All you have to do is sign up

All you have to do is sign up

Ever wondered why, despite all the conferences, treaties, international agreements and other excuses to travel around the world to expensive hotels, nothing seems to get done.

Targets are set and not met, only to be reset again.

And the process of resetting requires another swag of conferences to thrash out the new agreement.

Once the convention wording is agreed upon, often, we are told, in the early hours of the morning by emotional delegates who have put their hearts, souls and grandmas pension into the negotiation, the countries sign up. 

Here are the signup rates for a baker’s dozen conventions and international agreements since 1971.

graph shoing the rate of countries signing international conventions

There are 195 countries in the world today. This total comprises 193 countries that are member states of the United Nations and 2 countries that are non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine.


Most countries sign up on the day—one-time offer deals that make you look bad for any hesitation. These are the steep curves on the graph like the UNFCCC, UNCCD and the CBD. Everyone in the room will notice if you skip past the table with the dude offering the fountain pen.

Some agreements are hard to make, especially if you are morally or politically compromised by what they expect. These are ok to dodge for a while or not sign up to at all—for example, the Ramsar convention on wetland or the conservation of migratory species. 

Heads of delegation smile, offer platitudes, thanks, and support for the premise of the agreement, “but we don’t have any wetlands or birds in our country”.

A quarter of countries avoid signing half the agreements, presumably not the same countries each time. Although some likely suspects do emerge as repeat non-signatories. In other words, it is acceptable to ignore a convention if needs must.

Signing up on the day and not signing up seems the opposite. But if the conventions do not achieve any results—settled science tells us that biodiversity loss is accelerating and greenhouse gas levels are increasing steadily—then both options come from the same place. 

Both responses gain kudos, the national equivalent of an ego stroke. 

Because if everyone signs these things but nothing happens, we healthy sceptics are left to conclude that the elusive ‘goodwill’ of putting disparate nations in a room together every few months for some wine and cheese is the extent of the outcomes.

Let’s hope this, plus a few trade deals on the side is enough.


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Johnson’s erratic relationship with the truth

Johnson’s erratic relationship with the truth

Boris is gone, well, almost. 

The UK will soon see the back of their lying toerag of a prime minister who effortlessly broke the ‘economical with the truth’ adage attributed to Edmund Burke, who wrote in 1795 

Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an œconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.

Johnson is just a liar.

The odd thing is that everyone knew his pathology because it followed him throughout his public life. He didn’t try to hide it. Indeed his was more Trumpesque doubling down tactics whenever questioned. 

And for way too long, it worked. 

A few more torrid weeks from now and the only prime minister known to have broken the law whilst in office might be gone; for a while. Recall that there have been many political comebacks, and there is always the truth about bad smells.

What I find curious, having already talked about the lessons for democracy and the vacuum of leadership in general among modern-day politicians, is how such an unsavoury character like Boris Johnson happened—not the excruciating going but the coming.  

I know there are commentators with an excellent grasp of political economy and public sentiment that will describe the proximate causes, most likely to do with an electorate who were up their epiglottis in the Brexit stalemate and just wanted it done. But what was it ultimately? Did the UK people pay such little attention that they went to the voting day booth and forgot the top job candidate was only in it for himself?

Australians managed to come to their senses. We realised, perhaps just in time, that the muppets were not there for our best interests, and enough of us voted for the alternative, especially the predominantly women independents. It has only been a short time, but the new government is getting on with it, especially the repairs to our international reputation.

Back in Blighty, commentary has already switched to who the UK will get next. A series of whittling down votes by the MPs followed by a vote on the last two standing by conservative party members, roughly 200,000 people or 0.29% of the electorate, will determine who will receive the hospital pass from Boris who is still holding the ball and knocking over schoolkids.

The candidate list is long, and all of them are tainted by association.

Each one should start their campaigns by telling the truth. The last thing anyone wants is more of the same. 


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Noble savages

Noble savages

I was born in south London, Croydon to be precise, and lived in the UK until I was 26 years old. Today I am an Australian citizen, and in a few months, I will have lived in Sydney for 26 years.  

A lot has happened since I left to seek fame and fortune in far-flung lands, or was it to escape from the religion of my upbringing. You will need to read Paul Sorol to find the answers to that intergenerational conundrum. 

I lament what has become of my homeland as I watch its descent into parody from afar, and I worry for the future of its people. 

The latest escapades in the Boris saga make my previous sarcasm over political buffoonery sound tame. He is a disgrace but not half as his sycophants. Failure to endorse a no-confidence vote in an incoherent, toerag who lies to everyone is extreme cowardice. The shame will eat their souls in the end.

It is hard to imagine anything worse than fooling people into Brexit and partying during a lockdown to break the law of the land you just imposed, but it is coming—a food crisis.

Briefly, the UK does not grow enough food to feed everyone. There is a roughly 50% shortfall. The arrogant assumption of the muppets is that food can be purchased and imported as needed. Wake up. In the coming food shortage, families get fed first, not foreigners in a country with the worst economic outlook in the OECD. Why do you think China is shoring up its supplies?

I highly recommend reading the excellent book Feeding Britain by Tim Lang for a thorough explanation of the dire situation the UK is in, together with a logical and achievable list of solutions. Boris and his cronies have no excuse. Wise advisors have already told them the extent of the problem and how to fix it.

Food security has become my “outfit of the day” as I gather together my career in ecology into some pre-mortem eulogy. 

In thinking about how much food is grown, what society does to share that production around (or not), and the precarious prospects for global supply chains, I imagined that our cultural maturity would hold us in good stead. Well-educated, intelligent, technologically gifted people in democratic societies would be able to anticipate the challenges and figure out solutions, even if it took a global crisis to trigger deployment.

Then I came across this quote from Canadian historian and author Ronald Wright

When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.”

Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004, pp 50-51)

I had no idea. 

My schoolboy knowledge of the Aztecs did not cover such sophistication. I was blinkered by education in a country famous for its colonialism. The truth of expansionism is brutal; just ask the Ukranians.

What shocked me the most was the gaping hole it shot in my assumption about mature, gifted people being able to solve problems. Tragically the Aztecs couldn’t deal with the disruption heralded by Hernando Cortez in 1519, even with their high civilisation.

Maybe our modern version of civilisation will not be enough either because there is no invisible guiding hand on the tiller.

But it is ok; a few dipshit politicians still have a job.


Check out sustainably FED for over 120 posts with comments and suggestions to get everyone through the food, ecology and diet challenge.


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Rapid change has happened before

Rapid change has happened before

Alloporus is always on about the happenings of WW2

The loss and the horror are a stain on history that is painful to recall but stare past the nightmares of the war and remarkable things happened during the years of conflict. Here are a few of them.

The US government increased spending by an order of magnitude between 1940 and 1945 and spent more money (in current dollar terms) between 1942 and 1945 than it had in the 152 years prior to 1941. 

The US was in the war for three years and during that time manufactured 87,000 naval vessels, including 27 aircraft carriers, 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks and armoured cars and 44 billion rounds of ammunition. 

US soldiers on battle tanks. Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Whole towns and cities were turned into munitions factories all while many of the young men were serving in Europe and the Pacific. Women took on blue-collar jobs so there were workers to run the machines.

At the same time, the manufacture of cars was banned as was the construction of new homes. There was rationing of food, tyres and gasoline because it was considered fairer than taxing scarce goods. And to save fuel a national speed limit of 35mph was imposed.

Remember this is the US where libertarians rule and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was about to unleash the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s. McCarthyism was characterized by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.

Even in a society leery of socialism, the war produced an extraordinary collective effort in the US and an acceptance of government regulation. It was a similar story in the UK and even in the occupied countries, people resisted for the greater good.

If such collective will against the axis powers could bring such change and effort why not now when we need it again?

Here is what George Monbiot suggests 

Public hostility and indifference create a lack of political will.

Indeed, don’t look up.

I agree but would add another break on drastic responses — the ineptitude of our politicians.

Most of those in the big dog posts are there because they have a single skill, political surfing. They ride the political waves into positions of authority. Very few get there on intellectual merit, leadership skills or foresight.

It is not always their fault.

Our collective failure to recall history and use it to see the future means we have no sense of urgency. Indifference means we don’t ask for leaders with flair, vision or skills. We accept muppets

But the decisions needed now are as era-defining as those made by the US in the 1940s that won a war and set the country on a steeper industrial path.

We need that decisive force not just to deal with imperialist aggression but to feed everyone well.

More on the issues of global food, ecology and diet on sustainably FED


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Do we always have to pay the rent

Do we always have to pay the rent

When I was growing up through the 1970s the only financial advice that stuck with me was the rule of thirds on what to do with income. It was to allocate one third on rent, one third to spending for everyday living, and a third saved.

Oh, how naive; how quaint.

Today rents in England account for half of the tenants’ take-home pay if you are lucky enough to live outside London. In the big smoke expect the proportion to be 75%. 

The rent just ate the savings.

And for today’s younger renters there is no bailout from inheritance despite the apparent wealth of the baby boomers. The typical inheritance age in the UK is somewhere around 60, and the median amount handed down is about £11,000.

Not surprisingly the youth are not happy.

The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK, was brave enough to publish numbers that suggest 80% of youngsters blame capitalism for the housing crisis, 75% believe the climate emergency is “specifically a capitalist problem” and 72% back sweeping nationalisation. 

Worst statistic of all for a right-wing think tank—67% of youngsters want to live under a socialist economic system.

It’s a similar story in the US. 

A Harvard University study in 2016 found that more than 50% of young people reject capitalism, while a 2018 Gallup poll found that 45% of young Americans saw capitalism favourably, down from 68% in 2010.

So much for the libertarian land of opportunity. 

And so much for the trickle-down.

The numbers for youngsters do not add up anymore. 

At the end of 2021 in Sydney, the average house was selling for $1.36 million and units for $837,000 with a typical Sydney house about $340,000 more expensive than it was at the end of 2020. 

Take a deep breath for this statistic—the rise in value in a year matches the full cost of a house just 25 years ago.

Image modified from photo by Maximillian Conacher on Unsplash

Who can afford the mortgage?

Borrow the money to purchase one of these $1.3 million houses to avoid paying rent and you will need $65,000 on the minimum 5% deposit and expect to pay back the bank $4,500 a month for 30 years.

Total repayments of 1.62 million at $54,000 per year in after-tax dollars. 

The average salary of an Australian in 2021 was around A$99,600 per year with a wide range starting around A$33,000 and a median salary of A$72,000.

Assuming an approximate tax burden of 25%, a single person on $72,000 could pay the mortgage but would have zero dollars left for any of the other bills life throws their way.

Clearly, this is not sustainable.

Rather than do what most of us baby boomers would do and lament the loss of the picket fence and the Sundays spent painting it white, how about a reboot.

What if ownership was not the only route to the long-term security of house and home?

What if we invented new social norms that not only promoted rents but removed the landlord. Let’s take rent-seeking out of the equation and have society build the housing stock at cost, then rent that stock to individuals in the community at rates that reflect recovery of those costs and perhaps a modest return linked to the bank rate.

You know, the sort of thing a sovereign wealth fund could handle.

Just thinking.

Elections are no longer a contest of ideas

Elections are no longer a contest of ideas

Over on Medium, Alloporus posted on political naivety, asking the simple question: What is politics all about?

In the midst of berating myself for such simplicity, I came across Guardian journalist Peter Lewis more eloquently saying the same thing—our politics sucks.

Politics is no longer a contest of ideas that are formalised as policies but a free for all devoid of content with the weapons in the contest drawn from the marketing arsenal.

We have an election looming in Australia. The incumbent prime minister is supposedly a ninja at marketing. He certainly comes out with crass one-liners. Only they say more about his attitude to leadership than the outcome he wants.

“This is coal, don’t be scared”, “I don’t hold a hose, mate” and “It’s not a race” are marvellous phrases to capture the crises of climate, fire and flood.

What a legacy. 

Imagine being remembered for gaffs that scream to the world how out of touch you were at crisis time, despite sitting in the chair reserved for leading the nation. More worrying than not reading the room is disrespecting the chair, the failure to take responsibility for leading and the prime objective of keeping people safe. 

Now we are told that people don’t believe politicians so all the gaffs are just the noise of the media cycle and are ignored. And perhaps we don’t. 

But these are challenging times that will worsen before we figure out how to make things better—the climate is the least of our problems; when the food prices start to spike and there are shortages on the shelves—we need more. 

Heaven help us if the war in Ukraine escalates.

It is time to get that contest of ideas back.

I don’t want tragic events politicised, I want to see the ideas on energy, food security, defence, and all the usual suspects of jobs, education and health.

I want the politicians to bring substance, not lumps of coal and Hawaiian shirts.

I am naive, after all.


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The agreement to cooperate

The agreement to cooperate

Suppose I cut down a tree. 

I am keen to get the benefit from the wood at my feet. The tree trunk is enormous, raw, and not in any shape to be used. It needs to sit and dry out. Then I can fashion it into beams to repair the roof of my rondavel.

But the tree is far from my house. I cannot watch over it until it is dry. I have hunting and gathering to do, and maize beer to drink by the fire.

So I leave the tree where it fell.

My neighbour also needs to repair his roof. He could steal my tree trunk while I am not looking, but he doesn’t because we agree with what tradition tells us.

A tree felled belongs to he who felled it. 

Everyone in the tribe knows the rule and agrees to abide by it. Break this agreement and there are consequences from the chief and his many wives.

Society is built on this type of contract.

Called the social contract in moral and political philosophy during the Age of Enlightenment — an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled or between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each — it originated to give legitimacy to the authority of the state (tradition and the chief) over the individual (me and my stone axe). 

Through the social contract, individuals surrender some of their freedoms and submit to collective authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights and maintenance of the social order.

It is easy to forget how critical the social contract is to our well-being and the opportunity for personal success in modern times. 

Personal and societal safety, efficient education, security of business contracts including the exchange of time for money, ownership of goods and legal entities, access to health care and expertise, all happen through the contract. Everything that makes modern societies wealthy and safe comes from our collective agreement to follow the rules.

That is not to say that everyone is always happy. 

There is a constant tension in the social contract as it ducks and weaves its way alongside the development of societies. 

A critical source of tension is the actual or perceived fairness in the rights and duties, especially in the difference between how they are defined and how they play out in the real world.

For example, the government decides, on advice from health professionals, that the best way to manage a pandemic from an infectious airborne virus is to tell people to stay at home. House arrest for the masses. I am no longer at liberty to go and find another tree to cut down even though I have a permit from the Agriculture department to cut one.

No problem. It is in the interest of public health, which is a crucial benefit of the social contract. 

The pandemic, fake news, authoritarian regimes, and even social media put tremendous strain on the contract even as neoliberalism persuades people to expect less from governing authorities in exchange for greater civil liberties, including individual, political and economic freedom.

The contradiction is enough to do your head in.

Society is so much more complex than it was in the days of the stone axe. But the importance of the social contract grows with it. 

Only to protect the benefits, we have to be vigilant. The rulers cannot ignore the rules any more than we can and must not act unilaterally and claim the authority of the state to justify their self-interest.


Still upset about media drivel, claims from fake news, and the deceit that passes for public debate these days? Check out sustainability FED for objective ideas on how to feed everyone well.


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Who are the ignoble larrikins?

Who are the ignoble larrikins?

Say what you think and mean what you say.

Not a bad adage at all. People will like you for your honesty and integrity, two of the most important human attributes.

Indeed without these two, we would be far less successful as a species for we would not have commerce, collaboration or cooperation. Nor would we have science, technology and engineering for these are professions built on self-policing rules that fail without honesty.

Australians have a reputation for saying what they think — they are keen on the first part of the adage. 

Many are larrikins too, with a healthy disregard for convention. It is ok to play golf in thongs or even bare feet.

And after living in Australia for 25 years, I have to say that Australians mean what they say for the most part. Although sometimes I am not sure they think before spouting forth, another expression of larrikinism.

Author Lech Blaine suggests that conservative politicians in Australia have commandeered this straight-shooting on the fringes into a blue-collar revolution for their political ends. 

Quote from Lech Blaine on fabricated larrikins

Stupid white men wearing white shirts pretending to be working class is an odd image. 

These well-educated and affluent individuals would never dream of playing golf in thongs. They only pretend to be among the masses, especially the working-class battlers, because this is where elections are won. 

In one of the most complex voting systems in the world with two-foot ballot papers and weirdness with preferences, Liberal governments win enough seats not by playing to their rusted-on base of conservative support but by pretending to represent the undecided in a handful of seats at each election. And these swing voters are not in the cities; they are in the suburbs and the rural areas.

Now the shirt-wearing men not only have to pretend to wear overalls but drive a tractor too. 

The men courting the battlers never shoot straight. They are the ignoble larrikins. They prefer to be on holiday in Hawaii than in front of the wildfire and anonymously report the thong wearer to the golf club chairman.

They lie and cheat and pork-barrel their way into the top political jobs.

And we let them.

As the French Ambassador to Australia said, “What you say in confidence … will eventually be used and weaponised against you one day.”

Shame on us.


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An experience most painful

An experience most painful

Sir Winston Churchill was a man of his time. 

He was a British statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, a Sandhurst-educated soldier, a Nobel Prize-winning writer and historian, a prolific painter, and one of the longest-serving politicians in British history.

Remembered as the leader the British people needed to repel the spread of nazi fascism, he was at the same time a social reformer, an economic liberal and an imperialist. 

Such a combination may seem odd today but understandable given the late Victorian and Edwardian eras that he grew up in.

Churchill was a canny politician, being an MP for over 60 years, and he knew a thing or two about people and words. 

Here is one quote from his 1948 book The Gathering Storm, the first of his twelve-volume memoir on the Second World War

Most painful.

This is a man convinced that rearmament was essential because the war was inevitable. The House was still hoping for peace because another war so soon after the horrors of WW1 was unthinkable.

How many truth-tellers have the experience most painful?

We can count on many frontline staff and public health experts, from epidemiologists to hospital administrators, feeling that pain right now.

The environmentalists have been suffering for decades.

Now the young are feeling the pain too. Truth-telling over climate and the environment has fallen on their bold shoulders.

Reading Churchill is sobering. Knowing that the House has always been hard of hearing may make it easier to take modern ostrich behaviour from our leaders. Leaders rarely heed warnings.

Although Sir Winston felt despair, he led with irrepressible fortitude through the darkest time in British history, forcing people to listen.

It is time to channel that tenacity again.


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What happens in a leadership vacuum?

What happens in a leadership vacuum?

We are all finding out what happens in a leadership vacuum right now. Most everywhere there is a lack of leadership in politics, a lack of leadership in society, and, where I come from at least, a lack of leadership in the public service.

What happens in this vacuum?

Fear, trepidation and ultimately chaos.

Here are some examples of why we are in the grip of this awful trio

Would you like a burger? 

Back in the day, this was a simple enough question. Answer yes and a grilled beef pattie inside a sweet bun with some lettuce, tomato and pickle would arrive in greaseproof paper. 

Only now everyone’s opinion on burgers must be heard.

I expect a veggie burger others will say I’m sorry I don’t like beef burgers but I do like a chicken burger. Others will want chilli sauce with that, another will say please hold the pickles. After much debate and discussion, it will be clear that there’s no standard burger that would satisfy everybody. 

OK, some more inclusivity but the question then becomes who chooses what the priority for the burger should be? In the absence of any leadership, there is no one to make a call and all opinions cut have equal priority. This creates a product challenge for the burger outlet.

When everyone has an opinion it’s hard to prioritise. A democratic consensus is an ideal solution but not one that can be used for most operational matters even at the government level. For example, should we buy submarines from the French or the Americans?  

All views are canvassed and it doesn’t matter whether you are a senior person in the organisation or someone who’s only just joined as an intern, everyone gets to give their opinion. 

Great inclusivity right? After all, true leaders are also great listeners. 

Well perhaps, but canvassing opinion is a tool to gauge the most common beliefs and values. It helps leaders make considered decisions but does not make the decisions for them.

Excessive asking makes everyone keen to give their opinion on all matters. Many get cranky if they’re not given the opportunity to say what they think. The plumber gets an opinion on health measures in a pandemic and the cardiologist on the price of cheese. 

Remember that opinion need not be based on evidence or facts, it is a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

But once everyone gives voice to their opinion, priorities hide under a bush.

Would you like extra value with that? 

It is a delight of the human condition that we each have a different set of values. It gives us diversity and plenty to talk about over the burger.

Values within each value set are held more strongly or weakly depending on culture, experience and nurture. As more people are added to the conversation, values become nuanced and the value propositions multiply.

A critical function of leadership is to help balance these values and to land on the optimal value set that most can agree on or be persuaded to follow.

In a leadership vacuum, the values space is filled by indecision. 

Organisations are held hostage by the committee and the plethora of values and have no idea which burger to make or what trimmings to add.

Novelty burgers

In the leadership vacuum where everyone has an opinion and all values are in the mix egos flourish. 

If my value or opinion is unusual or a bit out there, no worries. I can follow it anyway and make it happen through force of personality with a side of arrogance. There is no reason to knuckle down and collaborate, I can just go and do my thing on my own and build a burger with a tofu pattie and a slice of pawpaw instead of beetroot. 

This lone ranger approach is great for creatives and artists of all kinds. It works for entrepreneurs and futurists too but is not so helpful if the task is to make billions of burgers at a realistic price or to choose the most cost-effective marine deterrent that is in the best interest of the country.

The novelty burger has a niche market but sales always stall.

Deconstructed burger

A profusion of Lone Rangers, or whatever the collective noun might be, generates so many burger options that the whole meaning of the burger is deconstructed out of existence.

Nobody knows what the national dish is anymore and togetherness suffers. 

It is not long before any collective purpose is lost and society drifts. This is ideal for those who never believed in the burger in the first place and knew everyone should eat tofu because they did.

Leaders provide direction. It is a core purpose of the breed and they can win hearts and minds because we crave the good vibes that come from collaboration on a shared direction — the contradiction that makes us Lone Rangers in the first place. 

In the absence of leaders who can articulate a shared direction, we invent them for ourselves.

Tandoori chicken instead

Perhaps the most important consequence of a leadership vacuum is that we lose respect for leadership. Burgers are forgotten as we find alternatives in the tandoori oven.

A glance at politics in the mature economies shows most leaders on the nose to the point of ridicule and disbelief. And it’s not just Boris obviously. Recall that respect is ‘a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements’. In other words, it is earned. 

Vacuous leadership not only fails to garner respect from lack of ability, it also erodes the repository of respect built up over generations by previous incumbents. The likes of Lincoln, Churchill, Ghandi, and Mandela didn’t build a mountain of leadership respect for jokers like Trump to trash it in one term of office. 

They did the right thing for their people in their time. 

A flogged analogy 

Burgers will always be on the menu somewhere — they are delicious, easy to eat, cheap to make and go great with sides.

We will get leaders back soon enough.

The risk is that in a rush to calm our fears and avoid chaos we allow leadership that makes us all eat the same burger, every day for the rest of our lives.  


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