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Book Review: Surviving the 21st Century

Surviving the 21st Century Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them is Julian Cribb’s latest book. I was halfway through Chapter Two when I thought, “This book should be mandatory reading for every politician around the globe.” Everyone, politician or not, can benefit and learn from the insights and information Cribb shares with us.

Cribb takes complex global issues and distills them into a crystal clear picture of where we currently stand. Surviving the 21st Century will not be as easy as our leaders would have us believe. After my thought of required reading for politicians, I read the dustjacket reviews. I know, I know – odd timing, convention suggests I should have read them first, but I prefer to make up my own mind.

One of the dustjacket reviews by Professor Clive Hamilton, author of Requiem for a Species and Earthmasters:

With astonishing breadth of knowledge and acute observational skills, Julian Cribb has given us a book that is a kind of report on the state of life on the planet. At the centre of life on earth, he tells us, is the creature known as homo sapiens – self-deceiver, degrader, destroyer, anything it seems but sapiens. And yet, if we peer through the gloom is that a spark we can just make out, the spark of wisdom?

Jenny Goldie, past president of Sustainable Population Australia writes, “This is an important book. Few others deal with so many confronting problems in an integrated way.” The added emphasis is mine. This is what I see as the greatest value of this book to any reader: scientist, politician, educator or layperson. Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas says, “… absolutely essential reading for all politicians and policy makers, voters and young people everywhere. … Grandparents should read the book with particular care.”

Ten Greatest Threats

Cribb takes the ten greatest threats to human existence and suggests we do “the very thing we humans have always done best: understand and find co-operative solutions to life-threatening challenges”. He doesn’t just describe the threats, he offers solutions.

Cribb got me in the first chapter, Homo suilaudans. The Self-Worshipper. He describes how we ended up with the sapiens tag simply so the father of taxonomy could avoid a massive dispute (or possibly worse, given the era) with the religious fanaticism of his time. Heaven help anyone who suggested humans were not some form of divine special creation. Cribb asks the question, did this actually set a terrible trap for humans? Perhaps it did. “A name is who you are.” Or who you think you are, or want to be. As this book so clearly describes, we are not wise. Not at all.

A Topsoil Fact

Some of the facts Cribb covers I was already aware of. But I have learnt much. One learning that I found particularly interesting involves topsoil. Cribb relates how today’s crop varieties are developed to grow in modern, degraded soils. Such crops are lower in micronutrients and higher in carbohydrates and this situation is a major driver of the global obesity pandemic and other diet related diseases. I look at such things from a personal perspective – is this likely to be contributing to the ever increasing and as yet unexplained incidence of auto-immune conditions? I share this to illustrate we are ALL impacted, all readers will find relevance. All of the threats are relevant to all of us – it is our survival at stake.

The water situation globally is horrifying. Deforestation. Population growth. Bringing all these problems together is what Cribb does so well. Big problems, readily solved. If we use some wisdom.

I don’t want to share spoilers – this book is one each reader needs to discover at their own pace. I could not read this book in one session. It is damn scary. It is also immensely encouraging because while the facts are disastrous, Cribb clearly shows there are ways we can get through this. Ways to ensure surviving the 21st century.

If we stop being Homo delusus.

The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.” – Voltaire (Surviving the 21st Century, p 171)

Like, you know, “clean coal”.

Fund Science

One conclusion I came to is the current trend of many in power ignoring science, of slashing funding for scientific endeavour, has to stop. That, my friends, is up to us, the voters.

I’ve never demonstrated or marched – been tempted a few times over the years, but never did. On Saturday, April 22, I marched. For science. I’m interested in surviving. I want my grandchildren to survive. I publish this review on ANZAC Day. My father fought in World War II – he didn’t fight so we could become extinct – at our own hands.

March for Science

Climate change is irrelevant

In the argument for investment in renewable energy in Australia, the existence, or non-existence of climate change is irrelevant, writes Warwick O’Neill.

Like most semi-intelligent Australians I accept that all the scientific evidence provides near definitive proof that things aren’t looking real bright for our future generations, unless we invest in renewal energy technologies now. But us semi-intelligent Australians are no longer the ones who need convincing, are we?

Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and the rest of this chamber of horrors masquerading as a Government are the ones who need convincing. But while I think that deep down the majority of them probably do believe the science, they all believe much more in the money flowing into Liberal Party coffers from the likes of Gina, Rupert, and other esteemed members of the IPA. So do we continue doing things the way that we have been ever since these people stole the election, i.e. pleading to their conscience and their desire to leave a clean and sustainable future for our grand kids? Like that’s ever going to work.

As they say, the epitome of stupidity is to continue doing the same thing, in the same way and expecting a different result. We need to stop trying to bash down the front door. We need to stop appealing to their conscience and instead use their enormous egos and greed against them. Let’s stop trying to convince them that climate change is real, and start talking about the only things they care about; economics and legacy.

These people may be able to stick their head in the sand and deny climate change, but there are two unmistakable and unarguable truths which no amount of sand can cover up.

First undeniable truth – our mining resources will run out eventually. Whether it’s in ten years, fifty years or one hundred years, unless their God can miraculously replenish our stocks, we will run out. This will leave Australia with very little to trade and the rest of the world will be quite happy to say “thank you for your contribution to our future” while they wave us goodbye.

Even a government which passes the one collective brain cell around to whoever needs it most can see that this will be an economic disaster. How to avoid it though? By finding another source of income, something else which we can sell to an eager world. It would be hard to argue that Australia, due to its geography, isn’t ideally placed to take advantage of renewable energy production. Heavy investment in this industry could potentially reap enormous financial benefits to Australia. Yes, I know it would buck the trend to have a government in Australia that actually invests in assets rather than selling them off, but humour me.

We all know that solar is a viable source of energy. If solar panels the size of an average house roof can provide sufficient power to run that house, imagine the power output of a 1000 acre solar panel. A few of these strategically positioned and we go a long way towards providing enough power to keep this country ‘rocking and rolling’. Government investment in training could help alleviate the job losses from the mining sector, and these new solar areas could be the future version of today’s “mining towns”.

The Horizontal Waterfalls (source: tripadviser.com.au)

The Horizontal Waterfalls (source: tripadviser.com.au)

Our other advantage is our fifty odd thousand kilometres of coastline. Each inch of this coastline is subject to the one of the truly dependable and predictable sources of energy on this planet – tides. Tidal energy doesn’t dissipate under an overcast sky or when the wind stops blowing. Some areas, such as the “Horizontal Waterfalls” near Broome, have such huge tidal flows that you could imagine, with the right technology in place, potentially provide enough electricity generation to supply the entire top end. And this happens twice a day, every day. But is going largely untapped due to lack of investment.

If any Government properly invested in the research and development and then implemented these technologies, then solar and tidal power could see Australia in a position to provide clean energy at least to the South East Asian region. Our scientists (should we have any left) could no doubt devise efficient and environmentally friendly ways of harnessing this power. The sale of the electricity produced, combined with the manufacture and export of our intellectual property could bring billions of overseas dollars into our economy, easily paying off the initial investment and then adding pure profit well into the future.

The second undeniable truth is that no matter how strenuously Tony Abbott fights against renewal energy, most of the rest of the world, even China, is already making great strides in establishing their own sustainable energy industries. This can mean only one thing for the Australian coal industry – a decrease in the price of coal. The less demand there is, the less it is worth. Economics 1 0 1. So long before coal resources run out, they’re going to be worthless anyway. Failure to start investing now will only mean that the rest of the world will be so much further in front of us when the time comes and we have no other option.

That takes care of the economic angle of attack; now let’s stroke their egos by dangling the carrot of legacy in front of them. Two things any politician who strives for the top echelons of government have in common is a massive ego and a desire to be remembered as one of the giants in history.

Point out to Tony Abbott that he could go down in the annuls of history as the visionary who set up Australia’s economic position in the world for centuries to come, and his ego is sure to be soothed. Actually scrap that. As the “suppository of knowledge” he’d probably think that he’ll be going down in the annals of history as the intellectual giant who scrapped the ‘carbon tax’. Sharp as a marble, our Tony.

But pitch the legacy idea to whoever will be the leader of the LNP once they rid themselves of Tony, and I’m sure they’ll show some interest. Maybe the thought of a gilded statue out the front of Parliament House, honouring their greatness would be enough to overcome the natural desire of most pollies to only look as far ahead as the next election.

Take the whole climate change debate out of the renewable energy argument, and all they are left arguing against is a stronger future economy and their place in history. We could very well get what we wanted in the first place, which is investment in sustainable energy and a brighter, cleaner future. Any military strategist will tell you, if your initial frontal assault fails, change your plan and take them in the flank, where they least expect it.

A plea to the Pups: Do not repeal the Clean Energy Act

Original image by The Telegraph.uk

Original image by The Telegraph.uk

After reading a few similar posts I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and try something in the open-letter style, in the vain hope that it might make its way to its intended recipients via the magic of the interwebs. Since I don’t have time to provide statistical analysis what follows is very much a matter of opinion. You can either take my conclusions on trust, or do your own research.

Dear Senators Lambie, Lazarus, and Wang,

Congratulations to you all on your appointments.

I write to express my concern about the repeal of the Clean Energy Act which is currently before the Senate. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of this legislation, and the importance of the task before you. As an Australian who plans on living at least until 70, I feel I have a vested interest in this debate, and so I would like to be sure that you are fully apprised of the facts and consequences before you vote to repeal carbon pricing.

Abolishing the carbon tax will not save families $550 a year. In the last 10 years we have seen energy prices double, but only about 3-4% of this increase is due to the carbon tax. The rest is due to over-investment in poles and wires subsidised by taxpayers and paid for by consumers. Demand for electricity has actually fallen by about 13% over the last 5 years. This may be in part due to an increase in rooftop solar PV, in part due to rising prices. My point is that carbon pricing has not been the driving force behind high energy prices. Overall the impact of carbon pricing has contributed an estimated 0.7% increase to cost of living. Compared to a 2.5% hike for the GST, this is negligible.

No doubt you have become accustomed to our Prime Minister’s underhanded tactics, allowing interest groups to dictate policy and appointing climate sceptics to key advisory positions. As much as Abbott would deny it, the time for arguing the point is over. The science has been around since the 1970s. If CO2 levels rise to 450 particles per million then the planet can be expected to warm by two degrees, posing significant risk to life on earth. CO2 levels are already at 400 ppm and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as typhoons, floods, droughts and bush fires has increased more rapidly in the last five years than at any time in recorded history. Only those with their heads in the sand have not seen this coming.

It would be foolish to think that our shared desire for the survival of the species would somehow be enough to shake the global economy from its dependence on fossil fuels. On the other hand, a sudden rise in input cost might do just the trick. With crude oil now soaring above $100 a barrel and the Middle East in the grip of war, it looks like we may be seeing the end of an era. As long as demand for energy remains high and shale gas cheap the US may ride out the prospect of a double dip recession for a decade or so, but new sources of energy are desperately needed to drive a new economy. You need only look toward Beijing and Washington to see the reality of this. The fossil fuel industry’s days are numbered, and in what has already been dubbed the Third Industrial Revolution, most significant new investment is in renewables.

What does this mean for Australia? We can only continue to burn coal for as long as it is cost effective to produce it. Once global accords on climate change are reached, coal will face resistance in the market and we will start to see diminishing returns. The future is already looking bleak for the industry, and any amount of foresight would have us steer clear of stranded assets, not to mention the opportunity cost of not investing in renewables sooner.

In spite of Abbott’s best attempts to thwart it, Australia already has a mechanism in place to reduce emissions and provide significant investment capital for renewables. With attendant compensations to taxpayers such as raising the tax free threshold, family tax benefits and other measures, many poorer Australians, including pensioners, are actually better off under the current scheme. In spite of what Abbott would have us believe, the Clean Energy Act is not a toxic tax. Rather it is a well crafted package of reforms which has already lowered emissions by 7% and provides a means to steer our economy out of the cul-de-sac of the resource boom and onto the autobahn of technology and innovation. Who can tell how many new jobs will be created along the way?

With all respect to environmentalists, the legislation currently in place was not designed by a bunch of climate scientists who all got together and decided that preserving things like clean air and water for future generations was a really cool idea, but by shrewd economists who foresaw the need to future proof our economy against global trends. Dismantling this legislation without thinking through the consequences would amount to an act of economic vandalism, or deliberate sabotage, take your pick.

While preserving the planet for future generations is undoubtedly a noble cause, there is a far more cynical truth to consider. Our economic future very much depends on making the transition to clean energy as quickly and smoothly as possible. So while I admire the spirit of the amendments proposed by the Palmer United Party, I would suggest that in the best interest of all Australians the Clean Energy Act should be preserved in its current form. I urge you all to consider this carefully before casting your votes.

Kind Regards

Sean Stinson

Law & Order, Mars and Why Tony Abbott is Right To Put Science Under The Industry Portfolio.

“I have a great idea for reducing the crime rate!”
“What is it?”
“Well, when someone is caught breaking the law, rather than wasting a lot of money on a trial and jailing them – which is also very expensive – we just give them a large amount of money and tell them not do it again!”
“But wouldn’t that lead to people breaking the law and handing themselves in, just to get the money?”
“Oh the money wouldn’t go to everyone. Just the big criminals.”
“All right, once they’ve got the money what’s the penalty if they break the law again?”
“None.”
“None?”
“Yep, we’re more into carrots than sticks.”
“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Ok, well what about my idea for reducing our carbon emissions?”
“You mean the one where you pay the biggest polluters to reduce their emissions and if they don’t you just say that’s ok?”
“Yep.”
“Oh, that’s fine. That sounds like an excellent idea.”
Mm, we don’t seem to be hearing a lot about Tony Abbott’s Direct Action Plan. You know, the one that’s supposed to replace the Carbon Tax. A Google search reveals several mentions but the only recent one is in an editorial from that foreign owned newspaper, “The Australian” which begins with the rather contradictory concept.
“AUSTRALIA’s ill-fated carbon tax has proved to be a more successful tool of political rather than carbon abatement, felling spectacularly the party leaderships of Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard. Well intentioned in theory, it was in practice a hopelessly premature step for a country that emits around 1.5 per cent of global carbon dioxide and whose competitiveness had long rested on cheap energy. The tax boosted power prices for households and business without altering the carbon intensity of their energy supply. It has hastened the deindustrialisation of Australia’s economy, including the collapse of the aluminium and car industries, without a scintilla of verifiable impact on global carbon emissions, let alone the climate.”
I can’t see how the deindustrialisation of Australia’s economy hasn’t led to some fall in our emissions. And considering we were told by other members of Murdoch Misinformation Media about pensioners sitting in the dark with the heater off because they couldn’t afford electricity any more, it seems hard to believe that bigger users hadn’t found ways to improve their energy efficiency. But it’s good to know that our competitiveness rests on cheap energy and not cheap wages, as has been suggested by the IPA. (Or rather cheap minimum wages. I haven’t heard anyone from the IPA suggesting that Tim Wilson’s $300,000 is an excessive amount. Or even using it as example of a waste of taxpayers’ money.)
Still when the paper talks about “verifiable”, it’s important to remember that they’re not using that in a scientific way, because a debate like this is too important to be left to scientists. We need input from every day people. Like the Senator from Kentucky (Brandon Smith) that was suggesting that climate change wasn’t man-made because there are no coal mines on Mars, and:
“I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change. But I will just simply point out that I think that in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that.”
Well, a scientist might, but we know that they’re just a minority group and the silent majority are sick and tired of pandering to minority groups. So “verifiable” in this sense has nothing to do with science. It simply means that something can be found in one of their newspapers about a reduction in Australia’s emissions. And, of course, it can’t .
As for what the editorial said about Direct Action:
“And Environment Minister Greg Hunt has the hazardous task of overseeing its untried replacement, an unloved $2.5 billion direct action fund cobbled together to burnish the Coalition’s climate credentials in early 2010. Ensuring this money leads to genuine carbon abatement rather than becoming yet another form of industry assistance — subsidising green projects that would have proceeded anyway — will be challenging.”
So, even the usual cheerleaders of the Abbott Government are calling direct action “unloved”.  Poor thing. We should remember it on Valentine’s Day and send it a card and some flowers.
And I would, except I don’t know where to send them because it doesn’t exist yet.
Ah well, maybe by 14th February!
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