All lives are equal

All lives are equal

All lives are equal

A few years ago Bill Gates persuaded Warren Buffet to contribute to the Gates Foundation and so create the biggest single pile of philanthropic cash in history. This was quite something. Currently, an asset base of over $37 billion is available generating cash to spend on things that Bill, and presumably Melinda and Warren, think are important for the public good.

This is spending greater than the annual GDP of over 100 countries on the UN list. No small matter. And it is a spend that would otherwise not happen because governments or other donors claim they don’t have the cash.

So what did Bill choose? What activities were seen as the highest priority among the many thousands of options?

Even a cursory scan of projects the Gates Foundation supports tells the story. Bill, Melinda and Warren spent money on people. Mostly on activities that improved the lives of poorer people by making them healthier, giving them opportunity and education. All are noble things.

And as a friend of mine once reminded me when I was lamenting the crazy rate of human population growth, you cannot blame the kids for being born. You have to help them.

And so there is a moral imperative to do something for the 4 billion or so people who live on $2 a day or less, have little or no health care, struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children, often with very little hope for anything better.

The philanthropic spend has to be on people.

Governments blinded by GDP growth should take note.

But this is not the point of this post.

Humans have taken over the world. And in it, they have created a highly inequitable and competitive system that by definition generates haves and have-nots. In this place a philanthropic focus on people is understandable. There is always suffering and a powerful need to relieve it.

There is enough suffering to soak up the Gates billions a thousand times over. It is an unpleasant but inevitable consequence of the human condition, a symptom of a much deeper problem.

We are more making creatures.

Our biology drives us harder than we think. Those of us born as ‘haves’ do not notice this very often because with wealth, more making is curtailed somewhat. A couple of kids is usually enough when income is more than $100 a day.

Instead, we channel more making into having more. We gather goods, comforts and money with extraordinary voracity even as we claim moderation and make a charitable donation.

I wrestle with my own complicity in this every day because it is a hard one to shift when there are so many opportunities for things to get better… for me. In a blink and a modest interest-free monthly payment a perfectly functional television and TiVo becomes a 55-inch smart screen and Netflix.

And unbeknownst to us, the more making instinct is soothed. Somehow I feel a little better. Certainly, I feel better enough not to worry about the billions of people the Gates Foundation wants to help because ‘all lives are equal’.

Except it is hard to see equality. Turns out that I will use far more resources than most by good fortune at birth. Most others will use a lot less, again by birth as much as anything. And yet all the people in the world would use more than they do given half a chance.

So despite obvious inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all lives share equal intent. We all want to be more.

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

There is a problem with sustainability.

It is only possible if the resource base can cope with a human population growing at 8,000 per hour and support the 7.5 billion already here as they climb the hierarchy of needs. Resources must either be vast enough to not show symptoms of depletion or renew at rates greater than use.

This is clearly a very big ask.

Any one action might, on its own be sustainable — always take a reusable mug to the coffee shop — but this does not mean that the supply of beans, milk or the power to run the espresso machine is sustainable.

This post from 2011 explains more…

Can we have sustainability?

Sydney at four million inhabitants is a moderate sized city by modern standards. It is a similar size to Phoenix, half the size of Chennai, and a suburb compared to the 34 million inhabitants of Tokyo.

But Sydney is plenty big enough to have transport problems. The arterial roads that feed into the harbor side CBD are mostly modern freeways, with tunnels and six lane bridges, but they just cannot handle peak flow. Smart commuters travel on the train.

One bonus of train travel is that on the days when you forget your iPod you get to hear people chat. A young couple sat ahead of me on one such day and discussed water.

“No we can’t.”

“Why not?” said the husband.

“Those things just spray you with drips that don’t even get your hair wet. I need to get my hair

wet.”

“What about the water crisis?”

“What about it?”

“Here, the dams at 39.2%”

It was true; there in the black and white of the morning paper ‘Dam levels at a record low’.

Sydney relies on water storage in a major dam, Warragamba, and the rain sometimes forgets to fall in its catchment in the Blue Mountains some 80km inland from the coast. The significant drought that began in 2006 and broke three years later forced water restrictions on all domestic use. To augment supply and reassure consumers there was drawdown of groundwater together with pumping from catchments further afield. And then, just to be absolutely sure, a desalination plant was commissioned and constructed.

The husband pressed his point.

“If only half the residents of Sydney took a shower this morning that’s two million showers,” he said.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

“No, if they all showered for a minute less than usual they would save ten litres a minute, that’s 20 million litres saved.”

He said 20 million as though it was a large number and it certainly sounds impressive. The water from a minute of 2 million showers is 20 megalitres, enough to fill 30 Olympic sized swimming pools, provide 2 million toilet flushes or irrigate several hectares of winter wheat.

“I don’t care if it saves the planet I need a real shower.”

“It would help,” the young man said with hope in his voice.

It is easy to imagine a similar discussion over all sorts of conservation actions that can be done around the home. Recycling kitchen waste for example. All it requires is a sealable tub on the kitchen bench.

“But it smells and clutters up the place, get rid of it. And I hate those ants.”

Yet even in an average household it is easy to generate 10 litres of apple cores, vegetable peels and melon skins every week. Then if everyone in the street did it, say thirty homes, then we might see many tons of green stuff that the garbage men would not have to truck, saving fuel and space in the landfill for the garbage we cannot recycle.

There is a 60 litre black plastic bin in my garden that receives all the kitchen scraps. Every now and then there is a layer of brown leaves added and a bucket of water from the washing machine rinse cycle. All those apple cores and potato peelings decompose readily so that the bin is never full, even in winter. The magic of entropy facilitated by the military style operation conducted by decomposer organisms keeps the breakdown ahead of the household ability to generate waste. In spring the material under the bin is carbon rich compost ready to start off the vegetable patch.

If every second household in Sydney did this then, over a few years, millions of tons in greenhouse gas emissions would be avoided just by not having to shift the waste into landfill. There would be issues around nitrogen runoff into remnant vegetation patches from gardens now replete with green manure, but it is food for thought.

These sustainability actions are all good but surely we can do better. It would be great to do more than change the light bulbs, install a low-flow showerhead, manage the compost to help build up the carbon in the stony garden soil, recycle the gray water, install solar panels, grow vegetables and any number of household behaviours for sustainability.

Perhaps we could become self-sufficient.

The reality is that there is little prospect of genuine self-sufficiency for most of us. Even with half a hectare of yard and the compost going great guns, most of the vegetables I grow end up feeding the wildlife. There is greenery but not enough to provide for the family. The household members are also used to vigorous hot showers, power on demand, perfect fruit and veggies, the air conditioner in summer and the fireplace lit when it gets chilly.

No longer do we sit in front of smoky coal grates in high backed chairs with wings to keep the draft off our necks. We are acclimated to an even twenty something degrees wherever and whenever we happen to be. This level of comfort has sensitized us to the point where we really feel deviations from our comfort level, not that a few degrees colder or hotter would have any affect at all on our chance of survival.

We have climbed the hierarchy of needs yet, in our minds, we sit as though we are still at the base level where deviations from what feels safe have the power to upset us.

Does this mean that westerners are desensitized to the problems we have in the environment? Not totally. The media runs stories of environmental challenges and energy saving bulbs are sold in supermarkets. There are energy use ratings on white goods and grants to install water saving devices or solar heating systems.

In Sydney, the Inconvenient Truth made it onto the most watched movie list for a few weeks despite being shown only in selected cinemas; school kids prepare assignments that help them learn about water, land and wildlife challenges; market surveys put the environment high on the list of issues that decide elections hot on the heels of taxes, education, health and the military. Yet whatever we say people still want their needs met. This is their priority.

What we must accept is that our living environment has changed. For better or worse we are sensitized human beings. Most of us really would struggle to survive in the wild and this puts very different parameters on sustainability. Now we must sustain conditions in narrow comfort bands, supply only certain food types and ensure a high level of creature comforts.

The exchange on the train said it all. Not in the words, but the incredulity in the woman’s voice and the despairing logic of her husband.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

The numbers are vast. The resource base has to be equally huge or unfailingly renewable if sustainability has even a remote chance.

Only this post suggests that provisioning is not even the real problem.

Our heads are just not in it.

“Sod this for a game of soldiers”

“Sod this for a game of soldiers”

Humans are exceptional. We have large brains, opposing thumbs and binocular vision. We can speak loudly and in many tongues. We have extended our family units into tribes, societies, and global systems of trade and commerce. We went to the moon and invented popcorn.

And all this happened in the blink of an evolutionary eye.

Then, by some quirk of fate, many of us developed an equally exceptional trait. We discovered cognitive dissonance.

We learnt to bend our brains to mentally justify shortcomings when faced with a problem, therefore separating oneself from the problem.

Take a moment to think just how useful this is.

You can know virtually nothing about a topic but can still claim expertise in it. This might be mouthing off in the pub with your mates on what Tiger has to do to win another major to berating the leader of the opposition in the highest chamber in the land.

It can allow mediocrity to have more influence than is ever justified.

You can ignore the fact that $3, the price of the coffee you just bought at Uptown Baristas, is an amount that over a billion souls must make stretch to cover all their daily needs.

Once everyone is separated from a problem it can be duly forgotten. The truth is easily lost in the cloud of dissonance. After a time the cloud clears, as most do. There, basking in the sun’s rays is the problem, smiling sweetly.

We have done this with almost all the really serious issues of our and future times: water resources, food security, wealth inequality, super bugs, pandemics, and a host of environmental issues.

It could be that it’s just all too hard for our thinking brains — the thinking fast and slow argument. Certainly, dissonance is a lazy solution to problem solving. Except that problems are not resolved they are just ignored.

Whilst this is at least partly true. We are lazy and lack courage to resolve truly difficult issues we can be brave. In the moment the extraordinary is possible. Actions in wartime trenches to random acts of kindness prove we are capable and exceptional.

So here is a suggestion. Let’s say ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’ and banish cognitive dissonance from our lives.

All we have to do is become aware when we hear ourselves or our mates or our leaders lurch into a justification.

Then make a mental note that says, “A justification is like most things on the internet, best ignored”.

Then we’d get to see what happens next.

 

 

 

Nature matters

Nature matters

Many years ago now I was blessed with great fortune. Alone, I stood less than 50 feet from a wild African elephant and watched as she calmly consumed the leaves of some bauhinia bushes.

I had no phone or camera to capture the image but I can see her now in every detail. Strangely it only takes a moment of contemplation to also feel what I felt then — awe, respect and humility in equal waves.

Not everyone can sidle up to elephants but there is evidence from around the world that nature is a part of people’s sense of self and an integral part of what constitutes well-being.

This is not so easy to feel in our increasingly virtual world where success is a synonym for well-being and measures of progress are mostly economic.

We report the monetary economy and use its growth as a core indicator for doing well individually and collectively. As Judith Schleicher and Bhaskar Vira recently point out, even the alternative measures of poverty and well-being still ignore the environment and there is growing evidence that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.

The rhetoric here is that it is the poor who suffer most from this failure to account for nature, especially those who depended on nature for a living. And the implication is that this is somehow immoral or at the very least unfair.

We have also tried the valuation and commodification of nature in an attempt to squeeze nature into the economic metrics — capture the externalities and we can balance the books.

But both of these arguments miss the point.

The solution is to reconnect the billion or so people who are doing well out of capitalism, particularly the tiny percentage of these people who are appropriating most of the economic wealth, to what I felt on that sunny afternoon in the Zambezi valley when the elephant connected me to the truth.

Only then will nature matter.


You can still download my ‘How to love nature when you live in the city’ tips free from Smashwords.

 

 

 

Whoops, no more Pleistocene

Whoops, no more Pleistocene

You may not be aware of this but we are living in a new geological epoch. It is called the Anthropocene.

This is actually quite momentous because there have not been many epochs to date; just eight in 66 million years. On average one every 8 million years. So to be alive when one starts is remarkable.

Epochs are a subdivision of geological time used for more recent periods of geological that are well defined by the fossil record.

This brand new one has our name on it. Geologists have decided that the Holocene has ended because humans have altered enough global processes in the oceans, land and atmosphere to warrant a new epoch. This is a big call.

Remember that the earth is huge and we are small. The volume of ocean water alone could swallow us all in an instant and may well do this to our coastal cities. So to say that humans have done enough in a little over 10,000 years — before this time there were only a few of us wandering around doing what other mammals were doing — to create a new geological time period is remarkable.

Global atmospheric, ocean and landform generating processes altered by a single species of primate. Really?

Of course, the division of the distant past into discrete periods is a human invention, a way to section geological history into units to make life easier for geologists. It helps them explain unfathomable lengths of time and to generate details that high school students must memorise. No surprise then that we chose to name one after ourselves.

It is the ultimate recognition of our success.

Human ingenuity and skill are now so pervasive it has changed the way the planet works. We have become the ultimate ecosystem engineer. It is a proud and, dare I say, noble achievement. As the bible says “take dominion” and this we have done.

We have fulfilled our own prophecy.

Right to vote

Right to vote

Throughout most of human history, democracy was not the norm. People were governed and told what to do in systems of focal control by kings, lords, chiefs, dictators or a single political ideology. Individuals had little say and even less choice.

The majority of people who have lived could not vote for anything. They just did what they were told or face stern consequences. Casting a ballot without retribution is a recent gift from democracy.

A cursory glance at history should be motivation enough to get down to the voting booth. Yet here we are, a few hundred years into the experiment of democratic freedom, and Australia, a safe, open, and multicultural nation forces its citizens into the ballot box. For the roughly 15 million registered voters in Australia, voting is compulsory.

At every Federal and State election if citizens fail to cast a vote they get a fine. Australia gives its people the right to vote and then punishes them if they fail to exercise that right.

Not surprisingly, Australia tops the table for voter turnout in national elections at around 95% of registered voters.

Surely this stick of compulsion is not necessary.

A free vote is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Citizens must know how important the right to vote is to their sense of self. They must know that many before them have sacrificed everything to make it so.

I’m curious to know why compulsory voting came in. Was there a run of lowly turnouts? Maybe it was because a forced engagement with the political process would encourage greater attention to it.

Most likely it was a government who figured out that they had a better chance of retaining power if everybody voted because most of the previous no-shows would vote for them. This would be classic Muppetville logic.

If politics was relevant and those elected were in touch with voters if politicians were courageous and led the way, if there was confidence in leadership, then there would be no need for a fine.

In the US where the privilege of democracy is entirely voluntary, voter turnout languishes at less than half of registered voters.

I wonder what the 100 million plus no shows think about their lethargy after 100 days of their ginger topped POTUS.

Where does life take you?

Where does life take you?

My youngest son has just taken a trip to London on a one-way ticket. It’s a brave move and even though he only intends to be away from Australia for a year, I recall leaving the UK for Zimbabwe with a similar intention 30 years ago. I’m still to make my way back for anything more than a holiday.

Once you step out into life, there is no telling where it will take you. This is a challenging realisation for a parent. When your son exists the departure lounge the mixed feelings of pride and loss are excruciating.

Through the wonders of Whatsapp we heard from the intrepid traveller a few days into his sojourn. His most acute initial observation was that if a beer is over five quid a pint and most casual work pays less than a tenner an hour, London is expensive.

Indeed it is, although by the beer and minimum wage metrics, probably no more so than Sydney. It’s just that on your own in a new country such sums take on a whole new meaning.

Already his initial plan, which was to find casual work after first having a look around, is fast-tracked. Some of the looking will have to wait. Apparently, a Scottish cousin might have some work in Wales.

And there it is. Life is already taking him in new directions after just a few days. It really does make you smile.

My own journey from a childhood in London to the quaintness of Norwich via Zimbabwe, Botswana, and suburban Sydney to my longest residency the Blue Mountains of NSW makes me smile too. It wasn’t planned especially. It had ambition at times, frustrations aplenty, and a vague logic that joins up the thread, yet really it was just a willingness to let the universe decide.

It is worth doing that I think. Be courageous enough to by the one-way ticket, then, all you need is the belief in what the world can offer.

As for the lad, nothing doing in Wales yet but a bedsit and barista work in Shoreditch, that is, apparently, a really happening place.