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.

Ideas that persist

Ideas that persist

Nor, considered aright, does it seem any argument in favor of the gradual extinction of the Sperm Whale, for example, that in former years (the latter part of the last century, say) these Leviathans, in small pods, were encountered much oftener than at present, and, in consequence, the voyages were not so prolonged, and were also much more remunerative. Because, as has been elsewhere noticed, those whales, influenced by some views to safety, now swim the seas in immense caravans, so that to a large degree the scattered solitaries, yokes, and pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies. That is all. And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This quote is from a fictional account published in 1851. I get that.

Except that I can’t help feeling that this passage reflects how Melville thought about this issue. He had been to sea of course, as a merchantman and on a whaling voyage, so he had first-hand experience with months of time to talk and explore what other mariners knew about the sea and its fish. Somewhat cutely, whales were fish back then.

Melville chose to ignore the evidence as many a purveyor of fiction is want to do, and refashion it. He used spin in a novel.

Or did he?

The ideas that actions of hunting could deplete such animals on unfathomably large oceans defied logic to the Victorian generation. It just could not be possible. The evidence of obvious depletion, reduced distribution, lower contact rates and changed behaviours, just did not fit the worldview.

In ‘Awkward News’ there is a passage reflecting a similar thought in the minds of early settlers to Australia. Here so vast an expanse of country lay before the first, second, third and even subsequent generations of rural folk that no amount of vegetation clearing could ever deplete it.

It is a though there is something in our DNA that programs us to ignore the possibility that resources could ever be in short supply. We seem to have to believe that resources are infinite.

This helps us in two ways.

A belief in every renewable resource buffers us from the fear of lack. This is a powerful base fear, for starvation is a slow and emotionally painful death.

It also allows us moral latitude for actions that deplete resources, especially pertinent in the case of whaling that was a brutal culling of wild sentient creatures for commercial gain. If the belief is that taking a few whales does little or nothing to their long-term survival as a species it mollifies the obvious brutality of killing individual animals slowly with harpoons and lances.

Same idea with bulldozers and chains. Removal of native vegetation is justified because there is plenty more of it across the horizon.

Jump forward 160 years and the demand for natural resources has increased beyond what could have been imagined in the 1800’s. We don’t need whale oil anymore and, for the most part, whales are back in the stomping grounds of their ancestors if not quite in the same numbers as before.

We do need land though. Water too. And space to live and recreate in. The world has shrunk perceptibly with technology able to whisk us over the ocean at speeds and distances that the old whalers would have defiled as some evil magic.

Yet that DNA is still expressed.

Many of us continue to believe that resources are either infinite or if, for some bizarre reason, a resource is used up, our technological ingenuity will conjure up a replacement that is better and more profitable.

Whatever we do those base fears of lack are still there. They persist and our emotional response remains to ignore them or refuse to believe that their realities will ever be realised.

It should be a sobering thought. Only our response is to thrust our heads in the metaphorical sand and hope that that nagging feeling will go away.

When we look up again all is well because, for sure, “some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle”.

Overshoot day

Overshoot day

Overshoot day is the day in the year when human activities have used up the amount of the Earth’s natural resources that can be renewed within one year.

Ideally this is sometime in very late December or better still, January, February or later in the in the subsequent year. Overshoot day celebrated then would mean we are either in balance or slightly ahead using less resources than are renewed each year. This was pretty much true up to the late 1960’s.

In 2017 overshoot day was 2nd August.

This leaves another 151 days left in the year to keep everyone going on resources not renewed within the year. We are using up credit, reserves of resources that sit in the renewable pool.

There is more bad news if you are Australian. Our Aussie lifestyle chews up more resources than most. If everyone lived like us then overshoot day arrives on 12th March, almost half a year earlier.

Put another way, if everyone lived the Aussie lifestyle, we would need 5.2 Earths worth of renewable natural resources per year. And if we all had the British stiff upper lip or Italian suits, then it would be 3.0 Earths.

This is a serious problem folks. I mean it. We are overextended taking up at least a third more than is renewed. It is like having a salary of $100 a week and spending $130 a week. It is only sustainable for as long as your savings or credit card allows.

Aussies should be ashamed that they are the most profligate being ahead even of the Americans (5.0 Earth’s in their case); not that finger pointing helps. All the wealthy people in the world are collectively living on credit. We are borrowing from the pool of reserves without an ability to pay back in. The risk in this transaction is not secured against any collateral other than the technology mantra.

In natural resources terms, buy now, pay later, becomes use now, worry about shortages later. And it could become use now, deal with collapse later.

If laboratory rats run out of food they get hungry, then they fight each other, and then they eat each other.

It is ugly.

Our system of credit, supply chains, and technology applied to renewable resources will buffer us for a while. It is why we don’t feel shortages or, indeed, hunger for those of us living on $100 plus a day (a little under $50,000 a year before tax).

It is also why we buffered this system after the GFC even though we knew it was built on sand and so much of the extra credit promised ended up in just a few pockets. We should pay much more attention to all this. But I digress, here is the key message.

Overshoot day is the most important day of the year. If we are smart, less greedy and less fearful we could even make it a biannual celebration.

So when you are pondering your New Year’s resolutions and reflecting on another year lodged into history, with full stomachs and the lingering indigestion of Christmas cheer, spare a thought for the day in 2018 when we overshoot our renewable resources for another year.