Shed a tear

NelsonMandelaEveryone has written a eulogy for Nelson Mandela, I unashamedly shed a tear.

I knew that he would pass away as we all must, but I did not expect to feel his passing as though he was my own kin. Sadness, loss, grief and loneliness boil away in my soul as though I had lost my best friend.

Yes he was a hero of mine.

And yes I lived in southern Africa during the decade that straddled his extraordinary transition from prisoner to democratically elected president.

And yes I experienced the palpable change in everyone on his release — it was heady to live through history.

And yes, I could not believe that any one man could be so courageous and so compassionate at the same time, or hold on to both for so long. I still can’t. It was a miracle.

And because in worldly terms he was no saint he should be remembered as one.

All of this I know and many millions more will glimpse these things as the world pays its respects to greatness and genius.

But it does not fully explain my upset.

Somehow nerves have been gripped and emotion seared by the passing of a man I never met on a continent an ocean away. And I think it is the combination of courage and compassion that I lament. Mandela held up for all to see this essence of true leadership that is so despairingly rare. And now he is gone.

I feel the loss deeply. For right now it is leadership that we so desperately need.

No doubt my emotions will settle in time and maybe words will come that might help others understand his greatness, for hope will linger in his remembrance.

Just now it is hard not to weep uncontrollably for Madiba.

Soil carbon | What we think

I wonder what went through Steve Jobs mind just after the image of the iPad came into it?

Perhaps it was an original idea that formed in a flash of inspiration from the ether — the sort of thing that happens to imaginative types.

Or it could have been a steady accumulation of images, ideas and bits of less elegant technology that came at him from all and sundry that suddenly coalesced into something elegant.

Maybe it arrived as he peered over the shoulder of an Apple designer.

No doubt Wikipedia or the upcoming biopic knows the answer to what the origins were, but we can only speculate as to what he was actually thinking.

It was probably something like…

Hey, I’m really onto something here. Finally a device that everyone will want to have and fits our brand so well our competitors will just have to make copies. And hey, there’s big bucks in it.

You can bet he wasn’t thinking…

Oh boy, I have seen this all before. Crazy how it takes so long to get good ideas to stick, I mean I dreamt this little design up years ago. It will cost so much to develop that I can’t see anyone wanting to buy one from a store or even eBay — that is if the hardware people can even make the thing.

I reckon a big part of the reason Mr Jobs enjoyed so much success is that he didn’t ever think the glass was half empty.

And I don’t mean this in the ‘ra, ra, ra’ kind of can do attitude that Americans are so prone. I get the feeling that his was more a sense of knowing when the idea is right and that it would work.

Recently I attended an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change Forum’

organized jointly by the United States Study Centre, University of Sydney and the DIICCSRT [the Australian federal government department of many acronyms that includes the bureaucrats responsible for implementing climate change policy]. There were 80+ people present who all had more than a passing interest in promoting soil health. Some were just crazy passionate about it… and good on them.

Soil heath is a timely and critical topic. In many ways it is a ‘Jobsesque’ idea being simple, elegant, functional and ultimately something that we cannot live without. A global population that will rattle around 10 billion for at least half a century will go hungry if we stick with the current paradigm of soil as a place to put plant roots and inorganic fertilizer. The biology of soil is what gives its potential to sustain and provide, and whilst we do not fully understand why, managing for soil biology is the agricultural equivalent of an iPad.

So it was depressing [a carefully chosen word] to listen to an apologetic speech outlining how DIICCSRT, who as part of their atmospheric responsibilities also deliver the Carbon Farming Initiative, have failed to get soil carbon management onto its list of CFI offsets.

It wasn’t that there are technical challenges to soil carbon accounting for everyone knows there are. They are as fundamental as decisions to measure or model or even to go with simple activity reporting. They also involve gathering in uncertainty about what agricultural management does to soil carbon stocks [although here I believe we know more than we realize].

It wasn’t even that it has taken so long. We all knew it would.

What was so depressing was that the glass was half empty… and oh so hard to fill

Whatever Steve Jobs thought when the iPad first registered in his mind, you can be sure it was hugely positive.

Luckily the tone of the soils workshop was rescued thanks to a presentation from an overseas guest from the research arm of the US Department of Agriculture. His was a glass ready to be filled. He knew we had a problem with soil and that it was a big one. He knew that it was going to be hard to convince his research staff that they didn’t yet have all the answers and that the solutions would probably come from left field, possibly even from the ‘snake oil’ salesmen. It was going to be about going where we might not be wholly sure of ourselves because that was where the answers would be found.

He didn’t quite say, “boldly go”, but that was what he meant. I was hugely enthused.

It could be argued that we need both of these opposing attitudes to challenges. We need the naysayers to keep out feet on the ground and we need the ‘gung ho’ types so we can keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I think that we don’t yet know how to get the balance right and, in Australia at least, we are stuck. When it comes to environmental policy we have become paralyzed, exquisitely versed in stalling tactics and so fearful of innovation that we fear it like the devil. This is not good and may well be our undoing.

Mr Jobs would have shaken his head.


The ghost of Abraham Maslov would be having a chuckle right now, or maybe a wry smile at a spectacular confirmation of his hierarchy of needs theory played out in Australian politics. Elected members of the Australian Labour Party so frightened for their psychological health at the prospect of losing their jobs, last night rolled the first woman prime minister in favour of the previous prime minister they rolled when they were feeling a bit more secure.

The short version of events is that Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister in 2007 on a majority. His colleagues deposed him in 2010 in favour of Julia Gillard who, despite starting with a healthy lead in the polls, returned after the 2010 election to lead a minority government in a hung parliament. She and the party fell so far behind in popularity that all seemed lost. The upcoming election would see a wipeout so severe that it would hand power the opposition for several terms. So, almost at the eleventh hour, the party spilled her out to put Kevin Rudd back in. And yes it is farcical — you are probably surprised that it’s not in the alloporus “sounds crazy” series.

Only Dr Maslov has a perfectly sensible explanation. We all fill the safety and security buckets of our emotional hierarchy before the self-actualization one that holds morality, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts. When the position is precarious self-preservation automatically sets in. We allow ourselves to put aside what, in the good times, we espoused. We do what it takes to save the ship from sinking.

Clearly some of the motivation behind changing the collective mind on who should be in charge [again] came from the need of individuals to survive, to keep their jobs. No doubt this was part of it. Except that we heard many times in the brief lead up to the leadership spill that it was “in the best interests of the party” and “the best interests of the nation”.

Obviously the party benefits if it goes into damage limitation to maybe reduce the margin of defeat at the election or even have an outside chance of a win. Loose by a few seats and recovery can be swift. Loose many and history tells you that it will take many election cycles before those seats are recovered. So if it has to lose, the party benefits by limiting the margin of defeat.

But why does the nation benefit? Well the conventional wisdom is that in party democracies, good government requires a strong opposition and that usually means a two party system. The public gets to pick one of two options — one to govern and the other to ‘keep the bastards honest”.

Sounds sensible enough. Only the smell of self-preservation in this argument is strong. In the long run the two party option favours both parties — check out the hilarious Spitting Image skit below where the Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock puppets explain the logic.

The two party system can work if the process of ‘keeping honest’ produces innovation, new ideas and ideologies that match the circumstances of the day. The parties evolve with the times.

The spillage Australians witnessed last night was because this did not happen. Going back to the future was the consequence of a failure to evolve to cope with the needs of the day. The incumbent and her cabinet did not deliver enough policies that worked for the majority of people. And even when policies did work the government failed to communicate the benefits. They lost the trust of enough of the electorate to suggest a massive election loss and with no more time to get it right the party decided change was the only option they had.

Failure can often look chaotic. It became bizarre because Kevin Rudd was still around to get his old job back and that in itself is telling. If he really was a bad prime minister who dithered, back-flipped and regularly lost the plot with his staff and colleagues, then giving him another go confirms the desperation.

What might send us all cascading down the hierarchy of needs though is that Rudd was still the best option in a two party system.


Leadership still sucks

Leaning_Tower_PisaThe 100th post on alloporus was posted 8 months ago. That mini-review managed to reduce most of the previous content down to a couple of words “leadership sucks”.

And if you live in Australia then you would probably agree without reservation, whatever your political persuasion. We have an imploding Federal government with an opposition that just has to sit and watch it happen, whilst at state level there is a steady unpicking of legislation to turn the world brown.

Australia is even losing the plot in sport where in one code it is fine to punch the opponent in the biggest game of the season and in another a punch that missed is described as ‘despicable’

Ah, leadership, wherefore art thou.

As though in some kind of zombie state most folk seem to be ignoring it all. Perhaps it might go away. Just keep on selling the coal to the Chinese and we can carry on being rudderless [no pun intended].

Public lethargy is everywhere, spread as a thin veneer over stronger feelings of fear and woe, suggesting that leadership still sucks.

Only in the 100th post I also made a commitment to be more positive. Well that was a promise easily made and hard to keep.

It would seem that 5 decades of exposure to the human condition has allowed negativity to seep right through to my core. No matter the sunny disposition, gratefulness, the knowledge of blessings, and awareness of the privilege I enjoy — most of the latest alloporus blog posts are still glass half empty.

Not even the clever work of Plummer showing that despite our growing numbers the grand scheme of things is getting better has made me feel chipper.

It could be that I am wired to get upset and then depressed at all the craziness. I mean do we really need to know the sex of Kim Kardashian’s baby when we don’t know where most of our food comes from?

Less depressing would be the idea that this preoccupation with the inane and a requirement for drama is hard wired in us all and, more importantly, was necessary for our success.

There is obvious survival value in being obsessed with the immediate and the mundane for out on the savanna there were mundane things that could eat you or make you sick. Any hunter-gatherer who sent her mind gazing too far into the future went hungry or lost her child to an opportunistic leopard.

The addiction to stress is less easy to justify away unless we see it as a by-product of a requirement for drama. Argument does bring us awake, sets our adrenaline to work and makes us ready to fight or flee. In other words, drama was probably a basic requirement for successful savanna life.

Modernity provides us with every opportunity to latch onto drama and be in that alert state; only we have very little real need for it. Now drama is of our own making. These days we don’t find ourselves risking a drink from the crocodile infested rivers but we still like the feeling such risk brings.

I guess what all this justification talk becomes is a soothing of sorts. I do feel better posting rants when I accept that drama, argument and disagreement are a natural part of me, part of us all. The ego has to be thanked for getting us this far

What is still challenging is how to shift through to the positives. Not the ‘ra, ra, ra, yes we can’ positivity that is just another way of priming the body to act. I mean the real positives that come from truth.

For the moment these are harder to write about.

Sounds Crazy #3 | Baby bonus

Newborn babyEvery hour of every day there are enough babies born to ensure that the global human population grows by 8,000 souls. In a week there are newborns enough to use up half a million disposable diapers a day. Human instinct to make more is a strong as ever. The net result is that we are not short of people.

Now lets switch the focus to one country, a developed one.

Around 22.6 million people call Australia home. Many of these people were born elsewhere or are the children of immigrants. Indeed Australia has a diverse populace and is justly proud of its multicultural tolerance. Most inner city primary schools can claim 20 or more first languages among their students, the result of a liberal immigration policy that has seen more than 7 million people arrive from all around the world since 1945.

Current immigration is around 180,000 per year. This rate ensures that the population grows and labour is available for economic activity.

Devotees of the economic growth gods would say this population growth is essential because people buy goods and services. It is hard to keep the economy moving when everyone has a house full of white goods. A growing population maintains demand for houses and fridges.

But if it is people that you want then there are many more around the world itching for a visa to enter Australia, many more than are granted permission. Some of them can’t wait and try to access the back door.

Most Australians see themselves as egalitarian, believing that people are people, apologizing for past intolerance of indigenous peoples, accepting of modern differences and building a society from people of many cultural backgrounds. And given a history of immigration and multiculturalism would accept the logic of immigration at rates sufficient to support economic growth

But here is the crazy thing. Government policy since 2002 has been to pay Australians to have babies.

It’s called the baby bonus and gives parents $5,000 per eligible child paid in 13 fortnightly instalments.

Why encourage, at significant cost to the taxpayer, more babies when we have so many already?

I wonder what you think the real reason is?

Sounds crazy #2 | Waiting for the road to dry out

wheel-stuck-in-mudIn the game parks of Africa the roads are often impassable after rain thanks to mud that appears in an instant when water is added to the deep vertisols. Not even a land cruiser can move through the thick, clingy goo. Game drives are suspended until the road dries out.

If vehicles do drive on the wet road before the soil is hard enough, deep ruts form that destroy the road for future use.

After a major flood a similar problem applies to paved roads. Water ponds, seep beneath the tarmac and in places the firm part now sits on a mushy underbelly.

It makes sense to let roads dry out and for potholes and cracks to be repaired before traffic tries again to pass along them.

Only what if transport is the key to a rural economy? The trucks must get moving again and quickly, or else the economy will suffer.

Woe betides a local politician who suggests that the trucks wait a day or two. Political expediency has the trucks moving as soon as the drivers can each the cab to turn on the ignition. They then crunch up and down the roads hugely multiplying the flood damage.

It would be far cheaper to compensate local businesses for a few days lost custom than it will be to repair the roads that have just been given extra damage. Instead we get those trucks moving right away.

Sounds crazy — but it is true.


At what point are we accountable for what we know?

Consider the recent tsunami in Japan. Anyone in one of those coastal towns who knew that the wave was coming would have warned whoever they could. And many did. There are stories of great heroism by fire servicemen, emergency workers and ordinary citizens staying in danger themselves as they encouraged people to reach higher ground.

Anyone who had the opportunity to raise the alarm but failed to use it would feel guilty for the rest of their lives.

Earthquakes and tsunami happen in Japan. This inevitability forces planners to carefully consider where buildings must go in relation to this known risk. Engineers must also put their expertise into building construction sufficient to withstand shocks from shifting ground and walls of water.

Should these precautions for a foreseen event follow similar rules to those when danger is real and present? Applying a planning rule or choosing a structural material does not require heroism, but there might be a similar sense of responsibility around the decisions made in these professions.

Sydney coastline

Prime real estate in coastal towns is where there is an ocean view.

Planners who zone the coastal fringe as green space or tsunami protection zones would not be popular. Developers would soon find an alternative to an engineer who insists on the super safe construction options for these are almost always expensive.

In the political and economic realities of a modern world, developers will leverage many a weight onto hapless planners for the profit is in those plots with an ocean view. Perhaps these decision makers need courage too, only for, them, it will be much harder than in the adrenaline-fueled heat of an emergency.

What about courage for decisions on climate change? We now know that there will be changes to the intensity, frequency and timing of weather events – the altered likelihood of extremes and long-term shifts in the averages. We can foresee these climate change effects even though it is not a real and present danger just yet.

It is, however, time to plan for sea level rise, extreme weather, drought, heat waves and shifts in seasonality that are the likely effects with significance for livelihoods.

At the moment we are dodging this accountability.

It would be sensible to put climate change scenarios into strategic and local planning tools and have planners understand why climate change effects should be considered in their planning horizon.

Building design already has the smarts for energy efficiency, structural integrity and resistance to extremes. All the engineers need to do is favour these options and set their skills and experience to figuring out even better solutions. The planners can support them with compliance requirements that assist against the pull of market forces that will always favour the cheaper alternatives.

There is a difference in these examples of required courage and personal responsibility. Decisions made in the face of danger are instinctual. When danger is at some unknown point in the future, we have time to think.  We rely less on instinct and more on reasoning and allow ourselves some latitude. We may respond to the pressure of compromise. No need to worry, it’s not happening now.

Without immediacy there is no adrenaline required, we can relax into the comfort of busy work and allow the process of decision making to take over. Soon it is the meetings, hearings, forms to be filled and documents to be filed that allow us to forget that there was actually an important, responsible choice to be made.

When buried in the process it is easy to forget that there might be some responsibility to make the call and some accountability for it.