Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly

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By David Salt

Some 17 years ago a former boss of mine, Dr Brian Walker, approached me to write a book with him that made the science of resilience more understandable and engaging. That text, Resilience Thinking(Island Press, 2006), would become one of the first widely read, popular science books on the subject of ecological resilience. In my humble opinion, Resilience Thinking played an important role in bringing the ideas around resilience into the mainstream, raising the very notion of ‘resilience’ to the status of being a buzzword (with all the good and bad that comes with this).

At the time that Brian approached me I knew little about resilience science (and I was also ignorant about Brian being one of the world’s leading researchers in this field; I knew him as the ridiculously overworked Chief of CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, where I had been his Communications Manager). When he asked me to co-author a book with him, a few years after this, I was a freelancer. Indeed, I was an ageing freelance science writer that was growing increasingly cynical about ‘science being the answer’ to the world’s growing sustainability challenge.

When Brian began explaining what resilience thinking was my first thought was ‘it’s just another bit of tricky science that will supposedly boost efficiency and save us all, while we dig the planet into an even deeper hole’, just like many of the other ‘breakthroughs’ I had covered and promoted over the years.

Well, I was quite wrong about this. By the time I had finished writing Resilience Thinking, I looked at the world anew. Things that had befuddled me in the past, now made sense. I looked at the world with different eyes and became a proselytiser for the cause. It really was an epiphany; so much so that I would go on to write a second book with Brian (Resilience Practice, Island Press 2012), numerous articles on the theme, and lecture on the topic.

Though, I should be careful using the world ‘proselytise’ because resilience thinking has been criticised by some as looking like a religion (it’s not, it’s an ever-developing science with all the peer review and validation that comes with that) with adherents that sometimes come across as acolytes (God, I hope I don’t sound like one). Because, for all the value and insight that comes with resilience thinking, it has collected some unfortunate baggage along the way. But let’s begin with the positives.

The good

When I finished writing Resilience Thinking I suddenly realised that while we used the word ‘resilience’, the book was actually a guidebook to ‘complexity’ (and complex adaptative systems). Though I had written about complexity in the past, this was the first time the concepts wrapped up under the cloak of complexity came together and made sense.

The world is a complex system operating at multiple linked scales. I am a complex system, so is my family, my region, my country; all these systems are linked in lesser or greater ways; all are constrained by their histories to some extent; will change over time (adaptive cycles); are capable of self-organisation in the face of disturbance and have the capacity to sustain their identities (resilience), but only up to a certain point (thresholds) beyond which they take on new ways of being.

When these insights are applied to the world around me, I realise, in a very fundamental way, that my big problem with the world is that I always expect that things (events, people, history) to be rational (that people always act rationally, for example) when in fact they are complex (and often irrational). Rationality is just our way of simplifying things, of dealing with the uncertainty that goes hand in hand with complexity. It’s a great approach in the short term but brings wretched results in the longer term as the complex systems around us self-organise around our efforts to optimise, simplify and hold things steady.

Attempting to explain ‘resilience thinking’ to others gave me a framework that explained for me why optimisation is such a flawed model (maybe ‘partial’ or ‘incomplete’ are better adjectives here) to move us towards ‘being sustainable’; why ‘efficiency’, while being important, is never the answer to long term sustainability; why ‘stability’ is a myth and attempts to hold things steady actually reduces a system’s resilience. These and many other epiphanies became clear as I applied the insights from resilience thinking to systems around me.

So, I would say that, for me, ‘resilience thinking’ is jam packed with inspiration and insight about the world around me. Possibly more important, however, I am aware of many readers of Resilience Thinking who came away with their own epiphanies about their own systems of interest.

When people begin considering the complexity of their own system(s) (looking for thresholds, seeing adaptive cycles, reflecting on where their sources of resilience might lie) they too begin to see the world in a different way, and are excited by the insights that pop up.

The bad

Unfortunately, descriptions of ‘complexity’ become very complicated all too quickly (though please don’t confuse these terms). It takes time (and some patience) to absorb ‘resilience thinking’. And, like complexity itself, resilience thinking is not a linear process in which you read ‘the formula’ press a button and the answer is delivered (‘the answer to your question on resilience is 43’).

Resilience thinking is more of a culture in which stakeholders in a system investigate their system, assess different facets of its resilience (where are the thresholds, what is its space of safe operation; where does it sit in the adaptative cycle, what are the system’s levels of adaptability and transformability, and so on), decide on a course of action, monitor and adapt around that decision; and then iteratively go through that process (compile, assess, act) again and again; learning, adapting, experimenting and transforming as you go.

That’s all good and well, and it’s what we should all be doing all the time, but managers, decision makers and policy people need simpler and linear processes to inform their actions and decisions. Resilience thinking is sometimes seen as ‘nice (if time and resources are unlimited) but unhelpful (in the real world)’ when it comes to getting on with things.

Also, many of the insights emerging from the application of resilience thinking are quite dependent on a particular context and may not hold in a different context. On top of this (and maybe because of this), one person’s insights often vary from the insights another person finds when applying resilience thinking.

Some people have accused resilience thinking of being somewhat vague. Others have even suggested that this is deliberate and even important when it comes to framing complexity. One philosopher asked: “Does resilience exhibit conceptual vagueness, and, if so, is that beneficial? Can looseness in concepts and meanings lend itself to shedding light on unsolved problems? While resilience research has established that redundancy is an asset for complex adaptive systems, does a similar finding also hold for conceptual frameworks?”

All of which is to say is that while resilience thinking can be inspirational, it can also be problematic in its implementation.

And the ugly

While acknowledging this, I do believe it’s an important first step in re-evaluating our failing approach to sustainability (an approach largely based on simplistic linear thinking, technology and efficiency).

I’m happy to acknowledge the good with the bad. Where I get extremely frustrated, however, is where political leaders and corporate spin masters see ‘resilience’ as an opportunity to claim action while actually doing nothing (or continuing with their environmentally damaging activity).

Our last national conservative government claimed they were building a ‘resilient’ Great Barrier Reef while subsidising and expanding the country’s fossil fuel sector. (Our new national government appears to be doing much the same.) Carbon emissions are killing our Reef.

In a similar vein, one of Australia’s biggest companies, BHP, co-funded the Australian Coral Reef Resilience initiative to protect the ‘resilience’ of the reef while continuing to expand their fossil fuel pollution.

When climate-charged wildfires tore apart coastal communities along New South Wales (NSW) coastline in 2019/20 (our Black Summer), the NSW Government created a new overarching recovery agency called Resilience NSW (because who can have enough resilience, and the NSW government is there to provide it). Two years later and instead of fires, unprecedented floods devasted NSW coastal communities. A government enquiry found that Resilience NSW (an agency that hadn’t even found its feet) had failed and should be abolished.

These are just a few local examples where the ideas of resilience are inappropriately used (and abused). This happens everywhere. The problem here is that resilience is complex, most people don’t have the opportunity to have a deep engagement with it, and politicians are quick to exploit that ignorance; in the first place to hide behind it, in the next to use it as the scapegoat.

In a rational linear world, they wouldn’t get away with this. But, of course, we don’t live in a rational world, do we?

Banner image: Resilience thinking is about people, landscapes, society, ecosystems and complexity. Depending on how it is applied it can be good, bad or ugly. (Image by David Salt)

Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold

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By David Salt

In Australia, we called the horrible summer of 2019/20 the Black Summer. Unprecedented heat waves and drought led to the biggest, most ferocious, most extensive wildfires this nation had ever known.

I wonder what the world will call 2022? Once again that word ‘unprecedented’ gets rolled out to describe a series of heatwaves, extreme storms, massive floods and record-breaking droughts. This year these events were happening all over the world (and especially across Europe, Asia and America during the northern hemisphere summer). Will it be the ‘Angry Summer’ or the ‘Season of our Great Discontent’ or maybe just the year of ‘Climate Breakdown’. (At what point do we know it’s broken?)

Or maybe the climate disruption will just continue and even grow worse, as many climate scientists are predicting, and 2022 will be wilfully forgotten as we struggle to deal with each new emerging weather crisis.

The idea of normal

When describing abnormal events, unprecedented episodes or historic happenings, you need to have some idea about what ‘normal’ actually means. In some cases this is relatively straightforward.

We have temperature records, for example, that go back for at least a century so it’s easy to define ‘normal’ with statistical precision. Our temperature has ranged between X and Y, and there is a different average max and minimum value for each month of the year. This August was particularly hot for many regions in the northern hemisphere, so when you hear on the news that temperatures broke records, or were above average, you can appreciate just what is meant.

The more variables you bring in (precipitation, wind speed, humidity, wild storms etc), the harder it is to characterise what is normal. Of course, these variables are what add up to weather, and long-term average weather is what we call climate.

If the weather gets ugly, we normally console ourselves that we just need to survive this rough patch and at some point the weather will ‘return to normal’ – the rains will replenish the dams after the drought or calm will follow the big storm.

‘Return to normal’ is a form of equilibrium thinking. Your world gets rocked by some disturbance, your equilibrium is thrown out, but you do everything you can to bounce back, to return to normal.

Of course, I’m talking about the notion of resilience – the capacity to cope with disturbance and bounce back (the word ‘resilience’ derives from the Latin ‘resilire’, meaning ‘to jump back’ or ‘to recoil’).

What’s normal for a complex system

‘Resilience thinking’ is all about how this idea of ‘recovery’ applies to complex adaptive systems. Complex systems have the capacity to self-organise. Resilience is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still retain its identity, still continue to function in much the same kind of way.

In recent blogs I’ve attempted explain what complexity means, and how complex systems change over time, how they go through a pattern known as an adaptive cycle. The concept of adaptive cycles is one important building block of resilience thinking, the other is the idea of ‘thresholds’.

There are limits to how much a complex system can be changed and still recover. Beyond those limits the system functions differently because some critical feedback process has changed. These limits are known as thresholds.

When a complex system crosses a threshold it is said to have crossed into another ‘regime’ of the system (also called a ‘stability domain’ or ‘basin of attraction’). It now behaves in a different way – it has a different identity (or you might say it has lost its original identity).

In coral reefs there’s a threshold on the variable of the level of nutrients in the surrounding water. If nutrients become too high, the coral will be displaced by algae. The coral reef identity is lost, replaced by the identity of an algal reef.

On many rangelands there is a threshold on the amount of grass present. If the grass level falls below a certain level (because of too many grazing animals or a prolonged drought), shrubs begin to take over. The grassy rangeland identity is lost, replaced by a shrubland.

Sometimes it’s easy to cross back over to the identity you want, sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s impossible.

Tipping points

In a recent blog I discussed how fossil fuel corporations are complex systems. The identity of this system is heavily influenced by quarterly profit statements; more so than any concern they might hold for longer term climate disruption. The levels of the profits in those quarterly statements likely has a threshold point, below which the fossil fuel corporation will likely change its business (eg, take on the identity of a renewables company, maybe) or shut down. Either way, crossing this threshold leads to a change of identity in this system. (Of course, what might put downward pressure on their profits is stronger government regulation or broader community rejection of the cost being imposed on society by the fossil fuel company.)

In my last blog I also said you could view the British Monarchy as being a complex system. Its identity hinges on public acceptance and support over time, something the late Queen Elizabeth II understood and worked with like a pro. Again, its likely a threshold point exists on this variable of public support, below which the Monarchy becomes vulnerable. QEII represented integrity, authenticity, stability and certainty. She had very high levels of social approval (social capital) that has ensured that the system of the Monarchy had resilience, even to the disturbance of her own death, and the Crown passed seamlessly to her son, now King Charles III. But imagine what might have happened if the Queen didn’t have that level of social capital. Or what happens if King Charles squanders that social capital? Smooth successions aren’t always the rule in the UK (or elsewhere), and many countries don’t need Queens (or Kings) to function.

Thresholds occur in many complex systems however they are often described as ‘tipping points’ where they occur in the social domain. In addition to the two examples I just discussed (profit levels and levels of public approval), tipping points might manifest as changes in fashion, voting patterns, riot behaviour, or markets.

Defining a safe operating space

So here is useful way of defining a system. Every system can be described in a variety of ways using a number of variables. The identity of the system can be characterised by an average range of those values. While kept in that range, the system will behave as you expect, be it a business, a monarchy, a coral reef or a rangeland. However, when the system passes a certain level on one of a number of key variables (eg, profit, popularity, nutrients, grass cover) – a threshold or tipping point – the system changes its identity and begins to behave differently (often in strange or undesirable ways).

Or, in other words, you can understand a system’s identity by knowing how much change it can take before that identity is lost, replaced by a different identity.

Not only are thresholds critical to understanding the behaviour of complex systems, they are the basic limits to whatever enterprise you’re responsible for or have an interest in. To use the phrase in a prominent analysis of global-scale thresholds (Rockstrom et al 2009), thresholds define the safe operating space of your system.

And how are we going in keeping our society in a safe operating space? Well, considering our experiences with the Black Summer of 2019 or the Angry Summer of 2022, not so well.

Climate and weather systems are complex systems too. Their current behaviour suggests they have been pushed over critical thresholds and their emerging identity is something quite new, quite destructive and terrible. Allowing the Earth system to cross these thresholds comes with an enormous cost to society, and will sorely test our own resilience as we cruise into an increasingly uncertain future.

Banner image: How much disturbance can your ‘system’ take before it loses its identity? It’s not just the intensity of a specific event (a single hurricane for example) that’s important, it’s also the frequency of such disturbances. The Great Barrier Reef can survive mass bleaching events if they only occur once every 20 years but it loses its ‘identity’ if they occur every few years (which is now what’s happening). (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

Disaster follows failures in integrity. Don’t think the Earth System is too big to fail.

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By David Salt

In an effort to distract myself from Australia’s putrid federal election campaign, I’ve taken to watching disaster films, specifically Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, because they are both based on real-life events, they only remind me about the failings of our current political leaders. Both films carry powerful messages on the importance of good governance and the consequences of taking it for granted.

Melt down

The award-winning series Chernobyl was created by HBO and went to air in 2019. It tells the events surrounding the explosion in Reactor 4 at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in 1986. It’s a story of nuclear nightmare, self-sacrifice, heroism and cascading tragedy. Underpinning the disaster is a tale of greed, corruption and power in which an ossified Soviet empire censored science that had years earlier revealed that the nuclear reactor design was flawed, and a hierarchy that only wanted good news, a tight focus on production targets and punished anyone who pointed out when things were going wrong.

The power plant was under-resourced, poorly equipped, and badly managed. When the Reactor 4 blew up, the local emergency response was totally unprepared and ignorant about what to do in a nuclear accident. The consequences were horrific for the attending fireman and locals watching on.

The inadequate local response was then matched by the broader Soviet response of denial and cover up, but the scale of the disaster meant it couldn’t be ignored as radioactive debris sprayed over Europe.

It was the worst and most expensive nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and many scholars believe it directly contributed the collapse of the Soviet empire a few years later.

The HBO series brilliantly captures the unfolding horror of the disaster following it from the moment of the accident through to the investigation much later in which scientists do their best to reveal the rottenness of the system that allowed the catastrophe to occur. The message is not well received and the whistle blowers pay an enormous price for their courage.

Blow up

If anyone thinks that major disasters like this are the preserve of sclerotic dictatorships like the Soviet Union, you’re kidding yourself. A couple of months before the melt down at Chernobyl in 1986, the US experienced its own catastrophic failure when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself to smithereens 73 seconds after lift off. Seven crew died as a result and the whole Space Shuttle program was suspended for years. Some suggest the program never really recovered.

And what caused this disaster?

The Space Shuttle was touted as the most complex machine ever put together by humans, but what destroyed the Challenger was the failure of simple rubber O-ring seal on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster. Except it wasn’t really a failure of an O-ring so much as a failure of governance. Engineers had known for many years the O-rings didn’t work very well in extreme cold conditions, such as were experienced at the time of launch, and even recommended against launching at that time.

But the mission, which had already gone through long and costly delays, was under enormous time pressures and somehow the concerns of the engineers, who sat at the bottom of the management hierarchy, were not conveyed to the decision makers at the top of the tree. The decision to go ahead with the launch was made, and the rest is history. (HBO really should make a docu-drama on this.)

Blow out

Now maybe you’re thinking big disasters like these only occur when state-controlled hierarchies are in charge. If that’s the case, I recommend you see the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon which recounts the origins of the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The spill occurred when the Deepwater Horizon, an ocean oil drilling rig operated by BP, caught fire when high-pressure methane gas from the well expanded into the marine riser and rose into the drilling rig. There it ignited and exploded, engulfing the platform, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest environmental disaster in American history.

The film contends the disaster was the direct result of BP officials rushing through safety tests and ignoring the ageing infrastructure on board the drill rig. As with Chernobyl and Challenger, engineers were ignored, and production timetables were prioritized over safety and due diligence.

Though this was an accident in the commercial sector, it can also be said that government oversight and environmental protection and monitoring were found wanting.

Integrity fail

When disaster strikes we are too often absorbed by the heat and light of the event itself. When we look past that, the real problem is almost always a failure in integrity around the way in which the system is being governed.

Good governance, transparency and accountability would have prevented Chernobyl, Challenger and Deepwater Horizon from ever becoming disasters. And if we want to prevent future disasters of this type, this is where we should be looking.

Which is why I got depressed when watching these movies because it just got me thinking about the failing integrity of leaders such as Johnson, Trump, Putin and our own Scott Morrison. These leaders have been actively eroding the integrity of the institutions that allow us to trust our governments and the processes they run. Without this integrity we won’t hear the warnings of the ‘engineers’ that the systems we depend upon have vulnerabilities and may be heading for collapse.

Hollow credits

One excellent example of this in Australia is the recent revelations by Professor Andrew Macintosh that our system of carbon credits lacks integrity – that Australian Carbon Credit Units are being awarded to projects that are not actually capturing the carbon they claim. Macintosh, one of the architects of the system, claims the problem is poor governance, that the same people awarding the credits are doing the monitoring and the selling of the carbon credits. A market with integrity would allow for transparency, accountability and independent validation of what’s being bought and sold but our carbon market does not have these features.

The problem is that these carbon credits are being purchased by fossil fuel producers to offset their own carbon emissions. If, as Macintosh contends, 70-80% of the carbon credits do not represent captured carbon, then they’re not actually offsetting anything, but fossil fuel companies still have a green light to keep pumping out carbon emissions.

Now, maybe you can’t see Chernobyl or Deepwater Horizon in this story. However, our government has simply denied Macintosh’s claims, even though he has considerable empirical evidence supporting his case (and our government isn’t releasing the information that Macintosh has asked to be made public). Our government says the carbon market is fine, they won’t fix it, and our carbon credits are in high demand. Our performance on climate change is beyond reproach, they say (even though we trail the developed world in reducing carbon emissions). It’s like the Chernobyl operators ignoring warnings on the basis that the project is too good (too big) to fail; and they’ll only be punished if they say something.

In our government’s admonishment of ‘engineer’ Macintosh’s attempts to blow the whistle on this broken carbon market I hear the echoes of Soviet administrators and BP corporates claiming ‘push on, there’s nothing to see here’.

But the system is not good, carbon emissions are rising, people and species are dying from climate-enhanced weather extremes. And in response, our political leaders tell us not to worry, the systems they have in place will protect us. But those systems have no integrity!

Then, one more straw is added to the camel’s back…

Banner image: A scene from the HBO series Chernobyl in which military officers spray the accident site to kill all life in order to prevent it spreading radioactive contamination. The ‘fallout’ from this nuclear accident is still being experienced today.

Off the dial – Planet Earth is showing multiple instrument warnings

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But the dials don’t appear to connect to anything

By David Salt

You’re driving along and one of the dials on the dashboard suddenly shoots way over normal. The car, however, seems to be travelling fine so you decide its an instrument error and ignore it.

But what if several dials begin overshooting? Oil pressure is up, heat is going through the roof, warning lights are flashing all over the console. What do you do? You pull over as fast as possible and try to find out what’s wrong because ignoring this multitude of warnings will likely wreck your car and possibly risk your life.

Quick, stop the car!

Well, multiple serious warning lights are flashing at us from all over the globe.

An unprecedented sixth mass coral bleaching event is sweeping up and down the Great Barrier Reef – in a La Nina year!

We’re still trying to dry out after historic floods generated by a series of ‘rain bombs’ up and down Australia’s east coast (with the possibility of more to come).

The US Mid-West is gripped by unprecedented drought (with Lake Powell behind the Hoover Dam, the world’s first super dam, hitting a record low this week).

Death Valley in the US has just recorded its hottest March day on record with a sweltering 40°C (records date back to 1911). Keep in mind winter has just finished for this part of the world.

But possibly the most alarming weather events being experienced at this moment are heat waves striking both Antarctica and the North Pole – alarming because it has climatologists and meteorologists in a spin.

Parts of eastern Antarctica have seen temperatures hover 40 degrees Celsius above normal for three days and counting.

“This event is completely unprecedented and upended our expectations about the Antarctic climate system,” said Jonathan Wille, a researcher studying polar meteorology at Université Grenoble Alpes in France.

“Antarctic climatology has been rewritten,” tweeted Stefano Di Battista, another noted Antarctic researcher. He said that such temperature anomalies would have been considered “impossible” and “unthinkable” before they actually occurred.

Meanwhile, what is being described as a record-breaking ‘bomb cyclone’ that developed over the US East Coast a couple of weeks ago is bringing an exceptional insurgence of warm air to the Arctic. Temperatures around 28 degrees Celsius above normal could cover the North Pole this week, climbing to near the freezing mark. Keep in mind the North Pole is still in its ‘polar night’. It hasn’t seen the sun for nearly six months.

This is bonkers

This is all so far ‘outside of normal’ that the implications of these observations are not yet appreciated by the experts who study these things. Indeed, the solid peer-reviewed science we depend upon to understand what’s been happening will take months and possible years to generate.

However, if the dials on your car were giving you this feedback, even if you didn’t understand exactly what it meant, you’d likely be pulling over immediately for fear of a catastrophic failure.

If the heating we’ve been experiencing so far has been frying our coral reefs, incinerating our forest biomes and washing away our homes and human infrastructure, then these huge anomalies in our Artic and Antarctic weather are specters of coming climate catastrophes.

As a science writer working in the sustainability space, I’ve been keeping an eye on many of the ‘planetary dials’ for years if not decades. I’ve watched the remorseless rise in CO2 levels, methane levels and temperature. I’ve shed tears over the criminal decline in biodiversity, and noted the growing extent, ferocity and frequency of extreme weather (floods and wildfires).

Reading the dials

Keep in mind these ‘dials’ are not privileged or secret information. They’re available to anyone wanting to read them. They can be found in regular reports from international agencies and institutions like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES (look them up if the acronyms are new to you).

Within nations there are multiple organisations monitoring and reporting on the environment. In Australia we have the BoM, ABS and CSIRO as well as dozens of universities and specialist organisations focusing on particular aspects of the environment (for example, the Great Barrier Reef has GBRMPA and AIMS).

The information is there; it’s all cross checked and peer reviewed. It’s reliable and solid; and it’s all pointing the same way: human activity is distorting the Earth system and it’s beginning to behave in unusual and dangerous ways.

The problem is, the dials don’t seem to connect to our decision making, the information they present is not linked to policy action. Worse, many vested interests (like the fossil fuel sector) actively work to discredit and ignore what the dials are telling us.

Our political representatives have funded (with your taxes) and announced the construction of these myriad dials – “today I announce the launch of this great new environmental monitoring ‘machine/invention/organisation/report/dial/whatever’; so rest assured, our environment is now saved!” But when it comes time to respond to what the dial then begins to tell us, the readings are discounted, denied or deleted. Acknowledging the information, it seems, comes with too high a political price.

What we need is a mechanism that connects the dials to the decision making. In concept, such a mechanism already exists. It’s called environmental accounting and while many have called for its widespread implementation (including Sustainability Bites), it’s yet to be adopted in a meaningful manner.

Let it rip

What we have instead, to continue with our car analogy, is a modern economy cruising along the highway of Planet Earth at an ever increasing speed (indeed, this metaphorical vehicle has been steadily accelerating since the 1950s). The way ahead is becoming uncertain and the road itself is turning very dangerous, full of pot holes and gaping cracks. Many are suggesting we should slow down, we can’t see what’s beyond the next curve, and we’re not sure if the vehicle is safe anymore.

Our political leaders, however, are in no doubt.

“She’ll be right, mate. The car is purring. Indeed, our policies, based on ‘jobs and growth’, guarantee stability and strength. No need for brakes. Indeed, we reckon the solution is actually a little more pedal to the metal. So, let’s see what happens if we let it rip!”

Governments around the world have been ignoring the dials for decades but Australia’s current government are world beaters when it comes to climate denial and inaction. In Australia we’re on the brink of a national election. Maybe it’s time to switch drivers.

Banner image: Why is that dial acting funny? (PublicDomainPictures  from Pixabay)

Blind faith in the future – the booming billionaire’s club

The new space race is as unsustainable as it is unfair

By David Salt

Anthropologists in the 23rd Century struggled to make sense of the The Big Fall that had occurred some two hundred years earlier. So much of the human record had been lost. Clearly, as written in the physical record (tree rings, sediments, ice cores), there had been some form of climate catastrophe but the humans back then would have been aware of this, and their technology was strong, more powerful in many ways than the technology available to people after The Fall. Why then, didn’t they do something about it before it was too late?

Most peculiar, the anthropologists had found a series of massive rockets sitting silently on launch pads across a country once known as the United States. These weren’t weapons. They were launch vehicles but with minimal payloads. All they could do was carry a handful of people up into space for a short time before dropping back to Earth. In doing so, they emitted vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis, but to what end? Was it simply to give a few people a higher view of what was already obvious – that the planet was at breaking point? It really was a mystery.

Coming back down to Earth

Who could blame future generations from wondering what the hell we were thinking in allowing a small group of the super rich to spend billions of dollars on the quest to get into space at a time that our planet was slipping towards serious and irreversible environmental decline.

Our coral reefs are bleaching, the forest biome is burning, the sea is rising, and biodiversity is crashing. Human suffering is growing and the young are starting to give up hope.

So, in these dire times, what do the planet’s richest men think is the most important thing to do with their amassed wealth – fire up a race for space, and develop their own private rocket companies.

The shameless super rich

And, maybe to underline the sheer perversity of their priorities, they are going about this contest in a completely shameless manner.

Richard Branson (billionaire no. 1) turns up to the launch pad on the day of lift off (of the his Virgin Galactic) on a push bike, underscoring the enormity of the feat he is about to undertake, and shining a nice light on his dependence on a mode of transport that doesn’t use fossil fuel. Except it was all a marketing exercise to promote a bike company doing a cross promotional deal with Virgin, something they confessed to several days later.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (billionaire no. 2), returns to Earth on his spacecraft the Blue Origin and immediately expressed his gratitude: “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. At first it was taken as a joke but everyone quickly realised he meant it; and he was then roundly criticised for the unsafe work conditions and low pay his Amazon employees have to endure.

Elon Musk (billionaire no. 3) set up a company SpaceX to develop his commercial space program. He purchased a large tract of land just off the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Texas border with Mexico, to build a launch pad and declared: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.” That proved fortunate as several test rockets blew themselves to smithereens. But it wasn’t ‘cool’ because that land ‘with nobody around’ was a mosaic of nature reserves and home to a plethora of vulnerable species. Many conservationists are appalled that these ‘protected’ areas are now being showered in broken rocket bits.

Are they just toying with us

Or, if you want to be completely cynical, you might see these acts of lying, worker exploitation and environmental destruction as deliberate acts of misdirection – be my guest, get angry at these lesser crimes of self-centred narcissism; just don’t start examining the bigger issues behind this private space race. Those bigger issues include the misuse of precious resources, resource use that exacerbates dangerous global change, and the appropriate governance of the mega rich.

According to Eloise Marais, a physical geographer at University College London, each rocket launch releases 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide (split between 4 or so passengers). For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger.

Of course, there are many more plane flights than rocket launches but these early investments by the billionaire club are predicated on the belief that space tourism (and space industry in general) are about to take off big time so this mass release of carbon is only set to dramatically increase.

And it’s not just carbon that’s the problem. Space scientists in Australia recently identified stratospheric ozone depletion as a key environmental concern for space launches.

Of course, the billionaires claim this all about saving Earth, not burning it. Bezos, for example, said he hoped the flight would be the first step in a process that would eventually see environmentally-damaging industries relocated to other planets in order to protect Earth. He acknowledged it might take decades but you gotta start somewhere! I’m not sure we have decades, Jeff, so maybe we need another strategy to deal with those environmentally-damaging industries.

Maybe the biggest moral issue with billionaire’s space club is the sheer unfairness of it. The rich get richer on the benefits of ‘unbounded’ economic growth, and the poor get hit with the impacts generated by that growth. According to the UN, the world’s wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%! The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called ‘polluter elite’ – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Well, the billionaire’s space club is the latest manifestation of the disconnection between the wealthy elite and the planet that supports them. Do they really think their wealth will insulate them from mass ecosystem collapse?

Back to the future

Our 23rd Century anthropologists have made an important discovery in their quest to understand the mystery of the ‘rockets of the billionaire club’. The answer, they say, lies in an earlier anthropological work by a scientist of that time named Jared Diamond. A book of his called Collapse has been recovered. This book examined the fall of earlier civilisations, and detailed the end days of the civilisation that once existed on remote Easter Island.

According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island built great stone god heads to ensure their ongoing prosperity. The construction of these god heads consumed enormous resources but their faith in them was strong, and they kept producing them.

As the Easter Islander civilisation grew they chopped down all the trees and, in so doing, lost the capacity to build canoes to fish for food. Society was at risk so what did they do, they started carving more stone god heads, even bigger ones. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work. Society collapsed, people starved, and their biggest stone god heads can still be found half carved from the cliffs from where they originated.

Of course, said the 23rd Century anthropologists. The rockets of the 21st Century are the same thing – acts of blind faith in the face of environmental collapse. My faith is strong, my God will protect me, and here is my technological monument to prove it.

In light of what they must have known about the planet at that time, what can we say from this, the anthropologists asked themselves? They were blinded by their mastery and their technology, they weren’t very reflective, and possibly they were idiots, they concluded.

Banner image: Stone god heads in the quarry on Easter Island. Some scholars believe these were being excavated at the time of societal collapse on the island. Are our billionaire’s rockets possible filling the same function? (Image by SoniaJane from Pixabay)

Three experts and a politician in a sandpit – who has the real insight on climate policy in a connected society

By David Salt

The scientist, the economist and the lawyer

There were three people at the bar – a scientist, a lawyer and an economist – arguing about how to solve the intractable problem of sustainability, and specifically climate change.

The scientist said we just need to know a little more, remove some of the uncertainty around our knowledge on the earth system (and what humans are doing to it), and then society would fall behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that something needs to happen.

The lawyer said we just need better laws proscribing what’s acceptable and what’s not. Better rules are the solution.

The economist said we just need to provide the right incentives for people to begin doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing. Bad behaviour, said the economist, should simply cost more making it ‘common sense’ to be sustainable.

Enter the politician

“You mean, like putting a price on carbon?” said a greying, white gentleman in an expensive suit who had butted into the conversation. “That worked a treat for Australia’s climate change policy.”

“Actually,” said the economist, “it did work well until it was canned by the Abbott Government in 2013.”

“But that’s the point,” purred the politician. “We proposed to ‘axe the tax’ and the people voted us in and we did… axe the tax that is. Putting a price on carbon was electoral poison and may we never hear of it again.”

“And you, Ms Scientist,” he said turning on the person representing science…

“It’s ‘doctor’ actually…” stammered the scientist; but was totally ignored by the politician who was building up a good head of righteous steam.

“…how effective has all your additional science reportage been in winning hearts and minds? For God’s sake, the IPCC’s Sixth Report read like a horror movie in terms of what it’s predicting. Yet we were able to deflect its potency by describing it as horror porn and pointing out we were actually beating our emission targets. It quickly faded from the news cycle.

“And as for you, Ms Lawyer, it’s all well and good to let scared children block coal developments by dragging our Minister for the Environment through the court saying she’s abandoned her duty of care to the future but just you watch happens on appeal.

“Mark my words,” he boomed, “No higher court will uphold a judgement that threatens to block every major economic development that brings with it a residue of environmental harm. To do so would kill the economy, the voters won’t hear of it.

“No, don’t you worry your pretty little heads with all this sustainability clap trap. The adults are in charge, and we’ll make sure there’ll be technology aplenty to ensure our thriving economy continues apace!

“And don’t forget whose taxes keep you happy and out of danger playing away in your little academic sandpits,” he finished with a flourish.

Shifting piles of sand

“You might be surprised what you find in sandpits, Mr Member of Parliament,” hissed back the scientist. “Back in the 80s, physicists experimented with models of sandpiles and discovered they were complex systems. The more grains you add to a pile of sand, the more unstable it becomes. It moves into what’s called a critical state.

“As the pile grows, more and more parts of the sand slope become unstable requiring just one more grain of sand to trigger a slide. At a certain point there are enough small triggers across the pile that setting off one small slide creates an avalanche that can rearrange the whole pile.

“You might think you’re safe from one of the small slides but the interconnected critical nature of the pile means change will occur well away from the initiating disturbance.”

“Thanks for that,” quipped the politician. “I’ll remember that next time a blunder into a sandpit.”

Pile high society

“You don’t get it, do you?” snapped the economist. “Our colleague is actually describing society. You and your conservative brethren are trying to hold things in the same state because that best serves your vested interests, your fossil fuel backers. But our sandpile society is slowly building up a resistance to your efforts. And when the instability corrects itself, your lack of action means the correction will be big.

“Companies and governments, though not the Australian Government, are trying to figure out how to sustain themselves in this increasingly uncertain climate-afflicted world. More and more countries are signing up to economic measures like a price on carbon. Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms are being developed by the G7. Even coal companies, irony of irony, are feeling the heat as insurance companies refuse to insure them; companies are having to figure out how they can do this themselves.

“All these things are little patches of instability on the sandpile and it’s making the whole sandpile unstable. This is not just a physics model, economists recognise it all too well and have seen it at play in every economic upheaval from the Great Depression to the GFC.”

“And you piss on the law, Mr Politician,” chimed in the lawyer. “But do you not see what’s happening everywhere at the moment?

“It’s not just a few children disillusioned at your deceit and lack of action. It’s courts at all levels calling you out. The whole Sydney City Council just endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and, of course, most of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement. Citizens everywhere are now standing up and demanding what our governments are actually doing to meet these agreement.

“A Dutch court, in a landmark ruling, has just ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically deepen planned greenhouse gas emission cuts. This could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world.

“And a Paris court has found the French Government legally responsible for its failure to meet targets intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“So, Mr Politician,” said the scientist, taking back the reins of the argument. “What does it mean for your efforts to stop change when all sectors of society – law, economics and science just to mention three – begin building in checks and balances to force change? Your malfeasance enables you to disable some of our efforts – ‘axe the tax’, as you say – but over time the little efforts across society build up, the triggers accumulate, the demographics change and the evidence emerges.

“I’d say you’re sitting on a hypercritical pile of sand being peppered by little grains of sand. And each new grain, each new disturbance, could trigger the slide that triggers the avalanche. And when that happens, your smug self-assurance over the success of the games you’ve been playing will be unable to staunch the flow.”

Nowhere to sit

“And if we’ve scared you out of the sandpit, Mr Politician, think of it as a game of musical chairs,” observed the economist. “Unfortunately, I can’t hear the music anymore.

“And, thanks to you and your efforts, it looks like Australia doesn’t have a chair to sit on.”

Image: In the sandpit of life, a single grain of sand can change everything if the circumstances are ripe. For an excellent article on sandpiles as models of economic growth and disruption, see https://www.mauldineconomics.com/frontlinethoughts/the-growing-economic-sandpile
(Image by Nuwanga Mavinda from Pixabay)

Out of control with a smidgen of humility

We do so much better when we acknowledge we aren’t in control

By David Salt

The wealthier a country or an individual household, the less concerned they were toward the seriousness of climate change. So concluded French and Australian researchers reviewing survey data from 10,000 households in 11 OECD countries. They hypothesized that richer households (and countries) are less concerned about climate change because wealth provides a buffer against some of the related risks. This leads people in wealthier countries and households to perceive a greater sense of control over climate change impacts, which in turn results in lower levels of concern.

Pretty disturbing, huh?

And yet it’s quite in keeping with Australia’s laggardly response to the growing spectre of climate change. Coral reefs can bleach and biodiversity can collapse but, as a developed nation, we continue to elect conservative governments that turn their back on climate change using misleading arguments about the cost of climate action on the economy (misleading and dishonest because it never factors in the cost of not acting – but that would involve listening to the science!). Whereas our poorer Pacific neighbours are very concerned about climate change and begging for us to do more yet we happily ignore them and their concerns.

And yet, in recent years the threat (and reality) of not being in control has brought out the best in many Australians (just not so much in our national government).

A Black Summer

Australians have considerable experience with bushfires but the fire season of 2019/20 – our Black Summer – was of a scale without precedent. The forest ecosystems along our eastern seaboard all went up in flames, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Prior to this fiery catastrophe, an eminent group of retired emergency workers pleaded with the government to take heed of the climate science, predicting a catastrophic fire season was just around the corner; but they were ignored.

“Don’t tell us what to do,” our national government effectively said. “We’re in control, we’ve got it covered.” Of course, as events were to show, they didn’t.

There was enormous loss of property and life; although given the intensity and scale of the conflagration mercifully few people perished when compared to earlier wildfires (173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday fire of 2009 as compared to 34 throughout the much bigger Black Summer period).

Indeed, it was the tragedy of the 2009 Black Saturday event that changed our national mindset to how we approach big wildfires. The hard truth of these fires is that they can’t be managed and when they occur the priority has to be saving life and getting out.

To my mind, the brutal savagery of the Black Summer was a wakeup call to our national identity. We’re not actually in control, and we should set our priorities accordingly.

The silver lining

We were still licking our wounds from the fires when a new uncontrollable menace began rolling around the world at the beginning of 2020 in the form of a novel corona virus, slaying the sick and aged in its wake.

Overseas, every populist leader who downplayed the threat of CoVid 19 in order to keep their economies chugging along (think Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Duterte) invited mass death into their populations with legacies still to be reckoned. A sense of superiority and control mixed with a fair degree of libertarian dismissal about the fate of others proved to be a fertile pasture for an incredibly infectious and highly lethal disease.

Back here we watched unfolding events with an uncharacteristic humility and respect for science. We had just been defeated by an environmental disturbance that had scorched the nation, and we demanded our leaders to do more than pay lip service to the science of epidemiology. We also acknowledged that we were all in this together, as we had done during the Black Summer, and that everyone needed to do their part.

Combine this with our island status and a modular federal constitution that enabled state governments to block internal movement, and Australia was the poster child of the pandemic. We eliminated the virus on our shores and the government dropped its ideological control and spent up big to keep the economic home-fires going.

However, in a globalised world, no country is an island, even if it occupies one. In Australia we saw multiple breaches of our quarantine defences as people returned from overseas. Victoria’s second wave was a massive wakeup call that this virus needed to be taken seriously and, again, as a nation we observed the rules (even when it meant constraining our personal liberties), trusted the judgements of our science experts and we prevailed. This thing was bigger than any individual regardless of their wealth, so we pulled together and responded well to the scientific evidence.

Victoria has now undergone two more lockdowns (we’re currently in the fourth). It is telling the nation again and again, we are not in control. And our response has been good.

Contrast that with India’s crippling outbreak when their leaders decided they had beaten the bug and declared business as usual prematurely. India, an emerging superpower, has been hobbled; it will likely never be the same again.

Giving up control

Giving up control is never easy, be it as a government with a strong ideological focus or individuals with a strong belief in their own wealth and personal freedoms. However, sometimes circumstances in the form of massive disturbances make giving up control not only possible but the desirable thing to do. Most recently we’ve seen it in the Black Summer and the pandemic, but examples of giving up control go back to the beginning of civilisation.

Researchers from Germany Italy have just published an analysis of studies on Mesopotamian civilisations that demonstrates that severe droughts actually led to society’s elites giving up control in order that their societies might cope better during these environmental crises. They showed that severe drought actually stimulated greater levels of cooperation between political elites and non-elites, and led to the development of important institutional processes that can still be seen in our societies today.

Incurable optimists (and most politicians) will often say every crisis is an opportunity. Australia, with its highly variable climate, seems to slip from environmental crisis to crisis. Maybe to really make the most of these events we need a smidgen of humility, an acknowledgement that we are not in control. If we could achieve this, then maybe we’d learn, adapt and prosper in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

We’ve shown we do well when we pull together, when the chips are down. Let’s hope our recent experiences with fire and contagion will enable us to sustain that humility long into the future.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay