Difficult thought

Difficult thought

When I first read this article on the White House bible study group that is apparently attended on a regular basis by many members of the US cabinet and presided over by an unelected pastor, I thought…

OMG.

Ironic I know.

Incredulity welled up, slowly at first and then escalated toward anger.

Here we had decision makers responsible for the immediate well being of 325 million Americans, not to mention a whole heap of global economic and diplomatic flow on, who bashed the bible in that truly fundamentalist way. On company time, they were learning the gospels as interpreted by an individual whose political and moral agendas are unknown.

This cannot be right.

It cannot be objective or balanced.

And it cannot be in the best interests of a nation made up of people with a myriad of beliefs and values when leaders focus on the interests of just one particular and often narrow view of the world.

Then I checked myself.

Religion is a reality.

Belief in one god or another is an ever present in many people’s lives and has influenced leaders, governments and policy ever since leadership was invented. People in power invariably have religious beliefs and simply because they are in power, inevitably foist those beliefs on their subjects.

So be it, my calming self thought.

It is what it is.

Whoever is in power, be they elected or simply the pastor brought into the inner fold, will have beliefs. It is impossible to find a true neutral. Even the atheist believes in her disbelief. In all cases of leadership the people who lead will bring beliefs and a value set to the process of leading. Values will influence their decisions and how they make them.

Now if those values may seem to me odd, extreme even, my option is not to vote for them. Perhaps even persuade others to do likewise.

If I don’t have a vote or the system is not exactly democratic my options are less comfortable but I could still make my disagreement known, even if only to myself.

My problem with the White House bible group is who runs it and how they got there.

The process of influence through the tradesman’s entrance is a dangerous precedent. It allows beliefs and ideas that really haven’t been through the public mill to ingratiate the source while many other equally valid beliefs and ideas try to muscle their way through the Fourth Estate.

Again this is nothing new. This process of influence is as old as politics itself but we should be more concerned when it is a brazen as this for it suggests that very few people even see it as free influence.

Add to this the ’fake news’ corruption of the media and getting through the back door becomes even more of a bonus.

So here is the thought.

When you next hear a politician speaking about policy, a rarity I know, think about where the policy came from, who influenced its formulation and what values are affected by it.

This can be quite a salutary exercise for the benefits of preaching to the inner circle stretch way beyond theology.

Cost shifting

Cost shifting

I guarantee that at some point in your day you shift a cost.

Something done will benefit you at the expense of someone else and, in far too many instances, ultimately impact on the environment.

But don’t feel too bad for you are not alone. We all do it.

Every day I put waste items in the garbage. When the kitchen bin is full, I empty it into the dustbin that each week is collected. My garbage is transported to a landfill where it is covered with layer after layer of trash from my neighbourhood and periodically capped with soil. In time my garbage decomposes and releases methane to the atmosphere and a smell to the surrounds.

I trust that the landfill facility is well managed so that any smell is contained and that nothing too toxic leaks into the groundwater.

I know that my garbage is going to be in the ground for a very long time carrying risk of contamination so I also hope that the landfill site is well chosen and remains contained.

Of course I pay for the collection, transport and management of my garbage that in modern times might include the capture and flaring of the methane. But these costs are really to cover the collection actions and not the long-term contamination risk.

That risk is external to my transaction. I do not expect to pay if the structural engineer got it wrong.

What if I wanted to do something about this external cost? It is impossible to live in a modern city and not generate at least some garbage.

I might compost any green waste at home. This would be good, as would diligence in filling up the recycling bin. I could separate all the plastic bags and send them to a recycler. And, of course, take reusable bags to the grocery store. And even if I were diligent in these things there would still be some packaging around the cheese or the preschitto that would need a bin.

When I’m out and about there is coffee, the muffin, the business lunch, the snacks my wife so lovingly packs into my man bag and goodness knows how much garbage from Tuesdays take away sushi.

The reality is that there is a packaging externality created in our modern world. Just now we are beginning to realise that the oceans are copping most of this cost as huge plastic gyres and then surreptitiously returning some of it to our bodies in the seafood we consume.

The truth is that every resource we consume creates an externality somewhere. Greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, water pollution, smoke, dust… You get the idea.

Human ingenuity changes the way ecosystems function and we are not always sure by how much or with what consequence. When the consequence is the depletion of function that humans find useful then it is a cost. And if we’ve ignored the cost by assuming its either of no consequence or absorbed by the system without undue pain then we have shifted it.

Shifting costs is pervasive and hard to stop. Everyone does it all the time, individually and collectively.

There is little point in beating yourself or a drum on this though. It is impossible to live as a modern human and not shift costs. It is an inevitability built into our lifestyles and the commerce that creates them.

However, it is possible to become much more aware of this reality and at least give some thought to the external costs of the things we do.

In time, thinking might even change us a little bit. Perhaps enough to stop the gyres accumulating out of control to rise out of the water and take over the world.

Little gem: Political divide

Little gem: Political divide

Many a time on this blog there will be rants and raves about the dreadful state of our political system, our mindless discourse, and our ever growing inability to see the truth.

Recently the former US first lady Barbara Bush passed away after a long and fruitful life. A group photograph was taken at her funeral of the first ladies and their spouses who attended the funeral.

As Micheline Maynard writes in an ABC article, a photograph taken by former White House photographer Paul Morse, says a great deal about many things. Overwhelmingly though it shouts about humanity, our extraordinary ability to be positive, to cooperate and to be friendly even at a time of great sadness.

Former adversaries are not anymore. They don’t need to be for they are no longer in office.

In retirement they revert to what people are best at, smiling and connecting with each other.

No doubt this image is copyright but who cares, it’s fantastic and more people should see it.

If a grump asks I’ll take it down but it would be a shame.

Tuppence a bag

Tuppence a bag

Should you feed the birds?

Well, they are wild animals, more than capable of feeding themselves.

Of course, if they fly around and don’t find food they go hungry. If this foraging fail continues for too long they either starve or are too weak to nest and rear chicks. Those that find enough food pass their genes on into the next generation – bog standard natural selection.

The presence of my house and suburb is, of course, a huge disturbance to the natural habitat. It alters the outcome of natural selection drastically favouring those species that like what houses and gardens offer over the resources available in the bush that was there for millennia before westerners.

Feeding the birds is only a tiny blip in this dramatic habitat change. Trees and shrubs to paved roads and gardens is way more important than a few seeds or apple cores on a bird table. Throw in an Indian or a noisy myna bird that come along with the houses and, well, feed all you like, the aggressive mynas will still be there to chase the passerines away.

Feeding the birds is only ever going to affect wild birds at the margins. In time of extreme heat, cold or drought it might keep a few specimens alive a little longer, enough to get through, but this would be the exception not the rule.

So, the reason to feed them is for my benefit.

I get to see them up close and squabble amongst themselves on the feeder. The pecking order between and amongst the species is a fascination as is their choice of the morsels offered. There can be half a dozen brightly coloured specimens parading at any one time. It is quite a sight.

Then the sulphur crested cockatoos glide in and spoil the party. They are big, brash and more than capable of taking a chunk out of the hardwood balustrade when they get bored. I sometimes chase them off which is bizarre given I got them to come over in the first place.

And if I forget to put out a fresh supply of ‘wild bird seed’ the cheeky buggers line up on the outdoor furniture, peering into the house at any movement with a chirp and a forlorn look.

In a pique I refuse to replenish the supply. After a few days the lineup dwindles to nothing and normality is restored until, in a moment of weakness, I put some seeds out again to repeat the cycle.

Yes, it’s OK to feed wild birds in your garden – so long as it’s the right food

As you probably gathered I live in Australia. There are conservation minded folk here who dislike, even detest, my bird feeding behaviour. That I should feed birds at all is bad enough, that I do so intermittently borders on the criminal. Wild should be wild they say. What right do I have to cause obesity in lorikeets by feeding them the wrong seeds?

Instead all I need to do is plant some wild bird friendly plants in my garden and enjoy the wild birds from a distance.

Only here is the thing.

Those aforementioned noisy mynas arrived in our yard about 5 years ago. They took up residence en mass and now patrol the airspace chasing away everything but the butcherbird, the kookaburras and the cockatoos. All the smaller species, the treecreepers, whistlers, wagtails, scrubwrens, and the like that I used to marvel at from my office window are nowhere to be seen or heard. They have retreated to safer habitat.

If I planted, it would be like trying to win a battle on the ground without first dealing with superiority in the air. Any bird trying for a feed at the bottlebrush blossom would just be hounded away before they took a sip.

It is actually rather sad. There was once a wonderful distraction when I glanced up from my computer screen toward the gum trees. But not any more.

The only hope is that we have a drought. For then the garden might be attractive enough for more species to brave the myna harassment long enough for me to view them again.

Meantime I will make do with feeding the bigger birds and not feel guilty because the damage is already done by me. Not because I feed the birds, but because I chose to live in a suburb carved out of the bush.

Conservation questions

Conservation questions

The current loss of biological diversity is a problem that calls for a collective characterization of what we want to protect and conserve and of what biodiversity we value. Should the focus be on local or global biodiversity? Should alien species be eradicated to protect ecosystem integrity and endemism? Should mammals be favored over plants? Should priority be given to useful species over useless ones? Should natural diversity be valued per se, or should it be valued on the basis of the goods and services it ensures? It is likely there is no one answer to any of these questions; rather, different contexts will give rise to different outcomes. Conservationists should tackle this kind of uncertainty and attempt to bring to light and discuss the moral values at stake. Maris & Bechet (2010)

What an extraordinary set of questions. Ask any one of them in the pub late on a Friday and you will start a ruckus. There will always be a least two individuals with diametrically opposite answers and any number of weird and wonderful interpretations given half the revellers will not understand what on earth you are on about.

Ask the same questions at an ecology conference of learned academics and you will get equally passionate answers. The lecture hall will buzz with erudite responses argued from one or other theoretical position with responses debunking each one as simplistic or impractical. And just like in the pub the answers will be interpretations rather than definitive inference because each question is contentious in its own way.

Here are a few examples.

Local or global becomes… I really want to see the sea eagle when I go to my favourite beach and have no trouble with it being on the list of threatened species. Only this species is distributed widely from Mumbai to Melbourne and is often locally common and the IUCN list it under the ‘least concern’ category.

Aliens becomes… We really should remove willows from creeks across the Australian countryside as they are a nasty invasive alien species. Only when they are removed and not replaced habitat and water quality declines and erosion can accelerate to the point where multiple values are degraded.

Mammals obviously… If the koala goes then it’s just not the same to have its food trees around the place. Plus if you keep the koala you also keep the trees and the umbrella works to protect more than just the animal.

Useless species… No species is completely useless because they all have existence value and a moral right to be, except in the minds of those people who believe that human beings are the apex of evolution and the moral right to lord over nature.

Services take precedence… Given there are so many people and with people coming first it is impossible not to value services over natural diversity. Unless we can use species somehow, directly or indirectly, there is no point in keeping them in a crowded world where every single patch of land and water has to do something for mankind. After all what is nature if it is not in the service of humanity. Only without nature there would be no humanity.

Questions of value

There is contention everywhere because whilst the questions appear scientific, the answers are all about values. Even in a room full of experts loaded opinions flash from every corner with no obvious way to separate them or decide which has the most to offer.

I doubt that conservationists have any idea about how to tackle this value conundrum any more than the average Joe. My experience is that they jump onto values and run with them without even realising there was any uncertainty in them. They also seem intent on the dichotomy as the wrong that only their opinion puts right.

Inevitably they will be up against those who see nature as a resource for humans to exploit, the gift that was given to mankind that no other creature ever has or will possess.

Context will favour one or other view as more logical or moral, consequently, as Maris & Bechet (2010) conclude “there is no one answer to any of these questions”. In other words each question has an uncertain answer.

Recognition of uncertainty would be a major advance but I doubt that holders of strong opinions, especially when claimed as the moral high ground, easily conceded their answers in a values argument.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in values debates is some objectivity.

This begins with recognition of all answers to the various questions and of the plurality of values. Objectivity would also recognise that if we land on one or other side, then the other side has compromised, often massively. Same for plurality. If you want to keep koalas, then the objective arguments says that this cannot happen everywhere, choices must be made on where effort is put to keep them alive. In other words morals are compromised to let some of them go.

Objective answers should let everyone one win, some of the time, in some places.

Think global act local

Think global act local

At its inception, ‘think global, act local’ was about empowerment. An endless stream of bad environmental news had affected people. Many became bewildered and overwhelmed.

Concerned individuals could not see how their own effort could make any difference against the global economic juggernaut. ‘Think global, act local’ became an engaging mantra because it implies that there is more than the sum of the parts and, however small, each part matters.

‘Every little helps’, ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’ are hewn from the same psychological rock.

I like that. You probably do too.

Whilst at some level we all know that we are small and insignificant, it is a fact that our egos refuse to accept. So anything that implies greatness, even via aggregation with our fellows, feels good.

Unfortunately, most individual acts actually are insignificant against the tide of economic development. Standing down the bulldozer and chainsaw by living on a platform in a tree at the edge of the forest is meaningful at the time for the tree dweller, the dozer driver and the handful of people following the social feed. But not to the logging company, as rarely will their licence be revoked for long.

In time, the act of bravery and defiance is forgotten and a new agreement reached to create jobs for the timber industry and paper for the printer.

And yes, the cardboard used for the placards at the demo originated in a tree. The road, vehicles and fuel that transported both the protagonists and antagonists to the forest have an environmental footprint. The tree dwellers family have jobs in the city and after tossing their disposable coffee cup into the bin went online and transferred $500 into their daughters account, claiming the gift against tax.

The local act was noble and courageous. It will have raised awareness a little and stalled a poor development decision — for the record I believe that any further logging of primary forest is not development but degradation of the worst kind and that timber production should be all about revegetation and management of already logged forests — only the act did not go global. The thought might have but the action did not.

So here is a suggestion.

Act global, think local.

At first, this sounds stupid. If individuals are and feel so small and insignificant they cannot possibly act globally. It is beyond them and why the original mantra became popular. The best they can do is vote for global change and look where that got us.

But they can think local.

What happens if we think about everything we do. Think about the disposable coffee cup, the commute by car for an hour by yourself, the printer when there is the cloud, and any number of commonplace actions that all have an environmental cost.

If we think we question. The answer might be that coffee is an essential that should not be passed over and, anyway, it was fair trade coffee that spread the love across the world. All right, the thought at least triggered a logic flow.

Do this many times and the logic starts to accumulate.

Gather enough logic thoughts and, before long, the futility of so many of our individual and collective decisions will become obvious.

Do not underestimate the force of this process. Awareness is not a step, it is a leap. It can empower just as strongly as any collective action because it changes individuals where it matters. In their value set. In the way they perceive themselves and the world they live in. In what they believe in.

There is no doubt that environmental issues are the aggregation of all our common actions. A world with over a billion wealthy people, and another three billion more hot on their heels, will strain the limits of natural resources and global resilience. And changing the light bulbs is never going to be enough.

If we think local we become more aware. We start to realise the extent of the challenge and only then does act global make any sense at all.