The wonders of contradiction

The wonders of contradiction

Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable state of decline and the laws are not fit to address current and future environmental challenges.

This is a brave assertion from Graeme Samuel, a former competition watchdog head, and reviewer of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, a once-in-a-decade statutory requirement likely to shape policy for the next ten years in an area of policy that is highly politicised.

No matter that Professor Samuel is a businessman with interests in public health and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to public administration through contributions in economic reform and competition law.

No environmental expertise, no matter.

Samuel recommended the introduction of national environmental standards that set clear rules for conservation protection while allowing sustainable development, and the establishment of an independent environmental regulator to monitor and enforce compliance.

Another likely contradiction.

Protection and development are uncomfortable bedfellows. Placing the sustainable adjective between them is nice but it in no way guarantees that the two will get on. Economic development, after all, involves the mobilisation of capital, natural capital in this case, into dividends. What the capitalists call progress and the citizens, for the most part, enjoy.

Yes, you do. Pub lunch arrived at by car on an excellent public road, where you chat about your recent holiday to Bali, and the new mobile phone you bought.

But it’s ok.

As reported in the Guardian, the Federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, “agreed to develop environmental standards, but rejected the call for an independent regulator and said she would immediately start work on an accreditation process to devolve responsibility for most environmental approvals to the states and territories”.

Ah yes, the states and territories. Another contradiction.

There are, for example, two lists of endangered communities in NSW, one put together by the Federal government who decide on what habitats types are endangered at the national level. Another list is put together by the state government who do the same at the state level.

Now it would be logical that these two lists would be nested. The area of the nation being larger than the area of NSW, so there should be a higher chance of habitats being rare in a state than the whole country.

Here is what is on the lists.

At the state level, the NSW government has listed 15 plant communities as Critically Endangered Ecological Communities (CEECs), the highest level of conservation concern. Only four are critically endangered according to the Commonwealth government, one is endangered, and ten are not listed by the Commonwealth at all. This nesting is in the right direction.

Two ecological community types are nationally endangered but only vulnerable in NSW. Endangered nationally but only vulnerable locally does not make any sense.

NSW has 86 ecological communities listed as endangered, one category down from critically endangered. The Commonwealth has not listed 53 (62%) of these, one is listed as vulnerable and 17 (20%) as critically endangered — inconsistencies in both directions.

Some ecological communities are endangered in NSW but not nationally, and some are endangered nationally but not in NSW.

That is a severe contradiction.

The only way it can happen is if the processes to determine what gets on the list is different between the two jurisdictions.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of human values and decision making. It is opaque with muddy water.

It is why plant communities can be endangered or not and why a business executive with no experience of the science of biodiversity gets to review the legislation on it.

I wonder if he knows that species go extinct, that the pre-1788 condition is an arbitrary point in evolutionary time, and that nothing in nature is pristine since humans became abundant across the planet.

I wonder if he also knows that all this preservation malarky is fine, but it is meaningless beside the real natural resource problems facing the country over the coming decades.

I’m guessing not.

Bald faced lies

Bald faced lies

Donald Trump showed that the media is helpless against a bald-faced lie proudly stated, and the Liberal party under Scott Morrison has applied the lesson so well you would almost suggest that lying was an innate ability of those within the party.

Greg Jericho

This from the Guardian columnist is an opinion, it is what he is paid to generate. Only many would agree that it is true. Politicians everywhere are tapping into an innate ability to tell porkies. The POTUS just made it past 20,000 for his first term.

‘Proud lying’ is a profound oxymoron that cannot be a good thing especially because the people are as helpless against it as the media.

There is something going on in this post-truth world where we are more likely to give in to our emotions than to question what triggered them.

The definition of post-truth is as relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.

What on earth went wrong.

When did the school kid, who was told facts and learnt from the books that were written in good faith on what was known at the time and wrote down the facts in exams, not need to know those facts anymore? When did it become acceptable to not only lie but to believe a lie?

This is a subtle point.

It is one thing to lie. That takes a certain moral code or lack of one and to lie well, with conviction and believability, that takes a certain lack of empathy because those lies are going to hurt people. But we know these people exist, we call them psychopaths.

It takes something else to believe the lies. What makes people ignore the truth, deny the facts and accept the bald-faced lies? One reason could be that their insecurity is so deep that they are unable to cope with uncomfortable truths. Another could be the need to feel great and when the liar is geeing everything up and giving you a great feeling, why not run with that.

Then there is cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change — where internal conflict produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

I will believe the lie because it makes me feel better.

This believing in the lie is as big a problem as the lies, if not the problem.

A liar only gets what they need if there is a believer at the end of it. So the populist leaders who are lying through their teeth all the time are still doing it because there are people who respond to those lies.

The solution to this problem is not to berate the media for following the public and giving them what they seem to want. Remember the media is in it for the profit. Clicks and eyeballs make a profit, so the media simply does what it takes to get them.

Also worth remembering is why clicks and eyeballs make a profit. It leads people to goods and services that other people want them to buy. That is still the commercial model where marketing makes sales.

People like to berate that too but that is the commercial model and has been since forever.

No, the solution to all the lies is to get off the couch and go click somewhere else.

Become a sceptic.

Don’t believe them.

Don’t give them your eyeballs and your clicks.


Please pass this on to your social networks. The world could do with a few more healthy sceptics.

How many species are there?

How many species are there?

“The general public are identifying with these entities they call species and they think they’re real biological, natural units rather than being a slice in time that is a human construct,”

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Australia

This is a quote from the lead author of a project to create a universal species list. The idea is for a single classification system to end centuries of disagreement and improve global efforts to tackle biodiversity loss.

There is no definitive list of species!

Yes, staggeringly this is true. There are competing lists for some of the colourful creatures such as birds and no list at all for some of the more obscure or less charismatic groups of organisms. And this has been the case ever since humans decided to classify organisms using a particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1735). Yep, we agreed on the system close to 300 years ago but still do not have a definitive list.

There is a lot of diversity in nature. This means a complete catalogue is huge and requires a great deal of cooperation among scholars and jurisdictions. Remember a lot of collecting went on in colonial times meaning that much of the biological source material (specimens) are not in the countries where they were collected.

Then there are groups of organisms that not too many folk are interested in — nematodes, biting flies, dung beetles, slime moulds, viruses — and those that are inaccessible to all but the very brave — gut parasites of elephants, deep-sea fish, cave-dwelling insects.

And then there are few experts with the skills to make formal identifications and describe new species, especially for the obscure groups of organisms.

These are just a few of the reasons why what we used to call an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory or ATBI does not exist at the global level.

The ATBI

Back in the day, over 25 years ago, I used the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory concept as a practical class for undergraduate biodiversity students.

We designated a parcel of land, lined up some sampling equipment and told the students to go measure biodiversity.

They looked at me blankly. Many were quite frightened.

‘You are kidding right” was usually the response.

“No, not kidding. Get your heads together and figure it out.”

“But what do we measure?” they said.

“Everything, it’s not called all taxa for nothing”

“What? Microbes as well??

“All taxa.”

“But we don’t even know what a taxa is?”

“Ah-ha. Perhaps that is the first problem to solve. What level of taxonomic resolution should be used to catalogue biodiversity”

“Species obviously,” they said.

“Very well, then, off you go, go measure an all species biodiversity inventory.”

That a generation on from these confused undergraduates we still do not have a global list of described species let alone the details of what taxa might occur in any one location is an indictment.

That we are still arguing over the definition of species when, ever since the term was invented, everyone realised it was only a loose description that applied mostly to sexual heterotrophs.

“You have a species or you don’t, you have a subspecies or you don’t. And you impose this discrete binary system on a continuous process of evolution. There’s bound to be trouble.”

Frank Zachos, Professor and Head of the Mammal Collection, Natural History Museum of Vienna

This just shows how good we are at fiddling while Rome burns — to be busy doing unimportant things when you should be dealing with an important problem — noting of course that Emperor Nero could not have fiddled at all in as the instrument had yet to be invented although he played the cithara (a type of lyre). Close enough.

What’s the important problem we should be dealing with?

Biodiversity loss.

And not for the reasons that usually come to mind. It is not the loss of the rare, the endangered, or the iconic that natters. What matters is the loss of what biodiversity does in landscapes. The contribution organisms, and explicitly the diversity of organisms, make to the services we need for human existence — clean air, clean water, nutrient exchange, decomposition, pollination, feel good, etc.

It is a long list.

We are losing what biodiversity does when we oversimplify landscapes to channel production into the food and fibre we need. Only the gains in efficiency are temporary when the resource base changes, the climate shifts and nature’s services are stretched.

They are only maintained for the long haul by diversity.

The ATBI for the students was a way to help them understand, as is a global inventory of species; a way to understand how much diversity there is and how much of it we need to keep.

Nature does not care a jot about this but we should.

She will bounce back but it might be after we are gone.

Here is something that you don’t hear every day

Here is something that you don’t hear every day

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Here is something that you don’t hear every day.

The Washington Post fact check column has been following the false or misleading claims Donald Trump has made while in office.

Recall that he has been in the Oval Office since 20th January 2017 which to the 7th July 2020 is 1,264 days or roughly 30,336 hours.

Now in those three and a half years, how many porkies would you say was reasonable. One a week, one a day?

This is the POTUS we are talking about.

The incumbent in one of the highest-profile leadership positions in the world where integrity and a certain amount of honesty would be desirable. This is the white house where some credibility, some respect for the office, some leadership are part of the job description. Most Americans might expect at least that from their president, some level of decorum.

Leave aside for the moment that the incumbent in the oval office also has the code to the red button that can unleash mayhem on the planet that would last for centuries.

So how many little white ones did the Washington Post journalists count?

20,000

Twenty thousand. That is a 2 followed by four zeros, a little shy of 16 a day, one every 90 minutes.

Now we have all been ‘economical with the truth’, told the odd white one, even a few of the grey variety perhaps. Justified often because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Indeed the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying was startling because it showed how often we tell a fib or two. It is part of human nature.

But 16 a day, each and every day for the whole time you are in office.

What does it take to tell that many lies? That many false or misleading claims?

Here is what Psyche Central says about liars, about being deliberately untruthful

Compulsive liars have very little control over their lying. They may be saying the same lies as the pathological liar, but their intent is different. Usually compulsive liars lie out of habit. They have no goal in lying, but they cannot stop. Compulsive lying may be relatively harmless, but is still alarming to those who witness this behavior. They lie with such consistency that they are usually discovered by others in their social circle.

Alright so Donald Trump might have a habit of lying, a pattern so ingrained he cannot stop doing it. Why would he if it got him into office? He was outed as a liar but it has not affected him at all. Indeed the Washington Post journalists report that the frequency of lying has increased in recent months up to 80 per day currently three months out from an election.

What about the pathological liar? Psyche central again…

The difference between pathological and compulsive liars is thin, but distinct. The intention of pathological liars differs from compulsive liars when their sense of empathy is questioned. Pathological liars demonstrate little care for others and tend to be manipulative in other aspects of their life. They lie with such conviction that at times, pathological liars can actually believe the lies they tell. Pathological lying is frequently found in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.

More sinister certainly. Manipulative and with little care for others. They believe the lies they tell. And if the lie is believed by the teller then it ceases to be a lie; a convoluted logic that is only smoothed out if the recipients are diligent and sceptical.

As we get closer to the election Trump is cranking it up. Not only is the frequency going up but so is the intensity.

Whilst he used to say it was the best economy in US history, lately that little porky has grown into s stall sow who has achieved ‘the best economy in the history of the world’.

If this is the way to get re-elected then heaven help us all.

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Photo by John Adams on Unsplash

Our prime ministers and premiers wield far less power than most people believe… Instead, power is distributed across multiple actors – business leaders, media, unions, peak bodies and political factions in addition to the individual political leaders. Most leaders today operate a never-ending mental calculus of how they accommodate the competing demands of these groups in a way that will extend their period of office. Simple as that.

David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita

Succinctly put Mr Hetherington. Our political captains are not the only hands on the tiller. Indeed they are arguably not able to move the tiller at all.

At least that is what we thought until they told us to go home and shut the door, which almost all of us did without blinking.

So, yes they are powerless in the face of competing demands when their primary objective is to stay in office. And they really like it in office, it feeds their egos that have voracious appetites. But no, they are not without power. They told us to jump and we said, “how high?”.

This was a fascinating response.

Clearly we were spooked by a nasty virus that at best would make us sick or could signal the end, if not for us, then grandpa. It made sense to stay home and bake.

Only something similar happened in the early 1930’s in Germany.

People were spooked by a massive and disastrous global recession that for the Germans meant that foreign investors, who had come in to help rebuild an economy battered by WWI and the reparations that followed, left in a hurry, taking their money with them, the Americans who are always sniffing an opportunity in particular.

Along came a political opportunist and mesmerising public speaker who exhorted the German people to jump and they did. History tells us what happened next.

Before this connection turns you off as completely nonsensical. Pause for a moment.

The people who jumped back in the 1930s were highly educated, well to do citizens, familiar with success and a high standard of living that they enjoyed in the boom period of the 1920s.

Sound familiar?

They believed they were living in a democracy and that their leaders had their best interests and the country at heart. They also knew that somebody needed to take tough decisions to deal with what was spooking them; the prospect of economic ruin.

Familiar too?

The point is that modern politics may well be at the mercy of multiple actors, especially those with money, but it is not entirely toothless. Leaders can turn on a dime and make remarkable things happen. Not all of them nice or in our best long term interests.

Even if our politicians were genius-level decision-makers, the global disturbance from this pandemic will deliver recessions and depressions with horrible suffering for those already struggling. They will be joined by way too many folks who have not known unemployment, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in their adult lives.

I was one of the one-in-ten for a brief while back in the UK in the early 1980’s — a number on a list, as UB40 famously crooned.

My buddy and I applied for over 100 jobs each in a little competition to see who could land one first. We both failed and ended up in further education seeking higher degrees to help us along, he in atmospheric physics, me in ecology. So smart enough but not employable enough. It seems a long time ago now but it was a real struggle at the time. One in ten was felt by everyone.

When unemployment reaches 14% we are at one in 7.

When it reaches 20% we are at one in 5

These are the numbers of serious discontent.

If at least one dude in the round at the pub is unemployed, there is unrest among all the pub-goers. At any moment any one of them will join the queue for the dole check.

This, of course, is what is driving the political decisions to lift restrictions. Unrest is never pleasant. But to lift them only to go back to the ‘simple as that’ would be a massive opportunity missed.

Alright, enough doom and gloom.

Here is a slightly brighter note.

A new normal

This would be very nice.

How about the renewal of safety nets some redistribution of wealth to pay for it and much greater attention to issues that affect all of us.

Only we can’t expect that to come from the politicians who are telling us every day about stage 2 or stage 3 restrictions and when they might be lifted to get everyone back to normal. The one that we just left behind, potentially forever.

The politicians need normal to be what it was otherwise their juggle among the vested interests will be too hard and the balls will fall.

Unless they have got it all wrong.

There is an idea going around that Modern Monetary Theory might offer an alternative, a radical economic theory that budget deficits are are good, not bad and that government debt is necessary as the source of healthy economic growth. The idea is that investments that enhance productivity such as better health, greater knowledge and skills, improved transport are worth funding, even if it results in a budget deficit.

The theory is that spending is necessary to put money into the economy before governments can tax or borrow. Government spending actually precedes taxation. Then taxation is used to keep everyone in employment.

In Covid times this sounds like a plan.

And it presents a way to avoid a rapid return to political influence from business and the peak bodies that they pay to cheer for them with unstinting help from their media lackeys.

Wouldn’t that be nice?


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

The real problem with koalas

The real problem with koalas

Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash

Alloporus has been posting away about koalas for some time now…

At Alloporus we are not that fond of koalas. Well, more strictly we don’t like people’s responses to them from the ‘ah they are so cute’ to the ‘OMG they are about to go extinct’.

In our view, they are neither cute nor about to shuffle off into oblivion.

The main problem for the sceptic with a fascination for pragmatology is that these responses are normative. They are emotional which in the objectivity hierarchy is a step down from opinion and a long way short of evidence.

No matter.

We should expect people to get their heart involved in things, it makes the world go around, so I am told.

More difficult to handle is the lack of objectivity. The reality is that the koala is not going to go extinct any time soon and certainly not in the next five minutes.

Here is what the fossil evidence tells us

Fossil evidence identifies as many as 15–20 species, following the divergence of koalas (Phascolarctidae) from terrestrial wombats (Vombatidae) 30–40 million years ago. The modern koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, which first appeared in the fossil record ~350,000 years ago, is the only extant species of the Phascolarctidae.

Johnson, R. N., O’Meally, D., Chen, Z., Etherington, G. J., Ho, S. Y., Nash, W. J., … & Peel, E. (2018). Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nature genetics, 50(8), 1102-1111

Alright, so we also know that this species is a specialised feeder, prone to certain diseases and has been squeezed by genetic bottlenecks, especially with small founder population in the southern parts of Australia.

However, as Johnson et al (2018) also point out

Current estimates put the number of koalas in Australia at only 329,000 (range 144,000–605,000), and a continuing decline is predicted.

Again ‘only’ is a classic normative word, it is an opinion. And as Alloporus has noted way too many times before, an error range of plus or minus 300,000 is simply too coarse to make any claims of disaster valid. The first task must be to tighten the estimates to something closer to the real numbers and the real rates of change.

All this is a rehash of what we have droned on about before. But then I heard a chat on the radio today.

Some journalists were commenting on the devastating consequences of COVID-19 for the $60 billion Australian tourism industry.

What they said was that Australians are unlikely to take up the slack created by the loss of the Chinese market by tourism from the locals. They thought that Australians are just not excited by the wildlife they grew up with, unlike the overseas tourists who are fascinated, often enough to travel thousands of kilometres to see them.

Now, this is interesting.

It suggests that the real reason for all the koala bruhaha from both state and Federal governments is nothing to do with its extinction at all.

It is all to do with attracting foreign tourists back to a market designed for them and not for the locals.

That $60 billion represents a lot of jobs including in regional areas. It is the same logic that brings offers of largess to Hong Kong citizens who want to come to Australia and bring their businesses and investment with them.

It is money that matters. Evidence of extinction, not so much.


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Bravery or courage

Bravery or courage

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.

Only I think they lack courage.

Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.

Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote

A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous

The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.

This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.

Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.

This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.

This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.

Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.

More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.

What does this look like for a society?

The brave souls

The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.

Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.

And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.

No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.

The courageous souls

Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.

What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.

The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.

A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.

A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.

More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.

There really is something noble in that.

Brave but not courageous

Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.

We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.

They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.

We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.

We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.

And, and, and….

So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.

Rorting the system

Rorting the system

Ever wondered if the POTUS and his family were rorting the system?

Do you think he might be? Yep, I think we all have our suspicions. I’m not talking about the ability to leverage notoriety to go on lecture tours or sell autobiographies. We allow that sort of thing as a small ‘thank you for your service’ along with the secrete service costs of keeping him and his family safe

A small aside here is that former Australian prime minister John Howard is often seen strolling around the CBD of Sydney en route to his office in the MLC building. No police, no bodyguard, just his unmistakable self. I have seen him half a dozen times.

Anyway back to the current POTUS.

Maybe he is just getting ready to use his notoriety to go a step or two further than a book tour to plunder the relationships his position affords for a slice of oil pipelines, hotels, golf resorts, towers and whatever else might make a bob or two, in parts of the world where such things are still twee.

Yes, I think so too.

Not a good look at best and worse, an abuse of his position. That is before we get into the back end deals that might be going down as we speak.

Obviously he doesn’t care a jot about our puny thoughts. Our indignation at his abuse of power. Here is some evidence of just how little he cares.

The number of family trips taken during his tenure is through the roof compared to his predecessor, like an order of magnitude larger.

Admittedly he has a huge extended family in the white house, all jumping around in unelected positions, but really, an order of magnitude more trips with the secret service in attendance.

It even makes the tweets look silly.

US$12 trillion of opportunities

US$12 trillion of opportunities

A large number attracts attention.

Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension

16,000,000,000,000,000

Put a dollar sign in front of it and you get the United States national debt.

As of December 31, 2018, debt held by the public was $16.1 trillion and intragovernmental holdings were $5.87 trillion, for a total of $21.97 trillion.

Don’t you just love credit?

The ‘buy now pay later’ attitude that generates a number so large that there is no end to it other than for the invention of another economic system so it can be written off under a giant bankruptcy proceeding, is classic ostrich behaviour.

Here is the history of that debt as a proportion of GDP noting of course that during this timeline GDP has grown to over 40x its 1960 value.

100% of GDP in 2019 was 40 times bigger in dollars than 100% of GDP in 1960.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/itFbk1Aqe4sSvJi36

And another slightly different presentation of the same data that shows this absolute dollar increase more clearly, the debt adjusted for inflation divided by the number of housholds

Source: https://www.darrinqualman.com/us-national-debt-per-family-1816-2016/

Just for comparison the national entry-level average house price in the US for the last quarter of 2019 was $200,000 meaning a huge chunk of US households were up to their eyeballs in their own debt as well as copping an equivalent amount borrowed by Uncle Sam.

The pattern of when debt increased and fell is interesting too.

After both world wars debt was paid down, rapidly in the case of WWII on the back of a newly minted industrial base. Reagan and Bush spent a few dollars that Clinton tried to pay down only for Bush Jr and his successors to take on a couple more expensive wars.

Obama spent big and, not to be outdone, so has Trump.

Alright, so without getting all political about it, the curve is going up… exponentially.

Here is a neat explanation from Investopedia of how the US government pays for spending more money than it earns from taxes

To operate in this manner of spending more than it earns, the U.S. Treasury Department has to issue Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These Treasury products finance the deficit by borrowing from the investors—both domestic and foreign. These Treasury securities also sell to corporations, financial institutions, and other governments around the world.

By issuing these types of securities, the federal government can acquire the cash that it needs to provide governmental services. The national debt is simply the net accumulation of the federal government’s annual budget deficits. It is the total amount of money that the U.S. federal government owes to its creditors.

So in simple terms, the government borrowed the money.

It is said that really this is printing money and that would be the case if in the future the government foreclosed. It reneged on its obligation to pay bond interests and the house of cards fell over. But for now, it is claimed to be a debt system and not a printing system where there is some notion of future returns and recovery of the principle.

The investors do not seem to mind.

They buy and trade government bonds making a clip in the process so they have no qualms about how big the debt is or the risk of default. They will be on their yachts when it all goes belly up.

And so the debt number that just gets bigger each day is owed to creditors.

Governments who are in control of the central bank could just print the money instead of borrowing it, but history tells everyone that this risks a crazy level of inflation that can cripple economies. Ask the Zimbabweans about that one.


Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation has two main causes

  1. an increase in the money supply
  2. demand-pull inflation

When a government has a spending bill and decides to print money it increases the money on the economy. When there is more money around people have it to spend and goods and services can raise prices without losing custom generating regular inflation. A little of this is seen as a good thing because most people feel like they are growing financially.

Demand-pull inflation is when demand for goods and services outstrips supply so scarcity pushes prices higher. This can happen as a result of increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.

If inflation gets going through an increase in the money supply but the government continues to print money it generates more of cause one and prices can rise very rapidly. When consumers start to realise that continued inflation is likely they buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. This increase in demand further aggravates the inflation through cause two.

A nasty spiral results.


Is national debt a bad thing?

Well, I am a ‘money in the bank’ kind of guy.

I struggle to have credit card debt without freaking out so much that I burry the bills in the cupboard.

Economists are not such wimps; it’s other people’s money after all. Only they don’t seem to agree on the issue of debt.

They do agree that governments that run fiscal deficits have to make up the difference by borrowing money. This they know eats up a fair chunk of capital investment in private markets. They also agree that debt securities issued by governments to service their debts affect interest rates, although this can, until recently be manipulated to some extent through monetary policy tools.

After this, it gets a bit ‘cake and eat it’

The Keynesians believe that it can be beneficial to run a current account deficit

in order to boost aggregate demand in the economy.

However, the neo-Keynesians tend to support government deficit spending only after the monetary policy has proven ineffective and nominal interest rates have hit zero.

On the other hand macroeconomists from the Chicago and Austrian school argue that

government deficits and debt hurt private investment, manipulate interest rates and the capital structure, suppress exports, and unfairly harm future generations either through higher taxes or inflation.

Some economists on the fringes are still ok with central banks printing fiat money, despite the historical evidence for inflation.

The fear of inflation appears to keep policymakers from monetizing debt entirely. Instead, overspending governments either have to continue to borrow, sell assets, raise taxes, renegotiate terms, or default to resolve debt issues.

As the federal debt number in the US reaches the outer reaches of our solar system there has to be a limit to what can be fiddled to soak it up with selling down and borrowing. The most likely end result is to default.

Oh, terribly sorry, but we can’t make those repayments.

So is all this debt good or bad?

Inject money into an economy and it will prosper so long as that money of made from something. Print it and it sends values into a spin.

Currently, the world is compromised in the middle, through the third option. Spend but pay for it with debt. Under the current rules, sooner or later that debt is either paid back or not.


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How much more meat are we eating?

How much more meat are we eating?

I was born in 1961.

That means I am moving ever closer to retirement and I can’t wait.

It also means that I’ve been around long enough for a fair few things to have happened to the world in my lifetime.

Here is one.

Back in 1961, the average adult consumed 2,194 calories per day and around 6% of this intake came from meat. Fifty years later caloric intake has risen to 2,870 per day and 9% comes from meat.

In less than a lifetime, the average global Joe had gone from eating 93 grams of meat per day to 173 grams per day. Nearly double by weight.

Ok, so we eat more burgers and chicken drumettes than we did back in the day. We also eat more than we did back then. So we are better fed overall. It goes along with the falling rates of famine and fewer people going to sleep hungry.

All good.

Back in 1961, global demand of 93 grams per day per person required the supply of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year given there were 3.07 billion people around at the time.

In 2011 global demand was from 7.04 billion people chomping on 173 grams per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.

Multiply these numbers and you get 445 million tonnes per year of meat demand.

All good too for the meat producers, supply chain jockeys, retailers and consumers. More product, more revenue. Supply meeting demand is what makes the wheels of commerce turn.

And yes, of course, not everyone is lucky enough to secure the 173 g per day. There are still a billion or more who go to bed hungry and another billion or so who only eat meat occasionally so the straight multiplication is an overestimate — production was around 320 million tonnes in 2013.

The exact numbers on these volumes are not the issue. The point is that the rangelands, pastures and feedlots of the world now produce more than four times the quantity of meat that they did fifty years ago.

This is a huge change in a very short time.

In absolute volume terms, the supply that took care of the demand for the whole of 1961 only kept us going to the end of April in 2013. Supply for the other eight months of the year was not produced.

Again, it is not the absolute amounts but the proportional change that matters.

What about HANPP?

Come again?

HANPP is the acronym for ‘human appropriation of net primary production’ an indicator of the amount of land used by humans and the intensity of that land use, specifically HANPP measures…

to what extent land conversion and biomass harvest alter the availability of trophic (biomass) energy in ecosystems.

It has grown from 6 to 16 Gt carbon per year in a century.

Global HANPP throughout the last century. (A) Development of global HANPP by major land use type and human induced fires from 1910 to 2005. (B) Sensitivity of global HANPP trends to data uncertainty and different model assumptions. The standard estimate of HANPP (black line) is compared with a low and a high estimate and to an estimate excluding changes in NPPpot due to CO2 fertilization (constant NPPpot of 1990). HANPP is measured in GtC/y (1 Gt = 1 Pg = 1015 g or 109 t). See SI Appendix for details. (C) Biomass harvest (HANPPharv) and final consumption of biomass products (plant and animal based food, food, timber, fuel wood, and other industrial biomass use; tC/cap per y) grew largely in parallel with population. (D) HANPP intensity measured as HANPP per capita (tC/cap per y), HANPP per unit of GDP (kgC/1990 constant international dollars $ per y) and total HANPP per unit of biomass harvest (HANPPharv) (gC/gC) declined, indicating increasing land use efficiency.

Source: Krausmann, F., Erb, K. H., Gingrich, S., Haberl, H., Bondeau, A., Gaube, V., … & Searchinger, T. D. (2013). Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 110(25), 10324-10329.

These numbers show that humans have appropriated NPP primarily through the expansion of cropland and grassland, and that the rate of appropriation parallels population growth.



NPP Net primary production

Net primary production (NPP) is

the amount of carbon and energy that enters ecosystems. It provides the energy that drives all biotic processes, including the trophic webs that sustain animal populations and the activity of decomposer organisms that recycle the nutrients required to support primary production.

Gross primary production (GPP) is the amount of chemical energy, typically expressed as carbon biomass, that primary producers create in a given length of time. A proportion of this fixed energy is used by primary producers for cellular respiration and maintenance of existing tissues, what is left of the fixed energy is NPP.

NPP = GPP – respiration [by plants]

This means that NPP is the rate at which all the autotrophs (mostly plants) in an ecosystem produce net useful chemical energy that is available for consumption by herbivores.

Both gross and net primary production are typically expressed in units of mass per unit area per unit time interval.

For example, mass of carbon per unit area per year (g C m−2 yr−1) is most often used as the unit of measurement in terrestrial ecosystems. There is a distinction between “production” the quantity of material produced (g C m−2) and “productivity” the rate at which material is produced (g C m−2 yr−1).


There is some projected levelling off of HANPP in the future but not before further substantial increases

Global HANPPharv rises to between 8.5 and 10.1 Pg C/yr in 2050 in the four scenarios, 14−35% above its value in 2010, and some 50% of HANPPharv is calculated to be crop residues, wood residues, and food losses in the future. HANPPharv in developing regions (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) increases faster than that in more-developed regions (North America and Europe), due to urbanization, population growth, and increasing income

Zhou, C., Elshkaki, A., & Graedel, T. E. (2018). Global human appropriation of net primary production and associated resource decoupling: 2010–2050. Environmental science & technology, 52(3), 1208-1215

Note also that appropriation does not mean use. It means that waste and residues account for 50% of the appropriation making a huge efficiency opportunity a prospect.

Under the current systems of production and the rate of increase in demand, humans look like maxing out HANPP within a few generations hence.

Now we will not do this of course. There will be constraints, such as the need for reserves, land-use choices and inevitable fluctuations in NPP from soil nutrient mining and changes to climate. There will also be innovation and intensification so that food production will somewhat decouple from NPP, perhaps it will completely and this post is just fear-mongering.

But I don’t think so, at least not before some substantive changes to the global capacity for NPP have occurred.

The reason is that we always pick the low hanging fruit. All organisms do. We have an inbuilt requirement to take the easiest route to resources. Just like the lioness who walks down the roads through the reserve to avoid getting her paws wet, humans always walk the path to the easiest money. So we’ll mine the soil, grow food through the simplest methods and externalise as much cost as we possibly can. And because this is innate it takes a lot to overcome.

As it has since 1961, this slows the transition to smarter use.

Just a reminder.

We are eating 4x more meat than we did in 1961.

The average person eats 80 grams per day more and, given there are close to 4 billion more people, the tonnage is now over 350 million t per annum.

I know, I know, I crap on about this sort of thing all the time. It’s just that I don’t hear anyone else talking about these numbers in this way. This simple math with profound implications

The implications of food consumption

We can do very little about global demand. People have to eat and the more resources they have the more they want to eat well. This means nutrient-dense food, especially meat.

Will we all starve? No.

Will we all become vegans? No.

Are we increasing the risk of catastrophe? Yes, all the time.


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