How Not to ‘Save the World’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I giving up?

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

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

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

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

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

Paved in good intentions

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

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

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

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

To Get rid of it?

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

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

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

Out with the old

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

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

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

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

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


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

PETA: When Ideological Myopia Undoes ‘the Cause’

I spend a lot of time attacking the ideologies of what could be loosely termed strongly conservatives. Far less of my posts have targeted another group which too deserves as much criticism.

I, for one, thank Greenpeace for their activities in pursuing whaling operations. Not so much from an emotional view point, but from the view of preserving genetic diversity. Harvesting of the oceans is almost entirely unsustainable and until we can appropriately farm sea life sustainably (if it will ever be possible) I will not support fisheries on any level.

That said, their destruction of a CSIRO GM crop was a pathetic, emotionally fuelled gesture that will have no positive effect to their cause (unless they are simply attention seekers). Likewise, Nature recently published a news article about PETA activities to pressure the transporters of research animals.

Firstly, I do not support animal testing of cosmetic materials, but that said, this too is an emotionally fuelled gesture based more on an extreme ideology which contradicts the benefits such people have been able to enjoy in the modern age.

Animal testing is fundamental for safe medicines. It’s not enough to test the effects on living tissue (as psychological effects cannot be tested on non-conscious material), nor is it ethical to test directly on people*. Likewise, many such tests require certain genes to be present (or absent) to understand the relevant effects. This again requires fully formed animals of some sort.

Without such testing, it would have taken far longer for there to be conclusive evidence (at least, within the public arena) of the detrimental effects of cigarettes on our species; indeed the carcinogenic and otherwise poisonous properties of many materials that have (and still do) surround us.

The resulting data we have obtained for such testing has greatly improved the quality of human life and our understanding of ecology and animal behaviour (essential for conservation). Further testing will only increase our understanding of the brain, toxins, improved medicines, genetics, ecology and animal behaviour.

If any one of the PETA characters behind this movement have ever taken medicine (as opposed to the untested or tested-and-proven-not-to-work “alternative remedies”) to overcome an ailment (or to save their life), well, they are thus a hypocrite. They would expect such medicine to work and the only reason we have confidence of the abilities of such chemicals to do a certain job as well as knowing the side-effects is due to this process.

The same could be said about species conservation; behavioural ecology sometimes requires a sample group to be taken into the lab for behavioural as well as physiological studies. It’s also our work in genetics and population dynamics as well as animal testing which leads us to conclusions about gene pool and outbreeding coefficients. Saving the animals indeed means studying them.

It’s unlikely such actions will even do as PETA would like them to. Instead, other less favourable methods of transport will have to be considered – at the expense of the very animals PETA are trying to save.

From the Nature article;

In India, for example, the government’s National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), in Hyderabad, relies on Air India to ship specialized mouse strains to researchers and companies throughout the country. “From Hyderabad to Delhi by train would take more than 30 hours” and require an attendant, says Madan Chaturvedi, dean of life-sciences research at the University of Delhi. Without Air India transporting the animals, research at his institution “would definitely suffer”, he says.

Admittedly, it does serve as an ethical dilemma. If PETA genuinely stand for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they would have more positive impact by working with researchers to set up a best practice policy. It would start with trying to eliminate needless animal testing where possible and then steps to ensure animals are handled appropriately. I wouldn’t be surprised if PETA learnt, through such an endeavour, that many researchers already act as ethically as possible.

Scientists are not the villains, riding on the back of some mutated rodent, out to take over the world that cartoons tend to portray. Believe it or not, they’re your average human, in a given profession, and like your average human they tend to be empathetic. They are not in the game to inflict cruelty for the sake of it.

Only through working with researcher can such groups truly understand what work is actually being done (rather than what the read in their pamphlets and understand from hear-say within their group) and work to ensure that important work is done to the highest ethical standards possible. Bullying others into a certain ideological framework will only lead to worsening the conditions of such animals and isolating such extreme ideologies even further… It’s counterproductive to mantra of PETA and hypocritical to the benefits its members enjoy in the modern world.

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* There isn’t a version of the reality that I’ve heard that would not exploit the vulnerable and unnecessarily threaten human life.

As another foot note; I suspect many fans of PETA and alike, whom reject any animal testing / food supply, would have rejoiced at the recent study, by Séralini et al. 2012 that suggested a link between tumours and GM foods. Of course, this conclusion could have only been drawn by animal testing (whether or not the implications indeed turn out to have the impact, or meaning, those now trumpeting its message – without reading the paper or relevant material surrounding it, some of which is summarised by Butler here as well as an illuminating editorial here – would hope it to have).

It’s not so black and white.

Elitism: the Ivory Tower and Mann on a Gold Plated Jet-ski

Musing further on my previous post, I’m drawn back again and again to the term (which I subjected to a footnote) “elitist”.

It’s a term we’re all too aware of; thrown like mud from the committed sceptical community. “Woe! How the elitist scientific community doth rent-seek at the expense of the common person and true scientific endeavour!”

We’ve all heard the claims about elitist scientists sitting loftily in ivory towers, too giddy with their privileged position to be aware of the terrible burden they place on the community that supports them. Of course, all this rhetoric is done without evidence or citation. We are simply expected to believe they pocket grant money and produce dodgy studies to perpetuate additional revenue.

It seems incredible that the global academic community is oblivious to such broadscale behaviour when falsehood of this nature should be fairly easy to detect. Why do we have no equivalent sites to Exxon Secrets to point out Michael Mann’s five sports cars and supersized home (oh, don’t forget that fur coat he’s always strutting in) or similar from the other “elitist” climate researcher?

That’s simple to answer: because it’s a myth.

Again, Tim Minchin’s works ring loud and clear, “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved.”

It requires a suspension of higher faculties to maintain such an illusion.

Moreover, what does the term,” Elitist”, set on a hair trigger, actually mean?

Here’s some of the terms I found online;

“considered superior by others or by themselves, as in intellect, talent, power, weather, or position in society: elitist country clubbers who have theirs and don’t care about anybody else.” (from Dictionary.com)

“the belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.” (from the freedictionary.com)

“the belief that a society or system should be led by an elite: local government in the nineteenth century was the very essence of elitism” (from the online Oxford Dictionaries)

“the belief or attitude that some individuals, who form an elite — a select group of people with a certain ancestry, intrinsic quality or worth, higher intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.” (from Wikipedia)

Wikipedia go on to summarise it further with;

“The term elitism, or the title elitist, are sometimes used by people who are (or claim to be) not a member of an elite organization. In politics, the terms are often used to describe people as being out of touch with the Average Joe. The implication is that the alleged elitist person or group thinks they are better than everyone else; and, therefore, put themselves before others. It could be seen as a synonym for snob. An elitist is not always seen as truly elite, but only privileged.”

It’s noteworthy that Wikipedia also rightly place Egalitarianism as contrary to Elitism – which is yet another panicked cry from the committed sceptic. “They’re planning to siphon money from the rich west to poor countries…” Go figure.

Basically, elitism is the belief in being better than others and using this belief to justify a desire to govern others. At first, it’s a far cry from the lofty ivory towers, wealth, sports cars and trophy wives that come to mind when one hears in media the nauseating “elitist” lament, yet it does deserve discussion.

It isn’t, after all, a far leap (of faith?) to conclude the suggestive measures to reduce the potential impact of climate change can be taken as being told what to do. However, the facts don’t line up with the delusion.

Have evil climate scientists learnt a trick or two from Palpatine of Star War? Dun dun da!

For instance, there has been committed effort to inform the wider global community of the potential ramifications of modifying concentrations of greenhouse gases longer than I’ve been alive, but trends in CO2 emissions have only increased over this time. Also, I must have overlooked the likes of Michael Mann or James Hansen bid for the presidential seat or papers that conclude that supreme power should be overturned to them until the crisis is over (not unlike Palpatine)… Hardly rich, powerful men are they?

The only way such a scenario makes sense is in the same way various medical bodies suggest a healthy lifestyle (ie. smoke-free, lean diet and exercise) is beneficial to us, which in turn results in various governing bodies utilising such evidence laden suggestions to curb incidence of avoidable tobacco and obesity related illness and death.

Do we hear similar claims over “elitist” doctors and medical bodies telling us what we can and can’t eat, drink and smoke through a manipulation of government? You bet we do, but we rightly identify such people as crackpots. Why should committed climate sceptics deserve anything but similar notoriety?

The only definition for “elite” that I found fitting was; “The best or most skilled members of a group” (from freedictionary.com)

Billy Connolly said it best, “If you wanted to know how to build a ship, you wouldn’t ask a marshmallow maker.”

In a similar fashion, if I had a faulty heart, I’d consult a cardiologist, not my barber. In fact, I’d hope to consult a damn good cardiologist – one with years of experience and an excellent track record – and not just some recent graduate. Likewise I would consult a mechanic about my car over a carpenter or climatologist or a meteorologist about climate change over a geologist, journalist, weatherman or a classic’s major.

Specialisation is an important function of our complex societies. It’s impossible for anyone to be an expert on everything, thus we all formulate our own skills package that allow us to function within a society that benefits from this diversity of skills. Some of us become elite in a narrow field of expertise. That’s how we have rovers undertaking sophisticate surveys on other worlds, keyhole surgery, nanotechnology and whatever else you care to mention from the modern era.

Some scientists in a given field are elite, but not elitist. Some scientists are clearly elitist as well – I could suggest a few who pretend to be experts in fields outside their area of research or others who explicitly state their work is “a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

Relying on a hereditary peer title as authority on matters one has never really studied could also been seen as elitist in that it uses a “belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect [or] social status.”

In truth, the Ivory tower does exist as well as elitists. However, the term has been applied without evidence to individuals whose investigations of the natural world have led them to uncomfortable conclusions. The term has been used by individuals and think tanks who are clearly not sophisticated enough to present a valid case against the standing body of evidence. If anything, I suggest sideshows of this nature only expose the obvious fact that there is no valid case against anthropogenic climate change.

If there was, there are an abundance of committed sceptical outlets, online, in print and on screen as well as significant political paralysis allowing such information to become common knowledge. There is nothing to stop the “final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change”. But for all the hype, slander and puppetry, a valid contrary case remains elusive. I’m fairly confident none will ever be forthcoming (however, I’d be grateful if it was).

Imposing Meaning: The Conflict Between Ideologies Masked as Reasoned Debate

Light in the absence of eyes, illuminates nothing. Visible forms are not inherent in the world, but are granted by the act of seeing. Events contain no meaning in themselves, only the meaning the mind imposes on them. Yet, the world endures…

As a teenager, I was obsessed with the animated series Æon Flux. The above is part of a quote that opened episode 5 of season 3, where Trevor Goodchild was having a ‘Hamlet moment’. It has been changed in a more recent release of the series.

It has stuck with me for close to twenty years now. Memorised. Hardwired.

Musing over it today, I see it differently than I did as a teenager. Perhaps less moved, but still as thought provoking.

While meaningful to the state of mind of the character, it is at once an illustration of the human ego and also desperately fatalistic.

Visible light is but a small region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some species, take for instance certain bee species, can see wavelengths outside this range. Perhaps on a much grander scale, infrared plays more influence over the universe…

More importantly, in reflecting the meaning of events, we hit the fatalistic note. It’s the mind that imposes meaning. Well, of course it is.

Meaning is, after all, the way a self-aware entity makes sense of the information it receives about the known universe surrounding it. Meaning is as important to the self-aware entity as is itself. It has to be. One cannot be self-aware without assigning meaning to the information that bombards for it is that information which leads to the persistence of the self-awareness (ie. staying alive).

This is an important note to my recent posts on values and science. The separation of personal values and scientific certainty is clearly an illusion, based on an impersonal (and functionally impractical) philosophy. All information that reaches each one of us must contain both objective and subjective meaning or else it would be rejected as meaningless. This seems a no-brainer, but in practice, we do separate meaning into pigeon holes as though there were functionally different categories, which in practice, there clearly are not.

I’d like to thank the author of Climate and Stuff for the post, Good God! This is realy scary stuff. In the post, the author highlights some of the points of the declaration on global warming from the Cornwall Alliance. While no surprises are to be found, they deserve reflection by anyone interested in the communication of increasing scientific certainty.

Here are a couple worth pointing out;

What we believe

1) We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.

What we deny

1) We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

Points 2 – 5 are also worthy of reflection and debate, however as they are hinged on these two points of belief and denial (I thank them for using that word) and are points rebutted elsewhere, at great length, I won’t bother here.

The first thing to note here is that the points quoted are clearly wrong. A casual look into species abundance over the industrial era demonstrates ecosystems are not robust, suited for human flourishing, they are self-evidently fragile to outside impacts, such as human induced degradation. So much so that Rockström et al (2009) places biodiversity loss as significantly more impacted by human activity than climate change, ocean acidity and a host of other variables. Left to their own devices, with ample range and resources, it has been demonstrated that ecosystems can be resilient (Fischer et al 2006), but this remains contradictory to the rest of the statements being made.

The core value being address in this declaration is that the earth and ecosystems are “created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence”. This is the meaning that many minds have imposed on the information they received.

Directly, it has nothing to do with climate change or biodiversity loss, but simply that the world is our divine playground in which we can do no wrong. Thus, errors such as those I’ve pointed out above miss the point of the declaration entirely. To say as much or to point out that “minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry” relates to more than 10 gigatonnes additional CO2 per year and can only be considered “miniscule” if unfairly balanced against Nitrogen and Oxygen (both of which play no role in the greenhouse effect) is translated to, “you are wrong about your core value; that is, your god”.

I am not certain about my reader, but I’m not here to challenge the religious faiths of other people. They can choose to believe any ancient mythology of their choosing. However, I don’t want their beliefs to be shoved onto me. Here is a clear example of faith based values doing just that; through the continuing paralysis on both biodiversity loss and climate change I am party to ideologies that amount to, “she’ll be right – God’s looking after us.”

I find such apparent dependency (assuming there is a god looking after us) infantile and degrading, especially when it is obvious the Raphus cucullatus (Dodo), the Thylacinus cynocephalus (Thylacine) and Rheobatrachus silus (Gastric-brooding frog) among others as well as the difference in ambient conditions between the earth and her satellite all stand as evidence to the contrary.

Hence such musings have not only exposed the core values of people such as those of the Cornwell Alliance, but also my own. At the root, I cannot help but feel I am being asked to relinquish a sense of control – thus meaning – to my life. I’m being asked to take a leap of faith that common-sense tells me is a bad move.

It’s easy to see how quickly such discussions can go astray.

While we may be addressing the science, in reality, we’ve walked into a debate over ideologies; in the meaning the mind imposes on events. How we avoid this, when such groups as the Cornwell Alliance explicitly thread their theology to certain views of the world (such as climate change and biodiversity loss), remains to be seen.

Personally, I won’t hold my breath on a superpower saving us from ourselves. I just can’t do it. History is too full of plague, famine, extinction and hardship that I can’t take solace in a higher force whom, we are told, sides with the victors. Likewise, in weaving their core values to a certain way of seeing the world,* it seems clear that such people are equally unlikely to budge.

So what remains? My suggestion would be to question. “What real world evidence do you have that ecosystems are robust and self-correcting?” or “How does extinction fit into this?” or “Climate has indeed changed over the millennia – but it has been too cold and too hot to support human life in a way that “flourishes” today, what if this occurs again?” for instance.

You would be unlikely to change their minds, true, but maybe, just maybe, the cracks might start forming between the evidence available and the contradictory meaning already imposed. Hopefully, at the very least, the poor marriage between the evidence and certain ideologies may lead groups such as the Cornwell Alliance to unpick the threads they’ve sowed between the two.  Maybe they will find a better match with governance – good stewardship of a wonderful world – as a divine practice over unquestioning dependence.

Who knows? It couldn’t hurt to try.

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*The Cornwell Alliance lists a number of signers with a scientific background. I have to admit, I feel the science teachers of these signers failed them. The most important lesson one should be taught in science is to be plastic with the evidence. We all have pet hypotheses, but all too often they eventually crash and burn. Even Newtonian physics can only go so far – falling to pieces on the very small or very fast scales. For a scientist to sign a declaration stating that the universe is set in one way, perfectly definable today, represents a lapse of understanding, that will look as silly in retrospect as a similar historical document would regarding the flatness of the earth or pivotal (and unchanging) position of the earth in space.

Have We Lost Control?

The more I reflect on what I have learnt regarding the inherent cultural values associated with factual evidence (such as that relating to evolution, climate change etc) and from discussions with others on the subject, I’m drawn to one point which I feel is potentially the most difficult to overcome by those who reject evidence to maintain a favoured view point.

This is a fear of a loss in control supposed by “committed sceptics” of a given subject.

With those who accept the high certainty of such finding, in general, I find they are happy to acknowledge their own shortcomings and prefer to embrace acquisition of high quality information over a need for absolute certainty. This of course can lead to flying off the spectrum entirely (especially where critical evaluation of information is neglected) and into the ether of “anything is possible and thus everything is really unknowable”, which I have also encountered.

On the other hand, I find a panicked reply when reasoned debate fails a committed sceptic.

A creationist once told me he would prefer to be evolved from a wolf then, when he couldn’t counter a reasoned look at the evidence. Most others claim that morality is meaningless if evolution is true.

A committed sceptic once told me that he welcomed the tropical summers of the UK then, when he couldn’t counter a reasoned look at the evidence regarding climate change. Most others talk about the end of the civilised world if it’s accepted as true (eg. initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will send us back to the Stone Age).

Listen to the language; morality would be lost… society as we know it – the hard won civilizations we have created – will be destroyed; the primary value at heart here is a sense of purpose, of meaning, both personally and communally. If this instinctive meaning to one’s life is “lost” absurd propositions are likely and fatalism inevitable. If X is true, well, all hell will break loose…

Of course it wouldn’t.

We have incredibly strong evidence to support the theory that the universe is more than 13 billion years old and of our genetic relationship with all other life on this planet; of evolved diversity.

We have conducted studies that conclusively demonstrate empathy and altruism in other species. Morality exists not due to divine implantation in our minds and/or soul, but due to increasingly well understood social behaviour which is not unique to our species.

What’s more, our morality is not a written and thus stagnant code hardwired on our brains, as unchangeable as they would be on stone tablets. Instead they are evolving – arguably for the better – with subsequent generations (read, for instance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

Likewise, climate change is true – it has occurred for reasons understood previously without human influence or consequence, however, this time is different only in that latter points.

Climate change is always punctuated with great changes to species abundance, distribution and regional weather patterns however, so far, life has persisted.

Fatalism and committed scepticism only reduces our potential for effective adaptation. And it is in this point that I feel the concern over a loss of control is unwarranted. It is a misunderstanding control entirely.

Surely we have given up the days in which a daily, weekly, monthly or other pivotal points in time required a sacrifice to ensure the gods favoured us with good weather (for our crops and well-being).

Sure we may laugh, but such events are written even into the stories of the god of Abraham and, within my own lifetime, people in developed countries have turned to rainmakers for help. It is laughable to think such devices enable control over the elements – giving up expected favour or assistance by the gods or other magical methods isn’t to give up control, only a delusion of it.*

On the other hand, we clearly do have control over the global climate. We’re currently and inadvertently conducting such geo-engineering. We have the control on how much heat we wish to trap and what kind of global climate we want.

Thinking about it in this way, imagine in the future that we knew that the axis of the Earth’s spin, the orbit around the sun or solar activity (or a combination of these factors) were to send us into another cold or warmer phase (science has given us the tools to make such prediction). We could alter the concentration of greenhouse gases to ensure we maintain a climate similar to the Holocene, ensuring food production, human well-being and species protection.

We also have the power to control how well we adapt to any unavoidable changes, in advance, if we so choose to acknowledge the projections. The results of our efforts may not even be evident until long after we have handed the keys on to future generations. This demonstrates not only control, but wisdom.

We truly are capable of being masters of our domain. However, we remain victims instead to our own delusions and preoccupation with fatalism. As stated above, the worst fears expressed by committed sceptics are simply unjustified and in truth masked the real fear; a fear in losing control. The reality is, as is so commonly the case, the very opposite. In letting go of false “certainties”, tied to a delusion of control, we can instead own our future.

While I believe if push came to shove, we would battle on under change and persist, however, I would like to think we could instead value real certainty and real control which is already within our grasp.

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*Even if there is a god(s) – which is not the point of this article – we always claim their ways to be mysterious, favouring or ignoring for their own reason, leading us back to same point; it is thus a delusion of control under such “mystery”.

A Playground for Social Improvement Under-tapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmth of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Fuzzy Forecast 4

I figure I may run a few of my favourite WFF and BaU2.0 comics as I’m sure a number of newer followers probably haven’t seen them. I wish I could work on some more as they’re a lot of fun to make, but I haven’t really had much time to think them up, let alone create them. I am, however, toying with an idea for a video presentation or two…

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.