Lasts

Lasts

A sailor in the 1600’s was the last human ever to see a dodo, the bird species from Mauritius that filled the bellies of sailors so effectively they were collected to extinction.

The sailor, a ship’s cook perhaps, was blissfully unaware of what he had just done when he dispatched the last dodo ever seen. He was just doing his job. Indeed it was only with considerable hindsight that we can even imagine who he was even though his name will never be known. At the time nobody knew that the last dodo had just been broiled.

On a hot afternoon in the Zambezi valley in 1988, a male black rhino was so frightened and angry with the sides of a mopane pole boma erected to hold him that he bloodied his nose trying to bash them down. Zimbabwe National Parks officers watched at a safe distance doing their job assisting the capture and removal of the animal to a reserve in South Africa as part of a rescue mission to save his kind.

As I felt the brute force of a metric ton of herbivore trying to escape no thought came to me that this could be it. I didn’t think that a greenhorn academic might be one of the last to see such a magnificent creature born, raised and surviving in the wilderness. After all, it looked like it was, captured and caged as though it were already in a zoo. Except that I could have something in common with the ship’s cook of centuries past. I could be the last human to see the last wild black rhinoceros not otherwise manipulated somehow by a human hand, fence or tranquillizer dart. For history will not record it in any more detail than it could for the dodo.

The thing is that on a planet so dominated by one species there is always going to be the last. And lasts will not herald themselves for our attention. They will happen quietly.

During the time it takes you to travel to work there will be at least one last or even two. The global rate of biodiversity loss is estimated at 0.3% per annum means that species are going extinct all the time. A rainforest tree is felled and the last habitat of an unnamed elaterid beetle is gone. The handful of specimens that lived in it is a last that no human noticed.

Taxonomists are not sure but best estimates are that there are 8.7 million species on Earth although most of them have not been described.

The 0.3% rate of loss comes from global analyses of multiple studies that catalogue habitat loss and degradation across all continents and in estimates of change in the world’s oceans.

At this rate and estimated totals the loss is 72 species per day or 3 per hour or roughly one every 20 minutes.

An obvious reaction to a precession of lasts is to prevent them. It should not have to be this way for surely the rhino could be saved from extinction in the wild and the beetle too. Noble thoughts certainly and those worthy individuals taking on the translocations were an embodiment of them. And for a while, it seemed to work. Black rhino numbers increased steadily through to the millennium and for a while afterwards. Even today during a resurgent poaching crisis in Africa black rhino numbers are increasing at around 3% per annum on a global population of 5,000 individuals.

The beetle was not so fortunate. It did not have a rescue plan and became part of the 0.3% of annual biodiversity loss for that year, unrecorded and unseen.

It is nearly 30 years since that rhino bloodied its nose on the sides of the boma. A lot has gone on. There are over 2 billion more people to feed and economically support. Everywhere there is development or poverty with people running around like ants making either happen.

And all the time there are lasts, most of them unseen.

Tube

Tube

In under an hour, an aluminium cylinder rattled through the crisp evening air from Forbes to Sydney even though the path taken was the scenic route across the city. This is customary for Friday evenings that are always replete with similar tubes.

In Forbes the tarmac couldn’t match the sky’s depth and crimson edges or hide its engineering among the fallow fields and winter crops as the tube ran on its own devices and with the tube in a hurry to leave even though control said to wait for a slot at the other end that no amount of strained grunt and propeller speed could allocate sooner.

The air and the darkening blue was big enough to still the haste. So it stood and champed, then left.

Strain before release, pause before a jerk forwards into a rush that should not be possible for such a hunk of metal and for so long that speed gathers up enough lift to do something even more absurd; a tube now higher than the crows running fast over the ground yet still in the vastness.

Then the point is reached quite soon when the whine dips and the bell rings leaving just enough time for darkness to arrive and a descent into a different bigness of orange lights and means for movement of a million people from where they are to where they want or have to be that includes the place where tubes can go to be received and looked after until the next time.

No need for the sky here. The crisscrossing tubes and the glow of the ground suck so much meaning from what is above it that no man can look away from the ground or resist the attempt to capture the scene onto whatever electronic device is at hand.

At one end there is vastness that taunts and at the other, there is interest everywhere from the clutter, chatter and chaos.

And so it is with the human being. A creature fascinated more by lights below than above with unwavering trust in a powered aluminium tube and the need to get back from whence it came.

Go well.

Post revisited – The hip pocket

Post revisited – The hip pocket

At election time jobs, health, education, and security are always at the top of the issues list. They shuffle and compete for airtime but rarely does any other matter oust these four horsemen. In western democracies, where well-being through the delivery of these basics needs correlates with what’s in your hip pocket, the only other major issue is the economy.

None of this is a surprise.

This post from 2010 tried to be optimistic about how the youth might bust the logical assumption that people are programmed only to take care of their well-being and that of their loved ones to, maybe, embrace issues beyond self…


The hip pocket

A young colleague recently claimed that her generation has great concern about environmental ills. She thought that her y-generation all have deep feelings about the woes of our world. They want something done about it, especially climate change. She claimed that late alphabeters are angry at any government that promises action on climate change but then renege as the Australian government has just done.

“Are you sure,” I said, ‘won’t they vote with their hip pockets?”

“No they have all they need,” she said, “I mean we all have food and shelter and with those needs met we want to do the right thing.”

I believed her, at least the intent part. And I am sure it is how she feels herself having moved her own career path away from high finance into an environmental company. Unfortunately I don’t think that we have the freedom from basic needs that our apparent wealth implies.

It may be that most westerners are well fed, sleep in a bed, have a wardrobe, watch TV and take the occasional holiday. And it seems that all primary needs are covered (yes, it is true the TV is now a basic need according to the UK social services) and, therefore, higher values should mature. We should think about values beyond the basic, including care for the environment.

But this wealth, that supplies all the basics and more, has not given us emotional freedom. We are not free to think of higher things because we are still struggling to keep our wealth coming. We are locked into long hours of work to pay for large mortgages, excess food and more clothes than we could ever wear. And as we are at work we have to pay for someone else to look after the kids, and someone to do the washing, to mow the lawn and so it goes. In the end we have to keep the kids at home until they are middle aged to help us pay for it all.

And what if we just stopped? If we gave it all up in order to be enlightened, then the monetary flows so essential for our economies would stop as well. Our material world would collapse in a heap. And, well, it just can’t happen. Back to work we go, stressed to the max, a hand checking on the hip pocket.

Let us hope that I am just a cynic, a product of a different generation, and that the youngsters really do have a sense of higher value – although anyone who has seen a Lady Gaga music video may have to search hard for higher value. Let us hope and believe that these youngsters will vote on their beliefs and give with their voice to help change the way we think. Let us hope that they won’t vote with their hip pockets.


Gen-Y has had a while to vote with their heads, hearts, and feet. Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Great-grandparents of these Gen-Ys had a very different hip pocket story. They did it tough too. Recession, depression, low wages, hard and long yards. Their pockets rarely had anything in them as most of the money went from hand to mouth. Yet they toiled and they built. They improved things.

No doubt the current and future generations will do the same. They will, like their wily old ancestors, build something.

Unfortunately, their motivation will again be the tug from the hip pocket.

Are scientists ready?

Are scientists ready?

The peer-reviewed publications series of posts based on my personal reminiscences from my time as an academic has triggered a number of thoughts and emotions. One is the dubious relevance of the work to anything beyond a young academics career path.

Research is intellectual fun and throughout the time I was a researcher, and at intervals later, along with the endorphins I thought that I had helped add another straw onto the haystack of human knowledge. This banal thinking readily justified the most esoteric of studies, including the sex life of millipedes. And there is some logic here, for should the haystack become large enough then any number of problems are crushed under the sheer volume of evidence. At least that is what we used to tell ourselves.

There are people who have rumbled this ruse including Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge who summed it up as “time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs”.

Questions should be asked about the relevance of university research and there should be suggestions made for change. Bluntly, get real or stop wasting taxpayers money.

And why wouldn’t this happen? Surely this is a given and is not a question that should even be asked. After all, academics are smart folk. They ought to know what is needed and how to make the best use of their considerable intellectual bandwidth. But Dr Vira’s argument is that Universities are not structured to allow this to happen and I have to agree.

It was one of the reasons I left the academic system that always felt too lethargic to be part of the real world. There was currency in research output but no requirement for any of it to be relevant and in my discipline of ecology many a long nose was peered down at anything applied to a real-world problem.

No doubt there are pockets of innovation and nimble responses here and there but collectively the system is not delivering on most of the wicked problems. And all that esoteric research on millipedes didn’t either.

Dr Vira asks for interdisciplinary, solution orientated work. Getting people to cooperate outside their specific area of expertise — read ‘comfort zone’ — and to look for solutions through applied research is asking more than most can give. It takes great courage and self-confidence to walk into a room of specialists from another discipline and ask them to work with you. Not many people can do it.

The narcissists, bullies, and fools can, but they are not the source of effective collaboration.

Humans fake cooperation when it is a requirement for a paycheck, so industry and commerce can build teams of sorts, but even when the incentive is clear, businesses need small armies of project managers and change consultants to make sure output happens.

So, can academics work together to save the world from its woes?

Unfortunately, my friends, not in a million years.

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

This little missive from October 2011 laments the loss of meaningful argument over important issues…


Serious change should be controversial

Back in 1979 when I still needed a hairbrush, I wandered the campus of the University of East Anglia as a sporty nerd. I was the type of student who spent far too long in the library but covered up this flaw with an addiction to team sports and the associated drinking games.

At the time I barely noticed that some of my peers were far trendier. They took to barricading themselves in the University registry – the main administration building that housed the office of the Vice–Chancellor and senior management staff – for days at a time. They would drape sheets out of the windows with slogans denouncing whatever oppression they were feeling. Each time the occupation was for a political, and no doubt, worthy cause that usually involved solidarity (a big word back then).

The longest occupation lasted a week. It was in solidarity with mine workers who were on the receiving end of a crusade by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to break the power of trade unions. Both Thatcher and those trendy students were railing for or against a serious change.

Thatcher won of course and sent the country into a market-driven phase that arguably brought some prosperity but also eroded much of the traditional political divide and eventually gave the UK ‘New Labour’.

Even nerds got caught up in some of the radicalism of the day, albeit safely. Many of us boycotted Barclays bank because they happened to have a subsidiary of the same name in South Africa. We didn’t realize that undermining banks was probably not all that helpful to the struggle against apartheid but it was a statement we could make on the way to the library. I had my account with the Midland.

Spectacles may be rose-tinted when remembering such heady days, but it does seem that naive as we undoubtedly were, the issues of the time stoked ire and action. Politics was controversial as societies across the world brought about change.

Serious change should be controversial.

It was a big deal to break down union power that itself had come about in a struggle to correct past wrongs in exploiting the workforce; the same kind of wrongs that were fought against in the apartheid struggle.

Today there are still hard and controversial choices to be made, especially about the environment, climate, and resource use, but we seem to have lost the ire and action that sets up an issue as controversial.

At best we get posturing and egoist rhetoric with an occasional ‘straw man’ to give the appearance of real debate. In short, we have an argument for the sake of it. Nobody seems to occupy the registry anymore.

As the Harvard philosopher Michael J Sandel puts it:

“When everyone – Democrats, Republicans, corporations, and consumers – claim to embrace your cause, you should suspect that you have not really defined the problem, or framed it as a real political question.”

We seem to get this all the time in the age of the soundbite. No one seems to define the problem.

Rosy or not we need some true controversy back. Real dissent forces us to argue our position from first principles. We must not just react against the alternative view but think it through and become convincing, drawing on as much logic as we can muster.

Do this often enough and we shake hands with our core truths and get to know the problem.

The result will be some argument, perhaps even a demonstration or two, but also some political innovation. There will be thoughts that are outside the narrow middle ground into which the bulk of the west has converged.

A little controversy might help us to find real solutions to the challenge of keeping 7 billion people happy without destroying nature or each other.


Nothing has changed since this post appeared — apart from the fact that we are now more numerous by about 500 million, that’s the population of the US plus Indonesia who are 3rd and 4th on the list of most populous countries. Political debate is still vacuous and the problem remains woefully undefined. Radicalism has been purloined by a handful of evil people.

Here is a thought as to why.

What if you can’t touch the problem? You know what it is — the unwanted side effects of market-driven economics that, by and large, gives you what you do want — but any attempt to define or even mention the truths of wealth concentration, resource use inefficiencies, debt burdens, bailouts, and plain old corruption; let alone frame their politics. These things risk upset that you cannot control. The economic system is untouchable. Breathe on it and it might fall over or cause chaos.

Instead, modern politicians argue amongst themselves about themselves.

In the absence of anything more meaningful, ordinary people become trolls or commit road rage with little idea of where their frustrations originate.

So we don’t need old-school radicals to occupy University registry buildings and we certainly don’t need religious radicals blowing them up, what we need is to ask and debate some of these type of questions…

  • What would happen if markets were regulated to make them more efficient?
  • Can you regulate without destroying the essence of opportunity?
  • What if there was a cap on profit margins?
  • Would the world end if taxes increased or levies were raised to pay for public services?
  • Is the market really that fragile? And if it is, what the hell do we do to buck it up?
  • Can our unprecedented ability to capture and access information help?

So you see the political frame can be constructed. If a grumpy old blogger can come up with a start, surely the massive bandwidth of human intellect can go on with it.

WHO, WTF

WHO, WTF

I lived in Zimbabwe for two years in the late 1980’s. The country was beautiful, functional and a little of the euphoria of independence was in the air. Only there was also a kind of malaise beginning like a cloud bank rolling in to eventually block out the sun.

People knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was unrest in Matabeleland, not a huge amount of produce in the shops beyond the basics, and a vibrant black market in currency and consumer goods. Locals without external funds had a long wait to buy a new car.

Thirty years have passed and a lot has happened. Unrest, droughts, food shortages, AIDS, hyperinflation that led to the dropping of the Zimbabwean dollar as official currency, involvement in regional war, degrading infrastructure, unemployment and poverty. Today estimates are that over 70% of Zimbabweans now live in chronic poverty

Throughout this time Robert Mugabe has presided over this increasing chaos at the expense of his people, initially as Prime Minister and as President since 1987, using his not inconsiderable political talent for the sole purpose of staying in power. He is 93 years old.

Mugabe is a classic example of African leaders who were first heroes in the struggles for independence, then became despots and autocrats who you challenge at your peril. He has done enough personal damage to have several honorary degrees revoked (Universities really don’t do this), sanctions on his international travel, and calls for him to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Nelson Mandela once referred to Mugabe as ‘a politician who despises the very people who put him in power’.

He is a terrible individual on so many levels, a product of his times that were dictatorial and elitist on both sides of the battle but also an evil individual. His country has collapsed into poverty on his watch with not even a glimmer of recovery on the horizon.

Enter the World Health Organisation.

This week they decided to make Robert Mugabe a ‘goodwill ambassador’.

Words fail me.

The good people of Zimbabwe deserve so much more.

Post revisited – washing machines

Post revisited – washing machines

What does 2 billion look like?

2,000,000,000

A two followed by many zeros. It’s big.

This number of standard sized washing machines would fill over 8 million 40 ft shipping containers, roughly equivalent to the total capacity of the global fleet of container ships.

And before the next generation of youngsters get over their binge drinking obsession, there will be 2 billion dishwashers on earth saving teenagers from Cincinnati to Conakry the indignity of doing the washing up.

Quite the improvement considering that running water only entered the majority of homes after the industrial revolution.

Here is what Alloporus said about washing machines in June 2011…


Washing machines

The number of people with the economic ability to purchase a dishwasher will double to more than 2 billion in the next 30-40 years.

Far more will rise above what Swedish statistician Professor Hans Rosling calls the ‘washing line’; an income of US$40 per day, the threshold necessary to own and run a washing machine.

On the one hand this is a worry.

Energy is needed to manufacture and power all these devices as is a water supply to allow them to function. Policy efforts on climate change notwithstanding, the cheapest power still comes from fossil fuels. It is why China is building coal-fired power stations even as they diversify into alternative fuels because they will need the energy to run all the new white goods.

On the other hand, sales of consumer goods will drive economic growth.

This is good news for those who require GDP growth, the enshrined dogma of political success. Nothing will prevent families from buying a washing machine if they can afford it, nor indeed, airplane tickets, dishwashers and cars as their wealth allows.

Couple this inevitable growth in buying power with ever more people and the growth paradigm has never looked better.

Hans Rosling has a very clever way of explaining the population and economic growth combination using Ikea boxes

It is the economic transition that is integral to the population one.

Without economic growth it is harder to see population growth slowing and eventually contracting. Children must consistently outlive their parents for this to happen and that means needs must be met and standards of living must rise.

It seems that we have not fully embraced this reality.

No amount of environmental concern, moral imperative to preserve resources or even fear of environmental collapse is likely to trump the imperative to improve things for our families.

For this is an expression of self-preservation that is hard wired?


There is a reason that Rosling’s Ikea box video has appeared several times on this blog.

It is the best and most accessible explanation of what will happen to the human population of this planet under business as usual. It is also the most likely outcome baring collapse.

But that number, 2,000,000,000 remains hard to fathom.

When the number refers to washing machines an armada like no other is needed to move them to a point of sale. There is such a global fleet and it is ploughing the waves right now heavily laden.