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.

One rule for you and one for the politician

One rule for you and one for the politician

There is a debate going on in Australia at the moment about superannuation. In particular, the percentage of superannuation payments that companies must make for each employee. 

Currently, the law says that 9.5% of the base salary is the minimum requirement. 

Some companies go with more than that in order to provide attractive remuneration for staff. For example, the university sector has very generous superannuation levels well into double figures. But overall, weak investment returns and stock market volatility will leave many workers with modest super at retirement.

In response to this future problem, the Federal government promised to raise the minimum rate of employer superannuation contribution to 12%. 

This has benefits to workers but also to the economy as a whole when those workers become retirees and have more money to spend. 

Only the Australian PM Scott Morrison is considering delaying the legislated increase from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent…  to protect jobs.

It is a boon for politicians to stand up and say “isn’t it wonderful that we are trying to improve the superannuation rate”. Even if they then say that they will delay it to protect jobs in tough times.

When the PM or any of his ministers stands up to speak though, he probably doesn’t tell everybody that his superannuation as a member of Parliament is already 15%. 

Imagine standing up and saying well, ladies and gentlemen, I get 15 per cent you get nine and a bit, but we’re going to raise yours a little bit or maybe not now that COVID-19 has stuffed everything up.

That is really not going to go down too well – one rule for you and one rule for me. 

Please mind the gap

Please mind the gap

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

Here are some interesting numbers

  • Jeff Bezos is worth $US183 billion according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.
  • Since March 2020 when the COVID pandemic was declared, Bezos’ wealth has swelled by $US67 billion.
  • His income is roughly $US2,000 per second.

The arrival of the COVID pandemic with its lockdowns, social distancing, and unprecedented hand sanitisation has been a shock. It’s jolted perception of the way the world works and made a few folks think twice about how our societies function.

People are reminding themselves of exactly what goes on in the system of economic production and social organization. The one structured around profit. The successful are those who are able to sniff profit from gaps in the market, new products, and price anomalies — the everyday activity of trade.

And trade makes us all happy from shoppers to shopkeepers, groceries wholesalers or investment bankers who trade in futures, derivatives and their latest invention for a complex financial instrument. It doesn’t matter what type of financial transaction you’re engaged in, ultimately you’re looking for more in return than you give away.

It is often said that the best products are those where the buyer perceives greater value than he’s giving you in payment. Only you must receive from him more than it costs you to deliver the goods or service.

When this happens everyone wins.

So what is there to question given that the pandemic is, after all, just a blip in the never ending growth trajectory? Well, how about the privatization of asset recycling and the fundamental belief that free trade and minimum government will maximize our society and the profit opportunity?

Apparently, the theory of free trade and the mathematical formula that underpin it still holds true. Minimum government is ideal until there is no work for people to do and then maximum government is necessary, spending big by printing money to prevent everything crashing, and, of course, maintaining the opportunity for profit. Governments whose prime agenda had been to balance the books have racked up extraordinary levels of debt. Global debt in US dollars is now pushing US$270 trillion. That’s an increase of $50 trillion in less than five years.

Great success according to Jeff; US$2,000 a second anyone?

Over the years of promoting profit, growth and more growth, many economists jettisoned an equally important concept on the other side of the ledger. They forgot about distribution. What should happen for any system of trade to be sustainable is that the wealth creation is evenly distributed or at least has the potential to flow down to the lower levels of the system. If it doesn’t flow fast or far enough then a critical mass of people might become disgruntled enough to cause a ruckus.

Only what we’ve seen is that the distribution of wealth is now concentrated more and more into fewer and fewer people.

Check out this excellent website that shows just how much wealth is concentrated into first Mr Bezos’ accounts and then those of the 200 most wealthy people in the US.

Take your time, it is hard to fathom.

The gap between the unimaginable levels of wealth of the people controlling the money compared to working-class living is growing and not because living standards in the developed world have declined in recent decades. The decline that fueled the popularism that delivered Trump his presidency.

It is because of wealth creation and concentration.

The liberalization of financial markets has seen debt levels explode at a national corporate and personal level. There’s now so much cash injected into the global financial system by reserve banks that the traditional business cycles have halted. It’s added to our past excesses, rather than curbing them. And all the while the wealth has become ever more concentrated at the top.

The .com crash added debt. The global financial crisis was solved with more debt. Now we have the COVID health crisis shutting down the global economy and the solution is even more debt.

Remember what debt is ”an obligation that requires one party, the debtor, to pay money or other agreed-upon value to another party, the creditor” only a huge chunk of this printed money is making a handful of people… Well, you know what I am saying.

There are only three possible outcomes. One is that central banks wind that an economic recovery allows them to withdraw their stimulus without collapsing asset prices like stocks and housing. The second is that governments take over pick up the slack in jobs and corporate cooperate with each other the solved global poverty and equality. The third is war this yard uses the most likely and the least pleasant outcome.

Victor Schvets, Macquarie group managing director and group head of Asia Pacific.

Go on, read another post or better still share this one on Facebook — they are looking for material these days!

Trump lost but Trumpism didn’t

Trump lost but Trumpism didn’t

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

We’ve seen that Donald Trump was a bumbling politician, had no idea what he was doing, and had no idea of how to win an election. He fluked the first one on the back of heavy popularism and failed miserably to repeat the exercise.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that the US election result in 2020 was a great win for common sense. For the sensible majority to pat themselves on the back for coming back from the brink of disaster.

Except that, number one, Trump was elected the first time around.

Number two, he still won more votes in the election the second time around than any other President has won bar Biden. Seventy million people plus thought he was still a good idea. Even after four years of total nonsense and chaos.

And it would be very wrong indeed for Democrats to simply assume that it’s all back to business as usual. Bask in the joys of a net majority in the population and win on the back of that whilst hoping that the status quo will return.

Heads up, there is no question that popularism will come back.

The right will continue to develop more competent candidates for future presidential elections. It has happened already in other countries around the world: India, Brazil. Russia, Turkey already have competent politicians who fit what you might loosely call Trumpism. A would-be strong populist stance, only they are much better at it than the Donald.

This problem is that division is not going away just because Trump was removed — well, at the time of writing he still hasn’t actually gone, but we’ll assume that justice will be done and eventually the oval office will be vacated. The reason Trumpism won’t go away is because of what it represents. It’s actually all about resources and access to the wealth that those resources create. For with wealth comes power.

The human instinct is to grab and obtain power, maintain it, and grow it. A reflex that has given us success as a species and will never go away.

Breaking down this approach that is so innate in our biology, if we hadn’t grabbed resources and concentrated them in organised units, then we would not be here having this conversation using this technology. To simply remove that approach is not only difficult biologically, but it’s also near impossible psychologically. Hence the failure of communism, evening things out is simply not how humanity works.

Humans are designed to be competitive and to want winners and losers in the system. Politics is about giving a safe place for those winning and losing wars to be fought and for outcomes to be given at least a little empathy and equity. The reality is that in recent times the wars are being won by the right, by people with a lack of empathy and a very strong sense of that wealth creation gene that leads to power — those of us alive in the UK during the decade of Margaret Thatcher experienced something similar.

So don’t be surprised at all if much more competent Trumps appear. They won’t be orange, they won’t tweet all day, and they won’t play golf when it’s time to make a decision.

They will be as hard and as politically savvy as anything we’ve ever seen. And they will push their agendas as forcefully as any other political party that you could imagine. The only way to win against such candidates is to galvanise the majority who we hope, and I say hope because I’m not convinced of this, are fair-minded and empathic to others. Then for everyone to become aware that wealth is not the be-all and end-all and that there is a moral responsibility to look after the less fortunate.

Ironically, most modern societies actually do this rather well.

In many countries, there is a solid and functioning education system, law enforcement, healthcare of sorts, and realistic infrastructure. Many of these services are provided by the taxpayer so they are paid for before households have discretionary funds. These systems provide opportunity and support people.

Obviously, it is not perfect. There are many who are not supported well enough and do not have sufficient opportunity. The thinking is that these were the Trump base, the disadvantaged and the stagnant, those who lost faith that there was an opportunity.

Maybe so but there are 70+ million of them in the US alone. It’s hard to believe that they nearly made a majority, that is ‘most people’.

It means that the things said and done by governments, even the centrist ones, have failed to maintain the well-being of everyone whilst still allowing the system to continue to progress in technology and wealth. What was working ‘rather well’ isn’t anymore.

Centrists beware. Trump was a was not an aberration. He was lucky and he took advantage of an opportunity. But there will be people who will follow him that have a better grasp of the politics and better grasp of the policy in order to push that right-wing agenda of more rewards for the winners and more pain for the losers.

They are unlikely to appease those who lack opportunity but that does not seem to matter. In the time it takes for their popularity to wain a great deal will change.

Are we ready enough to cope?


Thanks for reading these posts, it really helps to know that they might tweak some healthy thinking

In what universe can you believe that?

In what universe can you believe that?

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

According to a Gallup poll, the proportion of Americans who identify as Republicans and are satisfied with the way things are going in the US reached 39% in October 2020 up from 20% in July. This compares to the October number for Democrats of only 5%.

On what planet does 40% of a particular section of a community agree that the way things are going are satisfactory when the US is in such an incredible mess?

There is the COVID problem with world-leading infection and death rates, the racism problem, the sexism and misogyny, the general incompetence of Trump… What more is there?

Well, there is gun control, climate change including some of the worse bush fires on record, domestic violence, trade tariffs, unemployment, incarceration rates, national debt, and the long, long list of western ills that we don’t seem able to fix.

It doesn’t make any sense as to why 2 in 5 Republicans think that everything is going well. What would it take for them to say that it’s not going well?

More to the point what has happened between July and October to double the satisfaction rate? That 20% increase is bizarre. It could be that the polling technique was flawed or maybe the sample size is small or biased. But it’s hard to imagine that during the course of a major pandemic with substantial hits to the economy and personal freedoms through lockdowns along with job losses and massive debt, that everything is satisfactory. What kind of craziness brings out such a statement in people is really hard to figure out.

Should we take notice of polling? Well, most politicians would argue no. But the stark thing here is that only 5% of respondents identifying themselves as Democrats were satisfied with the way things are going. So Democrats are panicked or at least concerned while Republicans think it’s fine.

This is the growing separation of political view in the US which is interesting after decades of convergence onto centrist type policies on most of the issues that matter. A division in the political stance at least gives people something to adhere to and to be against.

Here is…

another astonishing statistic

Recall what QAnon actually is

At its heart, QAnon is a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.

QAnon believers have speculated that this fight will lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.

QAnon: What it is and where did it come from, BBC Reality Check

So 2 in 5 Republicans believe in conspiracy theory and nearly 1 in 5 Democrats do too. This is just as alarming. What goes through a person’s mind to allow these two statistics to appear? What were they thinking?

The answer is that they don’t.

There is a dearth of critical thinking on all sides. Instead, it is easier to think fast in the Daniel Kahneman sense, and not force any detailed analysis or appraisal of the evidence, not even a quick reality check.

People can then exist in a kind of bubble that comfortably fits their current world view and only engage with material that supports it. Confirmation evidence is easy to determine because it feels good. Evidence or views that feel off or a bit uncomfortable is just those nasty GOPs or lefties depending on the colour of your own bubble. These views can be just shouted down or, where necessary, trolled. Heck, if that doesn’t work there is always a demonstration.

Ask any of the 40% if they have thought carefully about what they say they agree with and they will confirm that they have, very carefully. This is the elegance of a bubble. It wafts a gentle lullaby over you to make believe that thinking has happened… by someone else. No need for me to do any heavy lifting, if the POTUS tweeted it, it must be true.

And so here we are at the end of 2020. A frantic and genuinely eventful year. When we need to be thinking about what amazing opportunities the circuit breaker of a global pandemic can give us, 24% of Americans think QAnon claims are accurate.

Get thinking people, truly.


Think about it, you have to repost this one.

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Over two years from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people in four successive waves, representing one in three of the world’s population at the time.

The death toll was estimated at somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

At the time, there was no cure or vaccine. Indeed people didn’t really understand how contagion from airborne particles happened. Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene, all exacerbated by the recent war, promoted a bacterial superinfection that killed most of the victims. It also impacted young adults as well as the young and old. Everyone will have known someone who’d been sick and many would have known someone who passed. The high infection and death rates made those two years an extraordinarily scary time for people who had only just suffered through WW1. People must have thought that the world was coming to an end.

No doubt levels of psychological damage, depression and anxiety in the population must have spiked. But back then wellbeing issues were not big for the medical profession. People were tough, they thought, used to a hard life and living from one day to the next.

Nobody could have imagined that one hundred years later society would be larger, more wealthy and more populous with extraordinary and impossible technologies. Mass transport across the globe, information streamed into tiny hand-held devices with all of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.

Or that there would be another pandemic severe enough to change behaviors and the collective outlook on the world.

As at 11 October 2020, COVID-19 has reached 37 million confirmed cases with 1.07 million deaths. So far an order of magnitude fewer infections and deaths than the Spanish flu and a much smaller proportion of the global population is infected, although this will no doubt rise as future waves of infections emerge. The impact though is just as severe, the sadness of deaths, the pain and suffering of those with symptoms and the chaos of the global disruptions to jobs, lifestyles and economies. It is not going to be the same again. The death rates may be not so high as they were for the Spanish flu, but still many are dying and the number of infections continues to rise across the world.

Politicians have taken all sorts of different approaches to coping with the problem. Most options target the virus and yet the psychological ailments are as acute as they were a hundred years ago; affecting people in ways that we might not fully understand.

Most people seem to be putting on a brave face. Nothing to see here, life is still normal, the new normal.

Only we are all struggling with the change. Struggling to know what it’s all going to look like ourselves, our children and their grandchildren.

Workplaces are dispersed and we’re learning to communicate from separate rooms in the absence of body language. We underestimate that lack of contact in the room at our peril. It will influence the way decisions are made.

Those who relied on the inane meeting to suck up work time. The endless discussions that go nowhere and have little use beyond filling up the day are no more. Somehow there was a way of getting away with that type of unproductive interaction with everyone in the same room. Online they are not the same. Online meetings do not pass the time before beer o’clock in quite the same way.

Online people are disengaged, often not even looking at the screen with the grid of faces on it. But are busy in other activities with their brain not into the content at all — the whole process becomes excruciating for everyone.

Alloporus believes that our lack of focus on the things that matter, and our inability to make core decisions about things, is the most troubling consequence.

How does lack of focus translate?

It exposes people that really don’t have anything to say about topics. Because they either don’t understand the topic they are not across their brief nor do they have a foundation of knowledge that they need to make a contribution.

If added to this is underlying angst and concern over the consequences of the virus. Then we’re beginning to see some very difficult behaviors, subconsciously protecting themselves from their uncertainty. I’m not sure what the solution to this is beyond technology that it’s there.

And for people to begin to accept that. All of us need to maintain our skill sets. And maintain our knowledge base even if we are distributed. It’s an opportunity to actually get a lot better at what we do and hopefully in some workplaces this is happening.

Focusing or spending less time in the meeting and more time understanding their portfolio so that they can make better decisions when they do come together with their colleagues.

Let’s hope that we can use this shift in the way that we do business to engage in the learning process and build up our knowledge again. I suggest one of the places to start in this process is knowledge about the general response of this virus and the consequences for the planet. Not so much the health consequences and how we’re going to beat it or how we’re going to engage in a war with it, but how we’re going to tackle the enormous challenges that face. The problems that were there before the virus impacted that are now more acute because of the pandemic.

The topics that come to mind we talk about on this blog all the while.

Food security — from production gains to meet demand to understanding how we’re going to adapt to climate change.

Land use — how to recognize and acknowledge and then decide what to do about our choice of what to do with land.

Ecosystem services — how they are distributed and delivered across the landscape.

Water — where our fresh water’s going to come from.

Food production methods — what mix of technologies to put alongside traditional methods of food production for the next 100 years. ]

Diet — what we are eating and if this needs to change for a diet that is not achievable but also healthy for ourselves and for the population as a whole.

Education — Are we teaching youngsters enough about the right sort of things.

Healthy scepticism — we need skeptics who do not believe everything seen and heard without finding the facts and the evidence. And therefore ignore the opinion and the gossip.

We also need to acknowledge our angst and anxiety about the state of affairs. The worst possible outcome really is that we bury our heads in the sand and decide not to hear, not to see, and not to speak about any of these matters.

The wise monkeys are not quite as wise as we thought they were.

Failure to communicate about these matters in adult conversation will bring on our worst fears faster. The things we are most concerned and scared of will come to pass.

Now is the time for us to embrace our intelligence and educate each other, learn from each other, and build opportunities and solutions that are going to keep us going into future generations.


Reposting is fine by me.

The bright side of the moon

The bright side of the moon

Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The bright side of the moon

It is early in the morning, crisp spring air cools the cheeks and sends earlobes numb. On the canvas of a beautiful blue sky is painted the moon, still risen and large enough to see it’s sculptured surface with the naked eye.

Against its pale blue background, the dark craters on the surface blend with their grey colour and invite thoughts of what it would be like to visit, a nice place to go, colourful, pleasant, calm.

And then comes the reality of what it is actually like out there. A massive rock orbiting in the blackness of space where no human could survive for more than a minute without the aid of technology.

An orange satellite sitting in a black galaxy.

Alloporus

There’s something about the human condition that means we always see an image rather than reality. I guarantee that most people who look at that moon in its picturesque blue backdrop see an invite to go there. They feel like they’ve been given a ticket on the first rocket ship to carry tourists to such an extraordinary place.

Not in our grandchildren’s lifetime, will we be able to do anything serious in space. We will generate a lot of space junk flying around in orbit above us. And various companies and countries will try to snaffle some resources or make money on the back of the curious. But the reality is the physics and the simple scale of the universe make even visiting our solar system a task beyond our current technologies and the laws of physics as we understand them.

Unless someone can crack moving faster than the speed of light, then we are destined to stay here on our own in this tiny corner of the universe, in our own blip in time.

This should be sobering. Then it should be a delight to recognize our uniqueness.

Sure, there are other life forms out there. Enjoying or not their own blip of existence. But the physics of it all means that we won’t see them and they won’t see us.

And yet the reality is that we are no more suited to be in outer space than we are to dominate planet earth. I know it says in the bible that we should have dominion but that is just some self-assurance. The truth may be closer to our survival chances on the moon.

On earth, we change everything to our own devices for our own purposes and needs. And have done for centuries. We’ve been so good at it that the planet is barely recognizable. The moon has seen the changes on the blue planet and wonders what’s going on down there?

At the moment it seems that what is going on is aggrandisement through a focus on self.

And, as written many times on this blog, there are very sensible and logical evolutionary reasons why that is a default position. Our biology is to make more and we are extremely good at it.

What we fail to realize is how hard it would be to change that biology. So that our blip in time in this tiny corner of the universe would be anything more than a path to our own mutual destruction. We would have to go against our nature in order to persist. Resources must be shared beyond our kin. We would have to restore and rehabilitate land that we had previously pilfered for its benefits.

Most of all, we would need tolerance. Recognize that other people part of the story too. Not because they are likeable or even because they are like us but because they’re here, that’s all.

And without other people onboard, the system breaks down into all the old patterns. It’s an ‘in this together’ kind of game. We either all come and collectively understand the consequences of failure to acknowledge each other and work together or we go extinct.

And I know what you will say. Many people have said this many times before. But we are still here, still creating technologies to keep our supply chains and systems moving — ever bigger, ever better.

We probably have a few decades, maybe even a century or two left to keep doing that to keep on that track. Malthus, Ehrlich and others who prophesied doom from overpopulation are not yet prophets. But they will be. There will be a crash. It will be ugly and whether or not we come out the other side in any sort of shape at all is determined by what we do now.

If we do nothing the crash will be deep and very painful. And what comes out of the other end will be a handful of unfortunate folks scrambling for what’s left. If we behave ourselves and begin to cooperate and talk and identify the things that really matter then there is a chance that the crash can be managed. A softer landing if you like. And what’s left behind could be in better shape.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks. Given the development of a new project around food, ecology and diet — sustainably FED — and fictional writing of climbing to the meet and the conversations of Paul Sorol. Reflecting on what our chances of getting through really are.

Locally the chances are good.

In a crisis, people do help each other. We’ve talked about that on this blog many times before.

But once the crisis is over and the local situation calms that helping hand does tend to fade away.

Keeping that crisis momentum going is also not what you want to do. Nobody wants to live with heightened alertness the whole time unless that happens to be your psychology.

Moving towards something that is worth keeping is the key. That involves our awareness and is the challenging part. It’s not that we don’t have empathy. Not that we don’t have the ability to go operate clearly we do. But just not enough for long enough to see us through to a soft landing.

I do not have an answer. It would be good to find one but I simply don’t have one at this point. As to how we would do that.

And my apologies for another pessimistic post. But hopefully, you can see the kernels of optimism.

There’s still a chance even at this late hour for humanity to not just turn things around but to make the future much brighter than it seems that present.

Right now we’re heading for some dark times. Unpleasant politics, leadership that is either inept or not leadership at all, but authoritarianism by any other name.

A pandemic continues to cause havoc with everything around the world, changing what we thought was our normal lives.

But it’s this time of apparent darkness that it is possible to see the moon at its brightest against that blue background and to think of it as a place worth visiting.


Please share to help us all reach for the stars and find the moon.