Stumbling Backwards into the Future

I’m angry.

Scratch that. I’m furious.

An axe is about to crunch into the lives and careers of people whose work I value more than almost any in the world.

Australia is my home. Our society clings to the edges of a vast continent, one of sharp contrasts and harsh beauty. The wide land affords us riches, through agriculture and mining. Our very borders are defined and shaped by three mighty oceans. Water, and its scarcity, regulates life in Australia, human, plant and animal. And our atmosphere – that thin varnish that separates us from the cold vacuum of space – carries the mighty storms that sweep across the south and the drama of El Nino with its drought and fire.

Sunset Mountain

We have an almost miraculous network of publicly-accessible tools for finding and forecasting what we need to know about our weather, climate and oceans. Even with all the work that’s brought us to this point, those models and forecasts can still be spectacularly wrong. This is hard science.

That’s why I’m speechless to read that the CSIRO is cutting 300 jobs in those very scientific divisions – Oceans and Atmosphere, and Land and Water – leaving a barely-functional skeleton of staff.

The official explanation points to a shift from basic climate science toward climate adaptation and alternative research areas – cybersecurity and robotics (with our internet? Ha). The CSIRO has seen its budget slashed under the Abbott, and now Turnbull, governments, and I pity those having to make hard decisions about what gets the chop.

This smacks of a small-minded and short-sighted vision of the world, and disrespect for Australia’s trajectory into the future. Earth is the only home we have. Humanity wields more technology, more power, more population, than ever before, and we know that systems we rely on planet-wide are teetering toward collapse. We must do better, know more, and damage less. The notion that we have ‘done enough’ to understand our climate – Australia, of all countries, after Paris, of all times – is a humourless joke.

At an individual level, lives and livelihoods are at stake. A grim picture faces Aussie farmers, already a community under incredible strain. For a generation of aspiring scientists, hearts and minds ready to reach out to the world around them, news like this dashes their hopes, and they dejectedly apply to institutions on the other side of the planet. I cannot imagine the morale of the hard-working CSIRO experts whose jobs have been pulled from under them; the collective knowledge they’ve earned, the projects that will be abandoned, unfinished. My heart goes out to them.

Most of us walk backwards into the future – our past visible, unable to see what’s coming next. Our basic scientists are a tiny few who point their headlights outward and forward into the huge expanse of the unknown, not for profit, but to understand what is there and, perhaps, help us choose our path. These cuts dim those lights and blind our society as we hurtle into a long, dark future.

A Storm Is Coming

A gathering storm. Would you turn your back?

Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Even the pessimists got it wrong

This is one of those “you bunch of bastards” moments.

Moments that the people on the right don’t want you to have.

It’s not that I’m against people having lots of money, or even a disparity in wealth. I get by just fine on what I have. But money is power, and the amount of money in the top 20% – hell, the top 1% – is enough to bend society and democracy and markets and business and media. And that’s dangerous.

In other news, a picture!

Litoria Fallax

Categories: Politics, Problems, Videos | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

Can science save us?

(h/t to Mark Whatmore for putting me on to this)

Props to the University of Bristol – I like seeing real scientists posed big questions. Knowledge in general, and science specifically, is inextricably linked to the power which is wielded in society. It can be more or less explicit in its link – the atomic bomb is an obvious example of scientific power in many ways. A different example is the ‘modern’ approach to agriculture. Knowledge and power play out in an enormously complicated global food web. It ranges from the most local level – the battle of managing a crop to maturation in an unstable environment with pests and other challenges – to the global market in food that most of us have only the faintest awareness of.

I’m about to run off to see the Mad Caddies, so I can’t elaborate further, but it’s a thought provoking question: scientific knowledge has been immensely positive AND negative so far; how can we push the balance towards the positive in the future? Can science actually save us?

Categories: Politics, Problems, Science, Videos | 2 Comments

A stone to mark two miles

Two years ago, I was packing my bags, having woken in the wake of a going-away party. I was soon to board the longest flight of my life, taking me to a new home and my first glimpse of squirrels.

Much has changed. I work in a job which sounds almost too wondrous to be true. Ensconced in the London Science Museum, I am working with spaceships and zombies and particle accelerators. My colleagues are as good a bunch as I could ask for and I have a world of intriguing events and people closer than ever. I’ve had the opportunity to work on the first international Green Steps course, and had an injection of motivation from that.

But the world has changed too. That time, two years ago, held political optimism for those on the left and the environmental movement. Strange but interesting coalitions were in power in Australia and the UK, and Obama hadn’t yet lost the House. Now, somehow, we’ve not just gone backward, but aggressively so. Politicians who are shamelessly selfish and shortsighted are not just visible, but thriving. And it’s against a backdrop of global warning signs, loud and clear, that societies and the planet are ready to boil over.

See that blue line? That’s unprecedented. And it matters. It matters a lot.

An important and deep part of me is not happy. How can I be when the world I love, the world I want to experience and share with the people in it, is being run even further off the track by the rich and powerful?

Maybe one day I’ll be able to make peace with that voice inside me. But for now, all I can do is draw motivation from it. So, I am using the anniversary of my leaving Australia to set a few goals. They sound a bit outlandish to me now, but I want to know if I can practice what I preach.

In the next two years, I will:

  • Track my carbon footprint for a year and keep it below the UK average
  • Spend at least 3 months experiencing cultures outside my own
  • Work on environmental projects whenever I can
  • Leave no stone unturned exploring what this old megacity can offer, because I’ll be leaving before two years are out
  • Be politically active
  • Move gracefully through middle age of my science communicating life (I kid. Kind of)

I was asked in an interview in May where I saw myself in 5 years. It was impossible for me to answer. Australia is probably the bookmakers’ favourite, at least in the country stakes. But beyond that? I can’t even hazard a guess. This is a post, a stone by the roadside, I’ll look back on to see how much has changed.

An empty wave on a secluded beach

Maybe somewhere like this. Yeah, I can picture that lifestyle… shhh, not telling you where.

Oh, and see Samsara. It will blow your mind, reassemble it, shatter it, glue it back together, then vapourise it.

Do it now. Use Google and find out if it’s playing at a cinema near you, steel yourself, and keep your eyes and mind open. I’ll explain why later.

Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Thoughts | 2 Comments


Two things that aroused my ire this week: traders at Barclays and the Texas GOP.

The second ones I knew were crazy, it just wasn’t crystal clear HOW crazy. The first I knew were cheating, sociopathic criminal scum, but it wasn’t clear that they were also shameless and arrogant.

I want to launch them from a cannon.

Let’s start with the funny one. The Texas GOP released their 2012 platform document. It’s in PDF form, which is a little annoying, but as far as I know it’s not a joke. Here’s some highlights that suggest otherwise:

We strongly support the immediate repeal of the Endangered Species Act. We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished.

We affirm that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Additionally, we oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values. … We urge immediate repeal of the Hate Crimes Law. Until the Hate Crimes Law is totally repealed, we urge the Legislature to immediately remove the education curriculum mandate and the sexual orientation category in said Law.

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

We unequivocally oppose the United States Senate’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We support abolishing all federal agencies whose activities are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution; including the Departments of Education and Energy.

We support the immediate approval and construction of the Keystone XL and other pipelines that will reduce our reliance on imported oil and natural gas from unstable or unfriendly countries. We support immediate resumption of deep water drilling and production in the Gulf of Mexico. We support land drilling and production operations including hydraulic fracturing.

That’s not even including the stuff about religion, or returning to the gold standard, or abolishing income tax. Basically, they want children to be raised as mindless, subservient zombies, in a society where it’s OK to bash homos and rape the environment wholesale in the most damaging and profitable short-term way.

I repeat: they’re not joking.

Oh, and I missed one. The one about taking away voting rights for black people.

Then there was the Libor scandal. For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Google will take you to summaries of what happened. In my basic understanding, Libor is the London Interbank Offered Rate, basically an average of interest rates being offered by big banks in the City for certain periods of time (eg one month, three months). It informs the offered interest rate for many money-lending/trading organisations around the world. The banks in the City submit the interest rates they’re offering each day, and the figure is calculated from the average.

Barclays traders were revealed, via scandalously blunt and cavalier emails, to be requesting (and getting) the ‘submitters’ to just change their numbers, to drag the average up or down in their favour. Of course, Barclays are the ones who have been caught, but it’s probably global and industry-wide.

“Hi Guys, We got a big position in 3m libor for the next 3 days. Can we please keep the libor fixing at 5.39 for the next few days. It would really help. We do not want it to fix any higher than that. Tks a lot.” (September 13, 2006, Senior Trader in New York to Submitter)

The traders, in cahoots with the submitters, were blatantly manipulating what should have been a relatively straightforward and transparent number for their benefit. It’s immoral behaviour, showing a complete disregard for anything except swelling their own profit, with the law or other people being damned in the process. A corporate culture in which behaviour like this is not just acceptable, but celebrated and rewarded, is rotten to its core. It sickens me. I cannot wait for the finance sector to properly implode, and while I know many ordinary people will probably lose a lot in the process, having the finance industry dominating our political and economic system fills our society with a corrupt stench that even ‘record fines’ (amounting to a day or two’s profit) cannot mask.

I’m going to do some research into the banks on offer, and move my money to the one I suspect has the least to do with these things (perhaps the co-operative?). It’s a trivial amount of money, but I can’t stomach dealing with companies that employ monsters.

Categories: Politics, Problems | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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