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.

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

This post on the remarkable level of investment in energy R&D in the US was written in September 2011. It is not my intent in these retrospectives to play the ‘I told you so’ card but given the egg on the faces of the current and recent Australian governments over energy security, it is pretty hard not to.

Did politicians really think that we have coal, oil and gas and so the job was done?

Emission notwithstanding, did they just sit back and let the end of life for major coal-fired power stations be someone else’ problem?

Well in Australia they did. In America too I suspect. Trump is not pulling the Paris pin because he is a climate sceptic, he’s keeping coal going so that, at least on his watch, the lights stay on across America. Nothing will kill your voter base faster than blackouts attributed to poor planning.

So here is what Alloporus thought in 2011 about energy R&D…


Investment in energy research

In the US Federal research funding into energy is $3 billion. This figure includes investment into oil, coal and gas as well as solar and other alternative energies.

Then there is a further $5 billion invested by the private sector for a total of $8 billion in an industry worth $1 trillion a year; making investment in R&D only 0.8% of revenues.

Apparently $8 billion pays for about 9 days of military involvement in Iraq – pretty scary and perhaps something they might look at when considering reducing budget deficit, but I digress.

The point here is that 0.8% is woeful. Any company that spent less than 1% of revenue on R&D would not last long. Given that energy is so critical to economic performance and given that we have reached peak oil and will eventually run out of coal and gas too, 0.8% seems irresponsible.

And then there is a huge global movement that believes we must tackle climate change by reducing emissions from greenhouse gases.

What should the investment be? In successful economies upwards of 3% of GDP is allocated to R&D, which is roughly $430 billion. This amount must cover many sectors but energy security should be worth at least 5% of the available budget or an order of magnitude more than the current allocation.

We are kidding ourselves if we think that energy security can be achieved when we invest peanuts.


There is money to be made from energy. There always has been. I bet that the first hunter-gatherers who figured out through trial and error how to transport fire with them as they wandered were revered and feared. The thinking and testing that went into creating and catching a spark to start fires was, well, gold to the people who mastered it.

The smart individuals who put a wheel into running water or threw a lump of coal onto the campfire might also have made a relative bob or two.

So it’s not about the returns. It is that it is future money. The power stations cornered the market for a period long enough to scorch the space for new investment. If end of life is 30 or 50 years away there is no market for anything else until then. There is no need to look forward as energy is secure.

This lack of foresight might just be our undoing.

11 million views and counting

The truth can be told in many different ways.

This one seems to be connecting…

 

Except that is it resonating?

11 million sounds like a lot but it is less than half the population of Australia, less than 0.6% of Facebook users, and a little under 7% of the global population increase since the message first appeared on YouTube in 2015.

No doubt there have been a few souls moved to action and every effort is worth it.

But to echo the analogy, the human impact on the planet still feels like

One Mississippi,

Two Mississippi,

Three Mississippi,

Boom

Disillusioned with politics

Disillusioned with politics

Apparently, it’s not just supporters of the Donald and Pauline who are upset about the state of political leadership. The rich and influential are disillusioned with politics too.

And fair enough.

Lack of direction, courage and conviction eventually drains everyone’s resolve. We all need something or someone to look up to, compare against and even aspire to become. It is the psychological glue that keeps most religions from fading into extinction.

Australia has had a decade of hope, false starts, and farce from its federal politicians. When all leaders can do is badmouth each other for sucking up to those with real influence, then the last hope is lost.

The problem is what to do about it.

Electing in the opposition just means more of the same. It simply fuels the downward cycle. Frustrated US citizens squeaked Donald over the line and he will disrupt in ways unimagined. But little of it will be desirable, even for his supporters. At some point, that experiment will pass.

The rich and influential group mentioned earlier are up for a new democracy that involves random selection and deliberation – the jury model – as a central process rather than elected representatives. A kind of back to the ancient future.

There is merit in this. A jury reaches a decision based on evidence and the inference they draw from it. Logic, reasoned argument and debate come together into consensus solutions that should make decisions more trustworthy. They should, at least, be less affected by partisan or vested interest.

The problem is the quality of the inference. Can a citizens assembly or jury have enough capacity to sift the evidence supplied to them for complex decisions like the design of the national broadband network or defence procurement or health funding? It would be instructive to find out.

It cannot be any worse than the ministerial Merry-go-round.