Values again

Values again

What do you value most?

Your loved ones, your health, Sheba the cat, your favourite cashmere jumper or even, perhaps, your screen time.

If you think about it, even for a moment, lots of things are likely to be on your list of valuables.

Alloporus has discussed this kind of thing before. And in thinking about how we perceive value, concluded that value is always relative and personal.

The question here is how far down the list of things we value is nature?

You know, all the plants, animals, hills and streams, the flowers that bloom and bees that buzz, the cute and the cuddly, and even the icky bugs and slugs, together with all the vitality that they bring.

I side with’ is a website aimed at increasing voter engagement in issues of the day. It’s ‘popular issues’ page lists 100 most popular issues filtered from, they claim, a million unique survey answers per day.

When I had a look at the site a few months ago, just 8% of the issues listed were nominally about the environment and none were directly about nature (note that this is an active polling site, so the current lists may differ substantively).

‘Environmental regulation’ makes the front page but you have to scroll down to find ‘mining water use’, and further still to ‘foreign land ownership’, ‘plastic product ban’, and ‘nuclear energy’. Way down the list we get ‘whaling’, ‘fracking’, ‘GMO foods’, ‘coal seam gas’, and ‘nuclear waste’.

More popular than environmental regulation when I looked were equal pay, gay marriage, abortion, mandatory vaccinations, terrorist citizenship, LGBT adoption rights, and welfare drug testing.

Let’s just pause a moment for this to sink in.

Nature, the cornucopia of organisms, services and wonder that gives us clean air, fresh water, food, and any number of raw materials that collectively provide us with the opportunity to contemplate values, does not make the list of 100 most popular issues of the day.

This is not an isolated finding.

Nature languishes way down on many lists of environmental issues even though aspects of nature are implicit in so many of our most acute challenges, not least in providing solutions.

Somewhere along the way we have become so disconnected from what nature does for us that we do not even think it is important.

This is quite remarkable.

I’m going to give in to my incredulity and harp on this one.

Our collective term for the very thing that sustains us, the place we evolved into and shaped our characters, beliefs and our psyche, is not even on our intellectual or moral radar.

Let’s just consider one of the things that happens in nature each and every moment of every day and what would happen if it stopped.

Decomposition is the process by which complex organic material is broken down into its constituent parts. These chemicals become available for recycling by plants back into organic matter or, if you like, food for heterotrophs including people. Bacteria, fungi and a host of invertebrates in soil and leaf litter are responsible for this natural process that only keen gardeners and farmers are likely to notice.

What if decomposition stopped? In a short time we would be knee deep in dead things. None of the carcasses would smell of course because the process of decomposition releases the odorous gases of decay. Instead they would just pile up along with the dead plant material.

In dry periods the most likely outcome would be fire. A sobering proposition given the heavy fuel load of dry biomass.

But this is not the half of it.

Without nutrients there are no building blocks for plants. Once the burst from nutrient stored in the seed is over, seedlings would simply stop growing. Deciduous trees would not flush and evergreen plants would become dormant.

Photosynthesis would shut down and oxygen production would slow to a halt. Oxygen deficits would compete with starvation as the means to kill off all the animals.

In just a few months most of nature would be changed forever. Humanity would not survive.

Of course this is not going to happen because it is impossible to stop decomposition. Bacteria and fungi are way too pervasive for that.

And maybe this is it.

We believe that nature is unbreakable. It has so much built in resilience and redundancy we see it as a perpetual motion machine that can never stop.

But human actions can slow nature down by drying out soil, changing vegetation, over-exploiting the soil nutrients, reducing soil organic matter or through pollution.

Our actions also channel nature into delivering the products we need. Nature becomes fields, farms, plantations and reservoirs. Places where we convert nature into commodities. This reduces overall redundancy and resilience because so much of the energy and nutrient flows are directed into things that humans need.

We value these things of course, only not in quite the same way as we value nature. Commodities are literally valuable because we convert them into cash. Land is valuable because it can be used to generate commodities. Soon we are down with the dollar.

The reality is that the economic focus is with us, stuck like araldite to our present and future. There is no credible alternative or, more significantly, no credible way to transition to an alternative, that can give us back a focus on nature without looking through a commercial lens.

So, for now at least, we do not value nature. It’s not on our radar and that is a big problem.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

The global wheat crop is decimated by a fungal disease that is immune to all attempts to control it. After three years of next to no wheat anywhere, there is a food crisis that affects everyone, even those who shop for their food in supermarkets. No bread, no pasta, no cake and no wheat beer. All the gluten free alternatives are consumed by the rich.

In a remote part of Australia, an organic farmer called Bruce is the only producer still growing wheat. His crops remained healthy even after all his neighbours went out of business. Soon he was spending way to much time describing his methods to a succession of scientists and media. The world got into the way Bruce did things, his pasture cropping approach, his decades long attention to building soil carbon and his attention to slowing down runoff all across his landholding.

Bruce became a new kind of celebrity. He was world famous as the saviour of bread but he stayed calm and matter of fact about it all. He kept growing wheat even when there were many other easier and more lucrative options.

What did happen that nobody expected was that his style and his humility touched people. What was happening on his paddocks went viral. Everyone became aware of how important it was to grow food with empathy for nature.

Instead of ignorance and apathy people paid attention to where their food came from. They asked questions about how food was grown. Did the farmer do it like Bruce? They paid realistic prices for produce because it was obvious that cheap meant mining the nutrients and water out of the system just to break even. It was a tsunami of change.

The wheat cropping system recovered but the health benefits of going without wheat meant that most consumers stayed with alternatives.

What happened though was that organic became mainstream because everyone now knew it was about carbon and not yoga and dreadlocks.

Probability

Probability

If a coin is tossed in the air, caught and flipped onto the back of the hand, most people know that there is a 50% chance of calling ‘heads’ and getting it right.

Some will also know that no matter how many times the coin is tossed, and whatever previous sequence of heads and tails has occurred, the probability of calling heads on the next toss and getting it right is still 0.5 or 50%

Alloporus contends that this is about as far as it goes.

Not many of us understand any more of the whys and wherefores of probability than the likelihood of calling head and getting it right, notwithstanding the few who take to the racing tracks. That so many others push coins into slot machines is a bit of a give away. No pun intended.

The next step on the ladder of probabilities requires intuition and so is rather hard to learn.

Suppose I have a group of 100 people.

I know that 50 of them have Irish grandparents and the other half have Scottish grandparents but there is no way of knowing the recent ancestry of an individual without asking them.

I select 10 people at random from the 100 in the room and 8 of them tell me that they have Irish heritage.

I’m expecting it to be 5 but chance can always throw things off a little. Picking just two Scots is unexpected but not impossible.

I select another 10 people at random.

Should my expectation of finding five Irish folk be the same as it was at the start?

Of course, it depends.

If I return my first 10 people to the room to resume their canapes and conversation and I select another 10 people entirely at random with no bias towards those I have already asked, then the answer is yes.

But if I send the first 10 individuals out into the carpark and sample the remaining 90 people at random then the answer is no.

Because by sending the first 10 away (sampling without replacement), I have changed the proportion of Scots in the remaining population of the room. It’s only a small amount but its no longer a 50:50 chance because the proportions of Scots to Irish is now 53:47

Hardly material to any future results. However, if I continue to sample a small population without replacement the proportional change due to my random process of sampling could affect future interpretations. Sample 30 more people and if 20 of them are Scots before we know it its a majority of kilt wearers munching on the salmon pate.

There are any number of thoughts that this simple example should generate from thinking about political poll numbers to whether or not another spin on the pokies is really worth the gamble.

Here is one that may not be at the front of mind.

It’s a truism that most of us do not get probability. My recent ‘ah ha’ moment made me realise that this ‘not getting it’ is pervasive and prevalent even among the technical folk who have been trained in it.

And people don’t get a bit of probability, it’s an all or nothing type understanding. You got the idea behind sampling with replacement not changing the likelihood of sampling a Scot or you didn’t. And it seems that if you didn’t that’s quite OK because, in all probability, you are in the vast majority.

So the thought is this.

How on earth are humans so successful when most of them do not understand chance?

Quantitative

Quantitative

For me ‘ah ha’ moments fall into one of two types. There are the ‘oh why didn’t I think of that before’ kind of ah ha’s that tickle the brain when they happen but often fade into the nether regions of forgetfulness soon after.

Then there are the real ‘ah ha’s’, the kind that are arresting, stick around, and may even shift my perception of the world.

Recently I experienced one of the latter, a real doozy.

In a meeting with colleagues who, between them, had over a 100 years of environmental experience I realised that none of them understood numbers. They did not think quantitatively.

It worth taking a moment to absorb this observation. Eight experienced professionals who most would describe as technical experts, all with a tertiary education and many years of practice with problem solving in land management, native vegetation and agriculture, were not thinking numerically.

Few of them would admit to this of course. They’ll pour over spreadsheets, examine graphs and even contemplate statistics alongside the best of their ilk, but deep down they are not thinking numbers.

Instead they shift words and documents around. They think in the language of processes and procedures not likelihood, rates, and difference.

As many a post on this blog attests, my brain handles proportions and probabilities.

However, I am not especially mathematical, and often lament a lack of fluency in that language. But limited math literacy does not stop me thinking numbers. I’ll see a proportion and instantly ask “proportion of what, a thousand or a million?” In my head 20% of 10 is not the same as 20% of 1,000,000 when it’s, let’s say, greenhouse gas emissions. There is materially in the latter number even though the proportions are the same. It seems impossible not to do this numerical reality checking when faced with the variability in space and time of the matters environmental people are interested in.

But there it was, plain as a binomial distribution. My colleagues were not quants. When they relaxed into an innate thinking state, they did not see the world quantitatively.

Now before the trolls get too upset, this ‘ah ha’ is not about belittling or downgrading all the feeling thoughts, the creative thinker or even the normative types. All problems are best tackled with a variety of thought processes and the best answers do not always come from understanding a likelihood. What got me was that the quantitative type was not in the very building you would expect to find it.

For a scientist, researcher and one time lecturer in biostatistics this is a hard one to fathom. The question still bouncing around like a subatomic particle is why? There is no obvious reason, other than the peculiar quirks of chance, that none of these people were quantitative.

Only they were not and soon the consequences started to come up. Any talk of likelihood, rates, and difference would not be fully understood without explanations and time to digest what the numbers mean.

It would not be possible to just present a graphic and assume that everyone would understand any obvious pattern, let alone the nuance.

In short, my colleagues were not going to have an easy handle on inference.

This is a huge deal. If the people who are closest to the facts as they play out in the real world do not get the numbers, the same people who support decisions around sustainability and the trade-offs with natural resource use… Well, there is a good chance we are in muppetville all over again.

Ah ha.

Empathy

Empathy

Suppose you are a die hard Manchester United fan. You have been in this manic state since you first kicked a ball around the living room in your diapers. It’s baffling why Manchester United is the club that captured your undying soccer loyalty given there are numerous top grade clubs within spitting distance of your childhood home, however, you cannot question it for the feeling resides somewhere deep and unexplainable.

Along with this love of the Red Devils comes a dislike, some might even say hatred, for the club that plays at a ground just 6 km distant and wears sky blue. Your ire rises higher at any mention of jokers from other towns, Liverpool especially.

Now this rivalry with the opposition is no doubt part of the deep and unexplainable. It has something to do with the limbic requirement to compete and win.

Along with this genetic programming, nurture has imbibed you with the essence of local culture, defined your broader allegiance, and provided you with an accent. Who can even understand what those scousers are saying?

I’m sure you are with me so far, at least in principle.

You may not be a soccer tragic or reside in north-west England, but I guarantee there is something you are passionate about to your core. A tumult in your soul that has no apparent explanation.

Importantly, such passion is never truly extinguished. Sure it wanes, but come finals day or a beer around the barbecue, and the old passion reignites like a bushfire in a breeze.

Like it or not, admit it or not, tribal affiliation makes you feel good.

This is because the tribe has two highly desirable traits. First the tribe covets your loyalty, cares for it and protects it to your benefit. This becomes a delicious positive loop. The more you feel wanted the stronger the tribe and the stronger the tribe the more loyalty you relinquish.

The second highly desirable trait is that there are always other tribes.

So just as your loyalty is rewarded with warm feelings of belonging and place, so the tribe tests its mettle and your allegiance with rivalries.

And herein lies the ancient human condition as recognisable 3 million years ago as it is at Old Trafford on a Saturday. We love a good stoush.

In our modern, supposedly enlightened times, it is no longer necessary to attack Liverpool FC supporters, leave them for dead, capture their womenfolk, steal their pigs and eat all the yams in their grain store. It is sufficient to chant abuse from the stand and laugh when their striker scuffs his shot wide. But rivalry is crucial to the tribe. It feeds the loyalty process and without it the warm feelings are much harder to maintain.

Crucially this necessity for rivalry builds more than aggressive contempt. It is not admissible to speak these other thoughts because they are easily misinterpreted, but at some level you have respect for those scouser scum. They are, after all, tribalists like you. They are misguided in their choice of allegiance, deranged even, and yet without another tribe of near equal size and passion what would be the benefit in winning any encounters. Crushing minnows ultimately depletes loyalty.

Thankfully there they are on the terraces, giving back as good as they get, and always rendering that god awful song about walking. Curiously they are wearing the same clothes as you. They are as overweight and unfit as you, and, hey, isn’t that Bob from accounting?

In short, you empathise with the opposition support because you need them and because you recognise their image in the mirror.

The same thing applies to all other tribal rivalries that humans have invented. In the violent conflicts any empathy has wilted or died invoking a chicken and egg explanation. But in many others the empathy is still there and may even be the reason there is restraint.

One of these intense rivalries is over the environment.

Not the grab for land, water and oil that is at the core of many, perhaps all, wars but the rivalry that exists even in stable nations with well defined and uncontested territories.

On one side there are various tribes with members willing to hug trees or stare down bulldozers to protect the lesser spotted owlet even as the greater spotted owlet numbers increase to previously unknown heights.

In opposition are tribes with members in hi-vis vests or business suits who have never even seen an owlet.

This rivalry is ostensibly about the consequences of resource use. More strictly, who should get the benefit from exploiting natural resources or wear the opportunity costs of parsimony.

The consequences of resource use are real enough, far more so than the winning or not of 3 points towards the title race and a few months worth of bragging rights. Any human exploitation of natural resources alters the flows of energy and nutrients through the environment either directly – log a forest and habitat is changed or last altogether – or indirectly – burn coral and the climate changes.

Green tribes hate this outcome.

Brown tribes hate this outcome too mainly because it fuels green tribes out to stop them. Usually those with a development focus feel so strongly about the need for resource use to fuel the economic engine that they don’t even notice the consequences for future resource use let alone any undesirable externalities.

The trouble is that the green tribes have to get their hemp and their biofuels from somewhere in the environment. Every human leaves a footprint in the sand.

Equally the brown tribe members know that even though ‘a tree converted to dollars invested in the stock market’ is a well trodden road to wealth, on this road there are potholes, oncoming traffic and, heaven forbid, fuel shortages. Heavy boots do some real damage.

The kernel of empathy exists in these contradictions.

It comes through admitting that even the off grid, eco-home, tiny house still has a footprint and that with over 15 billion human feet on the planet, the tiny house option cannot be for everyone. It also comes from the notion held among some resource users that maintaining a resource for the long haul can be a better economic outcome given the resource is still there to be used.

Many also know that the environment always offers renewable solutions.

Then we have the option of incentivising resource use actions that limit the undesirable outcomes using the language of the economic tribe to change behaviour. We pay resource users to be careful. A weird compromise position that partly neutralises the conflict.

Here, then, is the thought.

When you next find yourself in a tribal situation, and this will probably be sooner than you think, look for the empathy. Try to find that connection with the rival that you know makes them just like you.

Should this situation have something to do with the environment and the empathy feel just can’t be seen, look harder, for empathy is there hiding behind the entrenched positions.

Dams

Dams

A decision is made to dam a modest sized river In the foothills near a big coastal city. The city is growing and water security is regularly a hot political topic as the area is prone to drought.

Construction on the dam wall begins in 1948 and on its completion the wall creates a lake with the capacity to hold a little over 2,000 Gigalitres of accessible water.

When the dam was completed the city was home to 1.8 million people. Today there are over 5 million inhabitants and the lake remains the primary source of freshwater for these people and their economic activities.

Downstream of the dam the floodplain has become an important area of agricultural and peri-urban development. The dam protects against flooding and the planners have allowed people to live in previously inundated areas. The dam not only holds a large proportion of the water supply to the city it also protects built and commercial assets from flooding.

When the engineers say that the dam wall could be raised by 14m, what do you think the planners will do?

Naturally, they will allow greater access to land on the floodplain, most likely by releasing some areas for residential development. It is a growing city after all.

In the planning meeting some wag says that it will all be alright because the climate is changing “It will be drier anyway, so no worries”.

This comment goes unchallenged despite the evidence for increased storm frequency and intensity in the region, and the obvious connection between this and major flood events.

Here is a hint with a biblical origin.

Don’t buy a house on a floodplain…. especially downstream of a dam.

Post revisited – Peeled potatoes

Post revisited – Peeled potatoes

In Monty Python’s infamous movie Life of Brian the masses lament their lot and decry “What have the Romans ever done for us?” only slowly realizing it was just about everything that made life livable.

This was, of course, a satirical stab at the economic system, the one everyone moans about all the time for its addiction to growth, our slavery to it, and the fact that it is so sacred that no one can touch it.

This post from 2011 begins with a similar lament but ends up somewhere else…

Peeled potatoes

In our world of doing it all easy, the latest labour saving option in the kitchen is pre-peeled potatoes.

What an outstanding idea. No need to whip out the peeler and waste time or get mud on your fingers. No more peels to get rid of and litres of water are saved from not having to clean off the grubby bits.

What, you are kidding!

How lazy can we get? It takes no effort at all to peel a potato or two. This has to be consumerism gone mad. ABC radio host Richard Glover thought so and created a funny skit to point out the craziness.

Only there are a couple of things.

First thing. An inevitable consequence of a market mechanism is that new products will emerge. Whatever people will buy, whether they really need it or not, the market will provide. The market will also provide things that they hope people will buy, often well before customers recognize that they might have a need for it. In the end, if a product works for even a few of us then it may be worth manufacturing. Witness, ‘peeled spuds in nitrogen’.

Second thing. There is always an opportunity for more efficiency in they system. If the supplier of the potatoes also recycled the peels into compost, this would be useful second product from the potatoes. Very few of the customers would do this and even if they did there would be no scale benefit.

We are at the stage where every nutrient and kilo of organic material that goes back into our agricultural soils is worth the effort given that fossil fuel based fertilizers are rapidly becoming another of our limited resources.

Our system of resource use is so bloated that there are efficiencies that will help our sustainability just about everywhere. All we have to do is look. One of these efficiencies, conversion of organic waste into fertilizer, will become commonplace. As will novel ways of doing it.

The idea that the recycling happens before the product reaches the kitchen might just be one of the better ones.


In short, the market is bad unless it is efficient.

What the Romans did was create efficiency through commerce that made lives easier and more livable in the time before sanitation, antibiotics, and mass transport. And for better or worse, the market has done the same for the majority of westerners since the industrial revolution.

But for the system to deliver livability for the majority,  over time, it has to be efficient and resilient, especially in the use of resources. Resource wise, peeled potatoes might work efficiently if the peelings are actually composted and returned to the farms that produced the potatoes. Market players can clip their margins along the supply chain so long as consumers are prepared to pay a premium for pre-prepared convenience. If they are, and the peelings feed worms, all is well.

Then we find out that 40% of Australia’s banana crop never leaves the farm because the fruit is misshaped. Not even in a parallel universe is this efficient. I can see Minions crying at the piles of rotting yellow.

We also know that wealth is increasingly concentrated because this is also how the market works. Money and resources churn but the clip ends up in the hands of a few. This is also a criticism of the Romans and any number of subsequent empire builders that followed their example — wealth is concentrated as the masses are exploited.

Except that the Romans did a whole heap of things that kept people alive and moderately well. And, arguably, in much better shape than they were before.

Our dilemma is the same.