The Ord River: the unlucky horse shoe in the Coalition’s northern development

Firstly, I have to thank my readers. My previous post, The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse, did extremely well. I’ve never had a post that has caught such traction, so thank you to everyone who has shared it via report, twitter, facebook, email, whatever. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts are not in vain.

Yet one criticism has crept up over and over again; I’m ignoring the Ord River Irrigation Area. The commentators think I’m dead wrong, based entirely on this point and so, I figured it was worth writing a detailed reply post.

While I admit that my local knowledge of northern Australia between Cairns and Broome is limited (not a small area, by any means), I know enough about remote sensing, climate and ecology to feel my analysis remains correct.

Productivity

Ecology demonstrates that where there is a resource, species move in to exploit it. Even warm springs full of chemicals that are toxic to most life can be abundant with activity – just look at Yellowstone Park.

The advocates of the northern development talk of the north as being “underdeveloped” and this River Irrigation Area being shockingly impressive for soil quality.

But microbe and plants never organised committees or governments to decide where they will set up home, they do so and to population sizes that the environment allows.

Looking at gross or net primary productivity gives us an idea of how productive an environment is, obviously. Apart from eastern Queensland and the top of the Northern Territory, much of this northern development region has a productivity akin to that of the dry land irrigation regions in southern Australia. Of course, it also lacks the accommodating mild climate of the south as well.

Using the MODIS GPP image, we have the existing Australian food baskets in the south – largely Victoria, Eastern NSW and the southern tip of WA – with a value greater than 0.03; a value this wonderful northern region simply does not reach anywhere.

Gross Primary Productivity - MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage
Gross Primary Productivity – MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

If there is wide spread untapped fertile lands just begging for agriculture, how has it managed to hide itself from the most basic microbes, communities of trees (this region is typified by savannah, wetlands and arid landscapes) and most disturbingly, our best monitoring equipment?

I know the tropics can be farmed, but the land in southeast Asia is not as old and depleted as Australian soil. You cannot build complex carbon lifeforms without nutrient rich environments. Australian tropical rainforests are our best teachers to this reality; they are hives of life, yet their soils are depleted, which Australian farmers learned when they cleared them for farming.

In such places, there is a wealth of nutrients, but life lives on the fringe – keeping all the resources in the cycle and leaving none in the ground (ie. rip and burn removes the nutrient base).

So, as was stated in the original article, without vast investments in fertilisers or clearing of the few fertile ecosystems currently there, we do not have an untapped Australian food bowl in the north, as far as productivity is concerned.

Water… again

Again, water is a massive problem. One critic told me about pumping water – but that is a commitment. If one is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people to the north, that is a massive, ongoing, commitment to keep the community hydrated. It is terribly hot, regardless if it is dry or monsoonal, having ample water will be essential.

How is pumping gigatonnes of water to irrigate a low productive environment and to hydrate a heat stressed large community any different to the criticisms regarding desalination plants? In fact, I think it is worse because a political party is willfully wishing to invest in placing such people in such an otherwise avoidable position.

The Ord River Irrigation

This is the root of the dream for the northern Australian food bowl. The Ord River Irrigation area proves the norther is fertile and begging for development.

No, it is one region we have been flooding for more than 50 years, so that the feeding water supply and wetland birds can fertilise. It is also not an ecological risk if extended.

Yet it covers 117km2 of agricultural area – apparently to be extended to 440km2.

Yet a quick GIS polygon of the northern development region norther of Cairns to Broome is a region around 1025700km2. So the Ord River Irrigation area currently amounts for less than 0.0001% of the total region, to be extended to 0.0004%.

Sure, I’m ignoring currently developed regions and places you would not develop for ecological reasons, but are we really willing to bet on “greener pastures” on a sample less than a hundredth of 1% of the entire study region?

Conclusion

My argument was this; it is wishful thinking to bet on the northern development. The Coalition is no stranger to wishful thinking if basic mathematics mean anything, as I demonstrated in my review of the sequestration requirements of the Direct Action Plan or my analysis of their enthusiasm for 100 new dams – a move that would provide as much greenhouse emissions as a city the size of Warrnambool.

The advocates for the northern development, from my opinion, seem to be people who either have no personal interest to endure the harsh tropical climate or are the few locals there that seem to enjoy the prospect of investment potential and a few extra mates at the pub.

The climate is harsh. The soils are old and depleted for the most part. Once the mining investment is done, pumping water, maintaining dams, transporting resources to the middle of nowhere (which will also make them more expensive locally); all these and more will become more and more of a financial burden to be taken up by the locals. It will erode the financial security of the local community and leech the settlements until most move back down south (again the productivity is evident – not just in MODIS data, but in the carrying capacity and economy of a region).

In short, the dead horse is still a stinking rotting mass of bad ideas and wishful thinking. A good punter would be quick to be turned off. However, I do not like instincts. I prefer to test things. I have listened for a heart beat and found none. I have tested for temperature and found it unsuitable for life. I have looked into the eyes of the beast in search for the racers spirit and found nothing but the pale, unfocused glare of an idea that should have been buried a long time ago.

The Ord River Irrigation development is the unlucky horse shoe on the foot of the dead beast. This is not a subject I wish to debunk for the rest of my life, regardless of how many whipping boys are lining up in the vain hope of the norther development.

Part one here.

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The Great Murray River: The Real Tragedy of the Commons

The horizon stretches out before me, flat but for a few clusters of trees. The baked soil makes the horizon dance beneath the hot sun.

It is an arid environment and yet, before my feet spreads out an artificial wetland, complete with ibis, herons, egrets, plovers and ducks. Some of these wetland plots are void of all life, but for the rice shoots, due to air cannons sporadically setting off to scare all other life away.

Around the region, it is not uncommon to find aging signs tied to posts and trees along the roads, warning anyone who cares to listen that without water, we have no farms. I cannot help but feel that I am witnessing a real example of the tragedy of the commons. No story of cowboys feeding stock on a shared land required for, in Australia, we have real farmers on one real waterway.

Some readers will remember that, under the chapter “Nothing is Wasted” in The Human Island, I discussed the heated response to the Murray Darling Plan in agricultural communities across the waterway. Memories of that time flooded back as I stand over this man-made wetland.

What happens up-stream plays a roll on what happens down-stream. In effect, these farmers are evaporating away wealth stripped away from periodic wetlands and farming communities from the Riverland all the way down to the Lower Lakes solely to grow a subtropical crop on the arid inland of New South Wales. They could do this due simply to the rule; first come, first served.

I have been privileged to have travelled and to work alongside the most of the length of the great River Murray. I have been involved in air quality concerns resulting from the dry Lower Lakes blowing acidic dust around the struggling communities. I have worked alongside individuals measuring pollution due to industrial, residential and agricultural run-off as well as from the icon house boats that drift along the river system. My previous research focused on the productivity of the floodplains to fringing mallee lands while my current work places me in the Murrumbidgee region, further up-stream.

Even more personally, my father was born in Murray Bridge.

More than many Aussies, I have been lucky not to just know the Murray, but to follow the river from the Great Dividing Range all the way to the ocean mouth and to have studied alongside it and appreciate the rich biota at every bend.

Standing over the evaporating pool, after years of appreciation of the hardship at the tail-end, I could not help but shake my head. States and individuals prove that they are not capable of managing the river system properly as independent entities across the river. Gluttonous behaviour follows an inappropriate selfishness wherever the resource first finds itself. Rice fields in the arid inland are iconic to this fact.

We are likely to experience climatic conditions we simply cannot adequately predict to any great certainty simply because they are not what we knew of the Holocene as we push the climate deeper into the Anthropocene. We, along the Murray, may know a wetter future, with the biggest impact being from inundation of housing on the floodplains. More likely, the Australian “boom and bust” cycle will become more prominent and we will need to plan conservatively in how we utilise common resources. Even in the wetter years, we may not be able to excuse rice and cotton crops with any ethical conviction.

Productivity and, more importantly, what we hope to achieve from productivity – prosperity – will need to result from management of vital resources holistically and not based on border boundaries. Moreover, we need to increasingly maximise our return from limited resources and, in the case of our only major river system, this must mean agricultural practices demanding high water efficiency. The strong pull of water conservation down-stream needs to work against the flow and reach the users up-stream. A lot of progress has been made in South Australia to improve water efficiency that could make a difference up-stream.

The first that comes to mind is covering channels to limit evaporation. Another; no crops that require the creation of a wetland. Apart from the ridiculous amount of water loss, the activity creates methane – a further driver taking us away from the stability that favoured our move from hunter-gathers to a point where you are now reading my musings via electrons on computers, tablets and even mobile phones.

I have no sympathy when I read the pleading call on the posters around this region. I have been lucky enough to see what farmers can do when they do not have much water to work with. These people are innovative not solely because of governmental regulations, but more so because other individuals – such as those behind the creation of the “No water, No farms” posters – whom have long taken large quantities of water to produce rice and cotton; water enough so as the Lower Lakes have at times no longer been lakes at all, but instead barren dust pools.

It has been the actions up-stream that have affected the lives and prosperity of communities and ecosystems down-stream. “No water” has been seriously contemplated along the tail-end of this common resource long before the slogan was planted all over the lucky up-stream region.

This river system illustrates a small real world tragedy of the commons. If this one little system cannot be managed properly, how can our global atmosphere?

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Part One: How Do We Make a Change for Prosperity?

I’ve recently finished read James Garvey’s book, The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World, and I must admit I’m a little disappointed to say that, while we probably reach similar conclusions, we disagree in many ways on how we get there. This is very important, I feel, as I suspect the path taken will have a significant role in the potency of our desired outcomes.

Over this week, as I will be undertaking field work and only sporadically able to have much to do with my posts, I will elaborate on these differences (which, if the truth be known, summarise a few points to another ebook draft that I am working on; The Moral Geo-Engineer).

In this one, I will discuss blame and responsibility.

It is an obviously difficult subject, as Garvey illustrates with his referencing various philosophical arguments that have been presented as well as his own thoughts on the subject. We are instinctively motivated by fairness, a trait that is not restricted to our species alone; illustrated in behavioural studies of other primates, for example. With a problem as large, both in range and impact, as climate change, we are quite naturally drawn to questions of responsibility as justifications for assigning debt and/or punishment.

Garvey, indeed, explains just how difficult this becomes as we look further into the problem at hand. Yet, I feel that this meandering is ultimately counter-productive if not pointless.

Historical and current motivators for assigning blame will inevitably lead to unfairness in one form or another.

Firstly, blame for historical impact serves no purpose most importantly because those responsible are now dead. The sins of the father do not cut it. Moreover, historical instigating forces were naïve to the long term damages such activities would eventually lead to and when such impacts were finally addressed, current generations where already locked into carbon intensive practices for at least a number decades in advance.

It was also a historical accident that provided some states with potential to adapt to these carbon intensive innovations in the first place.

Selecting historical preference is thus morally ambiguous as it will lead to unfair conclusions somewhere along the line. Equally, current generations are the result of these historical influences – even the destructive impulses of neo-liberal consumption driven markets – all of which have locked them into carbon intensive practices for many decades from now. These affluent countries would suffer greater in the urban sprawl if, overnight, they were forced to reduce carbon emissions, per capita, to sustainable levels more than developing nations already at, or beneath sustainable carbon emission levels due simply to the development of local infrastructure over the twentieth. The poorer too, in affluent societies, would feel the worst of this impact, where it to occur, having fewer resources at their disposal to assist with change.

Another often ignored dilemma must also be addressed as it is intimately entwined with greenhouse gas emissions. While greenhouse gas emissions are a developed world’s problem, population increase is a developing world’s problem; which already increases detrimental impact and will ever more so as these nations attempt to achieve the same level of personal prosperity as affluent nations.

Thus, I conclude each one of us are at fault and any further discriminators to the fact, in an attempt to assign weight, is likely to serve no functional purpose worth merit. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter, because we are all equally stuck with the mess that simply cannot be ignored and the longer that we entertain paralysis, the larger the incurring debt that must be repaid will be. Devaluation of our global resource base for greedy, unsustainable individualism should thus be seen for what it is; abhorrent, immoral and counter-productive to prosperity.

So what do we do about it then? We need to work out who can do what in order to develop procedures that ensure we not only clean up the mess, but provide a sustainable and wealthy future for our descending generations.

True.

The only measure truly on offer is capacity. Whom has the capacity to do what?

Each society must have the capacity to change, first and foremost, certain values within their core societal moral code. That much is universal as there is not a developed or developing society that has an ideal package of values that will reach these desired outcomes.

For developed nations, this will mean rejecting impulses towards strong individualism and status seeking behaviour which ensures strong consumerism and thus needlessly excessive resource devaluation.

For developing nations, this will mean adoption of the most important forms of wealth that developed nations can provide; education and healthcare. Universal, high quality education and healthcare, globally (this also includes across the social ladder of developed nations) will provide effective countermeasures against population growth and standard of living that is beneath subsistence.

The next capacity comes from developed nations. While we are largely locked into excessive behaviours for the short term, we must focus our efforts to improve efficiency. This is not to allow for greater conversation – as we often allow for with efficiency as an ends in itself – but instead to ensure we have left overs from our embedded practises.

These additional “free” resources provide capacity to raise the standard of living of all people to a humane level while retrofitting developed communities towards something more sustainable. Coupled with a transfer of education and healthcare to developing nations would allow greatest bang from our buck as they too are likely to reach for equally sustainable societal infrastructure while combating population growth.

Yet, how are we supposed to ensure efficiency works in this way? More to follow…

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The Human Island has been revised!

In the lead up to the release of two more ebooks, I decided to revisit The Human Island as I was more or less happy with it, except that it did suffer from some grammatical errors and difficult wording. It helps also, because both new books will follow on from the basis I constructed within The Human Island.

For those new to New Anthro, The Human Island explores that very fact; islandisation of our species from ecological services so fundamental for the wealth of our species. Ecosystems trade material and energy. We exclude ecosystems and geological process only to do it at an increased expense. We would be immensely wealthier if we better integrated broader life to human activity. It’s that simple.

Some of it has been reworded, extended or reduced and I’m a lot happier with it now. With any luck I can convince my readers to get a free copy of it from Google Books to place on their readers or hold on their hard drives to read over at their leisure. It is formatted to suit readers. The following books will most likely also be available on the Google Books store and on Kobo, but more on that in the near future!

New Anthropocene is Supporting Kiva loans!

Some readers may have noticed the new subheading above, “Donate and Support Kiva”. I’ve decided to make New Anthropocene more than just a soap box and start to put real money where my mouth is.

I’ve taken the first step in placing some money down towards a project myself. To further this, I’ve also began to sell images on Redbubble, my profile here, and plan to sell my nearly completed ebook, “Freedom” for next to nothing on Google Books (having the additional benefit in that it will also be available from their Google Bookstore as well). All profits will go towards loans on Kiva – I’ve long kept this space active by my own passion alone and do not plan, ever, to change that.

I like Kiva because it is all about providing opportunity. It’s not about donation, but loans through which people and communities can get a leg-up and produce prosperity for themselves. Personally, I am drawn towards agricultural initiatives because it heaps the most vulnerable feed themselves without drawing on unsustainable harvest techniques, such as bush-meat. However, if I can gather enough support for the community of New Anthro (and via the selling of my media) I will ask for feedback and direction in future loans and report back on how they are all going. This may include polls and maybe even the odd fund raiser.

I like the idea that we can accumulate wealth here which in turn can invest and establish wealth in other places that sorely need it. From the experiences of my family members also with Kiva, it is thoroughly positive and I’m glad I finally got involved myself.

If anyone would like to donate, they can under the Donate and Support Kiva heading. I have set up a Paypal account for this with no restrictions on amounts – any amount will help and go towards future loans (they will sit in the Paypal account until they have reached enough to put forward to another loan).

GM Maize, Rats and the lil Paper that Thought it Could

I’ve been following the whole GM and rat tumour rumble with great interest. It’s a shame that most of the discussions are within science literature not easily obtained by the general public, a fact which, in itself, opens up doors of concern to be discussed below.

Many alarms bells seem to have been triggered within the relevant scientific community in relation to the study, Séralini et al. (2012).[1] The first of which centred around the unusual process the authors of this paper undertook in going public. Rather than discussing the limitations of the study itself in a reasoned and reflective manner, the approach encouraged wild gossip; through the creation of an embargo to avoid critical evaluation of the study by unrelated researchers within the initial media reports… oh, and it also coincided with the upcoming release of a book and movie on the study.[2]

It sounds more sensational than good science, don’t you think?

It is made even more delicious by the book and movie covers of Tous Cobayes; the former, an apple cut open, revealing a portion of a human skull and the latter, a mother and child walking towards a power-station along a dirt road within a vast monoculture (not forgetting the human skull – this time replacing the “o” in Cobayes – which is also chewing on a grain straw).[3]

Far from objective, the meaning is clear; from this one study, we’re all guinea pigs, with deadly consequences.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my standing on GM food. Like any chemical compounds to be exposed to our species, I believe they should be studied through critical clinical trialling. If it passes, all good. We have been in the business of genetic modification long before we knew what it was. I object entirely to genetic ownership and imposed sterility however. I just look at the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to mount my case of concern regarding profitable environmental ownership which compromises human flourishing.

That said, the backlash to Séralini et al. (2012) has continued, suggesting in itself why the embargo imposed on journalists was fundamental; the conclusions were not as strong as the researchers have allowed to permeate pop-media.

First of all, it was a two year study using a breed of rats, Sprague-Dawley rats, that “are prone to developing spontaneous tumours” and Harlan Laboratories (who supplied the rats) “show that only one-third of males, and less than one-half of females, live to 104 weeks.”[4]

You heard right; a two year study with a breed of rats known to be highly susceptible to tumour development and are more likely than not to be dead within two years was undertaken to demonstrate high tumour development… hmmm.

“But the study was comparing two groups of the same rat breed (ie. control vs. exposure to GM maize) – surely this would counter such criticism?”

Fair point… Alas, Séralini et al. (2012) only used ten males and ten females for each treatment group.[4] With a breed of rat known to spontaneously produce tumours and is more likely than not to be dead within your research period, comparing treatment size of a mere ten rats is likely to be compounded by statistical errors!

“[The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] recommends at least 20 rats of each sex per group for chemical-toxicity studies, and at least 50 for carcinogenicity studies.”[4] Talk about a lightweight study!

If critical review was allowed with the media release of the study, it’s obvious that the study would have had far less impact and the accompanying book and movie, perhaps a waste of effort.

Here is where the real concern comes to play; the media has probably done its damage.

If we need evidence to suggest this, all we need to do is look at the thoroughly discredited Wakefield et al. (1988) study which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.[5] Even though the study has been retracted and is considered and “elaborate fraud”, the damage has been done with anti-vaccination groups committed to the “Truth” of a causal relationship between vaccination and autism, which remains unshakable regardless how strong the contrary evidence is.[5][6][7]

While Séralini et al. (2012) does not necessarily represent dishonestly as Wakefield et al. (1988) does, the conclusions of the paper are clearer weaker than have been trumpeted.

The resolve that all GM is bad is probably solidified even further from this study, regardless of its shortcomings and all the other contrary evidence. My only suggest is; link back here or follow up the links I’ve referenced to below. Hammer the point and don’t give credence to individuals whom bombastically pronounce Séralini et al. (2012) to be ‘the final nail in the GM coffin’. Do this because the argument is not a balanced by weighty evidence that deserves equal credibility. It is one lightweight study that stands today on its lonesome, alongside a rush to hush criticism and to advertise a book and movie.

References

[1] Séralini et al. (2012) Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 50.11 Link
[2] Nature Editorial (25th Sept 2012) Poison postures. Link
[3] see Google Images search of “tous cobayes”
[4] Butler (2012) Hyped GM maize study faces growing scrutiny. Nature. Link
[5] Wakefield et al. (1988) Lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351 (9103) Link
[6] CNN Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’. Link
[7] Moth:  Anti-Vaccination vs. AGW denial. Link

A Playground for Social Improvement Under-tapped

I have been a student or employee of a few universities now and one thing I noticed they all share is a proliferation of proud posters, website “ads” and statements of their successes in progressive work.

As far as I can tell, this ought to be their primary position. Anything else would be squandering their unique assortment of resources.

Universities and colleges can be places comprising thousands of staff and students focused on enhancing our understanding of the natural world, human health and social justice. They often take up large plots of land and require large quantities of resources (especially water and electricity). They can also be large sources of pollution and chemical use (eg. waste, various gases, radiation, etc).

If they are not asking themselves, ‘How could we be more efficient in the use of X?’ or ‘How could we reduce the waste of Y?’ well they are not making use of the cluster of thinkers and doers at their disposal. Likewise, if they are not asking themselves, ‘How can we improve well-being within a community?’ and applying various social experiments within their (often vast) community (or subsets within their community), well, again they are missing a unique opportunity.

Too often we cry that the government should do something about problem B, however – and this touches on the point I was making in my previous article – most often there isn’t an acceptable example of the contrary locally. Take, for instance, old growth forest loss or the recent noise around the carbon tax in Australia.

In the former, what are the alternatives? White Australia is heavily culturally coupled to logging as it is the sheep industry (which too is unsustainable). Examples of countries that do otherwise are countries that live different with different cultural values. Look at Japan for instance. The protection of their woodlands does relate strongly to other cultural options – such as limited (if at all) land meat production and much higher urban density to that “expected” within white Australian culture. Germany is another country with a strong focus woodland protection and even though it is, like white Australian culture, western European, it is still a different way of life to ours and the two hundred years of ‘a sunburnt country’ mentality.

Likewise the carbon tax plays on a fear that our politicians are relentlessly screaming wolf about; it’ll ruin the economy. This is very much a cultural value. Most people in Australia hold the right to free enterprise as one of the highest virtues. We’re probably not unlike our counterparts in the US in that we praise the success of others who were able to secure a large chunk of wealth for themselves. Look at Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart. Both are, in general, viewed as “go-getters” (although, this is far from universal).

The carbon tax is seen as an attack on this cultural value (as is the mining tax, and the goods and services tax etc). A “big fat tax on everyone”, as Abbott drilled into the public is an affront to a prime cultural value held by most Australians. So foreign is the contrary position, it may feel that it’s not unlikely one would hear comparisons to socialism or communism. Fears of an Orwellian state run rampant.

Yet, within our own communities, we have large sub-communities, with a large amount of assorted resources and a drive for knowledge. From these communities, we could (or should) have a playground for testing local cultural values, under the guise of resource management and social well-being (that is to say, improvement in these fields would be the quest). The medical schools already do this – so why is it too much to expect third year or post-grad students to be asking questions like, ‘How can we make the campus more biophilic?’ or ‘How can we lead to lower stress and improved learning rates within the students?’ or ‘What can be done to manage X resource more efficiently within the campus?’

Such answers could be profound as it would not be restricted simply to factual answers, but also within a cultural context. It could be thus more easily applied within the wider community than, say, expecting Australians to adopt practices from abroad simply because they are more efficient.

The one thing to be wary of however, is the potential grounds for xenophobia that is created if we put too much emphasis in culture. Again, I feel that tertiary education provides a good tool. They are, in Australia, multicultural communities. Posing questions and developing answers within this sub-group could reflect Australia, as a whole, and thus present answers to a wide range of problems – within that cultural context discussed above.

I started this article by saying that, from what I’ve witnessed, universities are doing this and proudly sharing this fact via various media. I would like to see more of it – especially aimed at student project development and across a wider scope than I am aware of occurring so far.

It would also be useful for the students of natural science as it would give their studies a social aspect that is sometimes lacking (not always, as I am aware with the natural resource management components of my own degree) and hopefully an awareness of the impacts their future careers could have on politics and their local communities. It could also provide an avenue for learning science communication to such students. Most importantly, it would help to couple facts, or at least greater certainty, to cultural values that could be more readily applied to the greater community beyond the campus boundary.

Warmth of the World

Seeing as many are now getting tired of the old argument of, “you can’t attribute an extreme weather event to climate change,” now that we have experienced year after year of extreme heat waves, wildfires, unprecedented floods, cyclones and monsoons, I figured it was worth sharing again the parody I did some time ago, adapted from the first page of War of the Worlds:

Few would have believed in the last decades of the twentieth century that this world was being ever increasingly warmed, slowly but surely by forces greater than man’s and yet more subtle than his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were assisting and fuelling change, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a drainpipe might pollute the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a body of water, that in turn feed the fish that support his very existence.

With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over this environment. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same with limited resources. Few gave a thought to the invisible, presumably harmless CO2 emissions as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of human induced climate change as impossible or improbable.

It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men with larger cars and factories, perhaps superior to their own and readily welcomed the chance for larger industrial enterprise. Yet across the passage of time, molecules that are to our minds the result of a healthy, industrious society, trapped heat and warmed atmosphere, with no regarded for this earth with it’s ecological equilibrium, and slowly and surely shifted the climate against us. And early in the twenty first century came the great disillusionment.

Perhaps the disillusionment has hit us. Continual weather of this nature is not longer “freak”, “unprecedented” or “extreme” but rather the new norm.

Fair well sweet Holocene whom carried us from fringing bands of wanderers scraping out a hard existence from a harsh cool landscape and cared for us with mild stability while we learnt how to domesticate species for improved food security and production. Hello, with certainty, the Anthropocene, whom we are unfamiliar with and will likely demand we start again to develop a package of skills and tools to define a population like that we already tend to take for granted.

If anything, it would be great if we could be a little more proactive as communities…

De-industrialism is a plague on reasonable forward thinking

Yesterday afternoon, I saw my new baby for the first time.

From head to tail bone it was 41mm long and 11 weeks old. Slightly too young to check for defects, so we’ll have another scan in a week and a half. The image, albeit not the highest quality, showed a little person, nudging around in its little space. We could see its tiny heart beating.

Over the past few day, I have also attempted to engage in a conversation on the blogosphere, which I’ve since decided to leave alone. What irked me most about the exchange was that I was characterised as arrogant, bombastic egotist simply because I attempted to be critical of factually baseless claims. If you find yourself in a debate, do you not try to present your argument as completely as possible? How is it a failing if you’re not presented with compelling rebuttals?

Trying to present a strong case has never, in my professional life, been a failing. If I took my academic career further, it could have been far more brutal for me with many of the best minds tearing apart my work to test its validity. Scientists are not about listening to what amounts to little more than someone’s hopes and dreams, if they don’t have a strong case to back it up. It’s this ever improving system of critical analysis which has resulted in the many scientific laws and principles that make our modern life possible.

How are these two things related?

The igniting spark to the discussion was one word; egalitarianism.

Presented to me was something akin to the late Victorian naturalistic romanticism coupled with a social ideology of equality. In this case, of course, it didn’t call itself socialism, however. More worrisome still, the theme included a de-industrialised world with all members of our species part-time peasants. In doing so, it was suggested to me, we would all be free of debt and would all enjoy copious free time around our, apparently minimal food production obligations.*

I use the word “worrisome” because, as I see it, that late Victorian utopian ideology has been tried and tested and proved just as corrupt and doomed to failure as the neo-liberal capitalism now accelerating us to resource and biodiversity depletion – perhaps even more so in that the jealous ego that accompanied that economic model, which ultimately starved it of its initial wealth.

The two are related because of work. Work seemed to be demonised in this ideology I encountered. It was considered parallel to slavery.

Well, that scientific “slavery” led to numerous Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine which all in turn led to me, sitting by my wife, looking at a fantastic flat plate, able to represent millions of colours in high definition, which at that precise time represented a reconstruction of “echolocation”, outlining our child.

If it wasn’t for the many thousands of hours “slavery” in tertiary education, the handful of doctors and midwives may not have been present to perform an emergency C-section when my first born was stuck, a problem that potentially could have killed them both.

More importantly, none of these professional people resent their roles as “slavery”. They have all worked hard, received accolades for their efforts and improved / saved lives.

I had to write it as, “many thousands of hours” for a simple reason; think if these same people had to do the same work and tend to a crop, a herd or had to fish as well. Sure, in some places, where the rain is good and reliable and the soil rich and fertile, one may keep an orchard without many thousands of hours of labour. The same cannot be said for Australia’s 20 million people on this old, depleted soil and highly variable rainfall.

Besides, would you want a surgeon, who just laid out compost this morning to head in to work on your heart in the afternoon (fatigue and potential infection) – noting also that he is probably much older than he otherwise would have been if left to focus on medicine alone?

I’ve been on dairy farms, vine yards and orchards. It’s not easy work to be done part time.

This morning news informed me that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has much of coastal Northern Territory on “cyclone watch”. Due to the weak winds, they are not yet sure where the forming cyclone will land, but they have a good idea when it will form.

Without countless hours of atmospheric research and mindboggling ingenuity in developing weather models, we would have no warning of any sort. People would be left to the elements, at best praying to some deity that they may be spared.

We could do as far as to include the reporter who articulated the message in a meaningful fashion to a wide audience or even further still and say without James Clerk Maxwell’s work with electromagnetism and Heinrich Hertz effectively producing the first radio, the reporter would be unable to report to such an audience at all.

I don’t care what field you wish to look at, when all else is said and done, you need full time research and development people. Einstein would have been wasted with the plough and Stephen Hawking is still enlightening the rest of us due to improvements in medical science and engineering.

To think otherwise is comparable to anti-vax advocates who have never seen small pox in their lives and so don’t understand the threat. Thinking that we have enough knowledge today, so we can now stop and focus on another ways of life is effectively the principle to the Amish.

We indeed have pressing problems facing our immediate future, never better demonstrated than in Rockström et al (2009), but turning our back on research to pursue Tolkien’s dream of returning to the shire, aware from the beastly machine, is foolish. To face tomorrow’s problems with today’s knowledge will not do. If we are to weather the storm of climate change, peak oil (and natural gas somewhere behind it – incredibly important for nitrogen fertilisers), biodiversity loss and rising food and water insecurity, we need ingenuity, not 7 billion farmers.

Therefore, we’ll need surplus (continuing on egalitarian fancy) to feed these R&D people. To be truly effective, they should come together. For that reason and for the sheer sake of having some variety in our diets and to have the materials required for efficient farmer / clothing / household goods, we will also require resource distributers. Surplus and distribution requires governance to be fair, equal and effective. To make sense of the various roles, credit (ie. cash) comes back into the system. How do you value physical produce and research output “equally”?

Already you’re returning to a similar structure to the Orwellian farmyard. It’s Cartmanland; designed to exclude all that one doesn’t like, but slowly over time becoming more and more like that which it replaced simply out of necessity.

Let’s instead look at an egalitarian world that provides many of the services and goods (albeit, materials that continue in the system rather than linear to waste, to stop, for a moment, concerns over consumerism) that we have today. We’ll compare a teenager, working an after-school job to a GP doctor. Both earn the same hourly rate.

The doctor of course has debt in the form of household bills, school fees (if they were “free” the support in providing educators, maintenance etc, would need to come from somewhere – in this case, the government, therefore tax or society sacrifice), a mortgage (to think the society around him would build him a beautiful house, decked out however he wished just as soon as he became a doctor is a pipedream – building material isn’t free and often is far away nowadays from where people live, therefore a home costs in some form; the doctor’s sacrifice, societies sacrifice or both via tax), food (he is a full time doctor and I’m certain not every patient could pay him in food enough to feed his family – especially if they’re so sick they cannot work) etc.

On the other hand, the teenager doesn’t even pay board to their parents.

Already the situation is unequal. Sure, the doctor works more hours, but in his reduced hourly rate (compared to the real world), he is only getting by, while the youth is living it up with copious disposable income. Their obligations, input and outputs are not equal, so it doesn’t make sense.

The teen’s father has an accident and cannot work and so now the youth has to contribute a significant part of their pay to the family.

On the other hand, the doctor’s oldest child gets a job and the doctor makes them pay board and the mother too goes back to work with the children now able to look after themselves.

Now the situation is unequal again.

Egalitarian communities were far smaller and most importantly, did not share the diversity of roles that make society as we know it possible. They couldn’t turn on the radio or surf the web to find out any weather notifications. If a baby had a head circumference too large, chances were mum would die (either in child bird or painfully due to gangrene in the following days and weeks – which were both common even as little as a century and a half ago), very likely the baby also. They had no way to stop highly infectious viruses (none of them even begun to understand virology). They had no way to overcome years when the weather didn’t permit their usual food production avenues or foraging techniques to work for them (again, we too easily forget in the west, with easy food distribution just how real famine is).

In short, egalitarianism is not a good social model for major civilizations. Even Adelaide’s relatively modest population of 1.2 million couldn’t coordinate such model – even if the soil was fertile, which much of it isn’t (and a lot of what was, is now contaminated) – especially without governance and other full time professionals outside of food production.

Yet, we do, as a global community produce enough food to feed everyone, the problem is instead distribution. This could be changed if we instead focused our energy on this problem and the problems outlined in Rockström et al (2009) (including population), rather than hold out for a near utopian dream in universal care, appreciation and support, which after all, was not the true state of the societies used as example of a ‘model egalitarian society’ or their ability to support the level of healthcare and education we can do today.

This type of thinking is, in all honesty, de-industrialisation. Nothing more.

Many generations have made a mistake and my generation and those who have followed were born when the fuel guzzling machine was already accelerating. Our lives have seen the bulk of the oil burned.

Realising, at this hour, that the machine has left a mess, we can’t simply jump off at speed – the effects of it barrelling along will continue and we’ll be roughed up in the jump (who knows how bad).

We need figure out how the hell it works and bring it to a stop instead (ie. steady state economy). We need to fix up our population explosion in a humane way. These two problems will take time because they have compounded themselves over time and rash decisions are simply dangerous (ie. think about applying a “one child policy” globally overnight; expect to be working yourself to the grave, because we simply could not support such an aging population).

It’s too late for a quick fix. It will take time and it will take a lot of effort to mend. Then and only then can we head down the path to fix up the mess the machine left in its wake.

*Some of my readers will be aware of my making fun of Poptech for his word mining, to insult me on his own space. I detest this behaviour and thus will not be pursuing the case presented to me further in this piece or resorting to referring to the individuals here personally, where they wouldn’t have the opportunity to defend themselves. I merely wished to take their case – one that is not exclusively their own – and explore it here instead. Hence why I am not linking or naming.