Mind Blowing Science! Part 1

I’ve spent so much time talking about anti-science that I’ve forgotten to mention why I do it. Of course, I can give the grandiose reply; that science is the route to every improvement to human life to date. However while this is true, in reality I find science absolutely amazing! Nothing in any work of fiction compares to the strangeness that is reality.

Science blows my mind!

So, to remind myself of this fact, I plan to create an ongoing series where I briefly mention the latest studies that I’ve come across that I thought were pretty amazing.

Moths vs bats: fighting fire with fire!

In the July 2013 Biological Letters, there is an article by Barber and Kawahara (doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0161) where they took three different species of hawkmoths and tested them with touch and playback of ultrasonic bat calls (used by for echolocation).

Each of these species responded to these actions by producing a completely ultrasonic call in return!

They found that the mechanism for this with the males were diamond-shaped scales that they would rub against their abdomen. As these scales were part of the reproductive structure, the mechanism would be different in the females of these species, as they too were able to produce ultrasonic sounds, although how females did this was not discovered.

While the function of this response is not yet know, the authors suggest that it might play a similar role to the ultrasonic sounds produced by the tiger moth; that is, to startle, warn or, coolest yet, jam the bat’s own sonar!

Who would have thought Galactic Sci-fi was actually being played out for real in our own back yards?

Social Learning in Fairy-wrens

This one is closer to my undergrad days, where I did a few studies on assemblage and more directly, animal behaviour; in my case it was a small allodapine bee species and their parasitic counterpart, both native to the Dandenong Ranges.

In Feeney and Langmore (2013), the researchers explored the ability of fairy-wrens to learn about a threat, in this case the a cuckoo species, via social learning.

The method they used was to expose naive members of a social group to a dummy cuckoo when they were by themselves, then again when with their group – with members aware of the potential threat cuckoos present – and then a final time when the previously naive member was alone and record the response.

They carried out the same test with a dummy honey eat, which poses no threat to the fairy-wrens, as a control.

The researchers found that naive members would learn about the threat through the behaviour of the group and would respond in kind with later appearances of the cuckoo!

We’ve all heard about how clever various parrots, ravens and crow species can be – even the currawong is also known for using tools (although less people have heard of this genus) – but I think it’s pretty cool that such a little bird (in my humble opinion, comparable in shape and size to a golf ball with a tail, but of course, more striking with its flashes of vivid blue within black and white) can learn from its peers!

It just goes to show that the minds of other species are more complex than we tend to give them credit for.

Reading beauty

Beauty may indeed be in the eyes of the beholder, however the beholder is the result of evolutionary pressures. Facial beauty seems to be universal and beyond cultural preferences.

So why do we find one face more attractive than another?

Previous work has found a relationship between the attractiveness of a male face and the strength of his immune response to hepatitis B. Rantala et al (2013) explored whether the same would be found for females.

The researchers took photos of young Latvian females and collected data on their immune response to hep B, cortisol level (the hormone released due to stress) and percentage of body fat. They then had Latvian men rate the attractiveness of these faces for analysis.

Unlike when the test was was carried out on male faces, they found that a strong immune response did not predict how attractive a female face was. Instead, both cortisol levels and body fat better predicted female face attractiveness.

Stress, that is the amount of cortisol present, was negatively related to attractiveness; a finding that matches previous male tests. Faces that were were either ends of the body fat measure – either too thin or too fat – were also negatively associated with facial attractiveness.

Both stress and over/under weight can impact on fertility as well as susceptibility to disease and other health issues, which the author suggest provide the evolutionary motive.

Most importantly, the authors demonstrate something many people have been saying for years; the unrealistically thin woman that magazines splash before young woman – telling their readers what they ought to aspire to – is simply NOT attractive. Attractiveness is found in a healthy size, a happy smile and positive mindfulness.

Dead-Head Denialism: Challenging “Sceptics” of Climate Change to Fluoridation is Zombie Warfare

It has been a while since I’ve commented on much in the way of climate science and the denial movement. Although aware of the recent noise regarding the supposed “proof” of the unfounded “scare” regarding anthropogenic climate change, citing Otto et al (2013) or foaming bile in reply to the Cook et al (2013) study illustrating that experts within relevant fields of science simply do not share the popular “scepticism” and, in fact, have moved beyond proving it – simply taking it for granted – I’ve chosen to say nothing. (see reflections on each, here and here respectively)

Why?

Because it’s the same damned nonsense that proliferated the internet when I started blogging.

The “Sceptics”

The self-titled “sceptics” illustrate their denialism in this continual rejection of the standing body of evidence. The loathed consensus is nothing more than the body of relevant human knowledge which illustrates that our emissions include gases that have a greenhouse effect and those gases are in concentrations great enough to increase the energy load within our atmospheric reservoir, changing our global climate.

The “sceptics” pretend to be reasonable – stating that all they want is sufficient proof for the position – but then reject the available body of scientific evidence and consensus (not simply two sides to the same coin, but effectively, the same thing). Yet, they up and down jump hysterically whenever they catch a whiff of a paper that sounds like it supports their position. That is not scepticism; that’s denial of the potential that one’s position could be wrong.

They don’t wait for sufficient evidence of any position, but instead for their favoured position to be proven right. And just like the creationists, they’ll have to wait for the second coming which will never happen.

The Dead-Heads

On zombies and denial, I came upon a great article by Readfearn, in which he links to a recent publication of the American Behavioral Scientist devoted entirely to the climate change denialism phenomena, which I’ve since been reading.

It all comes back to the same point; denialism, regardless of the subject matter, from climate change or evolution to what I’ve recently challenged – water fluoridation – such positions, that is, a rejection of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are simply symptomatic of deeper ideological biases.

Creationists understand that they need creation to validate their faith (the most honest of the Abrahamic followers). The anti-vax, anti-fluoridation and even the anti-wind farmers all share a fear in the unknown; “they are exposing us to something – it must be a trap!”

And climate change feeds on many, be it, free market ideologies, fear of imposing governmental input, generational differences that rub people up the wrong way etc.

As such, correcting the wrongs, as we tend to attempt within media, is like wiping the puss without fixing the infection. Or burying the zombie still intact.

This is why the zombies exist; we fail to realise that you must lob off the dead brain within (no Mad Monckton, I’m not suggesting you should be killed – it is a metaphor).

All humans are susceptible to such leanings. We all want to think we have a good handle on the workings of the world and often don’t take too kindly when core principles of this are shattered. It’s easier to go on believing in our core values / beliefs and instead to shoot the messenger, than take the time to reflect on ourselves, admit to personal fault and adapt.

Deniers keep on denying not because they are deniers, but because they are human; individuals with certain principles that make sense to them.

Sceptics will change and can remove themselves from personal attachment to ideas where they need to, but there are far fewer of them than anyone of us is likely to admit.

So, what is the answer?

Change is a slower moving creature than we wish it were.  I have no doubt the deniers of climate change, evolution, anti-vaccination etc will exist beyond my life span. The same will be for individuals and groups opposed to same-sex rights, as do exist pockets of racists and sexists today, even within generally progressive states.

However, to challenge them with any potency, it isn’t enough to expose their denial. In fact, it’ll have little to no effect on the very people one aims the effort at.

Rather, the best approach must be to work instead on the core values leading the charge. If you promote the scientific accuracy of evolution, your primary focus must be the Book of Genesis. Without that, there is no justification for creation.

If it is one of the “they are exposing us to…” mobs, you need to refer to epidemiology as well as get to the root of “they” and the motivations of this entity. For instance, the anti-fluoridation crowd suggest fluoridation is marketing. However, one of the primary benefits pointed out by WHO, alongside the obvious health benefits, is its cheapness. Where are the fat fluoride barons?? These are very much a secret enemy conspiracy ideations.

With climate change, in reality, the question is clearly pointed at how well the free-market ideology can sustain human activity. One doesn’t need to look at climate change, but can look at the accelerated need for primary resources, increasing waste production, the rate of population growth and environmental degradation (from where many goods and services are derived); each one of them is essential to the free-market currently promoted. The nine planetary boundaries highlighted by Rockström et al (2009) are all negatively impacted by our current economic objectives.

Zombies die when you remove the dead head driving the drooling creature aimed solely at bringing everyone down. The dead head in this case is the thoughtless ideological principles driving denial against overwhelming contrary evidence. These outdated memes are the undead that really need to be challenged.

Why “Growth” Makes Fools of Us all

It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly people tend to reject a blatantly obvious observation such as the hopeless naivety that spawns from growth economics. One would assume that it should be a no-brainer to say that growing resource demand from a limited resource pool will ultimately lead to a collapse of that resource and if the resource is vital, so to the population.

Yet, surprisingly, people scoff such conclusions away as the result of some lunatic dooms-day theorist.

So here I will present a basic version of the problem to illustrate it as basically as one can.

Let’s say you start with a population value “ɲ” (here, 10 people) and starting quote of a resource “ß” (here, 1000000 units) with each unit supporting 1 person for one year. Effectively, that is a huge number of a resource. Using the numbers pre-selected, at the very least, such a resource should last the population for 100,000 years (if non-renewable).

We often hear of a favoured growth of 2% per year, so we will add a population growth of 2% per year.

If the resource is non-renewable, now it runs collapses in 0.004% of the time, when the population has increased 2000 fold (fig. 1). For example, if our consumption for fossil fuels, for example, had remained stable, rather than driven purely by growth, it would have lasted us many centuries longer, place providing environments that extra time to absorb these emissions, saving us all this trouble.

Figure 1. Population growth impact on non-renewable resources

Of course, some vital resources also grow with time. If we start with the same initial conditions and this time match the 2% growth for resources as well, we find that they continue to grow regardless of population and only collapse if the growth rate is dropped to 1.7%. Collapse with this reduced growth rate occurs in about 0.019% of the time of the original conditions (ie. stable population with ß units of non-renewable resource, fig. 2).

Figure 2. Population growth (2%) and renewable resource growth (1.7%) without restrictions

However, even this scenario is not very realistic. Resources and population are spatially limited to suitable areas for life on the globe. Therefore, we can assume the original value of ß for resources is the natural limit of the resource as it is likely to reached equilibrium prior to the coming of the population.

This time, we can match growth rates for population and resource renewal of 2%, with the upper limit of resource amount being ß. This time, the resource remains stable at ß until population increases by 2000 fold (again!) and then it rapidly collapses (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Population growth (2%) and renewable resource (2%) with starting amount as upper limit

It seems no matter how you shift the values, collapse is inevitable. In fact, noting the 2000 fold value, we only reach an ongoing access to such a renewable resource if ɲ is kept beneath this magnitude, in other words, growth in resource extraction has an upper limit or, a stable economic model.

I admit, I have grossly simplified the situation. However the basic principles stand regardless of how much one desires to add complexity. This is why I continually stress the virtue of efficiency. We must acknowledge that there is a maximum limit to how much of a renewable resource that we can exploit indefinitely and also that growth dramatically reduces the time in which a non-renewable can serve a role, however such points have no say in how well we use the resource!

The difference between when we reach peak coal or gas and how much of it changes the chemistry of the atmosphere depends on how much energy we can extract per unit (recognising too that population size must also be limited). It is nothing but account keeping and growth puts us more in debt.

Another point worth raising is yet another one of my favourite points that goes alongside efficiency – it is investment. How much we change the atmosphere or how many units of fresh water we have access to depends upon how much we shore up natural processes that provide the ecological and geological functions for these processes. Spending money on biodiversity and biophilic design to human landscapes is an investment that is highly profitable (in a real world sense) without the same volatility of our markets.

In short, our favoured approach is a bad bet. The bookies are making a stack of cash by convincing us to bet on that dead horse – growth markets. Overlooking the simple story is making fools of us all.

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Islandisation From Our Own Prosperity.

As a recent immigrant back to Victoria, the state of my birth, I have received my first water bill.

As part of this water bill, there is a note that a reduction has been included due to the delays in completion of the desalination plant, which, so the bill informs me, will cost 1.8 million to run per day.

This is precisely the reason why I began MothIncarnate and the more aptly descendent, New Anthropocene, all of which came together in The Human Island.

Vaclav Smil is correct; we are not stupid, we do see the trends. However, our inability to accept sacrifice ensures that we in fact sacrifice greater than we otherwise would have had we been more pre-emptive. More importantly, the industrial revolution has striped us of the only real “ancient wisdom” our species has any real claim to; the acknowledgement that passive measures can make our lives so much easier, cheaper and enjoyable.

What we have instead is the removal of real world wealth, in the form of freely available energy and ecological services, replaced instead by inefficient privatised alternatives. Water management is a prime example.

Rather than creative planning and enhancement of hydrological processes, we remove many natural process (transpiration being the most obvious), replace them with inefficient alternatives (such as damming waterways and creating channels that increase evaporation and costly desalination) and pay the price for it.

This is species islandisation; by removing passive measures, we make resource management increasingly difficult and costly. Failing to acknowledge the shortcomings of the industrial era and letting go of a little anthropocentric ego leads us into greater debt and hardship.

Fresh water is probably the least obscure example and yet, when a couple years ago people were paying close attention to local reservoir levels, today, they return to washing their cars, hosing their lawns and never once questioning the logic in filling up the millions of toilets around us with water that was made potable, at expense, only to face such a fate.

With such an example in mind, how could one expect more obscure issues, like climate change, peak oil and phosphorus supplies to make a lasting impact on an audience already concerned whether or not their lawns are greener than the neighbours?

Our biggest failing is to ourselves. While we have produced many amazing innovations and realisations through the enlightened, industrial era, we have forgotten to match such revolutions with adequate social reflection and education. We are, at the individual level, little better than our ancestors of the Middle Ages. That an individual who believes in magical underwear can stand as a serious candidate for President to one of the most powerful nations of the globe illustrates this fact better than any other could.

We require a social revolution that is inspired by humane and enlightened morality. Some how, our increased awareness of ourselves and the universe around us needs to be adopted into principles that can justify human behaviour beyond greedy individualistic and outdated hierarchical ideologies. We need to use this wonderful treasure trove of factual information to develop notions of human flourishing beyond that capable through our current mediocre attempts.

This is not as good as it gets.

Trumping Evidence with Truth: Committed Sceptics

A disturbing reality has only recently dawned upon me. It is yet another example of relentless hypocrisy demonstrated by committed sceptics (for more, look under the “Alarming Religion” heading above).

It is the accusation that the “climate change hoax” is perpetrated to secure additional fundings for researchers. Somehow, it’s making climate related researchers rich. However I’ve yet to see the equivalent to SourceWatch quantifying the secret riches of the relevant scientists, which self-evidently exposes such accusations as pure fantasy to support the only real ideology on the discussion of climate with a flair for religiosity. (Yes; I am stating that committed scepticism is entirely faith based)

Arguably, since 1988 with James Hansen’s paper and even more so the IPCC reports, the scientific community have argued that we had reasonable evidence to weigh risk management in favour of reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases. While additional research would decrease the uncertainties – and they have – the emphasis was on action, not funding more research.

The political response has been to emphasise further research; that is, additional funding (Sunstein 2007). The do-nothing crowd have amplified this call, insisting that too much uncertainty remains and then accused the research community of making this call for personal gain!

Not only is there no evidence of scientists getting around in Ferraris and gold plated jet-skis, it has not been the call from the scientific community to focus on additional funding.

To maintain such ideologies requires increasing level of effort in the face of contradicting reality. It is amazing how often the accuser is guilty of their accusations of others!

Climate Always Changes

There’s no doubt that I am my own worst enemy. I only have myself to blame for being up so early after fuming over something so trivial. On the other hand perhaps that’s what I’ve been missing; maybe it’s more that I’ve felt far more content in my current need to focus on my personal and professional life and leaving the pseudoscience arena on the sideline. Maybe it’s the frustration itself which motivates my writing.

Whatever the case, I find myself at the keyboard, when I could have had an additional hour of sleep before work.

Mike, at Watching the Deniers, has recently written two articles relating to Gina Rinehart’s latest attempt to control media in Australia. Mike did what I had been thinking to do in one of the articles,(Oh Lordy: Monckton rejected by his own political party, but “Uncle” Monckton’s effect on Australia’s media landscape is still playing out) in linking it to a relevant video in which Monckton suggests such an action by Australia’s rich and self-interested. Honestly, if anyone truly believes Gina has the interests of anyone else in mind, except for herself, in such a move, that is very telling of such a person. She’s no Princess Di. But why waste time bashing at a keyboard on something blatantly obvious?

No, in the other post, (Rinehart on climate: deeply concerned about our “lack of understanding” on issue), Mike included a quote from Rinehart which annoyed me;

“It is a fact that there have been ice ages, then periods of global warming to end the ice ages, and these have occurred naturally, including due to the earth’s orbit, and not due to mankind at all.”

When I entered this arena back in 2009, this absurd statement by “committed sceptics”* was already dated and yet, to this day, it just won’t die.

In reply to Mike’s post, I made the point that it’s like saying that Mike clearly doesn’t drive simply because in my time, I’ve seen many thousands of cars on the road and not one of them was driven by him. Of course he drives. He has written posts in the past about driving and had video footage of local flooding filmed from inside his car up on his site. That he is not always the reason behind why one car moves doesn’t refute the claim of his driving.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s good enough and still, this isn’t what bugged me enough to motivate this post.

What annoyed me the most – and is perhaps the core reason why I write online at all – is that such a statement goes just as far along the path of reason as is comfortable before taking one hell of a leap of faith.  I detest when people attempt use favourable scientific evidence to disprove compelling evidence they are not in favour of.

Of instance; for Rinehart’s argument (well, not only hers, of course) to exist, she needs to accept the following results from climate studies to be accurate;

  • Proxy data accurately outlines many millions of years of climatic conditions on Earth,
  • We can accurately model the shape of the Earth’s orbit and the shifts in degree of the Earth’s axis over time,
  • We can accurately measure and equate the effects of other greenhouse gases over the millennia through ice cores etc (*potentially* as I’m not sure which greenhouse gases, if any, are acceptable in Rinehart’s logic)

All of which, I personally feel are compelling results, at least in long term trends, from amazingly talented researchers tackling difficult fields. Yet, at the same time, she needs to refute other results from climate studies and physical chemistry, such as;

  • The observable absorption of infrared radiation by certain greenhouse gases (most notably, CO2),
  • As much as a couple centuries of direct observations in solar activity, ambient temperature, ecological shifts (ie. timing in blooms, migration, location shifts etc), changes in atmospheric chemistry, sea level height and glacial retreat,
  • A scientific community consisting of many hundreds of thousands of research hours yet unable to find compelling alternative conclusions (of course, the previous two points make it clear enough that CO2 atmospheric concentration changes must make a change to the energy stored in the atmosphere – that is a well known and essential component to the habitability on the surface of this planet). Even though the endless rhetoric is provided by committed sceptics, it fails to shift the expert community from this position (what do these committed sceptics know that experts continually overlook?).

On Christine’s blog, 360orBust, I ran into a similar argument by someone attempting to use the scrap of data we have from Venus to overturn the wealth of data all around us (in this case, the individual had a paper or two in peer-reviewed science literature, so it’s telling that instead of attempted to do the same with this gem of his intellect, he shared it in comment threads, linking back to a New Age book he had written at his mother’s expense).

I must admit, I can see the appeal – it’s far easier to accept valid evidence that supports an idea one already holds onto – but science would get nowhere if we allowed our bias to pick and choose what findings we will accept. Attempting to map out the deep history of climatic conditions of Earth is immensely difficult and by no means as precise as directly measuring climate or firing different spectrum of radiation through known quantities of materials as we are doing today. We should be wearier of former investigation rather than the latter – but for people like Gina Rinehart, it seems the latter is too uncomfortable to acknowledge.

It’s funny with this in mind that Rinehart calls for greater “understanding” of climate science in the public via the media (which she is in the process of gaining influence of), especially when genuine understanding places pressure on the source of her immense wealth.

Climate changes. It has always changed – except for the relative stability of the Holocene, which allowed our species to develop beyond hunters and gatherers to the point we developed “gross domestic product”. Ultimately it would have changed again, whether by our geo-engineering skills (as is currently the reality) or by natural means (as the committed sceptics would have us believe is the situation at hand). We need to come to terms with that. What we don’t need are people who pick and choose from equally valid evidence, based on their personal ideologies, influencing our media.

That will lead to an intellectual black hole.

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* In retrospect, I’m more than happy to call those I once considered “deniers” instead “committed sceptics”. Personally, I feel it is the most accurate title that gives such a crowd due respect for what they stand for. The reason for this change of heart comes from recently reading (finally) Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World:

“I’ve tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly sceptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and sceptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track. Those two seemingly contradictory attitudes are, though, in some tension…

“If you’re only sceptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crochety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries in the borderlines of science are rare, experience will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you’re too resolutely and uncompromisingly sceptical, you’re going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere scepticism is not enough.”

Yes, they are “committed sceptics” and thus immune largely to the scientific debate. This is probably why a reasoned rebuttal will not see the death of such silly arguments.

Tom Schueneman: Redefining prosperity and the fallacy of growth

By Tom Schueneman. Reposted from tcktcktck. As Tom is a Rio Blogger Prize Finalist for this post, if you like it, would like to comment or share it, please do so at the source rather than here. Enjoy!

“In an empty world, it was a safe bet that growth was making us richer, but we no longer live in an empty world. We live in a full world” – Ecological Economist Herman Daly.

Victims of our own success

We owe the comfort and abundance of our lives to fossil fuel. Most people, at least in the developed world, enjoy “prosperity” through access to material goods and resources not possible without access to this vast store of “cheap” energy.

Our carbon-based energy economy has been so successful that we are now held in its grip, mesmerized into thinking it will go on forever. It has distorted our definition of prosperity by placing “growth” central on the altar of human intent and interaction with the natural world. To challenge the efficacy of infinite economic growth is suspect, even heretical.  But we arrive at the 21st century at a crossroads and challenge it we must if we are to choose a path toward sustainability.

Exponential growth – the Achilles heel of a finite world

As Physicist Professor Al Bartlet warns, failing to understand the exponential function is humanity’s Achilles Heal. The exponential growth in our numbers combined with our ability to extract energy and resources with ever greater effectiveness is at once unsustainable and the accepted foundation of economic theory.

More people mean more consumers equals growing markets and jobs to pay for consumption to support growing markets – plenty for all, and then even more, in an accelerating, unending cycle.

Human ingenuity and innovation notwithstanding, we live within a finite system. Be it climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, mineral depletion or collapsing fisheries, we cannot continually “grow” our way out from the challenges we now face.  At the core of any solution for creating a sustainable society is choosing a path based on a new definition of prosperity.

The growth fallacy – speaking the unspeakable

Limits to Growth” first brought the idea into public discussion in the early ’70’s, and it was squarely rebukedby the “experts” of the day. Forty years later those limits are only more manifest.

“Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with,” says Richard Heinberg in his book The End of Growth. Accepting the fallacy of growth is a disquieting notion because it threatens all we have ever known.

“The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding economic paradise has come unraveled,” writes Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity Without Growth. “Perhaps it worked better when economics were smaller and the world was less populated. But if it was ever fully fit for purpose, it certainly isn’t now.”

“Climate change, ecological degradation and the spectre of resource scarcity compound the problems of failing financial markets and economic recession. Short-term fixes to prop up a bankrupt system aren’t good enough,” Jackson continues. “Something more is needed. An essential starting point is to set out a coherent notion of prosperity that doesn’t rely on default assumptions about consumption growth.”

Heinberg and Jackson are among a host of thought leaders challenging our devotion to the fallacy of growth and pointing us toward a new path. Documentary filmmaker David Gardner is another such voice, as well as a self-described “growthbuster.”

Becoming a GrowthBuster

In the film GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth Gardner exposes the fallacy of growth for a general audience likely uncomfortable with the idea, but also with a growing sense that business as usual is a dead-end street for themselves, their families, and their communities. Increasingly ill-at-ease with a consumer society that demands of them to be just that – consumers; when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, or so it seems.

GrowthBusters examines the beliefs and behaviors that may have worked in an earlier age, but are now pernicious barriers to a sustainable civilization; cultural norms enshrined by the “Great Acceleration” of the last half of the 20th century.

Gardner combines his own experience as a citizen of a growth-obsessed American town with the observations and insight from an array of experts, scientists, and economists.

“We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for.” Says Stanford professor and biologist Paul Ehrlich in the film, “either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.”

Instead of focusing on what we must “give up” as we move away from an infinite growth-based society, it clarifies what we’ve given up in our tenacious embrace of it, and the choices we have going forward.

Life after growth

“Beyond the provision of nutrition and shelter, prosperity consists in our ability to participate in the life of society,” writes Jackson Prosperity Without Growth, “in our sense of shared meaning and purpose and in our capacity to dream. We’ve become accustomed to pursuing these goals through material means. Freeing ourselves from that constraint is the basis for change.”

Surely, for those with a full pantry, the latest iPhone, and a big-screen TV, it can be morally suspect to suggest to others to abandon the pursuit of material wealth. Positive change will not come through exhortation. Yet many feel trapped within their own material abundance. Beyond a certain point it no longer serves human prosperity and fulfillment.

“We are not purely greedy selfish individuals, that’s what free marketeers assume that we are,” says Institute for Food and Development Policy fellow Raj Patel in GrowthBusters. “That’s what we are encouraged to be in consumer society. But we are not, we are much, much more beautiful, we are much bigger, we are much … we are much more capable of sharing…

The tools with which we have been raised to help us understand looking at the way the world works and how our future might be delivered to us, well those tools are broken. But it’s OK, because there are loads of solutions around us in which we, we might manage the world differently and more sustainably…”

Among these tools are three principal ideas to help us get started:

  1. Adapt to a steady-state economic model:
    A global transition movement is growing and connecting individuals and communities in learning and adapting to a post-growth, post-carbon world. Networks like these help chart a path toward greater resilience and adaptation to a reworked economy aligned within material limits and focused on human flourishing beyond a consumer-based society.
  1. Stabilize human population:

Scientific estimates population the Earth can sustainably support range from under 1 billion to 5 billion, depending on how we much we curb our consumer lifestyles in the developed world. We must stabilize and then slowly reduce human population within Earth’s carrying capacity and provide women, especially in developing countries, education and access to health care and birth control.

  1. End our dependence on fossil fuel:

Climate change is unavoidable. Climate change is here and now. But to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption we must quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. Accomplishing the task requiresredesign of our citiesagriculture, transportation, and energy generation.

It’s okay to be a Growthbuster

“It’s not an easy thing to change the inertia of a civilization, but it has to be done…”

What drives our endeavors and sustains our economies will not be tomorrow what they are today. But we have a choice. As Gardner says in his film, we can either turn away from the cliff or keep the pedal to the metal and “go down fighting.”

It is possible to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives within a bountiful – if limited – world. It will not be easy; in fact, it is likely that greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. And there is a price to pay for the damage we’ve already exacted on the Earth. But it can be done, if we accept the challenge for what it is.

“There’s a shift going on, and this is a shift from believing that we have a resources problem to really understanding that we have a cultural problem and that we need to evolve our culture.”

Twenty years after the first global Earth Summit we stand squarely at a crossroads. We cannot be blamed for the road that got us here, but we are responsible for each future step we take.  Many, like Gardner and his film Growthbusters, are pointing the way down a path to a sustainable future, helping us see that it’s okay to be a growthbuster.

Getting Real About the Environment, Pt.2

Originally posted here.

“Invasive Species” is a strange concept

This is a bitter point for me, as it was a dislike for olives and fennel throughout the remnant vegetation of South Australia which drew me to time at university. In many ways I’ve since been brought around by 180o.

Firstly, as far as I can tell, the difference between natural and artificial selection is one base entirely on the human ego. Life persists only when it can adapt to the environmental pressures being placed on it. We are a force of nature! Our species reasons something and pressures to make it so. Those species that get in the way of this pressure either adapt or die out.

It’s a gut-wrenching truth, but a truth nonetheless. The ancestor of domestic cattle, for instance, is no more but the evolved form of it thrives in the human made environment.

Likewise, species now have a distribution potential that they would never have had prior to us. Sure some migratory birds distributed seed and small aquatic species, but it was us who placed the camel in the outback and the horse through the New World.

Whether it was some new adaptive trait within a population or climatic pressures, the range and niche exploited by a species have always been fluid (well, at least in those whom persist in passing on their genes). If something about them gave them the edge against competitors within the new range, they took the resources at the expense of the losers. However, it could just as easily go in favour of the original niche exploiters or possible that some “equilibrium” is achieved (again, populations of interacting species are not stable).

For many species now considered “invasive” eradication, while a nice idea, is probably an impossibility. Feral cats, rabbits and dogs in Australia could never be removed – regardless how many billions of dollars are thrown at the problem – especially while we decide we like to keep them as pets in our yards! The same goes for any number of the nationally recognised weeds which have additional recruitment from agricultural and ornamental garden stocks. Furthermore, it takes only one avid hiker to scuff their foot in the soil seed bank or one flock of parrots to enjoy the fruit of a feral olive tree or one windswept roadway or babbling brook or…

It doesn’t matter which example you select, human activity has provided a new window, no; has opened a new floodgate – for species distribution (whilst, at the same time, destroyed many of the “natural” pathways through landscape fragmentation) far beyond that would have otherwise have been and species have replied in the way they are built to; by attempting to adapt and carry on their genes to subsequent generations.

Management is, of course essential to our movements forward, but eradication and control are largely beyond our capacity. Rather than waste huge amounts of money fighting “plagues” of “feral” species, we need to address the question of what we want from our environments (ie. “artificial selection”) and what would provide the greatest benefit to our activities and in maintaining the greatest diversity in the gene pool of an ecosystem.

As previously stated, the pristine world is gone, however, there is no reason why an environment that we helped to develop cannot be diverse, productive and beautiful.

We will not power down

A common idea that persists within the more environmentally engaged community consists of a utopian ideal of low energy consumption. A return to basics.

This is self-evidentially not going to happen. It is increasingly becoming essential, for instance, for a successful member of affluent countries to keep smart phones on themselves. We are communicating like never before and the wireless age of mass information sharing is upon us.

Even in developing nations, mobile phone ownership is becoming common place and to expect them, within their development to forgo the energy dependant technologies that have made our standard of living possible is simply selfish. The way forward is one based on technological advancements and not a move backwards into de-industrialism. To place this argument even further from debate one needs only to mention medical science – in what it has achieved over the course of the industrial era and how dependant it is on electricity (so much so back-up generators are a fundamental component of care).

Rather than obsess over a world less technological, we should hope to support research and development that allows for technological revolutions in efficiency of technology and of low emission electricity sources. This pathway offers greater potential for reducing carbon emissions in the shortest time frames (see Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. for example).

I am not saying to give up!

I know that in review, it looks as though I asking the reader to throw their arms up in surrender in this and the previous section. Here, I’ve attacked a number of environmental ideologies and have in my time criticised many others. I don’t do this because I’m an industrial wolf under the environmental sheep’s clothing, but because environmental management is so important to me!

We spend far too much time looking into the far future of possibilities or otherwise ask far too great a leap from our current position to reach an ideal conclusion. However, nice this may be, it doesn’t help our purpose. Asking people to give up a standard of living they have come to expect or asking people never to reach the comfortable heights they’ve seen in the developed world will only turn people away – they will ignore you until collapse undoes our progress.

We often ask others to make sacrifices, but we too need to make sacrifices. For us, the greatest sacrifice will need to be to get real about environmental management and to let go of many ideals. Another will be the luxury of complaining and blaming others.

I’ve tried to leave each point with some suggestions; many of which demand action. Rather than blaming “evil” industry, car ownership, lazy politicians, corporate greed or whatever else, we are the many – both the voter and the consumer. By voting (or not voting), by buying (or not buying) we create the communities in which we live.

We cannot expect an idealistic result and will drive away many potential supporters in the process. If we instead allow for compromise and directly our activities for “best possible” scenarios, we can affect development and societal behaviour changes for the better. It is more likely to begin with a change in our perspective and not by demanding change in others.

Environment shock: how the pace of environmental change destabilises

Originally posted here.

Let me begin with an idea that many will find shocking, outrageous or even inconceivable.

In order to maintain our complex industrial civilisation it may be necessary for us to entertain the inconceivable: that we have the power to manage the planet’s climate and environment. Indeed, this decision is being forced upon us as the planet warms and we reach critical “boundary thresholds“. We may have no choice in the matter if we wish to preserve our civilisation.

We will be compelled to become planetary engineers.

We can see the impact of our civilisation in every aspect of the Earth’s climate and environment: from the CO2 warming the planet, the mass extinction of species and the acidification of the oceans. And while it is hard to conceive our actions having such a profound impact on the Earth, the evidence from science is both compelling and overwhelming.

And yet as individuals and societies, how to we treat this new knowledge: do we accept it, or do we deny it?

Perhaps we are in a kind of shock?

Environment shock: the response to technological and environmental change

We often talk about the dizzying pace of technological change in our lives, and as individuals and societies we struggle to “keep up”. Institutional change – whether it is in private industry or government – is notoriously slow. People and societies are often caught unaware when change comes.

Thus our laws and social habits are often conflict with the changes wrought by technology. For the individual it can be disorienting and confronting.

Forty years ago Alvin Toffler termed the phrase “future shock“. He used it describe the stress societies undergoing profound technological changes experience:

“…Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change overwhelms people, he believed, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. “

Similarly, our societies are struggling to meet the challenge of climate change and environmental collapse.

Perhaps what we are experiencing is a kind of “environment shock”.

Defining “environment shock”: shock precedes inertia

I can only offer a tentative definition, but I see parallels between the tension our societies experience with rapid pace of technological change and rapid environmental change.

“Environment shock” could be defined loosely as:

As the environment undergoes rapid and enormous change individuals, societies and institutions struggle to both a) assimilate and understand this information and b) develop effective strategies to both contain and manage rapid environmental change on a global scale.

Case in point climate change: despite decades of overwhelming evidence and the good intentions of many governments, emissions continue to rise and no effective means to control carbon emissions exist. It may be our existing institutions are insufficient to meet the challenge environmental change presents.

Thus “environment shock” prompts some unsettling and hard questions :

  • How do we manage a planet?
  • Who governs the process of managing the planet?
  • Who provides the funding for planetary management schemes?
  • How do we balance the self-interest of nations and individuals against the “common good” of managing the planet?
  • What is the role of governments and trans-national institutions?
  • What is the role of industry?

Perhaps we are still in a state of shock as the implications of these ideas.

Environmental Realism

To round off my recent posts, I’d like to make a plea to my readers in that if we truly wish to make meaningful headway on the detrimental aspects of the birth of the anthropocene, we must get real.

It’s very easy to wish that we didn’t have the problems we now face, or that some wonderful utopian solution is just around the corner and that it will save our souls. But such things will not occur and holding onto such myths cause fractures within the already engaged individuals on such topics and merely assists this frustrating paralysis.

Half of the world’s population will not evaporate completely from space and time; not humanely nor completely. Wishing for a smaller world won’t change the global population from 7 billion strong.

Regardless of how nice it might seem to some people, the dream a global rural community, where everyone is a food producer is impractical and would ultimately cause more damage to the remaining ecosystems than the system we already have. Not to mention that we would also lose a great proportion of our capacity to meet persistent environmental change or to improve the global standard of living to developing nations through such  change

No, the stark reality is that;

  • We have 7 billion people and the number is continuing to grow (at much fast rates in developing nations),
  • Developing nations want a standard of living comparable to that we in the affluent west have long enjoyed which will place a huge impact on already stressed resources and most importantly they have the right to want such a standard of living just as much as we do,
  • The twentieth and twenty first centuries will be the age of the fossil fuel; we have a very long way to go to develop societies that enjoy a respectable standard of living with a low- to-nonexistence dependence on fossil fuels, which leads into;
  • Climate change resulting from human CO2 emissions is unavoidable, but, as Prof Dessler has put it many times; it’s like an inevitable collision between cars – we still have control how hard the impact will be, and
  • Most people will be unable (or unwilling) to develop a strong connection with rural landscape and food production.

That’s the sharp end of the stick.

To be realistic about effective management of the remaining ecosystems and improving the sustainability of our activities, we will need to keep these points in mind.

Probably the hardest points for many of us to accept are the social points, because they take in mind other perspectives which we may not relate to. Some of the more hardcore environmentalists may make daily sacrifices to lower their personal impact on environmental degradation and CO2 emissions, but still they enjoy a life many folds greater than people in the slums of Mumbai (both in access to goods and services and in their carbon footprint), for instance.

It is fundamental that we avoid as much as possible such first world romantic illusions – such as a return to a world of primary producers or that simply making small sacrifices will make a massive difference (ie. that renewable power will solve the problem or that we should stop having children etc) – and rather try to see the world closer to that the majority do. Having running clean water and reliable power within the home and even your own bedroom are still luxuries for the majority of the global population.

Effective change will need to see the problems of population, food production and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions from the majority view, not that of the luck few.

At the same time it presents excellent opportunity in that we can ask how can the majority be raised to an appropriate standard of living while keeping the greenhouse gas emissions down. Such solutions could improve the lives of billions of people while providing the tools necessary to retrofit the first world.

We too often debate from the other side, but the greater change must come from where the greatest impact is needed and that is the vast majority who still live a harder life in poverty.

Another difficult point to accept for many is that our addiction to fossil fuels is a long way from over. The smoke stack is the heart of the industrial era and it simply cannot be turned off overnight and replaced by a few nice windmills and some solar panels. Even the hotly debated nuclear or hydro discussions will not wean us off of the black gold within my life time.

We will probably have to accept that none of us alive today will live long enough to see the world free from combustion. Dessler’s metaphorical car holds too much inertia for that.

What we do have at hand are the breaks and we can control the rate of “deceleration”, that is, how quickly we reduce our greenhouse emissions, which will come from solving the problem of developing an adequate standard of living in developing nations and then retrofitting this to human activities elsewhere.

In doing so, we will also address the points made in Dick Smith in, Population Crisis and Nicholas Stern in, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet; that population control needs first to address health and education in developing nations, which will in turn slow population growth to something similar to that seen in developed nations. From there we can work out how to reduce the global population over multiple generations to something more sustainable while avoiding the obvious result of an aging population.

The environmental realist will recognise that there are no quick fixes and while some fancies might be enjoyable to muse over in one’s spare time, they will amount to nothing due simply to the huge chasms between the current reality and the ideal future. We are not talking about results we will see in our life time – indeed societal structure of a 50, 60 maybe even 90 years from now will probably be easily recognisable to anyone of us today – but about something that will only start to take real form in the twenty second century.

We will lose more species and we will know for certain that we have left the Holocene entirely behind us – these are sad and unavoidable truths. However, how much loss and change is up to us today and the only way we can make meaningful decisions to impact these results is through being honest about problem and what are the achievable steps we can make from where we are standing at the time.