Rapid change has happened before

Rapid change has happened before

Alloporus is always on about the happenings of WW2

The loss and the horror are a stain on history that is painful to recall but stare past the nightmares of the war and remarkable things happened during the years of conflict. Here are a few of them.

The US government increased spending by an order of magnitude between 1940 and 1945 and spent more money (in current dollar terms) between 1942 and 1945 than it had in the 152 years prior to 1941. 

The US was in the war for three years and during that time manufactured 87,000 naval vessels, including 27 aircraft carriers, 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks and armoured cars and 44 billion rounds of ammunition. 

US soldiers on battle tanks. Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Whole towns and cities were turned into munitions factories all while many of the young men were serving in Europe and the Pacific. Women took on blue-collar jobs so there were workers to run the machines.

At the same time, the manufacture of cars was banned as was the construction of new homes. There was rationing of food, tyres and gasoline because it was considered fairer than taxing scarce goods. And to save fuel a national speed limit of 35mph was imposed.

Remember this is the US where libertarians rule and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was about to unleash the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s. McCarthyism was characterized by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.

Even in a society leery of socialism, the war produced an extraordinary collective effort in the US and an acceptance of government regulation. It was a similar story in the UK and even in the occupied countries, people resisted for the greater good.

If such collective will against the axis powers could bring such change and effort why not now when we need it again?

Here is what George Monbiot suggests 

Public hostility and indifference create a lack of political will.

Indeed, don’t look up.

I agree but would add another break on drastic responses — the ineptitude of our politicians.

Most of those in the big dog posts are there because they have a single skill, political surfing. They ride the political waves into positions of authority. Very few get there on intellectual merit, leadership skills or foresight.

It is not always their fault.

Our collective failure to recall history and use it to see the future means we have no sense of urgency. Indifference means we don’t ask for leaders with flair, vision or skills. We accept muppets

But the decisions needed now are as era-defining as those made by the US in the 1940s that won a war and set the country on a steeper industrial path.

We need that decisive force not just to deal with imperialist aggression but to feed everyone well.

More on the issues of global food, ecology and diet on sustainably FED


Hero image modified from photo by Tommy Kwak on Unsplash

Remembering armchair activism from the 1980s

Remembering armchair activism from the 1980s

When I went to university in 1979, there was plenty of noise. British students were boisterous.

We shouted and boycotted Barclays because it was the biggest high street bank in South Africa. We listened when the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned against Barclays because it helped finance the Cabora Bassa dam project in Mozambique.

Then, after James Callaghan’s minority Labour government lost a no-confidence motion by one vote forcing a general election that elected Margaret Thatcher, we had some local politics to get us lefties agitated. We crowed when the new conservative government introduced means-tested student loans. A few of my buddies estranged from wealthy families suddenly had to fund their education.

I remember that the first black-led government of Rhodesia in 90 years came to power after the power-sharing deal of Ian Smith in the soon to be independent Zimbabwe. I didn’t know that I would live in that beautiful country a few years later.

Alloporus at the University of Zimbabwe, 1987

The handsome young fellow at the start of his academic career, Zimbabwe, 1987

1979 saw the One-child policy introduced in China with significant political and population consequences.

Meanwhile, in the United States, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

By 1979, protests to end the Vietnam war were over. But their residue left a slightly cantankerous youth still able to muster an occupation of the university administration building. I can’t remember why.

What I do remember was that protest was inherently political. 

It meant something to throw challenges and abuse at the politicians because these were the people who made decisions. Whether that was Margaret or PW Botha, the last prime minister of South Africa before the State President was given executive powers under the new post-apartheid constitution, politicians were the target.

What I didn’t feel was any danger. 

My generation railed for others because we had it lucky. The world was our oyster, and we were enjoying a fabulous education heavily subsidised by the state.

Not so much now.

It is much harder everywhere, with more obscure prospects and a clear risk of system collapse. Even the fundamentals of the social contract are crumbling.

School strike for climate placcard

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

Activism skipped a few generations before it landed in schools. 

Today, the teenagers have taken up the chants and populated the demonstrations because they are worried. And I don’t blame them.

They point to the risk of environmental collapse and ask for urgent action.

Only the groundswell of justice that pushed my generation onto the moral high ground is, at best, a trickle of support. The political elite has insulated themselves from the noise in the fantasy land of their parliaments and used the media to make blunders like Brexit into great victories.

They are all deaf, dumb, blind and crap at pinball.

Even when the best of the schoolkid activists addresses them, all they can say is “go back to school”.

“Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”

Greta Thunberg, Houses of Parliament, UK, April 2019.

Guardian columnist and writer Zoe Williams sums it up.

And then, in the matter-of-fact simplicity of youth.

We are sick of conference upon conference as if that alone is the solution.

Ella Simons, 15-year-old high school student from Melbourne, Member of the School Strike for Climate movement.

Each generation lives with noise. 

In hindsight, my late baby boomer peers had few moral dilemmas to chant about; the reality was far away in another land. We were unhappy with one in ten and danced with Rankin Roger as he implored Margaret to stand down, but these issues were never existential.

Today’s generation has its very future in the frame.

How will we feed everyone well when there is a war in Europe?

How will we feed everyone well when there is a war in Europe?

I often have to pinch myself. 

In my comfortable home with a fridge full of food, potable water in the tap, and all the modern conveniences of a western lifestyle, I am one of the most fortunate people lucky enough to have existed.

Life is not all roses and freshly ground coffee. Two years ago, a massive 300,000 ha wildfire threatened our suburb after the previous one destroyed our backyard. Along with everyone else, we struggled through COVID lockdowns, survived shortages of toilet rolls, and went along to get vaccinated. Just as the lockdown rules were relaxed, we sloshed our way through the wettest summer I can remember as our region was declared a disaster area in the floods of early March and April 2022. But the record-breaking weather didn’t lead the newsfeed because there was a horrible unnecessary war in Europe.

So when I pinch myself, I am numb, not quite sure how to be grateful for my good luck.

There is a knot in my stomach. I realise that the current events are just harbingers—signals of what is to come. And although in my comfort, I have no right to be fearful, I am. 

Here is why. I have a niggling question.

How are we going to feed everyone well?

fresh brocoli and snow peas ready for the wok

Nothing like a pile of healthy greens—source Alloporus

Food prices will rise

Bread is a staple in the diet of billions of people worldwide. In 2021 global wheat production was around 766 million tons. Three countries make up 30% of the world’s production: Ukraine 26 million, Russian Federation 73 million, and China 132 million. Russia and Ukraine export about a quarter of the world’s wheat and half of its sunflower products. 

Even if we assume that Ukrainian farmers will continue to grow crops when the conflict subsides, there will be a disruption to supply in 2022 and beyond. 

Some countries are heavily exposed to this disruption.

Egypt imports the most grain, including around 5.60% of the world’s wheat imports. Flatbread is a staple food in Egypt, where the government has subsidised bread for decades but plans to raise the price. Egypt imported 6.1 million tonnes of wheat in 2021, with Russia supplying 4.2 million tonnes worth $1.2 billion. What happens if the Egyptians need to source wheat from elsewhere?

“I cannot provide 20 loaves of bread at the cost of one cigarette.” 

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egyptian President 

In Tunisia, where the state controls the price of bread, half the country’s wheat imports come from Ukraine, and since the war started, wheat prices have risen to a 14-year high. 

Lebanon imports more than half of its wheat from Ukraine and reportedly has only weeks worth of supply. 

“Over time, depending on the length and the severity of this war, you could begin to see shortages of shipments that come to the African continent, and that could cause shortages. Particularly in the North African countries, and to an extent in East Africa.”

Wandile Sihlobo, Chief economist, Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa

I could go on, but when staple foods are not on the shelves or price rises put them out of reach, the social consequences reach further than toilet tissue.

In the acute phase of the conflict, people will treat these challenges like disasters. They will rally, help each other, and strike new trade deals. 

But the combination of war, COVID disruption, and population growth are not like a natural disaster that comes and goes away, leaving some clean air to rebuild and recover. 

There are lingering consequences.

flatbreads fresh from the oven

Flatbread has to be one of the most delicious foods ever created. Photo by Nancy Hann on Unsplash

Fertiliser prices will rise.

Food production in Europe feeds a billion people. 

Given we have bread on our minds, annual wheat production in the EU has been around 120 million tons for a decade. This is a little more than Russia and Ukraine combined.

Almost all of this production comes from intensive input-driven agriculture. Failure to add fertiliser and yield declines rapidly because the soils are already depleted from centuries of production.

Bread is humans eating fertiliser (or drinking oil).

And for the EU, a quarter of this fertiliser comes from Russia.

Russia produces 50 million tons of fertilisers every year, 13% of the world’s total, and is a significant exporter of potash, phosphate, and nitrogen-containing fertilisers. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy, but restricting fertiliser exports would be an equivalent retaliation to impact the west.

But fertiliser supply is not all that Russia controls. 

Ammonia is a critical ingredient in nitrogen fertilisers. It is made from natural gas. Yara International, one of the largest fertiliser producers in Europe, cut 40% of its production capacity in Europe in 2021 before the conflict because of a spike in the price of wholesale gas. 

Self-sufficiency is not just about farmers. It is about the tools of their trade and the inputs they need to get the job done.

“Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilisers… and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%… For me, it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be.

Svein Tore Holsether, CEO, Yara International 
Homemade pavlova a delicious dessert made from egg whites, sugar, cream and fruit

Homemade pavlova that was simply delicious—Alloporus

Global food supply.

A lot has happened to the world since WW2. Most of it was peaceful, at least for the average citizen in Europe or the US. 

Once the Cold War ended, globalisation took over. Products, components, energy, and expertise come from anywhere and go anywhere, especially food. 

Currently, enough food is grown to feed everyone. Goods made or produced are shipped everywhere through a global supply system to arrive just in time. Many western countries rely heavily on this trade. They find it cheaper to buy the food than grow it themselves. Governments can point to the efficiency of the global food system to justify the easy option.

However, food production systems lack resilience.

A small example. There are 74,542 farms and 1,000 agricultural and food companies in Minnesota, but there are shortages everywhere because the supply chain is down over 5,000 commercial drivers. Brexit and then COVID created a similar problem for British consumers who get 80% of their food from France, Germany, the Netherlands and over 150 other countries.

Problems with distribution, access and waste leave one in ten of the global population hungry. Historically, most of these people lived in poorer countries, but the US and UK examples show the jurisdictional us and them breaking down. 

Hungry people exist everywhere.

Intensive agriculture that only produces cheap food with an energy subsidy and just in time trade is precarious.

Scarcity is a failed crop away.

Quote from Shelly Fagan about farming in the US

Feeding the poor well

“War leads to greater food insecurity, and food insecurity increases the chance of unrest and violence. So a conflict in Ukraine leading to hunger and pushing people into food insecurity elsewhere could have [the] potential for unrest and violence in other areas. And really, the world cannot afford another conflict.

Abeer Etefa, World Food Programme spokesperson based in Cairo

Back in my comfortable home with a fridge full of food and my status as one of the fortunate people feels secure.

Putting food in the fridge costs me roughly 10% of the household income. Should the food prices rise globally, I will feel inconvenienced. In only eight countries in the world do residents spend less than 10% of their household income on food: US, Singapore, UK, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Australia and Austria.

The average Kenyan spends $543 a year on food, a fifth of the money spent by an average American. But that $543 is equivalent to 47% of disposable income. Double food prices, and the average Kenyan has no money left for anything else.

This high proportional spending on food is not just about poorer countries. 

Over the past 25 years, USDA estimates suggest that the poorest 20% of households in the US spent between 30% and 43% of their income on food.  This explains in part why there are 40 million Americans on food stamps.

Any inequity in access to resources is made more acute by a crisis. When prices rise, it is usually because of high demand, supply constrictions, or both. In all the higher price scenarios, the poor have less flexibility and suffer the consequences before anyone else.

Oxfam estimated that as of September 2021, 18 months into the pandemic, the economic decline, mass unemployment and severely disrupted food production led to a 40% surge in global food prices—the highest rise in over a decade—and more than 40 million people experiencing extreme levels of hunger, a 70% increase over the previous year. 

We can predict that famines will be publicised and the acute phases will be supported with global aid. There might even be another LiveAid concert or two.

What will be harder to do is to support the poor diffused through otherwise prosperous-looking societies. These impoverished people will need policy changes to reduce their immediate food insecurity and create opportunities to earn more as food prices rise. 

Thanks for reading this far into such a torrid story. It is scary to think about these issues but they are critical. They must be open for honest adult discussion because humanity will face disaster with our pants around our ankles if we fail to prepare.

Fear makes us irrational, so we have to take courage, overcome our worries and start coming up with solutions.

I co-founded sustainably FED as a tiny contribution. Please go over and check it out.

What can you do?


Hero image from photo by Melvina Mak on Unsplash

A few quotes tell the story

A few quotes tell the story

This sequence of quotes I plucked at random from my superficial reading of U.S. political commentary early in 2022 before Putin chose to further destabilise the world. 

Then I put them in a chilling order.

“Only free and fair elections in which the loser abides by the result stand between each of us and life at the mercy of a despotic regime” 

Laurence Tribe, Harvard law professor

“One thing Democrats and Republicans share is the belief that, to save the country, the other side must not be allowed to win … Every election is an existential crisis,”

Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Columbia law professor

“If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place and that’s bloodshed.”

Congressman Madison Cawthorn, Republican, North Carolina

“The groups that tend to start civil wars are the groups that were once dominant politically but are in decline. They’ve either lost political power or they’re losing political power and they truly believe that the country is theirs by right and they are justified in using force to regain control because the system no longer works for them.”

Barbara Walter, political scientist, University of California, San Diego

“It would not be like the first civil war, with armies manoeuvring on the battlefield. I think it would very much be a free-for-all, neighbour on neighbour, based on beliefs and skin colours and religion. And it would be horrific.”

Col Peter Mansoor, military history professor, Iraq war veteran

“I speak to you as a human being, a woman whose dreams of motherhood now taste bittersweet because of what I know about our children’s future”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat, New York

Worried about the future, what will happen to our food, environment, and safety? Get some accurate information and ideas at sustainability FED.


Hero image modified from photo

Passion to do the job well

Passion to do the job well

I had a good old-fashioned whinge today. 

Bizarrely it was about templates or more strictly the lack of them. 

A document I had prepared got scrunched when transferred from Google Docs to Word because the system I was using wouldn’t let me use the obvious PDF route. All the tidy layout, fonts, headers and footers went haywire. What I needed was a neat template with a standardised look and feel that despite bucket loads of resources the organisation had not provided. 

After decades of trying to make things look good on the smell of an oily rag, this imposed dagginess just pushed my buttons. I got loud and went a little red in the face as my complaints bounced wildly around the room.

I mean it doesn’t take much to get a consistent internal look and feel. 

These days you can get an Airtasker to do it in a jiffy. Large organisations with their own Comms units just have no excuse.

Not a happy camper.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Calmer now, my curiosity asks why? 

What is it about tidiness and a neat layout that is so important?

Well, the obvious answer is that I like documents to be very different to the inside of my car. I want them to be neat, professional, elegant even. Achieving this is much easier with a template.

A good template makes for consistency of message and that makes perfect sense.

I certainly don’t like the optics of viewers seeing a scrappy document and assuming the author can’t even find their way around a simple Word layout. 

Not cool.

But this whinge is a sign of deeper trauma. 

Ever since I was out of diapers I have strived to high standards in order to fit in, to be liked and accepted. 

This need stems from a weird upbringing where I felt like an alien among the local inhabitants. It can happen when you are raised in the church, the Salvation Army in my case. 

Achieving accepted practice in the real world was a way of making sure that I wasn’t tainted by all the religious weirdness. A template and a consistent look and feel suggest professionalism.  

“The skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well” 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I like the skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected of a professional. I knew that if I had these things then it would be much harder for the real world to reject me.

I did say it was deep.

“‘Professionalism’ is commonly understood as an individual’s adherence to a set of standards, code of conduct or collection of qualities that characterize accepted practice within a particular area of activity” 

Universities UK

And I was right. I learnt how to be skilled in fitting into real-world situations by learning quickly what it took to do well. It didn’t matter if it was cricket, soccer, or undergrad assignments, I went for it with passion after first finding out what the standards and code of conduct looked like.

This was handy of course. The qualities of professionalism bode well in modern society no matter your background or motivation. What was different for me was that its absence became a trigger.

Somehow I assumed that everyone would be just as motivated as I was to do the job well. 

When they are not or just display an amateurish approach I get annoyed. No suffering of fools.

My early career was in the academic world where accepted practice dominates the discourse, sets the hoops, and decides if you have jumped through them. Silly things like 30 refereed publications by the age of 30 was an unwritten standard that was worth achieving as it made careers. I came up just shy with 28 papers. Peer review, learned argument and being well-read in your discipline were similar codes and qualities that mattered to academics. 

I thought this would be true everywhere.

Sadly it isn’t.

It is not about the absence of a simple Word template, although there is no excuse for such sloppiness, it is the lack of passion to do the job well.

To have even half a chance of fixing the many challenges that humanity faces in the coming decades we all have to find the template and become professional.


If you have five minutes, why not read another Alloporus post

The bright side of the moon

The bright side of the moon

Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The bright side of the moon

It is early in the morning, crisp spring air cools the cheeks and sends earlobes numb. On the canvas of a beautiful blue sky is painted the moon, still risen and large enough to see it’s sculptured surface with the naked eye.

Against its pale blue background, the dark craters on the surface blend with their grey colour and invite thoughts of what it would be like to visit, a nice place to go, colourful, pleasant, calm.

And then comes the reality of what it is actually like out there. A massive rock orbiting in the blackness of space where no human could survive for more than a minute without the aid of technology.

An orange satellite sitting in a black galaxy.

Alloporus

There’s something about the human condition that means we always see an image rather than reality. I guarantee that most people who look at that moon in its picturesque blue backdrop see an invite to go there. They feel like they’ve been given a ticket on the first rocket ship to carry tourists to such an extraordinary place.

Not in our grandchildren’s lifetime, will we be able to do anything serious in space. We will generate a lot of space junk flying around in orbit above us. And various companies and countries will try to snaffle some resources or make money on the back of the curious. But the reality is the physics and the simple scale of the universe make even visiting our solar system a task beyond our current technologies and the laws of physics as we understand them.

Unless someone can crack moving faster than the speed of light, then we are destined to stay here on our own in this tiny corner of the universe, in our own blip in time.

This should be sobering. Then it should be a delight to recognize our uniqueness.

Sure, there are other life forms out there. Enjoying or not their own blip of existence. But the physics of it all means that we won’t see them and they won’t see us.

And yet the reality is that we are no more suited to be in outer space than we are to dominate planet earth. I know it says in the bible that we should have dominion but that is just some self-assurance. The truth may be closer to our survival chances on the moon.

On earth, we change everything to our own devices for our own purposes and needs. And have done for centuries. We’ve been so good at it that the planet is barely recognizable. The moon has seen the changes on the blue planet and wonders what’s going on down there?

At the moment it seems that what is going on is aggrandisement through a focus on self.

And, as written many times on this blog, there are very sensible and logical evolutionary reasons why that is a default position. Our biology is to make more and we are extremely good at it.

What we fail to realize is how hard it would be to change that biology. So that our blip in time in this tiny corner of the universe would be anything more than a path to our own mutual destruction. We would have to go against our nature in order to persist. Resources must be shared beyond our kin. We would have to restore and rehabilitate land that we had previously pilfered for its benefits.

Most of all, we would need tolerance. Recognize that other people part of the story too. Not because they are likeable or even because they are like us but because they’re here, that’s all.

And without other people onboard, the system breaks down into all the old patterns. It’s an ‘in this together’ kind of game. We either all come and collectively understand the consequences of failure to acknowledge each other and work together or we go extinct.

And I know what you will say. Many people have said this many times before. But we are still here, still creating technologies to keep our supply chains and systems moving — ever bigger, ever better.

We probably have a few decades, maybe even a century or two left to keep doing that to keep on that track. Malthus, Ehrlich and others who prophesied doom from overpopulation are not yet prophets. But they will be. There will be a crash. It will be ugly and whether or not we come out the other side in any sort of shape at all is determined by what we do now.

If we do nothing the crash will be deep and very painful. And what comes out of the other end will be a handful of unfortunate folks scrambling for what’s left. If we behave ourselves and begin to cooperate and talk and identify the things that really matter then there is a chance that the crash can be managed. A softer landing if you like. And what’s left behind could be in better shape.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks. Given the development of a new project around food, ecology and diet — sustainably FED — and fictional writing of climbing to the meet and the conversations of Paul Sorol. Reflecting on what our chances of getting through really are.

Locally the chances are good.

In a crisis, people do help each other. We’ve talked about that on this blog many times before.

But once the crisis is over and the local situation calms that helping hand does tend to fade away.

Keeping that crisis momentum going is also not what you want to do. Nobody wants to live with heightened alertness the whole time unless that happens to be your psychology.

Moving towards something that is worth keeping is the key. That involves our awareness and is the challenging part. It’s not that we don’t have empathy. Not that we don’t have the ability to go operate clearly we do. But just not enough for long enough to see us through to a soft landing.

I do not have an answer. It would be good to find one but I simply don’t have one at this point. As to how we would do that.

And my apologies for another pessimistic post. But hopefully, you can see the kernels of optimism.

There’s still a chance even at this late hour for humanity to not just turn things around but to make the future much brighter than it seems that present.

Right now we’re heading for some dark times. Unpleasant politics, leadership that is either inept or not leadership at all, but authoritarianism by any other name.

A pandemic continues to cause havoc with everything around the world, changing what we thought was our normal lives.

But it’s this time of apparent darkness that it is possible to see the moon at its brightest against that blue background and to think of it as a place worth visiting.


Please share to help us all reach for the stars and find the moon.

What to do when values conflict

What to do when values conflict

I was always told that it is a good thing to understand values. My Aunty Eva always said identify them, get to know them, and then live by them. Not in as many words for she was was a spinster brought up in the 1930’s but she had the look that got the message across loud and clear. She wasn’t my relative, just a wonderful woman who looked after me a lot when I was growing up. I loved her to bits.

The question recently came up as to how far a values approach to life should go.

As everybody now knows the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted across the entire planet. Millions of people are infected and hundreds of thousands of people have died. The search for vaccines and treatments is fast-tracked with over 150 different laboratories trying their hardest to be the first.

Given that we could develop technologies that could prevent deaths and reduce the suffering of people who contract the virus, vaccines and treatments seem like a no brainer. No matter there is a commercial imperative, this search for some herd immunity and treatment feels like a moral obligation.

Recently. I was astonished to learn that various religious leaders in Australia had written to the prime minister saying that, according to their values, development of vaccines using stem cells from aborted fetuses was immoral and should not be allowed. The government should step in and put a stop to this type of search for a vaccine.

This sets up an extraordinary situation where a particular moral value goes counter to another moral value held by exactly the same person.

Let’s test this one a bit.

Presumably, the forthright religious individual would attempt to stop a man with a gun shooting another man or if there was a brawl attempt to separate the pugilists. And yet they would also stand in front of a woman who had been raped and prevent her from entering an abortion clinic.

The same moral dilemma faced them with vaccines that use stem cells and they went with the death of many over the past death of one unborn child.

It seemed not to matter that the stem cells in use for vaccine development comes from a stable cell line harvested from a single foetus in 1973.

My first instinct was outrage at the hypocrisy. And as one of the scientists working on vaccines said, “the Archbishop is entitled to his opinion and we are entitled to ignore it”. And so I guess that was an option too, everyone has the right to express their values and I have the right to accept them or ignore them.

But then I thought what is my value on this?

Does the death of one person, even though that person was never born. Does the death of that person justify the saving of other people’s lives? This is a classic philosophical conundrum debated many times over in first-year philosophy class. And the reason it’s debated is that there is no single answer only one that works for each person presented with the dilemma.

In this instance, for me at least, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a foetus that did not make it to term and so was never born.

These days I am often forced into reflections over the many such hypocrisies and conundrums that exist in modern society. In most of them, the values are obscured or obfuscated by the context or the hysteria of the message.

The first task is to find what the core values are before any decision is reached on what I think about them.

What was the value that the religious leaders were asking the PM to promote? The right to life?

Presumably, the relatives of the 6,037 people who died from the COVID-19 virus on 18th September 2020 would want them to promote that value with all their fervour. My Christian friends certainly did, they were incensed by the hypocrisy.

Making value judgements

The only defence the church has is that we are constantly being asked to make value judgments. When there is never a clear value proposition that would suit everybody we are asked to side; to choose a value that we support.

Somehow we have to get over this problem and allow other people’s values to be held as strongly as our own. And reach a compromise in all areas.

Recently the gunman responsible for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand in 2019 was sentenced to the harshest punishment under New Zealand law.

The responses of the people who had lost loved ones in that massacre were remarkable. They expressed a full range of emotions from anger and indignation, to empathy and forgiveness. The important thing was that responses were not delivered by one person but by many different people each expressing their feelings with the unfiltered truth. It was powerful.

There were many values abused by that heinous act.

In the courtroom, all the responses were heard because there was at least one common value breached, the right to life. Nobody questioned the responses because everyone knew that this was a value held close by all.

There was no need to question, there was only room for empathy.

From the point of view of healthy thinking, it helps to know how hard we hold our values to our principles and how often we are hypocrisy personified ourselves. There’s no value in holding on to a principle if you disengage with it yourself at the earliest opportunity.

So let’s take a lesson from those grieving families and have a little bit of balance in these things. Let’s try and see the bigger picture and the broader benefit even as we give in to our own emotional response.

That’s very hard to do but it’s essential in a world of eight billion souls.


If you like these ideas for healthy thinking please share, you never know what it might do.

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Scepticism | a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something

doubt, doubtfulness, dubiousness, a pinch of salt, lack of conviction; disbelief, cynicism, distrust, mistrust, suspicion, misbelief, incredulity; pessimism, defeatism; raredubiety, Pyrrhonism, scepsis, minimifidianism

Integrity | the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles

honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, upstandingness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, nobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness, noble-mindedness, virtue, decency, fairness, scrupulousness, sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness

Recently I have been asking myself a lot of questions, some of them pointy.

What is going on in the world? Why are we blind to the impending right-wing takeovers? Why is history repeating? Why do we believe lies? How did I get here?

This is partly a time of life thing and partly a WTF triggered by the state of the world, the country I live in, and my profession. Meantime some workplace nastiness has stalked in from the field and to hit me on the blindside.

In short, I am stressed out.

I have turned to my favourite supports. The butt skyward frame of the downward dog has provided solace, likewise, the gifted Mary Maddux from Meditation Oasis has been a huge help.

Meanwhile, my friends and loved ones have blessed me again and again.

I am starting to feel better.

This time around though my malaise was deep. The forces of the dark side gently yet steadily messing with my balance. I felt like I would fall over at the slightest push.

In this situation, there is only so much the supports can do. They can lift me up each time I fall but they cannot always be there for protection when the winds blow even as they show me how I can be more robust to the gusts and bend more easily. So this time I also sought out and benefited from some professional help.

Therapy is still a little shameful.

It suggests weakness because at the time you are. The point of talking through your inner emotions with a trustworthy stranger is because you need to build or rebuild mental strength. So, yes, I am weak right now. I need help and time to regain my fortitude.

The first couple of sessions went deep. This surprised me a bit. Maybe my subconscious was ready for it, more like ‘screaming to get out’ I think, and one word kept cropping up both during the sessions and as I processed and the therapist listened.

I became fixated with integrity.

My initial conclusion — initial because I suspect that this exploration has only just begun — is that honour and honesty mean a great deal to me, chased closely by character and morals. Integrity is a word to catch deep feelings in a jar and close the lid.

Then I realised that my profession of applied scientist embraces the qualities of integrity, of course, but it demands something else. My work also requires scepticism — the seeking of truth by applying doubt, then displacing it with evidence.

Scepticism is good, at least it should be. Scepticism is the foundation of science and is what separates science from opinion and lies.

As a seeker of truth, you have to question what you hear, see and smell. Even what you touch can deceive and so you apply logic to these things. This is the best way we know to convert information into evidence. My hand smells of lavender because I grasped the seed head of a lavender plant in the garden. The hand wash has the same smell but not necessarily because it had anything to do with a lavender plant.

Integrity and scepticism.

A huge ah-ha arrived when I put these two words together.

Scepticism is a huge threat to integrity.

Integrity functions as a given. You cannot test for it or prove it. Integrity appears through your words and your actions. It is hard to earn and maintain and is lost in a split second. Question a person’s integrity and you wound him. It matters not if there is no foundation, just to ask the question is wielding a weapon.

Yet sceptics cannot help but ask a question for this is what scepticism is, the asking of questions.

It appears I am trained to wound myself.

This is my interpretation and my current landing. My therapist did not suggest this and bears no responsibility other than what can be attributed to gentle prodding and a listening ear. I have decided that I have created a contradiction in myself.

I am latched onto integrity as a core value, if not the core value in my life. And yet all the time I go around questioning almost everything. In the simple act of scepticism, I am wielding a powerful emotional weapon, and just like anyone who would wield a real lightsaber, I am at constant risk of injury.

So far this realisation of self-harm is raw.

It is not really helping me given that I can’t relinquish integrity any more than I can give up scepticism. Both are integral to who I am.

A conundrum must exist. At least I know that now.

Needless to say, I immediately applied my black and white mind to this conundrum in search of a solution. I could give up integrity or scepticism or perhaps both. This would be difficult as a new persona is never easy to build and I would need a new career. Suggestions are most welcome.

Alternatively, I can figure out a better way for them to coexist.

I guess the real problem is that even Master Yoda must have singed a hair or the end of an ear in his fight with Dooku.

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?