Animal Medicine Australia estimates there are 5.1 million dogs in Australia. Most of these will be family pets and companion animals that make a difference to wellbeing.
What does it cost to keep all these pouches?
Dog ownership costs roughly $1,500 a year and perhaps $25,000 in the lifetime of the cuddly family member. All up Australians fork out $7.6 billion a year on their dogs. Just for perspective, NSW, where 8 million Australians live, spends roughly $4 billion on its police force each year and $24 billion on public education.
It seems that the dogs are up there with the essential things in people’s lives.
What about the hidden costs?
A single dog produces approximately 340 grams of waste per day. That means Australian dogs drop a mind-boggling 1,734 tonnes of turds a day.
That is as heavy as 137 double-decker buses or the take-off weight of three Airbus A380 aircraft with 1,500 people on board.
This weight of organic smelliness dropped on Australian sidewalks and parks is small compared to global output.
The data here are rubbery as the actual numbers are hard to find, not all countries keep records, and many dogs are strays, but there are probably around 470 million dogs worldwide.
A380 commercial flights pre-COVID were around 300 per day. This is just about enough take-off weight to airlift a day’s worth of dog poop.
This mass of manure is clearly significant given we need every ton of organic matter to keep soils productive.
Is dog poo a resource?
Dog faeces (and those of cats) contains about 0.7% nitrogen, 0.25% phosphate and 0.02% potassium.. This chemistry means dog faeces are poor plant fertilizer, plus they often smell, stick to shoes, and contain pathogens. In its unweathered state, dog faeces are not useful, let alone fertilizer.
Most dog waste breaks down naturally in the environment where the dog left it. Some cities collect and incinerate waste with composting avoided.
So maybe the excreta of our omnivorous poodles is not such a resource after all.
An idea for the poop mountains
Perhaps the modest plant nutrients, the challenge in collecting it all, and the considerable smelliness take all the fun out of composting.
Well, who would have thought that after 13 years and a handful of readers that this blog would reach 500 posts?
Not me, certainly.
I am amazed and a little proud of myself for keeping it going all this time.
When I started, the blogosphere was the online space. There were prospects for a wide readership and perhaps even a side hustle from the proliferation of traffic. Then Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and a host of other online distractions hogged the breeze, and what was left was quickly mopped up by aggregators like Medium. Bloggers do it now for personal satisfaction, with only a handful of the early adopters maintaining their readership.
I can’t complain because I write rather than read blog posts, and it seems unfair to lament a lack of traffic. So the blog ticks along with 50 to 100 visitors a month.
Anyway, low traffic volume just needs a few viral outbreaks to explode. We live in hope.
A huge thank you to those kind folk who stumbled onto this blog over the years and read a post or two. And especially the few regulars who clicked the RSS.
It is nice to know that there are real people in the ether.
What did I blog about?
Not surprisingly, for an ecologist, the environment was the most popular category (142 posts), chased by awareness (135) and the Big Picture (127).
I did not expect to write about leadership (88 posts) as much as I did. But the political debacle that Australians have lived through in the last decade meant that laments on the absence of leadership were inevitable.
If any of these whinges offended, then good. It is beyond time that we woke each other up with a cattle prod and did something about the ugly, shameful behaviour that passes for political leadership in this country.
This week, I watched Strong Female Lead, a documentary film billed as “an exploration of gender politics during Julia Gillard’s term as Australia’s first female prime minister”.
It was harrowing to see grown adults dispense abuse to a colleague without the slightest remorse. I might have looked for the nearest bus if it wasn’t for this documentary’s hopeful ending. Let’s just say those 88 posts came about because the nation’s moral compass is buried six feet under.
No doubt there is more to say about our vacuous leaders.
I have always believed that awareness is essential to human wellbeing. No surprise that several posts were tagged thus. Our personal and social lives are better if we pay attention to each other.
Knowledge and perception of the bigger picture are more tricky.
Dissonance, denial and disbelief are much more accessible than confronting the truth of a finite planet with close to 8 billion eager people. Ostrich behaviour makes it hard to raise awareness without sounding pessimistic or preachy. But we all must confront fears, or our grandchildren will have a terrible and short time on earth.
I am working on some practical tools to help with awareness. It is a little early to announce what they are, but the intro has begun over at our new website sustainably FED.
What happens next for Alloporus?
A blog with 230,000+ words of depressing content should have run its course.
After a break from posting through 2010, I tried to reset Alloporus onto a more positive path, and it lasted for a month or two before returning to the usual laments. It seems I am stuck with the frustration of the information age being full of worthless detail.
Why can’t we see that food security is critical to the future of humanity, not climate change or koalas?
Humanity needs 23 trillion kilocalories per day, for goodness sake, just to keep the people alive, let alone the pets — by 2030, it will be 32 trillion.
There is a therapeutic effect of writing about the world in this way. It makes for depressing reading, but it helps to get it off my chest.
I am semi-retired now, too — phew, that was an admission I have been avoiding — so there should be more time to craft more engaging pieces.
So I will continue to post once a week in the hope of seeding some healthy thinking.
I suspect that most people believe that the primary job of a bank is to look after their cash.
Deposit your money and, at any point in time, you can rock up at a branch or a hole in the wall and receive your cash up to the amount that you put in, minus a few fees.
The reality is that banks only provide a haven for our cash because it allows them to leverage the money held into investments. They borrow against their available capital and invest funds into a wide range of assets that they expect will yield more than what they’re giving you for the privilege of looking after your money.
It’s a fantastic financial model.
It’s the reason that having conquered the world of futures trading, capital gains, and hedge funds, Bobby Axelrod, the megalomaniac character in the Stan thriller Billions, played by Damian Lewis, decides he wants to become a bank.
Essentially it’s a license to print money.
Banks are always looking for assets that will yield investment returns in the shortest space of time. Their mantra, indeed their requirement under the law, is to profit, and they are ‘in the pound seats’ to do it, literally.
They have the scale and capacity to invest in projects that your average Joe couldn’t dream of, from skyscrapers to industrial plants, freeways, and airports. The kinds of investments that require tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to see them to fruition.
Banks have the advantage of using other people’s money and the advantage of scale. They make huge sums from investments that yield high returns for long periods, partly on the fact that no one else can invest in them.
And so it is and has been.
The banks make money, but the projects they fund often deliver utility.
It is not always good.
The pursuit of profit is relentless and ruthless.
Goldrush mentality attracts the most ardent and most skilled as well as the opportunist. Money gives banks the very best people with a sharp mind and a ruthless attitude. They quickly find the best ways to reduce costs and maximise returns.
No surprise that banking can support projects that have severe externalities and direct impacts on the environment. Recall an externality happens when the cost of an activity is not absorbed but shipped out. The commons are excellent dumping ground because no one person or entity gets hit with the liability.
Capitalism degrading the environment is profound. Development has to happen, but it becomes pointless if humanity has no safe place to live.
So who is to blame?
The reality is that we, the people, want roads, skyscrapers, and industrial plants that deliver raw materials for all of the stuff we want to buy.
We are the ones that live in large houses with more bedrooms than you could ever need, more luxury than you could ever really afford. And yet, everyone wants a better life, and it is forever the human condition to want betterment.
In other words, the consumer is ultimately responsible.
Instead of blaming the banks, what if we blame the consumer?
Maybe get consumers, us, to give up our desire for stuff, our emotional and mental drive to better ourselves and provide for our families. Quosh those innate biological feelings to make more that is in all of us.
Well, good luck with that one.
Perhaps there is a compromise position where both individuals and the finance community begin to work together to look long and prosper.
Currently, we do this through regulation.
Governments curtail the riskiest financial behaviours through legislation limiting the amounts of money banks can borrow, their financial ratios, and their ability to exploit customers, in itself a significant ongoing task.
Governments are in a difficult position. They see growth as a political necessity and are reluctant to curtail development activity or the banks that finance it. Yet, all the while, development activity is damaging the planet.
If we can’t blame ourselves or the banks for doing what we want them to do, humanity has a problem.
We do have a choice.
We can accept that consumption and more-making has an impact and try to do something about it. Even a little is better than doing nothing. Light bulbs, anyone?
But fiddling just puts off the inevitable. Instead, something dramatic is needed. The doughnut, perhaps?
Alternatives to historic capitalism exist, and many of the options are maturing nicely.
For example, ‘cooperative enterprises’ where workers make the major enterprise decisions rather than boards of directors selected by shareholders. This alternative is called economic democracy.
Only this is not a million miles away from what we already have. The people choose, but this will not guarantee decisions in favour of anything other than the people.
Robin Hahnel’s book Of the People, By the People: The Case for a Participatory Economy describes the participatory economy where all citizens, through the creation of worker councils and consumer councils, deal with large-scale production and consumption issues without the need for appointed representatives. The participatory economy is the origin of the Green New Deal, a package of policies that address climate change and financial crises.
A participatory economy is different. Imagine the circus of state and national politics banished to the bench.
Doughnut economics is an economic model proposed by Kate Raworth that combines planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. Look after everyone and the planet.
Doughnut economics is different too.
And these are just three of the many alternatives with potential.
What do the alternatives require of us?
Most of the alternative economic systems require a shift in responsibility.
It would be on us, not the banks or the government or the unscrupulous developers. We will all have to step up and understand the consequences of our choices.
The banks would continue to do their thing on our behalf; only we would be responsible for the consequences of what they do.
And so we get to the rub.
Capitalism has delivered growth and, on average, betterment for humanity. Only it comes at an uncomfortable cost. And the only way to pay back that cost is to take responsibility for it.
Are banks bad? No, they are a caricature of our abdication from personal responsibility.
Please like or share or comment. It helps me heaps, thanks.
“The difference between Labor’s policy and ours is that Julia Gillard introduced a scheme where big polluters paid Australian taxpayers. Tony changed it so that Australian taxpayers pay big polluters,”
Unnamed Austrailian Government Minister
This bizarre statement referred to the carbon price, the so-called ‘great big tax’ introduced by the Labour government in 2012. This blog has mentioned the debacle that is Australian climate policy and the frustration and sadness that it has been thus for over a decade.
Imagine the arrogance in this inebriated quip.
Australians elect such individuals, and as an excellent article by Leigh Sales, another ABC stalwart, tells us, this level of vulgarity is typical. It is not a personality thing but ingrained into the political system. It is leadership that lacks.
I always liked the idea that the cream rises to the top.
It ranks alongside ‘the truth persists’ as quotes that are hopeful and true. The problem is it’s taking a while, way too long.
“Cream always rises to the top…so do good leaders”.
John Paul Warren
The delay in the arrival of some genuine leaders will have consequences.
One of the more ironic is the one Ian Verrender describes, the consequences for Australia of the rest of the world putting a price on carbon in the form of carbon border taxes. Countries that have lowered emissions and want to keep it that way are reluctant to import emission-intensive commodities. At least that is the rhetoric.
The reality for Australia is that there will be carbon levies. The world was trending towards enforcing climate policy through trade action. For example, the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Legislation is still rough but will include aluminium, iron, steel, cement, natural gas, oil and coal.
Here are the 10 Biggest Exporting Industries in Australia
Iron Ore Mining $123.1B
Oil and Gas Extraction $39.8B
Coal Mining $37.6
Liquefied Natural Gas Production $34.8B
Gold and Other Non-Ferrous Metal Processing $29.4B
Meat Processing $15.9B
Grain Growing $8.2B
Alumina Production $7.4B
Pharmaceutical Product Manufacturing $6.9B
Copper, Silver, Lead and Zinc Smelting and Refining $6.8B
That is at least $309 billion in exports that could get slugged for their emission intensity. If the levy is just 5%, that is $15 billion in lost revenue… per year.
But it’s ok; the taxpayer is waiting patiently to pay the big polluters.
If you enjoyed this little rant or care at all that leadership needs some new blood, please share on your socials.
The next time you’re out and about in nature, sidle up to the nearest tree that you can’t quite get your arms around.
This mighty organism will tower above your head and its trunk will feel rock solid even as the branches sway gently in the wind.
Now take yourself back to the time just before humans invented metal tools.
This is about 6,000 years ago around 4,200 BC.
Imagine you were there with a few fellow hunter-gatherers or perhaps your clan was amongst the earliest primitive farmers and look again at the tree.
Ask yourself “I wonder if we can cut this thing down, with my stone axe?”
The answer, of course, is not really. Unless you have an enormous amount of time on your hands or there’s an extended family around willing to help with the herculean task.
Obviously, if the tree fell down of its own devices, in a storm or because it had reached the end of its natural life, this would help a lot. Not least reducing the dangers of several tons of timber falling on one of the helpers.
The problem would then become shaping it into useful material, for example, a canoe to take you out onto the swamp to gather food or beams for a shelter. This processing still requires an enormous amount of effort with stone tools.
The fact that our ancestors tried it anyway even with simple technology is a testament to human ingenuity, tenacity, and our skill with tools.
Hard yards even with steel tools
Run forward a few thousand years and imagine what it would have been like for some of the early European settlers in Australia in the late 1700s. When they arrived on the east coast they were presented with vast forests of massive trees that they recognized as a resource, but only had limited tools and not much machinery.
Until around 1850, red cedar, native softwoods, and eucalypt trees were felled by axe or crosscut saw and sawn into lengths using pit saws. Timber was also hewn or split with broad axes and wedges. Transport of the timber to mills and markets was by animal power and so forests closest to market areas were logged first.
Cutting down 30 m trees with handheld saws and axes is hard work when it’s 35 degrees in the shade. You need to be one tough cookie to be able to do that on a regular basis.
After 1850 the use of steam power including powered sawmills and road transport enabled higher productivity and access to areas previously uneconomic to harvest such as some of the coastal rainforests.
It was not until electrification and diesel power, which first appeared in the 1940s, did wood-chipping plants, pulp and paper from plantation softwoods, eucalypts, cypress pine, and rainforest timbers make the whole process of access to timber products easier.
By this time most of the forests in Australia had lost their biggest trees that were taken out first, particularly the hardwoods, and many of those huge trees that they began with no longer exist except for in a few isolated parcels of the inaccessible country that the tractors cannot reach.
There’s a video going around on the social feeds at the moment showing what happens in a sawmill. Not a particularly large one but a modern one with all the efficient high-tech tools.
The trunks of the trees, about the size of the one you tried to get your arms around, arrive at the yard neatly trimmed of all their branches and squared at both ends. This of course is done by a machine in the forest, no longer is it required for a tree to be cut down by hand. A tree lopper and strimmer and cutter will do that job in a fraction of a second.
The cleaned logs are piled on the back of a B double and deposited at the sawmill outside in a hopper. That hopper moves the logs in such a way that they end up on a conveyor belt, separated and aligned ready to go into the mill.
The conveyor belt takes each log one at a time through into the mill. As it arrives it is scanned to accurately record width and length and shape. This information is fed into the next machine, essentially a huge and very fancy band-saw, that begins to cut the planks from the round trunk, taking slices in both directions thanks to a double-sided saw blade. The slices are measured precisely, cut and fall onto another conveyor belt as neat planks.
The machine then flips the log four times until the square pole in the middle is left and goes down the belt that takes the timber into the stacking yard. In a matter of minutes, each log is measured, cut, and stored.
What would have taken our ancestors weeks or months of very hard labour just to get a canoe. Our modern technologies can produce timber of any size and shape in a matter of minutes.
Imagine what this capability does to resource use and to the supply of resources.
It is much much easier to exhaust supply when processing efficiency is so high. And if the objective is to convert a resource into cash — the name of the game for every business — then that is what happens so long as the process is profitable.
The conversion of capital into cash is a powerful force. Modern technology advances make the conversion process for natural capital super-efficient.
That tree you hugged is no match for a chain saw let alone a forestry tree lopper.
Using up natural capital
Commerce plus technology is why natural capital is used up.
And we generally call it development. And even if the rhetoric is for sustainable development the power of commerce and technology makes that ideal a challenge.
The reality is that these systems of production are so efficient and so hungry for resources to maintain their profitability and deliver return on investment in the lumber yard machinery that it is not just the trees that need to worry.
Please share on your socials. It might be a bit depressing to read but these realities need a spotlight.
The other day my youngest son, now in his late-twenties, was very proudly telling me how he was living within his means. He had an account for all his various bills, one for unforeseen expenses, he had his play account and… Basically, he’d bucketed his money.
He felt he was saving and was asking what I thought would be the best type of investment given his age and where the world was going. He had of course already decided how he was going to invest in a combination of cryptocurrency, shares and eventually, his gold standard, property.
And good on him.
It was a proud moment for a father to hear his son getting his shit together. Particularly after several years of it looking a bit dodgy as to what would happen.
That notion though, of living within your means, is rarely extended beyond our personal affairs.
A COVID opportunity
The pandemic has given many people pause for thought. The time to think about their own personal means and for many, it’s been a horrific and very scary time.
Job losses and uncertainty around income causing problems for families all around the world.
What we haven’t done yet, but we should, is to see what this pause means for jurisdictions and countries living within their means.
Why can’t we extend the concept to whole economies?
The kneejerk has been to assume when COVID is over that the old normal will return, as though we’re all just desperate for it to be like it was before. You know, a life full of problems and constraints and difficulties and working all hours God sends just to pay the mortgage. As though that situation of stress is the one we want for the new business as usual.
Meanwhile, governments rack up debt levels never before seen, not even in wartime, and whistle along as though printing money was actually what they had in mind all along.
In Australia, the politicians are desperate to return to pre-COVID neoliberalism. They are planning everything as though it’s what everyone wants, even to the point of ignoring the opportunity to ramp up structural change to energy, agriculture and what to do when the country can’t sell any more iron ore, coal or gas.
The immediate challenge is not so much what an alternative normal should look like, more that leaders don’t seem interested in looking for alternatives. Or even imagining what those alternatives would be. And yet this is essential if we are to move forward.
This is all at a time in human history, the first when resources do not match demand, when we’re already living way beyond planetary means.
As one measure of this overreach, the day on which the renewable resources of the world are used up for that year has been creeping earlier and earlier for decades.
All those severe lockdowns when most of Europe stayed at home, global travel came to an abrupt halt and tourism tanked, changed the date for overshoot day 2020 by just three weeks.
Despite a pandemic slowdown we still need 1.6 planets worth of natural resources to get us all through the year.
Self-sufficiency for countries
Perhaps the numbers for earth overshoot day are too daunting.
More realistic perhaps is to extend the personal means test to countries or jurisdictions, a city or a county for example. These smaller, more compact economic units should be easier to handle and have more autonomy than the global economy.
Attempts at country level self-sufficiency start with a mindset of wanting to live within means. This will require a shift from a growth model to something that is more about what happens if we didn’t try to live within our means. Collapse is the extreme but shortages and strife are nasty precursors. There has to be a desire to mitigate these risks.
Next would be the inventory of needs and necessities together with the current modes of delivery for goods and services. Then some thoughts on the efficiency of these modes asking what sort of changes would be required? What resources are essential, what resources are a luxury that we could easily live without? Resource use decisions would also require a focus on what is understood by well-being.
Much of what happens in the West is unnecessary for human well-being. We are over-consuming and stressing out whilst failing to think about and utilize the resources that we have. We don’t imagine resources being the limiting factor because the only limiting factor is our desire and our greed.
The conversation about living within means requires a shift in thinking away from what we could potentially have, the yacht and that 10-story apartment block bringing in enormous amounts of passive income to fund the luxury villa on the coast.
Instead discuss and decide on a semblance of what we understand by well-being, especially how well-being can be enhanced by being people rather than consumers.
Any discussion on economic self-sufficiency quickly ends up at the individual. It is self after all.
It may be that a top down sufficiency is not possible, only from individuals can a collective living within means happen.
Please share or browse around on the many other posts with ideas for healthy thinking
There are times when you find yourself reminiscing about the old days.
It is a natural response to age and probably quite a healthy pastime so long as it doesn’t wander off into regret.
I used to remember my time in Africa almost every day.
The smells, sights and sounds of the savanna are indelible, you cannot forget them even when they are in the distant past.
A little musty scent, with a hint of acrid talc in the nostrils.
Chirp, babbles, and, if you are lucky, a morning boom in the ears from a hornbill the size of a turkey.
From these feelings, the memory lands on specific events such as when I laid down on my belly next to a python because I was naive enough to think it would not strike or when I looked up into a leadwood tree to see a Wahlberg’s eagle with a genet dangling from its talons or the idle chit chat on the banks of a shallow pool rudely interrupted buy the hippo that almost leapt from the water with a white water wake worthy of any man-made craft.
Ah yes, those were the days.
Wonderful experiences fondly remembered as privileges, blessings even, that I am happy to have as times in the past that fill my soul with gratitude.
I do not remember these things every day now.
Just occasionally when triggered by an image, a conversation, or when there is the smell of dryness in the morning air.
Recently I was required to go to the bush here in Australia and wander around farmers paddocks to eyeball patches of remnant vegetation. Instead of inspiring, I rather dreaded it. It has been a while since the scruffy jeans, long-sleeved shirts and robust boots have appeared from storage under the house. They needed a wash to remove the smell of underemployment.
There was a time, of course, when an ecologist would be in the field as often as was humanly possible, quadrat and data sheet in hand, compass in the back pocket, and revelling in the rugged look that is only possible after several days without showering.
But not any more. For some reason, not entirely obvious, it doesn’t happen much these days. I don’t get out and about into the wilds at all.
Why is that?
What changed that stopped me from seeking out natures wonder? There are no real obstacles. I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW within spitting distance of some of the best bushwalks in Australia. I still make my living advising on environmental matters that presents any number of opportunities to spend time outside. But I prefer to stay at home. The nearest thing to nature I get is my regular walks down the first fairway.
The recent trip was sanitised of course. Room and board in between the gentle site visits arriving in an air-conditioned vehicle with no time for the fine dust to adhere its protective qualities onto any exposed skin.
There were no clipboards or quadrats or data of any sort. Just some ramblings from local experts. Most of the time I was clicking my heels or wandering off to find some bugs to admire.
My enthusiasm level was chronic.
Was I suffering from shifting baseline syndrome?
Shifting baseline syndrome
In psychology, SBS is where each generation grows up being accustomed to the way their environment looks and feels, and thus, in a system experiencing progressive impoverishment, they do not recognize how degraded it has become over the course of previous generations.
SBS occurs when conditions of the natural environment gradually degrade over time, yet people (e.g., local citizens, natural resource users and policy makers) falsely perceive less change because they do not know, or fail to recall accurately, how the natural environment was in the past.
Now I have limited recollection of a past for Australia as I have been here for 25 years, a short period relative to the rates of environmental change.
But I do recall Africa, often in vivid detail. And I am subtky tempted to make comparisons that shift my baseline.
Causes of shifting baseline syndrome
SBS results from three major causes
lack of data on the natural environment
loss of interaction
loss of familiarity with the natural environment
Well, I am not short of data given that I play with environmental evidence for a living.
I have lost interaction. In Australia, my passion for the bush has been a fraction of what I had in Africa not helped by fires, heat, and floods. Somehow lions, hippos and donkeys on the road seemed far less of a threat.
Mostly, I am not familiar with the environment. I don’t know very much about it.
This sounds strange even as I write for I do know more than average but I don’t feel that I have ever known enough about this strange land.
My baseline is Africa.
Everything is compared to it.
Sights, sounds, smells… presence. It’s all based on what I felt for a decade starting in my mid-20’s.
Physically I moved on and with time I accepted that those heady days would not be repeated but there is a powerful legacy, an incomparable baseline that cannot be restored.
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.
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.
I’m on a roll and my words per day have been through the roof.
As a writer such bouts of productivity are to be cherished because they dry up as fast as they flood, the block kicks in, and suddenly you’ve got nothing to say.
My problem is that this particular spurt of enthusiasm has lasted the best part of a year. There is a lot of material that needs to be tidied up.
The writing gig is a long process. Only the first part, maybe 20%, is origination. The inspiration strikes and the first splurge of vomit makes a splatter on the page. The next phase is to tidy up the mess.
Making sense of the first draft takes numerous waves of editing and rejigging in order to shape a narrative that is, at least in the writer’s mind, comprehensible.
After that, the process involves third parties engaged with structural and copy editing, as well as preparation of material into the various format to share with the world.
The process of writing is a mechanical one, way more drudge than inspiration and creativity.
My current quandary is, do I stop writing and begin the real work?
Whilst I’m on a roll this seems like a mistake. I must keep going whilst the muse is dancing away in front of me. Only, where will the time come from to clean up the mess?
I really don’t know what to do.
The process of science
Science is the same.
As a student, I was always told that science is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. A quote pilloried from elsewhere no doubt but no less true for lack of originality.
The process of science goes something like this.
An idea worth testing springs to mind, typically on a topic that you find fascinating. Maybe you spot a gap in knowledge that an experiment or a set of observations can fill.
That moment of clarity will set in train several months worth of hard work pulling together the evidence through experiment or observation. More often than not the procedures need development and fine-tuning, it can take a week to calibrate a measurement. Once the set up is done the data collection begins and last as long as the test requires. A while if the subject is the gestation period of an elephant. Then comes the collation, analysis and interpretation of the data into evidence. This in itself can take months with the prospect that the hypotheses will need clarification and another experiment or two completed before the evidence is clear. All this must then be condensed into a short communication that peers will tear apart before an editor maybe gives the green light to publication.
All up, an equally long and laborious process as writing. More a slog than an inspiration.
Few research scientists have the luxury of hanging about in the fun of speculation and hypothesis generation. In science, there is no substitute for the effort needed to generate evidence. There is no evidence without the hard yards in the laboratory or the field.
Even if you are the theorist who looks to the mathematics of it all, there is drudgery in the proof.
Evidence takes hard work.
Now for an apparent non sequitur
The process of sustainability
The conundrum of ideas versus hard work applies to a whole range of our sustainability problems.
We know that ideas are inspirational and they can come together in a flash. They are fun and full of promise and there are lots of sustainability ideas around. Google delivers 290 million results for the search term ‘sustainability ideas’.
The conversion of ideas into practical solutions is the hard part. Actions that are actually going to make a difference to human use of natural resources on the ground and at scale. Most of this is just a lot of hard work.
Check any list of ideas for sustainability like these
They are all fantastic options. Societies everywhere should be onto them and thousands of others like them.
All these ideas have one thing in common. They take effort to implement.
The wondrous inspirations need hard work to achieve their desired outcomes.
Sometimes there is more work required all the time, sometimes just in the transition, but the core message is that sustainability is not an easy task. It’s particularly difficult against the current technological advances that generate cheaper unsustainable products and services.
Being sustainable is not really about the sustainability concept itself, it’s more about the fact that society exists in this process of inspiration and hard work.
We can’t just make a call on the inspiration. There’s a lot of hard work involved in making sustainability solutions stick.
Worth remembering when the next idea to save the planet comes along.