Little gem: Why not?

Here is a little gem so obvious that Blind Freddie would not only see it but would immediately invest in it…

And it is so simple.

  • Extract out of the ground fossil energy
  • Heat it so that it changes its structure into material that can be molded into infinite number of useful objects and then manufacture them on mass.
  • Sell these useful items to consumers, ideally so that they use them once and have to go and buy another one the next time they need it
  • Let the used item fall away into whatever waste system is in place
  • Rummage around in the waste to find the used useful items
  • Reheat them again so as to make another even more useful material
  • Sell this useful material and make roads out of it
  • Ignore the obvious flaws in the gem

Quantitative

Quantitative

For me ‘ah ha’ moments fall into one of two types. There are the ‘oh why didn’t I think of that before’ kind of ah ha’s that tickle the brain when they happen but often fade into the nether regions of forgetfulness soon after.

Then there are the real ‘ah ha’s’, the kind that are arresting, stick around, and may even shift my perception of the world.

Recently I experienced one of the latter, a real doozy.

In a meeting with colleagues who, between them, had over a 100 years of environmental experience I realised that none of them understood numbers. They did not think quantitatively.

It worth taking a moment to absorb this observation. Eight experienced professionals who most would describe as technical experts, all with a tertiary education and many years of practice with problem solving in land management, native vegetation and agriculture, were not thinking numerically.

Few of them would admit to this of course. They’ll pour over spreadsheets, examine graphs and even contemplate statistics alongside the best of their ilk, but deep down they are not thinking numbers.

Instead they shift words and documents around. They think in the language of processes and procedures not likelihood, rates, and difference.

As many a post on this blog attests, my brain handles proportions and probabilities.

However, I am not especially mathematical, and often lament a lack of fluency in that language. But limited math literacy does not stop me thinking numbers. I’ll see a proportion and instantly ask “proportion of what, a thousand or a million?” In my head 20% of 10 is not the same as 20% of 1,000,000 when it’s, let’s say, greenhouse gas emissions. There is materially in the latter number even though the proportions are the same. It seems impossible not to do this numerical reality checking when faced with the variability in space and time of the matters environmental people are interested in.

But there it was, plain as a binomial distribution. My colleagues were not quants. When they relaxed into an innate thinking state, they did not see the world quantitatively.

Now before the trolls get too upset, this ‘ah ha’ is not about belittling or downgrading all the feeling thoughts, the creative thinker or even the normative types. All problems are best tackled with a variety of thought processes and the best answers do not always come from understanding a likelihood. What got me was that the quantitative type was not in the very building you would expect to find it.

For a scientist, researcher and one time lecturer in biostatistics this is a hard one to fathom. The question still bouncing around like a subatomic particle is why? There is no obvious reason, other than the peculiar quirks of chance, that none of these people were quantitative.

Only they were not and soon the consequences started to come up. Any talk of likelihood, rates, and difference would not be fully understood without explanations and time to digest what the numbers mean.

It would not be possible to just present a graphic and assume that everyone would understand any obvious pattern, let alone the nuance.

In short, my colleagues were not going to have an easy handle on inference.

This is a huge deal. If the people who are closest to the facts as they play out in the real world do not get the numbers, the same people who support decisions around sustainability and the trade-offs with natural resource use… Well, there is a good chance we are in muppetville all over again.

Ah ha.

Leadership failure

Leadership failure

Cheating at sport is, well, unacceptable. Yet it happens every day with no sport immune. There will always be one individual in the tournament or player in the team or coach on the sideline who will succumb to the pressure to win, the stress to perform, or simply base instincts.

This is why each sport has rules that sets the frame for what is acceptable, what’s on or close to the nose, and what is simply cheating. Equally, most sports have a fair bit of trouble either defining or enforcing the rules even with umpires and referees present to observe and, where required, intervene.

So if the soccer forward dives in the box at the slightest hint of a nudge from a defender then the referee has to decide. Is this a penalty or not? Some forwards dive. Some don’t. Sometimes it is actually a foul. Altogether a gray area of the rules.

Messing with a cricket ball is similar.

It is against the rules at all levels of the sport but it happens every now and then. Most of the time unnoticed and most of the time to no material effect on the outcome of the game. But it is against the rules. Players who do it are cheating.

So what is different in Australia right now?

A player in the national cricket team roughs up the ball with sandpaper. National outrage. Incredulity and anger. A failure of leadership because the captain of the the Australian cricket team sanctioned premeditated messing with the ball.

In short, cheating surely.

But, on the face of it, nothing.

All it took was a player, the vice-captain, with a history of volatility who was under a lot of pressure from the opposition and the crowd, his captain also under strain, and a compliant junior team member making a really bad choice when the team was losing.

Nothing more than a dive in the box.

Well the face is not the story at all. The response of a nation is always more. It reflects real needs. In this case leadership in the way that the society wants and needs.

The public frenzy over a misdemeanor that the international sporting body punished with a one match ban and a match fee fine, is the release of feelings that are simmering under the surface, a deep anxiety that has been there for a very long time. And it has something to do with a lack of direction. An uncertainty in the collective moral compass of not knowing what to stand for or against. And until a cricketer did something really stupid we did not realise how bad this feeling was or where it comes from.

Here is one possible source.

People mostly have no idea what the rules are in politics and business so they can’t really tell if societal leaders fail or not. Most of us have an inkling that they do but we cannot be sure. When they transgress with their secretaries it is one of the few times we see the line we want them to keep behind. The rest of the time we just have a hunch. So when they fail asylum seekers or spend way too much on submarines or let the energy grid fall over whilst carbon emission go up we don’t really know if they are cheating. They are not strictly breaking the rules, just dancing on the line through omission.

On the sporting field, however, we do know.

We can see the cheat. And when that is a premeditated act not only sanctioned but organised by the leadership, we are appalled. It triggers our real need for leaders to be better than us. They are not supposed to cheat, not even to dive in the box. But we know that they do. Seeing it starkly in our leisure time is shocking. It tweaks our subconscious to the truth that this is also happening in other leaders, the ones that really matter to our lives. It freaks us out.

The difficulty is that the leaders that matter stand up and lament the errors of the sportsmen, neatly deflecting from their own vast inadequacies. Until we call them out on their equivalent of ball tampering that they indulge in almost every day, and we do it with the same fervor we have for a national sport, then we will have to live with leadership failure everywhere.

Little gems: Secret taboo

Little gems: Secret taboo

These days it is very hard to pick gems from the torrents of items in the news and social feeds. There is so much craziness that we become somewhat numb to it all. We glance at everything just enough to see each piece scroll by into oblivion. So when a real gem appears we can easily miss it or let it pass without due attention.

So to help promote healthy thinking, Alloporus will try and pick out a few of the little gems that deserve more than a scroll, the sparkles that deserve at least a moment along the more discerning pathways of our gray matter.

Picking out these more positive offerings might also help balance the mostly depressing themes that tend to populate each Alloporus post.

Here is a true gem that is so blindingly obvious that it is astonishing that we don’t do it universally already. It says much about our psyche, our ignorance, and our closed minds that it should even be the first gem on the list.

It’s 12 minutes of the best logic you’ll hear

Optimism and evidence

Optimism and evidence

Part one is about optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is actually a remarkable thing.

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

Part two is about evidence

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

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

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

Today I am not so sure.

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

Deaf ears indeed.

Where to invest

Where to invest

$50 billion is the current projected cost to replace the Australian submarine fleet.

$60 billion is roughly 5% of Australia’s GDP

$96 billion is what 9.3 million Australian households spend on the modern equivalent of bread and water, somewhere near 15% of their weekly budget. This is a pretty standard proportional spend in mature economies. Somewhere between 7 and 15% of household budgets go to food. The French at the higher end, the British the lower.

Big numbers then.

$226 billion is an order of magnitude larger. It represents the size of the labelled green bond market in 2016.

$895 billion is the size of the climate-aligned blond universe. This amount includes investments that are designed to support climate adaptation or have an impact on emissions but are not quite up for a green label.

$1,000 billion is the projected size of the climate aligned bond market in 2020, just three years hence, investments that are needed to help all countries meet their Paris climate commitments for emission reduction.

$90,000 billion is the current size of the global bond market.

The interesting question is where to put all this money.

It makes sense to put a hefty chunk of it into actions that improve environmental performance or, alternatively, new submarines.

Empathy

Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of these intense rivalries is over the environment.

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

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

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

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

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

Green tribes hate this outcome.

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

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

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

The kernel of empathy exists in these contradictions.

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

Many also know that the environment always offers renewable solutions.

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

Here, then, is the thought.

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

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