Incredulous

Incredulous

Here is a recent headline from an ABC online article, a reputable publicly funded media source

Bush stone-curlews popping up in suburbs as bird once extinct in ACT makes a comeback

Nice you might think given that headlines containing good news are like threatened species themselves, rare and at risk of being lost forever.

Here is the problem.

The IUCN lists the conservation status of the Bush stone-curlew as “least concern”. In other words, its not under any immediate threat of extinction in the wild.

In fact, the species has a broad habitat preference throughout Australia pitching up in open forest, eucalyptus woodland, rainforest edges, grassy plains, arid scrubland and along inland watercourses across much of the vast continent. It is a common species in the cities of Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and is abundant in the tropical and subtropical north. In other words, it’s not a rare species at all.

I’m told there are pubs up north where you can sup on a stubbie alongside a foraging stone-curlew.

To use the word extinction, the termination of a lineage, where the moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, is a lie.

This bird is not extinct.

Placing a geographic limit so as to use the term is disingenuous. Strippers are extinct in the Vatican is about as crazy a statement.

So is this fake news?

I think it is. The bird species is not actually extinct. It’s not even at risk unless you specify a discrete subset of its natural range. And when we learn that the Canberra specimens were almost certainly taking a wander from a nearby reserve artificially stocked with a few pairs to “reintroduce” them to the local scene, then the implicit hope in the story takes a huge dive.

I know that there are feeds to feed in this modern age of lightning fast news cycles. And I also know that there are good reasons for at least trying to be upbeat when, for the conservation minded, the world appears to be crashing down. But, like cricketers crossing the line, there are consequences for cheating on the truth. In the end people do not respect you, they dismiss everything you say even when you are actually being honest.

So my call to myself, and everyone who is in the business of information, let’s be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can and leave the spin alone when it comes to the facts.

This is easy to say and not at all easy to do but we all have to try.

Little gem: Why not?

Here is a little gem so obvious that Blind Freddie would not only see it but would immediately invest in it…

And it is so simple.

  • Extract out of the ground fossil energy
  • Heat it so that it changes its structure into material that can be molded into infinite number of useful objects and then manufacture them on mass.
  • Sell these useful items to consumers, ideally so that they use them once and have to go and buy another one the next time they need it
  • Let the used item fall away into whatever waste system is in place
  • Rummage around in the waste to find the used useful items
  • Reheat them again so as to make another even more useful material
  • Sell this useful material and make roads out of it
  • Ignore the obvious flaws in the gem

Quantitative

Quantitative

For me ‘ah ha’ moments fall into one of two types. There are the ‘oh why didn’t I think of that before’ kind of ah ha’s that tickle the brain when they happen but often fade into the nether regions of forgetfulness soon after.

Then there are the real ‘ah ha’s’, the kind that are arresting, stick around, and may even shift my perception of the world.

Recently I experienced one of the latter, a real doozy.

In a meeting with colleagues who, between them, had over a 100 years of environmental experience I realised that none of them understood numbers. They did not think quantitatively.

It worth taking a moment to absorb this observation. Eight experienced professionals who most would describe as technical experts, all with a tertiary education and many years of practice with problem solving in land management, native vegetation and agriculture, were not thinking numerically.

Few of them would admit to this of course. They’ll pour over spreadsheets, examine graphs and even contemplate statistics alongside the best of their ilk, but deep down they are not thinking numbers.

Instead they shift words and documents around. They think in the language of processes and procedures not likelihood, rates, and difference.

As many a post on this blog attests, my brain handles proportions and probabilities.

However, I am not especially mathematical, and often lament a lack of fluency in that language. But limited math literacy does not stop me thinking numbers. I’ll see a proportion and instantly ask “proportion of what, a thousand or a million?” In my head 20% of 10 is not the same as 20% of 1,000,000 when it’s, let’s say, greenhouse gas emissions. There is materially in the latter number even though the proportions are the same. It seems impossible not to do this numerical reality checking when faced with the variability in space and time of the matters environmental people are interested in.

But there it was, plain as a binomial distribution. My colleagues were not quants. When they relaxed into an innate thinking state, they did not see the world quantitatively.

Now before the trolls get too upset, this ‘ah ha’ is not about belittling or downgrading all the feeling thoughts, the creative thinker or even the normative types. All problems are best tackled with a variety of thought processes and the best answers do not always come from understanding a likelihood. What got me was that the quantitative type was not in the very building you would expect to find it.

For a scientist, researcher and one time lecturer in biostatistics this is a hard one to fathom. The question still bouncing around like a subatomic particle is why? There is no obvious reason, other than the peculiar quirks of chance, that none of these people were quantitative.

Only they were not and soon the consequences started to come up. Any talk of likelihood, rates, and difference would not be fully understood without explanations and time to digest what the numbers mean.

It would not be possible to just present a graphic and assume that everyone would understand any obvious pattern, let alone the nuance.

In short, my colleagues were not going to have an easy handle on inference.

This is a huge deal. If the people who are closest to the facts as they play out in the real world do not get the numbers, the same people who support decisions around sustainability and the trade-offs with natural resource use… Well, there is a good chance we are in muppetville all over again.

Ah ha.

Where to invest

Where to invest

$50 billion is the current projected cost to replace the Australian submarine fleet.

$60 billion is roughly 5% of Australia’s GDP

$96 billion is what 9.3 million Australian households spend on the modern equivalent of bread and water, somewhere near 15% of their weekly budget. This is a pretty standard proportional spend in mature economies. Somewhere between 7 and 15% of household budgets go to food. The French at the higher end, the British the lower.

Big numbers then.

$226 billion is an order of magnitude larger. It represents the size of the labelled green bond market in 2016.

$895 billion is the size of the climate-aligned blond universe. This amount includes investments that are designed to support climate adaptation or have an impact on emissions but are not quite up for a green label.

$1,000 billion is the projected size of the climate aligned bond market in 2020, just three years hence, investments that are needed to help all countries meet their Paris climate commitments for emission reduction.

$90,000 billion is the current size of the global bond market.

The interesting question is where to put all this money.

It makes sense to put a hefty chunk of it into actions that improve environmental performance or, alternatively, new submarines.

Empathy

Empathy

Suppose you are a die hard Manchester United fan. You have been in this manic state since you first kicked a ball around the living room in your diapers. It’s baffling why Manchester United is the club that captured your undying soccer loyalty given there are numerous top grade clubs within spitting distance of your childhood home, however, you cannot question it for the feeling resides somewhere deep and unexplainable.

Along with this love of the Red Devils comes a dislike, some might even say hatred, for the club that plays at a ground just 6 km distant and wears sky blue. Your ire rises higher at any mention of jokers from other towns, Liverpool especially.

Now this rivalry with the opposition is no doubt part of the deep and unexplainable. It has something to do with the limbic requirement to compete and win.

Along with this genetic programming, nurture has imbibed you with the essence of local culture, defined your broader allegiance, and provided you with an accent. Who can even understand what those scousers are saying?

I’m sure you are with me so far, at least in principle.

You may not be a soccer tragic or reside in north-west England, but I guarantee there is something you are passionate about to your core. A tumult in your soul that has no apparent explanation.

Importantly, such passion is never truly extinguished. Sure it wanes, but come finals day or a beer around the barbecue, and the old passion reignites like a bushfire in a breeze.

Like it or not, admit it or not, tribal affiliation makes you feel good.

This is because the tribe has two highly desirable traits. First the tribe covets your loyalty, cares for it and protects it to your benefit. This becomes a delicious positive loop. The more you feel wanted the stronger the tribe and the stronger the tribe the more loyalty you relinquish.

The second highly desirable trait is that there are always other tribes.

So just as your loyalty is rewarded with warm feelings of belonging and place, so the tribe tests its mettle and your allegiance with rivalries.

And herein lies the ancient human condition as recognisable 3 million years ago as it is at Old Trafford on a Saturday. We love a good stoush.

In our modern, supposedly enlightened times, it is no longer necessary to attack Liverpool FC supporters, leave them for dead, capture their womenfolk, steal their pigs and eat all the yams in their grain store. It is sufficient to chant abuse from the stand and laugh when their striker scuffs his shot wide. But rivalry is crucial to the tribe. It feeds the loyalty process and without it the warm feelings are much harder to maintain.

Crucially this necessity for rivalry builds more than aggressive contempt. It is not admissible to speak these other thoughts because they are easily misinterpreted, but at some level you have respect for those scouser scum. They are, after all, tribalists like you. They are misguided in their choice of allegiance, deranged even, and yet without another tribe of near equal size and passion what would be the benefit in winning any encounters. Crushing minnows ultimately depletes loyalty.

Thankfully there they are on the terraces, giving back as good as they get, and always rendering that god awful song about walking. Curiously they are wearing the same clothes as you. They are as overweight and unfit as you, and, hey, isn’t that Bob from accounting?

In short, you empathise with the opposition support because you need them and because you recognise their image in the mirror.

The same thing applies to all other tribal rivalries that humans have invented. In the violent conflicts any empathy has wilted or died invoking a chicken and egg explanation. But in many others the empathy is still there and may even be the reason there is restraint.

One of these intense rivalries is over the environment.

Not the grab for land, water and oil that is at the core of many, perhaps all, wars but the rivalry that exists even in stable nations with well defined and uncontested territories.

On one side there are various tribes with members willing to hug trees or stare down bulldozers to protect the lesser spotted owlet even as the greater spotted owlet numbers increase to previously unknown heights.

In opposition are tribes with members in hi-vis vests or business suits who have never even seen an owlet.

This rivalry is ostensibly about the consequences of resource use. More strictly, who should get the benefit from exploiting natural resources or wear the opportunity costs of parsimony.

The consequences of resource use are real enough, far more so than the winning or not of 3 points towards the title race and a few months worth of bragging rights. Any human exploitation of natural resources alters the flows of energy and nutrients through the environment either directly – log a forest and habitat is changed or last altogether – or indirectly – burn coral and the climate changes.

Green tribes hate this outcome.

Brown tribes hate this outcome too mainly because it fuels green tribes out to stop them. Usually those with a development focus feel so strongly about the need for resource use to fuel the economic engine that they don’t even notice the consequences for future resource use let alone any undesirable externalities.

The trouble is that the green tribes have to get their hemp and their biofuels from somewhere in the environment. Every human leaves a footprint in the sand.

Equally the brown tribe members know that even though ‘a tree converted to dollars invested in the stock market’ is a well trodden road to wealth, on this road there are potholes, oncoming traffic and, heaven forbid, fuel shortages. Heavy boots do some real damage.

The kernel of empathy exists in these contradictions.

It comes through admitting that even the off grid, eco-home, tiny house still has a footprint and that with over 15 billion human feet on the planet, the tiny house option cannot be for everyone. It also comes from the notion held among some resource users that maintaining a resource for the long haul can be a better economic outcome given the resource is still there to be used.

Many also know that the environment always offers renewable solutions.

Then we have the option of incentivising resource use actions that limit the undesirable outcomes using the language of the economic tribe to change behaviour. We pay resource users to be careful. A weird compromise position that partly neutralises the conflict.

Here, then, is the thought.

When you next find yourself in a tribal situation, and this will probably be sooner than you think, look for the empathy. Try to find that connection with the rival that you know makes them just like you.

Should this situation have something to do with the environment and the empathy feel just can’t be seen, look harder, for empathy is there hiding behind the entrenched positions.

Energy prices

Energy prices

In the mid-1990’s energy prices in Australia were some of the lowest in the OECD.

I distinctly remember the politicians of the day boasting about how good this was for industry and business and I have to say I bought the argument. Utilities that people have to have should be affordable. The marketing men can persuade me that a Mercedes is so much better than a Hyundai and well worth the price tag because it is a discretionary spend on my part, but water, power and waste removal I must have or we are back in the dark ages.

Twenty years later, the current government has announced a new energy policy that they claim will save the average family $100 a year on their energy bill. This new policy is supposedly a response to the problem that domestic energy prices have risen by 67% in the last decade, and with supply shortages forecast regularly, the medium term economics suggest this annual rate of increase will persist. Energy costs in Australia are now at the top end of the OECD ranks.

Oops.

Australia is also going to struggle to meet emission reduction targets it promised in Paris in part because this cost pressure from energy has become an excuse not to focus on renewables and to continue with power generation with a heavy emission profile.

Oops again.

Lots of rant and rave opportunities here, classic Muppetville. The one I want to unpack is that cost saving, $100 a year for the average family.

Median annual income in Australia is around $81,000 and has been increasing steadily at around 3.5% more than doubling since 1990’s when energy was cheap.

An income of roughly $220 per day is right up there with the highest in the world. Savings on the energy bill proposed by the government is 27c per day, not even the price of a coffee and cookie in a month.

The average household energy bill, on the other hand, is around $4.20 per day and currently increasing at close to 7% or roughly 29c per day.

Phew, that’s a relief. The government policy is going to save the average household most of the money they would have to spend to on the price rises. Superb.

Should average annual income continue to rise at 3.5% the 29c cost saving on energy is further compensated by an additional $7.70 per day in extra income.

This explains why economic growth is so important to governments. Despite inevitable difficulty around the margins, on average it puts money in voters pockets.

It also makes that first ‘oops’ identified earlier a huge blunder.

Energy is literally the engine of economies so to let its costs spiral and allow the security of supply to lapse is stupid however you spin it.

Dams

Dams

A decision is made to dam a modest sized river In the foothills near a big coastal city. The city is growing and water security is regularly a hot political topic as the area is prone to drought.

Construction on the dam wall begins in 1948 and on its completion the wall creates a lake with the capacity to hold a little over 2,000 Gigalitres of accessible water.

When the dam was completed the city was home to 1.8 million people. Today there are over 5 million inhabitants and the lake remains the primary source of freshwater for these people and their economic activities.

Downstream of the dam the floodplain has become an important area of agricultural and peri-urban development. The dam protects against flooding and the planners have allowed people to live in previously inundated areas. The dam not only holds a large proportion of the water supply to the city it also protects built and commercial assets from flooding.

When the engineers say that the dam wall could be raised by 14m, what do you think the planners will do?

Naturally, they will allow greater access to land on the floodplain, most likely by releasing some areas for residential development. It is a growing city after all.

In the planning meeting some wag says that it will all be alright because the climate is changing “It will be drier anyway, so no worries”.

This comment goes unchallenged despite the evidence for increased storm frequency and intensity in the region, and the obvious connection between this and major flood events.

Here is a hint with a biblical origin.

Don’t buy a house on a floodplain…. especially downstream of a dam.