Obsessions with endangered species?

Obsessions with endangered species?

Regular readers will know that a long time ago now I wrote a book with Ashley Bland entitled Awkward News for Greenies. It sold a handful of copies but failed to go viral. This could be because we had zero marketing budget or it was a poor book or luck would have it thus. Either way, few read it in 2009 and fewer in the decade since.

Recall this was the time that Al Gore produced ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and we played on that sentiment in our title. Perhaps it was a poor choice.

Not one of us is fond of being told truths that we don’t want to hear, especially things that we will feel bad about. Indeed humans are expert in avoiding the awkward. This sentiment has taken hold now to the extent that we even elect presidents and prime ministers who are olympian in the skills needed to avoid and deflect awkward truths.

The main argument in Awkward News was that this avoidance behaviour stems from a lack of awareness. We no longer feel or understand the very basis of our existence, now or into the future. Humans in modern societies do not realise that we are here because of nature and the resources it shares with us and we will only stay here in one piece if the natural forces that create clean air, filter water, generate food and moderate climate run at rates to support our burgeoning numbers.

Implicit in this explanation was that environmentalists focus on the wrong things. This is best summarised by what Ursula Heise in her book ‘Imagining extinction’ calls ‘elegies and tragedies for loss of species’. Worry for the fate of cute, furry or feathery species is what we obsess over when we should be most concerned about the ability of nature to keep supplying all those goods and services that keep us alive and well.

When in 2012 I followed up Awkward News with Missing Something, a book that was read by even fewer people, the message was similar.

Humanity has an awareness deficit that science has confirmed and our guts are agonising over. Again the distraction of elegy and tragedy can be overlooked for a pragmatic approach. If we think about our environment and the well-being it delivers, then the evidence we need to convince ourselves of the importance of nature is everywhere we care to look. The truth about nature will speak to us and all will be well.

Well, this nirvana of enlightenment with nature seems less likely by the day.

As we near the end of another decade it feels as though the drift is away from awareness rather than towards it, especially in the formal worlds of bureaucracy and academia. Indeed, drift is a generous adjective.

In the land of policymakers, huge blunders continue along with ostrich behaviours of the sand type. In the ivory towers, a stream of evidence flows on how troubling it all is. Unfortunately, it is easier to generate evidence of loss and degradation than it is to use that evidence to find ways to slow, stop or reverse any undesirable trends. Even a casual glance at the climate change literature confirms this conundrum.

Anyway, here I am, a few years on from my last non-fiction least seller, wondering about the merits of another book on this theme of scaring the horses.

On the downside, should I be spending time on more of the same?

Surely the first two epistles did the job. Anything more is just repetition. And if nobody read the first two, why would a third suddenly shatter the ebook sales records? I am not selling the sure-fire best way to become an overnight squillionaire online.

On the upside, nobody read the first two meaning that very few were scared.

Any messages would be fresh, at least from my peculiar voice, and maybe the passage of time has warmed a few to the general topic of impending doom and how to avoid it. There is also the personal benefit of writing that is cathartic enough for me to feel purged of my personal environmental guilt. That is worth it on its own.

On balance, I have to think that yes I should write it out all over again.

At some point, ideally quite soon, humans will need a realignment with nature that is less about obsessions with the koala and polar bears taking a rest on a tiny iceberg and more about what nature does. If everyone understands that it is the services that nature provides for human well-being that we need to obsess about because the processes matter more than the products.

This message of concern for process over products, especially the rare ones, still needs to be said and heard.

If humanity is to get through its demographic transition without obliterating nature, without creating a future world where even the air is manufactured, then nature and its services must be in our everyday thoughts. We will need to get over our obsession with endangered species with all its misplaced effort into just a handful of nature’s charismatic actors because all that really does is salve a collective conscience.

The neat irony being that the best chance for the koalas, elephants and macaws is if the processes that support them are retained and enhanced. Meaning that a focus on the processes will not always be about exploitation.

It will be a tough gig.

These critters — the endangered species that we truly care about are almost always animals with backbones — are held tight and deep. They represent our guilt even as we continue with wine, dine, waste and flights to Bali.

If you find that waiting for this new work that will only make you feel more guilty and helpless in the face of doom is too much, that you have to know now, then there is always Missing Something to tie you over.

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia is a tough place to grow food

Australia really is a tough place to grow food.

It is invariably hot and dry and the soils lack nutrients. Then the next day there is a storm that flattens the spindly crop and floods the roots.

This has always been the case.

Australian soils are old and the continent big enough to make for a truly continental climate. The dry times are long and deep and the storms bring golf ball hail. The soils are low in carbon and many are friable with a tendency to want to fly across the Tasman sea to New Zealand on the strong westerlies.

And then, the climate is changing. There will be less water, more extreme storms, and even hotter temperatures.

It makes sense that the agricultural sector would be concerned. They should be. Many farm businesses will struggle to cope.

One concerned group of producers, Farmers for Climate Action, launched a report Change in the Air that claims ‘Australia’s agricultural production will fall and food insecurity will rise without a climate strategy’. They managed to persuade the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, to launch the report.

The local media made a big deal that National Party MPs — the minority party in the coalition government — refused to attend on the notion that some still doubt the science of climate change and are not sure if human activity was contributing.

Remember that the right-wingers in the Australian government are making the country the global climate laggard and, yes, it’s now beyond laughable and irreprehensible. We are in the realms of criminal negligence.

Now before you read on, regular readers will know that Alloporus strongly agrees with the premise of a coordinated response to climate across all sectors, especially agriculture, and that part of this response needs policy support.

In other words, Alloporus believes that both the state and federal governments have a key role in both climate mitigation and sustainable food production.

The government part of the coordinated response will begin with an acknowledgement of the problem — the climate is changing — and then some policy options that support climate adaptation, not just emission reduction for that alone is nowhere near enough.

Laughing is not ok. It is time to take serious action.

This makes the next comment unfortunate.

The Change in the Air report is dreadful.

I meant it, it is terrible.

What claims to be a ‘research report’ is, at best, a weak catalogue of already published evidence without meaningful review or summary.

The highlight recommendations are for ‘more research’ and ‘a national strategy on climate change”.

Oh my lordy.

There is no time to stuff around with more research and even if there was we already know more than enough about what to do.

Again, why wait for a national strategy when the government has been bumbling around without one for more than a decade.

Here are the key dot points in the report:

  • Risk minimisation
  • Focus on potential opportunities
  • Strong RD&E
  • Transition to clean energy generation in agriculture
  • Capture and storage of carbon
  • Address climate policy gaps

Only one of these is a tangible solution. The rest are aspirations at best. Indeed this was the real problem with the report, it whinged.

Basically, there were no solutions offered just a plea for the government to fix the problem.

This is not ok.

Right now, at the pointy end of the problem, it is time for solutions.

The weird thing is that if you scroll down the report to Appendix 2 on page 64 you will find a lengthy and reasonable list of adaptation and mitigation strategies sourced from the research literature.

Here is the section for grains…

Shame they didn’t lead with this.

Alright, enough moaning.

Most likely the people behind Farmers for Climate Action are well-meaning and believe what they are doing is important. However, we have to consider the possibility that the minister was happy to promote the report because it does what the government wants, namely to kick the issue further down the road by asking for more evidence.

Better would be some simple tractable solutions.

How about an across the board 2% gain in soil carbon in all production soils through production practices that retain vegetation cover, promote deep-rooted perennials and support the addition of organic or inorganic carbon in cropping systems.

This is just one of the many options available.

No more messing about. It is time to get on with it.

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Why do we bury the important stuff?

Most days I will browse the Guardian news app for a dose of reasonably considered articles.

This is a futile addiction. It means that I will find any number of depressing instances of fuckwittery until I get to the end of the feed, where each day I can find a collection of photojournalism that is fascinating and inspiring for what it shows about the world.

The other day I was on this quest toward the amazing images when I came across this headline…

Phosphate fertilizer ‘crisis’ threatens world food supply

It was a long way down the feed and I had perused any number of articles on meaningless politics before this old-school title, the sort that used to be standard newspaper copy, peeked out at me from among the trivia.

A ‘crisis’ you say?

Does this mean that it is a real crisis or an air quote crisis, the sort that isn’t really?

As any followers would know it was the ‘world food supply’ topic that got me but only because this is the subject of my profession as an applied scientist. If I was a dental nurse or an insurance salesman, this topic would pass by anonymously.

Anyway, we click through and start to get the gist of the content.

Essentially there are two issues that make up the crisis.

Issue 1 — supply of phosphate is finite

The supply of phosphate, a key nutrient that gave us the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and has sustained agricultural production ever since is finite at around 70 billion tons. Sounds like a lot but at the current rate of use, supply will run out in a generation, maybe 30 years at a push.

Issue 2 — the supply is mostly in one place

Second problem is that the five locations across the world with the largest reserves hold almost 60bn tons and most of this is in Western Sahara. One place with nearly all the reserves of a resource that could ransom the world is a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Think Straits of Hormuz and you will get the idea.

Indeed, as I write there is a crisis in Hong Kong triggered by uncertainty over governance that has a deadline 28 years hence. People are mobilised over rights and lifestyle they fear is being eroded even though the deadline is decades away. The same timeframe for running out of a crucial agricultural nutrient.

There is zero chance of mobilisation over the phosphorus crisis.

Only the threat to rights, lifestyle and wellbeing from a phosphorus shortage is just as acute and would apply across the globe, not just within a jurisdiction. Yet instead of a headline, we get a half-hearted call to action two-thirds of the away down a standard newsfeed.

Maybe this is the reason. The crisis is too diffuse to register anywhere other than next to a piece on ‘Footage reveals Savoy Hotel doorman’s ‘assault’ on homeless man’.

Not to worry.

The global supply of food just has to increase by 2% per annum for the next 30 years to feed all the people. All that will do is bring the cliff closer and speed up the vehicle we are driving towards it.

So what should be done?

Well, there are some things that will help.

Solution #1 — increase efficiency

Currently, many farmers add more phosphorus than they need to because they want to avoid the risk of not adding enough and losing yield. We could make farmers much more efficient at using phosphorus in cropping systems by getting smarter at when plants need the nutrient and how the soils deliver it so as not to over-fertilize. This will have the added advantage of lowering pollution from farm runoff, a significant issue for waterways in agricultural landscapes.

There is some work in this both in understanding how phosphorus moves around in different soils and contexts as well as the tacky psychology of changing the way the farmer goes about his business.

Solution #2 — be frugal

Add phosphorus but not with the aim of maxing out the yield, more to achieve a production gain and so spread the benefit over a longer time frame. This is more attractive than it sounds for when we go long there are benefits to soil and business resilience.

Solution #3 — use alternative sources of phosphorus

There are very few alternatives to rock phosphorus that generate industrial-scale volumes.

There is one, the bones and offal of livestock that pass through abattoirs. Although, this is more recycling than a minable stock it has to be done as does the nutrients in human waste that should not end up in the ocean.

Solution #4 — reduce waste

Global food supply chains are typically profitable mostly thanks to externalities and mining of the resource base. They are enabled by modern transport systems and use huge amounts of energy for each calorie of food that is consumed.

Profitability often goes with profligacy. You would imagine that the profit-hungry would look at all options for efficiency only they don’t when those actions mean more work. Why organise redistribution prior to the use-by date when dumping the out of date food is easier.

Estimates are that at least a third of food produced is wasted. That represents a huge amount of phosphorus used for not benefit.

Solution #5 — all of the above

Multiplicity is essential in most global crises for the scale and risk do not match a single silver bullet option. All solutions for greater care and efficiency are needed as are all options fro recycling and novel sources.

In the meantime let’s hope that those with designs on global dominion leave Morocco alone.

When craziness is too much

When craziness is too much

Sometimes the craziness is too much, it blows your synapses away. You are left in a bucket of incredulity.

Cop this quote from the former Australian PM Tony Abbott reported by SBS online from a summit in Hungary trying to explain the real threat to the existence of his kind…

“It seems to me that it is not so much our failure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but our failure to produce children that is the extinction reality against which we really need to work against”

Tony Abbott, Former Australian Prime Minister

Let’s just pause a moment.

This blatant click-baiting is trying to trick us that even though Australia failed to reduce emissions, that’s not the biggest problem. That accolade goes to our inability to produce enough white people.

Seriously, enough white people. You are kidding, right?

At first, I thought that I should write the obvious rebuttal that we are already reproducing 8,000 people per hour. An hourly net increase into the grand diaspora of the world, and it should matter little what tribes they come from. There are more than enough people to go around and satisfy every neoliberals wet dream.

Only when we last looked, the distribution of people and resources is uneven across the world. This means that some places will be crowded and run out of resources. And when the population growth rate is high, crowded places will become difficult to live in and people will want to leave to find a better opportunity. Emigration is inevitable and these people have to go somewhere.

Do you want to live in these crowded places? No, neither does Tony.

But then I thought again.

This kind of craziness is too common compared to the proportion of people who might actually believe the nonsense.

Here is a fascinating graphic from Statista chart of the day

What it says is that less than 1 in 20 people actually deny the existence of climate change in most developed countries. A party representing this minority would never win an election and yet the rhetoric from the deniers remains powerful in the social mix.

This is what Abbot and his cronies bank on.

They know their opinions are not shared by most but that is not what matters. Influence is the game and, no matter there are kids on strike and a 16 year old girl calling out the UN, these noisy minorities are good at it.

It turns out I can’t push the incredulity aside. It is gut-wrenching because these people are incorrigible.

What I have to learn is that numbers are not enough.

Some numbers you should know

Some numbers you should know

In May 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report with this headline for the media release

Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

No doubt this is designed to be scary.

Any sentence that includes ‘dangerous’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ strategically placed among the eight words is not a feel-good aphorism.

I could be glib here, but for once I will not.

Cooked or not, the numbers are bad. And despite the hyperbole, the UN technocrats didn’t put ecosystem services in the title of their organisation for nothing.

It is true.

We are eroding natural capital that includes biodiversity at a rate that will hurt us through declining ecosystem services that include everything from food production to clean air. This is happening just when the demand for these services is greater than ever before and grows by the day along with an expectant population.

The loss of turtles, koalas and pandas will dominate the media comment and fuel the angst but there are a couple of summary numbers that you should also know about.

300% increase in food crop production since 1970

This is a remarkable gain.

Even the stingiest financier would take annual growth of 6% over 50 years. It is more remarkable considering that by 1970 the Green Revolution had peaked thanks to extensive adoption of fossil fuel inputs via tractors, fertilizers and pesticides.

The implication of the 300% for ‘nature’s dangerous decline’ is that along with technologies for production efficiency land has been appropriated for crops. This worries the IPBES because land converted to agriculture not only reduces the land available for wildlife, it also increases habitat fragmentation, water pollution from nutrient and pesticide runoff, encourages weeds, and creates additional greenhouse gas emissions.

So the biodiversity losses from the growth in agriculture will be the headline.

Pause for a moment though and remember that since 1970 more than 4 billion people have joined in the global fun and games, more than double the number around when Barry White was gonna love you just a little more baby.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here but we would be lost without all that additional food.

Here is another number to ponder.

23% of land area that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation

This is a remarkable number alongside the 300%. All that food production gain came in spite of nearly a quarter of agricultural land becoming degraded.

At the core of this contradiction is that we clear land for production all the time. This helps keep the production curve going up even as we mine and degrade the soil in one in four of the fields and paddocks where the food is grown.

This will have to stop at some point when there is no more land to clear.

This land shortage will happen. It already has in some parts of the world. Then we have to get smarter in how we use the agricultural land we have so that it is restored or, better, does not degrade in the first place.

We can do this. We know how to do it. There is even a simple premise to cover all the specifics — restore soil carbon. Do this across all landscapes and many of the biodiversity and climate issues are eased. It is not a silver bullet but it is darned close.

“Soil,” you say. “What does dirt have to do with anything?”

Well, this is the foundation of all things – our food, clean water and pure air. Soil is the foundation because it is where the plants grow.

Whilst we learn to replace the soil with hydroponic and aquaponic food systems and proteins from bacteria, the bulk of our food for the next 100 years or more will need soil.

The IPBES report does mention soil several times. But, as is usual, soil is not in the headlines.

It really should be.

What it means to have more people in the world

What it means to have more people in the world

Here are a couple of anecdotes of what it means to have more people in the world than seems possible.

Spiders

‘A-Ping’ are a popular edible treat in Cambodia. For the uninitiated, ‘A-Ping’ are fried tarantulas that are, apparently, irresistible. The females are especially prized. Apparently the eggs in the abdomen are the really good bit. This odd street food is popular enough for sellers to shift 100 spiders on a good day.

Loss of forest and over-hunting means that local supplies of tarantulas near towns and cities are spent. Supply is falling as demand grows and inevitably the price rises. Spiders are sourced far from the cities where people are poor so the high prices make collection attractive. Something similar happens in many parts of Africa and is labelled poaching.

The combination of demand, supply and price leads to what ABC journalist Zoe Osborne calls an unsustainable demand. More strictly is unstainable supply for demand is a function of the number of people (growing) and their purchasing power (rising).

Either way, it is bad news for tarantula species.

Side note

Tarantula is the term used here. Sellers fry ‘A-Ping’, the large hairy spider. There are over 800 tarantula species in the world meaning that numerous species make up the ‘A-Ping’ trade. Certainly, some of them will be rare naturally, even before the additional hunting pressure. Several species will be rare now.

Donkeys

The Norwegians can be a generous bunch. Turns out that Norway is in the top ten countries for development aid giving over $4 billion in 2018 putting them second to Sweden as a proportion of gross national income and first in dollars spent per capita. They are good folk.

Many years ago one of the Norwegian aid projects gave donkeys to the people of Botswana who are fond of donkeys. The herd boys ride them and they are often used to pull carts. It made sense to provide poorer communities with free donkeys.

The gift was well received and for a while provided the intended benefits. As time passed the donkeys prospered along with the Botswana economy — a coincidence not a consequence. Soon there were many more donkeys in Botswana than were needed as prosperity from diamonds gave the herd boys other things to do and donkey carts were replaced with four-wheel-drive trucks.

Spare donkeys became a traffic hazard for they are as stubburn as their mule cousins and refuse to get out the way of the aforementioned trucks zipping along at 140 clicks.

Then the Chinese decided that there was a huge market for donkey gelatin in their country where it is known as ‘ejiao’. It is better not to ask why but we are talking rice delicacies and use in herbal medicine to treat a range of ailments from bleeding, dizziness, and insomnia to a dry cough. The demand for ‘ejiao’ is growing rapidly thanks to population growth and affluence, in this case in China. As the Chinese prosper economically so the demand for remedies to improve health and well-being, proven or anecdotal, goes up.

A few years ago donkey prices around the world began to rise sharply due to this rising demand from Chinese herbalism. Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal banned donkey exports to China because, not unlike the spider example above, poor people could get a favourable price for their donkey.

Arguably the removal of donkeys from the roads in Botswana is not such a bad thing so long as the herd boys are still on the internet. But, as always, the disadvantaged are further repressed when they find themselves in need of draught power.

Photo by Henry Desouza Nelson on Unsplash

What it means to have more people

Spider species joining the lists of rare and endangered, cruelty to donkeys and desperate measures for rural poor.

Who would have thought it?

Nature does not behave like a banker

Nature does not behave like a banker

The economic model that has made the west wealthy claims a design that promotes investment with the greatest certainty of returns and least risk.

It is easy to find advocates of this ‘mobilise capital to grow it’ paradigm. A few might even admit that it is acceptable to externalise as much of the cost as possible and minimise the rest with the cheapest labour and materials you can find. All good so long as you are a shareholder and, after all, most of us in the west are thanks to our superannuation or our government’s investments.

Investment options that promote the long, dare we say sustainable, game resolve the full risk profile but often at a cost. They need to discount current profit to ensure that profit accrues for longer. This is the essence of resilient and sustainable systems and is exactly how nature does it.

Try telling that to a banker or a fund manager.

They want to achieve a capitalist outcome. They want to use capital, ideally someone else’s, to generate profit. That’s all. Well, almost all. They also want to do it as fast as possible and they would like to squeeze as much profit as can be squeezed because the sooner the profit accrues the sooner it can be churned back into the system as capital, after taking the clip for the new Ferrari.

Capital is being lazy if it waits around for the profit to accrue. Laziness is judged on the rate of return that itself is set by the market through interest rates and the opportunities for the specific use of funds in each sector and market segment.

This is the dry explanation.

When it comes to the bankers and financiers themselves, well, they are people, individuals with desires and dreams. They want to be successful and competitive so they will be hard-arsed to find and squeeze the best balls of steel deals that they can. It will help them reach their dreams and make them feel good as they do it.

The banker will drive the bargain when an opportunity presents and will walk away in an instant if the numbers or the risk smell of anything below the going rate. For them, efficiency in opportunity is the currency that will bring success.

You should be able to see that this is not how nature does it.

Despite the ‘tooth and claw’ rhetoric that does play out as organisms compete directly with each other for resources, the consequence of competition in nature is to balance resource use and make it efficient. This happens because there are organisms designed to benefit from both the long and the short game – the tree that persists through drought and flood or the weed that exploits in an instant and then dies. Together the variability in nature’s market is absorbed and used efficiently by diversity.

Ecological theory suggests that this is why nature persists, there is always an organism that can exploit and another that can wait until later. It also tells us that diversity is important. Not so with finance.

Bankers are short players. They have always been so. They exhibit diversity but only to shorten the game.

It is time we invented a new breed of financier, one that instead of picking off the best short-game opportunity can look long, very long. What about a financier who invests for returns that accrue to his grandchildren?

It can be done. Indeed, it must be done or there will be no Ferrari.

Agriculture needs long-game players

The place to begin is in food production. The global numbers have demand increasing steadily over the next 30 years by at least 60% for both grains and meat. That suggests a strong market but one that is short of the 7-10% returns expected in most capital markets. A three-year investment yielding 5% will always outcompete a 2% per year, even if the growth continues steadily for a generation.

The temptation is to invest in intensification. A centre-pivot irrigation system that improves yield by 10% with a non-linear 20% gross margin return sounds attractive. Only now the monoculture under the pivot-arm is mining the soil nutrients much faster than before and in a decade the cost of inputs negates that gross margin benefit.

In agriculture at least, high returns often kick ultimate risk further down the road. No problem if the Ferrari is already in the garage but an opportunity missed if the demand keeps growing.

Much better for the farmer and his backer is a longer play that looks to intercropping the cash crop with a legume that replenishes the soil nutrients and carbon. The average yield is lower but is consistent even in dry years. Economic returns are more modest but they are stable and costs go down over time so that profitability increases.

Is there a banker out there willing to play this longer, lower risk game?