Winning by a landslide

Winning by a landslide

If a political party wins an election with 60% of the popular vote it is a landslide. In almost all democratic systems 60% of votes would deliver enough seats to form a government. 

If any individual candidate received 60% of the vote in her electorate she would win the seat in parliament. That seat would be considered ‘safe’ given that there is at least a 20 point margin over the nearest competitor. And likely much more if there were many candidates. A huge margin in anyone’s political language. 

Such results are rare. 

Politics is won at the margins, not with those kinds of numbers. Democratic elections are often won with less than half the vote going in favour of a single party.

I recall back in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher first came to power and we lived through her initial years of changing things up. The legacy of those changes we’ll leave for another conversation, but I remember when her government was returned for her second term the Tory party received less than 40% of the votes from the people who voted. But in the ‘first past the post’ Westminster system the Tories gained a majority in the Parliament. 

Elections for who governs us are marginal a lot of the time. 

Donald Trump was elected having lost the popular vote in the 2016 US election, but having more than a hundred more electoral college votes than his rival. Whichever way you look at it, half the people or more did not want the person or the party that was elected.

If politics is just tinkering around the edges and the fundamentals are roughly the same then the result makes little difference. If a party comes in and is unable because of the legal system to dismantle the rules and regulations and is simply providing a little bit of a tweak here and there. Not too much damage is done. 

But if we go back to divisive politics. Where electing one party over another is quite a radical change in the way that the world is run. And the way that the country or jurisdiction is run then those margins make a big difference. 

It means that nearly half or over half in some instances of the people will not be happy with those in power. 

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash


Engagement with politics matters

All this should encourage political awareness.

If you want your party and the principles that they support to win elections, then it’s time to get out and about and make them happen, engage in the political process and perhaps that will be part of the future story. 

But what it also means is that whoever loses, there is still a large number of people who support the losing side and don’t agree with the way that the politics is run. 

So the convergence of ideas is an important stability factor for societies. If we are to be stable over the long run when we need to have a convergence of ideas and an ability to ensure that everybody benefits from those ideas. 

Back to Thatcher again, and you can argue that she changed things up at a time when a change was required. She took advantage of the opportunity to bring to an end the period when socialist reform had run its course. 

A new idea was needed to energise the economy. 

We’re in the same situation again. The legacy of that neoliberal idea that began in the 1980s is now old and tired. And whilst it’s created wealth it’s also created disparity. The super-wealthy have appreciated the bulk of the gain and the trickle-down effect runs out of steam before the poorest benefit.

We are close to the wealth disparity present at the time of the early socialist revolutions when the people were much poorer than the elite. 

Floodwaters of the Okavango River soaking into the sand

Floodwaters of the Okavango River soaking into the sand — Photo by Alloporus


Engagement with the future 

The pandemic presents an opportunity.  

We already have governments doing u-turns on fiscal deficits, locking down whole communities, and fast-tracking vaccines that used to take years to deploy. 

That suggests that radical options should be very much on the table.  Some of the sacred cows we’ve been sold are not as holy as imagined. 

If money can be spent to shore up livelihoods in a crisis, why not all the time? A universal basic income perhaps?

The opportunity is to reflect on the future. What it could, might or is likely to be like. Where humans have the advantage over all other creatures is that we can not only gaze into the future but we can do things to shape that future.

We could inject another paradigm into global politics and global economic structures. And given the juggernauts coming down the road, such a shift is critical. 

The pandemic has already shown us that we can change paradigms and still survive. 

And recall that winning big is not always necessary. 

Change can happen at the margins.


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Hero image of Thatcher’s Rock Green, Ilsham Marine Drive, Torquay, UK by Jack French on Unsplash 

Will financial history repeat like bad shellfish?

Will financial history repeat like bad shellfish?

Hero image by Zlaťáky.cz on Unsplash

It has been 30 years since the 1987 stock market crash that pulled the carpet from under any number of brash high-fliers of the day. Many analysts have compared the precursors of that momentous day to the current conditions in overvalued stock and real estate markets around the world.

The main point seems to be that money is no longer real.

It has been a long time since gold, the hard precious metal, was held in reserve to match with the currency issued. Today 90% of the world’s cash is electronic and unconstrained by the need for a gold standard so central banks print the stuff by the trillions. They did this to save the system after the 2008 financial crisis and have just kept going ever since, with no obvious slowdown.

The global debt load is now three times greater than it was at the turn of the century and grows by staggering sums each year.

Source: Bloomberg 

Governments, companies and households raised $24 trillion in 2020 to offset the pandemic’s economic toll, bringing the global debt total to an all-time high of $281 trillion by the end of 2020, or more than 355% of global GDP, according to the Institute of International Finance.

Here are the gross national debt numbers for the US over a longer time period showing recovery from the impact of WW2 and then some political decisions by both Republican and Democrat presidents since the 1980’s.

Now here is the thing. 

Most of this cash has been used for speculation to give us booming stock markets, crazy house prices and, arguably, Donald Trump. 

Convention says that markets will correct, bubbles will burst, and the politics will burn. 

Or will they? 

If money is only loosely tied to material things (resources, products or services) and governments can print it at will then any correction is bailed out by more ‘printing’. Whatever it takes to ensure the economic system survives.

Why not go all out? 

Print more and more. Give citizens a basic income and do away with welfare for the unemployed. And while at it spend some more money to encourage decentralisation of people away from the big cities by subsidies to services in rural areas. 

After all, many of us just learnt to work from home. So home could be anywhere, maybe even somewhere with a kind rural outlook.

Here is my question…

If governments can mortgage the future to save economies from financial and pandemic crises why can’t they do it to stimulate an economic transition?

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When facts do not matter

When facts do not matter

A while ago the Deputy Premier of New South Wales, Australia, John Barilaro played brinkmanship with the government. He threatened to move his National Party members to the crossbench. These are the MPs who give the government a majority in the lower house, a coalition that gives Mr Barilaro the Deputy Premiership and his party a number of ministries in return for bringing 13 votes to the table to give the government a slim lower house majority of two seats.

This ‘majority making’ brings with it extraordinary bargaining power.

The National Party decided or perhaps Mr Barallaro decided, to leverage that power and threaten to remove his MPs from voting in favour of government policy. So, they’re in government and proposing to abstain from voting.

Needless to say the Liberal party leader and Premier who has 35 sitting members leveraged her power and told them to sit down and shut up.

The outcome was that Mr Barilaro backed down at the eleventh hour blowing any political credibility he had. He then chose to take a month of stress leave. His actions suggest that was a sensible choice.

What extraordinary issue brought this power play on?

Turns out that koalas were the issue. And principally the unproven ‘fact’ that koalas would go extinct in the next 50 years.

The legislation amended on the back of this non-fact, a State Environment Planning Policy known as the koala SEPP, was amended to extend the habitat that is protected for this species by listing more tree species that cannot be cleared.

Landholders must demonstrate through expert analysis that trees are not habitat for koalas and there are no koalas present in the last 18 years.

Here we have a peculiar situation.

The original facts of the matter do not exist. At the present moment in time, we do not know how many koalas there are in Australia. We do not know how many there are in New South Wales and we do not know the trend in those koala numbers.

We do know that populations fluctuate dramatically in a species that is widely distributed, is prone to certain environmental and human drivers of change, has a slow reproduction rate and is likely to be vulnerable in certain places.

We also know that koalas are often present in disturbed landscapes because the younger eucalypt trees are preferred food and we also know that when we look hard enough with the right techniques (sniffer dogs work really well), we find koalas in places that we previously thought they didn’t exist.

Not knowing how many koalas there are. Not knowing how many are being lost at any one time. Not knowing if populations are stable or simply naturally dynamic are unknowns that form the basis for the legislation.

In other words, there is no evidence that says koalas will go extinct in 50 years.

This makes the legislation itself is at best precautionary and at worst unnecessary. It is flawed in either direction. That a government would be put in jeopardy and members would flex their political muscle over such an issue tells us a lot about the current political process.

It tells us that the facts of the matter don’t really matter at all.

What matters is the political process and the benefits, or not, to individual politicians and their careers from having a stoush.

It’s time to put an end to this nonsense.

Let us all begin with the facts. Whatever the evidence is to hand and let that be at the core of any debate.

Sure, you can have your toy throws and throw them out of the cot, have ego-driven rants as part of the political process. We all need some drama and colour in our lives. What we don’t want is for these rants and raves to be based on half-truths, untruths and downright lies. That is not the democratic process.

We need to have politicians who can form governments that are presenting us facts and policy options to deal with those facts. Then we can decide the policies to support that the majority believe will be in the best interest of everyone and the well-being of our grandchildren.

Politicians must have a steady enough hand and a steady enough head that they’re prepared to look at evidence, evaluate and bring it to the table in good faith, then debate the policy options.

To be debating policy on lies and mistruth degrades the democratic process. It undermines public faith in the institution of democracy and it makes all those political players look like complete idiots.


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Getting elected to office takes sleights

Getting elected to office takes sleights

Photo by Maxim Potkin on Unsplash

Suppose that an aspiring politician wants to be elected to the US Congress. Let’s call her Florence.

She will need a certain number of votes in order to be to get across the line. In the US system it will usually end up as a two-horse race, so around 45% of the vote should be plenty. 

Florence decides that the easiest way to get those votes is to promise every single person who votes for her $10,000 into their bank accounts.

This is of course illegal as, even in the US, votes can not be bought in such a blatant way. But let’s suppose that this law is temporarily repealed and it’s possible to buy your way into office. 

Clearly, Florence has an attractive platform. 

Vote for me and I will give you ten thousand dollars. There’s a pretty good chance she will get the 45% and sail over the line. 

Now, of course, Florence does not have this kind of money and fails to deliver on the promised payments. There is uproar and dozens of lawsuits. She won’t get elected for a second term but that might not matter if just getting in was the aim.

This kind of extreme electoral brinkmanship, outrageous statements in order to get elected, is the bane of democracies. There are examples similar to the Florence gambit everywhere.

Brinkmanship

Lauren Boebert U.S. Representative for Colorado’s 3rd congressional district since 2021 owns Shooters Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, where staff members are encouraged to openly carry firearms. Boebert played the media. She gained national headlines for saying she’ll carry a gun during her term of office. 

“I am legally permitted to carry my firearm in Washington, DC, and within the Capitol complex,”

Lauren Boebert on Twitter.

Here is a picture. Look into the eyes and see the shiftiness that tells the truth. 

It is one thing to run a business that caters to customers with a certain view of the world, smart even, but to use that image to get notoriety as a congresswoman representing the people, not just those who voted for you, is unconscionable.

I don’t live in the United States and have only visited on a couple of occasions. 

I had an uncomfortable feeling when I was there. Living in such a situation where guns are a part of everyday life is hard to fathom for us fortunate folk who live in firearm free societies. 

I get it’s complicated, but waiving a right to hold arms is nothing to do with a constitution. It’s to do with one person’s rights over another and to feel better because I’m carrying a weapon that could take you out. 

The argument will always be about protection from other people who are fearful of their existence. It’s a very fascinating state of affairs. 

There are plenty of equally contentious issues — race, immigration, wages, taxes, military spending, environment… the list is long — that are ripe for brinkmanship like this. 

In a world full of stress and instant, unfiltered communication, we are all vulnerable to outrage. Politicians know this and can use it to satisfy their need for notoriety. The media know it too and give them a leg up to satisfy their own needs for attention.

Sleight of hand and word is pervasive.

Deceitful craftiness

This comment is not about gun control, the second amendment, border walls, abortion or any of the controversial issues that divide public opinion. 

It is doing whatever it takes to get the numbers, however deceitful or crafty. Manipulating the electoral system and the minds of the voters to tap their limbic responses rather than engage with our cognitive selves.

It is possible to get a handle on all of this. We can hold our politicians to account and make it much harder for them to run the populist gambit.

Here are a few simple options.

The easiest way is to force them to explain their policy agenda. Tell us in clear language how their platform is in the people’s best interest. 

Next, we can look for politicians with a shred of empathy still left in them. Give us more than division and their own ego trip.

Or we can forgive some of the narcissism if they can bring genuine ideas to the table and discuss them like kindergarten kids would do, with brutal honesty. 

This is going to be difficult. It will take diligence and effort on our part.

Make politics just about emotion and we will crash and burn. A different outcome is possible if we make politics about thought.


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Should a country be self-sufficient?

Should a country be self-sufficient?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The other day my youngest son, now in his late-twenties, was very proudly telling me how he was living within his means. He had an account for all his various bills, one for unforeseen expenses, he had his play account and… Basically, he’d bucketed his money. 

He felt he was saving and was asking what I thought would be the best type of investment given his age and where the world was going. He had of course already decided how he was going to invest in a combination of cryptocurrency, shares and eventually, his gold standard, property. 

And good on him. 

It was a proud moment for a father to hear his son getting his shit together. Particularly after several years of it looking a bit dodgy as to what would happen. 

That notion though, of living within your means, is rarely extended beyond our personal affairs. 

A COVID opportunity

The pandemic has given many people pause for thought. The time to think about their own personal means and for many, it’s been a horrific and very scary time. 

Job losses and uncertainty around income causing problems for families all around the world. 

What we haven’t done yet, but we should, is to see what this pause means for jurisdictions and countries living within their means. 

Why can’t we extend the concept to whole economies? 

The kneejerk has been to assume when COVID is over that the old normal will return, as though we’re all just desperate for it to be like it was before. You know, a life full of problems and constraints and difficulties and working all hours God sends just to pay the mortgage. As though that situation of stress is the one we want for the new business as usual. 

Meanwhile, governments rack up debt levels never before seen, not even in wartime, and whistle along as though printing money was actually what they had in mind all along.

In Australia, the politicians are desperate to return to pre-COVID neoliberalism. They are planning everything as though it’s what everyone wants, even to the point of ignoring the opportunity to ramp up structural change to energy, agriculture and what to do when the country can’t sell any more iron ore, coal or gas. 

The immediate challenge is not so much what an alternative normal should look like, more that leaders don’t seem interested in looking for alternatives. Or even imagining what those alternatives would be. And yet this is essential if we are to move forward. 

This is all at a time in human history, the first when resources do not match demand, when we’re already living way beyond planetary means. 

As one measure of this overreach, the day on which the renewable resources of the world are used up for that year has been creeping earlier and earlier for decades.

Source: Global Footprint Network 

All those severe lockdowns when most of Europe stayed at home, global travel came to an abrupt halt and tourism tanked, changed the date for overshoot day 2020 by just three weeks

Despite a pandemic slowdown we still need 1.6 planets worth of natural resources to get us all through the year.

Self-sufficiency for countries

Perhaps the numbers for earth overshoot day are too daunting. 

More realistic perhaps is to extend the personal means test to countries or jurisdictions, a city or a county for example. These smaller, more compact economic units should be easier to handle and have more autonomy than the global economy.

Attempts at country level self-sufficiency start with a mindset of wanting to live within means. This will require a shift from a growth model to something that is more about what happens if we didn’t try to live within our means. Collapse is the extreme but shortages and strife are nasty precursors. There has to be a desire to mitigate these risks.

Next would be the inventory of needs and necessities together with the current modes of delivery for goods and services. Then some thoughts on the efficiency of these modes asking what sort of changes would be required? What resources are essential, what resources are a luxury that we could easily live without? Resource use decisions would also require a focus on what is understood by well-being. 

Much of what happens in the West is unnecessary for human well-being. We are over-consuming and stressing out whilst failing to think about and utilize the resources that we have. We don’t imagine resources being the limiting factor because the only limiting factor is our desire and our greed. 

The conversation about living within means requires a shift in thinking away from what we could potentially have, the yacht and that 10-story apartment block bringing in enormous amounts of passive income to fund the luxury villa on the coast. 

Instead discuss and decide on a semblance of what we understand by well-being, especially how well-being can be enhanced by being people rather than consumers.

Self-sufficiency

Any discussion on economic self-sufficiency quickly ends up at the individual. It is self after all. 

It may be that a top down sufficiency is not possible, only from individuals can a collective living within means happen.

Bitcoin then.


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Leadership of the masses

Leadership of the masses

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Think back to October 2020, a few weeks before the US presidential election. According to the polls, the Democrats nominee has the upper hand. In a normal election cycle he would be a shoe in. Instead the media is in a frenzy in case the polls are wrong given that they fooled everyone the last time. 

There’s discussion of what would happen if the result is close and contested or the sitting president chose not to leave even if the voters said otherwise. The US is on tenterhooks and the whole world wants to know what is going to happen. 

The normally politically lazy Americans would turn out in numbers that would again favour the Democrats, however, it also means the rusted on Trump supporters will be out in force as well. 

Then a few of them took over the citadel.

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a ‘rusted on’ Trump supporter. What thinking makes a person vote for a candidate with no ethics, no morals, no substance, no empathy or sense of fairness and has broken every rule there is and got away with it? 

It’s what we used to call back in the day ‘dodgy brothers’, the kind of person you would keep well away from your daughters. 

And yet there he is, the sitting President, running a campaign of disruption and division in order to get voted back in again. Relying on that rusted on core to put him back in office. Arguably, despite the impeachment ruling, inciting them to violence and to deny the result of the democratic process.

What is it that allows that to happen? When does humanity wake up and say ‘no, this is not the kind of guy we want to lead us into our future’? 

Well the Americans did, just. But the divisions are still there, painful and as rusty as ever. 

It could be the power of the fear and loathing that exists in people prepared to back a person who will go against everything rather than build confidence, partnerships and forward thinking. There was a quote just before the election to the effect that  there is this man high on steroids and should any foreign jurisdictions be listening, to keep well away lest they spark something that they didn’t want involving red buttons. 

More scary than funny.

Leadership qualities

Leadership gets more than its fair share of posts on this blog. 

I think I’ve always assumed that we look towards leadership that is progressive and inspires confidence. Leaders pull people together so we can become more than the sum of the parts. 

Such individuals need talent, a lot of energy, commitment, and balls. It takes courage to bridge tribal divisions and innate prejudice from all sides. 

It’s much easier to be a leader who divides and conquers. This has become common practice (Trump, Johnson, Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi et al) but a relatively easy practice. The only real skill needed is to identify the points of difference between people and then just accentuate them. And you have to admit Trump knew exactly the points of difference and played them like a fiddle. 

So my vision of leadership, the egalitarian bringing people together for common cause and making the sum much more than the parts, is not everyone else’s vision of leadership. 

It seems that there are a lot of people who want ‘us against the rest’ leaders, the guy that supports me against them, whoever ‘them’ might be. 

Historically humanity has often fallen for these leaders. Us against them is the main paradigm in wars of conquest. So perhaps what’s ‘rusted on’ is our limbic requirement to fight. And you can’t fight unless there’s something recognizable to fight against. 

I can’t fight time. I can’t fight the planet even though we try. I can’t fight the weather. These are too big and brash to take on, but I can fight my brother. I can fight the neighbor. And I can certainly fight those funny dudes with their crazy religion across the water. 

And maybe I am naive to think that leadership on commonality and of gathering together is our default. It is not. Our default position is exactly what we’re witnessing around the world, the leadership of us and them. The only way that the leadership stays in office is if you have slightly more of us than of them. 

Where do we go from here?

All this begs the question of where humanity goes from here? What type of leadership is possible if everyone is battling a limbic system that wants to fight, flee or freeze?  

At one time I thought the best option was to raise awareness and move people beyond their limbic thinking. Encourage the majority to become more aware, more understanding of the consequences of their choices, and so take more responsibility, especially when they place their ballot. 

I even wrote a book about it, Missing Something, on the premise that a raised awareness would help understand all the various problems that humanity faces including political leadership. 

Self actuation is a huge challenge in itself, especially when it is so comfortable to live off basic instincts. Political leaders understand this and trigger the instinct all the time. Trump is the quintessential embodiment of the approach. He locks onto base fears and fuels them all the time. 

Other political leaders recognise the base instinct and then bend it to their own ends often through authoritarian even military methods. Humans are easily manipulated by our slavery to base instinct with the stick and the carrot. 

Just saying ‘raise awareness’ is naive. Even if it would work, making it happen is daunting and likely not possible.. 

Whilst awareness helps bring people to a heightened sense of self, we need something more. 

The leadership humanity needs to give us a reasonable chance of survival can’t rely on scented candles and incantations. We have to play a ‘Trump light’ game that latches onto limbic responses for the political leverage needed to make progressive changes. 

This sounds horribly like moving to the right rather than the centre left. I am hardening towards the draconian on some of these things. Responses to COVID-19 show that it is possible to impose strict rules on society and get away with it in the public interest. It’s a small step to a benevolent dictatorship that could tackle the equally huge issues of inequity, food security, and a stressed environment. 

The risk in forcing people into decisions that you believe they’re not capable of making due to their basic instincts getting in the way is a slip of the tongue away from control for nefarious purposes. Blink and we are in the dangerous territory of the end justifying the means. 

Horrid as it sounds, such control must be part of the conversation because the limbic system in human brains has got us this far. It will be part of what comes next.


Please have conversations about leadership and benevolent control. Whatever comes next it must be better than populism.

Historians are worried about democracy

Historians are worried about democracy

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

It is easy to forget that democracy is not a common way of doing things. 

At the end of 2020 when US citizens queued up at polling booths in record numbers, I was reminded that the right to vote is very recent in historical times. Women in the US, for example, had no such rights until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919. 

The US had seen 29 of its 45 Presidents before this vital change.

Historically, most societies were run by authoritarian regimes of one sort or another that limited personal freedoms. Democracy, that so many of us take for granted, is actually a mid to late 20th-century phenomenon and by no means universal. 

Here is one metric of democracy over time, the Polity scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy).

number of democratic counties over time

By Ultramarine at en.wikipedia – Own workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

In short, democracy has risen exponentially since the 1800s.

Remarkable as this trend is, many historians know how fragile democracy might be in a modern world.

Democracy is fragile

The dangers to democracy have been around for some time, think how close Donald Trump came to shattering it in the US, and the warning signs, the historians argue, are 

  • the spread of misinformation 
  • inequality 
  • the politics of internal enemies and 
  • politically motivated violence. 

Misinformation

The spread of misinformation is just about everywhere. 

Anybody with a smartphone can record a video on any topic, put it up on Tick-Toc and before you know it, can be peddling all sorts of information that they claim is the truth about anything. All with little or no justification. 

Traditional media, driven by the requirement for clicks, do a similar thing. Jumping on whatever they believe will keep their audience interested and not very much to do with whether or not the information is correct or truthful.

We now know that misinformation is a powerful political weapon and despite the impeachment of a president is hard to diffuse.

Instant access and weak filtering by consumers mean that truth from fiction will be forever contentious. 

We are stuck with it. 

Inequality

Inequality has always been a challenge for society. 

Those in power need to keep those not in power happy for as long as possible and yet at the same time not allow them to become too wealthy such that they might gain power themselves. 

Think subjugation of women over the centuries or the hereditary titles of the aristocracy. 

Can’t have any Tom or Dick getting their grubby mitts on the estate.

At the same time, power and capital will get things done. Most of the global development that delivers wealth and wellbeing to so many people came about because money was concentrated in risk takers.

It is a delicate balance. 

In the old days, the sword was the tool of suppression and to wield it required some noble heritage, a few loyal knights, and gold coins to buy your way into power. Now the same thing happens for those with bitcoin.

However, once sufficiently downtrodden, the masses have little left to lose. Emboldened they rise up and take away your power. 

Currently, the world is in a situation where a handful of people own vast amounts of wealth. And the majority own next to nothing in comparison. This whole idea of inequity is not just within jurisdictions, but also across the world. 

It is incredulous that Forbes lists the richest 400 Americans as owning more than $3.2 trillion in assets and then sobering to know that four billion people live on less than six dollars a day.

That is a wickedly large majority, severely downtrodden.

If this is what democracy delivers it is setting itself up to collapse.

Internal enemies

The machinations of internal enemies are the basics of modern politics. Long gone are adult conversations about policy or what is in the best interests of the electorate. 

In Australia, for example, voters have experienced the removal of multiple sitting prime ministers by their parliamentary colleagues, their own party members, who’ve decided for one reason or another that they’ve had enough and push a spill in the leadership. 

It is one thing to have an eye on the electorate that must decide on your future every four years. It is quite another to watch you back for daggers from your colleagues every four minutes. 

Debate and deliberation followed by legitimate choice in the polling booth seems like ancient history.

Violence

Politically motivated violence is clearly the most insidious of the dangers. 

America stared at violence as it stormed its castle of democracy. Now they must worry about their hugely divided country when every man and his dog has access to firearms. 

Then there is the prominence of extremist groups both on the left and the right who gain more noise than they deserve. Through the various media channels and instant access to video footage of whatever event they care to perpetrate. 

A lot hangs in the balance.

The good news

Precarious as democracy may be, the growth in the number of democracies since WW2 is still exponential. People seem to like it.

Things that are liked are hard to give up and are not easily taken. Expect resistance to anyone that tries.

I know that is what they said in Germany and Italy back then and it failed. But this time around we will be better, more vigilant and prepared.

I hope.


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Can humanity persist for another 100 years?

Can humanity persist for another 100 years?

Why not? 

A century is not that long a time in the grand scheme of things. All we need to do is stay sane, not throw rocks, and grow enough food without using up all the freshwater. 

Should be easy enough, we have been around a while after all.

Homo sapiens, modern humans, have survived as a species for a long time. The most quoted scientifically based origin is 300,000 years ago in Africa amongst a number of other Hominid species. 

Here is what the Smithsonian says

The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa. Like other early humans that were living at this time, they gathered and hunted food, and evolved behaviours that helped them respond to the challenges of survival in unstable environments.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The average ‘lifespan’ of a mammal species – origination to extinction – is estimated from the fossil record, genetic evidence and rates of extinction to be about 1 million years, although some species persist for as long as 10 million years. If H. sapiens are an average mammal species then we have 700,000+ years left in us. 

Given our current ‘age’ and these lifespan estimates, the likelihood seems pretty high that we can persist for another 100 years, a minuscule proportion of these timeframes.

However, putting aside the rock-throwing and sanity of the leadership, in order to persist there must be enough food.

Our present complement of 7.7 billion souls each consumes a global average of  2,884 calories per day, give or take, to maintain weight and health assuming that along with the calories comes a balance of nutrients and food types. This is a gigantic amount of food consumed each and every day.

Roughly 22 trillion kcals

Obviously, we have engineered efficient food production systems to meet this demand otherwise there would not be 7.7 billion people and rising in the first place.   

Whilst famine and malnutrition are still prevalent, from a production perspective they are unnecessary. Most of the analysis and modelling suggest enough calories are grown. However, food is unevenly distributed, a great deal of production is wasted, and in many western cultures, people consume far more food than is healthy for the average citizen.  

Then along comes a quote from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that went around the media. Here is how it was headlined in the sustainability section of the Scientific American, an erudite and respected science journal 

Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues

Generating three centimetres of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said

Scientific American December 5, 2014

The warning was harsh. No doubt designed to shock with numbers that should send shivers up the spines of the young. The quote goes on…

Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.

60 harvests left

In other words, to maintain food production per person equivalent to that in 1960 production per hectare would need to quadruple by 2050.

60 harvests left around many parts of the world, a lifetime of harvests, is a great headline. I’m ok then but if there are no harvests after that lifetime, then what are your grandchildren going to eat? Shocking and personal, a copywriters dream.

The degradation is true. Both intensive and shifting agriculture struggle to be gentle on soils.  It is easy for farmers to either mine nutrients or slip into input-output production systems. However, food production from soil is not static or uniform. There is innovation everywhere and not all soil is being degraded or eroded at the same rate. 

Some systems in regenerative agriculture are able to reverse the degradation trends with soil carbon accumulation and more efficient on-farm nutrient cycling.

Soil degradation is a huge problem but to say we have on 60 harvest left is fodder for the doomscroller, a headline fantasy and has been called as such

The soil scientists don’t believe it, mostly because such a number is very hard to calculate with any certainty. There are too many factors at play.

It also fails the pub test. A few sips of Theakston’s Old Peculiar and it is clear that not all farms will fail in little Jaden’s lifetime. Many farms are thousands of years old what makes the next 60 years so special?

Alright, we are down from the hyperbole. So will we persist beyond the next 100 years?

Well yes, but we will have to look after soil much better than we do at present. And this was probably the FAO message, they just got a bit carried away.

Fortunately, we already know how to do this. Combinations of the following can slow or reverse soil degradation: 

  • maintaining groundcover
  • minimum tillage
  • production diversity
  • careful use of livestock
  • irrigation practices
  • crop rotations
  • rest 

These are a few of the many options. 

It is important that degradation does not reach points of no return where rehabilitation or restoration becomes too difficult given the local conditions. The FAO would call this desertification but it can also be salination or other forms of soil degradation. 

The FAO were guilty of hyperbole but that’s all. 

What is true is this.

Outside the people and the politics, soils hold the answer to whether humanity can persist for another 100 years. 

Only this is not a headline in any way and who wants to agree with it anyway.

Humans are all powerful after all.


Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to…

A different message from Sir David

A different message from Sir David

Sir David Attenborough has made another wildlife documentary. No surprise there, the legend has made dozens of them over his long and distinguished career.

What is different about this one is summed up in his final sentence

“What happens next is up to every one of us.”

David Attenborough’s, Extinction: The Facts

For the first time, BBC programmers and Sir David decided we were big enough and brave enough to hear the truth of the matter. All the habitat loss, the pollution, the poaching, climate change impacts, expressed as wildfire impacts, and the inevitable species extinctions.

It is all true.

It is happening every day and in Sir David’s lifetime, there has been more than enough time for even the blind to see the consequences of human appropriation of net primary production, the landscape changes and the, well, the consequences of nearly 8 billion of us.

Of course, we do not want to be told, at least that’s what the TV producers decided.

Only against expectations, the viewing numbers in the UK screening were good and got better as the show progressed. It seemed like we were up for the messages after all. Perhaps we are ready for the reality of what we have done.

The interesting part is the last postulate at the end of the show that will no doubt become a classic

What happens next is up to every one of us

Here is what we need to do next

  • Feed an average of 8 billion souls every day for a hundred years – that means around 23 trillion kcals a day for 36,500 days at least.
  • Change the trajectory of our diets so that this calorie and nutrient challenge is achievable
  • Pay attention to soil and learn all we can about how to keep it healthy everywhere
  • Rewild up to a third of the land area and a third of the surface ocean volume to give the remaining global biodiversity a chance to survive, but also to maintain critical ecosystem services
  • Adapt through innovation to inevitable climate change impacts whilst transitioning to carbon-neutral economies
  • Be positive and hear the messages even when they are frightening, then act

And to achieve all of these there is one more thing…

  • Vote for progressive politicians.

I know this last one is the most difficult, for just now politicians with ideas are like hen’s teeth, exceptionally rare and hard to spot. But with necessity, they will appear and will stand out.

You’ll know them instantly.

Best of luck to us all.

Environmental science degrees in Australia just took a massive hit

Environmental science degrees in Australia just took a massive hit

In the 2020 Federal budget the Australian government, in its wisdom, decided that they would shift funding allocated to particular subjects within the university sector. The media have focused on reductions in the amount of money spent on arts degrees and the promotion of STEM subjects, technical and hard science degrees. 

Only one of the big losers in that story was environmental science. 

The student contribution to environmental studies was cut from $9,698 to $7,700 a year – meaning students will pay less for their degrees. A positive of course.

However, the commonwealth contribution paid to the universities to run these degrees was cut from $24,446 to $16,500 per student per year – meaning that the government will fund each degree less. Unless the university can be remarkably creative, less money received per student means a poorer quality of education.

This is very short-sighted, obviously. 

At a time when the youth are turning their minds towards their futures and what kind of environment they’re going to live in; not to mention their children and grandchildren. They are concerned. They think that the current and previous generations have given them a hospital pass. And they’re about to crash into the opponent with very little protection. 

Many of them are keen to find out more, to engage with environmental problems, and to search for solutions. Apply their sharp and agile minds to make the world safer and more sustainable.

The environmental sciences, one would have thought, are in the best interests of everyone. 

No matter what your value set, not understanding how the environment works is just a massive miss to any economy, society and individual well-being. 

Think about it for a moment.

All modern economic systems are founded on feeding the people. There are only two ways to feed the people: grow enough food or buy food from another grower. Either way, you need a strong system of economic organisation in order to be able to achieve the outcome by either method. 

Failure to feed your population and strife is never far away. 

And here is the thing… whether we like it or not,

The environment is where we grow our food 

Until we have created greenhouses on the moon or vertical gardens on every building in every city, the majority of our food supply will come from the land. It will be grown in soil. That’s going to be the case for at least the next hundred years and beyond. 

Not recognizing this fact just because we seem to have enough food right now, is morally abhorrent. That senior leaders and advisers are not even contemplating future food security is criminal. 

Remember that on any day of the week at least 700 million people are hungry and not all of them live in obscure countries that few know exist.

We have a small window for finding options to grow and distribute food for everyone. A short time to throw alternatives around and have their value debated before landing on the values that take precedent in which locations. 

Soon this window for rational discussions will have passed and will be in crisis mode. 

And a crisis is what it will come to for hungry people are desperate. 

In spending less on environmental science education governments are undermining the capability to even act in crisis mode by making it harder for a youngster to be educated in this area of interest. It is tragic. A small budget item decision that really points to the stupidity of the people in power. 

Not just the government

It may be that the environmental scientists themselves must take some of the responsibility. 

In my hirsute youth way back in the late 1970’s, I completed a degree in environmental science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. It was a new degree at the time and UEA promoted itself as a place of open-ended learning and student-centred inquiry.

A fascinating subject combined with a novel pedagogy fitted my personality to perfection. 

I absolutely loved it.

I spent hours in the library on my open-ended inquiry. And was both fascinated and empowered by the student-centeredness of the whole approach. In one of the courses, I even marked my own assignment, only to be told by the lecturer that I might have undersold myself. 

That this type of degree was available at the time was magical to me. 

The ability to mix and match a whole range of different subject matter, that would otherwise have not gone together or insufficient on their own to merit undergraduate study, was perfect.  Ecology, sedimentology, geochemistry, meteorology, sustainable development… and that was just the first year. 

Later it was Environments in time, more Ecology, Ecosystem Management, Land Resource Development, and Toxic Substances in the Environment. In total a thorough grounding in the bio-physicality of the world with and without humanity.

This STEM version of environmental science was not taken up in every program. 

In many universities, these topics never really came together and environmental science was hijacked by the human end of it. The value-laden decision making by individuals and the consequences of people being involved in the environment more so than the objectivity of the information that you can get about how the environment works. 

In other words, the sociology of the subject risked diluting the objectivity. 

These programs are less able to be precise about the science of the environment being absorbed in the social aspects of it. 

Consequently, environmental scientists are not winning Nobel Prizes. They’re not at the forefront of the men in white coats that governments are now trotting out to explain the COVID crisis. 

The discipline of environmental science does not have the standing needed to attract resources to empower the next generation. I think we have to take some responsibility for that, for not actually putting ourselves forward well enough. 

But if I was a climate actions youngster skipping school in order to protest about my future, then I would be looking closely at that cheaper degree and hoping that the quality of the program was up to scratch. 

Then I would enrol in environmental science.

Society will need what I learn.