How is it even possible that organic life can defy all the laws of entropy and exist for more than five minutes? More than that, organisms last long enough to complete their life’s mission — almost all of them procreate.
More making is the purpose, and so all organisms make more.
Microbes, to mice and men, getting ready and achieving reproduction in its myriad forms is what happens every minute of every day. All the actions of sentient beings are geared to more making.
This imperative is fundamental to our understanding of how evolution works. Replication with a bit of error and selection for the helpful errors is how life persists and generates diversity. The driver is reproduction.
Humans are not immune. We have powerful reproductive urges that manifest as an often overpowering sense of family, helicopter parenting, and more websites with sexual content than any other category.
History tells us that brothels and breweries are the first essential services in any new town.
Anyone with the self-discipline and conviction to resist the innate urge to reproduce has a powerful tool over others. No wonder the church has used clerical celibacy. The church sees devotion by a man who chooses not to have sex “a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.“
Service to others but not to their pets.
Here is what Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi had to say about Pope Francis telling everyone that choosing to have pets instead of kids is “selfish”…
Ah yes, choosing not to bring a child into an overpopulated world that is careening towards climate catastrophe is the height of selfishness! I know the pope lives in a palace and probably isn’t too familiar with the current costs of childcare but he might want to look into just how expensive having a kid is these days.
The Pope might be celibate but his parishioners must prioritise kids over their fur babies. They must follow the primary biological directive to reproduce.
There are dozens of posts to write on this deep and meaningful hypocrisy, but the obvious one is this…
Humanity can only survive the next 100 years if we repress our reproductive urges by choice or design because the planet is finite. It cannot sustain post-industrial revolution rates of human population growth and resource demand for another century.
There has to be a demographic transitionand a shift to sustainable resource use or else we fall from our perceived pinnacle and struggle to persist.
No matter how important kids are to a celibate white man, fewer children are necessary, and if that means fur babies, so be it.
Back in 2010, Australia was about to legislate a carbon price. Not the ‘great big tax’ that haunted the Gillard government but its predecessor, the Climate Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), an attempt at emission control when the political climate still had a whiff of progress about it.
The CPRS, a cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme for anthropogenic greenhouse gases proposed by the Rudd government as part of its climate change policy, was voted down by the Greens. Under Bob Brown’s leadership, they decided it was too little, the targets were too weak. The perfect getting in the way of the good.
Instead of a start, there was no price on carbon and an open the door to the naysayers who ambled their way through for a good laugh and some appalling behaviour.
What followed was a decade of inaction, political assassinations of prime ministers, and the mess we are in now with the current PM not wanting to go to COP because he is held ransom by a bunch of clowns who think a $250 billion public purse to prop up coal mining is an idea. I could go on.
In the end, he went and tried to make climate change about submarines.
Progress is a process.
I know progress can be slow when there are values at stake. It takes time to test the water, convince the recalcitrants and avoid failure from unforeseen consequences.
And in politics, most important, do not scare the horses.
The reality that the Greens missed so badly back in 2010 is that some good is possible along the slow path to the perfect.
For example, when 136 countries sign up to a minimum corporate tax of 15% we should all applaud and pat the negotiators on the back. And yes, even if one of them is the forever on the nose Mr Cormann.
The agreement means that countries would legislate a global minimum corporate tax rate of at least 15 per cent for companies with annual revenues over 750 billion euros ($1.2 trillion), the big end of town. Then, if these big players have earnings that go untaxed or lightly taxed in one of the world’s tax havens, their home country would impose a top-up tax that would bring the rate to 15 per cent.
No more squirrelling away revenues from IP and other intangibles in the Cayman Islands without paying up.
This is a tiny step toward a more even distribution of wealth creation through governments legislating some trickle down to slow the charge to wealth inequality that grips the world. Recall that would be the trickle of wealth that the neoliberals claim is an inevitable consequence of successful economic growth.
Sure 20%, even 40%, would be better and more realistic. But 15% is a start.
Some developing countries and advocacy groups say the 15% is too low and leaves far too much tax revenue on the table. And although the global minimum would capture some $205 billion in new revenue for governments, most of it would go to rich countries where many of the big multinationals are headquartered.
This is a similar argument the Greens spouted when they couldn’t let the big emitters get away with it under the CPRS. They wanted justice right away.
Too far too soon.
The point here is that progress needs time and increments. It can do leaps, but the circumstances must be just right for rapid advances to stick. Waiting around for those opportunities is a luxury that humanity lost when it found fossil fuels.
Stick at the process
The option to wait for the leap that can only happen when the stars align and the wind is blowing away the smell is no longer risky, it is suicidal.
We have to stick at the process of incremental change. It is painful to support such a puny percentage as 15% but it’s way better than waiting for donut economics to appear and change the whole game.
What the Greens did in 2010 was irresponsible, even for them. What the leaders have done since is on a par.
But a carbon price back in 2010 would have seen a small but effective change in the emission trajectory and a far greater chance of reaching any targets that the world would have us set now.
During World War 2 at least 70 million people perished, economies collapsed and infrastructure was devastated. Military and civilian fatalities numbered over 50 million, with at least another 20 million deaths from war-related disease and famine.
Food supplies were disrupted everywhere with rationing common. It was not until the early 1950s that most commodities came ‘off the ration’ and in the UK it took nearly a decade after the end of the war before food rationing ended.
WW2 was a global disaster.
At the end of the War in 1945 with the horrors still fresh, representatives of 50 countries gathered at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, California. After two months of discussion and negotiation, they signed the a charter to create a new international organization, the United Nations, designed to prevent another world war.
In 1945 the deprivation and chaos were raw, everyone had experienced it for themselves. No surprise that the UN Charter in Chapter 1 describes the purposes of the United Nations in Article 1 as
In the 75 years since the charter was signed, a cold war flared then ended with the collapse of soviet communism, simmering regional conflicts dragged on especially in the middle east and the Horn of Africa, and acts of terrorism have devastated communities but, so far, humanity has avoided WW3.
Indeed as Steven Pinker argues in his book Better Angels of Our Nature, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millennia and decades. The evidence for declines in conflict is compelling if controversial.
So why the language of waging war, force, fury and descent into chaos from Mr Guterres, the main man at the UN overseeing the maintenance of peace and security?
Presumably, he thinks scare tactics are needed. Make the reality sound like a war to wake people up to the enormity of the challenge.
The truth is alarming enough.
Unbridled exploitation of nature by 8 billion people has changed the planet eroding the essentials of nature that humanity relies on for 23 trillion kilocalories a day in food, not to mention clean water and fresh air.
Biodiversity is in decline everywhere, especially in the soil where it is most vital for the production of all that food.
In the Amazon, we are back to 81,000 ha of rainforest clearing every day or 40 football fields per minute.
Suicide perhaps but not WW3.
Destruction of nature is not a war
War is defined as…
an intense armed conflict between states, governments, societies, or paramilitary groups such as mercenaries, insurgents, and militias. It is generally characterized by extreme violence, aggression, destruction, and mortality, using regular or irregular military forces.
In other words, a lethal conflict between the incompatible.
The Secretary-General, a career politician with an education in physics, says that “nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury”
Nature does not fight back because Gaia has no ability to recognise humanity from any of the other drastic climate and global changes that have reorganised nature in the evolutionary past.
Recall there have been 5 other mass extinction events and a host of smaller ones that removed a huge proportion of lifeforms alive at the time. The physical and resource space created just allowed for more evolution. Nature filled the gaps with new lifeforms. All that is needed to generate diversity is disturbance, error and natural selection.
Nature does not fight us. She has no disagreement worthy of lethal conflict.
As far as nature is concerned the actions of expansive humanity with the knack of resource use is no different to any previous extinction event.
Lifeforms are lost because conditions change and, after some time, new ones take their place.
Humanity is not at war with nature, we are just in the business of exploiting all the resources on offer with no thought for what that means for the future of those resources and the processes that generate them.
More like suicide than war
At the end of WW2 in Europe as the Russian army closed in on the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, Adolf Hitler, still deluded but defeated, shot himself.
It was a cowardly response to avoid responsibility for actions that devastated a continent.
Any history of the war struggles to describe this ending. The Third Reich was defeated but the main perpetrator slipped away from justice even before the world knew the full extent of his crimes.
Destruction of nature is not a war.
It is suicide — the taking of our own life — and it smells like that airless Führerbunker in April 1945.
Personal computers, mobile phones, the internet, global travel, gastronomic delights, and Netflix have arrived in the lifetime of the Baby Boomers. So many things have changed over the last 60 years that my infant self would never have imagined my future.
I have experienced so much that I need to pinch myself to be sure it all happened.
The Alpha generation
What of the babies born today, the Alpha generation? What will they experience in their lifetimes?
If the Boomers went from landlines to Facetime, maybe the Alphas can expect holograms, space travel for the masses, and bionic body parts. They could also have to pinch their virtual selves.
Only they will have more to do than the Boomers.
We know that their generation must solve many problems made from the successes of the previous generations. They will be faced with issues of food security, water security, wealth discrepancies, refugees, and any number of technology transitions, especially with energy.
Oh yes, and Covid or its derivatives.
They will also be impacted by changes to the climate.
Here are some of the numbers based on a warming scenario should we meet the Paris agreement targets and see a global average of 2.7℃ of extra heat
The Alpha generation can expect over 600,000 heatwave related deaths every decade.
A golden age
The Boomers parents and grandparents did it tough too — nobody goes through a global war unscathed.
So I am lucky to be born a Boomer and forever grateful.
However, my generation has done a lousy job of preparing for the future. We have not curtailed population or consumption but promoted both. Nature has buckled under our excesses, and the natural resources we leave for the Alphas are either depleted or dangerous to use.
The Baby Boomers had it good because we were born at just the right time, the golden age of technology and wealth. We tapped the sun’s ancient energy for a cheap fix and a costly legacy.
It will take a lot to make a platinum age from what we will leave behind.
Feel free to browse the Alloporus back catalogue for more ideas and random thoughts.
Animal Medicine Australia estimates there are 5.1 million dogs in Australia. Most of these will be family pets and companion animals that make a difference to wellbeing.
What does it cost to keep all these pouches?
Dog ownership costs roughly $1,500 a year and perhaps $25,000 in the lifetime of the cuddly family member. All up Australians fork out $7.6 billion a year on their dogs. Just for perspective, NSW, where 8 million Australians live, spends roughly $4 billion on its police force each year and $24 billion on public education.
It seems that the dogs are up there with the essential things in people’s lives.
What about the hidden costs?
A single dog produces approximately 340 grams of waste per day. That means Australian dogs drop a mind-boggling 1,734 tonnes of turds a day.
That is as heavy as 137 double-decker buses or the take-off weight of three Airbus A380 aircraft with 1,500 people on board.
This weight of organic smelliness dropped on Australian sidewalks and parks is small compared to global output.
The data here are rubbery as the actual numbers are hard to find, not all countries keep records, and many dogs are strays, but there are probably around 470 million dogs worldwide.
A380 commercial flights pre-COVID were around 300 per day. This is just about enough take-off weight to airlift a day’s worth of dog poop.
This mass of manure is clearly significant given we need every ton of organic matter to keep soils productive.
Is dog poo a resource?
Dog faeces (and those of cats) contains about 0.7% nitrogen, 0.25% phosphate and 0.02% potassium.. This chemistry means dog faeces are poor plant fertilizer, plus they often smell, stick to shoes, and contain pathogens. In its unweathered state, dog faeces are not useful, let alone fertilizer.
Most dog waste breaks down naturally in the environment where the dog left it. Some cities collect and incinerate waste with composting avoided.
So maybe the excreta of our omnivorous poodles is not such a resource after all.
An idea for the poop mountains
Perhaps the modest plant nutrients, the challenge in collecting it all, and the considerable smelliness take all the fun out of composting.
Well, who would have thought that after 13 years and a handful of readers that this blog would reach 500 posts?
Not me, certainly.
I am amazed and a little proud of myself for keeping it going all this time.
When I started, the blogosphere was the online space. There were prospects for a wide readership and perhaps even a side hustle from the proliferation of traffic. Then Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and a host of other online distractions hogged the breeze, and what was left was quickly mopped up by aggregators like Medium. Bloggers do it now for personal satisfaction, with only a handful of the early adopters maintaining their readership.
I can’t complain because I write rather than read blog posts, and it seems unfair to lament a lack of traffic. So the blog ticks along with 50 to 100 visitors a month.
Anyway, low traffic volume just needs a few viral outbreaks to explode. We live in hope.
A huge thank you to those kind folk who stumbled onto this blog over the years and read a post or two. And especially the few regulars who clicked the RSS.
It is nice to know that there are real people in the ether.
What did I blog about?
Not surprisingly, for an ecologist, the environment was the most popular category (142 posts), chased by awareness (135) and the Big Picture (127).
I did not expect to write about leadership (88 posts) as much as I did. But the political debacle that Australians have lived through in the last decade meant that laments on the absence of leadership were inevitable.
If any of these whinges offended, then good. It is beyond time that we woke each other up with a cattle prod and did something about the ugly, shameful behaviour that passes for political leadership in this country.
This week, I watched Strong Female Lead, a documentary film billed as “an exploration of gender politics during Julia Gillard’s term as Australia’s first female prime minister”.
It was harrowing to see grown adults dispense abuse to a colleague without the slightest remorse. I might have looked for the nearest bus if it wasn’t for this documentary’s hopeful ending. Let’s just say those 88 posts came about because the nation’s moral compass is buried six feet under.
No doubt there is more to say about our vacuous leaders.
I have always believed that awareness is essential to human wellbeing. No surprise that several posts were tagged thus. Our personal and social lives are better if we pay attention to each other.
Knowledge and perception of the bigger picture are more tricky.
Dissonance, denial and disbelief are much more accessible than confronting the truth of a finite planet with close to 8 billion eager people. Ostrich behaviour makes it hard to raise awareness without sounding pessimistic or preachy. But we all must confront fears, or our grandchildren will have a terrible and short time on earth.
I am working on some practical tools to help with awareness. It is a little early to announce what they are, but the intro has begun over at our new website sustainably FED.
What happens next for Alloporus?
A blog with 230,000+ words of depressing content should have run its course.
After a break from posting through 2010, I tried to reset Alloporus onto a more positive path, and it lasted for a month or two before returning to the usual laments. It seems I am stuck with the frustration of the information age being full of worthless detail.
Why can’t we see that food security is critical to the future of humanity, not climate change or koalas?
Humanity needs 23 trillion kilocalories per day, for goodness sake, just to keep the people alive, let alone the pets — by 2030, it will be 32 trillion.
There is a therapeutic effect of writing about the world in this way. It makes for depressing reading, but it helps to get it off my chest.
I am semi-retired now, too — phew, that was an admission I have been avoiding — so there should be more time to craft more engaging pieces.
So I will continue to post once a week in the hope of seeding some healthy thinking.
I suspect that most people believe that the primary job of a bank is to look after their cash.
Deposit your money and, at any point in time, you can rock up at a branch or a hole in the wall and receive your cash up to the amount that you put in, minus a few fees.
The reality is that banks only provide a haven for our cash because it allows them to leverage the money held into investments. They borrow against their available capital and invest funds into a wide range of assets that they expect will yield more than what they’re giving you for the privilege of looking after your money.
It’s a fantastic financial model.
It’s the reason that having conquered the world of futures trading, capital gains, and hedge funds, Bobby Axelrod, the megalomaniac character in the Stan thriller Billions, played by Damian Lewis, decides he wants to become a bank.
Essentially it’s a license to print money.
Banks are always looking for assets that will yield investment returns in the shortest space of time. Their mantra, indeed their requirement under the law, is to profit, and they are ‘in the pound seats’ to do it, literally.
They have the scale and capacity to invest in projects that your average Joe couldn’t dream of, from skyscrapers to industrial plants, freeways, and airports. The kinds of investments that require tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to see them to fruition.
Banks have the advantage of using other people’s money and the advantage of scale. They make huge sums from investments that yield high returns for long periods, partly on the fact that no one else can invest in them.
And so it is and has been.
The banks make money, but the projects they fund often deliver utility.
It is not always good.
The pursuit of profit is relentless and ruthless.
Goldrush mentality attracts the most ardent and most skilled as well as the opportunist. Money gives banks the very best people with a sharp mind and a ruthless attitude. They quickly find the best ways to reduce costs and maximise returns.
No surprise that banking can support projects that have severe externalities and direct impacts on the environment. Recall an externality happens when the cost of an activity is not absorbed but shipped out. The commons are excellent dumping ground because no one person or entity gets hit with the liability.
Capitalism degrading the environment is profound. Development has to happen, but it becomes pointless if humanity has no safe place to live.
So who is to blame?
The reality is that we, the people, want roads, skyscrapers, and industrial plants that deliver raw materials for all of the stuff we want to buy.
We are the ones that live in large houses with more bedrooms than you could ever need, more luxury than you could ever really afford. And yet, everyone wants a better life, and it is forever the human condition to want betterment.
In other words, the consumer is ultimately responsible.
Instead of blaming the banks, what if we blame the consumer?
Maybe get consumers, us, to give up our desire for stuff, our emotional and mental drive to better ourselves and provide for our families. Quosh those innate biological feelings to make more that is in all of us.
Well, good luck with that one.
Perhaps there is a compromise position where both individuals and the finance community begin to work together to look long and prosper.
Currently, we do this through regulation.
Governments curtail the riskiest financial behaviours through legislation limiting the amounts of money banks can borrow, their financial ratios, and their ability to exploit customers, in itself a significant ongoing task.
Governments are in a difficult position. They see growth as a political necessity and are reluctant to curtail development activity or the banks that finance it. Yet, all the while, development activity is damaging the planet.
If we can’t blame ourselves or the banks for doing what we want them to do, humanity has a problem.
We do have a choice.
We can accept that consumption and more-making has an impact and try to do something about it. Even a little is better than doing nothing. Light bulbs, anyone?
But fiddling just puts off the inevitable. Instead, something dramatic is needed. The doughnut, perhaps?
Alternatives to historic capitalism exist, and many of the options are maturing nicely.
For example, ‘cooperative enterprises’ where workers make the major enterprise decisions rather than boards of directors selected by shareholders. This alternative is called economic democracy.
Only this is not a million miles away from what we already have. The people choose, but this will not guarantee decisions in favour of anything other than the people.
Robin Hahnel’s book Of the People, By the People: The Case for a Participatory Economy describes the participatory economy where all citizens, through the creation of worker councils and consumer councils, deal with large-scale production and consumption issues without the need for appointed representatives. The participatory economy is the origin of the Green New Deal, a package of policies that address climate change and financial crises.
A participatory economy is different. Imagine the circus of state and national politics banished to the bench.
Doughnut economics is an economic model proposed by Kate Raworth that combines planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. Look after everyone and the planet.
Doughnut economics is different too.
And these are just three of the many alternatives with potential.
What do the alternatives require of us?
Most of the alternative economic systems require a shift in responsibility.
It would be on us, not the banks or the government or the unscrupulous developers. We will all have to step up and understand the consequences of our choices.
The banks would continue to do their thing on our behalf; only we would be responsible for the consequences of what they do.
And so we get to the rub.
Capitalism has delivered growth and, on average, betterment for humanity. Only it comes at an uncomfortable cost. And the only way to pay back that cost is to take responsibility for it.
Are banks bad? No, they are a caricature of our abdication from personal responsibility.
Please like or share or comment. It helps me heaps, thanks.
“The difference between Labor’s policy and ours is that Julia Gillard introduced a scheme where big polluters paid Australian taxpayers. Tony changed it so that Australian taxpayers pay big polluters,”
Unnamed Austrailian Government Minister
This bizarre statement referred to the carbon price, the so-called ‘great big tax’ introduced by the Labour government in 2012. This blog has mentioned the debacle that is Australian climate policy and the frustration and sadness that it has been thus for over a decade.
Imagine the arrogance in this inebriated quip.
Australians elect such individuals, and as an excellent article by Leigh Sales, another ABC stalwart, tells us, this level of vulgarity is typical. It is not a personality thing but ingrained into the political system. It is leadership that lacks.
I always liked the idea that the cream rises to the top.
It ranks alongside ‘the truth persists’ as quotes that are hopeful and true. The problem is it’s taking a while, way too long.
“Cream always rises to the top…so do good leaders”.
John Paul Warren
The delay in the arrival of some genuine leaders will have consequences.
One of the more ironic is the one Ian Verrender describes, the consequences for Australia of the rest of the world putting a price on carbon in the form of carbon border taxes. Countries that have lowered emissions and want to keep it that way are reluctant to import emission-intensive commodities. At least that is the rhetoric.
The reality for Australia is that there will be carbon levies. The world was trending towards enforcing climate policy through trade action. For example, the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Legislation is still rough but will include aluminium, iron, steel, cement, natural gas, oil and coal.
Here are the 10 Biggest Exporting Industries in Australia
Iron Ore Mining $123.1B
Oil and Gas Extraction $39.8B
Coal Mining $37.6
Liquefied Natural Gas Production $34.8B
Gold and Other Non-Ferrous Metal Processing $29.4B
Meat Processing $15.9B
Grain Growing $8.2B
Alumina Production $7.4B
Pharmaceutical Product Manufacturing $6.9B
Copper, Silver, Lead and Zinc Smelting and Refining $6.8B
That is at least $309 billion in exports that could get slugged for their emission intensity. If the levy is just 5%, that is $15 billion in lost revenue… per year.
But it’s ok; the taxpayer is waiting patiently to pay the big polluters.
If you enjoyed this little rant or care at all that leadership needs some new blood, please share on your socials.
The next time you’re out and about in nature, sidle up to the nearest tree that you can’t quite get your arms around.
This mighty organism will tower above your head and its trunk will feel rock solid even as the branches sway gently in the wind.
Now take yourself back to the time just before humans invented metal tools.
This is about 6,000 years ago around 4,200 BC.
Imagine you were there with a few fellow hunter-gatherers or perhaps your clan was amongst the earliest primitive farmers and look again at the tree.
Ask yourself “I wonder if we can cut this thing down, with my stone axe?”
The answer, of course, is not really. Unless you have an enormous amount of time on your hands or there’s an extended family around willing to help with the herculean task.
Obviously, if the tree fell down of its own devices, in a storm or because it had reached the end of its natural life, this would help a lot. Not least reducing the dangers of several tons of timber falling on one of the helpers.
The problem would then become shaping it into useful material, for example, a canoe to take you out onto the swamp to gather food or beams for a shelter. This processing still requires an enormous amount of effort with stone tools.
The fact that our ancestors tried it anyway even with simple technology is a testament to human ingenuity, tenacity, and our skill with tools.
Hard yards even with steel tools
Run forward a few thousand years and imagine what it would have been like for some of the early European settlers in Australia in the late 1700s. When they arrived on the east coast they were presented with vast forests of massive trees that they recognized as a resource, but only had limited tools and not much machinery.
Until around 1850, red cedar, native softwoods, and eucalypt trees were felled by axe or crosscut saw and sawn into lengths using pit saws. Timber was also hewn or split with broad axes and wedges. Transport of the timber to mills and markets was by animal power and so forests closest to market areas were logged first.
Cutting down 30 m trees with handheld saws and axes is hard work when it’s 35 degrees in the shade. You need to be one tough cookie to be able to do that on a regular basis.
After 1850 the use of steam power including powered sawmills and road transport enabled higher productivity and access to areas previously uneconomic to harvest such as some of the coastal rainforests.
It was not until electrification and diesel power, which first appeared in the 1940s, did wood-chipping plants, pulp and paper from plantation softwoods, eucalypts, cypress pine, and rainforest timbers make the whole process of access to timber products easier.
By this time most of the forests in Australia had lost their biggest trees that were taken out first, particularly the hardwoods, and many of those huge trees that they began with no longer exist except for in a few isolated parcels of the inaccessible country that the tractors cannot reach.
There’s a video going around on the social feeds at the moment showing what happens in a sawmill. Not a particularly large one but a modern one with all the efficient high-tech tools.
The trunks of the trees, about the size of the one you tried to get your arms around, arrive at the yard neatly trimmed of all their branches and squared at both ends. This of course is done by a machine in the forest, no longer is it required for a tree to be cut down by hand. A tree lopper and strimmer and cutter will do that job in a fraction of a second.
The cleaned logs are piled on the back of a B double and deposited at the sawmill outside in a hopper. That hopper moves the logs in such a way that they end up on a conveyor belt, separated and aligned ready to go into the mill.
The conveyor belt takes each log one at a time through into the mill. As it arrives it is scanned to accurately record width and length and shape. This information is fed into the next machine, essentially a huge and very fancy band-saw, that begins to cut the planks from the round trunk, taking slices in both directions thanks to a double-sided saw blade. The slices are measured precisely, cut and fall onto another conveyor belt as neat planks.
The machine then flips the log four times until the square pole in the middle is left and goes down the belt that takes the timber into the stacking yard. In a matter of minutes, each log is measured, cut, and stored.
What would have taken our ancestors weeks or months of very hard labour just to get a canoe. Our modern technologies can produce timber of any size and shape in a matter of minutes.
Imagine what this capability does to resource use and to the supply of resources.
It is much much easier to exhaust supply when processing efficiency is so high. And if the objective is to convert a resource into cash — the name of the game for every business — then that is what happens so long as the process is profitable.
The conversion of capital into cash is a powerful force. Modern technology advances make the conversion process for natural capital super-efficient.
That tree you hugged is no match for a chain saw let alone a forestry tree lopper.
Using up natural capital
Commerce plus technology is why natural capital is used up.
And we generally call it development. And even if the rhetoric is for sustainable development the power of commerce and technology makes that ideal a challenge.
The reality is that these systems of production are so efficient and so hungry for resources to maintain their profitability and deliver return on investment in the lumber yard machinery that it is not just the trees that need to worry.
Please share on your socials. It might be a bit depressing to read but these realities need a spotlight.
The other day my youngest son, now in his late-twenties, was very proudly telling me how he was living within his means. He had an account for all his various bills, one for unforeseen expenses, he had his play account and… Basically, he’d bucketed his money.
He felt he was saving and was asking what I thought would be the best type of investment given his age and where the world was going. He had of course already decided how he was going to invest in a combination of cryptocurrency, shares and eventually, his gold standard, property.
And good on him.
It was a proud moment for a father to hear his son getting his shit together. Particularly after several years of it looking a bit dodgy as to what would happen.
That notion though, of living within your means, is rarely extended beyond our personal affairs.
A COVID opportunity
The pandemic has given many people pause for thought. The time to think about their own personal means and for many, it’s been a horrific and very scary time.
Job losses and uncertainty around income causing problems for families all around the world.
What we haven’t done yet, but we should, is to see what this pause means for jurisdictions and countries living within their means.
Why can’t we extend the concept to whole economies?
The kneejerk has been to assume when COVID is over that the old normal will return, as though we’re all just desperate for it to be like it was before. You know, a life full of problems and constraints and difficulties and working all hours God sends just to pay the mortgage. As though that situation of stress is the one we want for the new business as usual.
Meanwhile, governments rack up debt levels never before seen, not even in wartime, and whistle along as though printing money was actually what they had in mind all along.
In Australia, the politicians are desperate to return to pre-COVID neoliberalism. They are planning everything as though it’s what everyone wants, even to the point of ignoring the opportunity to ramp up structural change to energy, agriculture and what to do when the country can’t sell any more iron ore, coal or gas.
The immediate challenge is not so much what an alternative normal should look like, more that leaders don’t seem interested in looking for alternatives. Or even imagining what those alternatives would be. And yet this is essential if we are to move forward.
This is all at a time in human history, the first when resources do not match demand, when we’re already living way beyond planetary means.
As one measure of this overreach, the day on which the renewable resources of the world are used up for that year has been creeping earlier and earlier for decades.
All those severe lockdowns when most of Europe stayed at home, global travel came to an abrupt halt and tourism tanked, changed the date for overshoot day 2020 by just three weeks.
Despite a pandemic slowdown we still need 1.6 planets worth of natural resources to get us all through the year.
Self-sufficiency for countries
Perhaps the numbers for earth overshoot day are too daunting.
More realistic perhaps is to extend the personal means test to countries or jurisdictions, a city or a county for example. These smaller, more compact economic units should be easier to handle and have more autonomy than the global economy.
Attempts at country level self-sufficiency start with a mindset of wanting to live within means. This will require a shift from a growth model to something that is more about what happens if we didn’t try to live within our means. Collapse is the extreme but shortages and strife are nasty precursors. There has to be a desire to mitigate these risks.
Next would be the inventory of needs and necessities together with the current modes of delivery for goods and services. Then some thoughts on the efficiency of these modes asking what sort of changes would be required? What resources are essential, what resources are a luxury that we could easily live without? Resource use decisions would also require a focus on what is understood by well-being.
Much of what happens in the West is unnecessary for human well-being. We are over-consuming and stressing out whilst failing to think about and utilize the resources that we have. We don’t imagine resources being the limiting factor because the only limiting factor is our desire and our greed.
The conversation about living within means requires a shift in thinking away from what we could potentially have, the yacht and that 10-story apartment block bringing in enormous amounts of passive income to fund the luxury villa on the coast.
Instead discuss and decide on a semblance of what we understand by well-being, especially how well-being can be enhanced by being people rather than consumers.
Any discussion on economic self-sufficiency quickly ends up at the individual. It is self after all.
It may be that a top down sufficiency is not possible, only from individuals can a collective living within means happen.
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