My mum, who is chin wagging with the angels, always used to say that you should not judge people. Sage advice.

We are not supposed to pass judgement even though it means we have considered matters and reached a sensible conclusion because if we get it wrong or judge harshly all that happens is that we sour relationships and upset people. And, as we all know, people are easily upset especially when they feel judged.

On legal issues, we leave judgement to the judge because she should be across everything presented for both sides of a case. On everyday issues… well, none of us is really in possession of the facts and we let opinion rule. My mum was against opinion despite having a few of her own.

So we should avoid judgement in the everyday or risk getting it wrong. You never really know the truth of a person’s motivation unless you’re really good at reading behind their eyes.

Only there is more. There is also discernment, the ability to judge well. As Wikipedia states…

“Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

Berated for judging, heralded for nuanced judging, because if you are good a discernment then you have wisdom.

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

Reminds me of Joe Jackson’s ‘It’s different for girls’ lyric

Mama always told me save yourself
Take a little time and find the right girl
Then again don’t end up on the shelf
Logical advice gets you in a whirl

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

  • Make it a habit not to judge
  • When a judgement is required keep it to yourself
  • Only tell anyone your judgement when forced by a sharp object
  • Don’t try to explain your judgement
  • Never try to justify any judgement even if it is forced out of you
  • Practice discernment on yourself
  • Remind yourself that discernment is so rare it is nearly extinct
  • Smile instead

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Fear and danger

Fear and danger

“Because “frightening” and “dangerous” are two different things. Something frightening poses a perceived risk. Something dangerous poses a real risk. Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous—that is, paying too much attention to fear—creates a tragic drainage of energy in the wrong directions.”

Hans Rosling “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

As I get older I have become frightened of travelling.

This feels like a peculiar admission for a fortunate person who has lived on three continents and in half a dozen countries, visited over 20 more and walked through remote deserts, swamps and rainforests on any number of field trips to compile ecological research.

It is real though this fright.

I don’t like leaving home that much anymore. And it’s the prospect of it that seems to make me nervous. Once I’m on the road, train or plane I’m fine. My ‘get the job done’ gene kicks in and that’s what happens, the job gets done and almost always I enjoy the process.

The fear is irrational.

I have been there, done that way too many times for it to be a problem for my logical brain. I just have to think for even a moment and I can remember how enjoyable travel is and, indeed, what a privilege it is to see, smell and sense the world’s differences.

Only these days I am frightened before I leave home. I stress. My decision making goes awry and crankiness enters. It is annoying to me so it must be painful for my family. And there is a real ‘drainage of energy in the wrong direction’ as Hans Rosling insightfully put it. I’m sweating over nothing and yet it saps the juices like a thirsty aphid.

Now I’m trying to understand why this quote about danger and fright got me onto my middle-aged travel phobia. I think it is another feeling that is growing up from the deepest recesses of my gut; poking through the logic and evidence that I send down to suppress it. Something that is trying hard to get some air and to make some noise. And I think it is dangerous.

My problem is that I am frightened of what I know.

I will try to explain.

I know that…

Thomas Malthus was right.

Ultimately critical resources that humans need are finite and even as we get ever more numerous and effective at keeping entropy at bay there will come a point when we fail by falling down the wrong side of a peak in one or other critical commodity or ecosystem service before we invent an alternative.

Only I also know that our ingenuity, adaptability and downright bloody-mindedness finds solutions to resource constraints. History is a long list of confirmation that this is inevitable. When we know there is a shortage some enterprising individual will invent an alternative often before the shortage kicks in because there is money to be made and kudos granted.

So my fear is not the one Malthus presumably had, fear of shortage, however rational this is on a finite planet shared by 7.5 billion ravenous human souls. My fear is the bit where Malthus says that humans convert resources into more humans or as he put it “mankind has the propensity to utilize abundance for population growth”

This means that technological advances to save and innovation to substitute resources just results in more people. Potentially a lot more until we get through the squeeze of 10 or 11 billion and start falling back towards 5 or 6 billion by the end of the century – Hans Rosling explains this eloquently.

This demographic transition (a slowing of birth rate as infant mortality declines and overall life expectancy rises from increased wealth) rescues us from the exponential numbers that Malthus saw coming but 11 billion still requires unfathomable resourcing for at least three or four generations.

I know that…

Humans do not channel abundance into prudence, we channel it into more abundance. We have to make more; it is a dictate of our biology.

The demographic transition may slow our reproductive more making but we cannot turn off these stubbornly successful genes and so we channel our more making into acquisitions. We gather stuff, copious amounts of it. Frightening is a useful word to describe the contents of the average western teenager’s bedroom, especially when we realise that said teenagers could not possibly have earned the funds to acquire all the gizmos and pink accoutrements. Their parents and relatives stumped up the money.

I also know we cannot blame the kids. They are facilitated into their consumption like the generations that preceded them. It has been a long time now since the days of forced labour for at least half the global populous and all the generations are complicit in the progression to modern consumption.

So the demographic squeeze is not just of 11 billion souls requiring sustenance, it is 11 billion individuals wanting to improve their lot in life.

Our unique success as a species is that this drive works. It produces gains in wealth that increasingly manifest in material things. The transition is not just about the numbers, it is what the people who make up the numbers want and will have. It is inescapable and dangerous.

I know that…

Food production systems and supply chains are far more fragile than we realise despite the extraordinary power of the marketplace.

Anyone who follows Alloporus posts here, on Alloporus Environmental or on LinkedIn has read epistles to every tribe on this issue. There is no need to extend the pain now other than to recognise fragility in production systems as truly dangerous.

Food insecurity might not be felt every day amongst the western wealthy as it is by the seven out of ten humans living on less than $10 per day but it is as real and present as any other danger worthy of the description.

I know that…

Nobody knows anything of these true dangers.

Many people are frightened of course. They waste energy on any number of highly unlikely scenarios from being hit by a bus to the imminent extinction of the koala but mostly on drama, as in ‘an exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance’; most often on those that tap the emotions. She was such a bitch.

And I know that this is the facet of human nature most dangerous to our existence.

Our ability not to see what is in front of our noses or to understand how important the issues are is legendary, indeed it is the muse of legends from the Greeks onwards. This opacity is not about to change. A wave of enlightenment is but a dream.

All that can be done is to plug away, perhaps lift a veil for a handful of people at a time, one even.

And finally.

I know that…

Rummaging for Elpis in Pandora’s box is risky but worth it.

Rational meaning

Rational meaning

Richard Flanagan is just one of many thinkers whose work explores rational meaning. Flanagan worries for our collective future. Alloporus has pointed out this out before in a little gem from Flanagan on Australia and now there is another piece on the erosion of rational meaning as it is swamped by a rising tide of vitriol.

This is the world we live in.

Whatever you say in public, in a post, an email, quietly to your dog as you let him off the leash in the park, it’s all fair game for comment and critique.

It is as though opinion (check the definition below) is no longer allowed even though it is just mine, can be completely off the wall with no truth to it whatsoever or is grounded in experience and knowledge. It matters not. Opinion is open to ridicule as soon as you express it.

The thing is its an opinion people. Get over it.

Opinion “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”

Now I am not proposing that opinions go unchallenged. Not at all. Failure in challenges to the opinions of the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini resulted in some of the most trying periods in human history. The problem is how we go about it.

We know that modern media gives everyone visibility but also anonymity that allows folk to unleash their inner Ghengis on a whim. What Richard Flanagan is worried about is how much this is leaking into places it shouldn’t. It’s attacking the floorboards of our intellectual thought and weakening our capacity for rational meaning.

Just the other day in an email update to colleagues I made a comment about the deepening drought in NSW. The exact phrase was…

And it will rain again. It always does.

Perhaps this is insensitive. Perhaps it is the truth. It was not intended to be anything more than a statement of fact that was hopeful. The rain will return and the challenging conditions for the farmers and rural people of eastern Australia will ease.

This was not how people saw it. I was a stupid city slicker with no idea of how tough it is to feed the sheep from the back of a truck on your weekends and still fear for the survival of the sheep and your business.

Does this mean I must think not twice, but many times before I write anything? Should the words be censored for every ounce of judgement even when the facts are irrefutable? ‘It will rain again, it always does’ is not even an opinion. It is rational and it has meaning.

Instead, I could have gone full bore toward the stark truth that some farms will fail in the harshness that is the Australian weather as Ross Gittins did in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial saying that our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum.

I hope that I will be this brave but I know from each small experience that what is being said about what writers write will affect what they write next. It has too. For it is human nature to be affected by the opinion of others. And online there are no referees so chances are that the writer will be personally attacked.

So here is the thought on rational meaning…

What about for every post or comment you leave that is negative towards another’s opinion, how about you leave another comment somewhere else that supports a writer.

Just say “thanks for bringing that thought to my attention” even if it’s an opinion you don’t share.

Maybe if we even out the vitriol a bit we might create some space and time for intellectual thought and in turn, create some ideas that are good for everyone.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias

“The cognitive bias psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.”

Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes

There are any number if good news snippets in Steven Pinker’s book. He eloquently describes the continuous and ongoing improvement in the quality of human life through history.

Modern life is much, much better than you think.

No one would choose life at any time in history over modernity if it were judged by likely exposure to violent death or injury.

In short, we don’t know how lucky we are.

The availability heuristic is one of the reasons why we are not convinced that it is way safer to be alive and stay alive today than it was at any other time in our past. It seems that the human mind is very good at recalling what happens to us most recently or what we hear about most often. Not so much when it comes to distant memory or rare occurrences. And this makes good evolutionary sense.

The ability to remember recent dangers would be a handy advantage should those dangers still be around and hiding behind a bush, lions for example.

It also helps to remember where to find water or just how much novelty you can go for in the food you eat without risk of Delhi belly. Recalling the colour, size and taste of the berry that made you vomit is handy indeed.

When the availability heuristic evolved people lived in the immediate. They needed to identify and remember novelty to survive and prosper. Ease of recall for important things that their senses experienced really helped without the means to write anything down or to ‘hey Google’.

Back in the day when our senses sampled the world that was at our fingertips and ended at the horizon, we were the filter of novelty. Each human sampled events that were in front of them and individuals who were good at recognising and remembering novelty had an advantage in avoiding risk and recalling the good stuff.

This makes ‘headlines’ the keyword in the quote from Pinker. We are no longer the filter of novelty. Our handheld devices are. They present us with the majority of novelty and, surprise, surprise, they bombard us with things we remember… because the people sending the messages want to be noticed.

Falls and drowning do not make headlines because they are familiar enough to be outside the heuristic. It’s not called clickbait for nothing.

Interestingly though, the heuristic and cognitive bias might be changing.

Instead of remembering the novelty all that a click baiter needs is to draw our attention briefly. Just long enough to click. So we are bombarded with cute, funny or weird that taps the heuristic but with no advantage. Arguably the novelty avalanche is meaningless drivel with all real advantage going to the providers, not the consumers. And so it is.

Presumably though as the number of cute cat events increase in proportion toward one, the snippet of real news might become easier to recall for its novelty value alone.

That would be an irony, wouldn’t it?



It would seem that humans beings are innately fair-minded.

They are drawn more to transactions that are fair, if not necessarily equal, over those that might appear economically rational. Social economics research says that if you have $100 and are prepared to share it with me if I’m offered anything less than about $40, I’d rather go without.

This subconscious ‘fairness test’ translates across any number of social transactions.

At the 19th hole after a friendly fourball, it is better to risk the ire of the breathalyzer than for any one member of the group to shirk the fairness of getting in his shout. So when, in order to keep to my self-imposed ‘maximum of 2 beers a day’ rule, I get my round in first or second, then say no thanks on the third and fourth round.

My golfing buddies are incredulous.

“No worries”, I say, “I’m good”.

They insist and with ever-increasing voracity, for I have unwittingly deprived them of fairness. The lime and soda duly arrives as a less than complete compromise.

We have this fairness requirement even if our social systems are steadily imposing the opposite. Wealth, income and opportunity disparities have created ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots’ a plenty. And we all know it to be true, so much so that it can even get some odd folk elected to public office.

No doubt this innate ‘fairness test’ is a driver for any number of historical resets where the ‘have’s’ took too much, beyond what was considered fair, and the masses rose up to change things. There is also no doubt that fairness is hard-wired into every generation. It might even leak across into entitlement.

So the questions to think about are these.

When will the next reset happen?

My guess is that the current return to a political polarisation of sorts is the pre-dinner drinks. It is not the main meal at all. That will come when the old school approach typified by the stupid white men who actually think that if you offer $1 from your $100 it is better than nothing and so you will be grateful for the gesture, finally withers away.

So my guess is not in this but perhaps the next generation. Sometime towards the middle of the century when the reality has bitten a little harder and there has been time for some alternative politics to be invented by the young.

And how will it reset?

A social revolution of course. It is the way… usually.

Numbers game

Numbers game

Apparently psychopaths are more common that you might realise.

Many exist among us going about their business without empathy and devoid of goodwill towards others. Typically they hide in plain sight, usually in the corporate world where their talents are appreciated.

Psychopath : A person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, cunning, manipulating, glibness, exploiting, heedlessness, arrogance, delusions of grandeur, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, disregard for morality, lack of acceptance of responsibility, callousness, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses

Academics Scott Lillenfeld and Ashley Watts writing on how psychopathic traits are linked to success sum it up. “Despite the popular perception, most psychopaths aren’t coldblooded or psychotic killers. Many of them live successfully among the rest of us, using their personality traits to get what they want in life, often at the expense of others”.

They also suggest that “people with pronounced psychopathic traits may be found disproportionately in certain professional niches, such as politics, business, law enforcement, firefighting, special operations military services and high-risk sports. Most of those with psychopathic traits probably aren’t classic “psychopaths,” but nonetheless exhibit many features of the condition”.

The numbers of psychopaths are sobering.

Around 0.6% of the general population demonstrate more than half of the core traits that define psychopathy meaning there are around 145,000 in Australia alone. That’s at least one in every carriage of every morning commuter train.

Not all of these individuals will kill or eat people of course but it should make you think given you have probably bumped into one in the last 48 hours of normal life.

If the ratio holds across cultures, globally there are 45 million psychopaths alive right now.

So even if one in 10,000 of them are capable of murder then police forces will have over 4,500 homicides from psychotic behaviour to solve in the coming years.

It is an inevitable consequence of the numbers.

This numbers game applies to all extreme behaviours that are, by definition, outside the norm. As the global population grows two things happen at the extremes.

First, for a given extreme behaviour that has a very low prevalence in the population, more instances of that behaviour will happen by chance, not because the likelihood changes but because there are more absolute numbers of individuals with that behaviour.

Second, greater numbers increases the occurrence of extremely rare behaviours. Those that have a very low likelihood, say 0.006% or one in 16,667, having a million people as opposed to a thousand increases the frequency with such very extreme events are manifest.

All this needs is a reasonable assumption that behaviours show some sort of tailed distribution around a norm.

It is not necessary for the likelihood to change for occurrences of rare events to increase.

All you need is a larger population.

And we know that is exactly what we are getting.



“The US surveys consistently show that ‘reading proficiency’ as exemplified, for instance, by the ability to ‘compare viewpoints in two editorials’ is possessed by only 13 per cent of the US adult population.”

From ‘The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times‘ by A. C. Grayling

This is a remarkable quote.

If the numbers are true, then roughly 8 out of 10 average Americans can’t discern viewpoints from what they read. This is both an indictment on levels of literacy and on the consequences of them being so low.

It could be that most people are not aware that they do not know what the written words mean. They readily form opinions from what they hear and see on conventional media and have those views reinforced by their social media feeds. When all that they read comes in the form of a tweet then there is hardly any discerning to be done. It’s too easy to find the reinforcement of your worldview.

It could be even simpler than this. Maybe people do not make up their minds. Instead, they just listen and take everything they hear as gospel.

So here is one consequence of this staggering reality.

There is very little point in editorials.