Five percent

Five percent

What is 5%?

Well apart from being a proportion, here are a few things.

  • 5% is one in twenty
  • 5% is an arbitrary threshold value considered significant in statistical analyses
  • 5% is half the current rate of GST in Australia
  • 5% is a pay rise almost worth having
  • 5% is less than the percentage increase in US military spend under the Trump administration

5% is quite the conundrum. It is not very big and yet it can be big enough to be noticed. You would not want food prices to increase by 5% but they have, roughly every two years or so in most mature economies.

You’d like a 5% pay rise over no pay rise at all but in the US rust belt, many workers have waited over a decade to get it, only for it not to really matter that much.

It seems that 5% is an awkward, niggly kind of proportion. Always a bit on the cusp of significance — one in twenty is surely just chance. Give me one in a hundred and I’m listening.

The other day a friend of mine, also a fellow science nerd, told me that 5% of the hip pocket dollar is spent on the environment.

One in twenty of the dollars in the average wallet ends up as an environmental expenditure.

Now this bald statement that could take a bit of unpacking. What’s in the hip pocket? What is the environment in this context? Would the 5% spend include food or the council waste levy or just donations to the WWF?

In most of the developed world food counts for around 8% of household spend. There is an environmental levy in my own local council but I pay that in my rates, part of my tax spend. And my hip pocket has a whole heap of unavoidable bills from utilities to the mortgage.

We could be here all day figuring it out, so let’s just say that, on average, people spend 5% of their after-tax dollar on something environmental.

That’s $5 for every $100 that arrives in their bank account, at their discretion.

So is this enough? Is it significant?

People die if they don’t eat and have access to clean water. They need somewhere safe to stay and the opportunity to build a meaningful life with some fun in it. These primary needs would use up most of the $100, most of the time.

Add in the inevitable unexpected cost when the boiler bursts, the roof leaks or a family member needs hospital care and there may rarely be 5% left over.

$5 is significant if the cost of living has already allocated the contents of your hip pocket to the necessities of life.

This is where the thought usually stops.

The cost of living is unavoidable. If it eats up all you can earn, then the environment is not even a thought.

Only think a little longer. The environment is where the food, clean water, timber for the house, sand for the mortar, clean air, space for fun, among many other key necessities comes from.

Ignore the environment and it is used up, polluted and dysfunctional for these key goods and services.

Fail to pay anything for these things and they stop.

We should be very scared that we spend only 5% for there is no point in investing in ourselves if the foundation for many of the vital things we need is eroding away beneath us.

Whoops, no more Pleistocene

Whoops, no more Pleistocene

You may not be aware of this but we are living in a new geological epoch. It is called the Anthropocene.

This is actually quite momentous because there have not been many epochs to date; just eight in 66 million years. On average one every 8 million years. So to be alive when one starts is remarkable.

Epochs are a subdivision of geological time used for more recent periods of geological that are well defined by the fossil record.

This brand new one has our name on it. Geologists have decided that the Holocene has ended because humans have altered enough global processes in the oceans, land and atmosphere to warrant a new epoch. This is a big call.

Remember that the earth is huge and we are small. The volume of ocean water alone could swallow us all in an instant and may well do this to our coastal cities. So to say that humans have done enough in a little over 10,000 years — before this time there were only a few of us wandering around doing what other mammals were doing — to create a new geological time period is remarkable.

Global atmospheric, ocean and landform generating processes altered by a single species of primate. Really?

Of course, the division of the distant past into discrete periods is a human invention, a way to section geological history into units to make life easier for geologists. It helps them explain unfathomable lengths of time and to generate details that high school students must memorise. No surprise then that we chose to name one after ourselves.

It is the ultimate recognition of our success.

Human ingenuity and skill are now so pervasive it has changed the way the planet works. We have become the ultimate ecosystem engineer. It is a proud and, dare I say, noble achievement. As the bible says “take dominion” and this we have done.

We have fulfilled our own prophecy.

Leadership for the environment

Leadership for the environment

Be curious and humble

Be courageous and confident

Kat Cole, the 30 something president of a $1 billion brand believes that great leadership requires just these four key qualities.

Makes good sense.

Curiosity is essential for anyone leading the way along new paths into unknown territory. It implies a willingness to learn and anything genuinely new always supplies a steep learning curve.

Humility is self-restraint, self-understanding, awareness, and a good sense of perspective meaning that it is not about me. This is a true leadership quality.

Courage seems obvious. Someone must be the first to step out into the unknown to take on the curve.

Confidence is contagious. It energises those who have it and everyone they meet. It is a powerful attractive force that gathers and holds people together to deliver more than the sum of the parts.

There are few leaders who do not have these qualities. Absence or even a shortage in any one of them and a would-be leader couldn’t move forward and bring others along.

What do these qualities mean when it comes to environmental leadership?

Anyone with a smidgen of interest in the natural world usually has some curiosity. Variety, the unusual, and the strange are present in everything from trees to termites, and not even Sir David has seen it all.

Stand close enough to a wild elephant to hear her stomach rumble and humility will cascade over you to wash away your awe. Put a spoonful of soil under a microscope and the life teeming across your vision should make all your first world problems melt away. Once seen for what it truly is, nature can humble the mightiest ego.

They don’t call them environmental warriors for nothing. There is a fight on that demands courage enough to stand against convention and take on the reality that modern living exploits nature. It is hard for even the simplest sustainable action to be easier or cheaper than business as usual.

So far, so good as we can expect that most environmentalists are curious, humble and courageous.

Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance usually arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities — the expression of self-belief.

Now here I would argue that environmental leaders have a problem. Many are strong, articulate and outgoing individuals for sure. And they are often passionate, sometimes fearless, advocates.

But these traits are not confidence.

Confidence can be very hard for environmentalists because at some level they all participate in the actions that exploit resources. They drive cars, fly in aeroplanes, consume the products of commercial agriculture and feed their dogs. They live a life that they know contributes to most environmental problems.

Only true narcissists can overcome such incongruity to be truly confident. Normal folk cannot overcome the flaw and appear fake or overly aggressive.

Really poor leadership

Really poor leadership

Direct action on climate change is costing the Australian taxpayer over $2 billion to achieve around 177 million tCO2e or one years worth of abatement to meet the emission reduction target Australia presented in Paris.

A few people are being paid a lot of money (more than double the global market rate) to generate abatement while emitters continue to externalise their contribution to a warming world.

Policy that is in the interest of a few and the detriment of most is not good policy whatever your political leanings. Direct action is even worse because the government of the day is not committed to climate action at all. And instead of owning this position, they pay a sop to the voters, pretending to do something that is actually a way to line the pockets of a few.

The painful satire from Ross Gittings that sums up just how stupid modern politics has become tells us just how pathetic our political leadership is. And for once there is no mention of The Donald.

When something is really bad it does not tend to persist. This is true of really good things too because there is a regression to the mean in most things. The average eventually reasserts itself.

This will happen to our current leaders and perhaps to the current political system. Parliamentarians and those feeding off them should be worried.

Claiming coal is the answer in a record-breaking countrywide heatwave is as stupid as it looks. Everyone can see it.

Soon they will also see that many other policies, such as the ERF, are useless and unfair.

Disruption is at hand.

 

 

 

One million people

One million people

Consider a city of roughly 1 million people, Adelaide, Australia for example — Calgary, Canada; Bonn, Germany; Tuscon Arizona; or Bristol in the UK would do equally well.

Adelaide has two Australian Football League teams, a pro soccer team, two professional basketball teams, three Universities, a cathedral, numerous hospitals, many shopping malls, around 440 schools, an International airport, and a zoo.

There are over 400 suburbs arranged around a CBD that has high-rise office blocks that provide a common destination for a metropolitan public transport system that includes a fleet of over 1,000 buses.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, Artisans and actors; and enough skilled tradesmen to build or engineer almost anything.

In short, Adelaide is a self-contained community surrounded by enough farmland to feed everyone.

If it were possible to gather all the people who live in Adelaide into one, standing room only location it would be quite a spectacle. It is hard to imagine what it would look like.

There would people as far as the eye could see. Lay them down head to toe and the line would stretch 1,800 km — 400 km further than a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney.

Stand them in single file and the line would be 30 km long, similar to the queue at the post office.

Now having conjured the image of so many people in your mind’s eye put them all onto commercial aircraft.

Because 1 million is roughly the number of human beings who are, at any one time, airborne in commercial airliners making vapor trails around the globe.

This is both staggering and scary at the same time.

It is enough just to illustrate the scale of the challenge to provide life support to all the people we have made and still retain some environmental integrity.


First posted on LinkedIn

Health, wealth and happiness

Okavango-BotswanaIn my lifetime the human population of the world has doubled and, according to the World Bank, global Gross Domestic Product has quadrupled to over $42 trillion. There are many more of us than there were and inequity remains rife but we are, on average, much wealthier. Some of us are twice as well off as folk in the less crowded days I toddled through in the early 1960’s.

Collective wealth translates to tangible benefits. For example, we live longer than we did. Mean life expectancy is well over 75 years now in most western economies thanks to better nutrition, health care and a two-thirds drop in infant mortality. Babies survive because we have better sanitation and primary health care and mothers are well nourished. And then that health care system helps us recover from sickness and keeps us going when our bodies begin to tire.

Despite the fear mongering and the real dangers in conflict hotspots around the world, on average, we are much safer than we were. Marauders, thieves and bullies still exist and yet we can mostly walk the streets and laneways more safety than our ancestors.

Then there are the material benefits. Today in the ‘west’ we shop more, consume more and enjoy a lifestyle that would be the envy of the average 1960’s family.

I can still remember the excitement of the ‘pop man’ delivering soda to Nanny Olive’s two up two down terrace in Staffordshire, a place near the heart of the engine that drove the industrial revolution. I used to take an empty bottle of soda from the wooden crate hidden in the pantry in both hands and hand it over in gleeful anticipation of a full one in return. Tell a kid today that soda should be a once a week treat and she will swear at you — just like this little tyke from the same part of the world who took the ice bucket challenge. Classic at just 2 years old.

Wherever you look today you can see people who are healthier and much wealthier than their predecessors.

I lived in Botswana for seven years in the early 1990’s. The country was booming on the back of diamonds with roads, housing, shops, schools and health care facilities springing up out of the Kalahari sand. The grandparents of the kids that were in my classes at the newly independent University of Botswana could not believe the changes. Just a few decades before the country was one of the poorest in Africa, frequently ravaged by drought and hunger.

The old folks complained of the excesses, the traffic and the loss of the old ways. But just about every Batswana today is healthier and wealthier than the elders in their family.

Or are they? After all health and wealth are relative.

Is a man with access to modern heart surgeons who reconfigure the plumbing of his arteries clogged by poor diet and lifestyle choices, healthier than the villager who dies from malaria after 40 years without an ache or pain?

Does the ability to buy a plasma TV that keeps me forever on the couch make me wealthier than the villager who spends much of his day walking through the bush to find food?

Does the extra longevity I gain from my modern health and wealth help me if I am so stressed that if I stop even for a moment my world will come crashing down?

The thing is we can never answer these questions.

We can speculate that happiness is found in the pleasure of gathering your own food as you are nurtured by nature. And that happiness exists in the closeness of village life with its allure of support from kin and kind, even if that village culture also brings genital mutilation, domestic violence and inter-tribal warfare.

Whilst we know that obesity, diabetes and cancer will not make us happy; we know that warmth, comfort, and food do. When pressed most of us would agree that the modern village has its benefits too.

And there is a hidden benefit. As a general rule healthier and wealthier people do live longer. So health and wealth give you more time to find and experience happiness.

The against colour

In recent weeks I have been running around more than usual talking to people who wear suits to work. They have nice offices and meeting rooms with coffee to order brought in by waiters with Kevin on their name badge. This is all very nice if a little challenging for your caffeine intake.

The discussions have been about green bonds, a newish variant on a familiar form of fixed income investment. Along with talk of debt, security, risk and annuities, a conundrum that befuddled the starched white-collar folk was how to define green — often put as succinctly as the simple question, ‘what is green?’

Pause for a moment to ponder this situation. Here we have the business end of town asking a question that they have always managed to ignore. The very question that environmental advocates have consumed careers trying to get them to even think about asking.

There was even the suggestion that failure to answer the question might slow the process of green bond origination. Suddenly the health of the environment was important…

Surely not.

But there it was, the question they wanted answered was ‘what is green?’

Regular Alloporus readers will know that green is not my favourite colour — pastilles are more me. Green is a colour waved to claim goodness and the moral high ground and a banner to deny and repel a host of things that some people find useful — the mahogany table in the meeting room for example.

But my fundamental problem is that green is an ‘against’ colour.

Green is against logging, against clearing and against anything that damages nature. Green is against exploitation, excess and exuberance. Green is even against agriculture even though vegans still have to eat something

All this ‘against’ naturally comes with the requirement of being ‘for’ anything that is green. You have to be ‘for’ saving the koala, forests and anything indigenous. Habitat corridors are good green things and so we have to have them. The fact that evidence for the green credentials of corridors is equivocal should just be ignored.

Before I am trolled into submission for my heresy, let it be known that there is green in me beyond my many lime green t-shirts. I try to reduce, reuse and recycle and would prefer to see better use and protection of the environment.

And having been lucky enough to see them in the wild I know it would be gut-wrenchingly tragic for the black rhino to go extinct in my lifetime as seems increasingly likely. My science training reminds me that the loss of any species is irreversible. I even felt a little nauseous at some Youtube footage of bow hunting that turned up in a review piece.

Except that all this has nothing to do with the question of ‘what is green’ asked over coffee on the 14th floor. That was asked with a very different thought in mind. The question was about how to show the activity could deliver more than the required financial benefit.

On any number of levels that was weird.

The answer needed a list of benefits and ways to record and report them. This is actually how business people think. They count and they account. It would not be enough to say that green is against these things and for some others.

Of course business has no real interest in green. They are looking for the cheapest finance with the fewest strings attached. If one of those strings is green, so be it.

I wonder if the ‘against’ colour can handle that.


 

Other Alloporus posts on green…

Greens

Green has moved on

The greens need a new name