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…

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The Spectrum of Reason

I commented recently on why I believe those often referred to as “climate deniers” should more appropriately be considered “committed sceptics”. They are, after all, not denying climate changes or that there isn’t a climate at all, but rather committed to the conclusion that climate is unaffected (at least dangerously) but our actions, leaving them unquestioningly sceptical of any information that challenges that conclusion. If it were otherwise, they would take the time to learn one of the various fields of science, rigorously test the fundamental hypotheses and show, convincingly, within the proper peer-viewed scientific literature, why such conclusions that have convinced almost the entire expert community in the field of anthropogenic climate change are wrong.

Such a finding would be immensely important and the accolades would be more wondrous to the researchers involved than many that came before it. They would be global heroes whom saved us the otherwise necessary upheaval of many of our primary activities to ensure the longevity of resources and infrastructure that we owe to future generations (as was given to us).

The silence in this arena (compared to the noisy blogosphere and town hall) is telling. This breed of scepticism isn’t scientific in any nature and people like Alan Jones do a massive injustice to the name of a brilliant mind, Galileo Galilei, by using it for a completely unquestioning (at least, in a scientific sense) movement.

How such people, standing for the status quo in the face of obvious error, can use the name of someone who challenged the status quo based on obvious error can do such a thing with a straight face is beyond me. However, as I’ve covered previously, the fox indeed smells its own scent first and such people tend to make claims 180o to reality to support idea that themselves are 180o to reality.

The Spectrum of Reasoning

What I’ve come to realise is that reasoning is actually a spectrum on which we all slide upon. There are those committed sceptics on topics such as climate, evolution, vaccination, the moon landing, alien / UFO visitations whom are unmoveable regardless of contradiction. However, on the other side of this spectrum, we have other groups many science communicators also challenge.

It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. It’s the New Age thinking.

For them, it’s not committed scepticism, but rather about a mind unbuttoned, free to explore all possibilities. For them, it’s not about holding an idea – which to everyone else it may seem to be, and is the case with the previous group – but rather holding onto the possibility. Anything short of this, to such an individual, is simply closed minded. That we can never be entirely 100% certain about most, if not all matters, this, to such an individual, means that all possibilities thus require equal consideration.

Dead in the centre of this spectrum is scientific methodology. Science demands the will to entertain any idea, but also rigorous testing, aimed not to prove the idea, but instead disprove it, to merit its validity.

You need not only the possibility of ideas, but also the cool-handed rejection of ideas that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Equally, you don’t get by on hardcore scepticism of new or challenging ideas, because it’s clear that our intuitions have limitations. The natural universe is weirder than anything we could imagine.

New From the Credulous

It might be easy for those of us trained in science whom approach those heavy on either side of the spectrum with what looks to be an air of arrogance (whether intentional or not). We must remember however that none of us have it completely right. Each one of us were by our very nature once little people; inquisitive dreamers of all possibilities. Where we find ourselves today on that spectrum is the result of our history.

Even the very best of us at obtaining that central pivoting point have our moments. When a loved one passes away, we muse about them around us. In times of hardship, we wish or pray for assistance, guidance and/or strength. We see meaning in random events that our better training signifies as a statistical streak and nothing more.

At this point, I’m certain the committed sceptic could take the previous paragraph to confirm gullibility in those whom suggest new ideas are far more likely than previous ideas, based on strong evidence, while the unbuttoned mind would use it to confirm that “deeper understanding” is innate within us all, but trained out of us by the short-sighted and those of us that hover around the pivot point will be frustrated – even seeing this article as apologetic. The point of the matter is; we are all new from the credulous side of the spectrum, both as a species and individually.

The enlightenment refined the tools of inquiry so that we could build confidence in our assertions and as unfortunate as it may seem, each birth is a new start along the road of understanding; we are forced to learn from scratch what took a life time for others to appreciate. That both slows down the process of developing an understanding of the natural universe and demonstrates just how fragile the acquired knowledge can be; it takes great educators to ensure nothing is lost down the line.

The latter point sits behind the concerns of aging experts of any generation whom chastise “the abysmal level of education nowadays”.

The Science Communicator

I’m certain that our approach as science communicators fails to cause ripples among those heavy to either side of the spectrum because we fail to address where they are coming from. We also grow frustrated due to the same reason and condemn one group as fanatical believers to an “absolute truth” and the other as “off with the fairies”. Such attitudes and perceived arrogance does education no favours.

Instead, it may pay to put the obligation back on them to validate their reasoning.

Indeed, as Hamlet said (and quoted endlessly by some), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

No-one knows better than a scientist just how odd and counterintuitive the natural universe is. Perhaps acknowledging and demonstrating this could capture their imagination… before pulling the conversation in with justification as to why we know such things and hold so much confidence in their validity.

Maybe take it a step further and muse their ideas following an attempt to test its validity in the same fashion. The universe would remain a weird and wonderful place, but just maybe some of your audience may shift a little closer to the pivot point; they might get why you test ideas and enjoy the genuine confidence they hold in these new assertions while maintaining their sense of wonder and majesty in the universe.

Admire the mind strict and trained to demand compelling evidence. Ask them why they believe what they believe. Ask them what it may take them to question the validity of these beliefs. I hinted at it above; get them test their ideas and your own. Work with them from the ground up. Expose them to a new form of confidence not based on simply being strongly held, but instead tested until it stands regardless what you do to it. Maybe they too may shift a little closer to the pivot point and enjoy the exploration of thought.

We are all in this together. We have reached a point that our impact on the world is far greater than that we ever gave to any god. We remove mountains. We are changing the global climate. We are causing a mass extinction event and degrading our resource base. We have an arsenal able to destroy our species along with many others.

It may be fun for some and fundamental for others to knock others down because of conflicting ideas, but it isn’t helping anyone. Especially now that we have the tool set to chisel out information in great detail and with great confidence. We need to change our approach or else we’ll still be squabbling, knee deep in salt water with little left to defend.

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.

On global warming, cherry picking and publishing

By Donald Rodbell, originally posted at Concordiensis, here

On March 5, Lord Christopher Monckton came to Union to provide a different perspective on climate change than that held by the vast majority of climate scientists. While his presentation was objectionable on several levels (see below), it did raise the level of interest in global warming to a greater degree than I could ever have hoped for. I suppose we all like a heated debate!

One of Monckton’s main arguments is that science is not done by consensus. The consensus in question here is the 97 percent of climate scientists in a 2008 Gallup Poll (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009) who agree that the world is warming and that humans are at least partially responsible for that warming.

According to Doran and Zimmerman (2009, p. 22), “It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.”

Monckton, however, posits that consensus in general, and this consensus in particular, do not ensure that the underlying science is sound.

This, of course, is true, but while scientific consensus has been wrong (e.g., the dogma prior to Nicolaus Copernicus’ discovery in 1543 that the Earth was not the center of the universe), when that consensus is informed by the scientific method and by replication in peer-reviewed literature, the consensus of scientists is very rarely wrong to the extent suggested by Monckton in the case of global warming.

Few of us doubt the scientific consensus that UV light can cause skin cancer, that chlorofluorocarbons have a deleterious effect on stratospheric ozone levels, or the scientific underpinnings of most modern medical treatments.

However, a main tenet of  Monckton’s presentation is that the scientific basis for our concern over global warming is fundamentally flawed. In fact, his blatant misuse and ignorance of published scientific literature, as illustrated below, should make one seriously question his credibility.

One example of Monckton’s misuse of scientific data came in his rebuttal to an op-ed piece that I wrote with Erin Delman for the Concordiensis on March 7, 2012. In this rebuttal, he noted that the Earth has not been warming for nearly 15 years. If one picks 1998 as one’s starting point and ends last year, one does indeed get a negative slope (see graph).

This is due to the fact that 1998 was an exceptionally warm year due to a strong El Nino event that year. If one considers the long-term trend, however, the slope remains positive with warming clearly continuing.

Indeed, Monckton made the point in his Union presentation that one can influence trends by carefully choosing where to start and end a time series.

Why then would Monckton choose this dubious strategy to argue that warming has not been occurring for most of the last decade and a half? That this contradiction has been pointed out by others apparently has not dissuaded him from continuing the practice of cherry picking data sets.

Monckton further mischaracterized climate science during his talk at Union. He chose a record of Beaufort Sea Ice (Melling et al., 2005) to illustrate that from 1991 to 2003, sea ice there has not been declining, and that, by inference, sea ice in the arctic is healthy. In fact, 30-year records from the (U.S.) National Snow and Ice Data Center reveal that arctic sea ice, as a whole, is declining precipitously, and even when Antarctic data are included, the global average is declining. Clearly Monckton knows of the NSIDC data sets, as he must have waded through the Melling et al. (2005) publication, so why would he choose to show what can be charitably characterized as a misleading graphic of the state of arctic sea ice?

A final example is the assertion made by Monckton during his lecture that Venezuelan glaciers are advancing to an extent not achieved at any time during the preceding 10,000 years. Having worked on deciphering the record of glacier margin fluctuations in the Andes for many years, this was news to me! My relatively recent review paper on the subject reports no evidence of recent ice front advances anywhere in the tropical Andes (Rodbell et al., 2009). Knowing the literature is a fundamental part of the scientific process!

I have illustrated but three examples of Monckton either cherry picking or mischaracterizing data sets to suit his a priori thesis. A thorough analysis of one of Monckton’s prior presentations by Professor Abraham of the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) reveals that these practices are part of Monckton’s modus operandi.

However, the main comment that I made to Monckton at Union and again in the Concordiensis op-ed, is the importance of him publishing his assessment in a scientific journal. There are many journals from which he could choose, and one need not be a scientist to publish. If he is correct, and I do hope that he is, that global warming is nothing that we should be fretting over, then his analysis needs to be spelled out carefully in the peer-reviewed literature.

It is not enough to orally cite strings of publications in his talks or paste references on his slides; we need his written word on, for example, exactly how he bases his climate sensitivity calculations, or why he thinks climate feedbacks will continue to be responsible for homeostasis on Earth. It is not enough to state that those of us interested can contact him for details, those details need to be published for all to evaluate. That is how science works.

Monckton closed his Union lecture by mocking environmentalists (as greenies “too yellow to admit they are red”) and asserting that their concern over climate change would divert billions of dollars that could be used to save those suffering in Africa. This is a false choice. If rainfall projections for tropical Africa and South America are even remotely accurate, then climate change itself may be an especially serious threat to those living on the margins in these underdeveloped regions. In my view, it is not a few degrees of warming that we need to worry most about, it is changes in the distribution of rainfall and the inability of large numbers of people to respond to these changes.

Monckton’s credibility is compromised by his propensity to misuse science, his own ignorance of paleoclimatic records and, most of all, by giving hyper-partisan lectures, the contents of which he refuses to publish and thereby expose to scrutiny.

References Cited

Doran, P. T., and Zimmerman, M. K., 2009, Examining the consensus of climate change: EOS v. 90, p. 21-22.

Melling, H., Riedel, D., and Gedalof, Z., 2005, Trends in thickness and extent of seasonal pack ice, Canadian Beaufort Sea: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 24, p. 1-5.

Rodbell, D.T., Smith, J. A., and Mark, B. G., 2009. Glaciation in the Andes during the Late Glacial and Holocene: Quaternary Science Reviews 28, 2165-2212.

Australian Politics Reduced to the Game of Scoundrels

I detest politics at best.

They are, after all, public servants. Their job is to serve the public. I couldn’t imagine servants of some incredibly wealthy family getting away with spending the bulk of their time on an obsessed mission to fling dirt at other employees. They would be fired.

Yet we all pay for wages most of us will never personally know so that these public servants can, largely, waste their time and our money on squabbling. I’m certain they do some work, but it is clearly not in proportion to their wage, simple as that.

But that is just my opinion.

As is always the way as we trundle closer to another election, the chain mail becomes more feverish. The political propaganda finds itself filling up my inbox, sent by well-meaning friends and family. As usual, I’m amazed by the utter nonsense people are willing to quaff in favour of their political slant.

Carl Sagan is correct; we are not well taught to be critically minded, which serves their (wasteful, in my opinion) purposes more than our own.

In recent years, we have been subjected to both major parties attempting to “find themselves” in the wake of the rejection of Howard. Throughout the Howard years, also as an undergrad student and a father, I wondered how it could possible get worse, but his ejection left a void with both the Labour and Liberal parties failing to rebrand themselves with a new leaders.

Sure, I feel they came close with Rudd and Turnbull, the latter more so strikes me as a genuinely intelligent individual, while the former more charismatic. However, in both parties, egos and ambition has washes away all credibility until we’ve reached this point where voters seem to be selecting the lesser of two evils.

This is precisely the fuel that feeds the wasteful mud hurling and breathless speeches of our current age. Both parties are out solely to make the other seem, in the eyes of the voter, as the greater evil.

The worst part of this, for me, is the political tripe that pollutes my inbox. Certain Larry Pickering cartoons and xenophobia based on a continual obsession over refugee policies – both parties attempting to make the other look more evil on the subject.

The main cartoons doing-the-rounds reflect paranoia over the carbon tax. It will not lead to a mass exodus of business within Australia. Over the past 40 years, cheap labour in “developing” nations and the drive for conglomerate business, ‘consume or perish’, have done more to encourage business to head off-shore than the tax ever will.

I would also argue that any company likely to survive this century should instead “adopt, adapt and improve”. Whether we wait until the signal is too great for the noisy crowd to ignore the fact that we are modifying the chemistry of our atmosphere, allowing it to trap more heat, or even longer still that we wait until fossil fuels are deep into the decline of Hubbert’s bell curve, eventually, we will need to decarbonise our energy supply.

Smart and ultimately successful industry leaders will be proactive; the trend-setters and the revolutionary, as they always have been throughout history. You will not be able to avoid decarbonisation forever and it will be tomorrow’s leaders whom adapted early, leaving the rest to scramble (or pay the successful to utilise their improved processes) somewhere in their wake.

The second point above is more disturbing. It plays on a deeply racist white Australian history that sickens me and I suspect most younger Australians (and hopefully, most older Australians as well).

The common cries I hear are; “English language only!” “Australian culture or go home!” and “Close the borders!”

These points are inherently absurd.

Until the first European settlers, there were several hundred native languages across Australia. English is and must remain as much, a foreign language. It is not, after all, “Australianese” or something else equally difficult to pronounce.

Likewise can be said about the Australian culture; what most Australians think of as the Australian culture is, in reality a bastardisation of the numerous UK and west European cultures, blended more recently with a generous helping of another colony making an identity for itself; the US. The Australian culture is none of these cultures, true, but it is partly all of these mixed together by a new invent; “Australiana” – White Australiana; we have largely ignored the cultures native to this country before European arrival.

Put brilliantly, found randomly (please notify me if there is any copyright to the original image and I will make the necessary changes)

With that in mind, the third desperate chant is the most ridiculous.

I am an Australian. On my father’s side, my family dates back to 1870 on these shores and I have a great-Grandfather whom fought, as an ANZAC, over in Europe in the Second World War. His family went as far as to change their German last name.

I’m proud of my family history within this country, but recognise it’s a short history, ~140 years, when compared to the native history, likely to be as much as 50,000 years in the making.

Without open borders, it would be impossible to have an Australian culture anything like that we recognise today. And if it’s a great culture, we shouldn’t need to preserve it within fortified walls, but rather export it to the world and share it with all those we meet.

That would be a measure of its value; for if it’s as great as we believe, it would be adopted in full, or in part, by others exposed to it. If it isn’t great, it won’t be and we could ask ourselves (if we are courageous enough to do so), where did we go wrong with it?

Certainly that would be better than exporting xenophobia and racism as cultural traits. What about the general ignorance we express for native Australian culture as well?

These traits do not reflect me and I hope they don’t reflect the Australian culture at large in the 21st century.

Of course, as I began with; this is all the result of political propaganda. Propaganda from a political scene in turmoil, with two leaders nobody trusts or particularly likes.

For me, I’m bored to the point of nausea by the hypno-toad speeches of our current PM and whenever I see Abbott’s face, I hear Billy Connolly’s voice in my head saying, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one. The desire for power is a dangerous thing.” (for instance)

It’s unlikely things will change greatly within this coming around (regardless which of these two individuals comes to take the centre stage); either way, we will be disappointed.

What I hope more so from writing this is to get the neurons firing; I hope to see people become more critically minded in response to the information presented to them, regardless of the source. Australia is running almost entirely on emotions; emotions that are sometimes warranted while in other cases not. We are being fed anger, hatred and xenophobia by the barrelful.

Pointing the finger is the last resort of a scoundrel with no redeemable personal traits and this is all these public servants are offering us at the moment. We pay their wages and we should expect more than such cheap tricks for our dollar.

Australia; please think!

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.

Removing Politics From Environmental Governance

A number of years ago, when I was still an undergrad, there was a group of students whom worked together to produce and distribute fresh produce. It was a great and novel idea that provided cheap fruit and vegetables to a cluster of people notorious for a lifestyle of packet noodles, just to make ends meet on a student income.

Through a network of producers and workers, this little group had something special. Of course, part of the deal was to be actively involved with the labour; financial input was instead substituted by physical input.

I nearly got involved.

What stopped me was perhaps trivial, but is more common than many of us would like to admit.

The group was, from even a passing assessment, far more left than myself. I could provide to you now my own judgement of this group and of course face ridicule for it, but equally, I’m certain my clean-cut personality would have in turn caused judgement from the group as well. We’re only human; it’s what we do.

In short, we simply did not reflect the same ideologies, apart from this one activity and so my involvement was made difficult, if not impossible.

We humans naturally form clans and this group just wasn’t my clan.

From my observations of the various discussions regarding improving in the sustainability of our actions, I’ve witnessed the same thing stopping more mainstream acceptance of what is clearly in the best interest of us all.

The “already engaged” people are passionate, well meaning people. However, we have formed our own clans – even societies – which clearly are, more often than not, progressive.

It might initially seem that this makes sense; it is, after all, the progressive people whom change the world for the better and the conservatives whom hold us back. Such a conclusion is one that we progressive thinkers may tells ourselves to explain what we are witnessing or to justify some notion of moral superiority. However this simply isn’t the truth.

More importantly, anyone who has spent time researching on even one issue facing our future would be aware that the solutions are not only already at our hands, they require every last one of us. We are not out to save the biota, ocean and atmosphere of the progressive world, but the entire Earth – the only world we have.

While I believe it is important that we do build cultural identities around a new revolution in planetary governance, these identities need to be both right and left.

The conservatives, for instance, should be asking themselves what they are wish to conserve; a runaway churning of resources to fuel a short-lived boom, before the inevitable bust or a resource base in which we can continue to reap benefits from indefinitely? It’s not too hard to argue that environmentalism really should have been a conservative initiative to begin with.

I avoided cheap and highly nutritious food at my own expense entirely because I couldn’t mesh with a group behind a great idea. That only affected me in return; either in my coughing up extra money for the same food from a supermarket (albeit, probably less nutritious due to the general practices of storage and distribution of many supermarkets) or (more likely) turning instead to the cheaper alternatives, such as pre-packaged fast food.

On the other hand, in turning environmental governance and sustainability entirely into a progressive ideology, we are already witnessing a world of paralysis which affects us all. The longer we leave it, the bigger the clean up, the greater the expense and the more we would have lost forever.

Each one of us needs to remove this stigma from the culture of good environmental governance. We can’t make it a progressive or a conservative movement. Instead we need to be approachable with language that reflects left, right and central. There are many more with a conservative outlook whom would support positive action on environmental governance than currently are because of the cultural divide that we have created. Appealing to the obvious conservative arguments, such as the one I made above, and working positively with everyone who shares a joy for nature (I’d argue it’s instinctive and thus universal) will help bridge this divide and provide a more meaningful grounds for constructive debate; where we are arguing over solutions and not simply the confidence we have in scientific methodology or the perpetuation of an argument over right and left.

It would be like the group of students noticing my interest in their activity approaching me, making it clear that our obvious differences are irrelevant because what’s important is only what we’re both interested in (ie. the clan is based around the positives outcomes of the activity at hand and not also about other related lifestyle choices that would tend to refine the clan into greater specific attributes). Who knows, we may have even rubbed off on one another over time with the constructive basis created and found greater grounds of similarity.

This is exactly what we need in the face of climate change, growing oil, food and water insecurity and biodiversity degradation; constructive holistic activity aimed at protecting and invigorating the dynamic life support system on which we all depend.

On such topics, there just isn’t room for ownership by just one hemisphere of political ideology.

A Vague Attempt to Review Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”

I’ve just finished reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

Unlike many of my peers, I’ve long avoided many authors, such as Diamond, Dawkins etc. Instead I focused on the classics, like Wells, Orwell, Fitzgerald etc. In truth, I fell prey to the misinformation about such writers engineered by those whom dislike their fantasies being thoroughly discredited.

Of course, I should have read their work for myself before buying into such assumptions or concerning myself about judgement by association. Both men are far from the stigma created around them and both passionate, honest and interesting writers.

In the final chapter of Collapse, I found myself thinking, “Andrew Bolt should be made to read this.”

Ever since I stumbled upon one of Bolt’s more moronic writes, excusing species extinction, even the role of Hathos has been killed for me; I simply cannot read his dribble anymore. I spent a fair amount of effort attempting to retort with various arguments as to why not only biodiversity, but also genetic diversity within a species is fundamental to the success of our species as well. Diamond puts it even better;

“[B]iodiversity losses of small inedible species often provoke the response, “Who cares? Do you really care less for humans than for some lousy useless little fish or weed, like the the snail darter or Furbish lousewort?” This response misses the point that the entire natural world is made up of wild species providing us for free with services that can be very expensive, and in many cases impossible, for us to supply ourselves. Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane.”

Throughout the book, Diamond provides many compelling examples of successes and failures in the survival of societies. In that respect I really should have read his work earlier, even more so than Dawkins as it’s the same perspective that first drew me to the blogosphere with MothIncarnate.

Unlike many environmentally inclined that actively engage on the subject (generally outside of academia) I’m very much pro-industrialisation, in the respect that I believe it will be through innovation (ie. social and technological) that we stand the best possibility of discovering solutions to the myriad of problems facing our future. I’m also in favour of a form of free-market, however based on a stable state economy. We require innovative and inventive market enterprise within thriving societies based on technologically advances and a strong sense of capped resources and waste management (ideally leading to zero waste; in other words, cyclic processes).

The way forward is not the way back to the humble peasant and some illusion of egalitarianism. Like Diamond, I prefer to rely on historical evidence and all the evidence I’m aware of leads me to the conclusion that sophisticated societies are never egalitarian – we should instead ask how to avoid gaping disparity through other means within societal structures that foster good environmental management; that is, societies that have a core understanding that real societal wealth starts with a thriving surrounding environment.

This line of thinking has often lead me to pointless circular debates, where I ask for evidence to the contrary and instead am continually supplied with the response that the other just doesn’t like my argument.

In the same way, another loud point made in Collapse is not very popular (and has led to much of the stigma around Diamond). He doesn’t see business as the big greedy monster that many people probably inclined to pick up his book do. Rather than labelling business as a shameless profiteer at the expense of people and the environment he accurately defines is as… well, a business. He goes on the provide examples of free-market entities whom we would consider to be doing the right thing as well as providing societies that collectively do the wrong thing. It’s not so black and white as the humble peasants of yesteryear and the greedy capitalistic machine of today.

It equally seems too easy to forget that in many democratic countries, not only can we vote out a bad leadership, but we can also ruin the profits of many industry leaders if we’re significantly motivated to do so. Business only works on what they can get away with in chasing money. A fast food joint will only add a salad option (often smothered in dressing as oily as their deep fried chips) if it’s enough to satisfy their customers. Providers of wood products will create some pleasant green logo of a tree with the word “sustainable” if it’s what we want to hear and are gullible enough to fall for it. White or green washing only happens because of the society that supports it.

If it ends up being more profitable to take measures to ensure environments are sustained or that waste and pollution are minimised (ie. it’s what the consumers demand and will only buy) then that is what business will do. It is of course more expensive to do so, but how often do you trust the quality of the cheapest item on the shelf anyway? Doing things right sometimes incur additional costs (although taking Diamond’s examples of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council, additional costs are small to the consumer and can ensure indefinite resource supply in return).

Personally, I feel we should all claim ownership of blame rather than seek out scapegoats, such as poor leadership or corporate governance. If we truly are stewards of the Earth, then none of us are blameless. In owning a share of the mess, we feel more obliged to do something about it, sparking a much needed cultural change – probably the most important innovation required.

Another important point made in Collapse is that part of the reason for the more modern successes mentioned in the book have occurred due to displacement. When one area exhausts its local resources, it has been easy to source these from other (often poorer and more corrupt) regions. In this way, we have a strong sense of immunity from collapse in wealthier western societies that is undeserved and makes such essential cultural changes even more difficult to catch on.

For this reason, even though I still feel that the Andrew Bolt’s of the world should read this book, I’m not convinced it would make the required impact to their reasoning.

That all said, it’s a great book, beautifully constructed and compelling with its evidence. I agree with Diamond that the story shouldn’t be seen as a depressing one, but rather an amazing collection of survivors. Not only have many societies survived, but progressed to the point that highly sophisticated machines now allow us to converse to one another regardless of distance. The range for ideas is limitless. It’s not intuitive to comprehend just how powerful and revolutionary that truly is. In this way, I am remain hopeful in innovation regardless of the tireless juggernauts leading us along the road of degradation.

Diamond’s book sits among the best of these ideas and has something for any reader as it does for every society whom wishes to avoid collapse.