A post revisited — BMAD

A post revisited — BMAD

Humans are fickle creatures. Yet, as David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, figured out over 250 years ago, we are driven by our passions far more than reason. It can take an unearthly level of persuasion to alter a passionately held view even if there is irrefutable evidence. And many a time the view prevails.

This story about conservation in the face of scientific evidence makes the same point…


It is often said that the end cannot justify the means. This adage comes for the logic that an immoral act is an immoral act irrespective of when it occurs or for what reason.

The other day I witnessed an argument that left me thinking how this is adage is rarely applied.

The discussion began over a conservation problem that is becoming widespread in the eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia. Mature canopy trees are dying from infestations of sap sucking insects that proliferate to reach huge numbers sufficient to defoliate the tree. This explosion of insects and damage to leaves happens where a bird species, the bell miner, is abundant.

Rather than eat the insects, bell miners eat the sugary lurps that the scale insects use to protect themselves – it is a little like harvesting, for the insects regrow the lurp that covers them and the birds come round again.

Bell miners are aggressive birds and chase away other species. This lowers the predation rate on the insects that, over time, means more insects. The insects feed on the leaves that eventually succumb. When the trees lose too many leaves they die back. The process has been given an acronym BMAD; bell miner associated dieback.

Bell miners do well in disturbed forests because they like the dense undergrowth that comes when a forest is altered by fire, logging or other human interference.

Once established the best way to slow the spread of BMAD is active management involving the removal of shrubs. This means suppression through mechanical means, sometimes fire or, more usually, the application of herbicides.

These are drastic interventions of the kind that the conservation movement opposes with religious fervor. Only BMAD is far worse. So even among the ardent conservationists it has been accepted that intervention to remove shrubs is necessary. It is acceptable to manage with interventions of herbicide a habitat that was disturbed.

All good so far. The argument came of over the next issue.

Someone made the comment that ecologically endangered communities could be managed for improvement.

‘No, no, no you cannot do that’ was the indignant cry. ‘You cannot mess with an EEC, you just can’t.’

It was seen as a morally abhorrent suggestion. If something is designated as endangered it is suddenly untouchable.

But why not actively manage? Is it not exactly the same as the intervention proposed to tackle BMAD. In that thorny issue the end justified the means. But the same means cannot be applied to an EEC.

So in the real everyday world we have selective morality.


Let’s just rephrase this outcome.

A Threatened Ecological Community is determined as such by a Scientific Committee that sits in a room in a city and decides a given vegetation type is rare enough and its integrity and longevity threatened enough to meet a set of listing criteria. The committee members review evidence and decide if there is sufficient threat to list the vegetation on a list of habitat types at risk of extinction.

This appraisal confers some protection where the habitat type exists in the landscape. More critically it confers that protected status in the mind of the conservation manager who could contemplate active management for lurp control but not in a habitat that the evidence said was threatened with extinction. That had to be left to be as it is, even if the habitat was degrading and on it’s way out.

No amount of evidence could shift this view. Ironic given the process of listing is supposed to be science based and objective.

Selective morality is not exclusive to environmentalists but they are very good at it. In a way they have to be because there are few options in a world built and driven by profit. They are forced into leaving alone habitat that will degrade in the absence of active management because management is associated with negative outcomes.

Their passion for protection drives them far harder than any amount of reason.

David Hume’s ghost cannot resist a chuckle

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.