Rorting the system

Rorting the system

Ever wondered if the POTUS and his family were rorting the system?

Do you think he might be? Yep, I think we all have our suspicions. I’m not talking about the ability to leverage notoriety to go on lecture tours or sell autobiographies. We allow that sort of thing as a small ‘thank you for your service’ along with the secrete service costs of keeping him and his family safe

A small aside here is that former Australian prime minister John Howard is often seen strolling around the CBD of Sydney en route to his office in the MLC building. No police, no bodyguard, just his unmistakable self. I have seen him half a dozen times.

Anyway back to the current POTUS.

Maybe he is just getting ready to use his notoriety to go a step or two further than a book tour to plunder the relationships his position affords for a slice of oil pipelines, hotels, golf resorts, towers and whatever else might make a bob or two, in parts of the world where such things are still twee.

Yes, I think so too.

Not a good look at best and worse, an abuse of his position. That is before we get into the back end deals that might be going down as we speak.

Obviously he doesn’t care a jot about our puny thoughts. Our indignation at his abuse of power. Here is some evidence of just how little he cares.

The number of family trips taken during his tenure is through the roof compared to his predecessor, like an order of magnitude larger.

Admittedly he has a huge extended family in the white house, all jumping around in unelected positions, but really, an order of magnitude more trips with the secret service in attendance.

It even makes the tweets look silly.

US$12 trillion of opportunities

US$12 trillion of opportunities

A large number attracts attention.

Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension

16,000,000,000,000,000

Put a dollar sign in front of it and you get the United States national debt.

As of December 31, 2018, debt held by the public was $16.1 trillion and intragovernmental holdings were $5.87 trillion, for a total of $21.97 trillion.

Don’t you just love credit?

The ‘buy now pay later’ attitude that generates a number so large that there is no end to it other than for the invention of another economic system so it can be written off under a giant bankruptcy proceeding, is classic ostrich behaviour.

Here is the history of that debt as a proportion of GDP noting of course that during this timeline GDP has grown to over 40x its 1960 value.

100% of GDP in 2019 was 40 times bigger in dollars than 100% of GDP in 1960.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/itFbk1Aqe4sSvJi36

And another slightly different presentation of the same data that shows this absolute dollar increase more clearly, the debt adjusted for inflation divided by the number of housholds

Source: https://www.darrinqualman.com/us-national-debt-per-family-1816-2016/

Just for comparison the national entry-level average house price in the US for the last quarter of 2019 was $200,000 meaning a huge chunk of US households were up to their eyeballs in their own debt as well as copping an equivalent amount borrowed by Uncle Sam.

The pattern of when debt increased and fell is interesting too.

After both world wars debt was paid down, rapidly in the case of WWII on the back of a newly minted industrial base. Reagan and Bush spent a few dollars that Clinton tried to pay down only for Bush Jr and his successors to take on a couple more expensive wars.

Obama spent big and, not to be outdone, so has Trump.

Alright, so without getting all political about it, the curve is going up… exponentially.

Here is a neat explanation from Investopedia of how the US government pays for spending more money than it earns from taxes

To operate in this manner of spending more than it earns, the U.S. Treasury Department has to issue Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These Treasury products finance the deficit by borrowing from the investors—both domestic and foreign. These Treasury securities also sell to corporations, financial institutions, and other governments around the world.

By issuing these types of securities, the federal government can acquire the cash that it needs to provide governmental services. The national debt is simply the net accumulation of the federal government’s annual budget deficits. It is the total amount of money that the U.S. federal government owes to its creditors.

So in simple terms, the government borrowed the money.

It is said that really this is printing money and that would be the case if in the future the government foreclosed. It reneged on its obligation to pay bond interests and the house of cards fell over. But for now, it is claimed to be a debt system and not a printing system where there is some notion of future returns and recovery of the principle.

The investors do not seem to mind.

They buy and trade government bonds making a clip in the process so they have no qualms about how big the debt is or the risk of default. They will be on their yachts when it all goes belly up.

And so the debt number that just gets bigger each day is owed to creditors.

Governments who are in control of the central bank could just print the money instead of borrowing it, but history tells everyone that this risks a crazy level of inflation that can cripple economies. Ask the Zimbabweans about that one.


Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation has two main causes

  1. an increase in the money supply
  2. demand-pull inflation

When a government has a spending bill and decides to print money it increases the money on the economy. When there is more money around people have it to spend and goods and services can raise prices without losing custom generating regular inflation. A little of this is seen as a good thing because most people feel like they are growing financially.

Demand-pull inflation is when demand for goods and services outstrips supply so scarcity pushes prices higher. This can happen as a result of increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.

If inflation gets going through an increase in the money supply but the government continues to print money it generates more of cause one and prices can rise very rapidly. When consumers start to realise that continued inflation is likely they buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. This increase in demand further aggravates the inflation through cause two.

A nasty spiral results.


Is national debt a bad thing?

Well, I am a ‘money in the bank’ kind of guy.

I struggle to have credit card debt without freaking out so much that I burry the bills in the cupboard.

Economists are not such wimps; it’s other people’s money after all. Only they don’t seem to agree on the issue of debt.

They do agree that governments that run fiscal deficits have to make up the difference by borrowing money. This they know eats up a fair chunk of capital investment in private markets. They also agree that debt securities issued by governments to service their debts affect interest rates, although this can, until recently be manipulated to some extent through monetary policy tools.

After this, it gets a bit ‘cake and eat it’

The Keynesians believe that it can be beneficial to run a current account deficit

in order to boost aggregate demand in the economy.

However, the neo-Keynesians tend to support government deficit spending only after the monetary policy has proven ineffective and nominal interest rates have hit zero.

On the other hand macroeconomists from the Chicago and Austrian school argue that

government deficits and debt hurt private investment, manipulate interest rates and the capital structure, suppress exports, and unfairly harm future generations either through higher taxes or inflation.

Some economists on the fringes are still ok with central banks printing fiat money, despite the historical evidence for inflation.

The fear of inflation appears to keep policymakers from monetizing debt entirely. Instead, overspending governments either have to continue to borrow, sell assets, raise taxes, renegotiate terms, or default to resolve debt issues.

As the federal debt number in the US reaches the outer reaches of our solar system there has to be a limit to what can be fiddled to soak it up with selling down and borrowing. The most likely end result is to default.

Oh, terribly sorry, but we can’t make those repayments.

So is all this debt good or bad?

Inject money into an economy and it will prosper so long as that money of made from something. Print it and it sends values into a spin.

Currently, the world is compromised in the middle, through the third option. Spend but pay for it with debt. Under the current rules, sooner or later that debt is either paid back or not.


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Make America great again

Make America great again

Make America great again.

I had a problem with this political slogan from the beginning.

The assumption, of course, is that America was at one time great. In the minds of its citizens perhaps, but, in reality, when America dominated the world it was a bully with extraordinary economic power thanks mainly to the industrial makeover after WW II.

The problem, even if you concede that industrial and economic might is indeed a great thing, is that in order to make America great again, the orange man has turned to an isolation approach based on an ‘us and them’ kindergarten psychology where the ‘them’ are bad and ‘we’ are good. It is innately racist.

Chasing the slogan has worked, at least for his support base. He spent government money, no matter that there was none to spend and a $26 trillion debt on the books, and for a time pumped a certain amount of confidence in the economy. Things were indeed moving towards his definition of great.

Only now a threat has arrived that he can’t control, a pandemic, where being economically great simply doesn’t work to protect anyone against its consequences — just ask Boris how he felt in the ICU.

It might be smart to reconsider the concept of being great under such circumstances. The global world of lockdown has given us any number of creative definitions from the humorous to the smart.

The US is in an election year and obviously Trump is moving to make sure he is reelected. I say obviously because we didn’t think he would make it to the office or survive five minutes, so we perhaps shouldn’t assume he would automatically want another four years of being the biggest cheese… only joking. Of course, he wants it.

Re-election in a pandemic would be a challenge for anyone. The US economy has tanked, unemployment is through the roof, and many people have no idea when or if there will be a return to normal.

In the meantime, under the encouragement of the president, people are taking their guns and demanding that state governors lift the lockdown measures. At over a million cases and counting that seems reckless at best.

Professor Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labour and Professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley has recently come up with what he believes is Donald Trump’s four-step plan for reelection

Step 1 is to remove income support so people have no choice but to return to work

Step 2 hide the facts

Step 3 pretend it’s about freedom

Step 4 shield business’ against lawsuits for spreading the infection

This, of course, is a Democrat talking about a Republican president but the points he makes in those four steps are troubling.

Removing income support at a time when people are worried about their employment status is cruel in the extreme.

We know that the Trump administration hides the facts as a matter of course and when facts appear that they don’t like, they play them as fake news.

The problem with COVID is that the facts deal with death.

When Trump first put his hand up to become president, pretty much everyone laughed. I for one failed to realise how far the denial of facts and the lambasting of the media as fake could take you all the way to the White House. No surprise then that this tactic of hiding the facts will apply in the case of the virus.

Pretending it’s about freedom so that gun-toting individuals can rock up at government offices to demand their rights and for that behaviour to be seen as ok is crazy. As Robert Reich points out, making this about freedom is absurd. Freedom is meaningless for people who have no choice but to accept a job that risks that health.

And the fourth step to get business back on track and the economy in the direction that will get me reelected, is to protect them from lawsuits that might occur if they remain open and their staff contract the virus

I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine how any of this is great.

There have been millions of words written about the craziness of this situation that the US finds itself in with leadership that really has no concern for the people or just a small proportion of those people who are there to support the ego of an individual.

I suspect that we’re actually witnessing the ongoing decline of a once-powerful nation. The British Empire has gone and the American one looks like it will follow suit. This will take time because you can’t just turn off the influence of 350 million people and the world’s largest economy but the passions and the motivations that got them into that position of greatness have been corrupted beyond recognition.

America will not be great again at least not on this path.

Now there is another disruption. The next chapter in a terrible saga of racism that has blighted the so-called greatness for the countries entire history. There is hope this time around, there always is when the righteousness in people is roused by tragedy.

Perhaps this offers an alternative path.

The grass is always greener problem

The grass is always greener problem

If I tell you that the grass is greener over there you will laugh at me. That’s just the old wives having a go. The grass is just as green as it wants to be. You’ll rightly say that I’m just jealous.

However, if I keep saying it, a sliver of doubt will creep in.

Could this guy be right?

I did see his neighbour with a bag of fertilizer the other day. Maybe he does have a greener lawn. It certainly looks greener. Maybe it is.

This doubt can grow if my claim of extra verdancy is delivered with passion and commitment… and often.

Everyone knows the adage though.

It is easy to think that others have it better than us but this is rarely, if ever, the case. The grass is not greener at all. And anyway, who cares? It is irrelevant if my neighbour has splashed out on fertilizer. It is his lawn, not mine.

I need to look down to my own grass and not over the fence.

In other words, I might find out that the grass is indeed greener but there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not my grass.

Let’s take this notion a little further.

Here is a section from a lengthy paper on the necessary and complex dialogue on climate change and sustainable development…

By excluding any obviously, social or political matters, the scientific
reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result
is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. So, for example, the science of climate change can agree about the physical sources of carbon emissions, but only by refusing to consider the far more important and deeply political question of why they are increasing and how (or if) they should be curtailed.

Cohen, S., Demeritt, D., Robinson, J., & Rothman, D. (1998). Climate change and sustainable development: towards dialogue. Global Environmental Change, 8(4), 341-371.
Emphasis added by Alloporus

Alright, this is interesting.

It says that the evidence — and the level of inference in that evidence (what can reliably be said given the numbers) given the degree of reductionism (amount of inference) — should be enough to convince everyone that climate change is both real and the current warming event a result of human activities. The numbers are unequivocal.

We know where the emissions came from and we know what levels they are at in the atmosphere and we know what this does to the back radiation of energy from the sun.

The problem is that this is not what matters.

The real questions for climate changes are

  • why are the sources of greenhouse gas emissions increasing?
  • should we try to curtail the warming trend through greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration?
  • is it even possible to curtail the worse of the climate changes given the scale at which humans can take action?

These are the psychological consequences of the emergence of a problem. It triggers strong emotional responses. The real questions are not about the truth of the matter but what we feel needs to be done if we accept the truth.

I might know intellectually that ‘the grass is greener over there’ adage can’t help me sort out my own grass, however, it does not stop me being jealous.

Here is another example…

Agricultural production

Take a look at this image of some paddocks in central NSW, Australia

This is sheep country and has been pretty soon after the Europeans arrived in 1788. This land has seen generation after generation sheep and the graziers that manage them.

The area in the image is around 400 ha (1,000 acres)

In the image, you can see the water source in the northeast with its bare perimeter reminiscent of water holes in game parks and the rectangle in the centre of the image is a holding pen. This is grazing on native vegetation but there is little grass among the patchy and occasionally dense trees and shrubs. Stocking rates are low and much of the land would be classified as degraded.

The land is tired after such a long period of production on what were initially old and nutrient-poor soils. The carbon content of the soil has declined and the production of grass become more and more volatile from year to year, season to season, in a hot, drought-prone region.

Given this, what happens if there is a run of poor years?

What does the grazier do?

Well, first of all, he will let any staff go for there is no money to pay salaries so any employees move on. Any slack in the operation he will take up himself. His long hours will just get longer — a poll by Agriland showed that 72% of farmers say they work more than a 60-hour week.

He might sell some of his herd or even loan them to other graziers with more grass and cut down as much as possible on any inputs he has from deworming to fence maintenance. His priority will be to keep what animals he has fed and watered enough for them to survive.

What he won’t do is give up.

His farm means more to him than a business. It is his home, livelihood and sense of place all in one. There is more to his bare paddocks than a place to grow some meat for the city folk, there is the opportunity that when it rains again there is serious money to be made, maybe a house on the coast or a holiday in Europe. The things that those city folk have begun to take for granted.

The farmer actually has no time to consider the greenness of his neighbour’s grass.

He is flat out trying to keep his animals alive… on his own.

This is important to know

The grazier can do well to tap into some of his real questions. He doesn’t need to know about the greenness of his neighbour’s pastures or the cause of climate change, we actually want him to ask

  • what are the sources of my declining productivity?
  • should I try to curtail these sources or change production altogether?
  • is it even possible to curtail the sources given the resources available to me right now and my needs for the next few years?

It is in his interests to focus on his own grass.

It is in our interests too and we should help however we can. We need every grazier to be producing as much food as possible without reducing the chance of producing food in the future not just to feed ourselves but to feed everyone.


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Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science.

Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former Chief Scientist of Australia

Do you know the basic process of science?

Maybe you have a distant memory of a school teacher saying something about cause and effect or experiment or maybe hypothesis. Perhaps you were told to mix a few chemicals in some test tubes and record the colour changes.

Well, that’s it in the formal sense — the testing of hypotheses through controlled experiments. All that stuff about the scientific method.

It began with the Scientific Revolution in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.

This period is also known as the Enlightenment when a few radical thinkers decided they had had enough of religions telling them obvious lies about the world around them. The likes of Beccaria, Baruch, Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith decided a better approach was needed, one based on fact, things known to be true.

Now let’s see what happened next.

The rise of democracy, the industrial revolution, huge increases in health and well-being for more and more people.

The average westerner now lives in more luxury and comfort than Louis XIV, the king who was miffed at all those philosophers bursting his bubble. Way more in fact.

The arts and social science types will not be happy that I am suggesting progress is down to the natural sciences, but you have to admit, it put a rocket under the process. The changes seen in societies across the globe in the last 200 years have been so much faster than at any other time in human history.

In short, science is important.


It makes good sense for leaders as well as thinkers to at least know how science works and something about the philosophy behind it. Especially the idea that the scientific method generates evidence, facts know to be true.

It is vital that decision-makers know what is known and how reliable that information is. We took the piss out of Donald Rumsfeld but actually, he was onto something, although he was lampooned for saying it.

The scientific method and the results from the researchers who apply it reliably generate the facts that give us the full suite of knowns.

Professor Chubb said something else. He also wanted the political muppets to know about statistics.

He is spot on.

Without the basics of probability — how likely something is to happen — combined with an understanding of the scientific method, the results of research and the advice of the experts are meaningless.

Probability seems quite difficult to understand for most people. Here are a few conundrums as examples…

  • If I toss a coin and get five heads in a row, what is the probability of the next coin toss delivering heads? Exactly 50%, just like it was for the previous five tosses.
  • The median is not the same as the mean even though they are both measures of central tendency unless the data is normally distributed.
  • An unlikely event is not impossible — ask Nassim Taleb about black swans.
  • Correlation is not causation.
  • And here is a statistic that everyone should know — 8,000 per hour

These statistics and likelihoods and measures of distributions are not lies, they are vital to understanding risk and opportunity, the very essence of what policy for the collective benefit should be about. Minimising risk and maximising opportunities for as many citizens and visitors as possible.

Politicians are ignorant of this at our peril.


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Also let us know in the comments section if a short course on the scientific method would be of interest to you

Cardiologist

Cardiologist

Just before the lockdown, I made my annual pilgrimage to the hospital to see my cardiologist. It’s a long story to do with genes and familial lines and some inevitabilities of the way biology works.

The visit was a success from my end thanks to a fine doctor who is a sensible and pragmatic professional. His motto seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it’. This is somewhat unusual in our interventionist times and a bonus for me because the last thing I want is another procedure.

Anyway, we dealt with my heart issues fairly briskly and got onto stress.

This was a problem for me and the cardiologist agreed although he was quick to say that he was not qualified to advise on what I should do about it. My blood tests are good and my blood pressure in the middle of normal so from his perspective not much to be done.

My wife asked if retirement might be a solution.

“Oh no, that would not work,” he said, ‘you’re an environmental scientist right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well then, the stress will still be there even if you retire. This country is in a political mess.”

He was actually rather less polite than this but his point was a good one. There is a level of stress and malaise over many scientists right now in the age of spin, fake news and normative science.

Scientists, especially environmental ones, are purposely misunderstood, maligned and ignored.

I experience it every day.

When I try to speak the listeners switch off or glaze over. People seem to have no skills with logic and numbers and have no interest in gaining any. Anything more complex than 2 + 2 is near impossible to communicate.

The really important issues that involve an understanding of settled science, some skills with likelihoods, and the application of proper scepticism — these things are just not even in the conversation.


Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Time for scepticism

Why can’t I retire

Well, I can and I will, but only from the day job.

A lifetime of buzzing around as a lonely fly avoiding the wafts of the disinterested and the annoyed is debilitating. I’m knackered.

But then there the issues that still get me excited and incited. My normative feelings rush in and I’m wanting to say something, even if it is to extoll the virtue (another normative word) of being objective.

I will be my own worst enemy and keep on thinking about all this until I get hit by a bus.

Meantime there was another thing.

It was a relief to hear that the expert thinks my heart with its grafts is doing fine. Keep doing what you’re doing and come back in a year was the message. I will take that from a fellow scientist.

It was a shock to hear how much trouble he thought the world was in and that was before we had a pandemic.


A short primer

Normative science — science based on preference or value.

This means that it is not true science at all but an opinion or bias towards a particular outcome held by the scientist on her own behalf or by the people who support her.

Food and diet are obviously normative. They are both chockablock full of values. What we eat is what we can afford and what we choose based on our preferences that are rarely free of value.

There are ways to quite quickly decide if the science presented is normative.

1 – Look out for ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and value-laden words

In the English language, the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is critical. The use of the word ‘is’ determines a fact whilst ‘ought’ refers to an opinion.

Science should be all about the world of ‘is’, the facts about the past, present, or future. So if the language that a scientist uses has too many ‘oughts’ then there is a good chance she is being normative.

The use of ‘should’ is a giveaway too.

Bad, better, bigger, catastrophe, destroy, disaster, good, slashed, tremendous, ugly and all similar value-laden words and phrases are red flags for normative language.

2 – How was the evidence generated

True scientific evidence comes from deduction. This is a process of setting forth an idea as a hypothesis and testing it with an experiment where treatments are assigned to observational units at random.

Some evidence comes from observation alone. As the plane flies low over the savannah the elephants browsing below are counted. This tells us how many elephants there are viewable from the aircraft — an observation.

It is only an estimate of how many elephants there might be all together and tells us nothing about what elephants do or if their numbers are decreasing or on the rise.

The quality of evidence to explain how things work is really what science is about. Observation alone is rarely enough.

3 – Who provided the evidence?

If you are paid $100,000 a week to play soccer for a premier league team you would not want to score goals for the opposition. You are paid to score goals for your team.

Scientists are prone to this employer bias as much as anyone. If your boss wants to see great yield response in trails of the companies new fertilizer it will be hard to present evidence to the contrary. He might say you had a poor design and get you to repeat the experiment or worse.

Ask yourself who generated the evidence as well as how they did it. Academics are less likely to be based than scientists working for commercial companies and those who work for government agencies might be somewhere in between.

Beware though, for no one is immune.


Feel free to browse some more ideas for healthy thinking

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times, and are essential to the ecosystems humanity depends upon. They pollinate plants, are food for other creatures and recycle nature’s waste.

Damian Carrington, Environment editor, The Guardian, 24 April 2020

Nearly two years ago Alloporus first noted some worrying research on the decline of insects in Europe. with the key finding

More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas

Hallman et al (2017)

Alloporus’ comment was this

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase the risk to our already precarious food security.

At around the same time this post and research came out, two US researchers returned to a forested conservation reserve in Puerto Rico after 35 years and this is what they said…

We compared arthropod biomass in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest with data taken during the 1970s and found that biomass had fallen 10 to 60 times. Our analyses revealed synchronous declines in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat arthropods.

They published their results in a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences

Lister, B. C., & Garcia, A. (2018). Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(44), E10397-E10406.

The declines the authors put down to climate. It was too hot too often for the ground-dwelling invertebrates creating an upwards cascade through the food web.

In Europe insecticide use and habitat change, in a rainforest, climate change. Either way a serious problem.

Just to make sure this was not just an isolated result, Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, together with colleagues from around Germany and Russia completed a meta-analysis and

‘compiled data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 globally distributed sites and confirmed declines in terrestrial insects, albeit at lower rates than some other studies have reported and concluded that ‘Patterns of variation suggest that local-scale drivers are likely responsible for many changes in population trends, providing hope for directed conservation actions.’

So it’s happening. Roughly 25% declines in insects across the board in a generation, with insects faring only slightly better in nature reserves than outside protected areas.

The conclusion, terrestrial insects are declining in numbers and variety and, as is typical for nature, this loss is patchy, occurs at differing rates and from multiple causes.

Klink and his colleagues took hope from this result. You can see why. If climate change was the cause everywhere, then there is a serious global catastrophe in the offing where the rates of decomposition and nutrient transfer are altered across a wide range of biomes and habitats affecting many land uses, especially primary production.

This would not be about species loss in the way it is for the koala. A cute thing that we like to see in the zoo and maybe take a selfie with one held up by a zookeeper, the cuddly critter that might become extinct. This is about the loss of function, loss of ecosystem services that we cannot do without or easily replace.

Instead, Klink and his colleagues found multiple, often local causes. This they interpret as a solvable problem. Conservation and restoration efforts could help local populations recover.

As regular readers will know, Alloporus has to work hard to be this optimistic.

Until the economy through the supply chains feels the hit of the loss of services little will be done. The efforts of the few with the koala saving gene will be epic, they will try their best, but it will not be enough.

If lockdown with its boredom, ingenuity and the appearance of clean air all around the place tells us anything, it should be that we can survive on relatively little.

Only part of that little has to be food and water.

Imagine lockdown with the supermarket shelves empty of food. That would put toilet paper shortages into perspective for us.

It is trite to say it, and sad that it has to be said again and again, but it is true — nature matters to our very existence.


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Social cohesion in a time of isolation

Social cohesion in a time of isolation

A few years ago now a serious bushfire passed just to the north of our house. It destroyed over a hundred homes and our back fence. We are still hyper-vigilant in spring when the hot westerlies push hard across eastern Australia and yet what I remember most from that tense experience is the sense of community that appeared spontaneously during the crisis.

Neighbours helping neighbours and everyone helping the firemen and rural fire service volunteers tackling the blaze. People variously wielded rakes, took turns on the garden hoses, made tea or simply offered nervous encouragement. It felt like a group effort.

David Shearman talks of something similar that happened in Britain during WW2 where people came together through far more severe and prolonged trauma.

“Britain was a united and cohesive community. Young and old worked daily in small ways for the common cause. But most importantly, in the free world, two countries — Britain and the US — had leaders in Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt who could explain the need for duty and sacrifice.”

David Shearman

Our bushfire experience of cooperation was certainly coordinated. The RFS Commissioner was constantly in the media providing information and advice. On the ground, the fire crews listened to their seniors and whoever was on the other end of the radio. Civilians readily followed their lead.

Firebreaks were raked, back burns set and helicopters dumped water judiciously to slow the fire enough for the hoses to protect houses. It was planned and calmly executed with everyone chipping in with what they could.

Most of the people in the street had seen bushfire before. It comes with the flammable treed territory we chose to live in. Recognition of the threat was ingrained through experience, so there was little need for Churchillian scale motivation.

This is probably true whenever something frightening becomes real and dangerous. Humans clearly have the cooperation gene even if it may only express itself in extremis. Even so, some leadership is required. There has to be some sense of need or a clear explanation of it.

Danger felt by everyone is the core ingredient for cohesion. Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real. Fear can bring people together.

Not all the neighbours were in on the group effort. At least one family were too frightened to leave their home. We actually thought they were out or had left, until at the height of the crisis with a fireman hosing down their wooden deck as some protection from embers, there was movement inside the house. Perhaps they needed the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.

Despite this, I easily recollect the cohesion that created much more than the sum of the parts. What I also recall is how fast it dissipated.

It took a day for the fire to burn most of the fuel in the bush around our homes. That night there was still eery red glows from scattered tree stumps. A day later and it was just char and ash. The threat had passed.

Heroic rural firefighter doing a great job in our backyard

Then we began to realise that this wildfire was a devastating event for the community. Everyone knew someone who had lost their home. A collection point for food and clothing was soon overflowing with gifts and volunteers. The fire was the topic of conversation wherever people met purging themselves of their fearful experiences. It was a human emergency for several months and then it wasn’t.

A great purveyor of entropy cut a swath through us and people responded to defy it. They rallied and returned things to our sense of normal with great speed.

Then we all forgot about it.

At least that is what it feels like. Every now and then memory is triggered or a newcomer is told the stories of the fateful day but mostly it is history. Some regulations have changed, fire preparedness is reinforced and we all look up at the sound of a helicopter. But the cohesion has gone.

I imagine that it will come back when the next fire comes along. It will because bushland in this part of Australia burns regularly, every decade or so on average in these parts. So in a short while cohesion will be called and I have no doubt that the residents will respond as spontaneously as they did in 2013.


Sure enough 2019-20 bushfire season was horrific.

Our little community escaped the worst but we had two monster fires, one to the north that burned within a few kilometres of our suburb and one to the south that threatened to do the same for the best part of a month.

People were cohesive. They helped each other out and were endlessly grateful to the fire services and the volunteers that provided assistance to the hundreds of people who lost homes, livestock, infrastructure and in a some tragic cases their lives.

No political leaders emerged during this crisis. The prime minister went on holiday to Hawaii and had to rush back with his tail between his legs. The state leadership did their best but really did not know what to do.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, stood up and showed everyone how it should be done. He was truthful, blunt and yet caring all at the same time. His leadership got the collective through.

Locally, it was the mayors that stood up. Ours, Mark Greenhill, Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, took to FB to give daily updates of the operations in our district. He was tirelessly present with the firefighters and the support staff and went above and beyond to provide the cohesion people needed.

People really do rally around individuals or each other when the heat is on but then readily dissipate into their own worlds when the crisis passes.

The drought crisis that turned into a bushfire crisis that has turned into a pandemic crisis means we have been overdone with cohesion of late.

The question is will vacuum return. Will leadership that is only present in extremis fade away when the calm returns as it surely will.

This is a rare opportunity for it to stick around.


If you like the posts on Alloporus please share with your friends who might need something to read in isolation.

More brumbies

More brumbies

Eighteen months ago Allporus posted a piece on the brumby, what Australians call wild horses, specifically the controversy over the NSW Government passing the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses in the national park. This is a law protects a known driver of biodiversity loss.

It was one of the more bizarre decisions that politics is capable of throwing up and is another example of the worrying trend to ignore science whenever it suits.

A few months after that post came out an aerial wildlife survey of the alpine national parks and surrounding state forests in NSW and Victoria was conducted, a follow up to a similar survey of the same area five years earlier.

In that time between surveys, the feral horse population has more than doubled from 9,187 in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019.

This is a growth rate of 24% per year.

It’s a great ‘I told you so’ story.

These animals are introduced. They are not native, repeat, not native.

They are big, bulky and hard-hoofed grazing animals, features that no other herbivore in these habitats has. The last big herbivores were browsers, the Diprotodons that likely died out 12,000 years ago.

Horses will alter vegetation. It will mean some sensitive plant species will be lost along with the invertebrates that go with them. Other plants will come in on the back of the disturbance and some of them will be invasive themselves.

More importantly than this, the ecological integrity of the alpine systems will be altered by horses.

And we now know who promoted it.


Since this little whinge was written the politicians of all hues have been standing next to scientists, patting them on the back and seeking out their learned advice; as they should.

The politicians who are not listening to their health professionals will have a big problem getting re-elected after COVID-19 has passed through the world on its first journey. The epidemiologists know what they are talking about, they know what it takes to slow a pandemic and the logistics folk know what the limits are to the capacity and capability of the health systems.

The problems of a pandemic are acute and affect everyone. The public expects that all sensible advice should be consulted and heeded.

The thing is that the conservation scientists, the biodiversity specialists and the wildlife biologists, well, they know their shit too. Just because their knowledge might save non-human lives, even whole species, of native plants and animals, it is no less valid as science.

So here is the truth.

Remember that all political decisions are value-based. They are not based on science unless the science aligns with the dominant value.

We are grateful that it does when human lives and livelihoods are at stake.

When the human stakes are lower we would do well to be grateful for science then too.

What happens after the COVID-19 virus?

What happens after the COVID-19 virus?

As I write this post there is no toilet paper in the supermarket and not much in the way of pasta, rice or tinned veggies. The frozen foods section is cleaned out and eggs are down to the last couple of dozen. The long-life milk is restricted to two per customer but on the upside, remarkably, the fresh food is as abundant in variety and quality as ever. The deli counter looks like it always has and there is every cut of meat you could wish for waiting for a culinary touch.

It’s weird.

I am wiping down the trolly handle with anti-bacteria surface cleaner and I have no idea if it is dumb or not. I scratch my nose. Idiot, can’t even get the basics right.

I leave the store with a trolley load of provisions nearly identical to the loads carried home before this virus changed everything. I say thank you to the ether with gratitude for my good fortune. Then I say it again.

I try desperately not to give in to the mischievous imp on my shoulder telling me it will not last, make the most of it.

Is he right, that little fear-mongering bugger? Can supply chains keep going with everyone locked down?

I have no idea. Not the foggiest.

This is the new world we have entered. The place of lockdown and isolation, witty memes and singing on balconies. A place where nobody knows if they can protect themselves from the virus and where some seem not to care at all if they do, for themselves or others.

Nobody knows if it will last weeks or months or if the fallout will take years for the world to recover. The economists are delighted for they are in fashion again even though they have absolutely no idea why the neo-liberals resumed the rampant printing of money for the biggest social programs in history.

And in Belarus, they are still singing on the terraces at soccer games.

Unable to fathom any of this I took to thinking what it might look like after the virus.

We could have got so used to working from home that we actually quite like it and persuade companies that this should be the norm and flex days are the ones we go into an office rented just for the purpose.

Only the mothers with young children decide that this home schooling thing is too much and can’t wait to send their kids back to the organised daycare of the education system so they can enjoy the working from home.

We actually got used to fortnightly grocery trips and online orders so much that the shopping malls were converted into community centres for recreation and social persuits. The old folks in the day and the yongsters at night.

So as not to get too worried about the money situation we voted in governments that introduced a liveable universal income with incentives for working two to three days a week on jobs that get us out of the house, away from our partners and keep the place clean and tidy.

They also agreed that they would underwrite the supply chains so that we didn’t have to accumulate personal wealth for a rainy day.

We enjoyed the cleaner air and the lower emissions so much that we agreed staying at home was actually preferable to burning fossil fuels and we would only take trips in electric vehicles from now on. There was a global competition with grand prizes for the invention of fast train and air travel without all the mess.

The mental fallout from the virus was so great that psychology became the most sought after training in colleges and universities and along with the guaranteed income was universal access to mental health care.

The governments realised that QE was actually not going to send inflation up in a rocket and that the concept of money, lending and borrowing against yourself did not actually bring the house of cards down. What they came to realise was that the resource base was what mattered all along. So they invested heavily in understanding how much we needed to look after land, water and the natural world for all its services. They even figured out that soil was the most important resource of all.

Along with this back to nature came a surge in technological advances that made everything and everyone more efficient. Robots with AI blockers built in made all the mudane work routine freeing everyone to work only as they wanted and on service tasks, the necessarily touchy feely work that make us all human for thanks to some very smart researchers a universal viral vaccine was invented that kept us safe from COVID-26.

All up the world became a much better place. There were rouges and the mentally disturbed and the accidents and the unwanted deaths from neglect or stupidity but, all in all, the world was cleaner, smarter and a lot safer place to live.

This is what step changes can do.

They can make us all smile.


Please share or add your ideas for the nice changes we could make happen.