The awareness chasm

The awareness chasm

Take yourself to a glacier in the Alps.

It is a fine spring day and you are descending toward the green pastures in the valley below. The ice is slippery as the sun beats down on it but all is well as your experienced guide has filled everyone on your trek with confidence and humour.

As the smell of the fields reaches your nostrils the guide stops and raises her hand.

In front of you the glacier has inched forward and cracked right across the chosen path. It has opened a bottomless hole toward the earth two meters wide. In the few hours since your party passed this way the glacier just reminded everyone that they are standing on a frozen river.

What happens if you try to cross this chasm?

There are no ropes or ladders or material for a bridge. You will have to jump.

Realistically, only one of two things can happen.

Success or failure, the latter bringing certain pain and likely death.

What to do then? Take the risky leap or walk an unknown distance around the obstacle? Perhaps decide that either option is too scary and staying where you are is the safest choice.

There is something similar hidden in the minds of consumers.

They stand on one side of a mental chasm where the milk and meat come from the fridge in aisle 3. On the other side is what it takes to breed, feed and slaughter the livestock to actually produce the milk and the mince.

The same applies to aisle 1 where the bread is stacked. How it gets there is on the other side of a mental chasm. Most of us eating the smashed avocado on sourdough toast know very little about where the deliciousness came from beyond the Blue Moon cafe on the high street.

Only the glacier analogy is a poor one.

Consumers are not on a trek. They don’t perceive the awareness gap at all and whilst there are supermarkets with produce and checkouts there is no need to even think about it. So long as a proportion of household income allocated to food, usually somewhere around 10 to 15%, is available in their current account, it is easy to tap away and load the SUV with the weekly shop. No questions asked.

Now we should say that these generalisations apply to the billion or so people who are at level 4 in Hans Rosling’s development scale, the people that live on more than $64 per day. The 6.5 billion humans on levels 1, 2 and 3 who must survive on less than this are far more aware. Those on level 1 with less than $1 per day of income, acutely so.

However, most of the money flows via those in level 4 and so the supply chain is designed for them. It is long and complex. It makes it possible for seasonal fruits to be on the shelves in all seasons with only modest price fluctuations.

Supply chains mean the shelves and fridges are well stocked and it means that there is no need to even think that a chasm exists let alone be in a position to have to cross it unaided.

There is a chasm of scale though between the individual consumer and the system of production. Most people on level 4 don’t know it exists but they should.

Why they don’t is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone understand what it takes to run one. They are consumers not producers and fair dues. It is enough to know how to select the cut of meat, roast it with sliced fennel and serve with a red wine jus.

It is also important to the psyche to know that there is food in the supermarket at all times. No need to worry or hoard produce. Just rock up and tap your card. Sustenance is a base need that seems surprisingly easy to cheat. We are too easily fooled that supply chain to the supermarket will always work. We don’t see a psychological chasm of food insecurity at all any more, even though this was a primal driver for our ancestors and for over half the global population still.

It may be that this psychological chasm of food security has to open up before we realise it is there.

Instead we have an awareness chasm. Only there is no reason for us to cross. It’s just a precipitous gap in the ice that looks dangerous.

Everything we need is on our side so meh, why worry?

Are we busier these days?

Are we busier these days?

Are we actually busier than in the past

I’m constantly told that everyone is busy. We have so much to do that there is no time to do anything more. Everyone is busy, busy, busy, full, chockers, not a moment to spare.

Every time somebody asks you to do something, the request will begin “I know you’re busy but…”

Only, is this actually true? Are we actually busier today than we were in the past?

Certainly, we have more distractions these days. Barely a minute goes by without a ping to notify us of a crucial message and it is now compulsory to have at least two internet-compatible devices at your disposal whilst watching Netflix on the big-screen TV.

So yes, there is a lot going on.

But let’s go back a while to our ancestors, maybe 20,000 years before there was any serious agriculture. In these times people were very busy indeed.

Failure to be busy meant starvation for they had to be out looking for food all the time. And they couldn’t be lax, for failure to be vigilant at all times meant that either the predator with large teeth or the tribe with sharp spears threatened your life. There was barely a moment when it was safe to switch off and simply gaze at the stars. Our hunter-gatherer forebears were very busy, they had to be.

Now let’s come forward in time to 100 years before the Industrial Revolution, say around 1650 when Oliver Cromwell was fighting a civil war and Istanbul was the largest city in the world. There was no electricity, no running water, only basic sanitation, and almost all the amenities of life required active business. Agriculture was organised and provided people with food but it also sucked in their labour and, as with the times of hunting and gathering, failure to be busy meant you starved. Folk in the Middle Ages were very busy indeed.

Just 100 years ago during the first World War when vehicles, industry, bullets, and bombs had arrived in the west, people still had a lot to do just to maintain themselves. They had jobs but the low wages meant they had to work all hours just to get enough money to buy food and clothing they needed. They sent their kids to work as soon as they could stand upright and never knew if there would be enough. Even these early beneficiaries of the industrial revolution had things to do.

You could argue that electricity and the myriad of technology that goes with it made many of the time sucking chores of the past fly off into the distance. Today, the average westerner no longer has to spend time scrubbing his clothes by hand, tilling the fields, chopping wood for the fire or raising and slaughtering the goat. But instead, we are busy, busy, busy with…

Well, nothing really.

We are busy working just like all those who went before us and then we are busy entertaining ourselves.

It seems as though we have no time and we are constantly on the go but the reality is that this is a choice. We actually choose to be busy for today we don’t have to be that busy at all.

We could work enough just to live simply.

We could put the devices away and chat or gaze at the stars.

We could spend time doing nothing.

We could… and this is the difference. In the past, people could not.

Get real people

Get real people

I am currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer, a tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the birth of Adolf Hitler in 1889 to the end of World War II in 1945, some 1,200+ pages of sobering reality.

A chronicler that lived through the historical events he recounts has a unique perspective that is close but not necessarily intimate with them. He can be criticised on fact, sequence and detail. There will also be problems when opinion and, in this chronicle, horror at the events inevitably creep in. However, it is a history and one that we should all read for its own sake and because it is highly relevant to our present times.

Halfway through the book, the point at which Hitler has ordered the invasion of Poland, the fateful decision that forced the British and the French to declare war on Germany, there is a matter of fact note of the panzer divisions and the Luftwaffe securing a swift victory over the Polish defences.

There is much to be remembered about that fateful period in September 1939 but there is a footnote in Shirer’s account that resonated deeply when I read it.

He notes that the official records of German casualties were 10,572 killed, 30,322 wounded and 3,400 missing.

Pause for a moment to take in those numbers.

Then recall that this is the army that won in a highly successful and soon to be repeated blitzkrieg. Yet still, tens of thousands of German mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were devastated with grief, over 50,000 families irrevocably scarred, and this was just the first skirmish.

Unimaginable horrors were inflicted on the Polish people in those first few days of the war and many ever more evil acts followed. It is unimaginable what life became when there were bombs whistling down from the sky and tanks rumbling past your front door.

Do not kid yourself that such fear will never be felt again.

Do not think that we are safe from tyranny and evil.

We are not safe.

We must be vigilant for those German families did not see it coming and neither do we.

Steadily the safeguards that humanity put in place are being eroded. We have politicians that are both gutless and a law unto themselves.

We have media that operate as powerful influencers with lies and deceit.

We face resource shortfalls that will test food and water security for billions of people and we have little idea of how to resolve them.

So we need to wake up.

Recall of vegan foods because they might contain dairy is, seriously, the least of our worries.

Little gem – more hopeful

Little gem – more hopeful

TED talks have been around for a long time now, since 1984 as it turns out. There are over 2,000 of them, most in that punchy, smart format that makes even challenging ideas accessible.

Here is a collection of eight of them that Kara Cutruzzula selected on how to be more hopeful

They have these messages…

  1. Shift your expectations
  2. Recognize that you can change your life at any point
  3. Look for meaning in the most challenging moments
  4. Listen to another person’s story
  5. Return to your home base
  6. Add some wow to your world
  7. Remember the essential goodness of humanity
  8. Think about your death (yes, really).

A good list, a little gem, and well worth a look.

Post revisited – Peeled potatoes

Post revisited – Peeled potatoes

In Monty Python’s infamous movie Life of Brian the masses lament their lot and decry “What have the Romans ever done for us?” only slowly realizing it was just about everything that made life livable.

This was, of course, a satirical stab at the economic system, the one everyone moans about all the time for its addiction to growth, our slavery to it, and the fact that it is so sacred that no one can touch it.

This post from 2011 begins with a similar lament but ends up somewhere else…

Peeled potatoes

In our world of doing it all easy, the latest labour saving option in the kitchen is pre-peeled potatoes.

What an outstanding idea. No need to whip out the peeler and waste time or get mud on your fingers. No more peels to get rid of and litres of water are saved from not having to clean off the grubby bits.

What, you are kidding!

How lazy can we get? It takes no effort at all to peel a potato or two. This has to be consumerism gone mad. ABC radio host Richard Glover thought so and created a funny skit to point out the craziness.

Only there are a couple of things.

First thing. An inevitable consequence of a market mechanism is that new products will emerge. Whatever people will buy, whether they really need it or not, the market will provide. The market will also provide things that they hope people will buy, often well before customers recognize that they might have a need for it. In the end, if a product works for even a few of us then it may be worth manufacturing. Witness, ‘peeled spuds in nitrogen’.

Second thing. There is always an opportunity for more efficiency in they system. If the supplier of the potatoes also recycled the peels into compost, this would be useful second product from the potatoes. Very few of the customers would do this and even if they did there would be no scale benefit.

We are at the stage where every nutrient and kilo of organic material that goes back into our agricultural soils is worth the effort given that fossil fuel based fertilizers are rapidly becoming another of our limited resources.

Our system of resource use is so bloated that there are efficiencies that will help our sustainability just about everywhere. All we have to do is look. One of these efficiencies, conversion of organic waste into fertilizer, will become commonplace. As will novel ways of doing it.

The idea that the recycling happens before the product reaches the kitchen might just be one of the better ones.


In short, the market is bad unless it is efficient.

What the Romans did was create efficiency through commerce that made lives easier and more livable in the time before sanitation, antibiotics, and mass transport. And for better or worse, the market has done the same for the majority of westerners since the industrial revolution.

But for the system to deliver livability for the majority,  over time, it has to be efficient and resilient, especially in the use of resources. Resource wise, peeled potatoes might work efficiently if the peelings are actually composted and returned to the farms that produced the potatoes. Market players can clip their margins along the supply chain so long as consumers are prepared to pay a premium for pre-prepared convenience. If they are, and the peelings feed worms, all is well.

Then we find out that 40% of Australia’s banana crop never leaves the farm because the fruit is misshaped. Not even in a parallel universe is this efficient. I can see Minions crying at the piles of rotting yellow.

We also know that wealth is increasingly concentrated because this is also how the market works. Money and resources churn but the clip ends up in the hands of a few. This is also a criticism of the Romans and any number of subsequent empire builders that followed their example — wealth is concentrated as the masses are exploited.

Except that the Romans did a whole heap of things that kept people alive and moderately well. And, arguably, in much better shape than they were before.

Our dilemma is the same.

Staggering

Staggering

“The US surveys consistently show that ‘reading proficiency’ as exemplified, for instance, by the ability to ‘compare viewpoints in two editorials’ is possessed by only 13 per cent of the US adult population.”

From ‘The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times‘ by A. C. Grayling

This is a remarkable quote.

If the numbers are true, then roughly 8 out of 10 average Americans can’t discern viewpoints from what they read. This is both an indictment on levels of literacy and on the consequences of them being so low.

It could be that most people are not aware that they do not know what the written words mean. They readily form opinions from what they hear and see on conventional media and have those views reinforced by their social media feeds. When all that they read comes in the form of a tweet then there is hardly any discerning to be done. It’s too easy to find the reinforcement of your worldview.

It could be even simpler than this. Maybe people do not make up their minds. Instead, they just listen and take everything they hear as gospel.

So here is one consequence of this staggering reality.

There is very little point in editorials.

Tube

Tube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go well.