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.

BAUep2low

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.

Converting from Conservation: growth before guard

About a decade ago, I had nearly completed a Bachelor of Science, majoring in biodiversity and conservation. It was on these subject too, where I excelled, based entirely on my passion for the subjects.

I even completed a third year project with a report titled, Fennel, (Foeniculum vulgare); an unappreciated weed in South Australia. I was inspired by a love of hiking which had left me acutely aware of how much of an impact weeds had on the SA landscape.

I despaired for the loss of our wonderful and fragile arid landscapes rich in colour and life to anyone willing to look beyond the “Scrub”.

Today, I grow fennel in my garden.

PSX_20160126_105033It was a slow yet inevitable fall from the concept of conservation for me.

Sure, where possible, we should protect remnant vegetation and, ideally, establish corridors between these islands – that is and forever remains sensible. But a devotion to a pristine landscape isn’t even remotely possible.

Avoiding goats in protected mallee woodlands and first-hand witnessing of olive seed dispersal by birds throughout SA has continually reinforced the immense scale of effort that would be required.

More recently, when I did research for what became the article, A Viking Legacy and Australian Cuisine, I solidified the growing realisation within me.

Conservation for conservation’s sake favours no species; ours included.

We already fight for access to water, land and other resources. No matter who wins these fights, eventually we all lose a quality resource.

Take for example water allocation on the Murray Darling system. Over time more and more water has been used for agriculture. We can’t fault this because agriculture ultimately feeds us.

However, every drop taken away from the system is one that is no-longer available to the surrounding environment. The only option with less water is to do less. Less evaporation from the waterways + Less evapotranspiration from the surrounding environments =  less rainfall recharge. We have a compounding water reduction system that no management scheme could possibly improve.

The realisation that I finally reached is that the commons itself is actually also a player in ‘the tragedy of the commons’ concept and not simply a bank.

We need to accept that old regimes cannot persist with existing criteria and so, for environments to prosper, new species and new ecosystems will need to be introduced to improve biodiversity, biological services and improved resource quality and quantity.

An edible “weed” that will happily grow in a heavily degraded environment is immensely valuable. We have food in an otherwise barren landscape.

….

Nowadays when I hike, it’s a lot slower. I have two pairs of tiny feet walking with me.

“Look!” my eldest daughter points out suddenly. “It’s fennel! It’s a licorice plant!”

I snap a few pieces off, handing one to her, one to her little sister and I keep one for myself to chew while we walk.

Fennel is, in my opinion, still unappreciated. But not as a weed.

Instead, it is an incredible plant that grows remarkably well in poor soils with very little effort. My own fennel was grown from a fennel seed tea bag that I tore open and sprinkled into a seedling tray (and one a being from a dropped seed that grew straight in the hard clay soil of my yard).

Looking towards the future, with an appreciation for the difficulties and uncertainties around our climate and resource security, species that ask the least of us, but serve a function (be it carbon sequestration, food production or water quality) will gain centre stage. They are our safety net.

Today, I’m a grower, not a conservationist.

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.

 

Economic Wealth is Tied to Ecology

Today I stumbled upon The Future Economy Group. Very interesting stuff, especially the following infograph. The biggest problem as I see it from my experience is that those you need to convince (typically conservative politicians) think that token gestures are enough (I’m thinking Direct Action and the Green Army, for example).

Farmers are often conservative, but they know better than most that symbiosis means wealth. “You reap what you sow” isn’t just a dated cliché, it is the unbreakable mantra of our relationship with environments. It is only through investing in environments that we can continue to obtain profitable returns.

This isn’t “Tree hugging” nonsense, but good business strategy.

Climate change by any name is economics

The Independent Australia has kindly posted my newest article.

LET’S BE HONEST. We all know the “budget crisis” is little more than spin. We have a minuscule debt, enviable among the OECD countries.

That’s not to say that the budget doesn’t have its problems.

The truth is that Labor successfully navigated us through the global financial crisis and the Coalition has successfully got the nation talking about a spending habit no longer suitable beyond that period…

Continue reading here.

Sunday Reads #2: All things climate, environmental and politics

CO2 ‘significantly reduces’ nutrients in major food crops

Dr Sridhar writes an excellent article on food security, in contrast to the sceptical claim that our CO2 emissions equal plant food. I did see an article a few years ago which found the same thing with grain crops; growth might increase, but food quality dropped.

We can’t count on plants to slow down global warming

John Abraham discusses how sequestration alone won’t save us.

Climate change affects us all. So what’s stopping us joining forces to act on it?

Climate change mitigation isn’t impossible, unsustainable, unsafe or expensive. We can define a new, vibrant and sophisticated 21st century. Solutions exist.

The fossil fuel industry and who really runs Australia

Sandi Keane provides us an example of some of the main players keeping us embedded in outdated technology.

Barack Obama’s emissions plan comes under new line of attack

Even more on the war to keep us locked into a fossil-fueled dark age.

China’s Mega-Cities Are Combining Into Mega-Regions, but They’re Doing It Wrong

In my opinion, this is a sneak peak of one of the major problems much of the rest of the world will face mid-century. Planning ahead of time (while simultaneously planning for a low-carbon urban environment) early will lead to wealthier and healthier populations by the end of the 21st century.

Welcome to the Idea of Carbon Removal

Pretty interesting video

Govt releases climate action draft bill

All indications show that Abbott’s government should keep on with the current policies….

I try to tweet all the articles that I read, when I’ve read them. Follow me on twitter to get even more updates.

 

A Viking Legacy and Australian Cuisine

A perspective piece I wrote for the Solutions Journal has now been published.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond provides us a chilling historical anecdote of the Greenland Vikings: faced with an increasingly harsh climate in the early fifteenth century, a large swath of the population died out from starvation. Greenland Inuit, however, continued to live during this period. Unlike the Vikings, they harbored no cultural taboo restricting them from eating fish, which remained abundant as the climate became too cold for the grazing herds maintained by Vikings.

In very much the same way, cultural preferences in Australia, concurrent with changes in climate, may limit local capacity to maximize long-term prosperity. So-called heritage preferences livestock—that is, cattle and sheep—are resource-intensive species. With increasing anthropogenic climate change, the cost of this investment may prove too much to sustain Australian populations, just as natural changes in climate proved too much for Greenland Vikings.

Read more here.

How Not to ‘Save the World’

Some months ago, a senior academic and I talked as we drove the many hours to the project site. He was informing me on his views regarding invasive species, some of which I thought were questionable.

To clarify, I bluntly asked, “What do you think we should do with weeds?”

He replied, with all the authority that he could muster, “Get rid of them.”

I didn’t pursue the conversation any further at that point. I knew from experience that the tone was one baiting me into a debate. I’m usually all for a debate, where I see value. In this case however, the individual is one who likes the fight more than a resolution and I’m not really one for that.

It’s a nice idea to remove weeds and certainly not impossible… as long as you throw enough money at the problem. This is where the environmental debate fails all the time.

It could be in discussions regarding invasive species management, limiting the impact of pollution or even climate change. Whatever the subject, for the most part, we can eventually achieve the currently unthinkable if only we wish to drain enough resources into it.

Those who fall prey to sci-fi resolution to problems, starting the discussion not unlike an Arthur C. Clark story, imagining the problem is soon to be resolve and the discussion should be about what this means for us, just like the environmental romantic, are victims to the results, without object rational on how to reach them.

An excellent example in Australia is the olive. How much money should we spend on managing olives in natural landscapes when the recruitment of these comes from dedicated plantation? I once refused to buy Australian olives for this reason, but is such a protest of any value?

Am I giving up?

This isn’t to be confused with environmental defeatism that Bjørn Lomborg tries to pass off as realism.

Let’s put it this way; it’s not impossible to rebuild your house to correct all the problems, but can you really afford to do so, or does it make more sense to allocate some of your money to repair what you have?

The olive is an assimilated immigrant to Australia. It has its place now in the local culture and environment (is that cringing I hear?).

To this realisation we have two general options that have their relative expenses; we could “get rid of it”, which would close down the industry and outlaw all trees in backyards and public parks as well; or, we give it a citizenship, acknowledging it as a productive food source well suited to Australia in a warming climate.

The former would require a major PR campaign and many years of eradication and monitoring. The latter would likely see us not managing it as a weed, but rather as new competition to endemic species with the aim of promoting biodiversity which would include this new “local”. This would require effort and research.

Paved in good intentions

Environmental discourse has been plagued with romanticism or an unrealistic impression of “indestructibility” ever since the notion that it was a topic worth discussing became established.

The worst part is not that those who discuss environmental management most passionately are the most likely to fall into such a trap while those least likely will typically reject concern altogether, but rather that there is this line drawn in the sand between both extremes.

Either your hopelessly infatuated with a resilient (or fragile) Earth or concede that such musings are little more than a “liberal conspiracy”.

Where is the possibility to even start to discuss the place of the “Australian olive” for instance, in such an absurd and naïve situation?

To Get rid of it?

Over the last century, the Australian government and landholders has spent countless hours and dollars in management of the rabbit. This has included a 1700km rabbit-proof fence (build between 1901-07), two different viruses, warren destruction, chemical control and even explosives (read more here). Even while the most recent virus was having its greatest impact (1998-2003) the management cost for feral rabbits was estimated to be around $1 million (more here).

Yet, I see bunnies throughout Melbourne and right up to central NSW on a daily basis.

Yes, something must be done and our efforts have had an impact, but how much really? We can’t rebuild the house, but equally, electrical tape over the tap isn’t going to stop the leak.

Out with the old

The olive and the rabbit are not good comparisons. Olives will forever spread while they are being farmed where ol’ bugs just has a thing for breeding prolifically.

The point is that the current attitudes and strategies do not reflect the realistic capacities of management options and beneficial outcomes. I’m tired of the blanket eradication message where the reality continually fails to meet the target. I’m just as tired of the dismissal scoffs of the other side of the discussion.

We need approach species management with fresh eyes and very likely, different goals. The promotion of biodiversity would be an excellent target. The promotion of productive ecosystems which thrive while providing services to urban landscapes would be another one.

In short, there is nothing ignoble in rethinking our relationship with other life and in designing ecosystems with which our landscapes actively interact. To be absolutely frank, there is no other multi-cellular organism as invasive as ourselves, but at least we have the capacity to promote ecosystems, rather than out compete all else until we are the last one standing should we choose to.

We need a new dialogue willing to step back, compromise or actively engage where it is needed, without unrealistic ideation or denial. This will start with an internal look on ourselves and our place within ecosystems.


About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

Wishful thinking over good governance: how the new government will avoid effort

A shorthand discussion on the excellent article I reposted from The Conversation yesterday is; does current forested areas balance our GHG emissions?

No.

Well, why should we think of this as our ‘saving grace’?

The Coalition is focused entirely upon sequestration. My guess is that, to a casual observer, it seems reasonable, but of course requiring as little effort on the behalf of the government as possible. It’s a lazy policy.

If you want to find a cure, rather than work on prevention, as this new government wishes to do, as always, there are no easy options and it is always the most time and financially expensive option.

Firstly, mature forests are close to carbon neutral; if they are neither growing nor shrinking, the carbon balance stays close to constant. Secondly, as stated above, standing forests are by no means meeting human GHG emissions currently. The only option that makes sense is to continually increase forested areas and, to avoid maturity, keep impacting on it, that is harvest.

This is why I focused on forestry in my analysis of the Direct Action Plan. The only way to harvest carbon from the atmosphere is to actively, well, harvest it. To increase the carbon sink the only option is, well, increase it. Using sequestration is not the cheap, passive option.

Bleeding obvious stuff, but something no-one is talking about.

Assuming that Australian annual emissions stopped growing in 2010 (which it didn’t), this amounted to carbon farming equivalent to increasing annual wood production by an additional 300% under the most optimistic assumptions by 2020, to meet the Coalition’s targets.

Planting a few trees or saving some patches of forest isn’t a climate mitigation option. It will be marginal at best.

In reality this “cure” approach is a massive, endless, industry and one with little financial incentive (noting that the carbon needs to remain “locked” in this wood production). This is why you don’t see any policy, outside the Australian Coalition, placing sequestration as a primary climate change mitigation strategy.

The primary focus that seems to hold the most weight is one of punishment. Where there is a cost, people tend to be more thoughtful with their use of the resource. Moreover, if there is an inherent cost to carbon emissions, low carbon options become more competitive, introducing new markets.

This is what I would call direct.

But Australia voted against the obvious.