Bigger ways to lose it all: the climate, natural resources and even what’s ours

“If we develop a global nuclear economy with synthesised hydrocarbon fuels, or truly effective electric batteries for motor vehicles, why the hell not buy a bigger SUV next year?”

This comment by another has since remained with me – even inspiring its own cartoon.


Because, of course, bigger is better. Provided we can eradicate this pesky climate concern, we’re onto something great (please note my sarcasm).

The trouble with such a linear, dare I say blinkered, perspective is that sustainable energy is not our only concern. If the Nine Planetary Boundaries are taken as a fair indicator of the state our planet, climate change is actually in fourth place, with biosphere integrity (genetic diversity), biochemical flows and land use changes all more heavily modified and/or eroded.

With climate change included, these four represent the major threats to long term prosperity. All are the result of the “bigger is better” mentality.

Bigger cities and farms, and more produce and energy use, equal greater economic activity.

When efficiency is improved, we don’t make savings, we simply make more, exploiting resources more quickly.

Stocks up! GDP up!… up, up, up!!

Growth is the modern god, more tangible than any other before it.

The blessed, after all, are showered in fortune. Those who doubt it deserve their meager station. Oh, how wonderful is the union of neo-liberal individualism and meritocracy.

But how big can a city get before the term “city” loses all meaning? How many hectares can be converted from ecosystems to monocultures before we lose all bio-services (that underpin so much of our economic activity)?

And we openly scoff at the loss of biodiversity when the compounds found in plants, fungi and animals (especially venom) have probably saved each of our life at one point or another.

With another species lost, so too could a lifesaving compound.

But we need to be bigger to stay afloat!

When will we exhaust the resources we dig up in wild places – the metals, minerals and hydrocarbons – and be forced to turn our mining activities to sifting through yesteryear’s junk yards for the same resources?

When will we remove the white lines down our roads, merging two lanes into one to fit the colossal SUV’s just waiting for a primed market?

I’m personally uncomfortable with such naive economic philosophies we broadly celebrate. And I fail to see how we can even start to talk meaningfully about taking action on biodiversity loss, land degradation or climate change, while still holding out on “endless growth”.

Just because it is, doesn’t mean that it should be.

We need to start thinking differently about how we interact with our common natural resources.

Some years ago, Michael Tobis suggested that we encourage much more economic activity towards non-material (or renewable) sources, such as art and entertainment. Given that higher density cities can achieve greater efficiencies, that automation is reducing the need for full time work and the concerns mentioned above, this could develop into hubs of economic activity while reducing such sources of stress.

And then there’s the thinking of people, such as Epicurus who said, “To become rich, do not add to your account, but subtract from your desires.

Materialism brings loneliness and anxiety. We feel a strong want for so many things we don’t actually need and, moreover, are only momentarily fulfilling once they are obtained.

Learning to quiet the inner voice of trivial want makes us richer on a number of fronts: Of course, without spending, one has additional income to spend on more meaningful things (or to work less). And then there is the other side as well; if you desire less, you already have most of what you need and want.

This is the proper outcome of having wealth – the amount accrued to subjective and trivial, the outcome (i.e. contentment with one’s lot) more objective.

We may think we want to be a millionaire, but that is just the tool used to quench our desires. The same thing can be achieved, for a fraction of the cost, through the taming of want, while at the same reducing our anxieties, pointless efforts and vanities.

With our death, material stuff and wealth pass on to others or erode to nothing. We don’t own any of it, but borrow it for a brief speck of time.

The only thing we do own is our time. It’s ours to spend however we see fit. Unlike wealth, once it’s gone, it can never again be reclaimed.

We could waste our fleeting moments, stressing over our desk and work floors on how we can acquire a bigger SUV, house and other soon-to-be-forgotten goods (made more so by planned obsolescence). Or we could treasure the moments we save to hold our loved ones, laugh with old friends and build bonds with new friends.

Before bigger meant better, it was often defined by greed and gluttony.

Spend your time preciously and, in turn, tread a little lighter on our limited resources.

Who deserves equal rights: One reason why so many social and environmental debates fail

Thoughts 2The further you chip away at the essential meaning of any social structure, two fundamental causes appear: guiding regulations must aim (however successfully) to further the well-being and opportunity of its free citizens.

Now, what defines a citizen within the population has often changed within societies – take slaves, gender or race discrimination, for example. Likewise the political and economic philosophies  behind these societies have also been as varied. However, the fundamental causes of such a unified population remains the same.

Recently, I’ve noticed an increase of opinion articles challenging the suitability of the neo-liberal philosophy.

Personally, I don’t hold a preference towards any system, provided it meets the objectives of improved well-being and opportunity for its citizens. In some society neo-liberal philosophies may achieve these ends, but they certainly do not today in any country I’m aware of.

I know I will be challenged on this conclusion.

And, I also know that neither my opponent nor myself would actually be wrong. The fault would be, as it so often is, that we would not be arguing the same thing.

The whole discrepancy starts with the view of the citizen.

Being more equal

Coupled with neol-liberalism is what is known as Meritocracy. The basic idea behind meritocracy is that the better the person, the more they are showered in fortune. There is something special, or it is the result of endless sacrifice, that leads our betters to their natural economic status.

Yet, over time, we find an increasing divide, not only economically, but socially, between the super rich and the rest, as meritocratic and neo-liberal principles couple in new policy.

For the so-called “land of the free,” it was interesting to witness in recent years the hot debate over basic universal healthcare for all US citizens. In much the same fashion, our own Medicare is always under threat of erosion for much the same reasons:

Why should the successful pay taxes so that society’s “losers” can receive free or subsidised healthcare?

The economic “leaners” as they are called in Australia.

This perspective effectively defines two groups within the population and, to return to the premise above about free citizens, I can only conclude that those who cannot afford adequate health care are not truly citizens with equal rights and dignities compared to their wealthy counterparts.

Beyond subsistence

I happen to disagree with this conclusion. Citizenship in my eyes applies to our whole species, regardless of wealth, race, gender, religion, age or ability.

A society I stand for is one that protects all people from cruelty, slavery and discrimination based on physical / cultural attributes (as opposed to one’s choices). It is a society that provides fair opportunity to all members, based on equal access to quality health care, education and essential utilities / amenities, which services as a fair starting platform for all to aspire to grow. Rights and dignities in such a society are universal, with law enforcers fair and balanced.

As has been said in numerous ways before; how many potential geniuses were snuffed out in the slums before they could ever spark? How fickle is fortune who sends so many falling from grace?

Providing a life beyond subsistence for all, provides greater intellectual capital for industry, a safety net from misfortune, and dignity for those of us who could never stand alone, or who time has exhausted.

The bad cocktail

Maybe neo-liberal ideas could work, if the society held strong social values to champion the lives and opportunities of their neighbours over favour and fortune.

“The wise are informed in what is right, the inferior in what will pay,” being such an example of this idea from Confucius.

Maybe Meritocracy could work, if it truly valued the efforts of all members equitably, for no-one is worthless (service providers shouldn’t need penalty rates just to make ends meet while massive profits from the business activity flow elsewhere).

No, neo-liberal and meritocracy are not compatible philosophies unless we conclude that not all members of a population are true citizens, which of course, I don’t.

And it is the latter – meritocracy – with which I most thoroughly disagree.

Social science shows us that wealth, beyond a given point, is superfluous and even potentially harmful – leading to worse outcomes even for the most wealthy among us.

Seneca also adds, “No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. In short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.”

Forwarding on from my previous posts on loneliness and slavery, here again, I find common fault with our social practices.

The endlessly hot debates over environmental management, climate change, social wealthfare, refugees, wages / taxes and even same-sex marriage have a level of commonality, with the source being this bad cocktail. Who is a citizen, or deserves to be a citizen, with the same universal rights?

Both sides of the debate fail to understand what it is they are actually debating, because they address the symptom and not the cause. Regardless of the topic, we are only trying to define who is eligible for citizenship within our personal world view.

We will continue to fail to answer any of these issues, leading to needless suffering, unless we start with the central cause to them all.

Who deserves to be our equals?

Slavery and Climate Change: the same question we were never good at answering

Carbon slaves

“…[if] the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”
Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part 4. (350 BCE)

Aristotle was correct. The day that brute human labour was no longer needed to achieve productive output, slaves would not be wanted.

I don’t believe for a second that there was a sudden uprising in human morality that led to the end of legalised ownership of people. In fact, in the quoted book above, Aristotle himself notes that, more than two thousand years ago, there were some people who thought slavery unjust.

No, our species has never felt entirely comfortable with slavery, but worked hard to justify it while they thought it necessary to reach a given standard of living.

For instance, Aristotle argued in Politics that it freed superior men from brutish toil, allowing them to become upright statesmen.

He wasn’t alone, of course. Many of the ancient thinkers and even The Bible not only condoned slavery, but provided guidance on how to most appropriately, that is, “morally”, master one’s human property.

There’s no surprised that it only went out of fashion with the Age of Enlightenment, the birth of modern science and the accompanying technological revolution. Rather quickly we had machines that methodically completed such tasks without the setbacks of slaves.

Indeed we could finally weave without guiding hands.

The end of legalised slavery was not a win for human morality, but merely a byproduct of changing technology and economic activity. Had advances in thought and technology been a century earlier or later, the results would be much the same, except with different names to the champions in our history books.

How does this relate to climate change?

It’s more than similes and parallels, but entirely the same problem.

For decades, academics have tried to argue the case, from evidence alone, as to why we should be concerned about growing carbon emissions and their impact on our fruitful (and very stable) Holocene climate.

Equally, the moral argument has grown ever louder for the rights of future people as well as the more vulnerable developing nations of today.

Yet, here we are, at 2016, with little more than token mitigation gestures to show for all the education and moral discussion.

The fundamental underlying problem is the same as with slavery: How can we maintain the standard of living we have, and expect to enjoy, without the cheap energy we currently exploit?

With human stock, the answer was only found when machines could fill the gap and business as usual could continue.

The underlying question took thousands of years to answer in the case of slavery. Why should we believe societies today to be any better with, again, answering the same problem, from a different energy source?

We must expect that the answer will be technological, not in education, or through morals or an uprising in, say, a minimalistic culture.

I know that many of us feel uncomfortable in betting on a “techno-fix” but human nature, as illustrated through our recorded history, leaves us with that as the most likely method for success.

To Supercede the Industrial Revolution…

Accepting that research and technological advancement are the only way to meaningfully mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change isn’t to handball the problem off to academics and industry so we can sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.

To act quickly requires, no, demands, public will.

Votes and the wallet don’t just speak, they shout.

Who we choose to represent us and what we choose to purchase both influence research and development. This is the democratic power we have in capitalistic countries.

Further, we know that climate change has, and will continue to have, significant impact on our global economy. To Invest in research and technology to replace the current carbon emitting systems is to invest in future prosperity.

We either let future climates make us poor or envision new markets, new niches and new ways of living for future wealth.

Thus the real champions to tackle climate change will come from the same group who led us to the problem – the entrepreneurs. Others might be remembered for great speeches and good policies, but it will be the entrepreneurs who will not only make these ideas reality, but also make them profitable, household names.

Slavery didn’t end because we worked to replace human hands with mechanics, but because of the reverse; new machines were seen to suit these tasks and were cheaper per unit of output.

Because our ancestors justified slavery, it wasn’t addressed until it was rendered unnecessary.

If we take a similar approach with climate change, we will be extremely poor before we face the question and thus be in a position unable to answer it. There’s a strong economic incentive to invest in finding the answer today.

Moreover, the so-called “debate” is rendered mute. We’re no longer pulling the moral or intellectual reins, but instead paving the path many steps ahead. That’s how progress is primarily achieved, as history teaches us.

Wars of ideology have never led us to prosperous futures. They only lead to a loss of life, wealth and intellectual freedom. The dreamer paved the way for the electrical light, radio and the aircraft.

The future is the entrepreneurs’ canvas while the ideologue does nothing but anchor us to the past. Climate change is the problem for the indefinite future.

If the car would drive and the city live without carbonised fossils to power them, the nation wouldn’t want fossil fuels nor the citizen the combustion engine.

My thoughts on potential job losses at CSIRO

In light of the recent news about the potential loss of jobs in the Oceans and Atmosphere and Land and Water divisions of CSIRO, I thought I should repost these videos I made several years ago. At that point, I was working as part of a national network called Ozflux.

It was an incredibly rewarding experience and one that I’ve regretted having to move from ever since. Many of my mentors came from this division of CSIRO and it’s them who come to mind now.

I only hope that enough people recognise the immense value CSIRO is to Australia and that whatever changes are deemed necessary do not negatively impact CSIRO’s role in improving the lives of Australians as well as our understanding of this unique and wonderful landscape.

The Anthropocene; too obvious to ignore but pointless to linger upon

Making the news over the last couple weeks as been that geologists are now saying that our impact is so great that it could be recognised in the geology in distant times as a distinct change – enough to make a change of times. From the Holocene to the anthropocene.

It’s better last than never, I guess.

At the end of the day, these geological eras are artificial creations that are agreed upon to define certain fragments of Earth’s history; all with shared long-term trends of some sort, beginning and ending with a break from this trend.

When did the Anthropocene actually start? Our species have dramatically altered landscapes, species distributions / genetics (and even extinction) as well as the atmospheric chemistry for longer than recorded history.

What I became interested in when I moved to this blog was not simply the recognition of the human-era, but instead the acknowledgement and ownership of the fact.

We can continue to deny, denounce and vilify the human influence on our biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and atmosphere or we can become worthy of our status as a force of nature. The former is to keep the blindfold on, press down harder on accelerator and ignorantly hope for the best. The latter can lead to a prosperous, entrepreneurial and unimaginable future.

I wanted to start to paint a picture of what the latter could look like. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to fall into the rabbit holes of insular thinking and politics. While a natural progression, as climate change influences both, it still wasn’t helpful.

We are a force of nature and one that has thus far remained blind and detrimental. I want us to own up to it and find the possibilities exhilarating, as I already do.

Now that the case is strong enough for the Anthropocene to be “official”, let’s rush from that to a new one; one that we create with the focus on a thriving, prosperous planet.

Fuel in the skies: has sequestration finally found its market?

I just came across an article stating that Audi have just done something pretty awesome.

Using water, renewable energy and atmospheric CO2, they have generated a synthetic diesel.

Read the article here.

Personally, I see it as a much bigger deal than simply a cleaner, more efficient fuel, which of course it is.

It’s actually sequestration. Moreover, it’s sequestration with potentially strong market influences. It’s also sequestration that brings a cyclic relationship to our carbon-based fuel.

Given strong global leadership on it, there is even a potential for us to modify the atmospheric CO2 concentrations to counter long term climate trends that could impact us negatively. Through controlling what we burn or store, we would be able to influence our climate for our benefit.

I recognise that I might be getting carried away with this news. However, depending on how this story unfolds, it could be a genuine game changer.

Sunday Reads #8: All things climate, environmental and politics

Firstly, I need to plug my survey again. I had a great response on Friday, but yesterday saw little movement. If the question and the answer matters to you, please try to get at least three friends or family members to spare 60 seconds to fill it in and a couple additional minutes to get three more to follow on.

Survey: Does the Aust Gov have a mandate on Chaplains in Public Schools?

Coalition’s Green Army passes the Senate

Having worked as a retail “trainee” when I was 19-20 in what was clearly a way to get around minimum wage restrictions, I am concerned by this, but not surprised at the bi-partisan support, sadly.

Carpark run-off cheaper to drink than desal water

Thinking for the 21st century!

Changing what we eat [relating to sustainability climate change]

Great to bookmark and refer to the future.

This Is What Your Grocery Store Looks Like Without Bees (PHOTOS)

Expect this message to become a bigger issue over the coming decades.

Fiji accuses global community of abandoning the Pacific on climate change, singles out ‘selfish’ Australia

Unfortunately, our leaders are not listening.

The jobs of yesterday: Abbott’s roads rear-vision

Sorry, second plug. This is my latest article on the Climate Spectator.

Power bills to drop 8pc in Tasmania if Senate approves carbon tax abolition

When the Gillard government introduced the carbon price, Abbott said people would pay thousands more a year in energy costs. He then said he would save people on average $550 a year in energy costs. Tasmanians’ are set to save $164 a year from the latest estimates.

For me, this is a clear indicator that reality is likely to be about 20% the estimate offered by our current PM.

Coal’s share of world energy demand at highest since 1970

And this is a genuine tragedy for the coal rich country down under, regardless what the short-term economics might say.