Farming not fracking

land-clearing-farmingStrolling through the village, as you do on a sunny winter’s Saturday morning, is a real treat.  It is a privilege just to take in the bustle of folk going about their weekend business — buying the paper, greeting a neighbor or settling down for coffee with friends serenaded by a teenager with a guitar and dreams of fame and fortune from his songs. This is why we are so fond of community.

Abruptly my reverie was rudely broken.

“No thank you,” I said to a brusque individual who ambushed me from behind the ‘vote green’ placards that were cluttering the pavement. The pamphlet purveyor was most indignant at my refusal and gave me the death stare. If that had happened in the playground it would have been called bullying.

I strolled on by and observed both the wave of annoyance that passed over me, and the slogan on one of the placards that read ‘ farming not fracking’.

For the uninitiated fracking is the controversial process of getting gas from coal seams by injecting fluid into deep rock layers to fracture them. This releases the pressure that holds onto the gas. Once free the gas can be piped to the surface. It is similar physics that happens when the seal is broken on a soda bottle and bubbles start to rise.

The Greens are on to fracking because it is another nasty resource exploitation process that results in burning of yet more fossil fuels, risks pollution of groundwater or local subsidence, and worst of all, will displace farmers from the land. Not all land, but the land gas companies might buy to exploit the gas reserves beneath the paddocks.

No matter that in greenhouse gas terms natural gas is cleaner than the coal that will be burnt instead to meet growing energy demand, that boreholes have always coexist with farming, and that legislation already prevents anything nasty being used as the lubricant.

As a slogan ‘farming not fracking’ is just silly. It is not even the issue.

Deliver it with a ‘holier than thou’ look on your face and even your supporters will cringe. Everyone else will tell you to take a hike, probably far less politely.

How about this instead?

We don’t like fracking or exploitation of coal seam gas so we have come up with this solution.

The energy that would have come from gas can be generated from alternative sources [solar, wind, wave, geothermal] plus some savings from improved energy efficiency. Both initiatives could be resourced from a small but compulsory ‘no fracking’ investment of say $500 from every household in the country — this one-off payment from everyone  would raise roughly $4 billion.

The return on investment is twofold. Cheap energy in the long run as alternative sources would get over the commercial hump and there will be environmental benefits from avoiding pollution risk. Plus, there would be lower greenhouse gas emissions from the soon to be necessary shift to alternative energy sources again saving money on transition costs.

All this for the annual expenditure to households of one weekly coffee and cake in the village.

The pamphleteer would probably look at me aghast and blurt out, “You mean to ask people to give up their Saturday morning coffee and cake, what are you thinking?”

Then he would spontaneously take up the chant “farming not fracking, farming not fracking…”

And no doubt the young songwriter could weave it all into a lyric.

Sounds crazy #4 | Logging of native forests

Logged forest NSWIt is wise not to believe everything you read in the newspapers. Most of the time the stories are, at best, economical with the truth, spun faster than a flywheel, and sensationalized out of all recognition.

This week though I was taken by the “Hatchet job on native forest logging” headline in the Sun-Herald [18 May 2013].

The report claimed that the recently privatized Forestry Corporation of NSW was making an $8 million loss on revenue of $111 million from logging of native forest across NSW — equivalent to a $671 loss per hectare of trees cut.

If it is true that logging of native forest makes a financial loss then to continue such a destructive practice that was never fully able to account true environmental costs is madness. It would be stupidity that borders on negligence

The piece notes that plantation forestry is profitable [$32 million in 2010/11] and implied that the plantation estate effectively subsidizes the harvest of native forest.

Clearly the story is never just about profit. There are jobs at stake, impacts on rural economies to consider if production stopped, and significant flow on effects to the supply chain. Consumers would still want timber. Suppliers are likely to source their hardwood timber from overseas where controls of logging practices may not be as tight as they are in Australia.

And yet, operating the logging of native forest at a financial loss really does sound crazy.

Paradigm shift

grey kangaroo | NSW“You cannot solve a problem from the paradigm that created it” is a famous Albert Einstein quote.  The great man reminding us not only that lateral thinking is powerful, but that it is easy for us to stay with what we know at the expense of the things that we do not.

At times we appear so stuck in our ways that innovation seems all but impossible. We think in the current paradigm, work in it, live in it, trust it and are horribly uncomfortable when forced to go anywhere else.

Take sheep for example. A godsend if ever there was one — just about perfect wool and lamb cutlet factories. Nations were built on their backs.

In the late 1800’s there were more than 15 million of them in the parched lands of western NSW, outnumbering people by thousands to one.

Now we have talked about sheep before on Alloporus [Last chance to see | Buying up the land] and risk New Zealander and gum boot jokes if we go there again, only it is too good an illustration of what Einstein was on about.

Sheep production has been successful in Australia even when the conditions didn’t really suit them. Herding large numbers of the docile creatures on paddocks was the approach imported from overseas where the same thing had worked for generations.

It was difficult in dry country so, by necessity, the paddocks became quite large and the sheep stations huge. Graziers sweated hard and found a way. Countless sheep were reared, sheared and sold.

So many sheep left the stations over the years that it became apparent that these dry and dusty paddocks were becoming drier, dustier and less able to recover when the rains came. Growing numbers of feral animals, especially rabbits, didn’t help. Over time the rangeland became degraded almost everywhere threatening the viability of farms and bringing any number of unwanted costs from biodiversity loss to muddy waters.

What to do?

Here are some of the ideas that were tried:

  • make the paddocks even bigger
  • make the paddocks smaller
  • try running new sheep varieties
  • spell [rest] the paddocks for a while
  • turn the water points on
  • turn the water points off
  • apply some fertilizer to the paddocks
  • maybe keep the sheep but bring in feed from elsewhere to get them through the droughts

All these ideas and more were tested at some point. What you will notice is that they are all within the sheep-growing paradigm

A few innovators tried rearing goats or harvesting kangaroos. This is better perhaps but is still within the grazing paradigm.

A few very brave souls have suggested there are alternatives to meat and wool production and be paid for the carbon sequestration and/or ecosystem services provided by the land. And there is always ecotourism.

Again this may be better in some circumstances [although ecotourism is rarely the panacea proponents might like it to be] but it is still the economic paradigm.

So is it actually possible to solve the problem if it is so hard to think outside the core paradigm?

Fortunately there are enough ‘out there’ folk to become the early adopters of even quite wacky. The first business suit wearing users of the early mobile phones that were the size of a small suitcase looked most odd until they started doing deals from coffee shops — then everyone wanted one.

So paradigms do change and the grazing one might just be about to.

Protecting Mother Nature

“We must protect mother nature from our worst excesses” is the headline of an article in the Enquirer section of The Weekend Australian this week.

The tagline “We can raise our living standards without destroying the natural world” introduces an opinion piece about growing human numbers and our deepening psychological motivation to keep up with the Joneses. Two things that are leaving us with stress and putting strain on the environment. And yet the ”wonderland of nature” is still there to us inspire the spirit. Natural glories abound that should garner our respect and “a determination to protect Mother Earth from our worst excesses.”

All good stuff you would think.

There are posts a plenty on this blog and by many thousands of other bloggers saying pretty much the same thing. Hey, it is even the main tenet of my latest book Missing Something.

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Missing Something | get your print on demand copy from Amazon or download a paperless version Missing Something Kindle Edition.

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So why mention this piece from the sunday paper? Well, the curious thing is that the article is attributed to Craig Emerson, the federal Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in the struggling Labour government.

Now if the juxtaposition of topic and source doesn’t make you smile, then it is worth remembering that the newspaper is as brown as it gets [being owned by News Limited is a bit of a give away] and is always sticking the knife into anything with a green hue.

Clearly the editor was having a laugh and providing a great gotcha opportunity to catch the hapless minister sometime later in the election year.

It is shameful that the sordid media cycle and political agendas do this to such important ideas. We do need to be more mindful of nature, more concerned about our exploitation of natural resources, and even to take time out to feel the wonder for ourselves.

What the Minister did, apart from being suckered, was miss the opportunity. It is not enough to say that there are now very many of us putting the environment under pressure, we have to confess to our dysfunctional desire to exploit and find the emotional fortitude to think before we act.

Maybe my lesson was to enjoy the chuckle I had at reading a green rant from a trade minister and leave it at that.

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It is true, I do have a new book that is all about how we perceive natural resources and those wonders of nature.

Check out a description here or better still order a print-on-demand copy of Missing Something from Amazon or download the Amazon Kindle edition of Missing Something right now.

Paying more for food

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As regular readers of alloporus will know, posts on food appear quite often on this blog.

Not new recipes for banoffee pie [can be too bananary] or salted caramel tart [delicious with just the right amount of salt] but more about how we are going to consistently grow enough of food to feed the growing and increasingly fussy global human population, not to mention their pets.

Food securityA food security challenge | What we eat

Recently I asked a question in my confused Confucius series on the article site Hubpages to see if food security was something people thought about.

Being confused Confucius the question was just a tad lateral: Would you be prepared to pay more for your food if it meant food supply was secure? [The link takes you to the answers and comments] and there is also a summary Hub

Turns out that there were three main objections

  1. Could not pay more because it was already a struggle to cover the food bill
  2. Paying more would not solve anything
  3. We already pay

Social media is a great tool to canvas opinion but, unlike answers to exam questions from my long-suffering undergraduates, answers to questions are often oblique.

Not being able to pay is fair enough and no doubt very real for many people all around the world.

Paying more not solving anything did not really answer the question by making the assumption that it was not possible to pay for security. Bit of a dodge I think and quite common I suspect in our thinking. We jump onto the polemic in order to avoid searching ourselves for what we truly think.

The ‘we already pay’ because our production system is riddled with externalities, also didn’t really answer the question.

I guess all I was asking is if we would pay to be secure, pay more for our current food to know that we would always have enough food in the future.

So far the answer seems to be either ‘no’ or ‘not something I want to answer thanks’. This I find both curious and just a little disturbing.

Environmental assets

Why not check out some background thoughts on Environmentalism | Environmental assets and complete the poll.. or just go ahead and tick yes or no. Keen to know what you think.

 

Last chance to see

Stephen Fry is prolific, so much so that it is hard to avoid him. Fortunately this is entirely tolerable for the man is smart, erudite, witty, and has a passion for knowledge that is as important as it is infectious.

I did, however, find one occasion when he might have erred.

An episode of his wildlife series “Last chance to see” was filmed in Madagascar, where the unlikely adventurer went in search of the curious and elusive aye-aye, a type of lemur. The search criss-crossed the island to find the few remaining patches of forest where there might be a sighting, only to finally catch up with one in a coconut palm in a villagers back yard.

Along the way the film crew passed vast swathes of deforested land that clearly left an impression and brought forth laments on the loss of unique biodiversity once the trees are felled.

Much of the cleared land was planted to sisal that grows well in the Malagasy climate and produces a cash crop for farmers. Fibre from sisal is used in packaging in the west that is biodegradable and often labeled as green. The irony was not lost on Mr Fry.

Madagascar produces around 9 million tones of sisal, about 4% of global production, and a seemingly trivial mount in the grand scheme of things.

Surely the unique biodiversity was worth far more.

Not for the farmer, for cash is cash. And if there is, right now, a market for sisal and it is easy enough to grow then it is a profitable use of land. And if it is more profitable to the farmer than an aye-aye, then sisal it is. Not because it is the best use of the land but because, like the rest of us, the Malagasy farmer needs to make a living.

The same happened in Australia. Sheep are not the smartest use of the dry and dusty outback, but at the time there was a market for wool in Europe and wool was durable enough to travel. So like sisal, sheep production was profitable – handsomely so for some on the less marginal country.

The last chance to see is because we all want to make a living and because we make that living from the options available to us. It is hard to make a living from the sale of ecosystem services, or from forest protection or taking people to see an aye-aye; usually far too hard.

What we need to do is to be smart about the available options for making a living so that the one that is easiest does not become the default.