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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Make America great again

Make America great again

Make America great again.

I had a problem with this political slogan from the beginning.

The assumption, of course, is that America was at one time great. In the minds of its citizens perhaps, but, in reality, when America dominated the world it was a bully with extraordinary economic power thanks mainly to the industrial makeover after WW II.

The problem, even if you concede that industrial and economic might is indeed a great thing, is that in order to make America great again, the orange man has turned to an isolation approach based on an ‘us and them’ kindergarten psychology where the ‘them’ are bad and ‘we’ are good. It is innately racist.

Chasing the slogan has worked, at least for his support base. He spent government money, no matter that there was none to spend and a $26 trillion debt on the books, and for a time pumped a certain amount of confidence in the economy. Things were indeed moving towards his definition of great.

Only now a threat has arrived that he can’t control, a pandemic, where being economically great simply doesn’t work to protect anyone against its consequences — just ask Boris how he felt in the ICU.

It might be smart to reconsider the concept of being great under such circumstances. The global world of lockdown has given us any number of creative definitions from the humorous to the smart.

The US is in an election year and obviously Trump is moving to make sure he is reelected. I say obviously because we didn’t think he would make it to the office or survive five minutes, so we perhaps shouldn’t assume he would automatically want another four years of being the biggest cheese… only joking. Of course, he wants it.

Re-election in a pandemic would be a challenge for anyone. The US economy has tanked, unemployment is through the roof, and many people have no idea when or if there will be a return to normal.

In the meantime, under the encouragement of the president, people are taking their guns and demanding that state governors lift the lockdown measures. At over a million cases and counting that seems reckless at best.

Professor Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labour and Professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley has recently come up with what he believes is Donald Trump’s four-step plan for reelection

Step 1 is to remove income support so people have no choice but to return to work

Step 2 hide the facts

Step 3 pretend it’s about freedom

Step 4 shield business’ against lawsuits for spreading the infection

This, of course, is a Democrat talking about a Republican president but the points he makes in those four steps are troubling.

Removing income support at a time when people are worried about their employment status is cruel in the extreme.

We know that the Trump administration hides the facts as a matter of course and when facts appear that they don’t like, they play them as fake news.

The problem with COVID is that the facts deal with death.

When Trump first put his hand up to become president, pretty much everyone laughed. I for one failed to realise how far the denial of facts and the lambasting of the media as fake could take you all the way to the White House. No surprise then that this tactic of hiding the facts will apply in the case of the virus.

Pretending it’s about freedom so that gun-toting individuals can rock up at government offices to demand their rights and for that behaviour to be seen as ok is crazy. As Robert Reich points out, making this about freedom is absurd. Freedom is meaningless for people who have no choice but to accept a job that risks that health.

And the fourth step to get business back on track and the economy in the direction that will get me reelected, is to protect them from lawsuits that might occur if they remain open and their staff contract the virus

I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine how any of this is great.

There have been millions of words written about the craziness of this situation that the US finds itself in with leadership that really has no concern for the people or just a small proportion of those people who are there to support the ego of an individual.

I suspect that we’re actually witnessing the ongoing decline of a once-powerful nation. The British Empire has gone and the American one looks like it will follow suit. This will take time because you can’t just turn off the influence of 350 million people and the world’s largest economy but the passions and the motivations that got them into that position of greatness have been corrupted beyond recognition.

America will not be great again at least not on this path.

Now there is another disruption. The next chapter in a terrible saga of racism that has blighted the so-called greatness for the countries entire history. There is hope this time around, there always is when the righteousness in people is roused by tragedy.

Perhaps this offers an alternative path.

The grass is always greener problem

The grass is always greener problem

If I tell you that the grass is greener over there you will laugh at me. That’s just the old wives having a go. The grass is just as green as it wants to be. You’ll rightly say that I’m just jealous.

However, if I keep saying it, a sliver of doubt will creep in.

Could this guy be right?

I did see his neighbour with a bag of fertilizer the other day. Maybe he does have a greener lawn. It certainly looks greener. Maybe it is.

This doubt can grow if my claim of extra verdancy is delivered with passion and commitment… and often.

Everyone knows the adage though.

It is easy to think that others have it better than us but this is rarely, if ever, the case. The grass is not greener at all. And anyway, who cares? It is irrelevant if my neighbour has splashed out on fertilizer. It is his lawn, not mine.

I need to look down to my own grass and not over the fence.

In other words, I might find out that the grass is indeed greener but there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not my grass.

Let’s take this notion a little further.

Here is a section from a lengthy paper on the necessary and complex dialogue on climate change and sustainable development…

By excluding any obviously, social or political matters, the scientific
reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result
is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. So, for example, the science of climate change can agree about the physical sources of carbon emissions, but only by refusing to consider the far more important and deeply political question of why they are increasing and how (or if) they should be curtailed.

Cohen, S., Demeritt, D., Robinson, J., & Rothman, D. (1998). Climate change and sustainable development: towards dialogue. Global Environmental Change, 8(4), 341-371.
Emphasis added by Alloporus

Alright, this is interesting.

It says that the evidence — and the level of inference in that evidence (what can reliably be said given the numbers) given the degree of reductionism (amount of inference) — should be enough to convince everyone that climate change is both real and the current warming event a result of human activities. The numbers are unequivocal.

We know where the emissions came from and we know what levels they are at in the atmosphere and we know what this does to the back radiation of energy from the sun.

The problem is that this is not what matters.

The real questions for climate changes are

  • why are the sources of greenhouse gas emissions increasing?
  • should we try to curtail the warming trend through greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration?
  • is it even possible to curtail the worse of the climate changes given the scale at which humans can take action?

These are the psychological consequences of the emergence of a problem. It triggers strong emotional responses. The real questions are not about the truth of the matter but what we feel needs to be done if we accept the truth.

I might know intellectually that ‘the grass is greener over there’ adage can’t help me sort out my own grass, however, it does not stop me being jealous.

Here is another example…

Agricultural production

Take a look at this image of some paddocks in central NSW, Australia

This is sheep country and has been pretty soon after the Europeans arrived in 1788. This land has seen generation after generation sheep and the graziers that manage them.

The area in the image is around 400 ha (1,000 acres)

In the image, you can see the water source in the northeast with its bare perimeter reminiscent of water holes in game parks and the rectangle in the centre of the image is a holding pen. This is grazing on native vegetation but there is little grass among the patchy and occasionally dense trees and shrubs. Stocking rates are low and much of the land would be classified as degraded.

The land is tired after such a long period of production on what were initially old and nutrient-poor soils. The carbon content of the soil has declined and the production of grass become more and more volatile from year to year, season to season, in a hot, drought-prone region.

Given this, what happens if there is a run of poor years?

What does the grazier do?

Well, first of all, he will let any staff go for there is no money to pay salaries so any employees move on. Any slack in the operation he will take up himself. His long hours will just get longer — a poll by Agriland showed that 72% of farmers say they work more than a 60-hour week.

He might sell some of his herd or even loan them to other graziers with more grass and cut down as much as possible on any inputs he has from deworming to fence maintenance. His priority will be to keep what animals he has fed and watered enough for them to survive.

What he won’t do is give up.

His farm means more to him than a business. It is his home, livelihood and sense of place all in one. There is more to his bare paddocks than a place to grow some meat for the city folk, there is the opportunity that when it rains again there is serious money to be made, maybe a house on the coast or a holiday in Europe. The things that those city folk have begun to take for granted.

The farmer actually has no time to consider the greenness of his neighbour’s grass.

He is flat out trying to keep his animals alive… on his own.

This is important to know

The grazier can do well to tap into some of his real questions. He doesn’t need to know about the greenness of his neighbour’s pastures or the cause of climate change, we actually want him to ask

  • what are the sources of my declining productivity?
  • should I try to curtail these sources or change production altogether?
  • is it even possible to curtail the sources given the resources available to me right now and my needs for the next few years?

It is in his interests to focus on his own grass.

It is in our interests too and we should help however we can. We need every grazier to be producing as much food as possible without reducing the chance of producing food in the future not just to feed ourselves but to feed everyone.


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Are we a product of the times?

Are we a product of the times?

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) was a product of his times

Mr Wallace was truly remarkable, a gentleman in the time when such a description meant something, and a traveller when getting from one town to another in England was a feat of endurance.

In the mid-1800s he covered the length of the Malay Archipelago on limited means. Which actually meant he was wealthy beyond belief to most of the indigenous peoples he met but had limited old money when compared to his peers back home.

Wallace was a naturalist and collector of exotic animal specimens caught or shot in the jungles and mountainsides at dozens of locations on remote islands. He made what money he could from the sale of preserved bird skins, mammal skeletons and pinned insects to museums and his less adventurous fellow gentlemen collectors back in Europe.

He was also an extraordinary observer able to recall almost at once if a butterfly or beetle was new to his collection. Anyone who has dabbled in natural history collections will recognize this skill. A good naturalist needs to be proficient at it and Wallace was, by all accounts, exceptional.

But what made Wallace truly remarkable was that he didn’t just observe nature, he observed people too. He saw the forms, behaviors and habits of all the locals he met on his travels. Indigenous peoples and colonists alike, they all fascinated him. And then he tried to explain the patterns and behaviours in the people with the same logic he applied to nature.

No doubt he also carried with him the prejudices of his peers. His times were of colonial rule, the greatness of empire and knowing one’s place in the pile. It is unlikely his observations were not clouded by at least some prejudice.

His seminal work “The Malay Archipelago” is well worth its 500+ pages. At once a primer on natural history, a window into thinking on the theory of evolution, a catalogue of the biology and peoples of the region, a gentleman’s travelogue, a commentary on economics and an insight into how the Victorians saw the world. Often the prose carries all these things in the space of a few pages.

By Unknown author – Marchant, James (1916) Alfred Russel Wallace — Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, pp. Plate between p. 36–37 Retrieved on 16 October 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372562

Famously Wallace figured out what Charles Darwin, his contemporary, himself became famous for, the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Crossing the deep and treacherous straits between Bali and Lombok in 1859 he landed and began collecting no doubt with an expectation of what he would find. Only there was a large number of species that to the west were organisms related to Asiatic species and to the east a mixture of species of Asian and Australian origin.

Wallace saw in that line, later named the Wallace Line after him by Thomas Huxley, a disruption to the pattern that he expected to see. The continuous variation that he followed in the myriad diversity of animals that fell into his traps should not have such an abrupt disjunct.

The genius of Wallace, that he shared with Darwin, was not only to recognise the disjunct but to realise it meant something profound.

Gathering his observations together he figured out what Darwin had also discovered, the concept of evolution by natural selection.

His views diverged from Darwin’s but the two through both private correspondence and published works exchanged knowledge and stimulated each other’s ideas and theories over an extended period and they both agreed on the importance of natural selection, and some of the factors responsible for it: competition between species and geographical isolation. They diverged on why. Wallace gave evolution a purpose in maintaining species’ fitness to their environment, whereas Darwin hesitated to attribute any purpose to a random natural process.

Although we now agree with Darwin on the randomness part, Wallace remained an ardent defender of natural selection all his life. And remember this was highly contentious stuff at the time. In 1889, Wallace published the book Darwinism as a response to the scientific critics of natural selection.

It was what a gentleman would do.


This gushing account of Alfred Wallace was written a year or so ago after I had read the Malay Archipelago.

I was and still am amazed what some of the old-timers managed to get done and more, to figure out what a bunch of it meant. They are inspirations.

As I finally got around to editing the post, I am struck by how little the gentlemen and women of today inspire me. Where are they? I have to assume that they exist.

They do not seem to be among the celebrities or the internet influencers who are driven only by narcissism.

Heaven help you if you try to find them in seats of government.

They are not in the business community that continues to promote the economic model that is both precarious and gives not a jot about the resource base — much of the biology that Wallace saw is gone forever.

They are not among the clergy. I cannot even bring myself to go there.

Perhaps, and here is a left-field assertion that I never thought was possible. Perhaps they are hiding among the scientists.

I know, crazy suggestion right.

We are talking about the fence-sitting nerds who have bamboozled us for decades and failed miserably to get their messages across.

Well, there is an idea going around promoted by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is to cause science to be done differently with collaboration, speed and efficient up there as the biggest changes.

That in this time of crisis it is the scientists who are working together to us get through it all as fast as possible while their fellow technical specialists doctors, nurses and support staff on the front line provide the heroic bravery.

That sounds like what gentlemen would do.


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Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science.

Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former Chief Scientist of Australia

Do you know the basic process of science?

Maybe you have a distant memory of a school teacher saying something about cause and effect or experiment or maybe hypothesis. Perhaps you were told to mix a few chemicals in some test tubes and record the colour changes.

Well, that’s it in the formal sense — the testing of hypotheses through controlled experiments. All that stuff about the scientific method.

It began with the Scientific Revolution in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.

This period is also known as the Enlightenment when a few radical thinkers decided they had had enough of religions telling them obvious lies about the world around them. The likes of Beccaria, Baruch, Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith decided a better approach was needed, one based on fact, things known to be true.

Now let’s see what happened next.

The rise of democracy, the industrial revolution, huge increases in health and well-being for more and more people.

The average westerner now lives in more luxury and comfort than Louis XIV, the king who was miffed at all those philosophers bursting his bubble. Way more in fact.

The arts and social science types will not be happy that I am suggesting progress is down to the natural sciences, but you have to admit, it put a rocket under the process. The changes seen in societies across the globe in the last 200 years have been so much faster than at any other time in human history.

In short, science is important.


It makes good sense for leaders as well as thinkers to at least know how science works and something about the philosophy behind it. Especially the idea that the scientific method generates evidence, facts know to be true.

It is vital that decision-makers know what is known and how reliable that information is. We took the piss out of Donald Rumsfeld but actually, he was onto something, although he was lampooned for saying it.

The scientific method and the results from the researchers who apply it reliably generate the facts that give us the full suite of knowns.

Professor Chubb said something else. He also wanted the political muppets to know about statistics.

He is spot on.

Without the basics of probability — how likely something is to happen — combined with an understanding of the scientific method, the results of research and the advice of the experts are meaningless.

Probability seems quite difficult to understand for most people. Here are a few conundrums as examples…

  • If I toss a coin and get five heads in a row, what is the probability of the next coin toss delivering heads? Exactly 50%, just like it was for the previous five tosses.
  • The median is not the same as the mean even though they are both measures of central tendency unless the data is normally distributed.
  • An unlikely event is not impossible — ask Nassim Taleb about black swans.
  • Correlation is not causation.
  • And here is a statistic that everyone should know — 8,000 per hour

These statistics and likelihoods and measures of distributions are not lies, they are vital to understanding risk and opportunity, the very essence of what policy for the collective benefit should be about. Minimising risk and maximising opportunities for as many citizens and visitors as possible.

Politicians are ignorant of this at our peril.


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

Also let us know in the comments section if a short course on the scientific method would be of interest to you

Why we forget to ask if its fake or fact

Why we forget to ask if its fake or fact

Here is a list of some of the choicest statements from the president of the United States, the so-called head of the free world, about then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton…

  • She has a serious chronic illness
  • She is sleeping all the time
  • She founded ISIS “literally” with President Obama
  • Trump blamed the tax code that allowed him to not pay millions in taxes on her
  • She wants to eliminate the second amendment
  • She started the birther movement
  • She will be indicted (after Comey’s letter to Congress)
  • Her Emails (in relation to Anthony Wiener’s computer) are worse than Watergate

Founded ISIS, always asleep, started the birther movement… for goodness sake. And it helped get him elected. What is wrong with people?

This stuff is just ugly and anyone should know that it is fake.

Each one either a blatant falsehood or hugely disrespectful drivel that I really shouldn’t be printing again.

No matter what your political allegiance nobody should have anything to do with such nonsense. It demeans everyone, especially the person who went on the be the president. Please, heaven help us all.

These choice examples are easy to spot as fake. There is not even a loose fact among them.


Source: US academic Professor David Ross


What about these…

  • Urgent: Koalas could be extinct in NSW as early as 2050. We can’t let this happen — WWF website
  • “Climate change has not caused the [2019-20] bushfires, unprecedented arson has” — Australian Liberal MP Craig Kelly
  • An electric vehicle won’t tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
  • I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 3 March 2020

How do you decide if these claims are fake or fact? Do you even bother? It is hard after all.

Most information comes at us all polished and convincing. The presenters are slick, the writers persuasive and the messages short. Why wouldn’t we believe such well-rounded packets of influence?

All of those in the list above are false with only modest provisos.

There are many reasons for our failure to spot fake claims and fake news

Information overload

An average smartphone owner in a mature economy is exposed to more information in a day that many of our ancestors saw in their lifetimes.

Here is what one set of information scientists think goes on…

In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words, every day. The world’s 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of five hours of television daily, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images.

The reliability of these numbers is not important here. The point is that we are all awash in information, all the time we are awake.

This can swamp our filters and certainly our reflection time so a lot of information is believed to be true because there is not time to decide otherwise before the next packet of critical information arrives.

Much of the information we receive is true

When your phone beeps an alert that your 9 am meeting is in 10 minutes, it is true. There is no reason to ever doubt it.

When you press the icon in your favourites tab to ring your better half and its answered, hostile takeover or the cleaner being helpful notwithstanding, it will be your better half who answers.

If my phone rings and the icon says it is my sister, I answer. When she tells me that my mother passed away in the night, I believe her.

Read a tweet from Brixton Barry that says “Holy shit, here is a riot going on” and, well, maybe there is, Brixton has had riots before… And why would he call himself Brixton Barry unless he… well, you get the idea.

But hold on, that was a long time ago and who is Barry? In this case I would be sceptical unless more tweets began rolling through the feed, perhaps with an image or two, before I believe what Barry is saying.

It is more likely that the tweet from Brixton Barry passes by my sceptic filter because so much information already has and has not caused an issue.

Plus if I live in Detroit or Hounslow, a riot in Brixton might not be worth a fact check.

An endnote

Here is what the late, great author Terry Pratchett said about the spread of fake news on the Internet back in 1995…

“Let’s say I call myself the Institute for Something-or-other and I decide to promote a spurious treatise saying the Jews were entirely responsible for the second world war and the Holocaust didn’t happen and it goes out there on the Internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research which has undergone peer review and so on. There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up”.

Terry Pratchett

That was 1995 remember, near to the beginning of the whole internet age. It was prescient certainly but it was also sage advice.

Go to the source for any information that is important and if there is no source, go generate that information yourself.


Comment below if you feel the urge and please share with your online folks

Cardiologist

Cardiologist

Just before the lockdown, I made my annual pilgrimage to the hospital to see my cardiologist. It’s a long story to do with genes and familial lines and some inevitabilities of the way biology works.

The visit was a success from my end thanks to a fine doctor who is a sensible and pragmatic professional. His motto seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it’. This is somewhat unusual in our interventionist times and a bonus for me because the last thing I want is another procedure.

Anyway, we dealt with my heart issues fairly briskly and got onto stress.

This was a problem for me and the cardiologist agreed although he was quick to say that he was not qualified to advise on what I should do about it. My blood tests are good and my blood pressure in the middle of normal so from his perspective not much to be done.

My wife asked if retirement might be a solution.

“Oh no, that would not work,” he said, ‘you’re an environmental scientist right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well then, the stress will still be there even if you retire. This country is in a political mess.”

He was actually rather less polite than this but his point was a good one. There is a level of stress and malaise over many scientists right now in the age of spin, fake news and normative science.

Scientists, especially environmental ones, are purposely misunderstood, maligned and ignored.

I experience it every day.

When I try to speak the listeners switch off or glaze over. People seem to have no skills with logic and numbers and have no interest in gaining any. Anything more complex than 2 + 2 is near impossible to communicate.

The really important issues that involve an understanding of settled science, some skills with likelihoods, and the application of proper scepticism — these things are just not even in the conversation.


Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Time for scepticism

Why can’t I retire

Well, I can and I will, but only from the day job.

A lifetime of buzzing around as a lonely fly avoiding the wafts of the disinterested and the annoyed is debilitating. I’m knackered.

But then there the issues that still get me excited and incited. My normative feelings rush in and I’m wanting to say something, even if it is to extoll the virtue (another normative word) of being objective.

I will be my own worst enemy and keep on thinking about all this until I get hit by a bus.

Meantime there was another thing.

It was a relief to hear that the expert thinks my heart with its grafts is doing fine. Keep doing what you’re doing and come back in a year was the message. I will take that from a fellow scientist.

It was a shock to hear how much trouble he thought the world was in and that was before we had a pandemic.


A short primer

Normative science — science based on preference or value.

This means that it is not true science at all but an opinion or bias towards a particular outcome held by the scientist on her own behalf or by the people who support her.

Food and diet are obviously normative. They are both chockablock full of values. What we eat is what we can afford and what we choose based on our preferences that are rarely free of value.

There are ways to quite quickly decide if the science presented is normative.

1 – Look out for ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and value-laden words

In the English language, the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is critical. The use of the word ‘is’ determines a fact whilst ‘ought’ refers to an opinion.

Science should be all about the world of ‘is’, the facts about the past, present, or future. So if the language that a scientist uses has too many ‘oughts’ then there is a good chance she is being normative.

The use of ‘should’ is a giveaway too.

Bad, better, bigger, catastrophe, destroy, disaster, good, slashed, tremendous, ugly and all similar value-laden words and phrases are red flags for normative language.

2 – How was the evidence generated

True scientific evidence comes from deduction. This is a process of setting forth an idea as a hypothesis and testing it with an experiment where treatments are assigned to observational units at random.

Some evidence comes from observation alone. As the plane flies low over the savannah the elephants browsing below are counted. This tells us how many elephants there are viewable from the aircraft — an observation.

It is only an estimate of how many elephants there might be all together and tells us nothing about what elephants do or if their numbers are decreasing or on the rise.

The quality of evidence to explain how things work is really what science is about. Observation alone is rarely enough.

3 – Who provided the evidence?

If you are paid $100,000 a week to play soccer for a premier league team you would not want to score goals for the opposition. You are paid to score goals for your team.

Scientists are prone to this employer bias as much as anyone. If your boss wants to see great yield response in trails of the companies new fertilizer it will be hard to present evidence to the contrary. He might say you had a poor design and get you to repeat the experiment or worse.

Ask yourself who generated the evidence as well as how they did it. Academics are less likely to be based than scientists working for commercial companies and those who work for government agencies might be somewhere in between.

Beware though, for no one is immune.


Feel free to browse some more ideas for healthy thinking

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times, and are essential to the ecosystems humanity depends upon. They pollinate plants, are food for other creatures and recycle nature’s waste.

Damian Carrington, Environment editor, The Guardian, 24 April 2020

Nearly two years ago Alloporus first noted some worrying research on the decline of insects in Europe. with the key finding

More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas

Hallman et al (2017)

Alloporus’ comment was this

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase the risk to our already precarious food security.

At around the same time this post and research came out, two US researchers returned to a forested conservation reserve in Puerto Rico after 35 years and this is what they said…

We compared arthropod biomass in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest with data taken during the 1970s and found that biomass had fallen 10 to 60 times. Our analyses revealed synchronous declines in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat arthropods.

They published their results in a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences

Lister, B. C., & Garcia, A. (2018). Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(44), E10397-E10406.

The declines the authors put down to climate. It was too hot too often for the ground-dwelling invertebrates creating an upwards cascade through the food web.

In Europe insecticide use and habitat change, in a rainforest, climate change. Either way a serious problem.

Just to make sure this was not just an isolated result, Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, together with colleagues from around Germany and Russia completed a meta-analysis and

‘compiled data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 globally distributed sites and confirmed declines in terrestrial insects, albeit at lower rates than some other studies have reported and concluded that ‘Patterns of variation suggest that local-scale drivers are likely responsible for many changes in population trends, providing hope for directed conservation actions.’

So it’s happening. Roughly 25% declines in insects across the board in a generation, with insects faring only slightly better in nature reserves than outside protected areas.

The conclusion, terrestrial insects are declining in numbers and variety and, as is typical for nature, this loss is patchy, occurs at differing rates and from multiple causes.

Klink and his colleagues took hope from this result. You can see why. If climate change was the cause everywhere, then there is a serious global catastrophe in the offing where the rates of decomposition and nutrient transfer are altered across a wide range of biomes and habitats affecting many land uses, especially primary production.

This would not be about species loss in the way it is for the koala. A cute thing that we like to see in the zoo and maybe take a selfie with one held up by a zookeeper, the cuddly critter that might become extinct. This is about the loss of function, loss of ecosystem services that we cannot do without or easily replace.

Instead, Klink and his colleagues found multiple, often local causes. This they interpret as a solvable problem. Conservation and restoration efforts could help local populations recover.

As regular readers will know, Alloporus has to work hard to be this optimistic.

Until the economy through the supply chains feels the hit of the loss of services little will be done. The efforts of the few with the koala saving gene will be epic, they will try their best, but it will not be enough.

If lockdown with its boredom, ingenuity and the appearance of clean air all around the place tells us anything, it should be that we can survive on relatively little.

Only part of that little has to be food and water.

Imagine lockdown with the supermarket shelves empty of food. That would put toilet paper shortages into perspective for us.

It is trite to say it, and sad that it has to be said again and again, but it is true — nature matters to our very existence.


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Game changers must be scalable

Game changers must be scalable

Think global, act local is a decades-old rallying cry. An attempt to bridge the psychological chasm between the enormity of environmental issues and what an individual can actually achieve from day to day.

The assumption is that if every little helps and everyone does a little locally, a collective change will emerge.

In principle, this is a scalable idea.

Each individual benefits from their own effort. Not least because they feel better for making a contribution. Add more and more people and the true benefits appear from a sum of the collective parts.

One conversion to LED lighting is a modest energy saving but when a whole city does it, baseload generation, peak demand, emissions, and energy delivery systems can all change significantly.

Most game-changing ideas are scalable like this. They may start small but grow into high volume and at some point, they are no longer local. They are market-wide. Almost all the successful consumer products from fridges to mobile phones fit this model.

The problem is that many of the ideas that would deliver sustainable environmental solutions, for example, green waste into biochar, only work at scale.

This makes them difficult to get started.

Composting green waste to create mulch and fertiliser is a good thing to do. It can be done at home, even on the balconies of high rise apartment blocks. The problem is what to do with the compost. An average household would need a fair size garden to use what can be made plus the nutrients are not returned to the paddocks where the food was grown. Compost for the farmer’s field needs a system to aggregate and transport household green waste even if the household has already decomposed it down a bit.

In principle this is scalable, only there might not be enough green waste to make the volume needed and there is a risk of contamination from weeds and pathogens.

Burning green waste at high temperatures and low oxygen (pyrolysis) converts biomass into charcoal (biochar) releasing volatile gases and leaving behind stable carbon with a honeycomb microstructure. Put this material on or into the soil and it improves water retention and nutrient exchange through the biology going on in and around the carbon particles.

This sounds like a better solution for household green waste so long as there is a digester handy, a pyrolysis machine to convert the biomass into a stable and safe form of fertilizer. Currently, not many are portable and to build one commercially, high volume is needed to make them profitable. This means starting at scale, not to get there over time.

Any number of agricultural fixes both technical and through management actions are like this. There is a chasm of scale between the individual consumer and the system of production.

This is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone know what it takes to run one. They might be keen to do their little bit but really have no inkling of the scale needed when it is paddocks and fields that are in need of care.

It may be that this psychological chasm can’t be crossed incrementally. We might need to be ‘at scale’ for the solution to work. And in our current social and economic system this means profitable investment. More strictly, the profit that is easiest to achieve today.

In a positive future…

Everyone will recognise that not all solutions are scalable or need to be. Individual actions are encouraged in scalable directions – reduce, reuse, recycle is a fine example – to tackle the demand side.

Production will become more resilient because the finance for ‘at scale’ solutions will have a much longer time horizon that absorbs uncertainty as a manageable risk. The bond market will embrace agriculture when it sees that unpredictable production is fine when you go long and think like nature.

Farm businesses will cooperate. Not because the farmers turn to socialism but because it will be one of the ‘at scale’ solutions to more concentrated markets.

In the end… and after the virus

Every little action can help sustain us all. Each local act can lead to global solutions so long as there is room for options when the little things do not add up.

There is an opportunity now that with lockdowns we know that we can actually survive on a lot less than we thought. The scale might just have got a bit smaller for some of the options we have suggested if the need for profit has become less acute and the need for stable, reliable supply chains has grown.

You never know.

Social cohesion in a time of isolation

Social cohesion in a time of isolation

A few years ago now a serious bushfire passed just to the north of our house. It destroyed over a hundred homes and our back fence. We are still hyper-vigilant in spring when the hot westerlies push hard across eastern Australia and yet what I remember most from that tense experience is the sense of community that appeared spontaneously during the crisis.

Neighbours helping neighbours and everyone helping the firemen and rural fire service volunteers tackling the blaze. People variously wielded rakes, took turns on the garden hoses, made tea or simply offered nervous encouragement. It felt like a group effort.

David Shearman talks of something similar that happened in Britain during WW2 where people came together through far more severe and prolonged trauma.

“Britain was a united and cohesive community. Young and old worked daily in small ways for the common cause. But most importantly, in the free world, two countries — Britain and the US — had leaders in Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt who could explain the need for duty and sacrifice.”

David Shearman

Our bushfire experience of cooperation was certainly coordinated. The RFS Commissioner was constantly in the media providing information and advice. On the ground, the fire crews listened to their seniors and whoever was on the other end of the radio. Civilians readily followed their lead.

Firebreaks were raked, back burns set and helicopters dumped water judiciously to slow the fire enough for the hoses to protect houses. It was planned and calmly executed with everyone chipping in with what they could.

Most of the people in the street had seen bushfire before. It comes with the flammable treed territory we chose to live in. Recognition of the threat was ingrained through experience, so there was little need for Churchillian scale motivation.

This is probably true whenever something frightening becomes real and dangerous. Humans clearly have the cooperation gene even if it may only express itself in extremis. Even so, some leadership is required. There has to be some sense of need or a clear explanation of it.

Danger felt by everyone is the core ingredient for cohesion. Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real. Fear can bring people together.

Not all the neighbours were in on the group effort. At least one family were too frightened to leave their home. We actually thought they were out or had left, until at the height of the crisis with a fireman hosing down their wooden deck as some protection from embers, there was movement inside the house. Perhaps they needed the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.

Despite this, I easily recollect the cohesion that created much more than the sum of the parts. What I also recall is how fast it dissipated.

It took a day for the fire to burn most of the fuel in the bush around our homes. That night there was still eery red glows from scattered tree stumps. A day later and it was just char and ash. The threat had passed.

Heroic rural firefighter doing a great job in our backyard

Then we began to realise that this wildfire was a devastating event for the community. Everyone knew someone who had lost their home. A collection point for food and clothing was soon overflowing with gifts and volunteers. The fire was the topic of conversation wherever people met purging themselves of their fearful experiences. It was a human emergency for several months and then it wasn’t.

A great purveyor of entropy cut a swath through us and people responded to defy it. They rallied and returned things to our sense of normal with great speed.

Then we all forgot about it.

At least that is what it feels like. Every now and then memory is triggered or a newcomer is told the stories of the fateful day but mostly it is history. Some regulations have changed, fire preparedness is reinforced and we all look up at the sound of a helicopter. But the cohesion has gone.

I imagine that it will come back when the next fire comes along. It will because bushland in this part of Australia burns regularly, every decade or so on average in these parts. So in a short while cohesion will be called and I have no doubt that the residents will respond as spontaneously as they did in 2013.


Sure enough 2019-20 bushfire season was horrific.

Our little community escaped the worst but we had two monster fires, one to the north that burned within a few kilometres of our suburb and one to the south that threatened to do the same for the best part of a month.

People were cohesive. They helped each other out and were endlessly grateful to the fire services and the volunteers that provided assistance to the hundreds of people who lost homes, livestock, infrastructure and in a some tragic cases their lives.

No political leaders emerged during this crisis. The prime minister went on holiday to Hawaii and had to rush back with his tail between his legs. The state leadership did their best but really did not know what to do.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, stood up and showed everyone how it should be done. He was truthful, blunt and yet caring all at the same time. His leadership got the collective through.

Locally, it was the mayors that stood up. Ours, Mark Greenhill, Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, took to FB to give daily updates of the operations in our district. He was tirelessly present with the firefighters and the support staff and went above and beyond to provide the cohesion people needed.

People really do rally around individuals or each other when the heat is on but then readily dissipate into their own worlds when the crisis passes.

The drought crisis that turned into a bushfire crisis that has turned into a pandemic crisis means we have been overdone with cohesion of late.

The question is will vacuum return. Will leadership that is only present in extremis fade away when the calm returns as it surely will.

This is a rare opportunity for it to stick around.


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