of natural capital and agricultural production systems. I had made assumptions about what they would know — that soils underpin everything in production, that vegetation delivers livestock and that crops are aliens in most landscapes and need care and attention.

I also assumed an understanding of the policy frame and the politics of landscapes and the use of natural capital.

It seems reasonable to make such assumptions. These were professional people well educated, well-trained and you’d expect them to have some knowledge.

The reality is that my expectation reduction was nowhere near enough.

I had guessed that a reduction of the available knowledge by 80% of what I knew about a topic should be exceeded. That is what expectations should be, low enough to easily be exceeded; a version of the ‘under promise over deliver’ mantra of any good service company. This did not mean dumbing it down nor to assume ignorance just reducing the complexity to fundamentals so that the basics came across.

I had always expected that people would be okay with that and that they would recognize what I was trying to say. I expected responses with intelligence and from their perspective.

It turns out that delivering just 20% of what you know as an experienced academic is nowhere near enough reduction. You’ve got to cut much harder than that if you want your expectations to be met.

Now unmet expectations create a lot of stress for the person delivering information. I realize now that my big mistake was to overestimate the ability of people to understand nature and how humans use it.

I’m not talking about intelligence here, nor the ability to solve puzzles, to do math or the ability to find the tail end of a binomial distribution.

What I mean is a lack of basic understanding of phenomena that are happening in the world and their consequences for the rural landscape. Little things like knowing that we have eight billion people growing at eight thousand an hour. That almost all soil is under human management and at least 40% are in some sort of disarray as a result of that management.

Then there are some basic numbers that suggest future challenges for organizations involved with rural landscapes, even their own backyards. Some fundamentals that they really should know — average age of farmers in Australia is 58 with 50% of them working more than 49 hours per week, the debt to equity ratio of most farm businesses is very high where farmers have leveraged their properties in order to maintain their production systems and therefore giving themselves a very high debt load constraining any future innovation. Overall agriculture in Australia is under capitalised and there is a vast need for improvements to infrastructure particularly transport networks, but also in intensification of certain parts of the landscape and a desperate need to rest other parts.

Everyone should really understand that the challenge is how to get that investment. Where to get it from, what the financial instruments might be, who owns the risk, and who benefits from the risk?

These are the sorts of questions that should be simmering under the everydayness of any environmental role that is involved in any way with natural capital. And be talked about in tearooms and prior to meetings on Zoom. They should be the issues and questions that interest people. Unfortunately, they don’t.

At least not in recent experience. The generation that are currently in managerial and senior positions in environmental organizations, particularly in the bureaucracy, simply don’t have that frame of reference. Perhaps it’s a baby boomer story perhaps it’s a Gen X problem. Few seem to have the ability or the voice to put their organization into the broader context of what must happen in the world to stop humanity from major catastrophe.

People are parochial. I understand that. What’s going on in our backyard, what’s going on in the neighbor’s yard, and what’s going on overseas is increasingly distant to us. Such is normal human behavior ever since we started in tribes. But in the modern age when supply chains are universal — my wife ordered a parcel from the US which has gone via Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and still hasn’t arrived in Australia — these are global systems needing global solutions as well as local solutions.

The questions I have are these…

  • Do I lower my expectation from 20% to 10% or 5% and make things even more simple than I do at the moment?
  • Do I stop writing 20 page reports which have the detail in them and a one-page summary, which is the 20% that people might read and reduce that 20% to a headline?
  • Do I keep plugging away with the 20%, sometimes going to 60%+, and hope for the best?

It goes against the grain to capitulate and it’s not the smart play because detail is important in these matters. There is a lot of information and understanding needed to make good decisions around how we use the landscape, how carbon is managed, how nutrients are managed, how we appropriate net primary production.

So I suspect that I must kick on with the conflict still in my head. Just keep trying.

And we need more people to try. More people to be educated around these matters and be able to communicate that information to others who might not have had the opportunity to learn about it.

More importantly, I encourage you to not shy away from the information and the understanding even if you don’t work in the environment or deal with where our food comes from, you still consume food, you have a diet and what you choose to put into your body is important for not only your own health, but also how we manage resource product resources natural capital use and food production into the future.

I struggle with the stress of trying to be able to make this connection to people over topics that they do not readily understand. And one day I’ll retire and stop doing it.

But for the moment I still keep the fire burning and encourage people to understand more about the world around them, it is after all in their interests and the interests of their great grandchildren.


Help me keep it all going by sharing with anyone you think might be interested

What to do when values conflict

What to do when values conflict

I was always told that it is a good thing to understand values. My Aunty Eva always said identify them, get to know them, and then live by them. Not in as many words for she was was a spinster brought up in the 1930’s but she had the look that got the message across loud and clear. She wasn’t my relative, just a wonderful woman who looked after me a lot when I was growing up. I loved her to bits.

The question recently came up as to how far a values approach to life should go.

As everybody now knows the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted across the entire planet. Millions of people are infected and hundreds of thousands of people have died. The search for vaccines and treatments is fast-tracked with over 150 different laboratories trying their hardest to be the first.

Given that we could develop technologies that could prevent deaths and reduce the suffering of people who contract the virus, vaccines and treatments seem like a no brainer. No matter there is a commercial imperative, this search for some herd immunity and treatment feels like a moral obligation.

Recently. I was astonished to learn that various religious leaders in Australia had written to the prime minister saying that, according to their values, development of vaccines using stem cells from aborted fetuses was immoral and should not be allowed. The government should step in and put a stop to this type of search for a vaccine.

This sets up an extraordinary situation where a particular moral value goes counter to another moral value held by exactly the same person.

Let’s test this one a bit.

Presumably, the forthright religious individual would attempt to stop a man with a gun shooting another man or if there was a brawl attempt to separate the pugilists. And yet they would also stand in front of a woman who had been raped and prevent her from entering an abortion clinic.

The same moral dilemma faced them with vaccines that use stem cells and they went with the death of many over the past death of one unborn child.

It seemed not to matter that the stem cells in use for vaccine development comes from a stable cell line harvested from a single foetus in 1973.

My first instinct was outrage at the hypocrisy. And as one of the scientists working on vaccines said, “the Archbishop is entitled to his opinion and we are entitled to ignore it”. And so I guess that was an option too, everyone has the right to express their values and I have the right to accept them or ignore them.

But then I thought what is my value on this?

Does the death of one person, even though that person was never born. Does the death of that person justify the saving of other people’s lives? This is a classic philosophical conundrum debated many times over in first-year philosophy class. And the reason it’s debated is that there is no single answer only one that works for each person presented with the dilemma.

In this instance, for me at least, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a foetus that did not make it to term and so was never born.

These days I am often forced into reflections over the many such hypocrisies and conundrums that exist in modern society. In most of them, the values are obscured or obfuscated by the context or the hysteria of the message.

The first task is to find what the core values are before any decision is reached on what I think about them.

What was the value that the religious leaders were asking the PM to promote? The right to life?

Presumably, the relatives of the 6,037 people who died from the COVID-19 virus on 18th September 2020 would want them to promote that value with all their fervour. My Christian friends certainly did, they were incensed by the hypocrisy.

Making value judgements

The only defence the church has is that we are constantly being asked to make value judgments. When there is never a clear value proposition that would suit everybody we are asked to side; to choose a value that we support.

Somehow we have to get over this problem and allow other people’s values to be held as strongly as our own. And reach a compromise in all areas.

Recently the gunman responsible for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand in 2019 was sentenced to the harshest punishment under New Zealand law.

The responses of the people who had lost loved ones in that massacre were remarkable. They expressed a full range of emotions from anger and indignation, to empathy and forgiveness. The important thing was that responses were not delivered by one person but by many different people each expressing their feelings with the unfiltered truth. It was powerful.

There were many values abused by that heinous act.

In the courtroom, all the responses were heard because there was at least one common value breached, the right to life. Nobody questioned the responses because everyone knew that this was a value held close by all.

There was no need to question, there was only room for empathy.

From the point of view of healthy thinking, it helps to know how hard we hold our values to our principles and how often we are hypocrisy personified ourselves. There’s no value in holding on to a principle if you disengage with it yourself at the earliest opportunity.

So let’s take a lesson from those grieving families and have a little bit of balance in these things. Let’s try and see the bigger picture and the broader benefit even as we give in to our own emotional response.

That’s very hard to do but it’s essential in a world of eight billion souls.


If you like these ideas for healthy thinking please share, you never know what it might do.

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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