Little gem – more hopeful

Little gem – more hopeful

TED talks have been around for a long time now, since 1984 as it turns out. There are over 2,000 of them, most in that punchy, smart format that makes even challenging ideas accessible.

Here is a collection of eight of them that Kara Cutruzzula selected on how to be more hopeful

They have these messages…

  1. Shift your expectations
  2. Recognize that you can change your life at any point
  3. Look for meaning in the most challenging moments
  4. Listen to another person’s story
  5. Return to your home base
  6. Add some wow to your world
  7. Remember the essential goodness of humanity
  8. Think about your death (yes, really).

A good list, a little gem, and well worth a look.

Optimism and evidence

Optimism and evidence

Part one is about optimism

Many would have us believe that it is easy to be an optimist.

All you have to do is believe (in) yourself. If you say positive things most of the time, catch yourself when something negative sneaks in and smile a lot, then you are good to go.

Believe and your shoulders set themselves back and your chest rises.

“Yes we can” you will scream. And there are hundreds of Youtube win videos that attest to this power. People are awesome indeed.

Pulses of positivity do not require any substance to back them up. There is no need because optimism is often killed by the truth. There are few facts in favour of running a successful business, seeing your team win the league, or the world surviving intact the activities of 7 billion humans. Such matters of fact are not what optimism is about. If you accepted the likelihood of winning the lottery you would never buy a ticket.

Optimists have no need for facts. This is not how it works for them. They just believe it to be so. And that is enough. No matter what the circumstance, for innate optimists, the glass is always half full and Schrodinger’s cat is alive.

It is actually a remarkable thing.

In spite of evidence to the contrary and especially where evidence is lacking, the optimist has hope and drinks deeply from the glass.

Part two is about evidence

As a scientist I know the logic that makes the likelihood of a lottery win minuscule. I also know that facts are not always in your favour.

No matter how good a snowboarder you are, sooner or later the half pipe will claim you – speed, ice and many moving parts fixed to some plywood and fiberglass is enough evidence.

Yet for years I have laboured to generate environmental evidence, reliable facts about the way the natural world works, with the naïve belief it would be useful.

Today I am not so sure.

My conviction in the value of evidence is shaken if evidence erodes optimism. It is flawed completely if optimists mostly ignore the facts. If the glass half empty people don’t want to hear any evidence because it depresses them even more and the glass half full people are too busy getting on with fulfilling their hope, it means that nobody is listening.

Deaf ears indeed.

Empathy

Empathy

Suppose you are a die hard Manchester United fan. You have been in this manic state since you first kicked a ball around the living room in your diapers. It’s baffling why Manchester United is the club that captured your undying soccer loyalty given there are numerous top grade clubs within spitting distance of your childhood home, however, you cannot question it for the feeling resides somewhere deep and unexplainable.

Along with this love of the Red Devils comes a dislike, some might even say hatred, for the club that plays at a ground just 6 km distant and wears sky blue. Your ire rises higher at any mention of jokers from other towns, Liverpool especially.

Now this rivalry with the opposition is no doubt part of the deep and unexplainable. It has something to do with the limbic requirement to compete and win.

Along with this genetic programming, nurture has imbibed you with the essence of local culture, defined your broader allegiance, and provided you with an accent. Who can even understand what those scousers are saying?

I’m sure you are with me so far, at least in principle.

You may not be a soccer tragic or reside in north-west England, but I guarantee there is something you are passionate about to your core. A tumult in your soul that has no apparent explanation.

Importantly, such passion is never truly extinguished. Sure it wanes, but come finals day or a beer around the barbecue, and the old passion reignites like a bushfire in a breeze.

Like it or not, admit it or not, tribal affiliation makes you feel good.

This is because the tribe has two highly desirable traits. First the tribe covets your loyalty, cares for it and protects it to your benefit. This becomes a delicious positive loop. The more you feel wanted the stronger the tribe and the stronger the tribe the more loyalty you relinquish.

The second highly desirable trait is that there are always other tribes.

So just as your loyalty is rewarded with warm feelings of belonging and place, so the tribe tests its mettle and your allegiance with rivalries.

And herein lies the ancient human condition as recognisable 3 million years ago as it is at Old Trafford on a Saturday. We love a good stoush.

In our modern, supposedly enlightened times, it is no longer necessary to attack Liverpool FC supporters, leave them for dead, capture their womenfolk, steal their pigs and eat all the yams in their grain store. It is sufficient to chant abuse from the stand and laugh when their striker scuffs his shot wide. But rivalry is crucial to the tribe. It feeds the loyalty process and without it the warm feelings are much harder to maintain.

Crucially this necessity for rivalry builds more than aggressive contempt. It is not admissible to speak these other thoughts because they are easily misinterpreted, but at some level you have respect for those scouser scum. They are, after all, tribalists like you. They are misguided in their choice of allegiance, deranged even, and yet without another tribe of near equal size and passion what would be the benefit in winning any encounters. Crushing minnows ultimately depletes loyalty.

Thankfully there they are on the terraces, giving back as good as they get, and always rendering that god awful song about walking. Curiously they are wearing the same clothes as you. They are as overweight and unfit as you, and, hey, isn’t that Bob from accounting?

In short, you empathise with the opposition support because you need them and because you recognise their image in the mirror.

The same thing applies to all other tribal rivalries that humans have invented. In the violent conflicts any empathy has wilted or died invoking a chicken and egg explanation. But in many others the empathy is still there and may even be the reason there is restraint.

One of these intense rivalries is over the environment.

Not the grab for land, water and oil that is at the core of many, perhaps all, wars but the rivalry that exists even in stable nations with well defined and uncontested territories.

On one side there are various tribes with members willing to hug trees or stare down bulldozers to protect the lesser spotted owlet even as the greater spotted owlet numbers increase to previously unknown heights.

In opposition are tribes with members in hi-vis vests or business suits who have never even seen an owlet.

This rivalry is ostensibly about the consequences of resource use. More strictly, who should get the benefit from exploiting natural resources or wear the opportunity costs of parsimony.

The consequences of resource use are real enough, far more so than the winning or not of 3 points towards the title race and a few months worth of bragging rights. Any human exploitation of natural resources alters the flows of energy and nutrients through the environment either directly – log a forest and habitat is changed or last altogether – or indirectly – burn coral and the climate changes.

Green tribes hate this outcome.

Brown tribes hate this outcome too mainly because it fuels green tribes out to stop them. Usually those with a development focus feel so strongly about the need for resource use to fuel the economic engine that they don’t even notice the consequences for future resource use let alone any undesirable externalities.

The trouble is that the green tribes have to get their hemp and their biofuels from somewhere in the environment. Every human leaves a footprint in the sand.

Equally the brown tribe members know that even though ‘a tree converted to dollars invested in the stock market’ is a well trodden road to wealth, on this road there are potholes, oncoming traffic and, heaven forbid, fuel shortages. Heavy boots do some real damage.

The kernel of empathy exists in these contradictions.

It comes through admitting that even the off grid, eco-home, tiny house still has a footprint and that with over 15 billion human feet on the planet, the tiny house option cannot be for everyone. It also comes from the notion held among some resource users that maintaining a resource for the long haul can be a better economic outcome given the resource is still there to be used.

Many also know that the environment always offers renewable solutions.

Then we have the option of incentivising resource use actions that limit the undesirable outcomes using the language of the economic tribe to change behaviour. We pay resource users to be careful. A weird compromise position that partly neutralises the conflict.

Here, then, is the thought.

When you next find yourself in a tribal situation, and this will probably be sooner than you think, look for the empathy. Try to find that connection with the rival that you know makes them just like you.

Should this situation have something to do with the environment and the empathy feel just can’t be seen, look harder, for empathy is there hiding behind the entrenched positions.

Optimism

Optimism

I see the glass as half empty far more often than I would like.

It’s the cynic in me that does this, a nimble imp that jumps around incessantly to skilfully sneak up and strike when I’m not looking.

And I am not alone.

Many of us are pestered by negativity fed incessantly by the imp and his allies in the mainstream media with their constant peddling of bad news as something we just have to know. It is enough to depress the most ardent of us.

The psychology is simple enough. We are shown bleak accounts of impending and real doom to make us feel hopeless and in this stupefied state we don’t need to try to fix anything, we can just keep on consuming our way to distant happiness.

The imp just loves it.

He gets to play silly buggers with us and there it is, a glass half empty.

Diogo Verissimo, a conservation scientist and social marketer, believes that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties and much more on positives. He’d like us to see the full half of the glass.

In April 2017 the Smithsonian Institute organised the Earth Optimism Summit to shift the global conservation movement’s focus away from problems and toward solutions. Verissiomo’s own Lost and Found project tells the stories of 13 species once thought extinct but now rediscovered by intrepid and dedicated humans.

The hope is that the good news with the help of storytelling will generate a “more positive vision for the Earth’s future”.

It is hard to be optimistic though. The numbers of people and their needs are scary and our psychology held deep in our reptilian brainstem is not in our favour. Too many posts on this blog have explored this dilemma.

Population clocks

Post revisited – Washing machines

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

The biggest global challenges revisited

It seems unlikely that some good news stories will create much more than a temporary salve.

Now I believe we are on the path that Thomas Malthus warned of back in 1798 when he talked intelligently about per capita production and mankind using the abundance of resources for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living.

Sure we slow down population growth rates when affluence is high, counter to the Malthusian trap, but we are doing it after our absolute numbers have reached 7.5 billion. A full order of magnitude more than the 700 million alive when Malthus wrote his famous essay.

These billions are resource hungry and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

In fact, if I hadn’t been lucky (and resource hungry) enough to visit over 20 countries in my lifetime I’m not even sure I would believe that 7.5 billion people was even possible. But it is here, a miracle that Malthus would have imputed to the almighty.

What the imp knows is that despite the occasional good news story, Malthus was actually right. He got the numbers a bit askew, an understandable error given the knowledge of his day, but the theory is sound.

Resources will become limiting and the consequences will not be pretty or good.

The glass half full may be the view we need but it is a hard one to see.

Overshoot day

Overshoot day

Overshoot day is the day in the year when human activities have used up the amount of the Earth’s natural resources that can be renewed within one year.

Ideally this is sometime in very late December or better still, January, February or later in the in the subsequent year. Overshoot day celebrated then would mean we are either in balance or slightly ahead using less resources than are renewed each year. This was pretty much true up to the late 1960’s.

In 2017 overshoot day was 2nd August.

This leaves another 151 days left in the year to keep everyone going on resources not renewed within the year. We are using up credit, reserves of resources that sit in the renewable pool.

There is more bad news if you are Australian. Our Aussie lifestyle chews up more resources than most. If everyone lived like us then overshoot day arrives on 12th March, almost half a year earlier.

Put another way, if everyone lived the Aussie lifestyle, we would need 5.2 Earths worth of renewable natural resources per year. And if we all had the British stiff upper lip or Italian suits, then it would be 3.0 Earths.

This is a serious problem folks. I mean it. We are overextended taking up at least a third more than is renewed. It is like having a salary of $100 a week and spending $130 a week. It is only sustainable for as long as your savings or credit card allows.

Aussies should be ashamed that they are the most profligate being ahead even of the Americans (5.0 Earth’s in their case); not that finger pointing helps. All the wealthy people in the world are collectively living on credit. We are borrowing from the pool of reserves without an ability to pay back in. The risk in this transaction is not secured against any collateral other than the technology mantra.

In natural resources terms, buy now, pay later, becomes use now, worry about shortages later. And it could become use now, deal with collapse later.

If laboratory rats run out of food they get hungry, then they fight each other, and then they eat each other.

It is ugly.

Our system of credit, supply chains, and technology applied to renewable resources will buffer us for a while. It is why we don’t feel shortages or, indeed, hunger for those of us living on $100 plus a day (a little under $50,000 a year before tax).

It is also why we buffered this system after the GFC even though we knew it was built on sand and so much of the extra credit promised ended up in just a few pockets. We should pay much more attention to all this. But I digress, here is the key message.

Overshoot day is the most important day of the year. If we are smart, less greedy and less fearful we could even make it a biannual celebration.

So when you are pondering your New Year’s resolutions and reflecting on another year lodged into history, with full stomachs and the lingering indigestion of Christmas cheer, spare a thought for the day in 2018 when we overshoot our renewable resources for another year.

Sex in millipedes

Sex in millipedes

Peer-reviewed publications series #1

Suppose for some reason you want to know who is in control, the male or the female? Now this is a pretty deep psychological question that is at the heart of countless novels, TV dramas, and the routines of feminist comediennes.

It is central to evolutionary biology theory too. Do females choose mates and so have some control over the genes they pass on to their offspring? Eggs are generally more energetically expensive than sperm so females should be picky and males more profligate.

The male problem is making sure that one of your billions is the one. This explains pair bonds and the so-called ‘sneaky rutting’ so prevalent in birds, and in humans too it seems. Being the one also explains why males compete so emphatically with other males. An essential evolutionary strategy is to beat your rivals to it. Genes for ‘hang back and wait your turn’ rarely persist.

Enter a millipede species from southern Africa, Alloporus uncinatus, in the taxonomic Family Spirostreptidae. This animal is essentially a prehensile tube designed to burrow into soil and glean what can be had from dead vegetation. This simple design is truly ancient. Millipedes have ancestors in the Carboniferous — some 300 million years ago when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were higher and nothing else was big enough to eat them — that were over 2m long and 50cm wide. Truly pythonesque.

Yet the simplicity of this body plan, reduced to more modest proportions in modern species like A. uncinatus, hides some heady complexity. It seems that eons of millipede evolution created very specific sexual practices and accoutrements.

We are talking, multiple partners, rape, the occasional homosexual mistake, sperm competition, mate guarding, and elaborate genitalia. Not bad for a bug shaped like a bendy air hose.

So to the research.

When there is competition between males for females, one way for a male to increase his chance of fertilizing eggs is to hold on to the female for as long as possible and stand guard to prevent other males from doing the deed. An eerily familiar notion.

In millipedes, males do not fight amongst themselves to protect females, but they copulate for a long time, an hour and a half on average, coiling tightly around the female making it very difficult for any other males to try it on. Extend copulation for a long time and it would prevent other males gaining access to the female.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.09.08 pm.png

Formally this is called the ‘copulatory-guarding hypothesis’ that predicts that if copulation duration is adaptive then copulations should last longer when the intensity of competition between males is high. Evidence for copulatory guarding has been recorded in some beetles, water striders, and stink bugs.

What we did was test the hypothesis with A. uncinatus by introducing additional males to the close confines of a pair already in the midst of the act.

If the hypothesis was true then copulation duration should increase as more males are added. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to confirm what happened, this graph should do it for you.

In this millipede species at least, males guard females from other males just as theory predicts.

Peer-reviewed publications

Peer-reviewed publications

Back in the day, I used to be a researcher, an academic plugging away to add just a few sand grains of evidence to the mountain of human knowledge.

It was a fun time.

The research process was to set a question that you had the means to investigate, gather data ideally through some sort of experimental design, analyse the numbers, compile your description of the outcomes and then send it all out to a fellow scientist who edits a peer-reviewed journal.

This last bit was essential. Publication in an erudite tome was and is the core currency of academia and it is serious business. The frequency and quality of your publications generate kudos and, for youngsters at least, determines your likelihood of future employment.

Turns out that, for me, publication became an addictive process. I set targets for the number — 30 by 30 and no less that five per year — and later to improve on the quality of this output. Peer-reviewed journals are ranked on their perceived importance so if your work ended up in the higher ranking ones it was more kudos and looked better on your resume.

However, the best bit was the freedom to investigate almost any topic you thought might get published. So we had a crack at everything from the burrowing behaviour of millipedes and the size of woodlouse eggs as a measure of maternal investment, to a hypothesis that mound-building termites engineered the landscape of the Okavango Delta.

Crazy stuff.

We even published on the sex life of male Alloporus uncinatus that, it turns out, struggle with sperm competition.

Here is what the unfortunate critter looks like.

AlloporusMillipede.jpg

Of course, publication is not quite what it sounds like. Most of these gems of research description were not read by anyone. Sometimes a truly dedicated PhD student in Algeria or Uzbekistan would politely request a copy of a paper that we would send by return post, never knowing if they ever read it.

Today, with the advent of electronic copy, database searches, Google scholar, and fatnastic archiving tools like Mendeley, many more people can find and gain access to almost any obscure grain of knowledge. A few extra reads are logged even of the old material. But, truthfully, there are more views of the train timetable than the average peer-reviewed publication. It is sad, but true.

So with this recollection firmly lodged, I thought I might bore you and excite me with an occasional series of posts here on the Alloporus blog — yes, the very same — to summarise in plain language some of the publications from my past.

Chances are that to get more reads than the originals, all I need is a click bait title.

Stay tuned.