Post revisited – The hip pocket

Post revisited – The hip pocket

At election time jobs, health, education, and security are always at the top of the issues list. They shuffle and compete for airtime but rarely does any other matter oust these four horsemen. In western democracies, where well-being through the delivery of these basics needs correlates with what’s in your hip pocket, the only other major issue is the economy.

None of this is a surprise.

This post from 2010 tried to be optimistic about how the youth might bust the logical assumption that people are programmed only to take care of their well-being and that of their loved ones to, maybe, embrace issues beyond self…


The hip pocket

A young colleague recently claimed that her generation has great concern about environmental ills. She thought that her y-generation all have deep feelings about the woes of our world. They want something done about it, especially climate change. She claimed that late alphabeters are angry at any government that promises action on climate change but then renege as the Australian government has just done.

“Are you sure,” I said, ‘won’t they vote with their hip pockets?”

“No they have all they need,” she said, “I mean we all have food and shelter and with those needs met we want to do the right thing.”

I believed her, at least the intent part. And I am sure it is how she feels herself having moved her own career path away from high finance into an environmental company. Unfortunately I don’t think that we have the freedom from basic needs that our apparent wealth implies.

It may be that most westerners are well fed, sleep in a bed, have a wardrobe, watch TV and take the occasional holiday. And it seems that all primary needs are covered (yes, it is true the TV is now a basic need according to the UK social services) and, therefore, higher values should mature. We should think about values beyond the basic, including care for the environment.

But this wealth, that supplies all the basics and more, has not given us emotional freedom. We are not free to think of higher things because we are still struggling to keep our wealth coming. We are locked into long hours of work to pay for large mortgages, excess food and more clothes than we could ever wear. And as we are at work we have to pay for someone else to look after the kids, and someone to do the washing, to mow the lawn and so it goes. In the end we have to keep the kids at home until they are middle aged to help us pay for it all.

And what if we just stopped? If we gave it all up in order to be enlightened, then the monetary flows so essential for our economies would stop as well. Our material world would collapse in a heap. And, well, it just can’t happen. Back to work we go, stressed to the max, a hand checking on the hip pocket.

Let us hope that I am just a cynic, a product of a different generation, and that the youngsters really do have a sense of higher value – although anyone who has seen a Lady Gaga music video may have to search hard for higher value. Let us hope and believe that these youngsters will vote on their beliefs and give with their voice to help change the way we think. Let us hope that they won’t vote with their hip pockets.


Gen-Y has had a while to vote with their heads, hearts, and feet. Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Great-grandparents of these Gen-Ys had a very different hip pocket story. They did it tough too. Recession, depression, low wages, hard and long yards. Their pockets rarely had anything in them as most of the money went from hand to mouth. Yet they toiled and they built. They improved things.

No doubt the current and future generations will do the same. They will, like their wily old ancestors, build something.

Unfortunately, their motivation will again be the tug from the hip pocket.

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

This little missive from October 2011 laments the loss of meaningful argument over important issues…


Serious change should be controversial

Back in 1979 when I still needed a hairbrush, I wandered the campus of the University of East Anglia as a sporty nerd. I was the type of student who spent far too long in the library but covered up this flaw with an addiction to team sports and the associated drinking games.

At the time I barely noticed that some of my peers were far trendier. They took to barricading themselves in the University registry – the main administration building that housed the office of the Vice–Chancellor and senior management staff – for days at a time. They would drape sheets out of the windows with slogans denouncing whatever oppression they were feeling. Each time the occupation was for a political, and no doubt, worthy cause that usually involved solidarity (a big word back then).

The longest occupation lasted a week. It was in solidarity with mine workers who were on the receiving end of a crusade by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to break the power of trade unions. Both Thatcher and those trendy students were railing for or against a serious change.

Thatcher won of course and sent the country into a market-driven phase that arguably brought some prosperity but also eroded much of the traditional political divide and eventually gave the UK ‘New Labour’.

Even nerds got caught up in some of the radicalism of the day, albeit safely. Many of us boycotted Barclays bank because they happened to have a subsidiary of the same name in South Africa. We didn’t realize that undermining banks was probably not all that helpful to the struggle against apartheid but it was a statement we could make on the way to the library. I had my account with the Midland.

Spectacles may be rose-tinted when remembering such heady days, but it does seem that naive as we undoubtedly were, the issues of the time stoked ire and action. Politics was controversial as societies across the world brought about change.

Serious change should be controversial.

It was a big deal to break down union power that itself had come about in a struggle to correct past wrongs in exploiting the workforce; the same kind of wrongs that were fought against in the apartheid struggle.

Today there are still hard and controversial choices to be made, especially about the environment, climate, and resource use, but we seem to have lost the ire and action that sets up an issue as controversial.

At best we get posturing and egoist rhetoric with an occasional ‘straw man’ to give the appearance of real debate. In short, we have an argument for the sake of it. Nobody seems to occupy the registry anymore.

As the Harvard philosopher Michael J Sandel puts it:

“When everyone – Democrats, Republicans, corporations, and consumers – claim to embrace your cause, you should suspect that you have not really defined the problem, or framed it as a real political question.”

We seem to get this all the time in the age of the soundbite. No one seems to define the problem.

Rosy or not we need some true controversy back. Real dissent forces us to argue our position from first principles. We must not just react against the alternative view but think it through and become convincing, drawing on as much logic as we can muster.

Do this often enough and we shake hands with our core truths and get to know the problem.

The result will be some argument, perhaps even a demonstration or two, but also some political innovation. There will be thoughts that are outside the narrow middle ground into which the bulk of the west has converged.

A little controversy might help us to find real solutions to the challenge of keeping 7 billion people happy without destroying nature or each other.


Nothing has changed since this post appeared — apart from the fact that we are now more numerous by about 500 million, that’s the population of the US plus Indonesia who are 3rd and 4th on the list of most populous countries. Political debate is still vacuous and the problem remains woefully undefined. Radicalism has been purloined by a handful of evil people.

Here is a thought as to why.

What if you can’t touch the problem? You know what it is — the unwanted side effects of market-driven economics that, by and large, gives you what you do want — but any attempt to define or even mention the truths of wealth concentration, resource use inefficiencies, debt burdens, bailouts, and plain old corruption; let alone frame their politics. These things risk upset that you cannot control. The economic system is untouchable. Breathe on it and it might fall over or cause chaos.

Instead, modern politicians argue amongst themselves about themselves.

In the absence of anything more meaningful, ordinary people become trolls or commit road rage with little idea of where their frustrations originate.

So we don’t need old-school radicals to occupy University registry buildings and we certainly don’t need religious radicals blowing them up, what we need is to ask and debate some of these type of questions…

  • What would happen if markets were regulated to make them more efficient?
  • Can you regulate without destroying the essence of opportunity?
  • What if there was a cap on profit margins?
  • Would the world end if taxes increased or levies were raised to pay for public services?
  • Is the market really that fragile? And if it is, what the hell do we do to buck it up?
  • Can our unprecedented ability to capture and access information help?

So you see the political frame can be constructed. If a grumpy old blogger can come up with a start, surely the massive bandwidth of human intellect can go on with it.

WHO, WTF

WHO, WTF

I lived in Zimbabwe for two years in the late 1980’s. The country was beautiful, functional and a little of the euphoria of independence was in the air. Only there was also a kind of malaise beginning like a cloud bank rolling in to eventually block out the sun.

People knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was unrest in Matabeleland, not a huge amount of produce in the shops beyond the basics, and a vibrant black market in currency and consumer goods. Locals without external funds had a long wait to buy a new car.

Thirty years have passed and a lot has happened. Unrest, droughts, food shortages, AIDS, hyperinflation that led to the dropping of the Zimbabwean dollar as official currency, involvement in regional war, degrading infrastructure, unemployment and poverty. Today estimates are that over 70% of Zimbabweans now live in chronic poverty

Throughout this time Robert Mugabe has presided over this increasing chaos at the expense of his people, initially as Prime Minister and as President since 1987, using his not inconsiderable political talent for the sole purpose of staying in power. He is 93 years old.

Mugabe is a classic example of African leaders who were first heroes in the struggles for independence, then became despots and autocrats who you challenge at your peril. He has done enough personal damage to have several honorary degrees revoked (Universities really don’t do this), sanctions on his international travel, and calls for him to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Nelson Mandela once referred to Mugabe as ‘a politician who despises the very people who put him in power’.

He is a terrible individual on so many levels, a product of his times that were dictatorial and elitist on both sides of the battle but also an evil individual. His country has collapsed into poverty on his watch with not even a glimmer of recovery on the horizon.

Enter the World Health Organisation.

This week they decided to make Robert Mugabe a ‘goodwill ambassador’.

Words fail me.

The good people of Zimbabwe deserve so much more.

Upsize

Upsize

There are thousands of books on positivity. Every week new ones emerge that squeeze every last nuance out of get up and go. Amazon lists 261 titles under positivity and over 220,000 in the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ category. The concept must sell.

One of the common themes is to think big. Upsize your ambition as well as your fries and truly exceptional things can happen. Your thinking, the ideas you can conjure and your cholesterol levels can all expand if you upsize enough.

It is tempting.

I had great plans for a past venture of mine, Biotrack Australia, that monitored environmental performance for a fee. There were visions of expansion from a few local government, research, and mining company contracts to global dominance. Fuelled by much hard work with some great staff, the technology improved along with the business. We even set up a branch in Botswana (long story).

I began to imagine a neon sign atop a high-rise in North Sydney beaming out the company logo across the iconic harbour.

Then the cash ran out.

Instead of expansion to the world, Biotrack downsized. It turns out that the fees did not match the level of interest potential clients had in finding out just how well their environment was performing. And you can see why. Unless a company has to report its externalities they have no need to measure them. Knowledge has to make a material difference to the bottom line and even then decision makers need to feel the immediate benefit of investing in it.

So Biotrack spent what we had left on an all out search for clients who would make money from knowing their environmental performance and, well, failed to find any. Soon after the technology and IP were sold for a modest amount.

No neon this time.

The post mortem was brief. We decided that we’d experienced an all too familiar problem for commercial start-ups where some success prompted growth in advance of the cashflow to support it. In short, we were undercapitalised. Our resources did not match the grand vision.

This was a satisfactory explanation at the time. One that did not undermine the positive grand vision.

And given that nobody has ever won the lottery without a ticket, we felt we had given it a fair go but just didn’t have the necessary luck.

A decade on and I’m reflecting again on this notion of positivity. I suspect that in our line of business — the one that is trying to provide information and knowledge of environmental performance for a fee now taken up by Alloporus Environmental — no amount of positivity is enough. It is not the same as, say, a golf tournament where there are 50 people with enough skill to win it, and one winner on the day. Rarely is the winner the one who didn’t think they could.

No, I now believe that we are in a game without a winner. And in such a situation not even a shelf full of positivity is enough.

I am convinced that knowledge is neither required or desired, especially when it comes to the environment.

As an environmental knowledge provider you can think as big as you like, imagine the neon signs, and read all the books, but it will make no difference for there is no tournament there to be won and no amount of upsizing can create one.

The quiet carriage

The quiet carriage

You are commuting to work on a train along with a few hundred others. It is quiet, a Monday morning. So quiet in fact that there are few sounds. The hum of the air conditioner, a rustle of a breakfast bar wrapper, an occasional cough, and the guard announcing rules for the quiet carriage.

At the next stop a young woman boards. Her phone is in her hand and she is deep in conversation. She blurts out a whinge against her family and it is loud. Her normal voice probably. She is not especially angry or agitated, as the complaining seems natural and well practised.

Now imagine what would happen if the commuters, still all quiet and respectful, were to arrive at this woman’s home this evening. They would not do anything. They are there to just stand in the corners and along the walls of the room and listen to the private conversation.

Of course, there would be incredulity and bedlam. The police would be called and the incident recorded in gossip for a generation.

The woman is easily aware of an invasion of her space but is totally oblivious to her invasion of others. In fact, if you point out to her that she might be disturbing the peace she would tell you to fuck off to the quiet carriage.

This is an insidious challenge.

Awareness of self and others is the core ingredient of both personal happiness and societal success. And it seems to be slipping away from us. As individuals retreat into their technology so they lose touch with themselves and everyone else.

Many have written about this and many more will suggest solutions. So here is mine.

Teach yoga to school kids.

If this is leadership, heaven help us

If this is leadership, heaven help us

At various times I have ranted about the politics of climate change in Australia

The climate change action thing

Climate change policy – does Australia need it?

The Kardashian Index

And I am not alone. Many are tearing out what remains of their hair.

So I thought I would bring to your attention the latest from the current direct action policy option in place in Australia. This is the policy setting that hopes to achieve emission reduction targets through the purchase of greenhouse gas abatement at auctions.

At the end of 2016 the vehicle for this, the Emission Reduction Fund, had paid for 177 million tCO2e of abatement purchased across four auctions at an average price of $12 per tCO2e.

Yes, you read it right. Close to $2 billion, that is $2,000,000,000 or roughly enough to pay the annual salary of 100 cabinet ministers for over 50 years, has been spent to purchase roughly the amount of abatement needed to meet the emission reduction target Australia presented in Paris… for one year.

Let’s make this clear. Emitters of carbon are not paying for this abatement, the taxpayer is.

Now you could be generous and say that the taxpayer is really the economy, so the economy is footing the bill, but that is a very long bow. Industries that were previously under the carbon price and reducing their emissions to save money are not anymore. Instead, various activities from other players in the economy are offered to reduce emissions or to capture carbon into vegetation and the CO2e tonnage presented for sale.

The concept of ‘polluter pays’ that has been so successful in a host of situations, from cleaning up rivers to closing the hole in ozone layer, is not in play here. Polluters carry on polluting as they merrily pass on the externality to the taxpayer.

This is neither good policy nor good governance.

There is no incentive to reduce emissions across the economy only an opportunity for a few to make a fast buck if they have access to some abatement.

At current prices, $2 billion will buy you 400 million tCO2e of offset credit on the international markets, nearly 2.5 times the local option. So not only does the policy fail to incentivise prudence, it pays way over the top for mitigation.

You cannot help think that a few people are laughing all the way to the bank.

Recognising what we know

There is a very funny scene in an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Penny asks Sheldon and Leonard trivia questions about famous American rock bands. Needless to say they are clueless. Not even Sheldon’s eidetic memory could rescue him. Penny’s infamous smirk was never funnier.

So now, do you know what this is?

equation

Don’t worry. A thousand people chosen at random from the population probably wouldn’t know either.

Most folk would be able to tell you that it was ‘some science shit’ and a few of them might know it was an equation for something.

Just one or two would recognise the mathematical notation for the third law of thermodynamics that states all processes cease as temperature approaches absolute zero.

But if more than two out of 1,000 people knew this you would suspect that the sampling was far from random. Perhaps it took place in the coffee break of a theoretical physics congress attended by Dr Coopers.

Now, of course, if you did sample 1,000 delegates from said congress, not all of them would recognise the equation. But I digress from my main point, which is this…

Each of us can only know a tiny fraction of what is known.

Even the eidetic can only remember what they have seen or heard. And for those of us who forget all the time, then our fraction can be small indeed.

The curious thing is that rather than get to know a little about a lot, people specialise. Either by choice or just as a default from our experiences we focus. After a while we all know quite a lot about something.

There are people who know more than seems possible about the cutting tolerances of a lathe or the rules that govern a financial balance sheet. There will be someone who can recite by heart the poems of Keats and someone else who can quote the test batting averages of all players in the current Indian cricket squad and then proceed to tell you why many of them should never have been selected.

This accumulation of specific knowledge is very useful. It gives us great depth in technical and practical matters. How else would an accounting firm provide services or repairs be made to a faulty MRI scanner? Not to mention brewing a decent coffee.

We need people who know the details.

What has struck me of late is just how specialised we have become and how little this means we know when presented with material outside our expertise. Just like Sheldon and Leonard, we are easily at a loss.

And yet we also take for grated what we know.

Because I have been in the guts of ecological science in research, teaching and my consulting practice for far too long, I take scientific knowledge for granted. For example, I can easily see the link between grazing management and soil carbon — graze too hard and soil carbon declines — and the net environmental benefits of changes to grazing practices that stop or even reverse that soil carbon decline.

What I can’t do is assume that a specialist in financial assurance will see or believe that such a link exists. She needs evidence. And as the language and logic flow falls outside her expertise she will need some persuading.

This is usually not a problem because ecology and accounting speak happening in the same room is about as rare as a female financial specialist. Except that they are about to collide.

The next decades will require that food production doubles or a lot of people will go hungry. Hungry people are not easily or righty ignored and the only way to feed them will be to invest in more efficient food production, distribution and storage systems.

It will be a time for specialisms to be recognised and respected. Times approach when the lion will lie down with the lamb… and come to some agreement.

This will only happen if expertise and depth of knowledge is respected. If we have to spend all the time convincing each other we actually know stuff then the solution will slip away.

So be grateful that someone among the 1,000 knows the formula for the third law of thermodynamics and don’t dismiss her for being odd.

It will be smarter to listen to she has to say.