Perceptions are everything we need to question

Perceptions are everything we need to question

I just read a fascinating book entitled Radical Help by social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. This woman, a maverick with a heart of gold, is taking on the establishment in ways it hates, by questioning everything.

What she has discovered is gold.

She begins her descriptions of what she calls ‘experiments’ with a social statement, here is one…

Wages for more than twenty million British families – 64 per cent of the population – are too low to live on. It is worth repeating that a far greater proportion of benefits are paid to those in work on low wages than to those out of work, as for millions the categories of work and welfare collapse into one another.

Hilary Cottam, Radical Help

In other words, the economic system is failing the majority, including those who find fulfilment and purpose in gainful employment.

Add to this 64% figure the fact that payments to those out of work account for just 1% of the UK welfare budget – equivalent to less than £3 billion a year – and the clear implication is that people are not bludgers, they want to work for a fair wage, enough to live and raise their families.

Thinking on these numbers some more, Cottam adds another key insight. People want purpose. Give them this and they will not only work hard but at almost any task aligned to their purpose.

How easy should it be to harness this immense power? When people can connect, cooperate, innovate they will solve what seems intractable. Everything is possible with aligned people power. Except that this is not some neo-socialism virus about to infect us all, it is actually about each person and how each one of us goes about our everyday lives. It is the power to grow our own wellbeing.

At the core of this power is the human connections we make.

When we are close to one another we literally move mountains. When I tell my wife this dramatic insight she simply smiles knowingly. A retired couples therapist, her entire career gave evidence to the power of connection. Deep connections are what hold us up and keep us together.

George Monbiot, in typical acerbic style, tells it more simply — no human on the savanna would have survived one night on their own.

Putting people together so that they can form connections that matter to them is what Hilary Cottam does in her experiments. It matters little if the people are old, young, disadvantaged or disabled. It seems that even the bored and the disillusioned will succumb to the salve of genuine human connection.

Back in the real world, the perception we are sold is that people are lazy, preferring the couch and a games controller to work and responsibility.

This may be true for some but it is not our natural state. Humans would not be so populous and prosperous today if our ancestors were innate bludgers with no connections. Our genes would have gone the way of the dodo and maybe neanderthals would be thumping their way around the globe.

So next time you hear that we are obese, lazy slobs with diabetes… do not, and I repeat in big letters, DO NOT believe this nonsense.

Instead, go get yourself a copy of Radical Help, read it and then go lobby your local politician.

Don’t tell them to change the system, just let them know that people are all-powerful, they just need a helping hand, not a handout.

Seriously, go read it. You will be amazed.

What it means to have more people in the world

What it means to have more people in the world

Here are a couple of anecdotes of what it means to have more people in the world than seems possible.

Spiders

‘A-Ping’ are a popular edible treat in Cambodia. For the uninitiated, ‘A-Ping’ are fried tarantulas that are, apparently, irresistible. The females are especially prized. Apparently the eggs in the abdomen are the really good bit. This odd street food is popular enough for sellers to shift 100 spiders on a good day.

Loss of forest and over-hunting means that local supplies of tarantulas near towns and cities are spent. Supply is falling as demand grows and inevitably the price rises. Spiders are sourced far from the cities where people are poor so the high prices make collection attractive. Something similar happens in many parts of Africa and is labelled poaching.

The combination of demand, supply and price leads to what ABC journalist Zoe Osborne calls an unsustainable demand. More strictly is unstainable supply for demand is a function of the number of people (growing) and their purchasing power (rising).

Either way, it is bad news for tarantula species.

Side note

Tarantula is the term used here. Sellers fry ‘A-Ping’, the large hairy spider. There are over 800 tarantula species in the world meaning that numerous species make up the ‘A-Ping’ trade. Certainly, some of them will be rare naturally, even before the additional hunting pressure. Several species will be rare now.

Donkeys

The Norwegians can be a generous bunch. Turns out that Norway is in the top ten countries for development aid giving over $4 billion in 2018 putting them second to Sweden as a proportion of gross national income and first in dollars spent per capita. They are good folk.

Many years ago one of the Norwegian aid projects gave donkeys to the people of Botswana who are fond of donkeys. The herd boys ride them and they are often used to pull carts. It made sense to provide poorer communities with free donkeys.

The gift was well received and for a while provided the intended benefits. As time passed the donkeys prospered along with the Botswana economy — a coincidence not a consequence. Soon there were many more donkeys in Botswana than were needed as prosperity from diamonds gave the herd boys other things to do and donkey carts were replaced with four-wheel-drive trucks.

Spare donkeys became a traffic hazard for they are as stubburn as their mule cousins and refuse to get out the way of the aforementioned trucks zipping along at 140 clicks.

Then the Chinese decided that there was a huge market for donkey gelatin in their country where it is known as ‘ejiao’. It is better not to ask why but we are talking rice delicacies and use in herbal medicine to treat a range of ailments from bleeding, dizziness, and insomnia to a dry cough. The demand for ‘ejiao’ is growing rapidly thanks to population growth and affluence, in this case in China. As the Chinese prosper economically so the demand for remedies to improve health and well-being, proven or anecdotal, goes up.

A few years ago donkey prices around the world began to rise sharply due to this rising demand from Chinese herbalism. Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal banned donkey exports to China because, not unlike the spider example above, poor people could get a favourable price for their donkey.

Arguably the removal of donkeys from the roads in Botswana is not such a bad thing so long as the herd boys are still on the internet. But, as always, the disadvantaged are further repressed when they find themselves in need of draught power.

Photo by Henry Desouza Nelson on Unsplash

What it means to have more people

Spider species joining the lists of rare and endangered, cruelty to donkeys and desperate measures for rural poor.

Who would have thought it?

Boris, oh my Lordy

Boris, oh my Lordy

What Johnson understood was that in the digital age, voters were behaving more like an audience consuming entertainment than a civically engaged electorate.

Matthew d’Ancona, Guardian columnist

In the early 1930s, the German people were trying to come back from the cost and emotional loss of the war to end all wars. Naturally, they were struggling.

The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 and the subsequent London Schedule of Payments from 1921 required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) to cover civilian damage caused during the war. That is a lot of money today, let alone 100 years ago when a US dollar would buy a six-pack and some change.

Most families knew personal losses from the war and carried a collective pain from defeat. Historians suggest that the German people knew they had to work hard to recover and investors, especially from America, saw the opportunity and poured money into the country. Then the Wall Street crash of 1929 hit and the decade long depression that followed scrambled everyone’s options.

The conventional wisdom is that these setbacks resulted in economic and social unrest, specifically inflation and high unemployment, a pattern that was repeated across Europe and the US. These were trying times everywhere.

The census of 1933 had the population of Germany at over 65 million people. In the previous year, there was an election. Many adults thought it wise enough to cast their vote for National Socialist German Workers’ Party who had made their ideology to strengthen the Germanic people, the “Aryan master race” perfectly clear. A third of the German electorate voted for the Nazi party in 1932.

Millions of sane people voted for “racial purity and eugenics, broad social welfare programs, and a collective subordination of individual rights, which could be sacrificed for the good of the state on behalf of the people”. What were they thinking?

Presumably, they were in a similar space to societies who allow crazy people with warped ideologies to lead them. Maybe they were a little lost. Scared, maybe given they had lost a world war and were struggling with the aftermath and a global economic downturn.

Perhaps they thought that the government could solve their problems. Maybe that gave them some hope.

Whatever they thought would happen not many would have predicted where the society would end up 13 years later.

In 1965, when the first electronic computers entered offices, Eric Hoffer warned in the New York Times that “a skilled population deprived of its sense and usefulness would be the ideal setup for an American Hitler.” That did not happen. Instead, people listened to Kennedy and went to the moon.

In the 58th quadrennial American presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 62,984,828 votes, 46.09% of the votes cast, even though his main rival received 2.1% more votes.

According to the electoral commission, the republicans spent $303 million on the election, less than half the democrat spend of $640 million. Presumably, this means you can’t buy happiness. It also means that nearly 63 million people though that what Trump had to offer via Twitter was what they needed to improve their lives and the fate of the country.

In 2019 there was another vote, this time in the UK to replace the prime minister.

Boris Johnson received 92,153 votes from Conservative members, a group that collectively accounts for 0.13 per cent of the British population and have far more men than women, are overwhelmingly white, and significantly more right-wing than the average voter. Handy for Boris and a bit of a nightmare for everyone else.

It would seem that money may not buy power but a minority will.

Each of these brief historical descriptions is a salutary lesson for democracy. It is quite easy for a sequence of events that appear of little consequence to reach far into very dark places.

Obviously we are in another of these historical moments.

Everyone should pay serious attention and become that engaged electorate. We all need to vote with extreme care each and every time that we can and, where it matters, speak out on the streets, on the web, and around the kitchen table.

The Germans didn’t see it coming, nor did the Americans or the British.

Do you?

Why modern leaders don’t lead

Why modern leaders don’t lead

Here is what Strategic futurist Dr Richard Hames has to say about the reasons modern politicians fail to prepare for the future…

“It takes work and they do not have the time once all of their administrative duties have filled their days. We need to change the shared worldview regarding what is important and re-frame leadership in that context. But there is no time for such work.

The world has become so complex that most leaders are out of their depth. They lack a relevant toolkit and are in no mood to learn a new one because as leaders they are supposed to know and have the answers.”


Dr Richard Hames, Strategic Futurist

Fair call.

Our leaders have the wrong toolkit given that most carry around the one supplied to the stupid white man and no time to do the work to upgrade or to complete the artisanship any new tools would allow them. This lamentable lack of intent to retrain is capped off with a need to save face. No wonder there is no time.

What a mess this is.

There is one phrase that makes the most sense and that leaves some hope… “out of their depth“. This we can deal with if we pay attention. We can ensure that the next leaders are good swimmers.

How?

Create awareness of the complexities.

This is crucial although very hard to do. Europe has a refugee crisis that on no small part led to other crises like Brexit and the horrendous prospect of Boris in the captain’s chair. But why does it have a refugee crisis? Well, there are many people who would risk a sea crossing in a small boat to a country that will not welcome them rather than stay where they are in the land of their birth. It is so bad that they will also risk the lives of their children on the small boats in the hands of the unscrupulous.

Imagine what it must be like to make such a call; to risk the lives of your children. Don’t assume that the gold across the sea is a big pull to become a refugee, even if that might be your first thought, but think also about the push. Mortar fire, foreign soldiers using your garden fence as cover from snipers, food shortages that mean you have to risk the marketplace each day when last week a suicide bomber met his maker just where you buy bread. More bombs. If you live with this evidence you have a huge push and the risk to your children is worth it.

This, of course, should be an easy one that even Boris should be able to comprehend. Most of the world’s complexities are far more convoluted with predictable, unpredictable, and unknown consequences. What happens if the Greenland ice sheet melts, say by 20%? What would a theatre war centred on the Straits of Hormuz do to the global economy? What happens if the required 2% per annum growth in global food production is not met? Do we know what to do if unemployment goes over 20% thanks to some clever robots?

Whatever the complexity, the skill is to understand the feelings and motivations of the people closest to it. Makes their concerns the centre of thought and the guide to the solution.

For example, it’s not that we have climate change and that we could fix it with a trillion trees. It is that the climate is changing, will change, and, even with a trillion trees that we don’t have the land area to plant, the climate is more a people problem than an environmental one.

What will we do when it is too hot for one month and too wet a few months later only to be drought the next year? It messes with people’s heads and they want the government to fix something that is not fixable.

This is the complexity you need tools to handle. They are the tools of courage and awareness.

Some say that empathy is more useful than fear as the solution because “human sense of empathy is a greater motivator for us to join forces to protect each other and to fight for a better world.

So there you go Boris, put your own stuff down and imagine what it is like to live the lives of ordinary people all around the world, not just those you want to vote for you.

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

When food and nutrition is a scary prospect

Alloporus is looking into online courses. I know, once a student, always a student is a nasty affliction.

It is fascinating to see how this format has evolved given that back in the day, that being the late 1990’s when I first built a website for my undergraduate students at Macquarie University, it was a struggle just to code a homepage. How I would have swooned over today’s functionality back then. Uploading self-made videos to cloud platforms with real-time chat, get outta here. I guess that just makes me old.

Anyway, please excuse my reminiscences and get us up to date to an online course from the excellent and free MOOC edX.org entitled “Feeding a Hungry Planet: Agriculture, Nutrition and Sustainability”.

It is fascinating and, I have to say, scary stuff.

Early in the proceedings Professor Achim Dobermann who is Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research UK, the oldest continually operating agricultural research station in the world, gives a 12-minute presentation on the risks associated with agriculture to 2050 should the world follow current business-as-usual for food production.

It is a courageous and smart summary of what global food and nutrition will be like for the next 30 years.

Here are a couple of headline numbers for what is required.

Global per capita meat consumption will rise from 40 to 50 kg per annum that will mean an additional 180 million tons of livestock production or 64% more than today.

Grain consumption per person will rise too and overall grain production will need to increase 1.1 billion tons or 52% more than today, in part to feed the extra animals.

My take is that agricultural and social science is telling us that food supply has to grow at an average of 2% per annum each and every year for over a generation. In short, another Green Revolution.

Such a change to business-as-usual will mean a plethora of production and consumption efficiency gains along the whole supply chain, innovation everywhere, and some nimble policy.

You can see Professor Dobermann’s full presentation here.

These numbers and their consequences present any number of risks to getting a second Green Revolution underway. Here are a few off the top of my head…

  • not enough land for agriculture
  • not enough usable water to increase yields
  • soil degradation, especially ongoing loss of soil carbon
  • peak fertilizer, especially micro-nutrients
  • pests and disease, especially of core crops
  • climate change

These are some of the obvious food production end risks, but once we get to the people part there are many more…

  • resistance to agricultural innovation
  • rapid changes to diet
  • food waste

And then there are the food supply chains themselves that these days are long and involve many parties each claiming a clip. This evens out supply by moving seasonal produce around and feeding the people now congregated in cities — 55% of the total according to the UN. In other words, we would be lost without them.

But long can be brittle, inefficient with losses at each stage and, thanks to the many parties and their clip, raises the price of food; all factors that reduce food security.

On the upside, mass transport and production efficiency has reduced the global agricultural price index over the last century which is a good thing for most consumers; only it has also lowered the farm gate price. This is not so good.

It means that many farmers must push their production rather than nurture it. When the price squeeze happens at the farm gate they must mine their natural capital to keep their business alive instead of investing returns into efficiencies and soil inputs.

Whilst the level of risk and demand growth is scary, at least they are known. The big picture is clear enough.

In addition, we already have a thousand solutions to reduce or mitigate risks from biochar to farmers co-ops to Meatless Monday. We can and should use all of them as and where they make sense because 2% efficiency gains across the board each and every year for 30 years is a massive challenge with unfathomable complexity.

Also, being a bit scared is a good thing. It is a powerful motivator to do something positive.

180 million tonnes extra is a lot

Endnote on awareness

We have to avoid the single focus solutions.

One of the latest is the trillion trees idea — to save the world from climate change we need to plant a trillion trees.

Good idea if you are worried about greenhouse gas emissions given that trees sequester CO2 into woody biomass that can persist for a long time in the landscape. So yes, we should plant, nurture and grow trees and we should resist cutting any trees down.

Only we have to be very careful where we do it.

We can’t put tree planting on the lists of risks to the 2% per annum of food production growth.

Why there is so little leadership in politics

Why there is so little leadership in politics

Recent research from Swinburne University of Technology suggests that most Australians don’t believe that political parties show leadership for the public good and just a handful think that they do.

It is tempting to blame the endless nonsense around Australian politics on the press coverage and given that the surveys were conducted just before a federal election, we might expect partisanship at a zenith.

My party has a bigger pork barrel than yours and all that.

More worrying though is that over a quarter (26.3%) of respondents in the survey said they believed that the federal government, as an institution, shows no “leadership for the public good”. One in four has lost faith in government as a leadership option irrespective of the politics.

This is a much bigger problem than dissatisfaction with political parties. It suggests that a fair few people have little choice in the polling booth, they don’t even think the system works, let alone the parties within it.

The Swinburne and other researchers claim that the reasons for this disillusion are found in the importance of transparency, accountability and ethics to perceptions of trust and confidence in leadership. The idea that people want their leaders to be good, trustworthy people who can be believed. These qualities are lacking in Australian politicians right now and arguably in the political leaders of many other western democracies too.

Wooah, hold on a minute. Just back up, back up will you.

Let’s get this straight. The reason people are disillusioned is that people value transparency, accountability and ethics and they are not getting it from their political leaders.

Alright then, so how does the public, a few months after the survey, vote into government leaders with the worst local record on all three counts?

A gotcha if ever there was one.

Well, we can only assume that whilst people value transparency, accountability and ethics or their own version of it when it comes to their mates, their family, maybe their employer, it doesn’t stretch to who gets their vote. Other factors must influence their choice there.

What we know is that the election campaign was replete with lies, claims and innuendo and was fearfully lacking in explanation of policy. Indeed the party that tried some policy options lost an election that polls, pundits, and even the punters said they couldn’t. All this on the back of a decade of narcissistic nonsense in the parliament that gave the country enough prime ministers to fill a tour bus and enough fiddling around to inspire a quote involving Emperor Nero.

No, here is what is more likely. People may well want their leaders to hold key values but enough of them ignored the lack of these values when they cast their vote, probably because, for the individual, the link between their vote and who they will get in the parliament is tenuous at best.

After the votes were cast and tallied the politicians in the coalition were elected into power. These are the people who completely ignore every single erudite value when they enter the Canberra bubble. They ignore the process of compiling policy options on a whole host of core issues and presenting them for debate in the house and with the public in favour of no policy at all.

Instead, they bring in a lump of coal into the parliamentary chamber and wave it around like it were gold… because they believe that it is.

I am sorry white-coated ones, people might hold laudable values but they went with the biggest liars when it mattered.

Eat your greens while you can

Eat your greens while you can

Many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline. The proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing. Overall, the diversity of crops present in farmers’ fields has declined and threats to crop diversity are increasing.

FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

This banal quote comes from the web summary of a critical FAO Report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.

It is bad people.

Biodiversity loss is not just about Andean condors, orangutans, koalas and rhinos, as important as these iconic creatures are, it is also about a myriad of plants, microbes and invertebrate animals, and especially insects, that actually make nature what it is and, crucially, allow nature to provide for us.

Alloporus has banged on about this for ages. Blue in the face kind of stuff. Here are a few:

They have bored faithful readers witless. And the message still holds.

Biodiversity loss is bad for humans.

This recent message from the FAO is a little more subtle. It refers to the loss of biodiversity in the diversity that humans have created over generations of artificial selection. This is the diversity we get from humans playing god. Think chihuahuas and great Danes, sausage dogs and schnauzers. Only it also applies to crops and livestock.

We made it and now we are getting rid of it.

Let’s back up a little and ask why we made genetic, species and ecosystem diversity in agricultural systems in the first place.

Well right from the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago it was clear that wild varieties of grass were never going to deliver enough grain and wild cattle were way too unruly for the herd boys to cope. Better options were needed.

Initially through trial and error and later through the wonders of more formal selective breeding, farmers were able to choose crops and varieties that were best suited to the specific conditions on their farm and run livestock that would breed well and grow fat without squishing the shepherd.

It did not matter if that was in the highlands of Scotland or southern Sudan, there were suitable beasts and ideal crops.

This was humans creating variety for their own ends. Selecting the best production system possible. And for a few thousand years this meant the creation of all sorts of efficient breeds and crop types that became familiar to local communities. It helped to create distinctive cuisines and trade in the items that couldn’t be grown locally, spices being the most famous example.

Then two inventions changed everything.

The first was mechanised agriculture.

This meant ploughs that would never tire and fertilizers that made it possible to grow crops that unimproved soil could not support. Ubiquitous energy also meant we could synthesize and deliver pesticides and herbicides whenever they were needed.

The second was that we figured out genetics and how to use this to rapidly select for optimal varieties that could use the tilled soil and fertilizer to deliver the best possible yields.

It was possible to make serious money from agriculture if you could harness these breakthroughs and scale them up. So we did. We tilled the fields and spread fertilisers, then planted fewer and fewer types of crop. The ones that gave the best yields and market prices: corn, wheat, rice and potatoes.

This production we converted into more people.

Agriculture created diversity to ensure food production was possible almost everywhere. Fossil fuel energy homogenised production for high yield crops on the best soils in the most benign climates and squeezed the market.

No problem surely. What is the FAO going on about? We have more food than ever and in most places, it is as cheap as chips.

Well, what happens if the handful of species that make up the bulk of production are hit with a disease or what if the climate changes in the main grain growing regions?

If the production system is diverse then it can adapt to these events shifting readily between crops not affected by plague or drought. If the system is simple, it is far less resilient to change.

More importantly, if these crops and varieties from ancient genetic stock are lost, there is nothing for the geneticists to latch on to and engineer their way out of a production crisis.

This brings us back to biodiversity proper. It is the resilience of diverse systems that is most valuable to humanity, not the presence or not of iconic species. We have to have as much genetic, species and ecosystem diversity as possible if only as a reserve for future options should things go sour.

There is great irony in the FAO report.

Humans first create and then destroy diversity. That is a hoot.

That we are doing it as blindly as we eradicate what nature created makes you want to cry.