Problems

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

The future is a little bit broken

“The future is not what we expected it to be.” Mark Shayler, opening the RSA’s Redesigning the Future event, didn’t pull punches. “We’ve become lazy – we define ourselves by the ownership of products.”

I’m typing this on a 2009 MacBook Pro. The machine is almost indistinguishable from thousands of others, a metallic clone whose glowing white apple marks me as a ‘Mac person’ when I take it out in public. But there’s subtle evidence on its hard shell that this machine has shared some of the most important moments of my life.

See here, near the bottom right corner of the touch screen – chipped metal where I dropped the laptop onto the bitumen of a 24-hour McDonald’s carpark after a night of red-eye driving in remote North Queensland. Try the useless eject button, the dead DVD drive rarely an inconvenience but often a reminder of how technology is moving on – is there still a DVD in there? I’m not sure.

A 1996 ad comparing the style of PC and Mac users.

Mac vs PC, from 1996. Image: Flickr/Adam Crowe

And just now, while inspecting my companion of the past three years, I’ve noticed that two of the ‘feet’ are missing, opening small holes into the black-boxed interior, one revealing a sticker in a language I can’t read.

Could I cast this laptop aside in favour of a new one? Send it to join what Rich Gilbert labelled an “end of life centre,” where “a mountain of dead products wait to be collectively reprocessed”? Or, as Jonathan Chapman put it, a landfill that “is more of an orphanage than a graveyard, a place where most things could still work – a home for unwanted things.”

A landfill fire with a prominently flying american flag

A landfill fire at Greensburg, US. Image: Flickr/Jon Person

At some point, this computer will stop working, or I’ll replace it. But what do I do with it then? Staggering percentages of the products we buy end up either gathering dust or in landfill. These objects are the manifestation of raw resources clawed from our environment, shipped, moulded, refined, designed and sold. The part of the object’s life that we see – the part it shares with us – is a fraction of the time from its inception to eventual disposal or, in some cases, recycling or repurposing.

I’m attached to this machine. It’s stamped indelibly with marks that are meaningful to me, and I’d be sad to see it go, even though I can resurrect its software perfectly on new hardware with Time Machine. But we are increasingly educated to value newness, the latest and largest and highest resolution. How is it possible for this consumer ethos to survive in a world where resource scarcity looms, the price of materials is rising, the world’s population and spending power is booming, and our ability to capture value from our immense waste stream is still so limited?

Jonathan Chapman summarised it succinctly. “The sustainability crisis is a crisis of perception, as much to do with the human condition as it is about plastic, metals and carbon dioxide.” I think a good place to start is to look at our own relationship with stuff. What do you buy? What do you value? What do you keep? What do you get rid of, and how? And what would you do if the cornucopia of goods available in the world today, available at the click of a button, dried up?

How might ‘you’ change if the stuff in your life was suddenly gone?

Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

An enchanting ode to the stars

That’s what it is. Try it in full screen.

One of the things I’ve found to be subtle, but difficult, about London is the featureless orange glow of the night. Only the brightest stars and planets can force their light through the smog and compete with the millions of bulbs. Oh, to be in the desert, the dry crystal air adding only a gentle ripple to the canopy of diamonds…

Categories: Problems, Videos | Tags: , | 3 Comments

I need fresh air. Please help.

Despite my inattention, this year my blog is more popular than ever. It’s because of this.

I need a new question. I need to answer a question. The question needs to be universal, it needs to be something that elicits emotions (preferably not disgust) and it needs to be one that hasn’t been answered hundreds of times on the internet already.

For that, I need your help.

What do you want to know, but have never been (a) motivated enough to find out or (b) brave enough to ask? I will pick the best response using completely arbitrary criteria, and do whatever’s necessary to uncover the state of the art. Shoot!

A lady with a cereal box on her head

Go on, just ask.

Categories: communication, Fun Things On Land, Problems, Puzzles, Science | Tags: | 7 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

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