The wonders of contradiction

The wonders of contradiction

Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable state of decline and the laws are not fit to address current and future environmental challenges.

This is a brave assertion from Graeme Samuel, a former competition watchdog head, and reviewer of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, a once-in-a-decade statutory requirement likely to shape policy for the next ten years in an area of policy that is highly politicised.

No matter that Professor Samuel is a businessman with interests in public health and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to public administration through contributions in economic reform and competition law.

No environmental expertise, no matter.

Samuel recommended the introduction of national environmental standards that set clear rules for conservation protection while allowing sustainable development, and the establishment of an independent environmental regulator to monitor and enforce compliance.

Another likely contradiction.

Protection and development are uncomfortable bedfellows. Placing the sustainable adjective between them is nice but it in no way guarantees that the two will get on. Economic development, after all, involves the mobilisation of capital, natural capital in this case, into dividends. What the capitalists call progress and the citizens, for the most part, enjoy.

Yes, you do. Pub lunch arrived at by car on an excellent public road, where you chat about your recent holiday to Bali, and the new mobile phone you bought.

But it’s ok.

As reported in the Guardian, the Federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, “agreed to develop environmental standards, but rejected the call for an independent regulator and said she would immediately start work on an accreditation process to devolve responsibility for most environmental approvals to the states and territories”.

Ah yes, the states and territories. Another contradiction.

There are, for example, two lists of endangered communities in NSW, one put together by the Federal government who decide on what habitats types are endangered at the national level. Another list is put together by the state government who do the same at the state level.

Now it would be logical that these two lists would be nested. The area of the nation being larger than the area of NSW, so there should be a higher chance of habitats being rare in a state than the whole country.

Here is what is on the lists.

At the state level, the NSW government has listed 15 plant communities as Critically Endangered Ecological Communities (CEECs), the highest level of conservation concern. Only four are critically endangered according to the Commonwealth government, one is endangered, and ten are not listed by the Commonwealth at all. This nesting is in the right direction.

Two ecological community types are nationally endangered but only vulnerable in NSW. Endangered nationally but only vulnerable locally does not make any sense.

NSW has 86 ecological communities listed as endangered, one category down from critically endangered. The Commonwealth has not listed 53 (62%) of these, one is listed as vulnerable and 17 (20%) as critically endangered — inconsistencies in both directions.

Some ecological communities are endangered in NSW but not nationally, and some are endangered nationally but not in NSW.

That is a severe contradiction.

The only way it can happen is if the processes to determine what gets on the list is different between the two jurisdictions.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of human values and decision making. It is opaque with muddy water.

It is why plant communities can be endangered or not and why a business executive with no experience of the science of biodiversity gets to review the legislation on it.

I wonder if he knows that species go extinct, that the pre-1788 condition is an arbitrary point in evolutionary time, and that nothing in nature is pristine since humans became abundant across the planet.

I wonder if he also knows that all this preservation malarky is fine, but it is meaningless beside the real natural resource problems facing the country over the coming decades.

I’m guessing not.

How many species are there?

How many species are there?

“The general public are identifying with these entities they call species and they think they’re real biological, natural units rather than being a slice in time that is a human construct,”

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Australia

This is a quote from the lead author of a project to create a universal species list. The idea is for a single classification system to end centuries of disagreement and improve global efforts to tackle biodiversity loss.

There is no definitive list of species!

Yes, staggeringly this is true. There are competing lists for some of the colourful creatures such as birds and no list at all for some of the more obscure or less charismatic groups of organisms. And this has been the case ever since humans decided to classify organisms using a particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1735). Yep, we agreed on the system close to 300 years ago but still do not have a definitive list.

There is a lot of diversity in nature. This means a complete catalogue is huge and requires a great deal of cooperation among scholars and jurisdictions. Remember a lot of collecting went on in colonial times meaning that much of the biological source material (specimens) are not in the countries where they were collected.

Then there are groups of organisms that not too many folk are interested in — nematodes, biting flies, dung beetles, slime moulds, viruses — and those that are inaccessible to all but the very brave — gut parasites of elephants, deep-sea fish, cave-dwelling insects.

And then there are few experts with the skills to make formal identifications and describe new species, especially for the obscure groups of organisms.

These are just a few of the reasons why what we used to call an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory or ATBI does not exist at the global level.

The ATBI

Back in the day, over 25 years ago, I used the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory concept as a practical class for undergraduate biodiversity students.

We designated a parcel of land, lined up some sampling equipment and told the students to go measure biodiversity.

They looked at me blankly. Many were quite frightened.

‘You are kidding right” was usually the response.

“No, not kidding. Get your heads together and figure it out.”

“But what do we measure?” they said.

“Everything, it’s not called all taxa for nothing”

“What? Microbes as well??

“All taxa.”

“But we don’t even know what a taxa is?”

“Ah-ha. Perhaps that is the first problem to solve. What level of taxonomic resolution should be used to catalogue biodiversity”

“Species obviously,” they said.

“Very well, then, off you go, go measure an all species biodiversity inventory.”

That a generation on from these confused undergraduates we still do not have a global list of described species let alone the details of what taxa might occur in any one location is an indictment.

That we are still arguing over the definition of species when, ever since the term was invented, everyone realised it was only a loose description that applied mostly to sexual heterotrophs.

“You have a species or you don’t, you have a subspecies or you don’t. And you impose this discrete binary system on a continuous process of evolution. There’s bound to be trouble.”

Frank Zachos, Professor and Head of the Mammal Collection, Natural History Museum of Vienna

This just shows how good we are at fiddling while Rome burns — to be busy doing unimportant things when you should be dealing with an important problem — noting of course that Emperor Nero could not have fiddled at all in as the instrument had yet to be invented although he played the cithara (a type of lyre). Close enough.

What’s the important problem we should be dealing with?

Biodiversity loss.

And not for the reasons that usually come to mind. It is not the loss of the rare, the endangered, or the iconic that natters. What matters is the loss of what biodiversity does in landscapes. The contribution organisms, and explicitly the diversity of organisms, make to the services we need for human existence — clean air, clean water, nutrient exchange, decomposition, pollination, feel good, etc.

It is a long list.

We are losing what biodiversity does when we oversimplify landscapes to channel production into the food and fibre we need. Only the gains in efficiency are temporary when the resource base changes, the climate shifts and nature’s services are stretched.

They are only maintained for the long haul by diversity.

The ATBI for the students was a way to help them understand, as is a global inventory of species; a way to understand how much diversity there is and how much of it we need to keep.

Nature does not care a jot about this but we should.

She will bounce back but it might be after we are gone.

The real problem with koalas

The real problem with koalas

Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash

Alloporus has been posting away about koalas for some time now…

At Alloporus we are not that fond of koalas. Well, more strictly we don’t like people’s responses to them from the ‘ah they are so cute’ to the ‘OMG they are about to go extinct’.

In our view, they are neither cute nor about to shuffle off into oblivion.

The main problem for the sceptic with a fascination for pragmatology is that these responses are normative. They are emotional which in the objectivity hierarchy is a step down from opinion and a long way short of evidence.

No matter.

We should expect people to get their heart involved in things, it makes the world go around, so I am told.

More difficult to handle is the lack of objectivity. The reality is that the koala is not going to go extinct any time soon and certainly not in the next five minutes.

Here is what the fossil evidence tells us

Fossil evidence identifies as many as 15–20 species, following the divergence of koalas (Phascolarctidae) from terrestrial wombats (Vombatidae) 30–40 million years ago. The modern koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, which first appeared in the fossil record ~350,000 years ago, is the only extant species of the Phascolarctidae.

Johnson, R. N., O’Meally, D., Chen, Z., Etherington, G. J., Ho, S. Y., Nash, W. J., … & Peel, E. (2018). Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nature genetics, 50(8), 1102-1111

Alright, so we also know that this species is a specialised feeder, prone to certain diseases and has been squeezed by genetic bottlenecks, especially with small founder population in the southern parts of Australia.

However, as Johnson et al (2018) also point out

Current estimates put the number of koalas in Australia at only 329,000 (range 144,000–605,000), and a continuing decline is predicted.

Again ‘only’ is a classic normative word, it is an opinion. And as Alloporus has noted way too many times before, an error range of plus or minus 300,000 is simply too coarse to make any claims of disaster valid. The first task must be to tighten the estimates to something closer to the real numbers and the real rates of change.

All this is a rehash of what we have droned on about before. But then I heard a chat on the radio today.

Some journalists were commenting on the devastating consequences of COVID-19 for the $60 billion Australian tourism industry.

What they said was that Australians are unlikely to take up the slack created by the loss of the Chinese market by tourism from the locals. They thought that Australians are just not excited by the wildlife they grew up with, unlike the overseas tourists who are fascinated, often enough to travel thousands of kilometres to see them.

Now, this is interesting.

It suggests that the real reason for all the koala bruhaha from both state and Federal governments is nothing to do with its extinction at all.

It is all to do with attracting foreign tourists back to a market designed for them and not for the locals.

That $60 billion represents a lot of jobs including in regional areas. It is the same logic that brings offers of largess to Hong Kong citizens who want to come to Australia and bring their businesses and investment with them.

It is money that matters. Evidence of extinction, not so much.


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How much more meat are we eating?

How much more meat are we eating?

I was born in 1961.

That means I am moving ever closer to retirement and I can’t wait.

It also means that I’ve been around long enough for a fair few things to have happened to the world in my lifetime.

Here is one.

Back in 1961, the average adult consumed 2,194 calories per day and around 6% of this intake came from meat. Fifty years later caloric intake has risen to 2,870 per day and 9% comes from meat.

In less than a lifetime, the average global Joe had gone from eating 93 grams of meat per day to 173 grams per day. Nearly double by weight.

Ok, so we eat more burgers and chicken drumettes than we did back in the day. We also eat more than we did back then. So we are better fed overall. It goes along with the falling rates of famine and fewer people going to sleep hungry.

All good.

Back in 1961, global demand of 93 grams per day per person required the supply of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year given there were 3.07 billion people around at the time.

In 2011 global demand was from 7.04 billion people chomping on 173 grams per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.

Multiply these numbers and you get 445 million tonnes per year of meat demand.

All good too for the meat producers, supply chain jockeys, retailers and consumers. More product, more revenue. Supply meeting demand is what makes the wheels of commerce turn.

And yes, of course, not everyone is lucky enough to secure the 173 g per day. There are still a billion or more who go to bed hungry and another billion or so who only eat meat occasionally so the straight multiplication is an overestimate — production was around 320 million tonnes in 2013.

The exact numbers on these volumes are not the issue. The point is that the rangelands, pastures and feedlots of the world now produce more than four times the quantity of meat that they did fifty years ago.

This is a huge change in a very short time.

In absolute volume terms, the supply that took care of the demand for the whole of 1961 only kept us going to the end of April in 2013. Supply for the other eight months of the year was not produced.

Again, it is not the absolute amounts but the proportional change that matters.

What about HANPP?

Come again?

HANPP is the acronym for ‘human appropriation of net primary production’ an indicator of the amount of land used by humans and the intensity of that land use, specifically HANPP measures…

to what extent land conversion and biomass harvest alter the availability of trophic (biomass) energy in ecosystems.

It has grown from 6 to 16 Gt carbon per year in a century.

Global HANPP throughout the last century. (A) Development of global HANPP by major land use type and human induced fires from 1910 to 2005. (B) Sensitivity of global HANPP trends to data uncertainty and different model assumptions. The standard estimate of HANPP (black line) is compared with a low and a high estimate and to an estimate excluding changes in NPPpot due to CO2 fertilization (constant NPPpot of 1990). HANPP is measured in GtC/y (1 Gt = 1 Pg = 1015 g or 109 t). See SI Appendix for details. (C) Biomass harvest (HANPPharv) and final consumption of biomass products (plant and animal based food, food, timber, fuel wood, and other industrial biomass use; tC/cap per y) grew largely in parallel with population. (D) HANPP intensity measured as HANPP per capita (tC/cap per y), HANPP per unit of GDP (kgC/1990 constant international dollars $ per y) and total HANPP per unit of biomass harvest (HANPPharv) (gC/gC) declined, indicating increasing land use efficiency.

Source: Krausmann, F., Erb, K. H., Gingrich, S., Haberl, H., Bondeau, A., Gaube, V., … & Searchinger, T. D. (2013). Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 110(25), 10324-10329.

These numbers show that humans have appropriated NPP primarily through the expansion of cropland and grassland, and that the rate of appropriation parallels population growth.



NPP Net primary production

Net primary production (NPP) is

the amount of carbon and energy that enters ecosystems. It provides the energy that drives all biotic processes, including the trophic webs that sustain animal populations and the activity of decomposer organisms that recycle the nutrients required to support primary production.

Gross primary production (GPP) is the amount of chemical energy, typically expressed as carbon biomass, that primary producers create in a given length of time. A proportion of this fixed energy is used by primary producers for cellular respiration and maintenance of existing tissues, what is left of the fixed energy is NPP.

NPP = GPP – respiration [by plants]

This means that NPP is the rate at which all the autotrophs (mostly plants) in an ecosystem produce net useful chemical energy that is available for consumption by herbivores.

Both gross and net primary production are typically expressed in units of mass per unit area per unit time interval.

For example, mass of carbon per unit area per year (g C m−2 yr−1) is most often used as the unit of measurement in terrestrial ecosystems. There is a distinction between “production” the quantity of material produced (g C m−2) and “productivity” the rate at which material is produced (g C m−2 yr−1).


There is some projected levelling off of HANPP in the future but not before further substantial increases

Global HANPPharv rises to between 8.5 and 10.1 Pg C/yr in 2050 in the four scenarios, 14−35% above its value in 2010, and some 50% of HANPPharv is calculated to be crop residues, wood residues, and food losses in the future. HANPPharv in developing regions (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) increases faster than that in more-developed regions (North America and Europe), due to urbanization, population growth, and increasing income

Zhou, C., Elshkaki, A., & Graedel, T. E. (2018). Global human appropriation of net primary production and associated resource decoupling: 2010–2050. Environmental science & technology, 52(3), 1208-1215

Note also that appropriation does not mean use. It means that waste and residues account for 50% of the appropriation making a huge efficiency opportunity a prospect.

Under the current systems of production and the rate of increase in demand, humans look like maxing out HANPP within a few generations hence.

Now we will not do this of course. There will be constraints, such as the need for reserves, land-use choices and inevitable fluctuations in NPP from soil nutrient mining and changes to climate. There will also be innovation and intensification so that food production will somewhat decouple from NPP, perhaps it will completely and this post is just fear-mongering.

But I don’t think so, at least not before some substantive changes to the global capacity for NPP have occurred.

The reason is that we always pick the low hanging fruit. All organisms do. We have an inbuilt requirement to take the easiest route to resources. Just like the lioness who walks down the roads through the reserve to avoid getting her paws wet, humans always walk the path to the easiest money. So we’ll mine the soil, grow food through the simplest methods and externalise as much cost as we possibly can. And because this is innate it takes a lot to overcome.

As it has since 1961, this slows the transition to smarter use.

Just a reminder.

We are eating 4x more meat than we did in 1961.

The average person eats 80 grams per day more and, given there are close to 4 billion more people, the tonnage is now over 350 million t per annum.

I know, I know, I crap on about this sort of thing all the time. It’s just that I don’t hear anyone else talking about these numbers in this way. This simple math with profound implications

The implications of food consumption

We can do very little about global demand. People have to eat and the more resources they have the more they want to eat well. This means nutrient-dense food, especially meat.

Will we all starve? No.

Will we all become vegans? No.

Are we increasing the risk of catastrophe? Yes, all the time.


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The grass is always greener problem

The grass is always greener problem

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

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

Could this guy be right?

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

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

Everyone knows the adage though.

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

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

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

Let’s take this notion a little further.

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

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

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

Alright, this is interesting.

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

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

The problem is that this is not what matters.

The real questions for climate changes are

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

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

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

Here is another example…

Agricultural production

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the grazier do?

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

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

What he won’t do is give up.

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

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

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

This is important to know

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

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

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

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


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Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

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

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

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

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

Hallman et al (2017)

Alloporus’ comment was this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Game changers must be scalable

Game changers must be scalable

Think global, act local is a decades-old rallying cry. An attempt to bridge the psychological chasm between the enormity of environmental issues and what an individual can actually achieve from day to day.

The assumption is that if every little helps and everyone does a little locally, a collective change will emerge.

In principle, this is a scalable idea.

Each individual benefits from their own effort. Not least because they feel better for making a contribution. Add more and more people and the true benefits appear from a sum of the collective parts.

One conversion to LED lighting is a modest energy saving but when a whole city does it, baseload generation, peak demand, emissions, and energy delivery systems can all change significantly.

Most game-changing ideas are scalable like this. They may start small but grow into high volume and at some point, they are no longer local. They are market-wide. Almost all the successful consumer products from fridges to mobile phones fit this model.

The problem is that many of the ideas that would deliver sustainable environmental solutions, for example, green waste into biochar, only work at scale.

This makes them difficult to get started.

Composting green waste to create mulch and fertiliser is a good thing to do. It can be done at home, even on the balconies of high rise apartment blocks. The problem is what to do with the compost. An average household would need a fair size garden to use what can be made plus the nutrients are not returned to the paddocks where the food was grown. Compost for the farmer’s field needs a system to aggregate and transport household green waste even if the household has already decomposed it down a bit.

In principle this is scalable, only there might not be enough green waste to make the volume needed and there is a risk of contamination from weeds and pathogens.

Burning green waste at high temperatures and low oxygen (pyrolysis) converts biomass into charcoal (biochar) releasing volatile gases and leaving behind stable carbon with a honeycomb microstructure. Put this material on or into the soil and it improves water retention and nutrient exchange through the biology going on in and around the carbon particles.

This sounds like a better solution for household green waste so long as there is a digester handy, a pyrolysis machine to convert the biomass into a stable and safe form of fertilizer. Currently, not many are portable and to build one commercially, high volume is needed to make them profitable. This means starting at scale, not to get there over time.

Any number of agricultural fixes both technical and through management actions are like this. There is a chasm of scale between the individual consumer and the system of production.

This is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone know what it takes to run one. They might be keen to do their little bit but really have no inkling of the scale needed when it is paddocks and fields that are in need of care.

It may be that this psychological chasm can’t be crossed incrementally. We might need to be ‘at scale’ for the solution to work. And in our current social and economic system this means profitable investment. More strictly, the profit that is easiest to achieve today.

In a positive future…

Everyone will recognise that not all solutions are scalable or need to be. Individual actions are encouraged in scalable directions – reduce, reuse, recycle is a fine example – to tackle the demand side.

Production will become more resilient because the finance for ‘at scale’ solutions will have a much longer time horizon that absorbs uncertainty as a manageable risk. The bond market will embrace agriculture when it sees that unpredictable production is fine when you go long and think like nature.

Farm businesses will cooperate. Not because the farmers turn to socialism but because it will be one of the ‘at scale’ solutions to more concentrated markets.

In the end… and after the virus

Every little action can help sustain us all. Each local act can lead to global solutions so long as there is room for options when the little things do not add up.

There is an opportunity now that with lockdowns we know that we can actually survive on a lot less than we thought. The scale might just have got a bit smaller for some of the options we have suggested if the need for profit has become less acute and the need for stable, reliable supply chains has grown.

You never know.

More brumbies

More brumbies

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

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

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

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

This is a growth rate of 24% per year.

It’s a great ‘I told you so’ story.

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

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

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

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

And we now know who promoted it.


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

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

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

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

So here is the truth.

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

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

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

Is the economic imperative sustainable?

Is the economic imperative sustainable?

This post was written before the COVID-19 conundrum changed a few things… and yet it still applies.


The Australian economy is in a funk. We are told that annual growth in retail trade of 2.4% in trend terms is the lowest since December 2017.

Throughout 2019 households have not increased their volume of retail purchases at all.

In short, we are all strapped for cash and are not buying stuff.

Woh, hold on. Not quite.

Of course, we are consuming, we do it each and every week.

The problem for the economy is that we are not doing more of it than we did last year. Consumption is going on all the time, it is just not growing in percentage terms.

So it’s not consumption that economist’s are worried about, it is growth in consumption. Growth is considered essential for without it everything collapses in a heap. At least that is what we are told.

Let’s just look at that 2.4% again.

In 2019, retail trade — selling merchandise in the state that it is purchased, generally to a customer base of private individuals — will be double what it was in the year 2000.

When ABBA were in the charts in 1974 consumer spending by Australians was four times less than it is today. There are more people on Australia now than in the mullet and square shoulder days, but to quadruple spending in 40 odd years.

Come on, think about it.

Growth is not sustainable. It cannot go on forever. Not least because there will be nothing left for me to consume. I’d be consumed out.

Unless prices skyrocket there is a physical limit to the stuff that one person can consume even if I am littering, throw away, who gives a shit kind of consumer.

Sooner or later everyone has all the things they can think of and wish to possess. Does it mean that they just keep going round and round upgrading every time? Are we really that shallow — maybe!

Endless growth is just an extraordinary premise when you really examine it.

It is obvious why it is there.

Companies have to keep selling or they go out of business. Unless there are new people around to buy your widgets you will need your current customers to buy widget 2.0 or you diversify into insurance and the airline business.

A business can get away with it if prices rise. Their unit costs might go up but so does the retail prices and so growth is maintained. Indeed inflation is part of the growth deal, too little being as bad as too much.

So we teeter on the delicate balance of perpetual growth being imperative to our survival


Teetering a lot

Recently there was a step-change in the Australian continent.

An extended drought in the east created hot, dry conditions in spring when frontal systems create strong westerly winds. Dry air, hot temperatures, tinder-dry forests and strong winds produced devastating bushfire.

At the time of writing more than 11 million ha of bushland has burnt in NSW alone, an order of magnitude more than the whole of the previous fire season. Across Australia, an area the size of the Netherlands and Belgium has burnt in just a few hot, scary and brutal months.

Many of the forests that went up in flames, sometimes 70m tall, were supposed to be wet, they are even called rainforest and rarely burn, some of them not for hundreds of years.

This year they did. Several of the fires are 500,000 ha each.

It will take a while to assess the consequences but I suspect that these events have nullified decades worth of conservation effort and billions of dollars worth of natural resource management actions.

It should also be a wake up to the economists who are going OMG “annual growth in retail trade of 2.4% in trend terms is the lowest since December 2017″.

If the countryside burns like it has this summer the economy will struggle to achieve any growth at all for a long time.


And now the virus

So here we are in mid-March 2020 and COVID-19 is about to be declared a pandemic.

Australians have cleared the supermarket shelves of toilet rolls because they are absolutely bonkers — the toilet roll supply for the country comes from Adelaide, not Wuhan — and are about to freak out good and proper.

Already global markets have freaked out too and taken a massive plunge. This is actually a necessary correction from an over-inflated bull run that has gone on from the GFC, partly a response to the cash injections from jurisdictions. But ni matter, we can blame nature.

This new virus will not cease economic growth. The flu virus does something similar every year, this one is just more acute. People’s reactions to this unknown make a recession is a given. 


Postscript

Even though there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, most people are more likely to catch and spread influenza.

In the 2019 flu season, there were nearly 30 million cases of flu and 17,000 deaths.


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Dust storm consequence that’s not so obvious

Dust storm consequence that’s not so obvious

Every now and again Sydney gets a dust storm.

Red dirt descends on the harbour city leaving a stain on all exposed surfaces and forces asthma suffers indoors. The cloud usually passes within a few hours on the strong westerlies that brought the problem with them.

The typical conditions that bring this occasional event are simple enough: drought in the centre of the continent and a deep low tracking through the Tasman sea. Winds whip up topsoil and keep it aloft long enough for it to travel far and wide, sometimes even to New Zealand.

Dust storms like this are not common in Sydney. There is a major one every few years that creates a temporary nuisance. After a day it is forgotten and the next rain shower removes the evidence.

Severe thunderstorms, floods and bushfires along with their smoke are the more familiar of nature’s challenges.

However, suppose that the dust storm deposits 0.1 mm of dust across Sydney. Just a thin film of silty redness; nothing that the rain cannot wash away.

Suppose further that this happens at least once every 4 years.

In the lifetime of the current crop of university students, some 0.5 mm has landed and washed away. Not much to write home about — although most university students live at home these days so could just shout to their mums in the kitchen

Since the time past when shiploads of convicts founded Sydney and began to spread out into the hinterlands, these irregular storms have deposited 5.75 mm of dust or a little under a quarter of an inch.

Again not much, but you could scrape it together into piles and make enough soil to sprout some bamboo shoots.

Now assuming the same rates and amounts occurred since the first humans reached Australia, say a minimum of 60,000 years ago by most genetic estimates, then we are looking at around 150 cm of deposited dust, roughly 4 feet 11 inches of the stuff, more than enough to grow things in.

In fact, 4 feet 11 inches is the average height of a modern 12-year-old kid.

What this should tell you is that wind erosion is serious business.

Wind can move soil from a source area and deposit it somewhere else. It can do this very quickly, well within the time bounds of human societies. Give it a bit longer and it can shape landscapes.

If the paddocks in the west of NSW are bare when the pressure discrepancy hits then the wind does its thing even faster. Soil and nutrient exit stage left.

If this is alarming to you it should be.

At a time when we need every gram of nutrient to stay on the paddocks to nurture the plants that we want to eat, it is continuing to blow away on the wind.

Also, know that wind erosion is a perfectly natural process. It has contributed to the flattening of mountain ranges on earth for millions of years. It is not something humans can stop as, despite our biblical edicts of dominion, we can’t stop drought and we can’t prevent air pressure systems from moving around the planet.

We can be smart though and reduce the effects of wind through management. This is a very simple principle — keep groundcover.

That is, don’t leave bare soil anywhere.

Easy to say, not so easy to do. If your livestock are starving under drought conditions and need to eat whatever is left on the paddock there is a strong temptation to let them. Keeping plant cover on the ground requires advanced planning for the dry times so that the livestock are elsewhere or fed from other sources.

Again, really easy to say — especially by a blogger from the city — really hard to do on the farm.


A kicker

In old, already heavily eroded soils like those over much of the Australian inland, the last thing you need to happen is topsoil loss.

Old soils tend to have fewer primary minerals especially k-feldspars (orthoclase, sanidine, and microcline) and micas (muscovite, glauconite and illite). These minerals are called active because they have a high capacity to hold onto and exchange nutrients with plant roots.

Primary minerals act as an important reservoir for potassium (K), with over 90% of K in soils existing in the structure of these minerals. Significant amounts of calcium (Ca), sodium (Na), and silica (Si) and smaller amounts of copper (Cu) and manganese (Mn) are also present in the feldspars. Micas and illite are the most important source of K in many soils, and they also contain magnesium (Mg), iron (Fe), Ca, Na, Si, and a number of micronutrients

This makes growing plants in older soils a challenge as the nutrients exchange is far less than it is in younger soils.


Another kicker

I am writing this update in late January 2020.

It has been an apocalyptic summer on the east coast of Australia. More than 11 million hectares of bushland has burnt, temperature records have been smashed — where I live the daily maximum recorded temperature for December was exceeded by over half a degree Celcius and then in January by a full degree, it was 16.5 degrees above the long term average that day.

Combine the heat with the smoke and even the healthy are calling it. Then the dust storm, a big one. When it passed through Orange in the centre of the NSW it turned day into night and was the worst anyone could remember.

Then the rain came, briefly and yet with such ferocity the lightning strikes took your eardrums out.

This is climate change, my dear readers. All of these severe weather stories are the consequence of more energy in the atmosphere, even the deep chill last winter in the US that the POTUS joked about.

Again we can’t ‘fix’ climate change but we sure as hell should be doing everything we can to mitigate against it.


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