Thursday, September 11, 2014

reviews of "Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature" by Vaclav Smil

Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature by Vaclav Smil

My limited goal here was initially to extract factual information from the reviews of Vaclav Smil's book about the real environmental state of the planet. I then added other information from the reviews which gave some impression of the flavour of the book.

From the Bill Gates review:

The biosphere means all plant and animal life in the air, ground and oceans.

How much life is in the biosphere? The dry mass (take out the water) of all living things equals 1.6 trillion metric tons.

What percentage of the biosphere's primary productivity - the plant life generated by photosynthesis - is consumed by humans? Roughly we harvest 17% of each year's new growth (may be as low as 15% or as high as 25%)

12% of the Earth's land mass is now devoted to farmland.

The dry mass of all living humans = 125 million metric tons
The dry mass of all domesticated animals = 300 million tons
The dry mass of all wild vertebrates = 10 million tons

Dry mass of:
  • Plants = 1100 Gt
  • Bacteria = 500 Gt
  • Protists = 10 Gt
  • Fungi = 5 Gt
  • Animals = 2.5 Gt
From one of the amazon reviews (Chad M):
  • about 40% of all terrestrial phytomass - trees, brush, grass - has been removed by human activity
  • land and ocean mammals are at 10% of historic levels

Smil examines all harvests -- from prehistoric man's hunting of megafauna to modern crop production -- and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials (official blurb)

the ocean's zoomass or animal matter is perhaps that most vulnerable area in next few decades, according to the author. This is well described in the final chapter (amazon reviewer)

Smil surprises with a somewhat optimistic final chapter on long-term trends. He ends with a set of recommendations, well supported by the evidence in this book, that we need to stabilize our global population, eat less meet, waste less food, share the world's resources more equitably, and manage the demand for wood (amazon reviewer)

The collective weight of all domestic animals destined to be our meat is 25 times the weight of all wild animal on earth (amazon reviewer)

Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story. (Bill Gates)

It is amazing how little meat was available in most diets as recently as 1800: just a few kilograms per year, versus about 100 kg of meat per year in an average American diet today. (The average Indian, by contrast, eats about 10 kg of meat each year.) The world now harvests far more crops to feed animals that produce meat, dairy, and eggs than to feed humans. (Bill Gates)

But in some ways we've been less responsible in the sea than on land. We don't harvest a high percentage of all the life in the sea, but we concentrate on a very few species—especially carnivorous fish, like cod and tuna. Smil writes that most of the traditionally targeted species and major fishing areas are now being fished to capacity if they're not already overfished, near collapse, or collapsing (Bill Gates)

I was a bit surprised that he didn't talk more about innovations that will help avoid some of the problems he's concerned about. For example, he writes a lot about the impact of meat-eating on the biosphere. Producing meat is very inefficient: To get 1 kg of edible meat from a cow, you have to feed it about 10 kg of grain. But he doesn't mention the possibility of making alternatives to meat, which could reduce the inefficiency and the need for additional crops (Bill Gates)

I truly appreciate the work that has gone into this volume, and I am impressed by the diligence and attentiveness of the author in his pursuit of perfect human biomass impact calculation. As a scientific study it is thorough and boring. While it offers an overview, it contributes little to our understanding – save for the elusive numbers. And it is the numbers, I feel, which are the true protagonists here (Anna Krzywoszynska)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

environmental talking points and references

This is an appeal for myself and others to study more rigorously the real state of the world, ie. the environmental world and its connections to the political, ethical, philosophical and economic worlds. My study is incomplete but I feel I have done enough to make some valid points and to map out a path of further study. At the least, this article is an annotated reading list which indicates the general direction of my thinking at this stage.

It is difficult to separate your hopes and world view (we all carry around and rely on bullshit detectors, filters and blinkers) from an objective assessment of what is really happening in the world.

At one extreme there is a world view which I will call "deep Green" that we are rushing towards environmental Armageddon. At the other extreme you find cheery technological optimism, that any problems created by our technological advance can also be solved by further technological progress.

In history we find people who have made extreme predictions and have ended up looking foolish. See The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future
"University of Illinois economist Julian Simon challenged Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was and wager up to $1,000 on whether the prices of five different metals would rise or fall over the next decade. Ehrlich and Simon saw the price of metals as a proxy for whether the world was hurtling toward apocalyptic scarcity (Ehrlich’s position) or was on the verge of creating greater abundance (Simon’s).

Ehrlich was the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent environmental Cassandra. He argued in books, articles, lectures, and popular television programs that a worldwide population explosion threatened humanity with “the most colossal catastrophe in history” and would result in hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation and dire shortages not just of food but all types of raw materials.

Simon, who passed away in 1998, was a population optimist. A disciple of conservative University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, Simon believed the doomsayers’ models gave little or no credit to the power of efficient markets and innovative minds for developing substitutes for scarce resources and managing out of crises. He went so far as to claim that population growth should “thrill rather than frighten us.”
Although Paul Ehrlich's extreme predictions were wrong and the bet was won by Julian Simon it does not follow logically that there may be extreme environmental concerns that we should be dealing with urgently. I think the only valid response to those ringing alarm bells about environmental issues is to investigate deeply the real state of the world. This is a different response to ridiculing alarmists who have been wrong in the past.

Humans are contrasted to nature by the deep Green side of the discussion. I feel that the humans - nature division is a false dichotomy which leads to a contamination of language. Words such as wilderness, sustainability, biodiversity and ecology need to be looked at carefully.

Wilderness is a human social, religious construct. This is powerfully argued from within the environmental movement by William Cronon in The Trouble with Wilderness. The concept of wilderness tends to reinforce a polarised human-nature dichotomy with nature worship on one side and arrogant human "mastery" of nature on the other.

Biodiversity appears to be a plural concept, a pseudo scientific term, partly invented for environ-political reasons, which can't be clearly defined (see James MacLaurin and Kim Sterelny's What is Biodiversity?). No doubt, biodiversity is a "good thing" but there isn't just one biodiversity but a plurality.

Is ecology a science, or, what sort of science is ecology? Mark Sagoff suggests that it isn't a science (What Does Environmental Protection Protect?), that holistic systems ecology is a figment of the environmental imagination, that ecological concepts such as structure, function, stability, resilience (emergent holistic properties) are more or less meaningless terms. In his vision the whole debate about invasive species is a distraction since species migrating is a natural process anyway. However, I lean to those who seem to be more expert on this issue such as Daniel Simberloff, who specifically reject Mark Sagoff's views and who appear to have studied the issue more closely:
"Sagoff [Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (2005), 215–236] argues, against growing empirical evidence, that major environmental impacts of non-native species are unproven. However, many such impacts, including extinctions of both island and continental species, have both been demonstrated and judged by the public to be harmful"
A better descriptor of where we are at is co-evolution in the Anthropocene.
"The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems" (Wikipedia).
This recognises that we are both part of nature, an evolutionary product, as well as recognising our unique influence over nature, both good and bad.

How can this issue be better framed? Humans who are a part of nature, a tool making product of natural evolution, are destroying huge amounts of the rest of nature and this is bad in its own right (in a spiritual or aesthetic sense) as well as incredibly dangerous for human quality of life too (anthropogenic global warming and other issues - ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrogen cycle, phosphorous cycle, global freshwater use, change in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution). The claim is that we are shitting in our own nest and that is aesthetically ugly and dangerous for our own health.

"Tread lightly on the Earth". This is an ascetic and / or anti consumerist position. eg. Mahatma Gandhi. Poverty ennobles and wealth corrupts. But it turns out that in India Mahatma Gandhi is highly respected for his nationalistic, non violent and humanistic outlooks but less respected for his ascetic, deprivation and traditional viewpoints, that the caste system is natural, akin to an ecological niche. Once again, the modernist beliefs in equality undermines the position of letting things stay as they are. See Shome, Siddhartha's The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

But anti-consumerism, for those who are currently advantaged, can be argued from a non Gandhi position as well. See the Vaclav Smil references below.

Pascal Bruckner has written a philosophical critique and addressed the House of Lords about the promotion of fear and mother earth as a sacred object by deep Green ideology. I would see this as an important contribution to human political psychology but one which does not claim to begin to investigate the real state of the physical world.

There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

Rambunctious Garden is a good metaphor for an environmental future. Not the only metaphor but a good metaphor. This is the title of a book by Emma Marris. Subtitle: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. She is saying that nurturing nature in the big cities is an important part of the path we go down. It fits my preferred vision of human-nature co evolution in the Anthropocene. However, it does seem to be written more from the point of view of how to think about nature rather than an attempt to assess the real state of the world:
Every single chapter challenged my thinking about how we classify and define what is natural, what’s worth saving, why, and how to got about it. However, I must admit, I began reading with the expectation of spending some time communing with, well, nature. But this book dwells less on experiential factors and more on the meta: it dives deeply into the thinking and philosophical frameworks that undergird the conservation of nature today.
Anthropogenic global warming has received more attention than any other issue of late. A reasonable solution to the anthropogenic global warming issue has been articulated: massive increase in R&D in non carbon energy sources, including nuclear (see The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke jnr; The Long Death of Environmentalism by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus).

I agree with the Shellenberger / Nordhaus article which concludes with 12 theses, 8 approaches that won't work and 4 approaches that will work.

Eight approaches that won't work:
  1. better, louder climate science won't transform the global energy economy
  2. fear / scare tactics backfire
  3. environmental justification won't work
  4. anti consumerism won't work
  5. regulation / pricing schemes won't achieve a clean energy economy
  6. climate change is not a traditional pollution problem
  7. a soft energy path (reduced green energy) is a dead end
  8. internalising fossil fuel cost won't work
Four approaches that will work:
  1. R&D into clean energy
  2. embrace nuclear power
  3. the State needs to invest in clean energy
  4. Big, centralised energy is the way to go, not Small is beautiful
But ocean acidification is a relatively understated problem which may lead to extreme marine life destruction through destruction of coral reefs. (see Elizabeth Kolbert's "Ocean Acidification"). Roger Pielke snr has long warned against the issue of ocean acidification as have scientists concerned about the future of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Several writers have pointed out that the widening gap between the world's rich and the world's poor (both in terms of money and access to energy) over rides environmental concerns. See Chris Foreman's On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor. Roger Pielke's iron law is correct, "that when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emission reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time" (The Climate Fix, p. 46).

Thomas Wells, in Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning also argues that a pragmatic approach is far more likely to succeed than moralising about the state of the earth.

Poor people and indigenous people, "the wretched of the earth", usually desire modernity. Listen to Marcia Langton's Boyer lectures about how the mining industry, for all their faults, has done more for Australian aboriginals than the Australian government. You can't leave out the poor in your environmental considerations.

The problem with "the noble savage" metaphor is that our progressive Enlightenment values such as equality of women, non violent raising of children, against capital punishment, for democracy are repelled by the values of tribal hunter gatherer societies, once we scrutinise them carefully. Modern people aren't prepared to give up modern values and so "the noble savage" metaphor fails.

Bjorn Lomborg built his reputation initially around his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg began by trying to refute Julian Simon's optimism for the future but ended by agreeing with him. Following that he developed the Copenhagen Consensus forums about the best way to spend money to solve world problems. However, Lomborg has come under a lot of criticism for inaccuracies in his work (which he fails to acknowledge) and promoting short term issues over longer term issues. I must admit that I like a lot of what Lomborg does but feel that the criticisms developed at Kare Fog's website, Lomborg Errors, do significantly weaken his case.

There are a few books around about the threat to biodiversity. If you prefer one written by an actual scientist then see Edward O Wilson's, The Future of Life (2003). Others, written by journalists without a strong background in science, include The Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Song of the Dodo (1997) by David Quammen).

I read Edward O Wilson's 12 dot point "strategy aimed at the protection of most of the remaining ecosystems and species" which is on pp. 160-64 of his book along with some other parts of his Ch 7 "The Solution". In summary:
  • Salvage the hotspots, 1.4% of the Earth's land surface protects 44% of known vascular plants and 36% of known mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
  • Keep intact the 5 remaining frontier forests
  • Cease all logging of old growth forests
  • Save lakes and river systems
  • Define and save marine hotspots, eg. coral reefs
  • Complete the mapping of the world's biological diversity
  • include the full range of the world's ecosystems, eg. deserts, arctic tundras
  • make conservation profitable
  • use Genetic Engineered crops
  • initiate restoration projects, from the current 10% of protected land up to 50%
  • use zoos and botanic gardens to breed endangered species
  • support population planning
I still feel that technological risk taking is a sensible way for the human race to proceed (the proactionary principle critique of the precautionary principle,
People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.
R&D, nuclear power and genetic engineering are important parts of the solution. Humans are a tool making species and irreversible change has always been normal. But technological optimism as a blind faith is not a good outlook. Be neither a religious environmental alarmist nor a religious technological optimist. Rather explore the facts of the real state of the earth, without hype.

The Planetary Boundaries analysis asserts that we are headed towards environmental tipping points in a number of fields: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. For some critical discussion of this view see Nordhaus, Schellenberger and Blomqvist. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence. They assert that in most cases these are not "tipping points" in a global sense but need to be evaluated according to local conditions. However, they do agree that Climate Change and Ocean-acidification are in grave danger of reaching tipping points.

So, which authors are on the track of documenting the real state of the world? How will issues such as rich-poor gap, energy, biodiversity, global warming etc. work themselves out in the future? I've become very interested in the writings of Vaclav Smil who has written Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from nature (2012) and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 years (2008). I've only read selected extracts from these books so far and feel that he is neither an environmental alarmist or denier but someone striving to work out the real state of the world.

Some of Smil's other writings (about energy, nitrogen / food and oil - see references) could provide extremely valuable background knowledge about how to think about these issues.


Brand, Stewart. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings.

Bruckner, Pascal. Against Environmental Panic.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. Address to House of Lords

Chase, Alston. 2001. In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature

Cronon, William. 1995. The Trouble with Wilderness.

Foreman, Chris. 2013. On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor.

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014 "Ocean Acidification"

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014. The Sixth Extinction

Langton, Marcia. 2012. The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom.

Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist

Lomborg Errors. (Kare Fog)

Marris, Emma. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World

MacLaurin, James and Sterelny, Kim. 2008. What is Biodiversity?

Nordhaus, Ted; Schellenberger, Michael; Blomqvist, Linus. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence.

Pielke jnr, Roger. 2010. The Climate Fix

Planetary Boundaries.

Proactionary Principle.

Quammen, David. (1997) The song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (1997)

Sabin, Paul. 2013. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future

Sagoff, Mark. 2013. What Does Environmental Protection Protect?

Shellenberger, Michael and Nordhaus, Ted. 2011. The Long Death of Environmentalism

Shome, Siddhartha. 2012. The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

Simberloff, Daniel. 2005. Non-native Species DO Threaten the Natural Environment!

Simberloff, Daniel. 2013. Invasive Species: What everyone needs to know

Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Oil: A Beginner's Guide.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years

Smil, Vaclav. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities.

Smil, Vaclav. 2012. Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature

Soule, Michael. 1985. What is Conservation Biology?

Wells, Thomas. Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning.

Wilson Edward O. 2003. The Future of Life

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

two cartoons about the terror in Gaza

Both sides (Hamas, Israel) use terror against innocents and this has been ongoing for a very long time. What is relatively new, since 9/11, is that the terror is gradually being spread, world wide. Sooner or later, it may engulf us.

In my view a short term viable political solution could only arise if Israel was prepared to give up the West Bank and Hamas was prepared to recognise the state of Israel.

A longer term solution is even more problematic. Israel is occupied Palestine, it always has been, since its inception, occupied Palestine. The Palestinians and their descendants who were expelled after 1948 (using terror) have the right to return to their land with full citizens rights within Israel. If this happened they would eventually outvote the supporters of Zionism (the dubious idea that the Jewish religion ought to have a State, owing to the crimes of the Nazis)

Israel has become an albatross around the neck of US Imperialism. The US will continue to be hated in the Middle East as long as it bankrolls a Zionist state that has always used state terror against Palestinians.

This in turn, in the swamp of the Middle East, breeds a production line of recruits to Islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombers who commit atrocities against innocents in the West. That problem and its latest manifestation, ISIS or ISIL, won't go away and we will have to deal with it. The longer we delay dealing with it the worse it will become.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Andrew Forrest report recommendations

The Forrest Review

Follow the links for more detail.

Recommendation 1: Early childhood
 That all governments prioritise investment in early childhood, from conception to three years of age.

Recommendation 2: School attendance
That governments work together to improve school attendance and be measured and accountable to the public for their success.

Recommendation 3: Improving educational outcomes
That a high quality of school education is ensured, particularly for children in remote and disadvantaged areas as assessed by achieving parity in National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results so they have the best chance of employment.

Recommendation 4: Stopping distractions to education
That Commonwealth, state and territory governments, business, sporting organisations and community leaders ensure that school attendance is not unintentionally undermined by sports carnivals, visiting celebrities or any activities that can give families an incentive to take students—particularly from remote schools—away from school for lengthy periods of time.

Recommendation 5: Healthy Welfare Card
That the Commonwealth Government implement immediately a Healthy Welfare Card scheme in conjunction with major financial institutions and retailers to support welfare recipients manage their income and expenses.

Recommendation 6: Implementation and accountability
That the implementation of recommendations be prioritised across all governments, closely monitored and reported along the lines that are described by the value driver trees.

Recommendation 7: Implementation
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments ensure that a major component of funding for government-funded service providers is at risk if they fail to achieve satisfactory performance.

Recommendation 8: Agreement to implement the recommendations of this report
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments agree to sign a new multilateral agreement to affirm their commitment to implement the recommendations of this report and be held accountable for delivery, through regular public reporting on the Creating Parity website as detailed in each recommendation.

Recommendation 9: Young people
That young people below 19 years of age must be working or in school or other educational institutions, training for a guaranteed job.

Recommendation 10: Job seeker obligations
That all discretion of Centrelink and job service providers to waive job seekers’ obligations and grant exemptions and transfers to non-activity tested payments such as the Disability Support Pension to excuse working age, capable welfare recipients from efforts to get meaningful employment be removed.

Recommendation 11: Breaking the welfare cycle
That the welfare system be simplified by reducing the number of different working age payments available to a single unemployment benefit (with only a very limited number of supplements available) along the lines of the 2009 Pension Review by Jeff Harmer.

Recommendation 12: Tax incentives
That tax-free status be provided to new and innovative first Australian commercial enterprises that create real jobs by providing the training grounds to eliminate the disparity for the most disadvantaged job seekers.

Recommendation 13: Employment services
That the Commonwealth Government replace and consolidate current Job Services Australia services and other work preparation and literacy and numeracy programmes with a demand driven system.

Recommendation 14: Vocational education and training
That, in order to create job-specific employer-directed training, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, as joint regulators and funders, introduce vouchers for employers redeemable at education providers to replace all funding for the vocational education and training system, particularly the TAFE system.

Recommendation 15: Driver’s licences
That all state and territory governments introduce a consistent approach to issuing provisional ‘locked’ driver’s licences for people who are unable to drive due to unpaid fines or other traffic infringements so that they can get and keep a job by being able to drive.

Recommendation 16: Training in incarceration
That states and territories require compulsory participation of inmates, while in incarceration, in proven methods of explicit instruction in English and maths, driver’s licences for those who need them, and job skills training.

Recommendation 17: Housing
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments work together to put in place housing delivery mechanisms to support and encourage workforce participation, optimise transition and mobility to work, and remove disincentives and impediments to taking up work.

Recommendation 18: Government procurement
That the Commonwealth Government purchase at least 4% of its goods and services within four years (either directly or through subcontractors) from first Australian businesses (with a minimum of 25% Indigenous ownership) and in particular from the new first Australian commercial enterprises once they are established.

Recommendation 19: Top 200 employers
That the Commonwealth Government provide the top 200 companies in Australia and those with a strong track record of first Australian employment, with tailored contracts to increase the proportion of first Australians among their employees.

Recommendation 20: Support for employers
That the Commonwealth Government ensure the Indigenous Employment Programme funds training only when there is a guarantee of an ongoing job and has the flexibility to package support according to employers’ needs.

Recommendation 21: Public sector employment
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments each set and enforce public sector first Australian employment targets of 4% within four years for each portfolio with a minimum of 4% within five years, but with no individual portfolio with less than 3%.

Recommendation 22: Remote Job Centres
That the Commonwealth Government replace and consolidate current Remote Jobs and Communities Programme services and other work preparation and literacy and numeracy programmes with demand-driven Job Centres, drawing on the Vocational Training and Employment Centre model, where training and support are provided to get people into guaranteed jobs.

Recommendation 23: Local governance
That community decisions about job seeker compliance and social norms be made locally by a local responsibilities board and not remotely.

Recommendation 24: Consolidating service delivery
That, to reduce duplication and improve outcomes from service delivery from services aimed at improving employment and social wellbeing of first Australians, the Commonwealth, state and Northern Territory governments engage with Local Responsibilities Boards to consolidate and integrate service delivery in credible local first Australian organisations.

Recommendation 25: Remote housing
That governments ensure the approach to remote housing on Indigenous land is revised to include performance-based funding to move to a sustainable system with strong incentives for workforce participation and home ownership.

Recommendation 26: Enabling leasing or freeholding of Indigenous land
That governments create the ability for traditional owners to convert their land to freehold or hold the underlying title with a 99-year lease owned by the home or business owner, so that it can be mortgaged or traded through the open market and so that traditional owners can build their houses on allotments on their own land.

Recommendation 27: Land access payments
So that land access payments can be applied to the economic and social progress of traditional owner and native title groups and ensure intergenerational benefits, that the Commonwealth Government consider the recommendations in the report of the Taxation of Native Title and Traditional Owner Benefits and Governance Working Group.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

ABC's Vision Impaired by Solar Hype and Hope

Critique of the ABC's "Power to the People", 4 corners, 7th July 2014

The ABC narrative goes something like this:
  1. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a huge problem, so we have to reduce our carbon outputs.
  2. PM Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt (Environment Minister) are not serious about tackling this problem. As well as scrapping the carbon tax they are now threatening to scrap the 20% renewable energy target as well
  3. Renewables, with a focus on solar power is a vital way forward for Australia. We are in grave danger of being left behind the rest of the world as they latch onto the clean energy market. (jobs, economic development)
  4. Solar thermal and solar PV can make a big difference now provided you have some insight, determination and care for the planet.
  5. In the not so distant future we will develop a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.
Geoff Russell has already written a critique, Four Corners and its field of dreams, of this program on the pro-nuclear Brave New Climate site. He correctly takes the ABC to task for not doing the maths required for a critical assessment of the potential of solar power (point 4 above). In his view, consistent with the Brave New Climate perspective, nuclear power can do the job of serious carbon reduction much more effectively than solar:
By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. 
My research also indicates that there are a huge range of problems with solar and wind power. These problems were either glossed over by the ABC or not even mentioned. Nevertheless, the ABC claims to be well researched with dozens of supporting links revealed when you press the Show Background Information button on their website. In such a long standing polarised debate it is always possible to find lots of support for your preferred position. In omitting consideration of core issues the ABC has been far too selective, blinkered and unreflective in their focus.

The problems I refer to are energy returned on energy input (EROI or ERoEI) for renewable technologies, intermittency, diffuseness, storage, integration into the grid (the nature of baseload and peaking) and capacity issues. The capacity factor is how much electricity a generator produces relative to the maximum it could produce.

These issues, some of them technical, should form the core part of an informed program about the role of renewables in the energy mix. But apart from misleading claims about the storage issue most of them are not even mentioned in the ABC program. They have chosen to be warriors in the cause of renewable energy before completing the research that has to be done to be an informed warrior.

A good, free online reference to these more complex technical issues is Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Warning: it contains something missing from the ABC program - mathematical rigour.

Also see the book reviews on Brave New Climate for (an unfortunately too expensive book) Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power and Asia's economic growth by Graham Palmer. (1) Precis by Graham Palmer (2) Review by John Morgan

This summary by Peter Lang (first comment after the book review) illustrating the relatively low values for solar and wind of the energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI) could form the starting point of a further discussion of the problems involved with solar and wind power.
  • PV (Germany) 2.3
  • Solar thermal 9.6
  • Wind 4
  • Hydro (NZ) 35
  • Coal 29 – 31
  • Gas 28
  • Nuclear 75 – 105
The ABC program is a complete fail with respect to these core issues of energy transformation. Here is a sample, referring to Canberra's Royalla Solar Farm:
STEPHEN LONG: And still tiny by world standards.

It costs a lot to build a plant like this, and that does feed into electricity prices, but in the medium term, the energy will be cheaper because the fuel input, sunlight, is free.

SIMON CORBELL: The economics is a no brainer and it also drives down the cost of electricity more generally in the market because, often, at times of peak demand, renewables is the cheapest source of energy into the electricity market
This could only be described as manipulative journalism. By mentioning that sunlight is free, and ignoring the other fixed production cost of the panels and labour as well as the relatively poor return due to the diffuseness and intermittency of sunlight, the impression is given that energy returns on inputs for solar power is an economic "no brainer". But the ERoEI figures above demonstrate the falseness of that claim.

Furthermore, I think the critique of the ABC needs to go beyond the technical issues. Their full message is for a clean, green and decentralised future, point (5) above. A nuclear energy future is not decentralised and so it is important to address that claim as well. The ABC claim is a political / cultural message that such a decentralised, energy future is desirable and possible, the cultural appeal of the long standing "small is beautiful" movement.

The ABC program suggested strongly, towards the end, that centralised electricity through the traditional grid would be replaced in time with decentralised micro-grids. This thought bubble inspired the "revolutionary" title of the program, "Power to the People".

Consider these extracts, I have emphasised the hype:

a) From the section about the Orange City Bowling Club in the central west of New South Wales.
STEPHEN LONG: An electricity bill that was running at $116,000 a year has fallen by more than a third, and the investment in rooftop solar will pay for itself in three years.

This humble bowling club may be part of a paradigm shift, a new era for the economy.

Danny Kennedy calls it the rooftop revolution, power to the people.

DANNY KENNEDY: What we've had is these big power stations at the middle of a hub and spoke model, shunting electrons down a one-way fire hose, telling us what we should pay for it.

What we're getting now is the ability to participate in the creation of electricity. We're going to have our own power plants on our own roofs. There's going to be a community level storage system, a solar farm or a wind farm out the back, and all those are going to take part in the creation of electricity and the economics of electricity, and it's all going to be managed through software and information communications technology.
b) From futurist Jeremy Rifkin:
JEREMY RIFKIN: We now have millions and millions of small players, home owners, small businesses, cooperatives, even large businesses that are producing their own solar and wind generated green electricity at near zero marginal cost.

In 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we'll have tens of millions of local sites producing green electricity on micro-grids
c) The section discussing the aftermath of superstorm Sandy:
STEPHEN LONG: When super storm Sandy struck the United States in 2012, Americans discovered what it's like when the power grid breaks down.

Millions of people across the east coast were left for days without electricity: no light, no heat and no communications.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN, CHAIRMAN, ENERGY AND FINANCE, NEW YORK STATE: The thing that people had the hardest time with during Sandy was the fact that they were cut off from communications. If you're without power for days, it is, not just inconvenient, but it really feels like you can't live your life.

Individuals and communities want to have more and more control over their energy system. We again saw this after Sandy where communities have asked for their own micro-grids because they don't want to be as reliant upon the grid.

STEPHEN LONG: Former investment banker, Richard Kauffman, is known as New York's Energy Tsar. He's overseeing a move to decentralised electricity.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: In the last 10 years, we've invested $17 billion just to keep the grid as it is. And, in the next 10 years, if we keep just doing exactly as we've been doing, it's, we have to invest another $30 billion.

The Empire State is instead planning a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: It used to be that you had to get the electricity that came through the central grid because that was the only alternative.

Well that's not true anymore, so we have had, across a whole range of industries, the benefit that customers are now in charge and the technology exists now for that to be true in the power sector.

The cost of all these solutions are going down, while the cost of the traditional central station power and distribution systems goes up.
The ABC is promoting a decentralised field of dreams here. Here is a rebuttal to their views found on line. DG stands for distributed generation. Emphasis added.
If you want to know what utilities actually object to about DG, it is policies that functionally require them to purchase power from solar homeowners at $0.30/kWh when they don’t need it instead of buying it on the wholesale market for $0.04/kWh when they do. The result is not just less-profitable utilities but also higher rates for the vast majority of ratepayers. A recent California Public Utilities Commission study concluded that by 2020 the state’s net metering programs would increase rates by a billion dollars annually.

That’s not to say that the growth of renewable energy is not disruptive—just not in the way its advocates claim. Look at just about any place that has achieved significant deployment of renewable electricity, and what you find is that the vast majority comes from large, utility scale installations, not rooftop solar or any other behind-the-meter generation source. Even Germany gets over three-quarters of its renewable generation from large-scale wind, hydro, and biomass.

Given the current state of renewable technology and the scale of generation necessary to run a modern economy, these basic dynamics appear unlikely to change anytime soon. Take a peek at any of the dozens of scenarios produced by renewables advocates that claim we can run the U.S., Europe, or the world largely on renewables, and what you find is that most generation comes from massive industrial scale wind and solar developments from North Dakota to the North Sea—not DG.

In fact, a renewables-powered future will probably require more centralized generation, not less. Achieving significantly higher penetrations of renewable energy will require transmitting electricity over hundreds or thousands of miles from where large amounts can be generated to places where it will be consumed. Renewables champions may talk small-scale DG, but what they intend to build is every bit as centralized as the centralized power sources we have today.

Ultimately, what is disrupting the existing utility model is not the distributed nature of renewables, it is their intermittent nature, and the policies necessary to make them viable. Heavy public subsidization of the capital costs of wind and solar, combined with preferential purchase requirements for the power they generate, ensure that the marginal cost of wind and solar will always be lower than just about anything else when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Hence, Germany simultaneously boasts the highest retail electricity prices in Europe and the lowest wholesale prices—not because the power costs less to generate but because most of the cost has been shifted elsewhere. In Germany, expensive, highly subsidized, intermittent renewables generation has driven wholesale prices so low that the utilities that must manage the grid and operate conventional power plants can no longer operate profitably. This, not cheap distributed solar, is what is disrupting the utility industry here and abroad.
- The Revolution won't be distributed (2014) 
Consistent with it's decentralisation thesis the ABC program provides us with a false idea about the nature of disruptive technologies:
MATTHEW WARREN: Oh look, I think we are seeing in the energy industry, it's going through a transformation that's not dissimilar to telephony to retail to newspaper media and that is, we're seeing, you know, quite radical transformation that is driven by technology and driven by changing market conditions.

DANNY KENNEDY: It's disruptive like media was disrupted a decade ago.

Once upon a time, the ABC and New York Times were all the news that was fit to print and they shunted the news of the day down the one way fire hose, and now we use social media and Twitter and whatever else to co-create what is the news stream and what makes for big news.

And, the economics, we know well, has been completed transformed. That's coming to electricity. The coal and other protected, vested interests of Australia are going the way of the Dodo if they don't adjust to this reality.
The important point about digital disruptive technologies is that they start out cheaper than established technologies. Mobile phones and online journalism start out cheaper than the media which they threaten to displace. The reverse situation applies to solar and wind power, which are still far more expensive than fossil fuels. Moore's law does not apply to energy technology as the ABC is suggesting.

Is a 20% Renewable energy target a good idea?

We need both more energy, particularly for the world's energy poor, and more clean energy, meaning, in part, energy produced without or with reduced CO2 emissions, also known as decarbonisation of the energy supply.

The program begins with Kerry O'Brien voicing the fear that the Abbott government is threatening to cut the 20% Renewable Energy Target (RET).

Why would Abbott and Hunt contemplate this? Well, the real reason, not spelt out clearly in this ABC program, is that renewables are expensive and so have to be subsidised.

The Australian political reality is that ongoing political uncertainty (no one knows what will happen electorally in the future) threatens renewable energy subsidies. As long as renewable energy can't compete with fossil fuels in the capitalist market place then it will remain dependent on subsidies whose delivery will remain politically uncertain.

Roger Pielke jnrs iron law says (assuming the continuation of the capitalist system) that when tough decisions have to be made economic issues will always trump environmental issues. He's right. The Australian people won't support a political system which raises or even vaguely threatens to raise energy prices to the point which either cuts deeply into our standard of living or makes us uncompetitive on the world stage. The election of the far from popular Tony Abbott as PM, who promised to rescind the carbon tax introduced by the ALP, demonstrates that.

So how to proceed? What policies do I support, which may be capable of gaining political traction? (1) Intelligent subsidies where there is justified hope for a rapid price reduction in the given renewable (2) Much more emphasis on Research, Development and Demonstration (RD and D) to bring the price of renewables down. Setting a target with a strict timeline does not necessarily promote these policies. I think the critique of the Abbott government's policies by Roger Pielke jnr (Australia's Climate Follies) has far more substance than the ABC critique.

Given that renewables such as solar and wind remain far more expensive (despite considerably cost reduction to date) than nuclear which in turn remains more expensive than fossil fuels then the emphasis needs to be on RD and D to bring the price of clean energy alternatives down to a level where they can compete.


Further reading about policy decision making in the USA: Beyond Boom and Bust

Monday, April 28, 2014

the core problem with marxism

I have put the following post up on reddit (link) for discussion. Comments here are welcome but I expect there will be more discussion there than here.

I'll try to articulate a critique of marxism that makes sense to me. Marxism was developed in the 19th Century when Reason and Science as a conquering force from the Enlightenment, which more or less overwhelmed religious belief, was seen as either a higher form of thought or at least a sufficient form of thought to solve all the significant problems in the world. Marx called his form of socialism "scientific" in contrast to utopian socialism. Marx's historical and dialectical materialism was influence by Hegel's idea that there were clear historical laws which, with much effort, could be discovered, articulated and provide a guide to scientific action.

When you put together the overarching concept of "scientific socialism", combined with a monistic (rather than pluralism) One TrueWay world view, expounded by Plekhanov and adopted by Lenin, and further combined with a (perhaps unconscious) fact-value or science - ethics dichotomy (rather than a distinction) then you end up with an overly deterministic way of evaluating how the world works.

Engels said that freedom is the recognition of necessity and this is the marxist view of virtue or ethics. This downplays the importance of ethics in our thinking in general and provides a basis for totalitarianism. The quickest way to achieve justice for the oppressed is to seize political power by whatever means available and implement the socialist order.

The "necessity" of overthrowing capitalism by revolution and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat has led in practice to a dictatorship by the communist party. Democracy is denied since the masses are denied the right to reintroduce capitalism if 51% desire that. Communists are not the best democrats. Unfortunately, in practice, this has led to the Gulag (1). The historical facts have been endlessly debated, disputed, interpreted and reinterpreted. Marxists always admit that errors have been made but they can be corrected. What I am trying to outline here is the underlying cause, an overestimation of the role of Science as in "scientific socialism".

My argument here is not that any particular or detailed contribution by Marx is clearly wrong. For instance, Capital in my view is a brilliant critique of the political economy. It is also true that at certain times in history there was little alternative but to become a communist. If you were a Jew, or indeed any decent person, in Europe facing the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s the only good options were to become a communist, since the alternative opposition was pathetic, or run away.

I am not arguing that capitalism is a good system. Capitalism is a terrible system. It is just that all the alternatives we have tried so far have turned out to be worse. (to paraphrase Winston Churchill)

This is a philosophical critique. Dialectics and Logic, the tools of scientific socialism are very useful and have their place in good analysis. It is just that they do not and cannot provide a One True Way forward. The core problem is that Marxism was built on a theory of the role Science that was plausible in the 19th Century but which we need to re-evaluate today.

(1) update 9th September 2014: My understanding now is that gulag's existed in Stalin's USSR but not in Mao's China. Red Guards being sent to the countryside at the end of the Cultural Revolution as a policy decision to narrow the city-country gap is a different concept to a gulag (prison with forced labour). The Red Guards in China's countryside were not detained there against their will, long term.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inequality is increasing

Whatever happened to Occupy Wall Street?

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion.
  • That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
  • The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
  • In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
- source, Oxfam

the Adam Goodes story

from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) blog (link)

THE first choice he makes is to turn around. “Nah,” he tells himself. “This isn’t happening.”

May 24, 2013, in the dying minutes of the Sydney Swans versus Collingwood Magpies opening match of the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round, Swans powerhouse Adam Goodes chooses to turn his 100kg, 191cm frame towards an MCG crowd of 65,306 people and face the 13-year-old girl seated on the boundary fence who just called him an ape. He then chooses to point his right arm straight towards the crowd. This muscular, thick-boned weapon of a limb has contributed to 5797 disposals, 1829 handballs and 409 goals in a thrilling 16-year career. But now it’s a spotlight. It’s a thing of incandescence, a thing of fire. He then chooses to remove his mouthguard and call to a dazed steward resting against the fence with his arms folded across his kneecaps. “Mate,” he says. “I don’t want her here. Get her out.”

The moment takes 19 seconds to unfold. And 200 years to arise.

Adam Goodes was named the NSW Australian of the Year two months ago. On Australia Day eve he could well be named our nation’s Australian of the Year or this newspaper’s Australian of the Year. He’s been recognised as much for his community work – domestic violence awareness ambassador, working with kids in youth detention centres, establishing the Go Foundation with his cousin and fellow Swans great Michael O’Loughlin to create indigenous role models in all walks of life – as for the courage he showed that night at the MCG and the compassion he showed the girl thereafter. “I’ve had fantastic support over the past 24 hours,” Goodes said at the time. “I just hope that people give the 13-year-old girl the same sort of support because she needs it, her family needs it, and the people around them need it. It’s not a witch-hunt. I don’t want people to go after this young girl. We’ve just got to help educate society better so it doesn’t happen again.”

He’s had seven months to think about that night at the MCG, to turn it around in his mind, to chew on it with his closest friends and family. He pauses for a moment, silent and thoughtful. “Everybody has choices,” he says. “It’s about how you learn from those choices you make.” Choices.

Horsham, 300km north-west of Melbourne, 1994. Lisa May was a single parent raising three sons, the Goodes boys, Adam, 14, Jake, 12, and Brett, 10. Lisa May had separated from the boys’ father 10 years previously, and had recently chosen to escape from an abusive partner. She chose not to be a victim, not to wallow in a past that saw nine of her 10 siblings taken from their parents; saw her removed at the age of five from her parents at Point Pearce, an indigenous town on the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, 70km from Wallaroo where Adam Goodes was born on January 8, 1980. She chose to devote her life to her sons.

“I’m very grateful to have a mother who wanted something better for her children than what she had growing up,” says Goodes. “There were sacrifices she made to make sure we went to school. To make sure we did our homework. To make sure we were well fed. I have no doubt she’s proud of us, but we’re forever indebted to her for those sacrifices she made for us.”

At 14, Goodes had a room filled with posters of the black US basketball star Michael Jordan. There was a time when he was climbing out his bedroom window to run to the local phone box to call the police to report domestic violence. But he could relax in his room, fantasise about “air”, hang time, the wonder and grace of a Jordan slam dunk.

On his first day of high school he passed a bus shelter where some kids offered him a puff on a joint; he politely declined. In class he met a kid named Dion resting his feet on a Sherrin football. At lunch the boys from the bus shelter asked him to sit with them but he refused because he’d chosen to go to the oval this ordinary lunch break to kick that oddly-shaped ball with Dion. Some time in that hour-long lunch break he leapt above the shoulders of his school friends and found his hang time, his own air, and Dion’s Sherrin slipped into his chest, sure and right, like it belonged there, like a newborn baby with its mother. “Not many cartilages left in my knees to give me that air up there anymore,” laughs Goodes today.

Some friends and family chose to drag 15-year-old Adam Goodes down. His dad, who separated from the family when Adam was four, had a European heritage. Adam’s own cousins called him “coconut”. He didn’t know what they meant. “Black on the outside, white on the inside,” his mum told him.

Playing for the North Ballarat Rebels in the TAC Cup under-18s, he outmuscled, outplayed an opponent, won a free kick. The opponent had nothing left in him but cheap and easy words: “F..k off you black c..t.”

Goodes chose football as his revenge. Be the best footballer they’d ever seen. Be Gilbert McAdam. Nicky Winmar. Michael Long. Be AFL’s Michael Jordan.

At 17, he was standing with his mum at Melbourne airport, about to fly to Sydney to begin his career with his beloved Swans. “This is the start of great things to come,” said Lisa May. “Don’t forget you are bringing Mama home a Brownlow.”

“I think I get a lot of my personality from my mum,” Goodes says. “She’s very modest about the job she done with all of us boys. She’s never blown away too much by anything we do because she’s always seen the good in us and she’s always believed we could do anything we wanted to do. She’s definitely given us that vision that we can do anything. Anything really is possible.”

Young Adam Goodes would bring Mama home two Brownlows.

Choices. Moments. Turning points. Former Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos watches footballers make choices every day, on field and off. Decisions that turn a game, change the course of a season, alter a career for better or worse. Roos says the greatest myth in the daytime telemovie narrative of Adam Goodes is that greatness fell upon him simply by strapping on his boots, pulling his red and white socks up and jogging on to the SCG. “He needed to be coached. He wanted to be coached. He wanted to learn. It didn’t come as easily to him as some people think. He had to learn his craft. He wasn’t a natural leader. He had to learn to lead. And we worked hard.”

Roos recalls Goodes coming to see him after the 2002 season when he finished third on the list of the Swans’ best and fairest players. Says Goodes: “The biggest disappointment for me at that time was not making the team leadership group and I’d just finished third in the best and fairest the year before. I thought that I’d improved with my consistency as a player and the leadership group was announced and there was 12 players in it and I wasn’t one of them.”

Some players of his talent might have opted for implosion, gone on a bender, skipped training, mouthed off. Goodes chose to quietly knock on his coach’s door and ask him to outline the ways in which he might better his chances the following year, correct his mistakes. “We sat down and had a discussion and one of the first things I asked was, ‘Do you want to be a leader?’?” recalls Roos. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I do’. And I said, ‘OK, well that’s good’. Not everyone wants to be a leader. It’s a myth in footy clubs that everyone wants to lead. I said there are things you need to work on, and behaviours.”

“They wanted to see more leadership from me on the training track and they wanted to hear my voice more in team meetings,” says Goodes.

“To his credit, he took that on board,” says Roos. “And the next time we voted he was in the leadership group.”

In the year that followed that discussion he was named team best and fairest and won his first Brownlow Medal. “I think it’s about how much do you really want something,” says Goodes. “How much do you want to sacrifice to get the best out of yourself? Once you commit in your mind what that is, you will do anything to get that.”

Roos and Goodes continued to have discussions that grew deeper and wider in theme. They talked about Goodes’ background, his family’s struggles. Roos soon saw a man who could not only inspire his team, but also his country. “I was always encouraging him,” Roos says. “From my point of view it was ‘if you are going to be a role model for the team you will also be a great role model for everyone, including your own people’. Adam tries to live his life by reaching his potential. He delves deeper into who he is and who made him what he is. It’s Aboriginal people, it’s European people, it’s every nationality. All kinds of people helped make Adam Goodes the great person he is.”

December 2004, and 24-year-old Adam Goodes sat at a table with future indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough in a French restaurant in Canberra. Also there was Sue Gordon, Western Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate and chair of the new National Indigenous Council, which Goodes would join. Goodes had been exploring his aboriginality, studying a Diploma in Aboriginal Studies at Sydney’s Eora TAFE. Gordon told Goodes how it felt to be removed from her mother at the age of four in 1947 because she was part-Aboriginal. Goodes listened intently as Gordon told a story that mirrored his mother’s but one he’d never fully heard. “He’s quite deep,” Gordon says. “What I found was he was very keen to learn about Aboriginal issues across Australia. He wanted to understand the history. He was educating himself. But at the same time he didn’t realise that he was becoming a mentor to younger Aboriginal people.”

Today, Goodes and Gordon love each other like family. “I’ve watched him grow from a young footballer to a man to a captain,” she says. “He’s a fine man and he has a cross to bear far greater than some of them.

“That young Collingwood fan that night, that’s a sign that there are still pockets of people who don’t address the issues within a family. It really hurts. There are still a lot people who don’t fully understand it.”

He was magic that night. The thing that’s often forgot about Adam Goodes and the Swans-Magpies game of May 24, 2013, was how well he played, how much he contributed to the first Swans victory over the Pies at the MCG in 13 years. He kicked his 400th career goal that night. He gave his heart and soul to the 65,306 football fans in the crowd. Curling kicks from the outside of his right boot that could have landed on a coin. Bullet handballs that ignited 70m corridor plays. Goal-square marks of such timing and precognitive positioning it felt like his opponents were running in sludge and he was running on air. He found the ball that night like a bee finds nectar. He was a butterfly. He was a bloodhound.

He believes Australian rules football had its origins in marn grook, the game played by his Aboriginal ancestors in which players kicked and jostled for a stuffed animal skin “ball”. “The tallest men have the best chances in this game,” read a passage in 1878′s The Aborigines of Victoria by Robert Brough-Smyth. “Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball.”

He believes he was born to play the game. His bone structure, the size of his calves and thighs, his height-to-weight ratio. “When I play football, it’s something that becomes instinctive for me,” he says. He considers the game the “purest expression” of his Aboriginality. And there was no better example of this than on May 24, 2013, at the MCG. He was instinctive. He was electrifying. He was unstoppable. Until he chose to stop.

In 2008, Goodes was asked to contribute an essay to a hardback AFL history called The Australian Game of Football Since 1858. Goodes wrote a disarmingly frank and insightful history of indigenous Australia’s connection to the great game, drawing on everything he had studied, everything he had heard first-hand from scholars such as Sue Gordon and survivors like his mum. He wrote about his hero Nicky Winmar and the day, April 17, 1993, when ceaseless racial taunts caused him to lift his St Kilda jersey and point at his skin. “I am a human being,” Winmar said after the game. “No matter what colour I am.” Goodes wrote about the day in 2002 when one of the game’s most high-profile players called him a “f..king monkey- looking c..t”. He wrote about what it’s like to live “half-caste”, about “being the object of racism so many times that you lose count”. He left nothing off the page like he leaves nothing of himself on the football field when the siren sounds.

“I live in a racist country,” he wrote. “To understand what it means to be indigenous, you need to understand that we come with baggage,” he wrote. “Every one of us. And every one of us has a choice as to how we deal with it – some of us have not yet come to terms with that choice, or circumstances have made making the right choice difficult, if not impossible. But the choice – and the opportunity – remains there, right in front of us.” He titled his sweeping epic The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice. Anyone who has read it understands why he chose to stop that night at the MCG, why he turned around to spotlight the “ape” taunt that was flung at him so carelessly and foolishly, just like all those countless taunts that came before it. There was nothing knee-jerk about it. His whole life informed his reaction.

“It takes time to build that confidence to do that,” he says. “I think when you’re proud of something and you’ve always stood up for yourself, and when you get to that place, you’re very sure of who you are and what you stand for. And no matter how old that person was or where that happened to be, my reaction would have been exactly the same.”

That three-letter word did the impossible. It made Adam Goodes forget how much he loved Australian rules football. “Yeah,” he says. “It was disappointing. I don’t know if it would have been different if I had actually stayed on the ground. Because the coach just wanted me to rest the last three or four minutes off the ground that game. It just sort of all hit me once I was on the boundary, just sitting there thinking about it. Yeah, I just didn’t want to be out there anymore.

“When something cuts you to the core it’s very emotional, a very disappointing feeling. Something that you don’t want to have anybody go through and you certainly don’t want to be the reason that person is feeling like that. That’s what I take from the experience,” he says. “I think it’s important for people to stand up for who they are and where they come from. But to be able to do it in a way that cannot only help that person but help the people around them.”

The disappointment was deepened five days later when Collingwood club president Eddie McGuire – a man who had shaken Goodes’ hand in the dressing rooms after the incident with the girl, assuring him his club had a zero-tolerance policy on racism – made a remark on radio linking Goodes to the promotion of the King Kong musical. In some ways, the McGuire comment was a sharper blow, coming as it did from an adult professional, a seasoned journalist and businessman. Goodes was deeply hurt by it. He could have lashed out in the media, returned fire with a few stinging comments of his own. But he chose to go deeper, calling for big-picture understanding, a universal hauling of “the baggage”, a few more hands to carry the cross he has to bear.

“I think what I’ve learned in my journey is that sometimes you pick the wrong way as well,” he says. “You try not to make that bad decision again. You’re not going to make the right choice every time. I’m definitely one of those people who has made a lot of mistakes. It’s about how you deal with them and how you learn from them that really builds your character and how you can build your sense of self-belief and morals.”

But remember, he stresses, “we’re only 200 years old”. He thinks about what might have happened to a “half-caste kid” like him 100 years ago. He thinks about the Kahlin Compound, a Darwin home established in 1913 where, he says, “they took these half-caste kids away because they thought they could better assimilate these kids into mainstream Australia … because they had some white European blood in them”.

“In these camps they were trained to be domestics,” he says. “So no doubt we’ve come a long way since then.

“I’m very happy with the Australia I’m living in right now. We have a fantastic people that want very similar things. It’s a place where you can raise your family and they will be created as equal and be seen as equal. I think there are a lot of people out there doing fantastic things in the community. But we’re never gonna live in a perfect world and nor would we want to. I’d hate to think everybody got along and agreed on everything because that would be a pretty tame life, I believe. But we’ve got to work on each other’s mistakes.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rhonda Farkota Speaking Tour: Maths Mastery

Australian education and maths. I think it's generally accepted that Asia has long ago overtaken us, that maths instruction is poorly done in many primary schools and that we have an unacceptable long tail of underachievement.

If you live in Australia or New Zealand, Rhonda Farkota (Maths and Direct Instruction expert) will be running seminars near you soon. Here are the locations and dates:
  • Adelaide, February 7th
  • Perth, February 14th
  • Brisbane, February 20th
  • Cairns, February 21st
  • Hobart, February 28th
  • Melbourne, March 14th
  • Sydney, March 21st
  • Alice Springs, March 28th
  • Auckland, April 4th
More detail here

Rhonda achieves something that most educators fail to achieve: She gets the balance right between teacher directed and student directed learning. That might sound simple but our educational reality shows that it is far from simple.

I have used Rhonda's materials with indigenous students and with home schooled students and think her approach is what is needed for students to establish a thorough grounding in basic maths skills.

See my earlier blog posts for more detail about Rhonda Farkota, her materials and education philosophy:

Rhonda Farkota's 2005 Opinion Piece (What needs to be done and still hasn't been done to fix maths education in Australia)

Rhonda Farkota: Australia's Direct Instruction Maths Expert (Some brief comments about her PhD thesis and links to the materials she developed)

Rhonda Farkota's educational philosophy explained in five paragraphs ("When it came to the employment and cultivation of higher order skills where reasoning and reflection were required it was clear that a student-directed approach to learning was better suited. But when it came to the acquisition of basic skills the empirical evidence unequivocally showed that a teacher-directed approach was best suited")

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism

A recent article by Bill and Melinda Gates (Three Myths on the World's Poor) gives the impression that capitalism is an unparalleled success story:
In our lifetimes, the global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the U.S. was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there. So is Gabon. Since 1960, China's real income per person has gone up eightfold. India's has quadrupled, Brazil's has almost quintupled, and tiny Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a 30-fold increase. A new class of middle-income nations that barely existed 50 years ago now includes more than half the world's population.

And yes, this holds true even in Africa. Income per person in Africa has climbed by two-thirds since 1998—from just over $1,300 then to nearly $2,200 today. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.

Here's our prediction: By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.
This reminds me of a stunning video by Hans Rosling, the Director of the Gapminder Foundation which shows how much the wealth of the world has increased in the past 200 years:
You Tube version

brown – Europe
red – Asia
green – Middle East
blue – Africa
yellow – Americas

Most of the commentaries on the web praise this video to the skies. It deserves praise for its overall assessment of the progress of capitalism but there is also a tendency to fast forward through the bad times.

In 1810 the wealthiest countries were the UK and the Netherlands. The average life expectancy of every country was below 40.

Enter the industrial revolution and the wealth and life expectancy begins to dramatically improve for the countries which do industrialise. This is true although there is no mention of the appalling working conditions, the very long working hours, the child labour in the emerging factories of Britain and elsewhere. The birth pangs of capitalism led to major upheavals in 1848, the shortening of the working day, the Factory Acts, etc.

As the wealth of countries increases then so does the gap between rich and poor countries. Rosling does mention this (at 2:35). It also needs to be emphasised that the scale he is using on the horizontal wealth axis is logarithmic, showing the per annum categories of $400 (roughly one dollar per day), $4000 ($10 per day) and $40,000 ($100 per day). If he had used a linear scale then the gap between rich and poor countries would be far more pronounced. The gap between the richest and poorest countries taken from the closing and opening screens of this video is at least 100 times today compared with less than 10 times in 1810

He does mention the catastrophe of WW1 but then fast forwards through The Great Depression and WW2. It is far easier to fast forward through the bad times than live through them or explain them.

His focus is on post 1948, the boom years of capitalism.

By 1985 even in the poorest country, Mozambique on just $366 per year, the average lifespan was three years higher than Britain in 1810.

Wealth has increased but so has inequality. Rosling visually extracts Shanghai out of China towards the end, showing that it is similar in wealth to Italy. Then he extracts the poor inland province, Guizhou, and compares it to Pakistan. Finally, he shows how the even poorer rural part of Guizhou has a wealth index similar to Ghana, Africa. Certainly in this section there is no brushing over the real world problem of inequality in China.

He finishes on an optimistic note. The gap between the rest and the west is now closing. In the future it is possible that everyone can make it to the healthy and wealthy corner with more aid, trade, green technology and peace. Rosling slips into an optimistic version of political correctness in this parting message.

Some people are optimistic about the future of capitalism because of its productivity; others are pessimistic because of its inequality, anarchy of production, environmental destruction, and alienation . We need to see both sides of this picture. In evaluating the rosy picture of Gates and Rosling, I would use three criteria: standard of living, inequality and stability.

The overall standard of living has increased dramatically. Correct, capitalism has delivered in this respect.

Inequality has increased too. This is totally ignored by Bill and Melinda. It is mentioned by Rosling in places but the logarithmic wealth scale distorts the huge and growing gap here

Stability: Apart from the post war boom period (relatively stable and prosperous) capitalism has been an unstable system which can’t seem to avoid periodic economic crises. Over the next few years we will see how acute this problem will become. I'm really uncertain. I don't think anyone fully understands the inner dynamics of capitalism and its tendency to crisis. That elephant is still in the room.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

science, limited (Hilary Putnam)

Ch 8 The impact of science on modern conceptions of rationality. In Reason, Truth and History (1981) by Hilary Putnam

Putnam is suggesting that it is better to think rationally about both science and our values, without regarding one as more important than the other, rather than elevating science thinking above values thinking.

Putnam is trying to create a space in between two extreme, opposite views that tend to dominate our cultural discourse. The extreme views are:

Scientism: that the scientific approach is the only productive approach to take towards all of our issues, including social issues. Science, unlike all other viewpoints, provides us with the opportunity to understand the world objectively.

Relativism: Absolute scientific truth is an illusion. Truth, if you want to call it that, resides in an individual's interpretation of the world, which depends of their current knowledge and cultural context. There are many ways to interpret the world, we should respect all of them and not be so arrogant as to think anyone knows the best way.

This dichotomy (scientism / relativism) can be expressed with different labels, eg., objective / subjective; facts / values; materialist / idealist; reductionist / holist; monist / pluralist. In some debate these become swear words, that each side throws at the other. Putnam wants to collapse these dichotomies, which have become rigid ideological labels, into distinctions. We can talk rationally about both science and values without presuming that science represents some higher form of truth.

Our concept of progress tends to be scientific progress. The Industrial Revolution and the Computer Revolution represents progress. You can convincingly argue that Newton knew more science than Aristotle. But it is harder to argue that Shakespeare was a better poet than Homer. Science has progressed dramatically whereas literature and the arts have not.

History, as interpreted by the positivist August Comte (1798-1857), shows us that science is a heroic success story. We have moved from primitive myths, to high religion, to metaphysical theories (Plato, Kant), to positive science. This represents intellectual success as well as the obvious material and technological success.

From the scientism viewpoint, value judgements are viewed as suspect because they can't be verified by the methods of science. We can't obtain universal or majority agreement on ethical questions about abortion or homosexuality. Therefore science must be superior because the correctness of scientific theories can be demonstrated publicly.

Of course it is not really true that there is agreement on scientific theories. But most of us agree that scientific theories have testable consequences. Scientific language refers to publicly verifiable observations and not subjective private introspection. If we perform such and such actions then we will obtain such and such observable results. Much of the maths and science might be too difficult for the public to understand. But often the experts seem to be in agreement. And the public usually defers to the experts.

Not always. But current controversies such as the anthropogenic global warming debate or the reading wars debate are fought out with both sides claiming that science is on their side. Both sides think that science and not something else will deliver victory to their cause. When in doubt do more science.

Can science deliver us an objective view of the real world? Quantum physics interpreted as pop science is seen to be cool because it delivers us imaginative, mind boggling views of how the world really is that defy common sense. I have seen real scientists on TV arguing for parallel universes or that we are just holographic projections from the nearest black hole. Does anyone really believe this? I prefer common sense. If someone down the pub thinks they are just a holographic projection then they can buy their own drinks.

Instrumentalism is the idea that scientific theories are instruments to predict observations rather than attempts to describe the real but hidden structures of the world. Instrumentalism of itself is not a tenable or fully rounded concept of rationality. Sure, it is very valuable to know efficient means to attain certain ends. But it is also valuable, probably more important, to know what ends to choose. Scientific rationality applies to public means-ends connections. If this defines science then it also confines science. Why would anyone be satisfied with such a narrow conception of rationality?

Complex, real life, judgements require a high level of rationality but cannot be proved scientifically. It's strange that the fact that some things are impossible to prove (our value judgements) should become an argument for irrationality of belief about those things.

Nevertheless, instrumental success is appealing to the contemporary mind. Industrial society, both capitalist and socialist versions, have promoted their legitimacy on the basis of rising productivity and increasing standard of living. There is no doubt in my mind that this has some real merit. If a billion people or so live on a dollar a day then obviously we need to increase their standard of living. That is why I can't abandon my socialistic sentiment, since capitalism might increase standard of living but at the same time it also increases the gap between rich and poor. But, it is also true, that once their basic material needs are met, humans also look for more, a deeper concept of human flourishing or eudaimonia (Aristotle's term).

Empiricism is the belief that experience is the only source of real knowledge about the world. (I plan to discuss empiricism more fully later). One extreme version of empiricism is phenomenalism, that all we can talk about scientifically are sensations. JS Mill, for example, described physical objects as the "permanent possibility of sensation" (1865).

It follows from phenomenalism that all worthy facts are ultimately instrumental. If phenomenalism is correct then instrumentalism is elevated from the mundane and practical to high science. If you perform such and such actions then you will have such and such experiences. The only worthy knowledge is means-ends connections. This form does not fit "good", "bad" or other ethical judgements. "Good" people who take "good' actions have many divergent experiences and outcomes. Such ethical statements have no cognitive meaning, they are purely "emotive". This way of thinking (phenomenalism) was promoted by the Logical Positivists and Logical Empiricists [Ernst Mach (1838-1916), Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970 ), Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953)] and flourished from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s.

Hence, phenomenalists could still claim to be curious about the "big questions" such as black holes, the Big Bang and evolution unlike the "vulgar" form of instrumentalism that only appealed to practical outcomes. For the phenomenalists it was just a fact of life that worthy knowledge was ultimately instrumental in form: If you perform such and such actions then you will have such and such experiences just happened to be the only sort of knowledge worthy of true science.

The logical empiricists were not worshippers of practical, narrow minded instrumentalism. Their healthy motivation was to eliminate obscurantism and metaphysics from intellectual discourse. But by drawing a sharp line between the factual (observational science) and the evaluational (talk about values) they ended up giving a distorted picture of the factual.

Putnam discusses how phenomenalism unravelled from within. One of its chief theoretician, Rudolf Carnap, tried but failed to show that statements of science are translatable one by one into statements about what experiences we will have if we perform certain actions.

Hence, since such science can't be attained (translation from science statements to certain experiences) then it is not justified to exclude value judgements (as emotive) on those same grounds.

It is a correct generalisation about the practice of scientists that their observation statements are couched in a certain type of language, a public physical thing language. But it is an error to turn this into an epistemological absolute. For example, if you are not allowed to talk about sensations because they are private then all introspection is ruled out.

Here is a danger which Putnam is articulating. Some people are in awe of the instrumental success of science which for them is free of the interminable debates we find in religion, ethics and metaphysics. In an age of various forms of quackery and snake oil salesmen (Tarot cards, Palmistry, homeopathy, astrology etc.) the best antidote is to stress the success of the scientific approach (achieved through rigorous controlled and / or double blind experiments). But there is another type of problem. In a culture hypnotised by the success of science a philosophy emerges (Scientism) which can't conceive of useful knowledge and reason outside of what we call science. What else could real knowledge be, except for science?

Modern versions of attempts at scientific objectivity have replaced the now rejected efforts of the Logical Empiricists. One of them is the Bayesian school. The problem here is that prior probabilities are subjective, or, the time taken for them to converge may be very long. You can't draw a sharp line between the actual beliefs of scientists and the scientific method.

Putnam also discusses Nelson Goodman's (1906-1998) critique of inductive projection. I'll leave that to another time since Nelson Goodman's work seems important enough to warrant more study in its own right (see references).

How then do we account for the success of science?

Scientists did develop a new set of methodological maxims between the 15th and 17th Centuries. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) played a major role here (see Leviathan and the Air Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer). Before Boyle experiments were conceived as illustrations for doctrines believed on deductive and / or a priori grounds, not as evidence for and against theories. Boyle advocated several things which changed all of that:
  • he distinguished between actual experiments and thought experiments
  • all experiments should be completely described, including failed experiments
  • he wrote manuals for experimental procedures
This shift from a focus on a priori beliefs to testing theories by controlled experiments was a significant methodological shift. And it did lead to very successful science.

So Putnam agrees there is a successful scientific method but argues that it is not a rigorous set of formal rules. It also requires informal rationality or independent intelligence to be successful. It presupposes rationality and does not define rationality.

There are other limits to what science can achieve. It is not always possible to perform controlled experiments and sometimes only passive observation is possible, eg. for ethical reasons. Evaluating evidence for alternative theories is often an informal matter.

Karl Popper argued that science should proceed by putting forward highly falsifiable, risky theories, testing them, until only one survived. One problem with this is that it is not possible to test all strongly falsifiable theories, there are too many of them.

Furthermore, the falsifiability criterion would rule out one of science's favourite theories: Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's theory does not imply definite predictions. We accept it because:
  • it provides a plausible explanation for an enormous amount of data
  • it has been fruitful in suggesting new theories
  • it provides links to other fields such as genetics and molecular biology
  • there is no satisfactory alternative theory
The method being used to evaluate Darwin's theory is inference to the best explanation even though the best explanation is not strongly falsifiable.

So, what remains of the scientific method? We can think about it either in the Boyle sense of strict experimental procedure or as a vague thing like:
"Make experiments and observations as carefully as you can and then make inferences to the best explanation and eliminate theories which can be falsified by crucial experiments"
Putnam argues that such a vague definition of the scientific method could be used for ethical induction just as readily as scientific induction.

This post is mainly a summary of one chapter of a book by Hilary Putnam, although I have thrown in a few examples and brief comments of my own on the way through. I'll write up how Putnam's thinking has impacted and changed my thinking in a later post.

Putnam's chapter also awakened or in some cases reawakened my interest in reading other books some of which I have already bought but haven't had time yet to read. Here they are.


Goodman, Nelson (1978) Ways of Worldmaking

Goodman, Nelson (1983) Fact, Fiction and Forecast (4th Edition)

Pielke, Roger A, jnr. (2007) The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

Sarewitz, Daniel (1996). Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology and the Politics of Progress. Temple University Press

Sarewitz, Daniel (2004). How science makes environmental controversies worse.

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon (1985) Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life