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.

NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK | NEW BOOK

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

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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.

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.

 

New eBook – Environmental Issues for Real

Not satisfied with haranguing readers of this blog with environmental woes, I have branched out into the dynamic new world of ebook publishing.

Thanks to the amazing people at Smashwords my latest collection of essays on the environmental issues of the day is now available to download in all the usual formats.

Give it a whirl and maybe leave a review on the site. It would be great to hear what you think.

A food security challenge

I have been writing a few articles lately about food.

Oddly not in the culinary sense, given the profusion of cooking shows and what seems like an exponential growth in the number of celebrity chefs.

I am more interested in ‘How we will grow enough food‘ and whether we can cope with a global dietary change given ‘What we eat‘.

An observation made by a friend of mine who recently retired from a distinguished career as a public servant in agriculture and natural resource management gave me pause.

After observing the agricultural community in Australia for several decades his comment was that farmers take up practices that improve productivity and sustainability when times are good.

When it’s tough they just do what it takes to stay viable.

The implication of this logical and insightful observation is that future food production is dependent on how well farmers are doing now, in the immediate.

Those of us who get our food from commercial agricultural production (nearly everyone in agricultural economies) have become quite used to highly reliable food quality, variety and supply. And to keep the supply consistent the farmers relax and adopt sustainable practices when the weather is good and the seasons have behaved.

The likely response to drought, flood, frost and heat waves, or soil degradation is do what you can to get some kind of crop to market. This is because the market demand requires it and, as a business, the farm must at least cover its costs or it goes out of business.

The same response occurs when input costs rise. Do what you can to keep the business viable. In short, get some product to market.

This understandable response is a food security challenge, especially where the bulk of food production comes from the small to medium size businesses that we call farms.

If farm viability is so important to both the market and the individual business then there is little to stop exploitative practices when times are tough. At the margins risks will be taken just to keep the business going; because the alternative is the businesses go under. We do it in manufacturing, retail and service sectors so it should be no surprise that we do it in agriculture.

We will save the government subsidy issue for later. What we might think about is the challenge to good practice presented when times are hard.

The reality is that good practice will only be good if it results in some buffering of economic returns when times are tough. Sustainable practices are those that keep inputs to a minimum, make optimal use of the conditions even when its warm and doesn’t rain, and end up with some salable produce.

Where this is not possible, then the farm ceases to be a business. And given that in our current model we buy almost all our food, business failure makes food supply far less secure.

 

 

A future economy

Over the past 120 years ago the have been an average of 114 million sheep grazing on Australia paddocks producing wool and meat for export. In 1970 the numbers peaked at 180 million. Today there are still 72 million sheep but there are also mines making Australia the 2nd biggest global producer of iron ore and 4th biggest producer of coal. Australia the country has done very nicely out of the natural resources of the world’s largest island.

In time the Australian economy will need to make money from something other than natural resources. This is a significant reality for a society that was created on the back of the sheep and now rides high on coal trucks and ships laden with iron ore.

“No worries, mate,” some say. There is plenty of time. There will be generations of demand for those salable mineral resources from the 4 billion people who still don’t have a washing machine but would dearly like one.

Plus we could always go back to sheep. For soon there will be 10 billion humans to be fed and we have all that wet and wonderful land in the north to turn into a food basket.

I joke not. The latter idea is under serious consideration by the right leaning Federal opposition party. Equally there are those who would see remaining forests in the east paved to provide the living space for 100 million.

And maybe that is enough. There could be another 100 years of wealth in natural resources grown on and dug up from the land and immigration to provide local customers who will buy houses, white goods and visit air-conditioned shopping malls.

But I would think we need something else; at least a couple of alternative sources of external income. Not least because there will be a need to find something for everyone to do. Else the nation becomes a handful of miners and hi-tech farmers supported by millions of shopkeepers (or, more likely, couriers for online stores) and civil servants. And not everyone can be those; and already 3 out of 4 Australians in the workforce are paid for delivering a service of one sort or another.

So what would the else be?

Presumably something that the people are good at, have an aptitude for, and makes sense economically. Sport perhaps.

Commentators in the US have asked the same question of their nation. One of their answers is for the US to drive the technology revolution needed to shift our energy supply away from fossil fuels. They have capital, smarts, institutions, and the all-important entrepreneurial spirit. That they are being left behind in this by China and Germany also supplies plenty of motivation.

Australia lacks the scale of entrepreneurial spirit and risk capital to make innovation become a serious earner. Sole trading we can do, but a desire to build empires from small beginnings is rare. Consequently, the risk capital that runs at close to 10% of commercial investment in the US barely makes it to 0.1% in Australia. This lack of support requires that most innovators with a big vision must find what they need overseas.

So what does Australia have? What it has always had; abundant natural resources.

It makes sense to use the vast landmass, the myriad animals and plants, the minerals in the earth and become a regional, even global, breadbasket. Not least because Australia does have smarts, capital, infrastructure and the experience to overcome the significant practicalities that such a mission presents.

Only water, nutrients and labour are in short supply. Land must be managed carefully to avoid soil degradation and salinity. There has to be a careful eye on the changing weather and an ability to drought proof agricultural production.

Australia has a well-developed system of regional natural resource management, generations of farming experience, research and innovation capacity, a world-class tertiary education system and an emerging culture of prudent agriculture epitomized by the Landcare movement. It has what it takes.

This is not a proposal for turning the tropical savannas into laser leveled rice paddies, at least not everywhere, or to continue with meandering livestock left to their own devices and rounded up once in a while for market. This is a call for a radical change to agriculture that will make it into a smart, sustainable production system that accounts all production costs and harmonises output to the capacity of the landscape. In short, to create a totally new way that requires the engagement of everyone.

Why not do it? Create a robust economy on sustainable use of natural resources.

More on the size of the task

Asleep

Asleep

Just about every couple wants to raise children. It is an innate, inescapable need that is hardwired and natural. All organisms have this requirement to make more.

So when couples face biological challenges to natural conception they seek help that in most western countries now includes the benefits of medical technology. In vitro fertilization (IVF) and related fertility treatments have helped hundreds of thousands of couples create a family with more than 3 million babies born since the techniques were introduced in 1978.

Not surprisingly there was much chuntering at the Australian government for removing subsidies for IVF treatment under the national medicare system. Australian couples now have to find up to $2,000 per treatment in upfront cash.

In the short time since this funding change that has saved the government around $50 million, IVF proponents claim that some 1,500 babies have not been born because many people cannot afford the treatment.

Perhaps I am callous because my first thought was that this good news; 1,500 fewer mouths to feed. But then I am obsessed with 8,000 an hour and sometimes find it hard to empathize with childless couples as I have two sons and a step-daughter.

So I mellowed and clipped my own ear for being so heartless.

Then came the kicker. Advocates were arguing that, in fact, $50 million was a sound investment spurned. Eventually the ROI on the $50 million from taxes paid by those 1,500 kids more than justifies the government spending on the subsidy.

This is where I really despair. There can be no rational argument for taxes being a return on government investment because this is not an investment model. Taxes are a way if distributing wealth for services that are financial beyond most individuals, not an investment scheme. Nor are the accounts complete. The environmental cost of 1,500 omnivores living western lifestyles for 80 years would make $50 million look trivial.

The thinking that makes intelligent people (the proponent in this case was a University professor) misquote economic rationalism is scary.  It suggests that we are just more-making machines unable to pull in the logic to understand what we do. The bigger picture eludes us in our quest for advocacy, especially when that finds us on the moral high ground.

In an earlier post I pointed to the size of the task to support 7 billion humans in practical terms of energy, food and water is gargantuan.

Now I am concerned that the size of the task in the human dimension is even bigger if our logic is stuck with the eventual benefit of babies to the tax system.

It finally happened

After back stabbing, vacuous argument and dithering for long enough for us to have been in and out of the next ice age, and despite (or perhaps because of) a hung parliament, yesterday Australian politicians passed a carbon pricing bill through the lower house by a couple of votes.

Champagne all round for the warmers, gnashing of teeth for the deniers and plenty of “why did they do that?” from the majority of the populace more concerned with their own stuff.

And a wry smile from the historians, for this is truly a moment for them to record.

It is the point at which a conservative country in a remote corner of the western world, bound to a colonial past that created significant wealth by exploiting natural resources, made a tentative, but hugely symbolic step towards accounting for externalities.

A brown economy allowed its politicians to introduce a policy that starts to capture the hidden environmental costs of doing business. Those costs that never make it onto the company accounts, the externalities, or what the policy people prefer to call spillover effects.

On the balance sheets of 500 companies and organisations with the largest greenhouse gas emissions there will now be a line item that will show they have made payments for an environmental impact. Not from a point of pollution into the creek that runs by their factory, or for installing mufflers to counteract machine noise, or the filters and scrubbers to remove particulates from the smoke stack, but for an invisible and diffuse environmental effect.

Truly this is historic.

And what history will record is that on 12th October 2011 Australia made its move down the road of major economic reform. It started the process of converting from a fossil fuel based economy with centralized energy infrastructure built with entrenched investment structures; to a fluid, entrepreneurial, environment friendly era of economic development.

And this happened because it realized that even though a capitalist system fits the human psyche like a glove, capitalism is not sustainable unless profit is real. It cannot be profit declared by hiding costs in the environment. For, in the end, the environment stops absorbing those costs and closes down, cutting off production.

There will, of course, be u-turns and moments of doubt about this historic decision. There will also be kick back from the old ways that claim emissions are just hot air. And those claims may turn out to be true.

Only this path is as inevitable as peak oil, because even if it’s not about emissions, it is about knowing and accounting the true environmental costs of doing business.

Only then we can live well and live within our means.

Buying up the land

Land has always been an asset. If you control land you can live on it, grow food, exploit other natural resources on or under it, and even charge people for passing through. Land makes money. We didn’t call the old money upper classes ‘the landed gentry’ for nothing.

What we choose to do with land depends on its potential and the owner’s ability to realise that potential. Assuming, of course, the owner recognises the opportunity.  In turn opportunity is about where the land is and what other people want either from it or from what it can produce.

A hectare that overlooks Sydney harbour to the opera house might have been used to raise sheep 200 years ago before there was such an iconic view. Not even the most recalcitrant planning officer could block development of dwellings on such land today. It simply has orders of magnitude more value as a place for dwellings than as a paddock.

Sheep production will not suffer for a few hectares given up to buildings. Grazing properties in Australia cover more than 4 million km2, more land area than India and seven times the size of France.

Nevertheless the Sydney Morning Herald recently printed a story with the following opening line: “FARMERS fear a new rush of environmental plantings for biodiversity and carbon offsets will accelerate the loss of land for food production”.

The story was about mining companies, energy utilities and investment banks buying up land, often through carbon trading companies, to plant trees that will become biodiversity and carbon offsets under the Australian governments Carbon Farming Initiative.

Much of the land purchased is degraded or marginal with limited production potential – a gentle way of saying uneconomic. The new owners have trees planted and account the carbon that these plants pull out of the atmosphere as they grow. This they can register as credits to offset their obligations to purchase emission permits.

Under the carbon accounting rules the new plantings are expected to be “permanent”. That is they must persist long enough to count as emission reductions on the greenhouse gas balance sheet.

An offset planting is not a plantation or production forest. There is no mechanism to allow for later use of the timber resource.  They are carbon sinks, soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere, and providing habitat for any number of creatures that were under pressure as a result of land clearing.

The green end of town is happy indeed. A good thing you would think.

Farmers and their advocates are less enamoured. The prospect of losing large tracts of agricultural land sends a disturbing message to a community already worried by drought, flood, pests, a strong currency and uncertain terms of trade. Then there is also the buy up of productive land by foreign entities, both companies and sovereign states, looking for food security at home.  More land going out of our control.

With this kind of reporting it is a small psychological step to thinking that the land is being appropriated from under our feet creating a threat to a 200 year old way of life.

This will not happen. Even at their maximum extent offsets will be a tiny percentage of the total land area. After all it takes a lot of plantings to cover an area the size of India. However, the reality is that there will be questions asked of land use in the coming decades. We will need more efficient production, regrow vegetation for its carbon value, pay more attention to conservation efforts and be smarter about water use. There will be changes. And this is what the reporters latch onto. Tradition will not be enough to guarantee persistence of the current use everywhere. We will find new ways of making the land productive. Like the plot of land across from the Opera House values will change in ways that make alternate so attractive that change is inevitable.

And in the shakedown, who owns the land may be less important than what is done with it.