Friday, December 07, 2012

IFSA Wrap-up - Great cartoons

Post-symposia greetings from the IFSA 2012 Local Organizing Committee

"Dear collegaues.
The local organizing committee wish to thank you all for a very rewarding and satisfying symposia. It was a great joy and inspiration for us to be with you during the four days of the symposia in Aarhus. We hope that you all got back home without any trouble. Even though that we are very enthusiastic about how IFSA 2012 went along, there might be things that could have improved your experience at the conference - there might also be things which actually worked well and was worth considering on another occastion. If you have any comments on our organization of the symposia, we would very much appreciate your perspective on what we should learn from the symposia. Please send us an email at with your comments.

At the closing session, the Danish cartoonist Niels Roland presented his drawings inspired by the issues discussed at IFSA 2012. You can now see
Rolands closing session drawings on Youtube. We hope that you once again will enjoy Roland's satirical exploration of prominent issues discussed within the IFSA community. We are also working on supplying you with images from the symposia. We have of course been taking a lot of pictures, which will be uploaded shortly, but we will very much appreciate if you would share some of your own photos from the symposia - do not hesitate to send us copies of photos which you think should be shared among the other participants."

Water issues and food production systems

Recently in The Age  there was this stark warning:

' LEADING water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying the world's population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages'

The claims are from a report by Malin Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute.  Meawhile in the US, water issues are confronting many in light of the major drought. Work at the New England Complex Systems Institute claims that:

'Recent droughts in the midwestern United States threaten to cause global catastrophe driven by a speculator amplified food price bubble.'

For most Australian's the responses canvassed in the New York Times article are not new and much has been learnt in Australia about how to respond.  However, memories tend to be short; governments backtrack in the mistaken belief that it is possible to return to a 'past normality'.  Despite over 10 years of intense drought there is, in our Australian practices and institutional arrangements, still much room for improvement both now and into the future. In California half of summer domestic water use if for lawns water on lawns; Californians cannot imagine doing without them.  In Santa Fe lawns are prohibited.  In preparing for the future places like Melbourne would be better conceptualised as a semi-arid city and green, temperate grass lawns abandoned as well.

This issue, like any systemic issue has many facets.  I for one can no longer condone ruminant animal production practices (i.e., mainly cattle) that create biological inefficiencies of the sort associated with feeding concentrates and other human edible food to animals.  In San Francisco recently it was good to see many restaurants advertising on their menus that animal products were grass fed (which is what ruminants evolved to do - convert grass).   Australia should abandon all feedlot operations that have come to be developed around the spurious notion that rumen biological efficieny is the driving factor in production system development. As The Age article notes:
'Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in a climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One-third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.'  

Strict vegetarianism is probably not for everyone; an intermediate step could involve all, or some, of the following:
  1. reduce animal production that is dependent either directly or indirectly on irrigated production systems;
  2. reduce embodied-in-global-trade water exports in terms of crops used to feed animals - as is  typical of much of European agriculture - this could return more water to enviromental flows and protect areas in Brasil and Argentina from over exploitation and biodiversity loss;
Writing a Viewpoint in the latest edition of the Farmers Club Journal, Liz Earle, a co-founder of Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare, a comapny with over 500 staff and a multi-million pound turnover in over 100 countries says:

'I believe the best options for our health as well as our planet are red meats and dairy products from mainly grass and forage-led ruminat animals such as cows and sheep'.

Andrew Campbell in a series of articles points to the potential for systemic failure arising from Australia not continuing to invest in irrigation research for food production. I support fully his claims that:

'... the proposal that we simply shift our irrigated agriculture north “to where the water is” does not stand up to even a cursory analysis. Similarly, the suggestion we can cost-effectively pipe or pump or ship the water south “to where the people are” ignores basic physics and economics.'

However, I was not sure that he made the point strongly enough that water must be used for maximum biological as well as social efficiency - so no more irrigated dairy pastures or forage for feedlots and more opportunistic annual cropping please.

Not ethically defensible

Australia's policy position in relation to Sri Lanka has not been tenable for many years; in public policy terms it is a classic systemic failure.  More recently it has become a farce.   I am in agreement with Bruce Haigh: it's just not cricket playing with oppressive Sri Lanka writing in the most recent edition of Crikey when he says:

"Who would have thought that in the space of 17 years, Australia could have gone from being a leading champion in the worldwide fight to end the racial discrimination of apartheid to siding with the corrupt and venal government of Sri Lanka in the genocide of Tamils.

Australia has former prime minister John Howard to thank, with the raw racism and political expediency embodied in "we will decide who comes here", the policy of turning back the boats, mandatory detention and temporary protection visas -- all directed against asylum seekers. Unfortunately Labor prime ministers Rudd and Gillard embraced at first the essence, and now the substance of his policies."

The mainstream media and public in general are also lacking, seemingly, in awareness and discernment and thus responsible action.  Australia, and the rest of the world for that matter, should not be engaged in sporting ties of any sort with Sri Lanka; all future cricket matches should be cancelled until such time as responsible and ethical government returns.  

This article by Lyse Doucet Chief International Correspondent, BBC News says  it all:

"Hundreds of thousands of Tamils ended up trapped in a tiny strip of land.  The United Nations failed in its mandate to protect civilians in the last months of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, a leaked draft of a highly critical internal UN report says.

"Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings... during the final stages of conflict," it concludes.

The government and separatist Tamil rebels are accused of war crimes in the conflict, which ended in May 2009.

The war killed at least 100,000 people.

There are still no confirmed figures for civilian deaths in the last months of battle. A UN investigation said it was possible up to 40,000 people were killed in the final five months alone. Others suggest the number of deaths could be even higher. 

Former senior UN official Charles Petrie, who headed the internal review panel, told the BBC the "penultimate" draft the BBC has seen "very much reflects the findings of the panel". He is now in New York to present the report to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Sources say an executive summary, which sets out the panel's conclusions in stark terms, has been removed in a final report which will number about 30 pages.

There was no immediate response from the UN, which does not comment on leaked reports. But senior UN sources say the secretary general plans to publish the hard hitting review, and act on its wide-ranging recommendations in order to "learn lessons" and respond more effectively to major new crises such as Syria now confronting the international community. 

'Systemic failure'

The UN's investigation into its own conduct during the last months of the conflict says the organisation should in future "be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities".

It identifies "systemic failure" in a number of areas, and describes the internal UN crisis-management structure as "incoherent".

The panel questions decisions such as the withdrawal of UN staff from the war zone in September 2008 after the Sri Lankan government warned it could no longer guarantee their safety. 

Benjamin Dix, who was part of the UN team that left, says he disagreed with the pullout.

"I believe we should have gone further north, not evacuate south, and basically abandon the civilian population with no protection or witness," Mr Dix told the BBC.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians remained in the war zone, exploited by both sides: forcibly recruited by Tamil Tigers or used as human shields; or under indiscriminate government fire, or at risk of arrest.
"We begged them, we pleaded with them not to leave the area. They did not listen to us," said a Tamil school teacher now seeking asylum in Britain, who did not want to be named. "If they had stayed there, and listened to us, many more people would be alive today." 

Despite a "catastrophic" situation on the ground, this report bluntly explains that in the capital Colombo "many senior UN staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility - and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing them otherwise".

It says there was "a sustained and institutionalised reluctance" among UN personnel in Sri Lanka "to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist". 

'Culture of trade-offs'

Citing detailed records of meetings and reports, the review highlights how the UN did not publish mounting civilian casualty figures even though they had "been verified to a good standard". Under severe pressure from the Sri Lankan government, it also did not make clear most deaths were caused by government shelling of "no fire zones" designated as havens for civilians.
The government repeatedly denied it shelled civilian areas. 

How did the UN failure happen? The report explores at length how senior staff in Colombo "had insufficient political expertise and experience in armed conflicts and in human rights... to deal with the challenge that Sri Lanka presented", and were not given "sufficient policy and political support" from headquarters. It also points to the Sri Lankan government's "stratagem of intimidation", including "control of visas to sanction staff critical of the state".

The result was a UN system dominated by "a culture of trade-offs" - UN staff chose not to speak out against the government in an effort to try to improve humanitarian access. 

Edward Mortimer, a former senior UN official who now chairs the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, says UN staff left when the population needed them more than ever.

"I fear this report will show the UN has not lived up to the standards we expect of it and has not behaved as the moral conscience of the world," Mr Mortimer said.

"There was a responsibility to protect in Sri Lanka but unfortunately it didn't get publicity like in Libya. The north of Sri Lanka was destroyed field by field, street by street, hospital by hospital but we didn't get that kind of reaction - Sri Lanka doesn't have much oil and isn't situated on the Mediterranean."

There were no UN peacekeepers in Sri Lanka but this report says the UN should have told the world what was happening, and done more to try to stop it. 

In New York, "engagement with member states regarding Sri Lanka was heavily influenced by what it perceived member states wanted to hear, rather than by what member states needed to know if they were to respond".
During the last months of war, there was not a single formal meeting of the UN's top bodies.

The executive summary of the draft report highlights how "the UN struggled to exert influence on the government which, with the effective acquiescence of a post 9/11 world order, was determined to defeat militarily an organisation designated as terrorist". The Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, are a proscribed terrorist organisation in many capitals.
Frances Harrison, who has just written a book "Still Counting the Dead" on the last months of the war, told the BBC "the only way now for Ban Ki-moon to restore the UN's tattered credibility on Sri Lanka is to call an independent international investigation into the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in 2009". 

"What haunts me is the outcome of this dreadful conflict might - just might - have been different if the UN had at the time publicised the independent eyewitness testimony and casualty data its staff meticulously collected that indicated the bulk of killing was the result of government shelling," says the former BBC Sri Lanka correspondent.

Springer Books - Christmas Sale

My contact at Springer says:

'We've just been informed of the following Christmas sales initiative - we've not yet been told if there are any other sales in the pipeline.

Springer are offering a £20-off voucher on any eBook from from 10-26th December to all visitors. This is on-top of any other existing discount which the user may have (e.g.,. a Springer author 33%  discount).   From the 10th to 26th, those using this link will see the voucher applied during your session on the site.

The only stipulation is that the eBook can’t be £20 or less before the voucher is applied.'

Monday, December 03, 2012

In the Drakensbergs

Two days for muscle recovery was a small price to pay for doing the Tugela Gorge walk in the Royal Natal National Park in the central Drakensbergs.  It was also a delightful setting for designing and running an interactive session for about 50 people as part of the recent International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development: 

Ison, R.L, Pollard, S., Biggs, H. Du Toit, D., Colvin, J.D & Wallis, P. (2012) More Systemic, More Adaptive: The way Forward for Water Governance. Special Workshop Session, International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development, 7th November, Central Drakensburg, South Africa.

This session was very well received by those who attended. 

Foucauldian-style resistance

Foucault, that popular French theorist wrote of resistance in 1982:

"I would like to suggest another way to go further toward a new economy of power relations, a way which is more empirical, more directly related to our present situation, and which implies more relations between theory and practice. It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point. To use another metaphor, it consists of using this resistance as a chemical catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, and find out their point of application and the methods used."

More recently a journalist in the Scotsman newspaper wrote about her daughter trying to choose the best university to get her degree. In Scotland, she would not be charged fees but in England she would have to pay thousands of pounds in fees and finish with a large debt. However, the daughter thinks it might be better to go for a "top" university and pay the fees as it would get her a better job and there are more "top" universities in England than in Scotland to choose from. My friend and colleague Drennan Watson, in the spirit of resistance, wrote the following letter to the Scotsman paper in response to this issue:

Research no guide to educational standards
Published on Sunday 21 October 2012 19:17

Christine Jardine rightly focuses on the question for her daughter of “which university will provide the best springboard for her future” (Perspective, 17 October). But, mistakenly, she then focuses on the Times Higher Educational World Reputation Rankings as a guide.

This claims to assess universities on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook by drawing on the assessments by “senior, published academics”. Valid assessors of the quality of training of their graduates are their employers in government and industry and the graduates themselves. According to supporters of the Times’ system, the only graduates assessed are postgraduate students in the universities. Assessing educational performance on this small, non-random sector is statistically laughable.

 As Ms Jardine says: “Universities are judged across the world on their research record.” That is the problem. The idea that research output of a university is a measure of quality education and degree offered by it is bogus. Many a “distinguished” academic whose lectures appear baffling because he is brilliant is simply an incompetent communicator.

 Before gaining a university post in which research is a key activity, a candidate must gain a good, honours first degree then a PhD as a three-year training in research. The appointee is then unleashed to lecture and teach undergraduates with little or no training in education. The results are inevitable.

As an undergraduate, I ranked my lecturers competent if they could be heard beyond about the fourth row and then found intelligible by students when heard. One-third failed.

I taught in a range of universities and institutes of higher education in UK. The problem remains. Accounts from current students strongly indicate matters are worsening. Government, by scoring university performance basically on research output is making matters worse. I co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal Nature. That would merit points. I co-authored a 350-page, well-reviewed textbook for undergraduates, but that would merit none.

Ms Jardine is rightly concerned at the need to properly fund education in universities, particularly in the face of the rise in student numbers. Equally important is to introduce proper training in educational skills among those paid to teach our undergraduates. Government should insist on it as a condition of funding. Research and education are equally difficult and complex activities requiring, to a considerable extent, different skills and personal qualities – frequently not found in the same person, particularly in academics. What other profession would be permitted to exercise such a critically important, skilled, social function without proper training and proof of performance?

We do not trust the education of children in primary and secondary school years to untrained, unassessed staff. Why do we do it to them in vital years of adult education?

R Drennan Watson
Forbes Alford, Aberdeenshire

Vale Frank Fisher

Life certainly has its circularities.  Last week whilst cleaning out my office in the Menzies Building at Monash University (Clayton) I came across notes that I had made when Frank presented a talk at the University of Sydney on the 4th August 1988.  I noted that Frank came from the Graduate School of Environmental Sciences at Monash and that he had formerly been an Electrical Engineer.  My notes are an eclectic array of terms that have littered my own writing and scholarship over most of the intervening time.  Examples include: '3rd generation thinking'; 'epistemology'; 'reductionism'; 'utilitarianism'; 'understanding comes from interaction with others'; 'dialectic'; 'the edge of madness - feeling an indoor plant to see if it is real'.

As outlined in an earlier post Frank died from complications associated with an inoperable brain tumour on 21st August 2012.  Since his death there has been a very moving public memorial service - more a celebration than a mourning - in a packed BMW Edge at Federation Square in Melbourne. Also a launch of the ebook 'Everyday Transcendence: The Influence of Frank Fisher' that was put together and completed (if not published) just before Frank's death.  The book can be downloaded from Frank's legacy website, 'the Understandascope' and there are also video segments from the memorial service and the book launch.  Please explore them and appreciate why Frank was loved by so many and why so many were transformed through knowing Frank.

Frank's obituary appeared in The Age on Monday September 24th, 2012.