Dust storm over Sydney

Dust storm over Sydney

When the wind blows hard from the south-west it can get murky in Sydney. Dust is picked off paddocks across the vast inland and carried way away from where it belongs fouling the air for Sydneysiders as it goes.

The wind was blowing this week when I went to visit colleagues in Mildura, an outback town in northern Victoria right on the border with NSW. The countryside around the town donated at least some of the dust that reached Sydney. I saw it happen.

Bare soil frisked up and spat skyward at the corners of paddocks is quite a sight. Immediately you say, “Good on ya, Mildura. Giving it up for Australia” without any hint of sarcasm. At least that’s what the Qantas lady at the information desk said when she found out I had just visited her hometown. She really thought it was a good thing even as the wind and dust played havoc with her companies flight schedule.

How can this be?

A schoolkid should know that topsoil blowing up into the sky is not a good thing at all. It is expense and potential for production leaving the land for the ocean contaminating the air as it goes. The farmer is in despair. He just spent a fortune on fertilizer and a lot of that nutrient left too.

It is dry in the outback just now, with drought conditions declared for most of NSW. Without rain, it is hard to keep the ground cover that holds onto the soil unless the farmer plans well in advance and takes care to choose the right cover crop and grazing regime. The blanket over the soil needs to roll out early, otherwise production declines and with it income. It is a perennial problem in drought-affected areas.

What would it take for the Qantas staffer to instinctively say “Oh no, that’s not good. Those poor farmers”?

Or better still, “Oh no, that’s not good. Why can’t the farmers put on a cover crop”?

This should be everyone’s immediate response.

Whilst topsoil careering off into the Tasman Sea is a natural process of erosion that has whittled Australia down for millions of years, it hampers the production of crops and livestock. Speeding upwind erosion by leaving fields bare just makes it worse.

And so one of this year’s great ironies rounds off this conundrum. On the flight, the cabin crew member announces that Qantas will match all donations up to $1 million for drought affected farmers.

Perhaps they could spend some of the funds on an awareness program.

Rational meaning

Rational meaning

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

This is the world we live in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it will rain again. It always does.

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

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

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

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

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

So here is the thought on rational meaning…

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

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

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

Optimist

Optimist

My friend is an optimist with prostate cancer. He is in his eightieth year and given that he felt healthy, played golf every day, and had no obvious symptoms, had to think long and hard before deciding to undergo the debilitating treatment that is chemotherapy.

He is also an inspiration. Few would accept and respond to such a difficult emotional challenge of deliberately poisoning your own body because someone else told you it was necessary with the grace and magnanimity that he has shown not just at first when the whole thing is raw, but every time you see him. The good days and the bad are greeted with a spark of clarity and thanks to his god.

The other day another of my golfing buddies brought John over for a yarn and a cold one. The three of us sat for an hour, or maybe two, talking our usual nonsensical theories on how best to hit a small round object forward in a straight line, with the occasional digression into politics and a shot at the breeze. Meaningless drivel among old blokes is truly one of life’s pleasures.

At one point we got onto the environment and from there to my own latest incarnation supporting evidence-based policy. John was enthralled and then effusive. Trying to put accessible finance into the hands of landholders was the best idea he had heard in years. He was genuinely excited.

As you can already tell, John is a ‘half full glass’ type of person, a genuine optimist. Indeed, for him, the optimism and evidence conundrum does not exist to the point his glass brims over not from an excess of positivity but from putting things in their rightful place.

That he found my ideas exciting was the most encouraging thing I’d experienced for a very long time. Most days I face naysayers, antagonists and straight up enemies. I have even begun to wonder if there was any liquid at all in people’s glasses for most are not just negative they are downright aggressive towards our ideas to better understanding the management of natural resources.

Before I get too carried away though, it is true that old men drivel and mates are prone to both rib and big each other up to excess. Most of the greatest ever golf shots known to man have happened on a Sunday afternoon at Springwood Country Club. Only this seemed very different. Maybe it was the chemo or the beer or some hokey pokey between the two but what I felt was level-headed enthusiasm. A point of truth had been made.

I have known for a while that with our afterbefore thinking we are onto something.

The combination of ecological research evidence and counterfactual scenarios, all hanging about in the cloud, can make a difference. Whether we do it or not, critical decisions on sustainable production and future food security will increasingly use more evidence and less gut feel.

So thank you, John. Thank you for being one of the very few to genuinely see what needs to be done and if not by me or by afterbefore, then by someone, soon.

And may that clarity stay with you through your challenges for you have helped more than you know.

Brumby

Brumby

Recently I sent an email to Professor David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University, who had just resigned from the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

I don’t know David although he is a fellow scientist, ecologist and peer of sorts. He resigned because the NSW Government passed the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses, the brumby, a bill that not just goes against the Scientific Committee’s advice, it’s diametrically opposite to it.

Professor Watson’s resignation letter said he had better things to do with his time than provide advice that is ignored. Fair enough.

So my email was of support for an important personal decision by someone I don’t know and, for me, that is not something that happens every day.

So why reach out?

Well, the Committee had a draft determination to list wild horses as a Key Threatening Process. This means that there is sufficient scientific evidence that feral horses have a detrimental effect on native plants, animals and ecological communities, especially in alpine regions. In other words, horses are a degradation driver contributing to biodiversity loss.

Horses are like many other exotic species, they are not compatible with the objectives of protected areas. Instead, they make it much harder to protect native species because they are an unusual disturbance, one that the native plants and animals have not evolved alongside. In this instance grazing and hard-hooved trampling that alpine plants in Australia had not previously been subjected to in their recent evolution.

Think about this reality for a moment.

Everywhere that humans go they introduce species. Many of these introductions bring an evolutionary pressure not previously or at least recently present in the native communities of plants and animals. It changes the balance of evolutionary and ecological pressures. Some species benefit, for others, existence and reproduction can become more difficult. In time they are predated, eaten or competed out of the mix.

If the NSW Scientific Committee were looking at listing feral horses as a threatening process, this means there is enough research evidence that wild horses are doing this in NSW national parks, enough to see some native plants and animals at greater risk of extinction than before.

The bill, however, legislates for protection of wild horses. Passing the bill means NSW will have an Act to protect a key driver of biodiversity loss alongside a Biodiversity Act that is supposed to protect native plants and animals from the very same drivers.

It seems very odd to be so contrary, even for politicians. So why do it? It is politics of course.

Many of the wild horse in NSW occur in national parks in bellwether electorates. Seats that often swing hard at state and Federal elections and politics is sensitive just now, perhaps more so than for a while. NSW is about to enter an election, the Federal government has by-elections to worry about and is not long off its own visit to the polls. Then there is the more general turmoil around the world making a mockery of the neo-liberal political norms we have just gotten used to. The politics of horses becomes about those folk who like them for the frontier icon of rural solidity that, to many, they have always been. No matter that they trample a few native plants under-hoof. At this time the sensibility falls towards those folk with an Akubra and a whip and not the dreadlocked ones.

Unfortunately for Professor Watson, his understandable stand for sense over sensibility will only be a gesture, more important to him than anyone else. This is despite the fact that the government has just made a law to protect a driver of biodiversity loss.

It’s all desperate… and rather sad.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

Human beings continue to make illogical decisions that hasten the collapse of the natural world that supports us. Most of us die.

After several hundred years, with only a few million humans reduced to ancient style hunting, gathering and skirmishing, nature shows signs of recovery with greenery more verdant than before and wildness returning to the earth.

After a thousand years, the humans have settled into a less prolific growth cycle than before, perhaps learning from their own ancient history.

A new normal has emerged that allows evolution a bit more space to breath. New species evolve to fill the gaps left empty by the millions of species that humans eradicated.

Nature recovers from the sixth mass extinction just as it recovered from the previous five. It takes time of course, but that is nature.

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?