Will financial history repeat like bad shellfish?

Will financial history repeat like bad shellfish?

Hero image by Zlaťáky.cz on Unsplash

It has been 30 years since the 1987 stock market crash that pulled the carpet from under any number of brash high-fliers of the day. Many analysts have compared the precursors of that momentous day to the current conditions in overvalued stock and real estate markets around the world.

The main point seems to be that money is no longer real.

It has been a long time since gold, the hard precious metal, was held in reserve to match with the currency issued. Today 90% of the world’s cash is electronic and unconstrained by the need for a gold standard so central banks print the stuff by the trillions. They did this to save the system after the 2008 financial crisis and have just kept going ever since, with no obvious slowdown.

The global debt load is now three times greater than it was at the turn of the century and grows by staggering sums each year.

Source: Bloomberg 

Governments, companies and households raised $24 trillion in 2020 to offset the pandemic’s economic toll, bringing the global debt total to an all-time high of $281 trillion by the end of 2020, or more than 355% of global GDP, according to the Institute of International Finance.

Here are the gross national debt numbers for the US over a longer time period showing recovery from the impact of WW2 and then some political decisions by both Republican and Democrat presidents since the 1980’s.

Now here is the thing. 

Most of this cash has been used for speculation to give us booming stock markets, crazy house prices and, arguably, Donald Trump. 

Convention says that markets will correct, bubbles will burst, and the politics will burn. 

Or will they? 

If money is only loosely tied to material things (resources, products or services) and governments can print it at will then any correction is bailed out by more ‘printing’. Whatever it takes to ensure the economic system survives.

Why not go all out? 

Print more and more. Give citizens a basic income and do away with welfare for the unemployed. And while at it spend some more money to encourage decentralisation of people away from the big cities by subsidies to services in rural areas. 

After all, many of us just learnt to work from home. So home could be anywhere, maybe even somewhere with a kind rural outlook.

Here is my question…

If governments can mortgage the future to save economies from financial and pandemic crises why can’t they do it to stimulate an economic transition?

Alloporus

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Passion to do the job well

Passion to do the job well

I had a good old-fashioned whinge today. 

Bizarrely it was about templates or more strictly the lack of them. 

A document I had prepared got scrunched when transferred from Google Docs to Word because the system I was using wouldn’t let me use the obvious PDF route. All the tidy layout, fonts, headers and footers went haywire. What I needed was a neat template with a standardised look and feel that despite bucket loads of resources the organisation had not provided. 

After decades of trying to make things look good on the smell of an oily rag, this imposed dagginess just pushed my buttons. I got loud and went a little red in the face as my complaints bounced wildly around the room.

I mean it doesn’t take much to get a consistent internal look and feel. 

These days you can get an Airtasker to do it in a jiffy. Large organisations with their own Comms units just have no excuse.

Not a happy camper.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Calmer now, my curiosity asks why? 

What is it about tidiness and a neat layout that is so important?

Well, the obvious answer is that I like documents to be very different to the inside of my car. I want them to be neat, professional, elegant even. Achieving this is much easier with a template.

A good template makes for consistency of message and that makes perfect sense.

I certainly don’t like the optics of viewers seeing a scrappy document and assuming the author can’t even find their way around a simple Word layout. 

Not cool.

But this whinge is a sign of deeper trauma. 

Ever since I was out of diapers I have strived to high standards in order to fit in, to be liked and accepted. 

This need stems from a weird upbringing where I felt like an alien among the local inhabitants. It can happen when you are raised in the church, the Salvation Army in my case. 

Achieving accepted practice in the real world was a way of making sure that I wasn’t tainted by all the religious weirdness. A template and a consistent look and feel suggest professionalism.  

“The skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well” 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I like the skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected of a professional. I knew that if I had these things then it would be much harder for the real world to reject me.

I did say it was deep.

“‘Professionalism’ is commonly understood as an individual’s adherence to a set of standards, code of conduct or collection of qualities that characterize accepted practice within a particular area of activity” 

Universities UK

And I was right. I learnt how to be skilled in fitting into real-world situations by learning quickly what it took to do well. It didn’t matter if it was cricket, soccer, or undergrad assignments, I went for it with passion after first finding out what the standards and code of conduct looked like.

This was handy of course. The qualities of professionalism bode well in modern society no matter your background or motivation. What was different for me was that its absence became a trigger.

Somehow I assumed that everyone would be just as motivated as I was to do the job well. 

When they are not or just display an amateurish approach I get annoyed. No suffering of fools.

My early career was in the academic world where accepted practice dominates the discourse, sets the hoops, and decides if you have jumped through them. Silly things like 30 refereed publications by the age of 30 was an unwritten standard that was worth achieving as it made careers. I came up just shy with 28 papers. Peer review, learned argument and being well-read in your discipline were similar codes and qualities that mattered to academics. 

I thought this would be true everywhere.

Sadly it isn’t.

It is not about the absence of a simple Word template, although there is no excuse for such sloppiness, it is the lack of passion to do the job well.

To have even half a chance of fixing the many challenges that humanity faces in the coming decades we all have to find the template and become professional.


If you have five minutes, why not read another Alloporus post

Can you ready the jet Jeeves

Can you ready the jet Jeeves

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

This post is a little petty, a bit of a whinge, and yet necessary.

There should be some advantages to high office. Typically the benefit is not stellar remuneration. For example, the Prime Minister of Australia earns A$550,000. Whilst this amount is considerably more than the average punter, the top ten CEOs in Australia all earnt over A$10 million in 2019.

If you want to make millions don’t try for the top political jobs. You won’t starve but you won’t be buying a yacht anytime soon. You will need to borrow one from your business mates.

The head of the Reserve Bank of Australia, technically a bureaucrat given that the government pays his salary, Dr Philip Lowe earned just over A$1 million in 2019 and was responsible for managing a $182 billion balance sheet. The highest-paid pure bureaucrat was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary with a total remuneration of $936,442.

Alright, so the more significant monies go to the private sector and the help.

Now I am not sure this is even remotely sensible for two reasons.

The first is that how are the best people for the job going to apply if they can get an order of magnitude better money elsewhere. Politicians are underpaid. Never thought you would hear that one. Only the current crop is overpaid for their capabilities but if we are to attract the best to do the toughest jobs, we need some pay parity to make the remuneration for messing about in parliament worthwhile.

The second reason is that CEO salaries are way too high. The way to achieve parity is to get a grip on the private sector’s excesses. Sure a reward for responsibility is necessary and they also want to compete for the best minds but really, $10 million. That is just taking the piss.

But wait, I have missed something.

There are perks to high office.

Here is one taken up with extraordinary enthusiasm by the recent POTUS.

Meantime the CEOs are circling their wagons.

The biggest Australian telco, Telstra CEO decided to blame the kids. Back in 2019 he was quoted as saying “Young kids are earning $5m playing Fortnite but when a business executive devotes a huge portion of their life … that it’s somehow morally wrong they get rewarded for it.”

Wait a minute.

A youngster with millions of online followers who love everything their hero does can earn a hefty sum. This is a simple supply-demand function that the CEO should understand. Just that same way that top-level professional soccer players with massive followings for themselves and their clubs can command crazy salaries, the CEO can get one too.

Perhaps not.

The point is the balance has gone. High public office should be rewarded by more than a medal for service and the CEOs should be paid on performance, not by their mates on the board.

And then there is this snippet from the Guardian on how Australia’s billionaires became 50% richer during pandemic

Australian billionaire, Solomon Lew, pocketed $24.25m in dividends after his retail empire, Premier Investments, received almost $70m in wage subsidies during the coronavirus crisis.

What bullshit is this.

If 50% richer during a global crisis that put workers into lockdown in their homes doesn’t raise your hackles, then paying out big dividends to shareholders with one hand whilst holding out the other for a subsidy surely will.

It makes the abuses of power by Trump look benign.

In what universe can you believe that?

In what universe can you believe that?

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

According to a Gallup poll, the proportion of Americans who identify as Republicans and are satisfied with the way things are going in the US reached 39% in October 2020 up from 20% in July. This compares to the October number for Democrats of only 5%.

On what planet does 40% of a particular section of a community agree that the way things are going are satisfactory when the US is in such an incredible mess?

There is the COVID problem with world-leading infection and death rates, the racism problem, the sexism and misogyny, the general incompetence of Trump… What more is there?

Well, there is gun control, climate change including some of the worse bush fires on record, domestic violence, trade tariffs, unemployment, incarceration rates, national debt, and the long, long list of western ills that we don’t seem able to fix.

It doesn’t make any sense as to why 2 in 5 Republicans think that everything is going well. What would it take for them to say that it’s not going well?

More to the point what has happened between July and October to double the satisfaction rate? That 20% increase is bizarre. It could be that the polling technique was flawed or maybe the sample size is small or biased. But it’s hard to imagine that during the course of a major pandemic with substantial hits to the economy and personal freedoms through lockdowns along with job losses and massive debt, that everything is satisfactory. What kind of craziness brings out such a statement in people is really hard to figure out.

Should we take notice of polling? Well, most politicians would argue no. But the stark thing here is that only 5% of respondents identifying themselves as Democrats were satisfied with the way things are going. So Democrats are panicked or at least concerned while Republicans think it’s fine.

This is the growing separation of political view in the US which is interesting after decades of convergence onto centrist type policies on most of the issues that matter. A division in the political stance at least gives people something to adhere to and to be against.

Here is…

another astonishing statistic

Recall what QAnon actually is

At its heart, QAnon is a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.

QAnon believers have speculated that this fight will lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.

QAnon: What it is and where did it come from, BBC Reality Check

So 2 in 5 Republicans believe in conspiracy theory and nearly 1 in 5 Democrats do too. This is just as alarming. What goes through a person’s mind to allow these two statistics to appear? What were they thinking?

The answer is that they don’t.

There is a dearth of critical thinking on all sides. Instead, it is easier to think fast in the Daniel Kahneman sense, and not force any detailed analysis or appraisal of the evidence, not even a quick reality check.

People can then exist in a kind of bubble that comfortably fits their current world view and only engage with material that supports it. Confirmation evidence is easy to determine because it feels good. Evidence or views that feel off or a bit uncomfortable is just those nasty GOPs or lefties depending on the colour of your own bubble. These views can be just shouted down or, where necessary, trolled. Heck, if that doesn’t work there is always a demonstration.

Ask any of the 40% if they have thought carefully about what they say they agree with and they will confirm that they have, very carefully. This is the elegance of a bubble. It wafts a gentle lullaby over you to make believe that thinking has happened… by someone else. No need for me to do any heavy lifting, if the POTUS tweeted it, it must be true.

And so here we are at the end of 2020. A frantic and genuinely eventful year. When we need to be thinking about what amazing opportunities the circuit breaker of a global pandemic can give us, 24% of Americans think QAnon claims are accurate.

Get thinking people, truly.


Think about it, you have to repost this one.

The bible tells me so

The bible tells me so

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things

1 Corinthians 13:11

The Bible tells us that grownups put away childish things.

You have to wonder about that. When they’re young and before they’re beaten into submission by all the cultural norms and frightened to death by their egos, kids are still innocent. They have a remarkable ability to call out elephants and to say what they think, unfiltered. They come up with great common sense. Sure they don’t have the experience and they don’t have all the details, but they’re still in tune with their instincts for what is right and wrong and what makes sense to them in their particular frame of reference.

In other words, they are honest.

Even if their little personalities might be a little bit sus, they are still able to tell it as it is. So when we put away childish things, what does that actually do to us?

Half the time it makes us into closed, guarded individuals who are fearful of actually saying what we think. In truth because it might go against everyone else’s truth or might be a career-limiting move.

Recently, I was. In a position where I was forced to call out a few childlike behaviors, but not in the sense of those innocent youths, more in the sense of the petulant adolescence who were now grunting into their coca-cola because they’d prefer to have a triple scotch. There was a requirement to call out the fact that we should be having adult conversations about certain policy and scientific matters. And not simply throw our toys out of the cot because we heard something that we didn’t like.

I thought about that a little. What is adult conversation? What is it, that putting away of childish things concept? I’m assuming that it is, take what you now know about the real world about humans operate as adults, gather more information about topics, and begin to act sensibly not with petulance or with innocence, but knowing what the world is like. Removing some of the naivety and having objective conversations about things.

Cultures have the dinner party or the pub or the conversation around the fire, where these matters can be discussed among elders where youngsters listen in or where people are able to extend their knowledge and test out ideas with others.

In the workplace healthy conversation needs to be part of the process. Everyone has a common agenda set by the organization they’re working for and it shouldn’t be a problem to put aside every small nuance and put down your ego for a little bit and have those intelligent adult conversations about the current and the future.

It’s disconcerting when this is not possible. And if this is how society is going, where we can no longer have adult conversations even though the good book told us that that’s what we should do, then we’re in a bit of strife.

Those adult conversations are critical in order to explore options and to decide what is an opinion and what is fact and to work through the logical flow of things. Understand parts of the process that you might not have thought about but someone else has.

If we can’t be adults about it. And we can’t be children because we left all of that behind. And we are left with the petulant adolescent who is grunting away because he’s not the centre of attention…

Then we’re in a great deal of strife.


If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Over two years from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people in four successive waves, representing one in three of the world’s population at the time.

The death toll was estimated at somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

At the time, there was no cure or vaccine. Indeed people didn’t really understand how contagion from airborne particles happened. Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene, all exacerbated by the recent war, promoted a bacterial superinfection that killed most of the victims. It also impacted young adults as well as the young and old. Everyone will have known someone who’d been sick and many would have known someone who passed. The high infection and death rates made those two years an extraordinarily scary time for people who had only just suffered through WW1. People must have thought that the world was coming to an end.

No doubt levels of psychological damage, depression and anxiety in the population must have spiked. But back then wellbeing issues were not big for the medical profession. People were tough, they thought, used to a hard life and living from one day to the next.

Nobody could have imagined that one hundred years later society would be larger, more wealthy and more populous with extraordinary and impossible technologies. Mass transport across the globe, information streamed into tiny hand-held devices with all of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.

Or that there would be another pandemic severe enough to change behaviors and the collective outlook on the world.

As at 11 October 2020, COVID-19 has reached 37 million confirmed cases with 1.07 million deaths. So far an order of magnitude fewer infections and deaths than the Spanish flu and a much smaller proportion of the global population is infected, although this will no doubt rise as future waves of infections emerge. The impact though is just as severe, the sadness of deaths, the pain and suffering of those with symptoms and the chaos of the global disruptions to jobs, lifestyles and economies. It is not going to be the same again. The death rates may be not so high as they were for the Spanish flu, but still many are dying and the number of infections continues to rise across the world.

Politicians have taken all sorts of different approaches to coping with the problem. Most options target the virus and yet the psychological ailments are as acute as they were a hundred years ago; affecting people in ways that we might not fully understand.

Most people seem to be putting on a brave face. Nothing to see here, life is still normal, the new normal.

Only we are all struggling with the change. Struggling to know what it’s all going to look like ourselves, our children and their grandchildren.

Workplaces are dispersed and we’re learning to communicate from separate rooms in the absence of body language. We underestimate that lack of contact in the room at our peril. It will influence the way decisions are made.

Those who relied on the inane meeting to suck up work time. The endless discussions that go nowhere and have little use beyond filling up the day are no more. Somehow there was a way of getting away with that type of unproductive interaction with everyone in the same room. Online they are not the same. Online meetings do not pass the time before beer o’clock in quite the same way.

Online people are disengaged, often not even looking at the screen with the grid of faces on it. But are busy in other activities with their brain not into the content at all — the whole process becomes excruciating for everyone.

Alloporus believes that our lack of focus on the things that matter, and our inability to make core decisions about things, is the most troubling consequence.

How does lack of focus translate?

It exposes people that really don’t have anything to say about topics. Because they either don’t understand the topic they are not across their brief nor do they have a foundation of knowledge that they need to make a contribution.

If added to this is underlying angst and concern over the consequences of the virus. Then we’re beginning to see some very difficult behaviors, subconsciously protecting themselves from their uncertainty. I’m not sure what the solution to this is beyond technology that it’s there.

And for people to begin to accept that. All of us need to maintain our skill sets. And maintain our knowledge base even if we are distributed. It’s an opportunity to actually get a lot better at what we do and hopefully in some workplaces this is happening.

Focusing or spending less time in the meeting and more time understanding their portfolio so that they can make better decisions when they do come together with their colleagues.

Let’s hope that we can use this shift in the way that we do business to engage in the learning process and build up our knowledge again. I suggest one of the places to start in this process is knowledge about the general response of this virus and the consequences for the planet. Not so much the health consequences and how we’re going to beat it or how we’re going to engage in a war with it, but how we’re going to tackle the enormous challenges that face. The problems that were there before the virus impacted that are now more acute because of the pandemic.

The topics that come to mind we talk about on this blog all the while.

Food security — from production gains to meet demand to understanding how we’re going to adapt to climate change.

Land use — how to recognize and acknowledge and then decide what to do about our choice of what to do with land.

Ecosystem services — how they are distributed and delivered across the landscape.

Water — where our fresh water’s going to come from.

Food production methods — what mix of technologies to put alongside traditional methods of food production for the next 100 years. ]

Diet — what we are eating and if this needs to change for a diet that is not achievable but also healthy for ourselves and for the population as a whole.

Education — Are we teaching youngsters enough about the right sort of things.

Healthy scepticism — we need skeptics who do not believe everything seen and heard without finding the facts and the evidence. And therefore ignore the opinion and the gossip.

We also need to acknowledge our angst and anxiety about the state of affairs. The worst possible outcome really is that we bury our heads in the sand and decide not to hear, not to see, and not to speak about any of these matters.

The wise monkeys are not quite as wise as we thought they were.

Failure to communicate about these matters in adult conversation will bring on our worst fears faster. The things we are most concerned and scared of will come to pass.

Now is the time for us to embrace our intelligence and educate each other, learn from each other, and build opportunities and solutions that are going to keep us going into future generations.


Reposting is fine by me.

Managing expectations is hard

Managing expectations is hard

For a long time I lived and worked in the tertiary education system.

Universities are peculiar places that gather certain types of personality to them. It sounds weird but academics are full on and wear their subject like a favourite pair of jeans; all the time. Whilst the student body represents the cultural diaspora, academics are a rather narrow minded and small slice of that diversity partly due to that single mindedness of living in the depths of their research. It results in many peculiarities including the left of politics having its last bastion in some of those ivory towers.

My own days of bad hair and dodgy wardrobe as a postgraduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and eventually an academic, were a delight. I loved it. What I did not fully recognise at the time was why I liked it so much. One of the big reasons was that I was surrounded by people who understood, more or less, the topic areas of interest to me.

There I was in a department of biologists and environmental scientists, with people who had basically the same core understanding of how nature works. They didn’t know much about the politics and the social structures of the world, about people in general, but they knew a lot about biology, ecology and the biophysics of the environment.

I often remember that if you didn’t know your basic biology that could cause an embarrassing moment or two amongst your colleagues. As I was trained in my undergraduate years as an environmental scientist not a biologist, a few basics of genetics, photosynthesis and respiration, for example, had passed me by and people noticed.

The point I’m making is that awareness of basic theory and foundational understanding of nature was very high amongst your colleagues. When you had a conversation you could deliver most of what you were thinking and expect it to be understood by the person you were speaking to.

In recent times, I’ve realized that that is by no means a given in the real world.

When you speak to sensible folk in everyday world, awareness of some or all of the foundational understanding that I could take for granted as a trained ecologist chatting in the coffee room of a university department, is missing. Understandably, the technical detail and the deeper theoretical concepts are not there if you have not been through the program. And not everybody has. But the basic common sense of it all was present and correct.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Over the years I have learned to be a little less naive and to deliver potted versions of the concepts. Certainly not to dump all of the knowledge on an unsuspecting member of the public. However, even dialing down expectations of what people will understand to a fraction of what you know yourself may not be enough.

This statement lacks political correctness but stay with me.

At the moment many of the people I work with are educated in the environmental sciences and have decades of experience in rural landscapes. They advise landholders, their colleagues and ministers in matters of natural capital and agricultural production systems. I had made assumptions about what they would know — that soils underpin everything in production, that vegetation delivers livestock and that crops are aliens in most landscapes and need care and attention.

I also assumed an understanding of the policy frame and the politics of landscapes and the use of natural capital.

It seems reasonable to make such assumptions. These were professional people well educated, well-trained and you’d expect them to have some knowledge.

The reality is that my expectation reduction was nowhere near enough.

I had guessed that a reduction of the available knowledge by 80% of what I knew about a topic should be exceeded. That is what expectations should be, low enough to easily be exceeded; a version of the ‘under promise over deliver’ mantra of any good service company. This did not mean dumbing it down nor to assume ignorance just reducing the complexity to fundamentals so that the basics came across.

I had always expected that people would be okay with that and that they would recognize what I was trying to say. I expected responses with intelligence and from their perspective.

It turns out that delivering just 20% of what you know as an experienced academic is nowhere near enough reduction. You’ve got to cut much harder than that if you want your expectations to be met.

Now unmet expectations create a lot of stress for the person delivering information. I realize now that my big mistake was to overestimate the ability of people to understand nature and how humans use it.

I’m not talking about intelligence here, nor the ability to solve puzzles, to do math or the ability to find the tail end of a binomial distribution.

What I mean is a lack of basic understanding of phenomena that are happening in the world and their consequences for the rural landscape. Little things like knowing that we have eight billion people growing at eight thousand an hour. That almost all soil is under human management and at least 40% are in some sort of disarray as a result of that management.

Then there are some basic numbers that suggest future challenges for organizations involved with rural landscapes, even their own backyards. Some fundamentals that they really should know — average age of farmers in Australia is 58 with 50% of them working more than 49 hours per week, the debt to equity ratio of most farm businesses is very high where farmers have leveraged their properties in order to maintain their production systems and therefore giving themselves a very high debt load constraining any future innovation. Overall agriculture in Australia is under capitalised and there is a vast need for improvements to infrastructure particularly transport networks, but also in intensification of certain parts of the landscape and a desperate need to rest other parts.

Everyone should really understand that the challenge is how to get that investment. Where to get it from, what the financial instruments might be, who owns the risk, and who benefits from the risk?

These are the sorts of questions that should be simmering under the everydayness of any environmental role that is involved in any way with natural capital. And be talked about in tearooms and prior to meetings on Zoom. They should be the issues and questions that interest people. Unfortunately, they don’t.

At least not in recent experience. The generation that are currently in managerial and senior positions in environmental organizations, particularly in the bureaucracy, simply don’t have that frame of reference. Perhaps it’s a baby boomer story perhaps it’s a Gen X problem. Few seem to have the ability or the voice to put their organization into the broader context of what must happen in the world to stop humanity from major catastrophe.

People are parochial. I understand that. What’s going on in our backyard, what’s going on in the neighbor’s yard, and what’s going on overseas is increasingly distant to us. Such is normal human behavior ever since we started in tribes. But in the modern age when supply chains are universal — my wife ordered a parcel from the US which has gone via Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and still hasn’t arrived in Australia — these are global systems needing global solutions as well as local solutions.

The questions I have are these…

  • Do I lower my expectation from 20% to 10% or 5% and make things even more simple than I do at the moment?
  • Do I stop writing 20 page reports which have the detail in them and a one-page summary, which is the 20% that people might read and reduce that 20% to a headline?
  • Do I keep plugging away with the 20%, sometimes going to 60%+, and hope for the best?

It goes against the grain to capitulate and it’s not the smart play because detail is important in these matters. There is a lot of information and understanding needed to make good decisions around how we use the landscape, how carbon is managed, how nutrients are managed, how we appropriate net primary production.

So I suspect that I must kick on with the conflict still in my head. Just keep trying.

And we need more people to try. More people to be educated around these matters and be able to communicate that information to others who might not have had the opportunity to learn about it.

More importantly, I encourage you to not shy away from the information and the understanding even if you don’t work in the environment or deal with where our food comes from, you still consume food, you have a diet and what you choose to put into your body is important for not only your own health, but also how we manage resource product resources natural capital use and food production into the future.

I struggle with the stress of trying to be able to make this connection to people over topics that they do not readily understand. And one day I’ll retire and stop doing it.

But for the moment I still keep the fire burning and encourage people to understand more about the world around them, it is after all in their interests and the interests of their great grandchildren.


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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…

Lives matter

Lives matter

The Buddha addresses the monks in Sarnath, modern Uttar Pradesh, India and tells them how he had first preached the Four Noble Truths there. He exhorts them to follow Sāriputta who takes up the teaching and gives a detailed explanation of the Truths

And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.

— Saccavibhanga Sutta

Buddha condemned killing or harming living beings and encouraged reflection or mindfulness (satipatthana) as right action (or conduct), therefore

the rightness or wrongness of action centres around whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others

Killing is harmful then, to both self and others.

You do not need to be a Buddist to recognise this truth.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a black American, died in police custody. He should not have lost his life.

This gross injustice resulted in a tragedy that has galvanised a lot of people to protest, to gather in spite of the health risk to themselves and others to speak out against an institutional prejudice that goes back to the dawn of humanity.

How far back does racism go?

As a species, we are ingenious, tenacious, hard-working and smart. As individuals, we offer most of these things too in varying degrees. And we love competition, especially winning. This is the critical ingredient in our recipe for global success. We are motivated to compete and win.

This means that we need a competitor. It can be a rival in the scramble for a resource such as a job, a partner, and back in the day for food and shelter.

In our hunter-gatherer-scavenger past, there is interesting evidence from our acid guts that we were pretty efficient scavengers on the not so fresh produce, as we competed with other species, lions, hyenas and other primates all on the lookout for nutrient-dense food sources.

We also competed with each other. Other tribes, other family groups, even our brothers and sisters even when needs must.

This instinct is hard-wired into our biological more making. Our genes look forward to the next generations and our bodies and minds help them get there.

This means that racism when defined as

prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized

is an extension of inevitable competition goes way back into our evolutionary past.

Of course, I am assuming here that Darwin was right. That the evolutionary record, the genetic mapping and even the archaeology backs up the theory that we are a species that is several hundred thousand years old and that our genus, Homo, is several million years old.

If you think it was all made in a week then this explanation is meaningless.

We are designed to compete and with this, there has to be a competitor. A person or a group of people that we must fight and beat to gain access to the resource. Winning becomes critical and the psychology of winning is as important as the physical strength, cunning and fighting skills needed for the actions themselves. Loathing and hate of the competitor make for helpful logic in the will to win and in teaching the young how to fight.

That this becomes prejudice and a ‘better than’ attitude is inevitable.

We might think of racism as a recent albeit historical phenomenon, a relic perhaps of the horror days of slaves and slaves trades and humans exploited and denigrated on plantations and farms in the new world.

Likely it is very old and has been in the human psyche through evolutionary time.

This argument suggests we might all be innate racists.

A troubling thought.

Along with most amateurs, my golfing buddies are not that great at golf.

We are always looking for ways to get better, to swing it like the professionals. I try to persuade them to watch the LPGA professionals, the ladies. They are outstandingly good athletes but they hit the ball closer to our distances, not the interstellar drives of their male counterparts. Interestingly when I showed them videos of the some of the best in the world, all seven world number ones since 2014 are of Asian ancestry, they were not that interested. Show them Jessica Korda, a caucasian and a very fine golfer but with the highest world ranking of 13 and they were very interested indeed.

Innate bias I guess.

Not all bad

The human enigma is that we are not all bad or biggoted.

Along with our competitive urges we have instincts to cooperate, be kind, look after each other, put in place safety nets for those less fortunate.

We give to charity, volunteer for all sorts of noble causes and even go out on the streets to protest that black lives matter.

We fight our own innate prejudices. They are not a given. They can be changed, moulded and even banished altogether.

It was not so very long ago that the definition above could read

prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their gender

Indeed we still have work to do on gender equality as we do with racism and many other expressions of our fear of losing out directed at minorities.

So we have come a long way and we continue to get better at challenging our fears and prejudice.

All lives matter

It is not politically correct to say this right now. The right have appropriated it to their own ends, shift the blame, lay down some excuses for their excesses.

Only it is as the Buddha says

the rightness or wrongness of action centres around whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others

Buddha

A person’s colour, gender, creed or orientation should make no difference to how they are treated; no matter where they or their ancestors come from.

Do no harm.


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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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