Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Leading for at least the life span of a tree

Mitigation and Adaptation used to be two words that were heard together twenty years ago when ever climate change was mentioned. Mitigation was the high road – it was the route towards fixing the planet and making amends for unintended consequences of humanity’s management of the earth’s natural resources. It is also a "public good" where everyone benefits even if they personally don't pay for it. Diplomats and Crusaders tried to rally people around the hard but worthwhile task of pulling greenhouse gasses back out of the atmosphere; reducing the latent energy in the atmosphere; quieting the predicted storm. Political and even moral might was needed to follow this path.

Adaptation was an admission that climate change had already gone too far for humanity to be immune to the consequences. Already the growing seasons were affected and the heat of summer was that bit hotter than in the past. Already the rainfall patterns were changing and what once was a 1 in 20 year event was happening every 10 years or worse, and certainly more often than our infrastructure was designed for. Adaptation was reinforcing the bridges to withstand the more intense rain; it was building bigger dams to hold water for the longer periods between rain; it was building new or reinforced sea walls to withstand more powerful waves and higher tides. Insurance and re-insurance companies adapted their policies, payouts and risk profiles because their accountants and statisticians saw the numbers and knew the damage was already happening. Even businesses are adapting - diversifying their inputs and their employee skills and, of course, increasing their insurance coverage. Adaptation: reacting to something that was clearly happening.
Trees in a courtyard - beauty, cooling in summer, improving health and sequestering carbon

Many Governments these days seem to be only interested in adapting to the immediate. This drought is now: how can we get hay to the starving cattle? This heatwave is now: how can we keep the electricity flowing into the air conditioners? These frosts that are occurring out of season: how can we keep the gas flowing into the heaters?  Mitigation, that high road that implies hope, is rarely mentioned any more. “Don’t speak of climate change mitigation” we are told “because we are too busy fighting this unusually frequent drought or this unusually early fire season or this electricity generating plant that fails in this unusual heat, or these power lines that blew down in this unprecedented gale”. It seems we have admitted defeat on mitigation.

Trees dying in the heat, new species moving in ...adapting

Have our governing classes conceded that they lack political skill or even the capacity for leadership when it comes to mitigation? Some pretend that climate change isn’t real in a vane attempt to salve their bruised ego; to avoid acknowledging they are weak and unable to lead. “Look at me” they cry, “we are adapting - here is $100 off your electricity bill” which, if you had air conditioning installed in your house, would allow you an extra month of cooling over the longer, hotter summer. Our governing classes all have air conditions are are no doubt confident that can ride out the heat in their cooled homes and offices, but they don’t acknowledge that they are simply moving the heat from inside their houses to the outside, adding to that heat load of those who cannot afford air conditioning. “Look at me, I can offer a loan to buy hay which you can pay back once the climate fixes itself up”. They don’t say where they’ll get the hay for next year’s starving cattle. They don’t want you to look to them about helping the climate fix itself back up, or about your increasing insurance premiums, or even about staying cool when you can’t afford to buy that air conditioner.   Instead they say, just concentrate on today’s adaptation or the limited range of ways of adapting to the most current crises caused by climate change – electricity and hay!

Sometimes though it is possible to both mitigate and adapt, but it needs leaders who can think beyond the election cycle, or at least beyond the news cycle. Maybe we need the return of career Diplomats who see much further than the next vote. Or maybe business leaders who plan for their businesses to be still viable and profitable long after our powerless politicians have tried to distract us with a few coins of electricity and hay.

City authorities often have longer vision and set in place policies and actions which bare fruits well into the future. Local governments are stepping out - ignoring the larger state and federal governments who have rejected their original role for large scale, nation building and strategic planning. City authorities are not wasting efforts on getting a slight reduction in electricity to benefit the well off in the midst of hotter, drier, harsher cities.  City authorities are planting trees - appropriate trees that will shade and cool everybody - rich and poor - even if not before the next election.  Trees are also known to reduce human stress, which might be very important when dealing with people who are worried about the lack of leadership. Simultaneously, these trees capture carbon from the atmosphere and can therefore directly help mitigate climate change. But trees are long lived, and any tree planted today may expected to be living in a city both hotter and drier in 50 years time. Those who support the planting of trees are looking beyond the immediate, they are leaders who are advancing both mitigation and adaptation for the good of all.

Trees selected to mitigate and help our cities adapt to climate change must also be able to survive the changes over the coming decades. Wise leaders in our cities are exploring the opportunities for different tree species and different site preparations to survive, cool and reduce stress in our cities for the future. So that is one other thing that trees can provide – Hope. Hope for a future and the return of true leadership!

A plantation of rare and endangered trees near the center of Canberra. Saving trees, giving city dwellers shade, health and cooling while sequestering carbon.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Words of marriage

Do you remember the words in your marriage ceremony? "I do." No, not those two - everybody knows those.

Do you remember the Minister or the Priest saying that in the presence of God and all these witnesses, you and your mate had promised - pledged even - to love each other; to look after each other; and to care for children if so blessed with them? And do you remember the Minister or the Priest asking those in the congregation, those witnesses, whether they would support and encourage this newly married couple to fulfil their pledges? And the witnesses respond "We will".

That is a religious marriage: a commitment by two people to each other and any eventual children AND a commitment by the community to support and encourage them.

I never asked my Minister what would happen if the witnesses did not say "we will". Would my marriage be declared null and void if the witnesses said "we won't"? Did we no longer have to love and care for each other? I suppose the same goes for that angst-ridden question asked at this time in all those movies - "does anyone have a just reason as to why these two should not be joined in matrimony?" In the movies at least, the just reason turns out to be one of the couple is already married!  But what if the "reason" was that someone might feel uncomfortable watching us hold hands or kiss? What if the "reason" was that the congregation who said "we will" was not "big enough" ...whatever big enough means? Should the marriage, the promises and pledges, cease to exist? Is this what the "marriage" debate is all about at heart - what is a just reason for refusing a promise by two people to each other? Or what is the threshold minimum community who can support a couple in their pledges - is it enough if 51% of Australians say they will support a couple?

The legal issues are resolved already: two people, living together with joint commitments, are already in a de facto relationship and share joint legal responsibilities for each other. But without marriage, they miss out on the public acceptance and support of their promises to each other.

At this time our community needs to say "yes, we will".

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Education? There's an App for that!

There is no doubt that digital and modern technologies have disrupted our modes of teaching. The resources and inputs into teaching have changed to incorporate computer aided approaches, flipped classrooms, mobile phone enabled interactions, video capturing of lectures, digital whiteboards and enhanced realities. The old "Sage on the Stage" has been pushed into becoming the "Guide on the Side" or possibly even further out of the picture by the technology revolution. And yet, the national scores in NAPLAN and our competitive education ranking against other countries are slipping. First responders to this comparative crisis are calling for the return of traditional teachers with their "3R's", or the importation of the world's elite teachers to up skill our home grown teachers, or maybe just a return to the pre-disruption days.

But rather than mourning the disruption of the inputs, perhaps we should be disrupting the outputs from our academic systems. Schools, as places where children were collected and taught by a teacher, evolved as farming communities developed. Children could be taught en masse because those farming communities needed numbers of people to do the same activities again and again to maintain the crops or the live stock. If all the graduates from the school were the same each year, the farms, and subsequently the factories after the industrial revolution, could use them as interchangeable inputs to keep the economy going.

Things have changed though. Certainly, the inputs to schools have improved: from slates to pen and paper and now to iPads and Tablets. The schools are bigger and air conditioned and the teachers are professionally trained. But the outputs may not have fundamentally changed over the decades - successful schools still produce young men and women who can follow instructions; read, write and do arithmetic; and hopefully be ready to enter the workplace.  Our new teaching technologies might help these students to achieve all these things even better, but maybe, given all the other disruption caused by our technology, they may not need to do them any more.

Take "spelling" as a point - obviously still one of those fundamental skills our young men and women need. In my own primary school days, I regularly got an "A" for spelling. But my "A" was for absent! I was a terrible speller - so bad I literally made myself sick. Every Friday morning I had an asthma attack and sat fighting for breath while the others in my class spelled the lists of 20 words memorised for that week. Wouldn't happen today. Today, 2 year olds just have fun while learning to spell on their digital devices - catching monkeys or whatever while typing out words and being rewarded with exciting sounds. Don't get me wrong, I worked hard at spelling and my parents and teachers were hard working hands on too, drilling me regularly and using both carrots and sticks. Didn't work though, and I don't think monkeys or iPads when I was 2 would have worked for me either. But I can write now - and the spelling works - but this is due to other digital tools that are available. I can usually get close enough to a word for the predictive text to list a few relevant options for me to click and/or check with the online thesaurus to ensure I have the right one. But when I cannot get that close, I simply and literally say "Hey Siri, define sigh-cology" and back comes "Define psychology: the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context..." A quick bit of copying and pasting and there you are: spelling skills unnecessary. Just think of all that time I could have saved and all those panic episodes I could have avoided if only I had known that I would not need to try (and fail) to memorise all those words when I was in primary school!

Despite the spelling I could read well. But some of my school colleagues were not so fortunate and went though similar reading-oriented wasted efforts and panic. Now "...there's an app for that!" Seriously. You can point your iPhone at all a sign, some text or a book and your device will read it for you, complete with definitions if you want. Auto translations from hundreds of languages are also available if you ask. Similarly, mathematics and science, history and geography apps abound - if it is data-based then there is likely an App that can extract it. Does NAPLAN still score primary school children on their memorisation of spelling, their reading, ability to recall names of long rivers, or even shortcuts to integrate a mathematical function,  in the absence of any technology more advanced than a pen? Why? Do we need that sort of "output" from our schools any more?

"But what if the technology fails" I hear the traditionalists cry. Well frankly, if our computer networks collapse badly enough that the above technology becomes permanently unavailable then I don't think we need to worry about NAPLAN scores. Our commercial, retail and of course social systems are becoming so reliant on these digital technologies that society is simply assuming they must be there to build on. WiFi and cheap Internet devices may soon become a basic right for all - already free WiFi is commonly available over entire city areas and many schools provide or require all students to have a device. So what sort of graduates do we need for the future? We don't need large numbers who can all do the same thing adequately- the farms and factories now only need a relatively small number of people to supervise the machines. We don't need large numbers of humans to follow instructions well- even present day robots are good at following instructions meticulously.

We need graduates who are good at one thing or passionate about one thing. Basic economics suggests that even if you are good at several things, it is best to focus on your best even if your best is not as good as some one else's second best. Graduating classes, with each individual having a passion or just 1 thing they are good at, supported by technology that allows them to communicate and access the vast historical wealth of human knowledge, may be all we need from our schools. A massive diversity of passionate individuals, supported by the technology, cannot help but create new services and new opportunities that will not be subject to automation or replacement by robots. As a society, we don't need thousands of pure mathematicians or thousands of historians. Just a few passionate ones may do for the country. But we may need thousands of new options and opportunities for the future generations whose old jobs and services have been disrupted by the digital world. That is what we need from our schools

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The life of an average tree

How long do you think trees live on average? You know that some trees can live for centuries - the Methuselah Bristlecone pine is over 4,800 years old, but even that age has been eclipsed. In 2010, the claim for the oldest living tree was more than 9,500 years for a tree that has a single root system that old but which periodically pushes up new trunks that only last a few hundred years. But if we count different tree trunks with a common root as a tree, then the oldest and possibly biggest living organism in the world must be the Pando quaking aspen of Utah, USA. The Pando is a single genetic individual, currently more like a forest with over 47,000 trunks, whose genetic makeup could be up to one million years old!

Wollemi Pine clones in the National Arboretum Canberra. How "old" are these?

And what about the Wollemi Pine, also known as the Dinasour tree? There are less that 100 trunks standing in the wild and it seems they are all clones having vegetatively reproduced somewhat like the Pando quaking aspen. Until recently we thought the Wollemi pine were extinct with pollen records disappearing after their hey days 121 million years ago. Are these remaining trunks still a single genetic individual from something started that long ago?

But on average? Probably the average life span of a tree is less than 2 or 3 years.

If some trees can live hundreds, thousands or even for millions of years how can the average be so short? Well, thousands, millions even tens of millions don't live more than a few months. They germinate and are eaten. Or they germinate but there isn't enough rain or sunlight or soil to keep them going and they die before the next rain. They can even germinate but then be poisoned by their parents via a process called auto-allelopathy to make sure they don't crowd the parents out. Even when the seedlings do survive and start to grow, there may be thousands of them per hectare with only room for, at most, a couple of hundred after a few decades. So, they compete for the space and most are supressed by those trees which eventually dominate the site. The supressed ones die during a stage called stem exclusion. So, a lot of trees die very young while very few make it to old age - making the average life span quite short.

But the story doesn't end there. While above ground the trees appear to be competing and even killing each other off, there may be a different story below ground. While exploring all the soil available to them, roots often come into contact with each other ...and often these roots fuse or graft themselves together. If enough roots graft together, sharing the photosynthates produced by the leaves above and the water and nutrients gathered below, how long is it before they cease to be separate individuals? Maybe all forests end up similar to the Pando Quaking Aspen, sharing a common root system even though there are hundreds of separate individual trunks with different genes above ground.

Does it even make sense to talk about the age of a tree in a forest anymore? It is like the human body and its cells. No cell in your body is more than 7 years old even if "you" are 50 years old. Trees, like cells, come and go but the organism can go on.

Happy New Year.


Wednesday, 2 December 2015


Is it ok to be species'ist - to advance one species or retard another just because of its species?

We seem to have concluded that racism and sexism - advancing or retarding individuals just because of their race or gender - is not ok. But what about whole species?

Species'ism seems to happen a lot in nature. In fact, a colleague and I recently found that one species of tree has been comprehensively retarded over 2,000 square kilometres of the Cooma-Monaro plains of southern NSW. Every individual Eucalyptus viminalis - Ribbon Gum - is either dead or dying in this extensive area. The Ribbon Gum was an iconic tree of this region, common on the rocky knolls and hills around fertile grazing and farming land. You can still see healthy trees in the region ...but if it is healthy it is not a Ribbon Gum.

We don't know why this one species is dying while the snow gums and other trees around are not. We do know insects are involved, but they are not the sole or even primary cause. We suspect that drought or changes to the rainfall patterns or to minimum and maximum temperature regimes might be affecting this one species to a much greater extent than others. There may even be some impact on this one species caused by changes in the local fire regime - too few, or too hot, or just too different to the pre-European fires. We do know that the once extensive stands of Ribbon Gum are all dead. We know this species won't be coming back at least for quite some time if ever. Nature, or the heavens, or even climate change has practiced species'ism to a fatal extent here.

We also know that something else will take over the place these trees previously occupied - something else will use the sun, the water and the nutrients that those Ribbon Gums used to use. Do we care what takes over? Do we want to promote one species over another? Should we actively intervene by planting our preferred species or be passive and just let any local "disturbance adapted" species win this 2,000 square kilometre home?

If a species that we do not want takes over this land, we define it as a "weed" and happily practice species'ism. But why should we choose not to want a species that can grow where Ribbon Gum clearly can no longer survive? The reasons for species'ism vary from the new species not providing the ecological services we are used to, through to aesthetics, and even that the new species are just "not from around here".

All trees provide a range of ecological services to different extents. They all produce oxygen, they all sequester carbon, they all slow and filter water. Some trees are more preferred as the habitat of birds or aerborial mammals while others are better at sheltering ground and bark dwelling insects. Some do more while some do less, but none will do exactly what a stand of Ribbon Gum used to do.

Aesthetics too are confusing. Humans tend to like what they are used to, and they have been used to Ribbon Gums in these lands. Although these trees have been dying for a decade now, so maybe the humans travelling through this region think dead trees are attractive!

Like racism, the argument that species are just "not from around here" is very often the only reason given for Species'ism. Often passionate arguments are made that only local species, grown from locally collected seeds should be planted in any restoration or revegetation project. But, the local Ribbon Gum will no longer survive. So, do we plant Ribbon Gum from areas far away that might cope with whatever killed the current trees - the natural range for Ribbon Gum is extensive and goes from Tasmania through Victoria and up the coast of NSW and someone could probably trial a huge selection if there was time. Does that violate the "not from around here" bias? But if we don't really know what killed the current Ribbon Gum, how could we really risk planting more Ribbon Gums? Is a Ribbon Gum grown from a seed collected in Tasmania more "local" than seed from another species of Eucalyptus grown only 10's or 100's of kilometres away from the dead Monaro plains? How important is it that the species remains "pure"?

How do we value the trees and their ecosystems services and aesthetics? How do we balance our understanding of the history or iconic nature of one species with the risk its time has come! How do we choose between species? These are not simple questions and they can't be answered by by scientists or economists or conservationists or engineers or community activists or even artists working alone.


Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Three Trillion Trees

A new report out of Yale University and published in Nature concludes that, globally, there are over 3 trillion trees alive today! This figure, they say, is substantially greater than the previous estimates of only 400 billion trees. However, the study also concludes that the world is loosing 15 million of these trees every year. Some really big numbers there, and given that measuring forests is actually one of my areas of research, I have had my 5 minutes of "fame" on national radio and TV talking about these numbers.

Is the beauty or the value of this scene related to the number of trees?

"How did previous researchers get it so wrong?" is the question I get asked, often with the follow up of "does this new information change anything?" Well, I am not entirely positive that the new estimate of 3 trillion trees is totally right either, but don't think details about non-normal error distributions and back-transformations would make anybody other than statisticians, biometricians or mensurationists sit up and listen - so I won't talk about that here. But if the differences between the estimates are real, it is probably more likely to be due to previous studies not being interested in the number of trees - they simply estimated that for completeness. "But why wouldn't we be interested in the number of trees?" I sense you asking. The number of trees is only useful when you know the size and distribution of those trees, so most previous studies have concentrated on estimating total biomass, carbon or volume of the trees and mapping that. These total values essentially are the result of multiplying number and average size together and so total biomass or volume give you both number and average size in the one figure. A forest with 10,000 small trees may have the same biomass as another with only 800 large trees, so loosing 800 trees may be important in one forest but not in another. However, a forest with a large biomass will tend to have greater biodiversity, stored (sequestered) carbon and other ecosystem services than a forest with low biomass. Studies of isolated trees in farm paddocks and urban areas demonstrate that even a single tree of the right size and in the right place may have substantially greater value to ecosystem services, birds, animals and even aesthetics than hundreds of trees elsewhere. With trees, it is not always the case that one plus one equals two!

The number of trees also changes substantially in any patch of forest over time. In eucalyptus forests after a major fire, thousands or even tens of thousands of trees may germinate and race towards the heavens. However, as early as three years of age, these trees will start to compete and many will die so by about 80 years, there may only be about 300 - 800 trees left living. Then however, other types of trees (shade tolerant ones) might get involved and start growing underneath these surviving eucalyptus giants, so the number of trees start increasing again. Given enough time, those original eucalypts will die of old age or wind and fire damage (number goes down again) which might allow a whole new race of young trees for the heavens (increasing the number). While the number of trees goes up and down through this natural sequence, the total biomass and even the total biodiversity tends to always increase. So, it is better to measure biomass than number of trees because it is more closely related to what we really want to know about, and it is also easier because we don't have to worry about the noisy increases and deceases in number through time.

So, was there any advantage in undertaking and publishing this study on the number of trees? It may be simply that people have a better understanding for numbers of a count of trees rather than the area in hectares of forest or the biomass in tonnes. People might be able to connect better with the idea of 15 million trees being lost each year to agriculture whereas they cannot come to terms with thousands of hectares undergoing land use change. People in general are not too good at estimating area once it gets beyond, say, a football field (do you know how big a football field is?). We may be even worse when estimating weights - how many tonnes is a Blue Whale, so how many equivalent Blue Whales are cleared for agriculture this year? On the other hand, do you really appreciate how many zeros there are in a Trillion?

The Nature article itself stated that civil societies resonate with programs like the "Billion Tree" or even "Million Tree" urban planting goals, so putting a count of the number of trees might help civil society to comprehend the size and importance of the forest. This is probably the greatest benefit of the study - and certainly the reason I was invited to the TV and Radio for my bit of fame. Fame and civic awareness of forests are certainly good things even if forest ecologists, scientists and foresters wont really care about the final big number.

Me at the Canberra studio, waiting for the Prime Minister of Australia to finish so I can have my say on trees.



Sunday, 21 June 2015

800 year celebration

This year, many are celebrating the 800'th year anniversary of the Magna Carta. While many claim this is the start of modern Law (at least, the British sort), it was a 'win' for the Barons over the King: the King was now answerable to the Law and the Barons, and not 'just' to God at The Day of Final Judgement. Actually a lot of merchants won too - it was their assistance that resulted in the Barons getting the upper hand, so they were rewarded.
But the document that was signed (or for the pedant, sealed) 800 years ago offered a lot for the struggling peasant too. So much in fact, that many of these benefits for the peasants were separated from the "Great Charter" into a companion document called the "Charter of the Forest". The forests were vital for the peasants - they used its resources for energy (fire wood); grazing; fodder; collecting food like berries and mushrooms; and building. Access to the forest could even be thought of as a medieval version of the dole - if you had no home and no family support, you could meet the minimum of your needs from the forest. But the Kings had been progressively alienating the peasants from their forests and claiming more and more to the sole use of the sovereign. Robin Hood was famous for killing the foresters who were enforcing the King's rules as much as for his giving stollen goods to the poor! The Charter of the Forests returned to the users of the forest their rights of agistment, estover, pannage and turbury (or rights to graze sheep, pasture pigs, collect firewood and cut turf). A recent study showed that peasant and small family groups can continue to exercise these right for generations without destroying the forest.
Collecting sticks in a public forest. Firewood, shelters or just a game?

So, how are things today 800 years after the The Great and The Forest Charters were sealed? Well, the Law is firmly established with respected and noble traditions. The Barons have changed from being owners of vast tracks of land to being owners of vast mineral reserves and coal deposits, or chains of factories, newspaper and entertainment services, while the merchant class still funds the changes in the modern world. But the peasants or the free men and women (in our modern parlance - the taxpayers and the struggling mums and dads) do not appear to have been able to take up their benefits from forests. In some states of Australia, over 50% of the forests are reserved for the sovereign (government) and the peasants may only look, or if they are young and fit, walk but not touch. Modern-day Barons may take timber or graze industrial scale flocks of cattle or even mine in the rest of the forest, but individual peasants can't remove or use anything to meet their personal or family needs. In fact, there is increasing pressure to keep peasants and people of all sorts away from the forests altogether - keep them corralled in articifial castles cut off from the outside world.
Has the Charter of the Forest ever been repealed? Is it too late to exercise the right to take the forests back from the Barons and the Government? The peasants and free men and woman of the modern world cannot live in the forests full time any more, but they can reconnect to their heritage and their nature if they occasionally exercise their right to collect a bit of fire wood for themselves and maybe BBQ a meal or two. We should certainly have as much right to that as we do to receiving the dole. Might be cheaper and healthier for everyone too.
So, this year, celebrate the Magna Carta with a walk through your forest.
A medieval forest, from Livre de chasse (1387) by Gaston III, Count of Foix.