Should a country be self-sufficient?

Should a country be self-sufficient?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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.

Source: Global Footprint Network 

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.

Self-sufficiency

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.

Bitcoin then.


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A baseline in Africa

A baseline in Africa

Lions, Chobe – Alloporus

There are times when you find yourself reminiscing about the old days. 

It is a natural response to age and probably quite a healthy pastime so long as it doesn’t wander off into regret. 

I used to remember my time in Africa almost every day. 

The smells, sights and sounds of the savanna are indelible, you cannot forget them even when they are in the distant past. 

A little musty scent, with a hint of acrid talc in the nostrils. 

Chirp, babbles, and, if you are lucky, a morning boom in the ears from a hornbill the size of a turkey. 

From these feelings, the memory lands on specific events such as when I laid down on my belly next to a python because I was naive enough to think it would not strike or when I looked up into a leadwood tree to see a Wahlberg’s eagle with a genet dangling from its talons or the idle chit chat on the banks of a shallow pool rudely interrupted buy the hippo that almost leapt from the water with a white water wake worthy of any man-made craft.

Ah yes, those were the days. 

Wonderful experiences fondly remembered as privileges, blessings even, that I am happy to have as times in the past that fill my soul with gratitude. 

I do not remember these things every day now. 

Just occasionally when triggered by an image, a conversation, or when there is the smell of dryness in the morning air.

Recently I was required to go to the bush here in Australia and wander around farmers paddocks to eyeball patches of remnant vegetation. Instead of inspiring, I rather dreaded it. It has been a while since the scruffy jeans, long-sleeved shirts and robust boots have appeared from storage under the house. They needed a wash to remove the smell of underemployment. 

There was a time, of course, when an ecologist would be in the field as often as was humanly possible, quadrat and data sheet in hand, compass in the back pocket, and revelling in the rugged look that is only possible after several days without showering. 

But not any more. For some reason, not entirely obvious, it doesn’t happen much these days. I don’t get out and about into the wilds at all.

Why is that? 

What changed that stopped me from seeking out natures wonder? There are no real obstacles. I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW within spitting distance of some of the best bushwalks in Australia. I still make my living advising on environmental matters that presents any number of opportunities to spend time outside. But I prefer to stay at home. The nearest thing to nature I get is my regular walks down the first fairway.

The recent trip was sanitised of course. Room and board in between the gentle site visits arriving in an air-conditioned vehicle with no time for the fine dust to adhere its protective qualities onto any exposed skin.  

There were no clipboards or quadrats or data of any sort. Just some ramblings from local experts. Most of the time I was clicking my heels or wandering off to find some bugs to admire.

My enthusiasm level was chronic.

Was I suffering from shifting baseline syndrome?

Shifting baseline syndrome

In psychology, SBS is where each generation grows up being accustomed to the way their environment looks and feels, and thus, in a system experiencing progressive impoverishment, they do not recognize how degraded it has become over the course of previous generations.

SBS occurs when conditions of the natural environment gradually degrade over time, yet people (e.g., local citizens, natural resource users and policy makers) falsely perceive less change because they do not know, or fail to recall accurately, how the natural environment was in the past.

Now I have limited recollection of a past for Australia as I have been here for 25 years, a short period relative to the rates of environmental change. 

But I do recall Africa, often in vivid detail. And I am subtky tempted to make comparisons that shift my baseline.

Causes of shifting baseline syndrome

SBS results from three major causes

  1. lack of data on the natural environment
  2. loss of interaction
  3. loss of familiarity with the natural environment

Well, I am not short of data given that I play with environmental evidence for a living.

I have lost interaction. In Australia, my passion for the bush has been a fraction of what I had in Africa not helped by fires, heat, and floods. Somehow lions, hippos and donkeys on the road seemed far less of a threat.

Mostly, I am not familiar with the environment. I don’t know very much about it.

This sounds strange even as I write for I do know more than average but I don’t feel that I have ever known enough about this strange land.

Alternate baseline

My baseline is Africa.

Everything is compared to it. 

Sights, sounds, smells… presence. It’s all based on what I felt for a decade starting in my mid-20’s.

Physically I moved on and with time I accepted that those heady days would not be repeated but there is a powerful legacy, an incomparable baseline that cannot be restored.  


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A different message from Sir David

A different message from Sir David

Sir David Attenborough has made another wildlife documentary. No surprise there, the legend has made dozens of them over his long and distinguished career.

What is different about this one is summed up in his final sentence

“What happens next is up to every one of us.”

David Attenborough’s, Extinction: The Facts

For the first time, BBC programmers and Sir David decided we were big enough and brave enough to hear the truth of the matter. All the habitat loss, the pollution, the poaching, climate change impacts, expressed as wildfire impacts, and the inevitable species extinctions.

It is all true.

It is happening every day and in Sir David’s lifetime, there has been more than enough time for even the blind to see the consequences of human appropriation of net primary production, the landscape changes and the, well, the consequences of nearly 8 billion of us.

Of course, we do not want to be told, at least that’s what the TV producers decided.

Only against expectations, the viewing numbers in the UK screening were good and got better as the show progressed. It seemed like we were up for the messages after all. Perhaps we are ready for the reality of what we have done.

The interesting part is the last postulate at the end of the show that will no doubt become a classic

What happens next is up to every one of us

Here is what we need to do next

  • Feed an average of 8 billion souls every day for a hundred years – that means around 23 trillion kcals a day for 36,500 days at least.
  • Change the trajectory of our diets so that this calorie and nutrient challenge is achievable
  • Pay attention to soil and learn all we can about how to keep it healthy everywhere
  • Rewild up to a third of the land area and a third of the surface ocean volume to give the remaining global biodiversity a chance to survive, but also to maintain critical ecosystem services
  • Adapt through innovation to inevitable climate change impacts whilst transitioning to carbon-neutral economies
  • Be positive and hear the messages even when they are frightening, then act

And to achieve all of these there is one more thing…

  • Vote for progressive politicians.

I know this last one is the most difficult, for just now politicians with ideas are like hen’s teeth, exceptionally rare and hard to spot. But with necessity, they will appear and will stand out.

You’ll know them instantly.

Best of luck to us all.

Environmental science degrees in Australia just took a massive hit

Environmental science degrees in Australia just took a massive hit

In the 2020 Federal budget the Australian government, in its wisdom, decided that they would shift funding allocated to particular subjects within the university sector. The media have focused on reductions in the amount of money spent on arts degrees and the promotion of STEM subjects, technical and hard science degrees. 

Only one of the big losers in that story was environmental science. 

The student contribution to environmental studies was cut from $9,698 to $7,700 a year – meaning students will pay less for their degrees. A positive of course.

However, the commonwealth contribution paid to the universities to run these degrees was cut from $24,446 to $16,500 per student per year – meaning that the government will fund each degree less. Unless the university can be remarkably creative, less money received per student means a poorer quality of education.

This is very short-sighted, obviously. 

At a time when the youth are turning their minds towards their futures and what kind of environment they’re going to live in; not to mention their children and grandchildren. They are concerned. They think that the current and previous generations have given them a hospital pass. And they’re about to crash into the opponent with very little protection. 

Many of them are keen to find out more, to engage with environmental problems, and to search for solutions. Apply their sharp and agile minds to make the world safer and more sustainable.

The environmental sciences, one would have thought, are in the best interests of everyone. 

No matter what your value set, not understanding how the environment works is just a massive miss to any economy, society and individual well-being. 

Think about it for a moment.

All modern economic systems are founded on feeding the people. There are only two ways to feed the people: grow enough food or buy food from another grower. Either way, you need a strong system of economic organisation in order to be able to achieve the outcome by either method. 

Failure to feed your population and strife is never far away. 

And here is the thing… whether we like it or not,

The environment is where we grow our food 

Until we have created greenhouses on the moon or vertical gardens on every building in every city, the majority of our food supply will come from the land. It will be grown in soil. That’s going to be the case for at least the next hundred years and beyond. 

Not recognizing this fact just because we seem to have enough food right now, is morally abhorrent. That senior leaders and advisers are not even contemplating future food security is criminal. 

Remember that on any day of the week at least 700 million people are hungry and not all of them live in obscure countries that few know exist.

We have a small window for finding options to grow and distribute food for everyone. A short time to throw alternatives around and have their value debated before landing on the values that take precedent in which locations. 

Soon this window for rational discussions will have passed and will be in crisis mode. 

And a crisis is what it will come to for hungry people are desperate. 

In spending less on environmental science education governments are undermining the capability to even act in crisis mode by making it harder for a youngster to be educated in this area of interest. It is tragic. A small budget item decision that really points to the stupidity of the people in power. 

Not just the government

It may be that the environmental scientists themselves must take some of the responsibility. 

In my hirsute youth way back in the late 1970’s, I completed a degree in environmental science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. It was a new degree at the time and UEA promoted itself as a place of open-ended learning and student-centred inquiry.

A fascinating subject combined with a novel pedagogy fitted my personality to perfection. 

I absolutely loved it.

I spent hours in the library on my open-ended inquiry. And was both fascinated and empowered by the student-centeredness of the whole approach. In one of the courses, I even marked my own assignment, only to be told by the lecturer that I might have undersold myself. 

That this type of degree was available at the time was magical to me. 

The ability to mix and match a whole range of different subject matter, that would otherwise have not gone together or insufficient on their own to merit undergraduate study, was perfect.  Ecology, sedimentology, geochemistry, meteorology, sustainable development… and that was just the first year. 

Later it was Environments in time, more Ecology, Ecosystem Management, Land Resource Development, and Toxic Substances in the Environment. In total a thorough grounding in the bio-physicality of the world with and without humanity.

This STEM version of environmental science was not taken up in every program. 

In many universities, these topics never really came together and environmental science was hijacked by the human end of it. The value-laden decision making by individuals and the consequences of people being involved in the environment more so than the objectivity of the information that you can get about how the environment works. 

In other words, the sociology of the subject risked diluting the objectivity. 

These programs are less able to be precise about the science of the environment being absorbed in the social aspects of it. 

Consequently, environmental scientists are not winning Nobel Prizes. They’re not at the forefront of the men in white coats that governments are now trotting out to explain the COVID crisis. 

The discipline of environmental science does not have the standing needed to attract resources to empower the next generation. I think we have to take some responsibility for that, for not actually putting ourselves forward well enough. 

But if I was a climate actions youngster skipping school in order to protest about my future, then I would be looking closely at that cheaper degree and hoping that the quality of the program was up to scratch. 

Then I would enrol in environmental science.

Society will need what I learn.

Hard work is the answer

Hard work is the answer

I’m currently in a bit of a quandary.

I’m on a roll and my words per day have been through the roof.

As a writer such bouts of productivity are to be cherished because they dry up as fast as they flood, the block kicks in, and suddenly you’ve got nothing to say.

My problem is that this particular spurt of enthusiasm has lasted the best part of a year. There is a lot of material that needs to be tidied up.

The writing gig is a long process. Only the first part, maybe 20%, is origination. The inspiration strikes and the first splurge of vomit makes a splatter on the page. The next phase is to tidy up the mess.

Making sense of the first draft takes numerous waves of editing and rejigging in order to shape a narrative that is, at least in the writer’s mind, comprehensible.

After that, the process involves third parties engaged with structural and copy editing, as well as preparation of material into the various format to share with the world.

The process of writing is a mechanical one, way more drudge than inspiration and creativity.

My current quandary is, do I stop writing and begin the real work?

Whilst I’m on a roll this seems like a mistake. I must keep going whilst the muse is dancing away in front of me. Only, where will the time come from to clean up the mess?

I really don’t know what to do.

The process of science

Science is the same.

As a student, I was always told that science is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. A quote pilloried from elsewhere no doubt but no less true for lack of originality.

The process of science goes something like this.

An idea worth testing springs to mind, typically on a topic that you find fascinating. Maybe you spot a gap in knowledge that an experiment or a set of observations can fill.

That moment of clarity will set in train several months worth of hard work pulling together the evidence through experiment or observation. More often than not the procedures need development and fine-tuning, it can take a week to calibrate a measurement. Once the set up is done the data collection begins and last as long as the test requires. A while if the subject is the gestation period of an elephant. Then comes the collation, analysis and interpretation of the data into evidence. This in itself can take months with the prospect that the hypotheses will need clarification and another experiment or two completed before the evidence is clear. All this must then be condensed into a short communication that peers will tear apart before an editor maybe gives the green light to publication.

All up, an equally long and laborious process as writing. More a slog than an inspiration.

Few research scientists have the luxury of hanging about in the fun of speculation and hypothesis generation. In science, there is no substitute for the effort needed to generate evidence. There is no evidence without the hard yards in the laboratory or the field.

Even if you are the theorist who looks to the mathematics of it all, there is drudgery in the proof.

Evidence takes hard work.

Now for an apparent non sequitur

The process of sustainability

The conundrum of ideas versus hard work applies to a whole range of our sustainability problems.

We know that ideas are inspirational and they can come together in a flash. They are fun and full of promise and there are lots of sustainability ideas around. Google delivers 290 million results for the search term ‘sustainability ideas’.

The conversion of ideas into practical solutions is the hard part. Actions that are actually going to make a difference to human use of natural resources on the ground and at scale. Most of this is just a lot of hard work.

Check any list of ideas for sustainability like these

They are all fantastic options. Societies everywhere should be onto them and thousands of others like them.

All these ideas have one thing in common. They take effort to implement.

The wondrous inspirations need hard work to achieve their desired outcomes.

Sometimes there is more work required all the time, sometimes just in the transition, but the core message is that sustainability is not an easy task. It’s particularly difficult against the current technological advances that generate cheaper unsustainable products and services.

Being sustainable is not really about the sustainability concept itself, it’s more about the fact that society exists in this process of inspiration and hard work.

We can’t just make a call on the inspiration. There’s a lot of hard work involved in making sustainability solutions stick.

Worth remembering when the next idea to save the planet comes along.

Now I have some editing to do.

Green up the lawn

Green up the lawn

Last spring we decided to landscape our front garden. We had a contractor level off the slopes and spread a new layer of topsoil before endless rolls of turf went down on the newly flattened area. And then, of course, we endured a dreadful summer of heat, wildfires, and drought requiring water restrictions that eventually meant we couldn’t water the lawn at all. So after a solid start, we lost the turf and now we have a front yard made up of weeds.

Needless to say, you should question why we wanted a lawn in the first place. Sir Walter is not native or even likely to persist for more than five minutes unaided in our bushy corner of suburbia, but peer-pressure is a powerful force, as is the resale value of the property.

Clearly we have to do something. Living where we do one simply can’t have weeds in the front garden for goodness sake. It has to be a pristine patch of green of a single species mown regularly to add to the sound of the suburbs.

A request was made to the treasury for funds to fix the problem.

A couple of hundred dollars worth of fertilizer, machinery-hire to aerate the soil, and some seed with a top dressing and perhaps the turf can come back from the dead.

It doesn’t work. The money is spent and still the weeds come through.

More money was spent on weed killer and yet more seed and top dressing. Still it doesn’t work.

Back to the treasury for more funds to do the job a third time. This time it will work.

Only the lawn still isn’t in any sort of shape and it feels like the more money you spend on it the worse it gets.

No matter, we’ll try again.

A plastic lawn is out of the question as is a return to clumps of coarse natives with a hint of bare patch.

Going green

The lawn debacle is a wonderful analogy for the work of green movements around the world. They’ve chastised the people and the governments for failure to save iconic species and to halt overall biodiversity loss, and yet each time they claim and whinge about it, going back to the treasury for more funds to do more of the same, because the problem continues to get worse.

How is that sensible policy on such a critical issue?

Surely we can resource the protection of nature. After all, it provides critical processes that determine human existence, yet we cannot find funds to protect the environment from our worst excesses. And how is it that people who have a political agenda to support that exact outcome have failed so miserably to achieve anything?

All around the world green parties have near-zero political capital, typically just a handful of seats here and there. In one or two jurisdictions they may, if they’re lucky, hold the balance of power on crossbenches, but the fundamental policy frame has not caught on with the public. Green parties have not been able to gather themselves to hit the mainstream and actually get themselves elected into positions of power.

This is a really big problem.

Damage to the structure of nature’s natural processes is reaching a critical level. Even Sir David Attenborough has decided to come off the fence and tell it like it is, the loss he has seen with his own eyes. He knows that bending nature to our will to the point where key processes fail is suicide. Don’t forget it is the primary production of plants and the secondary production of animals that feeds us all. Until everyone understands that, messing with the fundamentals is a dumb play for us and especially our grandchildren. Until we can get that into mainstream thinking, all of us are teetering on the edge of a very steep cliff with jagged rocks at the bottom.

Only the green doom and gloom story can’t be the message because whilst doom and gloom may sell newspapers, it doesn’t buy votes.

Newspapers create ‘if it bleeds it leads’ so that politicians can stand up and say “we’ll protect you from all that gore, just see our policy on fencing off the edge of cliffs”. It is what gets them elected. Join in the media with their blood soaked headlines and there is no way the public will elect you. The voters think you are blaming them, which, of course, the greens are and they may be right, but they can’t say it to our faces.

What we have is zero progressive policy on the environment.

But what about the green alternatives and green growth and new green deal. Some mainstream politicians, especially in the US, continue to double down on their base in the cities with these ideas.

Perhaps they are hoping that the COVID story will help. It should focus people’s attention on the need for change. Maybe a new way for how society will evolve over the next 50 years in order for things to settle. To give people some hope again. Give them an alternative to the nonsense that we are witnessing with horror in the US and in Europe, particularly in the UK, right now.

That the mainstream are trying to pick this up is an indictment of the environmental movements.

I don’t normally do this, but I lay the blame firmly on all the various political parties around the world with a green coloured logo. For decades they have not done what they needed to do, which was to make themselves politically credible through policies that people could actually hang a hat on.

Instead, they offer all or nothing decisions we’ve talked about before such as the one that brought down the first carbon trading legislation in Australia with greens demanding more and blocking the passage of the bill.

Can you be too green?

Green has moved on – it’s no longer about the environment

What we see is the ‘same old same old’, still trying to protect koalas, still trying to say that everything’s falling in and the sky will heat everything up to the point of disaster and we must do something right now.

Only there is no suggestion of what exactly to do without causing mass panic. What is it that the general public, not your supporters, but the general public must do to actually change their ways and deliver and get behind.

It is easy to criticise. Much harder to actually come up with answers and solutions. The next phase is to begin to tell people about what to do.

Over at sustainably FED there are a lot of examples of what you can do. A lot of practical tweaks, some learnings and a few political and practical ideas.

I encourage you to join in over at sustainably FED and put your own ideas forward as to how this could change, suggest some solutions would actually work.

And if you have an idea about how to fix a front lawn that simply doesn’t seem to want to catch, when wanting it in the first place is a brown as it gets, I’d really appreciate it.


Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

The hinge of history

The hinge of history

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

There is no doubt that it is a troublesome time in history.

Close to 8 billion people are feeling it. There is the everyday chase to stay ahead, troubling politics, and a pandemic that requires some draconian measures just to keep it in check. Most of what we thought we knew about the word has changed.

This level of disruption to so many people all at once is not that common in history. Some have called it a ‘hingey’ moment, even that we may be living through the most influential period of time ever.

It is an easy argument that we live in an especially perilous time for ourselves and what we are doing to the planet.

“Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this century is special: it’s the first when one species – ours – has the planet’s future in its hands.”

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

There are plenty of ways we could do this from pollution to nuclear armageddon and we are already well on the way with our conversion of the landscape for agriculture and emissions to the atmosphere. Then we might engineer killer pathogens or malevolent AI.

But it is fine, the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which is a global ban on developing bio-weapons like a super-coronavirus, has a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s restaurant. And collectively the world spends more on ice cream than we do on preventing technologies that could end everything about our way of life.

Pretty hingey if you ask me.

But none of these is the reason for the pivot point.

That’s much more about population. Only this graphic suggests otherwise with the brave prediction that are trillions of humans yet to come.

Unfortunately, this infographic is horribly wrong.

It is true that should humanity get through the next century there is a chance that we will persist to the average lifespan of a mammalian species or at least make it for another 50,000 years. So the timeframe is fine.

What is incorrect is the assumption that we would get there under our current population growth rate. That is not what will happen.

Populations eventually collapse when they overexploit their resource base. The immediate projection is that the 7.7 billion growing to perhaps 11 billion over the next 30 years will need food. The UN expects that current agricultural production will need to increase by 2% per annum for those 30 years. This is equivalent to a second agricultural revolution; no small ask.

If we meet this demand, and it will get very ugly if we don’t, then all the nutrients in that food must either be perfectly recycled or mined from the asteroid belt because otherwise there is simply not enough plant-available nutrients on the planet to support all those people as they trickle through.

There may be compelling arguments for thinking we live in an unusually hingey moment compared with other periods. But those thinking of the unborn generations would argue that if there are trillions yet to come, the potentially long, long future of civilisation that could lie ahead, the actual hinge of history is most likely yet to come.

No folks.

The hinge is now because we have to get through the demographic transition or more strictly we have to generate one. If the species is to survive then we have to eat for the remaining 700,000 years of expected mammal species existence.

We will do very well to make it from here.


Feel free to share with your friends, neighbours, and your grandma who no doubt would have something to say on the matter of our future…

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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