The shovel leaning workshop

The shovel leaning workshop

Photo by Stephen Philpott on Unsplash

Driving along a freeway the other day I passed some roadworks dutifully slowing down to the snails pace speed limit. By the side of the road was an excellent example of standing around. 

A worker was leaning up against a vehicle and it was clear that he’d been leaning for some time. He readjusted his ass and then sort of went back into an expert level hanging around position. 

It was quite remarkable.

My buddy Chris suggested this guy had certainly completed the ‘Hanging Around Workshop’ with a special session on shovel leaning, perhaps even the ‘Advanced No Shoveling’ diploma.

Chris then lamented the challenge he has as a small business owner to find folk who work at his pace. “If I could do all this work myself I would. You know I do twice as much work as anyone else.”

I’m good with slow if that is the best that a person can do. Slow and steady can win the race. If a person is steady and consistent then that is enough, unless they are on a checkout of course.

The shovel leaning is not the same. It’s avoidance of the work that needs done. Training done for that purpose.

I get it. 

Some work is tedious and any opportunity to take a break and have a yarn is taken whenever offered.

Some work is just physically demanding. It is not possible to shovel all day every day.

But some work just has to be done, ideally in the shortest time possible. Most workers could get their week’s work done in three normal length days.

There is a thing. Why not move to a three day week.

We would all be happier with the extra time off, the work would still get done and a heap of time would be saved on the shovel courses.

Except that we might not be happier even if the salary stayed the same. 

Much of that shovel leaning is to pass the time more pleasantly than the options offered back in the family home where there are noisy kids, chores and an irritable spouse. A guaranteed reason why many women find solace in the workplace.

Lockdown has produced the prospect of an epidemic of mental health issues in part due to restricted shovel leaning.

I always feel guilty when my own version of standing around, too many meaningless Youtube videos, and I’m back writing or reading some science publication before too long. However, retirement has been suggested. 

If I am to achieve that I will need to enroll in a few workshops.

Have a great day and a good lean.  


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Beating that feeling of inadequacy

Beating that feeling of inadequacy

Photo by Luismi Sánchez on Unsplash

We all have triggers, emotional buttons that people can push to set us off. 

Many relate to nasties locked away in our closet that we don’t want anyone to see. But something said or done eases open the door with a creek and lets out the monsters. Those nasty gremlins that play with our emotional balance and throw us off, sometimes into the abyss. 

One of my buttons is incompetence. 

Whenever I come across it I cringe and my equivalent of road rage takes over. I become angry and depressed at the same time. The older I get, even modest incompetence pulls the trigger. And when it’s really bad, I seem to come over in a massive funk that affects me for several days.

I have long been curious to know what relic in my past was setting off this frustration at people unable to do their job properly. 

An anecdote from my backstory might shed some light.

Hartlepool

When I was 10 years old my parents moved the family to the north of England from south London. The coastal town of Hartlepool famous for, well, famous for being a coastal town where they used to build ships.

I had to quickly learn a new dialect and a new accent so as not to sound like a complete southern ponce, a handy skill as it turned out. 

Young enough to still be in primary school, I was enrolled in the little brother of the local grammar school. I have no idea how my parents managed to get me in there. Probably their status as local preachers had something to do with it. The old firm clubbing together. 

At the time there was an exam that all 11-year-old schoolkids in England sat to decide whether they went to the posh grammar schools or the dodgy comprehensives. I took this ‘Eleven plus exam’ and, much to my astonishment, I passed and ended up at the grammar school proper. 

My feelings at the time were incompetence and inadequacy digging their heels in while surprise tried to lighten the mood. Passing an examination that, in my mind at least, I had no hope of getting through was a shock that I never really got over. I reconciled it as… inadequate I may be but I got through anyway

As it was, I remember very little about that grammar school other than that I couldn’t play rugby. After one outing I would never consider that crazy game again. Soccer, the pastime of the hooligan comprehensive set, was my thing. 

Within a year my parents were off again, back down south where I had to start all over again. This time at an even posher grammar school a short step down from the paid private schools.

I was instantly bottom of the class but it turns out that being bottom of those chosen to be at the top pulled up my academic socks. What it didn’t do was give me any confidence. That only happened when, again by some miracle of the universe, I made it to university.

Inadequacy begins at home

After many years of reflecting on childhood experiences, as you do, I figured my sense of inadequacy, and its related incompetence trigger, was inherited from my parent’s attitude to life. 

At home there was never enough money and whatever there was had to stretch to cover all contingencies. My parents did remarkably well. Whilst we never went to restaurants or cafes or own a car and some of the smaller things in life were hard to come by, there was always food on the table and uniforms to wear to school and all the elements to make it look normal. 

What wasn’t quite so normal was the lack of confidence in the household. A giving to religion sucked up all the energy in the room, all day every day. The church took control over our lives and made all the major decisions. The lord provided and took any sense of self in return. 

And for me, that translated to feelings of inadequacy in myself but also in my folks. It became a trigger that persists to this day nearly 50 years on. When I see people performing poorly I rail at myself while smiling politely. Later I will fall into a funk brim full of cynicism and negativity.

I’ve often thought of how to come out of such a malaise, I mean people are people. The world over there are folk who are good, and not so good at what they do. It’s a law of nature – the raw material that allows diversity to exist. Without variety, there’d be nothing to choose from in the next generation. And I think that’s part of the story too. This idea that everyone needs to be good at something to persist into the next generation, to deliver on their genetic promise.  

Even though I can accept the logic of averages, when I see people who are not very good at something or bluster their way through without the skills and all they are is below average, I’m disconcerted. 

Often it’s not that they’re poor at a task or lack certain skills. I think it’s the realisation that so many know that they’re not so good but have no desire to get better. 

Beating inadequacy

My response to childhood feelings of inadequacy was to become self-sufficient. 

I learned to knuckle down and do what I could and worked at that self sufficiency by doing what was in my control. 

This resulted in a narrow zone of confidence and a certain naivety about how the world really works but I felt adequate some of the time. As it turned out the academic sphere likes this kind of narrow focus and I carved a career in science despite being bottom of the class for all those years. 

Even now I have to remind myself that I am good enough. I can do a lot of things and I just have to choose well among the many things that interest me. Those that are appropriate to be doing at the time. And focus on those and be comfortable. 

It doesn’t stop the triggers. 

Rationalization cannot protect against an innate emotional response. It also doesn’t make ineptitude a good thing or even an acceptable response. We should all be striving to be the best we possibly can be. 

We won’t all be tall poppies. But if everyone is striving to grow, the true tall poppies would be even better than they are now. 

In these ever more complex and challenging times, humanity must tap into its skill base to extend itself. And that means individuals not accepting inadequacy and not accepting incompetence, but promoting quality, wherever we can find it.

Maybe this is the best way to beat inadequacy, to embrace the best, grow the tall poppies and try to catch up with them. 


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

Does it matter if online information is true or false?

Does it matter if online information is true or false?

Photo by Josh Marshall on Unsplash

Nowt as queer as folk

This north of England expression, although probably also Welsh, is said to emphasize that people sometimes behave in a very strange way. 

No kidding. 

We were bonkers before lockdown and now, well, just check out all the fails on Youtube. 

Yes ma’am, there is a battery in the car, not just the one in the key fob’.

Our blissful ignorance is so complete that it is a miracle that we figured out how to make a car in the first place.

Thanks in large part to this capacity to be ignorant, there is another famous quote first attributed to Mark Twain in his 1897 travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” where in chapter 15 he writes 

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. 

However, in 1823 Lord Byron published several cantos of his epic satirical poem “Don Juan” wherein the one-hundredth stanza of canto 14 included the lines 

‘Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange,

Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,

How much would novels gain by the exchange!

How differently the world would men behold!

So we have known for a long time that people are the source of much craziness, more even than can be conjured in the imagination of great writers of fiction.

And nothing has changed. 

We are as mad today as ever and it looks worse for our attention span is that of a gnat. 

We are only interested in the bizarre or peculiar or some poor bugger falling off his skateboard onto his gonads. 

Then, of course, we believe everything we hear or see, especially online. 

Our common sense left the building with Elvis and no matter how unlikely the scene it must be true given that truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.

Does it matter? 

If we are entertained and no animals were harmed in the making of the film, then presumably it doesn’t matter. 

We can be entertained by fact or fiction in equal measure. The important thing is that we enjoy it so that we click the like button. 

Of course, if there is contention or opinion involved then we are in, for human beings are addicted to drama. Just a brief look into any family will tell you that. And we are much more likely to want to argue with each other than we are to agree. Just for the pleasure of something to argue about. 

This requirement for entertainment and drama has fuelled a whole industry that in its modern form is open to anyone with a smartphone and some botox or the aforementioned skateboard. 

Ask an evolutionary biologist about this phenomenon and she would say…

“Sure, makes perfect sense. We are designed to notice the unusual because that gave us an advantage in finding food and water. Our curiosity also helped us develop smart ideas and solutions to no end of problems back before agriculture. Youtube is an obvious extension of that instinct”

Ok then, that is interesting. 

It means it is instinct to like boat ramp fails and crazy Russians overtaking at 120 kph on an ice-bound road.

It is also ok if the clip is true or made up? I’m still just following instinct.

“Well yes,” says the biologist, “only along with the curiosity and eye for the unusual goes the ability to test. No point in picking out a purple fruit if it is going to give you stomach cramps. We added the ability to understand if unusual was useful. We learned how to understand if what we had seen was of any use to us.” 

Ah, so the unusual is put into context. That makes sense. 

Presumably, the truth matters now in order to establish the context. What might start off as amusing because it was different or odd becomes the subject of investigation in case there is something in it for us, an opportunity perhaps. 

If the truth is that there is nothing, it is actually just an idiot on a skateboard with more bravado than skill, then the laugh is enough. No problem, move on with a chuckle.

Russians killing themselves and innocents is more serious, especially if you live there.

Our biologist again. 

“What should happen is that we make an instinctive call as to how much attention to pay and when to engage in finding out more. We learn when to let curiosity be added to what we already know to explore the odd coloured fruit. There is a knowledge base we tap into and add to that keeps us safe.”

This seeking knowledge is critical. 

Around the world, people have lost sight of what actually made us humans in the first place, this ability to understand unusual things and put them into context. 

Current knowledge per individual is remarkably weak. 

Most people seem completely unaware of the realities of how life works. What delivers things to their doorstep how it comes about and the consequences of decisions that they make. 

Disengagement with the truth of matters is a problem. But not the only one .

Growing inabilities 

Inability to discern truth from fact. 

Inability to pay attention to anything other than what will fuel our need for drama or amusement. 

Inability to stay with something that requires more than 15 seconds of attention. 

Inability to give something some serious thought. 

It is time to do something about these inabilities because they play into the hands of people wanting authoritarian power rather than anything to do with our best interest. This is where the truth matters. When the democratic process is undermined. 

We still need to eat the odd coloured fruit and celebrate the wonderful weirdness of folk. 


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No progress without persuasion

No progress without persuasion

Photo by cloudvisual on Unsplash

There is no progress without persuasion, and there is no progress without active listening followed by compromise.

Katharine Murphy, Guardian columnist

How should I persuade you? 

I could present a powerful argument based on facts and evidence in a way that you understand, whether that be through words or mathematics or graphical presentations, perhaps even an animated video. 

I can talk to you once, twice, five times about this topic presenting more and more facts each time, gently persuading you that the evidence is in favour of my argument.

Alternatively, I could lie. 

I could present my argument in the same way through words or mathematics or various engaging graphics that are completely fabricated or bent a little to fit my purpose. I could fib or lie through my teeth and still persuade you that my argument was sound. 

Sometimes we call this ‘spin’.

You, on the other hand, listen to my material and decide if I am serious, that I am worthy or just another snake-oil salesman. 

This requires active listening because chances are something I said didn’t sound right. The hint of a porker requires that you understand when I am being truthful, pulling together evidence that exists, and where I’m fabricating everything for my advantage. 

The onus of the persuasion is on me. 

The onus of listening and whether or not you can be persuaded rests entirely on your shoulders.

Healthy scepticism

If you are well-versed in the fine arts of scepticism, then my job will be tough. 

Unless I have powerful evidence and excellent communication skills I could fall short. Any falsehoods and half-truths will be sniffed out and undermine all my efforts. 

Even if I am convincing, you may not accept my argument. 

Perhaps you have access to additional facts or an alternative interpretation that you believe fits the facts more precisely.

I may need to persuade more forcefully with my ninja-level spin. You will smile and tell me to take a hike.

Katharine Murphy’s quote embodies these two features of human interaction. Persuasion on behalf of the person interested in getting their opinion across and scepticism through active listening on the part of the recipient of the information. What Murphy calls progress is when those two things come together.

It seems that humans need advocacy as much as they need scepticism. The balance between the two has kept us more or less honest for centuries.

In modern times, however, persuasion has grown in power even without evidence. 

All of us are accessible via any number of communication tools plus we remain vulnerable to emotional tugs and attention spans are short. Few have the time to pay all that much attention. Skilled persuaders can hoodwink and dupe easily because most people do not actively listen. 

And when we do listen, many of us don’t have the skills to unpack the truth from the fiction, often believing in the character played by the actor and not the actor. Our scepticism skills fail us.

Persuasion is not progress

It is also true that the fine art of spin is in our DNA. 

I can hear the first farmers peddling their bushels of ancient grains in the market place with claims of how their crop will store much better through the winter because of its lighter colour. 

The modern version began in earnest in the 1950s with the arrival of advertising. Persuasion to purchase has been honed over the decades into something that is almost unassailable. 

Fruit loops are good for you because they have fruit flavour.

But persuasion is not progress.

Scepticism is necessary

Scepticism appears throughout the history of philosophy as the thinker who decides that what he’s hearing is not actually how the universe operates.  

A sceptic is not afraid of sacred cows or conventional wisdom but is always asking if the opinion presented fits the facts and looks for alternative views of the world that are more consistent with the evidence. 

The sceptic can focus on the facts and place them into context. This is both a skill and a task. 

Making decisions through a sceptical view of the evidence presented through persuasion is powerful. When the sceptic listens the evidence must be strong enough to both convince and not get corrupted by spin. 

Compromise in this way will be as close to evidence-based decision support as we are going to get. 

Progress through compromise 

That progress comes from a compromise between persuasion and scepticism is an exciting idea. It is the pointy end of how evidence is used in society, where decisions are made. 

It means that spin can be taken a little more seriously for what it hides than what it intends. 

Suppose I want you to eat more sugar because I am growing it in abundance and the market price is tanking eating into my profits. You are sceptical because the evidence points to refined sugar as a major cause of obesity and related health issues. 

You are forced to look closely at the medical evidence to evaluate my persuasive spin and reveal my motives.

The compromise is that you vote for the progressive party that will pay my ecosystem service payments to transition my production from sugar to regenerative agriculture with multiple crops.

In other words, spin can be useful. It can help the listener know when to be sceptical and when to gather or evaluate evidence.

It is not at all bad.


Reposting is fine by me.

A baseline in Africa

A baseline in Africa

Lions, Chobe – Alloporus

There are times when you find yourself reminiscing about the old days. 

It is a natural response to age and probably quite a healthy pastime so long as it doesn’t wander off into regret. 

I used to remember my time in Africa almost every day. 

The smells, sights and sounds of the savanna are indelible, you cannot forget them even when they are in the distant past. 

A little musty scent, with a hint of acrid talc in the nostrils. 

Chirp, babbles, and, if you are lucky, a morning boom in the ears from a hornbill the size of a turkey. 

From these feelings, the memory lands on specific events such as when I laid down on my belly next to a python because I was naive enough to think it would not strike or when I looked up into a leadwood tree to see a Wahlberg’s eagle with a genet dangling from its talons or the idle chit chat on the banks of a shallow pool rudely interrupted buy the hippo that almost leapt from the water with a white water wake worthy of any man-made craft.

Ah yes, those were the days. 

Wonderful experiences fondly remembered as privileges, blessings even, that I am happy to have as times in the past that fill my soul with gratitude. 

I do not remember these things every day now. 

Just occasionally when triggered by an image, a conversation, or when there is the smell of dryness in the morning air.

Recently I was required to go to the bush here in Australia and wander around farmers paddocks to eyeball patches of remnant vegetation. Instead of inspiring, I rather dreaded it. It has been a while since the scruffy jeans, long-sleeved shirts and robust boots have appeared from storage under the house. They needed a wash to remove the smell of underemployment. 

There was a time, of course, when an ecologist would be in the field as often as was humanly possible, quadrat and data sheet in hand, compass in the back pocket, and revelling in the rugged look that is only possible after several days without showering. 

But not any more. For some reason, not entirely obvious, it doesn’t happen much these days. I don’t get out and about into the wilds at all.

Why is that? 

What changed that stopped me from seeking out natures wonder? There are no real obstacles. I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW within spitting distance of some of the best bushwalks in Australia. I still make my living advising on environmental matters that presents any number of opportunities to spend time outside. But I prefer to stay at home. The nearest thing to nature I get is my regular walks down the first fairway.

The recent trip was sanitised of course. Room and board in between the gentle site visits arriving in an air-conditioned vehicle with no time for the fine dust to adhere its protective qualities onto any exposed skin.  

There were no clipboards or quadrats or data of any sort. Just some ramblings from local experts. Most of the time I was clicking my heels or wandering off to find some bugs to admire.

My enthusiasm level was chronic.

Was I suffering from shifting baseline syndrome?

Shifting baseline syndrome

In psychology, SBS is where each generation grows up being accustomed to the way their environment looks and feels, and thus, in a system experiencing progressive impoverishment, they do not recognize how degraded it has become over the course of previous generations.

SBS occurs when conditions of the natural environment gradually degrade over time, yet people (e.g., local citizens, natural resource users and policy makers) falsely perceive less change because they do not know, or fail to recall accurately, how the natural environment was in the past.

Now I have limited recollection of a past for Australia as I have been here for 25 years, a short period relative to the rates of environmental change. 

But I do recall Africa, often in vivid detail. And I am subtky tempted to make comparisons that shift my baseline.

Causes of shifting baseline syndrome

SBS results from three major causes

  1. lack of data on the natural environment
  2. loss of interaction
  3. loss of familiarity with the natural environment

Well, I am not short of data given that I play with environmental evidence for a living.

I have lost interaction. In Australia, my passion for the bush has been a fraction of what I had in Africa not helped by fires, heat, and floods. Somehow lions, hippos and donkeys on the road seemed far less of a threat.

Mostly, I am not familiar with the environment. I don’t know very much about it.

This sounds strange even as I write for I do know more than average but I don’t feel that I have ever known enough about this strange land.

Alternate baseline

My baseline is Africa.

Everything is compared to it. 

Sights, sounds, smells… presence. It’s all based on what I felt for a decade starting in my mid-20’s.

Physically I moved on and with time I accepted that those heady days would not be repeated but there is a powerful legacy, an incomparable baseline that cannot be restored.  


Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

Historians are worried about democracy

Historians are worried about democracy

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

It is easy to forget that democracy is not a common way of doing things. 

At the end of 2020 when US citizens queued up at polling booths in record numbers, I was reminded that the right to vote is very recent in historical times. Women in the US, for example, had no such rights until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919. 

The US had seen 29 of its 45 Presidents before this vital change.

Historically, most societies were run by authoritarian regimes of one sort or another that limited personal freedoms. Democracy, that so many of us take for granted, is actually a mid to late 20th-century phenomenon and by no means universal. 

Here is one metric of democracy over time, the Polity scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy).

number of democratic counties over time

By Ultramarine at en.wikipedia – Own workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

In short, democracy has risen exponentially since the 1800s.

Remarkable as this trend is, many historians know how fragile democracy might be in a modern world.

Democracy is fragile

The dangers to democracy have been around for some time, think how close Donald Trump came to shattering it in the US, and the warning signs, the historians argue, are 

  • the spread of misinformation 
  • inequality 
  • the politics of internal enemies and 
  • politically motivated violence. 

Misinformation

The spread of misinformation is just about everywhere. 

Anybody with a smartphone can record a video on any topic, put it up on Tick-Toc and before you know it, can be peddling all sorts of information that they claim is the truth about anything. All with little or no justification. 

Traditional media, driven by the requirement for clicks, do a similar thing. Jumping on whatever they believe will keep their audience interested and not very much to do with whether or not the information is correct or truthful.

We now know that misinformation is a powerful political weapon and despite the impeachment of a president is hard to diffuse.

Instant access and weak filtering by consumers mean that truth from fiction will be forever contentious. 

We are stuck with it. 

Inequality

Inequality has always been a challenge for society. 

Those in power need to keep those not in power happy for as long as possible and yet at the same time not allow them to become too wealthy such that they might gain power themselves. 

Think subjugation of women over the centuries or the hereditary titles of the aristocracy. 

Can’t have any Tom or Dick getting their grubby mitts on the estate.

At the same time, power and capital will get things done. Most of the global development that delivers wealth and wellbeing to so many people came about because money was concentrated in risk takers.

It is a delicate balance. 

In the old days, the sword was the tool of suppression and to wield it required some noble heritage, a few loyal knights, and gold coins to buy your way into power. Now the same thing happens for those with bitcoin.

However, once sufficiently downtrodden, the masses have little left to lose. Emboldened they rise up and take away your power. 

Currently, the world is in a situation where a handful of people own vast amounts of wealth. And the majority own next to nothing in comparison. This whole idea of inequity is not just within jurisdictions, but also across the world. 

It is incredulous that Forbes lists the richest 400 Americans as owning more than $3.2 trillion in assets and then sobering to know that four billion people live on less than six dollars a day.

That is a wickedly large majority, severely downtrodden.

If this is what democracy delivers it is setting itself up to collapse.

Internal enemies

The machinations of internal enemies are the basics of modern politics. Long gone are adult conversations about policy or what is in the best interests of the electorate. 

In Australia, for example, voters have experienced the removal of multiple sitting prime ministers by their parliamentary colleagues, their own party members, who’ve decided for one reason or another that they’ve had enough and push a spill in the leadership. 

It is one thing to have an eye on the electorate that must decide on your future every four years. It is quite another to watch you back for daggers from your colleagues every four minutes. 

Debate and deliberation followed by legitimate choice in the polling booth seems like ancient history.

Violence

Politically motivated violence is clearly the most insidious of the dangers. 

America stared at violence as it stormed its castle of democracy. Now they must worry about their hugely divided country when every man and his dog has access to firearms. 

Then there is the prominence of extremist groups both on the left and the right who gain more noise than they deserve. Through the various media channels and instant access to video footage of whatever event they care to perpetrate. 

A lot hangs in the balance.

The good news

Precarious as democracy may be, the growth in the number of democracies since WW2 is still exponential. People seem to like it.

Things that are liked are hard to give up and are not easily taken. Expect resistance to anyone that tries.

I know that is what they said in Germany and Italy back then and it failed. But this time around we will be better, more vigilant and prepared.

I hope.


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Can humanity persist for another 100 years?

Can humanity persist for another 100 years?

Why not? 

A century is not that long a time in the grand scheme of things. All we need to do is stay sane, not throw rocks, and grow enough food without using up all the freshwater. 

Should be easy enough, we have been around a while after all.

Homo sapiens, modern humans, have survived as a species for a long time. The most quoted scientifically based origin is 300,000 years ago in Africa amongst a number of other Hominid species. 

Here is what the Smithsonian says

The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa. Like other early humans that were living at this time, they gathered and hunted food, and evolved behaviours that helped them respond to the challenges of survival in unstable environments.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The average ‘lifespan’ of a mammal species – origination to extinction – is estimated from the fossil record, genetic evidence and rates of extinction to be about 1 million years, although some species persist for as long as 10 million years. If H. sapiens are an average mammal species then we have 700,000+ years left in us. 

Given our current ‘age’ and these lifespan estimates, the likelihood seems pretty high that we can persist for another 100 years, a minuscule proportion of these timeframes.

However, putting aside the rock-throwing and sanity of the leadership, in order to persist there must be enough food.

Our present complement of 7.7 billion souls each consumes a global average of  2,884 calories per day, give or take, to maintain weight and health assuming that along with the calories comes a balance of nutrients and food types. This is a gigantic amount of food consumed each and every day.

Roughly 22 trillion kcals

Obviously, we have engineered efficient food production systems to meet this demand otherwise there would not be 7.7 billion people and rising in the first place.   

Whilst famine and malnutrition are still prevalent, from a production perspective they are unnecessary. Most of the analysis and modelling suggest enough calories are grown. However, food is unevenly distributed, a great deal of production is wasted, and in many western cultures, people consume far more food than is healthy for the average citizen.  

Then along comes a quote from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that went around the media. Here is how it was headlined in the sustainability section of the Scientific American, an erudite and respected science journal 

Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues

Generating three centimetres of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said

Scientific American December 5, 2014

The warning was harsh. No doubt designed to shock with numbers that should send shivers up the spines of the young. The quote goes on…

Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.

60 harvests left

In other words, to maintain food production per person equivalent to that in 1960 production per hectare would need to quadruple by 2050.

60 harvests left around many parts of the world, a lifetime of harvests, is a great headline. I’m ok then but if there are no harvests after that lifetime, then what are your grandchildren going to eat? Shocking and personal, a copywriters dream.

The degradation is true. Both intensive and shifting agriculture struggle to be gentle on soils.  It is easy for farmers to either mine nutrients or slip into input-output production systems. However, food production from soil is not static or uniform. There is innovation everywhere and not all soil is being degraded or eroded at the same rate. 

Some systems in regenerative agriculture are able to reverse the degradation trends with soil carbon accumulation and more efficient on-farm nutrient cycling.

Soil degradation is a huge problem but to say we have on 60 harvest left is fodder for the doomscroller, a headline fantasy and has been called as such

The soil scientists don’t believe it, mostly because such a number is very hard to calculate with any certainty. There are too many factors at play.

It also fails the pub test. A few sips of Theakston’s Old Peculiar and it is clear that not all farms will fail in little Jaden’s lifetime. Many farms are thousands of years old what makes the next 60 years so special?

Alright, we are down from the hyperbole. So will we persist beyond the next 100 years?

Well yes, but we will have to look after soil much better than we do at present. And this was probably the FAO message, they just got a bit carried away.

Fortunately, we already know how to do this. Combinations of the following can slow or reverse soil degradation: 

  • maintaining groundcover
  • minimum tillage
  • production diversity
  • careful use of livestock
  • irrigation practices
  • crop rotations
  • rest 

These are a few of the many options. 

It is important that degradation does not reach points of no return where rehabilitation or restoration becomes too difficult given the local conditions. The FAO would call this desertification but it can also be salination or other forms of soil degradation. 

The FAO were guilty of hyperbole but that’s all. 

What is true is this.

Outside the people and the politics, soils hold the answer to whether humanity can persist for another 100 years. 

Only this is not a headline in any way and who wants to agree with it anyway.

Humans are all powerful after all.


Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to…

Do we stop learning when we leave school?

Do we stop learning when we leave school?

bantersnaps on Unsplash

Do we stop learning when we leave school? 

Of course not. 

True learning only starts after graduation. It’s then that the real world smacks us in the face and we have to engage our street smarts and tough skins to survive and prosper. The formal learning might stop when the cap is thrown in the air, then our life learning begins in earnest. 

And where do we get that learning from? 

Sources of everyday learning

Our parents have already done their best to impart wisdom through our teenage tantrums and our grunts as the highest form of communication. Now they just want us out the door.

We can ask Google or Siri any number of questions. This gets us realistic answers as factoids and snippets of detail that we don’t otherwise know. This works so long as you ask the robots the right questions.

Then there are the online feeds with factual content indistinguishable from the advertisements and opinion of the bullshit artists. 

Most of us still browse a news media site or maybe still watch the news on the TV. Only these outlets are companies for the most part with no obligation to educate us in the things that are important. They decide what is printed, what is investigated, what is picked up from the distributors to fill the column inches. Their bean counters have only the company’s bottom line on their minds. They think of their audience in ratings and do not ask if they should be providing their customers with a service – eyeballs and clicks are all that matter. 

Hold on though, around the world, there are publicly funded and state-run media. Some of those outlets have more latitude to publish content that is educational. And for the most part they do, along with a set of government-sanctioned messages. 

My experience here in Australia is that the public services must increasingly chase that elusive viewer or else lose more of their funding. 

Then there are all those little videos presented by Joe and Jill public. Some are great and some are awful. They all rely on our judgement to decide if they give us any life lessons or wisdom. Remember that the Tic Tocers and Instagrammers are after clicks too.

Alright so we keep learning and the sources of material for us to consume are endless and require us to be vigilant.

Does everyday knowledge matter?  

Are the topics that enter the conversation via the media the most important to humanity?

Here is one answer.

But the horse race that matters most is humanity’s collective race to defuse the climate emergency. What’s ultimately being decided in these elections is nothing less than whether all of us are going to have a livable planet 20 years from now and beyond. If the press is most comfortable chasing fires and sending reporters into disaster zones, so be it. But newsrooms should know: the disaster is here. It is raging now. Our job is to cover it with the urgency it deserves.

Mark Hertsgaard, Executive Director, Covering Climate Now.

Climate advocates push that agenda of course and they are right to provoke crisis thinking around this problem. It is a huge deal. As I edit this post Sydney is in the middle of a five-day rain deluge breaking rainfall records only a year out from drought and horrendous bushfires. 

The climate change that we’re experiencing is easily sufficient to cause the next mass extinction, particularly as the effects are accelerated by human land use. 

Recall that four of the five previous mass extinction events were climate-related. The dramatic changes across the planet will affect every single one of us. Not talking about climate change is a criminal omission. 

But this is an advocate talking. Why pay attention to climate over other critical issues? If the climate gets the lion’s share of our eyeballs and worry, what about soil, food security, population, sustainability, not to mention pandemics (yes, there will be more than one)? The list of acute issues is a long one.

This begs the broader question of what is essential learning? And, of course, who decides what is important for us to know. 

Knowable knowledge 

The body of human knowledge is so vast now that no one person can be across all of it. Even a slither is challenging.

In my own discipline of ecology, the number of scientific journals and articles published each year has risen exponentially over the last decades. And since I was a postgraduate student, when it seemed possible to get your head around most of the concepts and the literature that described those concepts, nowadays, it seems impossible to even read the systematic reviews. 

Recently we completed our own version of an evidence review on the wild dog problem in New South Wales. This is dogs that are feral domestic dogs often mixed with dingoes into various levels of purity that occasionally predate livestock in the rural areas. 

Farmers respond to livestock losses negatively as you can imagine. Nobody who grows animals wants to see those animals killed or maimed even in small numbers. 

The literature on the dogs though is quite extensive. A Google scholar search on ‘wild dog Australia’ generates 23 research papers with these words in the title and over a hundred related to the topic since 2017. Keeping up with all of this information in its raw form is difficult. 

The media has an important role to play in presenting information in an objective way, synthesized into bite-sized chunks. What it seems to be doing though is sensationalizing everything in order to get eyeballs. 

I believe the media should be telling us about a whole bunch of issues that currently don’t even get any airplay at all. 

Particularly the crisis in the soils. The requirement to grow food and increase production at 2% for 30 years. The notion of the demographic transition, that humanity will peak at a large number of people. And we’ll have to feed that large number for a long period of time before that declines through natural attrition. 

But this is not news in the true sense. It is predictions of the future and news agencies are very wary of such things. The last thing they want is to be shown to get the future wrong, they will say their job is to report the present. They shy away from anything futuristic. 

What about the immediate consequences of longer-term stories? What about the aging farmers or the increased rates of suicides amongst farmers? The debt to equity ratios in rural communities or the number of rural properties operating as businesses that are just not profitable, never have been, never can be. What about the properties that are heading in that direction that were once viable and are now becoming unproductive? 

What about the fact that wild dogs are not really a pest at all? In terms of an economic impact, in the aggregate they are benign. 

What do we know?

I suspect that our desire to learn is a string as ever but I worry we are learning the wrong things and are ignorant of what’s going on in the world around us. We hide in our social feeds that are designed to deliver content that we like. And the youngsters who are trying to live on the edge of their comfort zones are really looking for that early life excitement more than education. 

The thing is when you get to a certain age you realize that education is actually fundamental to what you’ve just been through. And that if you’ve been successful most likely you have gathered about yourself the equivalent of education in various forms even f most of them are informal. 

Then you realize that you should have been doing that purposefully from the beginning. 

And education is not about certificates and grades or being the valedictorian. It is all about building your own capacity, your own level of understanding about yourself and how the world around you works. 

And how you can chart a better course for yourself as part of humanity.


Reposting is fine by me

Can your manager read faces?

Can your manager read faces?

Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

I recently completed a mesquite emotional intelligence test. 

This sort of thing happens periodically in the business world. Executives decide that the company needs better management of staff and seeks to upskill it’s managers, usually with limited success. This trend has leaked across into the bureaucracy. Notorious for its dreadful management capabilities and leadership vacuums, the civil service is hoping to fix some of these problems by getting managers to understand their emotional insides. 

So I completed the test. 

Later, I had a fascinating hour-long debrief with the lady from the consulting firm conducting the process. 

Turns out I’m skilled in the area of emotional intelligence, which is encouraging I suppose. Gives the old ego a massage and a feel-good factor for not being a complete dope when it comes to feelings. 

We proceeded to have an interesting conversation about what emotional intelligence brings to the workplace. She soon figured that I needed a bit of emotional uplift and was very complimentary about many of the scores on my test. 

However, one area with a poor score was recognizing emotions in people’s faces. 

The test results decided I wasn’t skilled at finding the tell that flashes across people’s faces before they put on their mask. The signal that people can’t hide before they say, “oh yes, I’m all very fine, thank you” and smile at you. 

The little dip in the eyebrow or the clenching across the mouth indicating that they’re actually either in pain or some form of distress. All those little tells that are the stuff of spy dramas and whodunit mysteries. 

The suggestion was that I might want to improve my skills in this area. Wouldn’t it be great if I could pick a colleague’s emotional state from their facial responses? 

I jumped into my ego and said, “Well actually, I use body language, tone of voice and other information sources not just looking at people’s faces.” 

Yes,  such additional information was conceded as giving up more than the fleeting glance. But I should still get better at face reading. 

The rationale given for improving my skills in facial tells was not to understand people’s emotions better, but so that I could manage those emotions. Now, the word manipulation was never actually said but the notion of managing somebody’s emotions I found disturbing. 

In my world, your emotions are yours, my emotions are mine, and whilst they sometimes clash when triggered, what you feel and how you feel is entirely yours and your responsibility to manage, or not as the case may be. 

I pulled the lady up on her assumption that managers should manage the emotions of their staff with the alternate that I wasn’t interested in managing people’s emotions because that was their responsibility. And whilst I understood that emotions in the workplace might need tweaking to get the best possible outcome for the team, it should be a personal thing, not one for the manager. I was really keen to let her know that I didn’t like the manipulation idea. 

My hunch is I haven’t chosen to actively improve my face reading skills over the years because I don’t want to engage at that level of detail in people’s emotional selves. 

The return argument was this. 

“Well, okay, that’s fair enough, but it’s also always useful to have much more information about how people are feeling in order to be better informed yourself about their state. It helps you with empathy, helps you with understanding and a chance to be kind and thoughtful towards those people. Doesn’t always have to be about manipulating them for a particular end.”

 Fair comment. 

But then she spoilt it by going on to quote the following rationale. Apparently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says emotional intelligence is an important skill that senior managers need to have in order to be successful. 

It’s almost as though because it was the OECD that said it, it must be true. 

So obviously, I jumped on that one. 

With a howitzer, I said, “Why would I listen to the OECD? Why would I be listening to the neoliberal capitalist model that has got us into this mess in the first place? The reason why people are putting on their happy face when in fact inside they’re all chewed up.”

That didn’t go down so well. 

What I found interesting was that this person who was clearly an expert in emotional intelligence had taken on, hook, line, and sinker, that commerce is great. That we should be understanding emotions for the bottom line when for everyone there are many, often more important reasons. 

Emotional intelligence matters to people. It improves our relationships, our intimacy with others, our ability to form strong and meaningful bonds. It gives us the ability to have well-being both inside and outside the trappings of modern life. 

I don’t think the lady got what I was saying and there wasn’t enough time to fully explain. 

Maybe she went away and realised that she was subconsciously peddling a message that she might not even have believed in herself. And this is what we do all the time. We take on board messages subconsciously and we run with them. Often without realizing that we’re doing it even when the topic of the exercise is our inner selves and our emotions. 

I’d like to think that we could move on from these primitive fundamentals. We can take the chance offered by a pandemic to reset some of these core agendas of managers taking control of our emotions and that the OECD must be right as examples of modernity. At the very least to question them and try to decide if they’re actually what we want. 

I think it’s happening. Some people are having conversations to decide what the options might be. And it’s a hugely challenging area. It’s never going to be easy to move the juggernaut that is modern economics in a different direction or even dismantle some of it and put it back together in a different shape and size. 

Anything requiring a transition on that scale is likely to cause an enormous amount of grief and upset. But we have to recognize that the current model is flawed. It’s not supporting all of the people all the time the discrepancy between the rich and the poor is growing. 

In crises like COVID it’s the vulnerable elements of society that are impacted. The poor, the old, the unfit. Groups that occur across the whole of society. 

So I’ve decided that I will have a look at that weaker skill of mine. Maybe learn more about how to look at people’s faces more precisely and try to understand what they’re thinking. There’s plenty of opportunities, particularly in the days of Zoom calls where you can actually stare at people for quite some time without them even realizing it’s happening. 

And we’ll see if that improves my understanding of how the world works and whether it raises empathy or whether it just makes me more annoyed about how people are not able to control their emotions. 

I’ll get back to you on this one.


Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

A different message from Sir David

A different message from Sir David

Sir David Attenborough has made another wildlife documentary. No surprise there, the legend has made dozens of them over his long and distinguished career.

What is different about this one is summed up in his final sentence

“What happens next is up to every one of us.”

David Attenborough’s, Extinction: The Facts

For the first time, BBC programmers and Sir David decided we were big enough and brave enough to hear the truth of the matter. All the habitat loss, the pollution, the poaching, climate change impacts, expressed as wildfire impacts, and the inevitable species extinctions.

It is all true.

It is happening every day and in Sir David’s lifetime, there has been more than enough time for even the blind to see the consequences of human appropriation of net primary production, the landscape changes and the, well, the consequences of nearly 8 billion of us.

Of course, we do not want to be told, at least that’s what the TV producers decided.

Only against expectations, the viewing numbers in the UK screening were good and got better as the show progressed. It seemed like we were up for the messages after all. Perhaps we are ready for the reality of what we have done.

The interesting part is the last postulate at the end of the show that will no doubt become a classic

What happens next is up to every one of us

Here is what we need to do next

  • Feed an average of 8 billion souls every day for a hundred years – that means around 23 trillion kcals a day for 36,500 days at least.
  • Change the trajectory of our diets so that this calorie and nutrient challenge is achievable
  • Pay attention to soil and learn all we can about how to keep it healthy everywhere
  • Rewild up to a third of the land area and a third of the surface ocean volume to give the remaining global biodiversity a chance to survive, but also to maintain critical ecosystem services
  • Adapt through innovation to inevitable climate change impacts whilst transitioning to carbon-neutral economies
  • Be positive and hear the messages even when they are frightening, then act

And to achieve all of these there is one more thing…

  • Vote for progressive politicians.

I know this last one is the most difficult, for just now politicians with ideas are like hen’s teeth, exceptionally rare and hard to spot. But with necessity, they will appear and will stand out.

You’ll know them instantly.

Best of luck to us all.