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.

Both sides of the coin

We are told that the universe is fond of opposites: black and white, ying and yang, United and City. And this week gave us a cracker.

In the UK the supermarket chain Asda had its corporate responsibility director come out with a climate change adaptation solution. He said “Businesses and other stakeholders in the food sector need to work with farmers and suppliers on water-related activities to ensure current and future demand for produce is met and to reduce their risk to supply-chain disruption.” Good PR speak as you might expect, only he went on to say, “We launched a water-trickle scheme for celery growers in Spain that provided a water-spray kit to farmers with the aim of ensuring a secure supply of product to our stores.

Asda justified this largess because they believed that global food prices and supply would be affected by “dire droughts” around the world. Not to mention the floods in the UK.

In other words the retailer realized that farmers are critical to their business and although this sounds like a no brainer to a supermarket, it is surprising how modern complexity of the commodity markets makes it easy for them to forget.

And so on to the other side of the coin.

Coles, a similar sized food retailer in Australia, asked its suppliers for cash payments. Yes, they just went out and asked suppliers to pay for the privilege of having their commodities sold in Coles stores. Nominally these payments were to “to help pay for what it claimed was improvements to the super­market’s supply chain”.

The competition watchdog got wind of this cheek and got upset. According to court documents Coles had a $30 million target from their supplies and had penned sales scripts to help their staff get on with it. We will wait and see if they get more than a wrist slap.

Now we could accept that the universe will always throw out some bad with the good on the celestial wind and let it land where it will. Apply this karmic logic to food supply in a commercial world and for every company with a vision there will be another out for a buck. Coles were just not in touch with the good bit.

Except that the world is looking at a doubling of food production by 2050 and I am not sure what the celestial balance makes of that.

Sounds Crazy #11 | Count your beans precisely

0.04122349

Is there anything wrong with this number?

Out of context it hard to tell. Running to 8 decimal places it is a very precise number. So much so that if it was a measurement of mass in metric tons the 9 would be precision to 100th of a gram.

If the number represented the weight of an object it would take an amazingly sensitive balance to reliably measure such a weight range to such precision.

Back in the day I used a 7-place balance to record the mass of woodlice offspring [the sort of weird thing PhD candidates have to do to unpick life history theory] and it required a very steady hand with the weighing trays suspended on the thinnest of wires.

The balance could handle the precision but nowhere near the mass range. And it cost a small fortune.

Now let’s consider the number in context.

It appears in this equation:

EN2O,j=CBB,j×0.04122349

The number is an emissions factor that converts the carbon in the biomass of trees [CBB,j] into nitrous oxide emissions should the biomass burn in a wildfire.

If a tree is measured and found to contain 4.2 tons of carbon, then this equation claims that should the tree burn in a wildfire, 0.173138658 tons of nitrous oxide will be emitted to the atmosphere.

Now it is hard enough to determine the biomass of a tree to the nearest kilo even if you cut it down into pieces and weighed each one. So to then apply an emission factor with 8 digits after the first zero is bizarre.

It is like weighing out grains of salt on a research grade balance when the recipe calls for a pinch.

Be it woodlice offspring or emission modifiers, the first thing you are taught in high school science class is that the number of digits in a number implies its precision.

0.0412 implies two orders of magnitude more precision than 0.04

It’s called the ‘significant figure’ and is a very important rule in science. The number of digits implies the precision with which the information was recorded. If you write 0.04122349 you imply that that last 9 has real meaning.

If you really can be, need to be, or can prove such precision then fair enough.

And it may be meaningful in the engineering of silicon chips but is meaningless in an ecological estimation on something as large as a tree.

This is a classic example of bean counting gone mad — non-scientists playing loose with the basic rules of science and common sense. It is plain crazy. Unfortunately this kind of misplaced precision is sucking the life out of innovation that could help us understand how the environment works and move us towards sustainability.

Except where would we be without the precise number of beans?

Sounds crazy #7 | Hidden hazards in the backyard

produce-01This ‘sounds crazy’ is an absolute ripper.

This bottom column headline and grab appeared on the front page of the weekend Sydney Morning Herald this week…

Hidden hazards in the backyard — Families are unwittingly exposing their children to the risk of sickness and even brain damage from lead hidden in backyard soil and paint… 

Fair enough. No doubt there is many an older inner city property that has not been renovated since the time lead was in most paint stock and some of that old stuff is peeling away and ending up in garden soil across the suburb.

Any city dweller knows that cities are not exactly pristine. The air is heavy with particulates from brake dust to builders waste and on a rainy day it washes all over your shoes. It comes with the territory.

The grab continued…

Lead experts fear the trend towards home vegetable patches and community and verge vegetable gardens is also putting children at risk.   

So at a time when all our electronic conveniences have deprived our youth of knowing anything about life giving soil, we must put the fear of god into those with the umph and initiative to get back to sharing produce they have tended.

Thousands of generations of good folk grew vegetables in their backyards. They planted, watered and cared for their crops and then fed their families wholesome fresh food. The extra they exchanged with their neighbors or sold at a local market helping to create the very essence of community that is so central to our wellbeing.

And they did this even when cars were spitting out lead, when the pipes were made of lead and when DDT was the pesticide of choice.

Did those dangers stop them? Not at all, they prospered and went ahead to multiply by the millions. So much so that today we need to double global food production in the next 30 years just to keep up with demand and will need every square foot of productive space we can find.

All I can say is shame on those ‘experts’, university academics with a career to build, and shame on the media for printing such fear mongering [and this time you can’t even blame Rupert].

For heavens sake, growing veggies in the backyard is a good news story.

I just wish the possums would stop eating mine.