Environmental damage: mining versus farming

Adelaide’s “Festival of Ideas” last month featured a useful discussion of the mining industry’s contribution to the economy, since replayed on the ABC program The National Interest.

Towards the end there was a brief discussion of how mining damages prime farming land. Asked an audience member: “How does farming start again on land that has been desecrated by lots of open-pit mines or coal gas seam mining?” Economics journalist Paul Cleary, now also a researcher at the ANU, responded by agreeing, calling it “heartbreaking” that some farmers had sold out to mining companies – “and they have sold out for three times the value because they’ve got huge debts, and it is heartbreaking to see those people leaving their land”.

I’m a fan of Cleary, who has a fine history of picking the right issues on which to go against the prevailing wisdom. And his comments drew warm applause from the audience.

But I found this whole line of inquiry puzzling. Yes, mining causes environmental damage. Yes, it can cause severe damage, notably when mine waste interacts with naturally-occurring water. Yes, coal-seam gas poses a bunch of special risks, and we need to find out whether its benefits are worth the potential damage. But overall, the scale of the damage that ensues from the typical mine seems relatively low compared with the scale of damage resulting from farming, for a given unit of GDP. (Note that I’m using relatively in its true sense, to imply a comparison rather than an absolute level.)

Farming’s great environmental impact is simple – habitat destruction. Forget climate change for a minute here: habitat destruction seems a more urgent problem. As ecologist Daniel Simberloff wrote a few years ago in American Scientist, “by far the major single cause of recent species extinction and current endangerment is habitat destruction”. Simberloff is a pioneer of sophisticated statistical approaches in ecology, famed for bringing a new mathematical rigour to the field. I could be wrong, but I think he understands the relative quantities and I don’t think his position is very controversial amongst ecologists.

And the simple reality is that farms take up a lot more space than mines for a given unit of output. I don’t have figures to hand, but the difference is fairly huge. Mining doesn’t destroy much habitat, because mines, even big mines, aren’t that big. Stand on the edge of the pit at Yallourn, say, and you can see a pretty big hole. But cast your eyes out to the horizon, and most of what you see is farmland cut out of the bush.

In short, mining seems to provide much greater economic benefits per unit of damage than farming. And awful though it sounds, in a world of massive habitat destruction, we need to think about how to get the biggest economic bang for the smallest environmental damage. So all other things being equal, environmentalists ought to prefer mining to farming.

And if a bunch of miners buy up farmland, my bet is that the economic value per unit of environmental damage rises sharply. On top of that, the farmers at least walk off their land with some money. Their debts wouldn’t be any less crippling if miners weren’t there to buy them out.

I’ve spent a lot more time on marginal farmland than I have on minesites, and I don’t know the literature as well as I’d like to. What am I missing here?

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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135 Responses to Environmental damage: mining versus farming

  1. Part of the problem is that there’s no market mechanism to allocate the land in question to the various uses. If the farmers owned the land and what was under it, there’d be be far less debate (there would still be issues with mining externalities) because farmers who wanted to farm could farm; those who preferred mining money would sell up.

  2. Yobbo says:

    What you are missing is that lefties are opposed to mining because it makes a lot more money per square meter. It’s the making money thing that really gets their goat.

  3. JMB says:

    Dear Yobbo, that crack about lefties was rude, unproductive and uncalled-for.

    A couple of issues:
    1. Sulphate soils and other nasties. Farmers, especially those with plows, release quite a lot of salt from their land, where I come from, often sulfate soils. I have seen others wrestle with salt buildup in a power station’s cooling water dam for years and seen their frustration that, whilst much of the salt that they must remove is from the power station’s own operations, what prevents them from getting on top of the problems is the inflow of salt from farmed land up-slope. I am sure that many farmers have no idea how much salt is washing around on their properties.

    2. Mining, especially in the Hunter Valley of NSW, can and does occupy wide swathes of previously good farming land – mostly grazing land but some cropping country. A look at Google Earth brings this into focus. The question becomes not whether the land has been damaged, but how good the rehabilitation has been after mining. There must be plenty of research into precisely this out there in academia and used by soil conservationists and regulators on a day-to-day basis. I am not knowledgeable in this area, but I am sure that the knowledge is out there.

  4. Yobbo says:

    Why was it uncalled for JMB? The original article asks the question as to why environmentalists are so opposed to mining when, on the author’s own admission, farming is more damaging to the environment.

    The answer I provided is the explanation. Mining companies make a lot of money. Farms, on the other hand, are typically family-owned small businesses that make less profit in a year than your average leftie earns in his level 6 executive public servant job.

    The reason they detest miners and favour farmers is simply because they hate capitalism and profit, and the more profit you make the more they hate you.

  5. llengib says:

    Surely the prime concern is the time that the land remains productive. Mining is one off, sell the rocks, move on. Farming results in decades of returns on land. In short, do we have a hyperbolic discounting market failure?

    Can a mine site be converted back to farmland? If yes, knock yourself out. If no, go underground to mine.

    *this comment in on the relative merits of farm vs mine. For environmental uses you would have to value ‘ecological services’ in the economy.

  6. kymbos says:

    Environmentalists favour farmers, Yobbo?

    Not on this planet.

  7. Pedro says:

    They seem to be on the CSG issue. But they are only doing it relatively.

    I wonder if the complaining farmers are those getting the big prices or their neighbours?

    A coal miner told me that what they leave behind if pretty shitty. An expanse of crap soil and an acid lake.

  8. Julie Thomas says:

    Where I live, it’s not just the farmers who are complaining about the disuption to the rural community that will occur if CSG mining is allowed to go ahead. It is the many retired people and young familes who now live here, and they are not well-off tree hugging lefties, who do not want the social changes that happen when mining companies move into a community.

    Farming did destroy the environment, but now it is ‘the’ environment and people out here are not really into change or growth for growth’s sake. We don’t tend to attract libertarian types who want more wealth. We, and I’m including many of the traditional coalition voters I talk to up at the post office where we all have to go to pick up our mail, do not want more economic growth at the expense of the life style that we have sought out.

    I hear that many are ready to vote for Katter, or Barnaby, or anyone who will stop the mining.

  9. Incurious & Unread says:

    David,

    If your analysis is correct, miners should be able to easily get environmentalists on-side by offering to restore the habitat on the farmland that they buy up: obviously allowing for the drilling sites themselves and access roads, ancillary buildings etc.

    Have they offered to do this anywhere? If so, how has this offer been received?

  10. TimT says:

    Good post. Maybe the arguments are framed in this way because farming is such an old and enduring symbol that can fairly easily be associated with fertility and prosperity. It’s not so easy to describe mining in this manner.

    It depends partly how you define ‘environmental health’ and ‘conservation’ of course; the idea a farmer has when these words are raised is very different to the idea an environmentalist might have – and indeed the definitions would change a great deal around the world.

  11. Yobbo says:

    Where I live, it’s not just the farmers who are complaining about the disuption to the rural community that will occur if CSG mining is allowed to go ahead. It is the many retired people and young familes who now live here, and they are not well-off tree hugging lefties, who do not want the social changes that happen when mining companies move into a community.

    Farming will work the same way in 20 years time. Fly in, Fly out. A single operator can work 2-3 times as much land as he could 40 years ago due to improvements in technology. Once thriving towns are disappearing because no new farmers are taking up the occupation. The old ones just sell up to their neighbours and move to the city.

  12. wilful says:

    It’s quite simple really. Habitat destruction by farming is largely historical, habitat destruction by mines is largely potential or actual. We’re not starting with a clean slate here.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I didn’t know lefties had goats (as a general rule of course – it stands to reason that some lefties have goats). Anyway, I guess they don’t have them any more.

  14. Yobbo is bang on the button. It is the making of money that gets on the goat of the deadbeat brigade. Thus their “support” for farmers is relative (& temporary).

    Furthermore, the alliance is only recent, as the ..er… “environmentally aware” brigade weren’t culturally tuned in enough to know that that farmers detest miners & mineral companies.
    It came as quite a shock to them. Trawling back through net archives reveals that at the beginning of this year the “tuned in man” brigade were more or less using the words “farmer” & “miner” interchangeably (both support the liberal party you see).

    Only when they discovered the vehemence of farmer opposition to CSG did the professional protesters form an alliance with farmer groups.

    This bunch ain’t the brightest Australia has to offer, but they are all that farmers have got in their corner at the moment.

    During this alliance there’ll be a short term blind eye turned to farmers raping the planet (i.e. starting up a tractor & planting a crop)

    Rather a shame that the northern cattlemen weren’t subject to a CSG invasion, the people who agitated to kill off their livlihood may well instead have tried to save them.

  15. Dan says:

    You’re making a strawman out of both the left and farmers.

    My mum grew up on a dairy farm in mid-north NSW. Her dad was staunchly Labor and her mum voted Country Party.

    Both they and their neighbours were incredibly interested in the ongiong economic and environmental sustainability of their concerns (although they wouldn’t have used the terminology ‘environmental sustainability’).

    They all would have detested the idea of destroying farmland for the once-off benefits of CSG.

  16. Julie Thomas says:

    Yobbo says “Farming will work the same way in 20 years time. Fly in, Fly out. A single operator can work 2-3 times as much land as he could 40 years ago due to improvements in technology. Once thriving towns are disappearing because no new farmers are taking up the occupation. The old ones just sell up to their neighbours and move to the city.”

    In your dreams, and from your limited and woefully uninformed understanding of people – based as it is on your own venal and agressive worldview – this will happen. The place I live is based on family farms and there is an increase in the numbers of younger people willing to take over these farms.

    The small towns that are dotted amongst these farms are not dissapearing but have survived, are actually growing and seeking new ways to thrive again with a new approach to the idea of wealth, security and freedom that doesn’t depend on the winner take all and stuff the rest, mentality of ‘the market’ that you support.

  17. Dan says:

    I wonder if Yobbo is less egregious in person? I guess he must be, otherwise I can’t imagine his business being very successful.

  18. Ken Parish says:

    Business? Last I heard (although it was some years ago) Yobbo was a professional online gambler.

  19. Julie Thomas says:

    Furthermore, these are not many liberal voters out here. It seems to me that they are staunch national party voters who would love to dump the libs and their neo-liberalism.

    Like I said, they seem to want what Katter is offering; agrarian socialism, I think it is called.

  20. TimT says:

    That’s the other thing – does mining really destroy farmland ‘forever’ as people are claiming? I would have thought the effects could be easily contained, and after the normal operational life of a mine, surely in many cases farming could begin again? Is there strong evidence either way (I don’t know enough about the historical examples, but maybe someone else…)

  21. Dan says:

    [email protected]: Ah. He described himself as ‘self-employed’ on another thread, which I interpreted as, y’know, having a job (even a socially productive one!).

    Would be happy to receive clarification.

    [email protected]: Good question. Can anyone shed light on this?

  22. llengib says:

    Mine rehabilitation into farmland? A quick and dirty 5 min job reveals a qualified yes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_mining#Mitigation

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_rehabilitation

  23. Julie Thomas says:

    The main thing that I and most people I talk to locally are concerned about, is the possibility of contaminamtion of the water table. The science of CSG mining is not ‘settled’ on this issue.

    Another concern is that the coal seams themselves are not contained to a small area; they go all over the place underground and the soil levels and quality of the soil will be affected a long way from the site of the ‘mine’ itself. The soil will sink in unpredictable ways and areas that will make plowing and planting impossible.

    But even if the farmland can be restored to it’s original condition, and the wiki links above are not positive that this can always happen; what about their lives in the meantime. Do farmers have to take up knitting while the miners take what they want?

    Farming knowledge in these small family owned farms depends on continuity, on an ongoing knowledge of the fertility of the soil and it’s capacity to grow certain crops. All this knowledge will be lost if the land is given up to mining.

    And what about me and the other town residents? The local pub owners would very much like more custom, but even they don’t really want miners to take over the pub; it’s a family pub. There would be a big difference in our lives when lots of single men, who have no commitment to the town move in.

  24. Pedro says:

    See comment 7. I think they fuck the top soil for a fair while

  25. Rehabilitation (of any sort) after open cut mining, is a pipe dream. I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen it talked about a lot. But never seen it work out in practice. Not on a scale any larger than a trial to “prove” it can be done.
    Anyway it wouldn’t be remotely economic to do it.

  26. Mattdv says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, even the most extreme straw man lefty working in his high level public service job recognises that someone has to produce the food that he eats.

  27. TimT says:

    Hmmm, I can’t help but comment on this Julie:

    But even if the farmland can be restored to it’s original condition, and the wiki links above are not positive that this can always happen; what about their lives in the meantime. Do farmers have to take up knitting while the miners take what they want?

    The farmers will have got a lot of money for their land so obviously they can either retire, use it to start up another business, or just save it for the future while they go and get another job – in other words they’d do what anyone does who in a little time gets a lot of money. I don’t think that’s problematic – what is problematic obviously is if the acquisition of the land by the mining companies happens without the full consent of the farmer. There’s room for concern there.

  28. Pedro says:

    Soil structure is an ongoing process, so absent something toxic left behind, eventually the soil structure will become more productive. It’s like putting manufactured soil in your garden beds, eventually with mulching and stuff you get decent soil, but it takes a few years depending on the starting quality and how hard you work.

    After finalising the negotiation to buy a property for a few mil over the premining value, the client did a quick calculation of the value of the coal underneath it. $24Bil. That’s quite a few dressed steers.

  29. Tim T: #26. I am not sure of your information sources. Most acquisition of land for mineral exploitation occurs over the dead body of the farmer. The law (govt) backing the farmer into a corner, & giving them little to no option but to “cooperate” does not mean the farmer has willingly consented.

    Furthermore, financial compensation, in my experience of compulsory acquisition, has been one-third of the going market rate. I have seen land acquired without compensation. If one is a lay observer, one can easily be deceived by the publicizing of circumstances where a canny landholder gets slightly above market rate from a mineral company that doesn’t want hassle, or bad publicity in the district.

    However it is often not so. And this is only the acquiring of land for a mine. The exploration phase, (toyotas & drilling rigs all over your land) which can be 20 years or more, occurs without any compensation, and sometimes with interruption aplenty.

  30. JMB says:

    Regarding rehabilitation, which is why we came here, remember, a distinction m ust be drawn between grazing and cropping farmland.

    Rehapilitation of grazing land is done quite successfully, from my partially-informed POV. Soil low on carbon? Add sewage biosolids. Ph too low? Add lime, and so it goes. Eventually, grasses and clovers will grow and production resume.

    Where it gets really hard is the river flats and anywhere where a spot of deeper soil permits cropping. After mining, this type of soil must be dastardly to re-establish. Further, it subterranean water profiles must rebound. One mine I have had personal dealings with calculates that wtare table rebound, fed from the far-off Hunter River, will take about 150 years.

    150 YEARS???

    So, all you vegans out there, get ready to eat meat or grass, because the croplands which are mined will be rooted for good.

    As far as CSG goes, if there is an aquifer involved, then I’m pretty sure that the gas companies are simply superoptimistic about others’ livlihoods. I have tried, but to no avail – there appears to be little literature out thers indicating that CSG drilling can be done on a commercial scale without risking underground water flows, both salty and fresh, which can be tainted, polluted, commingled or simply lost. How are they possibly going to restore a stuffed Great Artesian Basin or two?

    Am I wrong?

  31. Mother Hubbard's Dog says:

    One of the reasons a lot of farmers are fairly quiet about groundwater contamination is that they have been the guilty parties in the past. How many properties have you seen where the diesel pump has a big pool of fuel seeping into the ground? Or a few car wrecks lying around? Old batteries? Drums of farm chemicals?

    I will be the first to admit that farmers have, in general, cleaned up their act since the bad old days. But that doesn’t mean the bad old days didn’t exist.

    JMB, the real danger to underground water with CSG extraction is not from the fracking, but from the drilling. The rock layers in which the fracking is done are impermeable to water. The only way that water can be contaminated is if the pipe down which the drill is inserted cracks.

  32. derrida derider says:

    OMG, I’m on Yobbo and satp’s side in an argument!

    Julie Thomas, IMO, made Yobbo’s point for him – a lot of those opposing CSG act as though someone other than them making a quid is a Bad, not a Good, thing. Julie, why should the rest of us have to put up with coal-burning rather than gas-burning power stations, and at higher prices, just because you don’t want change? Your attitude seems to me to come close to “I’ve got mine now & the rest of you can get stuffed”.

    None of this means we ignore the environment. Making a quid is desirable and so is the environment, so we need to be willing to trade each off against the other. Now it is certainly legitimate to argue over how much environment we should trade off for how many quid, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that all else equal a quid – even a profit quid – is a desirable, not undesirable, thing. To think otherwise is to be a Puritan in Macaulay’s sense – “The reason the Puritans disdained bear baiting was not for the pain it gave the bear but the pleasure it gave the spectator”.

  33. I struggle with Mother Hubbard’s thinking.
    I’ve never seen a farm that has a diesel “pump”. They mostly use gravity. That aside, every farm has had a diesel leak, up to 20,000 litres at a time in cases. Any diesel leak, old car body (er.. so what? relevance please) & batteries laying around are a drop in the ocean. You’d not detect their presence in groundwater, unless they were dropped down a well or something.

    CSG wells, a hundred yards apart, in a grid pattern, are a horse of an entirely different colour.

    Farms have had an old battery pile forever, likewise they have derelict motor vehicles (what else can be done with them?) and still they have watered the sheep.

    Mines on the other hand, have been able to strike water, pump it out, and hey presto, wells that never went dry suddenly never have water again.

    This gets on the goat of farmers, who in the past 20 years are buried in commo literature about how it is “the people’s” water, & they cannot even make a puddle for kids to play in without more regulatory hoops (+ financial levy) whilst mines gaily dispose of in a couple of weeks more water than most farmers see in a lifetime.

  34. Mother Hubbard's Dog says:

    For “CSG” in my previous post, read “shale gas”.

  35. derrida derider says:

    Also, we seem to have got some confusion here betwen opencut mining and CSG. Nah, of course you can’t really rehabilitate after open-cut, at least not over a single farmer’s lifetime. The soil is stuffed by all the digging.

    But CSG is, in the long run, a SUBSTITUTE for opencut. From this distance it does seem that you might have to worry about aquifers and, in geologically active areas (not Australia), more earthquakes – but let’s look at the science before panicking, OK? But most of the other “environmental” worries seem like pure bullshit – drilling rigs take up extraordinary little farming space, and subsidence is far less than with underground mining (which in any case doesn’t stop farming).

  36. Mother Hubbard's Dog says:

    Steve, I am not Mother Hubbard, I’m the Dog. Mother Hubbard is the government, which occasionally throws a bone my way.

    If you think farmers haven’t been guilty of groundwater contamination in the past, you’r welcome to your opinion. However, I disagree. Here’s just a few papers for you to be going on with – just the first few that Google Scholar comes up with:
    https://www.crops.org/publications/jeq/pdfs/21/4/JEQ0210040579
    http://www.springerlink.com/index/j3751k5766296622.pdf
    https://www.crops.org/publications/jeq/pdfs/25/3/JEQ0250030419
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-6584.1975.tb03065.x/abstract
    http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0889189300001776

    You’ll notice that most of these are fairly old – this is because, as I said, farmers have been made aware of the issue and have generally cleaned up their act.

  37. JMB says:

    Mother Hubbard’s dog said

    “The rock layers in which the fracking is done are impermeable to water. The only way that water can be contaminated is if the pipe down which the drill is inserted cracks.”

    I wish that it was that simple.

    1. The layers being frakked are not, typically, impermeable – they are coal measures, which are highly likely to be cracked, but with a crack pattern that is not favourable to the nev masters’ intention, so pressure and chemicals and megalitres of water and fine sand and secret stuff are pumped in to open and to keep open those cracks which are already there as well as the new ones.

    Unfortunately, there is no guarantee in all of this that the millions of litres of water pumped in from the surface will not simply flow out down dip and be lost, taking their load of chemical nonsense with them.

    2. There is an extensive history of holes being punched through aquifers, world-wide, and for clean water to be mixed with saline or arsenic-loaded or highly acidic water and thus contaminating previously good aquifers which were used to supply water for drinking and irrigation. I take it that some may not be convinced. It is a topic which I studied at post-grad level 15 years back – it’s not rocket science but does involve some maths (hydraulic models), some second-year or above undergrad chemistry and a lot of educated guesswork.

    From start to finish, frakking leaves me with unanswered questions, yet the proponents seem keen to pepper every known aquifer, world-wide, with holes, like large scale collanders. The impatient goldrush mentality of the frakkers is sufficient to convince me that, deep down, they realise a horrible truth, and it is this.

    The miners fear that they probably won’t be permitted to do this for long. Consequently, they set out to grab what they can before the gate is shut and locked – or is it horse-whipped and run out of town?

    (Nearly said “… grab what they can before the plug is pulled”, then I remembered the collander analogy. Q: “When is a collander a bathtub?” Ans: “Before it has been frakked.” )

  38. Mother Hubbard's Dog says:

    JMB, of course you are right re CSG. See my later emendation of my post.

    My take on fracking in general is that it is dangerous when done badly, OK when done carefully. This is the guidance I get from my friendly geologist, whose specialty is groundwater. I certainly don’t know enough to disagree with him.

  39. I’ll second everything JMB says @35 (except the spelling of “colander”).

    While DD @34 “drilling rigs take up extraordinarily little farming space”
    Likewise it could be said that 24x scattered stubbies of beer take up “extraordinarily little space” on a billiard table, and thus wouldn’t really have much effect on a game of snooker in progress.

  40. Julie Thomas says:

    TimT With CFG, the farmers don’t actually have to sell their land, I believe the mining companies sink wells all over the place but as DD said the wells don’t take up much of the land. The farmers get paid rent for the wells; the price isn’t really an issue. They say the wells will be in the way; that having people walking over their land will disturb the cows and other livestock.

    I wouldn’t know how much they are freaking out simply because they just don’t want miners – or anyone on ‘their’ land. It very much is ‘their’ land since they have been farming it for many generations. We don’t mention who they took it from or what happened to the original ‘owners’.

    Sure, everyone says that it will be ok if done carefully, but who trusts money-hungry corporations to either tell the truth about the risks of contamination or to carry out the procedures carefully?

    Farmers don’t, the tree changers don’t. Perhaps some of the tradies and small business people who want to ‘get ahead’ would be willing to take the chance but most people chose to live out here because it is slow paced and not full of large supermarkets and all the other dubious benefits that intensive capitalism brings.

  41. Julie Thomas says:

    Derrida Derida

    I don’t think that I ‘acted like’ people making a quid is a Bad thing.

    Whether you put up with coal-burning power stations or not is up to you eh? Who can tell if it will change your power bills much if we stop CFG mining happening?

    I have changed in many ways to be able to live out here among the conservatives comfortably.

    I am not particularly interested in whether you get stuffed or not but I’m not bothered if that happens to the mining companies; not that making money is necessarily a bad thing. It’s more a sad thing, to think that making money is all that matters for too many people.

  42. Mother Hubbard's Dog says:

    Sure, everyone says that it will be ok if done carefully, but who trusts money-hungry corporations to either tell the truth about the risks of contamination or to carry out the procedures carefully?

    Nobody. That is why we have lots of regulation of this sort of thing.

  43. Yobbo says:

    Julie I’m not sure where you are from but in my town the population has decreased from over 1000 to 600 odd in my lifetime. When a farmer sells up, land gets consolidated into the larger holdings that remain.

    Nobody new is buying farms, at least not serious ones. Tree changers buying a few hundred acres to live on and maybe breed a few ponies is not a farm.

    You’d be crazy to buy a farm, it’s a terrible investment. You would earn more putting the capital in a managed fund. The people who still do it only do so because they love the lifestyle.

    But eventually there will be no lifestyle to enjoy because the town will consist of 10 families who each own 30,000 acres. At that point they will all sell to a conglomerate who will hire wage earners to work the land.

    I have seen this trend throughout my entire life. I grew up on a wheat farm which when I was born was about 5500 acres, and is now over 9000 acres due to acquisitions. In that 35 years not a single new family has arrived in our town and bought a farm. They have all been bought by existing families who increased their share of land in the shire.

    The ones who sold up moved to the city so that their kids could go to a decent school, bought a business with about 1/5th of what they sold their farm for, and invested the rest.

  44. Tree changers all buy at Happyville in the Gippsland, not at Whereareya NT.

    There aren’t any hobby farm size parcels of land in most bush districts, & even if there were, tree changers don’t want to move to somewhere that feels like a disused MadMax film location, they prefer, you know, handy to coast, cities, greenery, perhaps even an artisan bakery or at least something more than a pub, post office, cop shop & general store cum servo.

    In most of rural Australia it is like you are stuck in “Sunday Too Far Away” (or even “Wake in Fright”) rather than “McLeod’s Daughters”

  45. Mother Hubbard's Dog says:

    Steve atp, I like your turn of phrase. Your observations of rural life are spot on. The folk who thrive on it are a breed apart, I dips me lid to them.

  46. Julie Thomas says:

    Ah well Yobbo and Steve at the pub, It’s different here, there are a lot of reasons why I think this area has a lot of potential for something better than being a mine site.

    There are a large variety of farm types, mixed dairy and grain, horse studs, vegetable farms; no hobby farmers at all; except the old farmers who have retired but still keep a few cows and sell the milk themselves for pocket money.

    There are a few large towns; big enough for a reasonably efficient supermarket and small to medium business that are doing quite well. There are a lot of small towns in-between the larger centres that still have small corner shops and also have historical buildings for sale.

    The new comers like me mostly live in the small towns and we buy the old shops with the fantastic art deco windows, and turn them into ‘tourist attractions’. We aren’t very good at it but we aren’t aiming for any ‘development’ that makes anyone a lot of money. Like Edina from Absolutely Fabulous, we want nicer things not more choice.

    Most of us are self-funded early retirees, or on a disability or other pension, or run small service type industries; home hair dresser etc or work in the larger towns in mostly small to medium business. It’s usually only a 20 minute drive to a town where there is work.

    There are also lots of locals who have lived here all their lives and the only thing that drives them to sell up and move to town is ill-health. It is an interesting mix of people, quite lovely country and I think there is something better we can do with it than mine it.

  47. Julie Thomas says:

    Yeah you wouldn’t like it Steve. We only got a pub recently. The town used to have 4 of them but they had all closed down. The other towns have lots of pubs though; this is Queensland we’re talking about.

  48. Hehe, I am in the pub trade Julie, lifestyle doesn’t get any worse than that!
    One aspect of the pub trade is it doesn’t matter which town or city you are in, as you never get out of the 4 walls of the building, and the lifestyle doesn’t change.
    I could be your nearest publican for all you know! ;-)

  49. murph the surf. says:

    ‘money hungry corporations’
    Can’t I enter this phrase into a contest of some sort on this website?
    Wake in fright – well said.Too true too true.

  50. Julie Thomas says:

    I thought owning a pub was the ideal lifestyle! My oldest son, works in Melbourne doing something in a ‘logistics’ company that I don’t undertand and earning far too much money for one person, always says that he’s going to buy the pub when he’s ready to move back here.

    He won’t come until we have ‘real’ broadband though. Says ‘pffft’ about my current speed, even though it has got faster over the years.

    I think at my pub the custom is so intermittent and the clientele so local and therefore ‘trustworthy’ that the proprieters can get out for a while when they want to, but there’s nothing to get out for really. All the action(?) happens in the pub or the post office. Things can get really busy there at peak hour. lol, I’ve even had to illegally park in the disabled parking spot!

  51. KB Keynes says:

    The unity ticket of Greens and farmers didn’t come about because the Greens suddenly changed. It was the Farmers and only recently.

    A similar ticket occurred concerning the Murray but is now withering as Farmers think they will always have water.

    The Greens may support silly policies across the board but at least they are consistent.

    The best farming land is occupied by houses on the east coast

  52. JC says:

    The unity ticket of Greens and farmers didn’t come about because the Greens suddenly changed. It was the Farmers and only recently.

    Farmers haven’t changed a bit. They are acting rationally to a law that basically deals them out of opportunity and the government takes all the reward.

    It’s a structural flaw in that the state governments own everything below the topsoil. The farmers are damned right on this one as farming land becomes mining land they get turfed off their property at essentially market value (of farming land) and the government gloms the rest.

    It’s basically a form of stealing.

    Land should be comprise from the core to the heavens.

    The miners don’t mind who they pay royalties to as long as it’s only once.

  53. murph the surf. says:

    “The best farming land is occupied by houses on the east coast”.
    This is rubbish.Absolutely incorrect.

  54. Julie Thomas says:

    Farmers rational? I don’t think so, but there are many types of ‘farmers’ these days. It seems to me though, that ones out here are the descendants of the original ‘squatter’s’ and they retain all the features of that worldview; which is quite charming really, if one isn’t judged to be of the ‘small farmer’ or worker class.

    There isn’t really any unity between farmers and greens, one could see that in Barnaby Joyce’s response to Bob Browns suggestion that they ‘join’ up. LOL it was like Bob had put the hard word on him, his response was so emotional but he does speak from the heart.

    It’s a great thing IMO that the farmers are ‘forced’ to share what isn’t theirs anyway. Nobody owns the land. Their land was ‘stolen’, appropriated from the people who were here first and who used it without denying other people access.

    It’s a shit thing that the government is far too influenced by the ‘zombie’ economics that encourages them to behave in a mendacious, grasping and utimately dysfunctional manner; that is where the government has been going wrong over the past decades.

    JC you like to comment on everything, I have noticed, even if you are quite ignorant of the topic. You like to see yourself in print? If you are referring to GFC mining, the fact is that the mining companies are offering ‘rent’ to the farmers and will be paying that rent each year that the ‘wells’ are being used.

  55. Julie Thomas says:

    Money hungry corporations is just a tautology, really. One only needs to include the ‘money hungry’ qualification when people from the right are part of the conversation.

    Among the more rational people on the left, it goes without saying that corporations are money hungry; that is the foundation of their worldview surely? The right believe that money is the source of all happiness and success and we all just need to work hard and try as hard as we can to accumulate stuff and enrich ourselves at the expense of other, less able people?

  56. Dan says:

    Julie – I think the market liberals (who are not actual conservatives anyway) would justify their approach on the grounds that free markets -> individual freedom. This is based on an incredibly narrow reading of Berlin and Smith (not that a lot of the parrot-zombies have actually read either of those thinkers’ works).

    The worldview is either mendacious or dangerously ignorant, in any event, and there is increasing popular recognition of that (the silver lining of the GFC, perhaps).

    And of course after a certain point material wealth doesn’t make people happier, ie. increase their utility. But standard economics texts assume that people are infinitely greedy, suspending the usual assumption of diminishing marginal returns in relation to overall wealth. Historically, this is understandable, as the models were developed when a lot of resources really were scarce. But most people in Australia have their basic needs well and truly sorted, and a whole lot of luxury goods on top of that, rendering it completely outrageous that there are a significant number of people who don’t have their basic needs met in this country (no, the problem isn’t economically the best possible outcome, let alone socially, and it isn’t going to fix itself – see the work of hardheaded economists like Pigou, Arrow and Akerlof to see why).

    You’ve read John Q’s book, I assume.

  57. JC says:

    Farmers rational? I don’t think so, but there are many types of ‘farmers’ these days. It seems to me though, that ones out here are the descendants of the original ‘squatter’s’ and they retain all the features of that worldview; which is quite charming really, if one isn’t judged to be of the ‘small farmer’ or worker class.

    You lost me, Julie, especially with the non-nonsensical comment about Da class.

    Sure farmers are behaving rationally. They’re pissed at the possibility of getting thrown off the land at market value, while the government gloms the reward. If you don’t think that’s perfectly rational response, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

    There isn’t really any unity between farmers and greens, one could see that in Barnaby Joyce’s response to Bob Browns suggestion that they ‘join’ up. LOL it was like Bob had put the hard word on him, his response was so emotional but he does speak from the heart.

    Yea, I can easily sympathize with Joyce’s recoil at the thought of joining up with the Greens. Again , a perfectly normal response. And why would there be any unity with the farmers and the greens seeing the farmers priorities are rational?

    It’s a great thing IMO that the farmers are ‘forced’ to share what isn’t theirs anyway. Nobody owns the land. Their land was ‘stolen’, appropriated from the people who were here first and who used it without denying other people access.

    I presume you’re renting, Julie. If you owned a home or land you wouldn’t be peddling such obvious nonsense. If you aren’t renting I would presume your navel gazing opinion about ownership would take on a far different response if an indig showed up to the front door and demanded the keys and your immediate exit without compensation.

    It’s a shit thing that the government is far too influenced by the ‘zombie’ economics that encourages them to behave in a mendacious, grasping and utimately dysfunctional manner; that is where the government has been going wrong over the past decades.

    Yep, sure. Two decades of solid economic reforms from the Hawke and Howard governments that allowed us greater economic flexibility and now as a result we’re the richest nation on earth per cap shows just how we took the wrong fork in the road… . Lol Are you into planetary travel?

    JC you like to comment on everything, I have noticed, even if you are quite ignorant of the topic.

    Thanks for paying attention. I normally skip through your bone headed cliché riddled stuff. And I don’t comment on everything.

    Y

    ou like to see yourself in print?

    Pixels aren’t print. You need to try harder with the put downs as that doesn’t work and sound kinda dumb.

    If you are referring to GFC mining, the fact is that the mining companies are offering ‘rent’ to the farmers and will be paying that rent each year that the ‘wells’ are being used.

    But not the royalties and I’m referring to mining in general. As I said, mining firms only pay once. How it’s divvied up they don’t care and it’s grossly unfair on the farmers.

  58. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan It would be useful for the ‘right’ to provide some sort of manifesto that sorts out the differences between conservatives and liberals.

    I agree that the assumption of the liberals, that people are infinitely greedy, is one of the problems. But really this assumption is only one of the mistaken assumptions they make about human nature.

    We all certainly do have the capacity to be greedy, just as we have the capacity to be generous; the way ‘ordinary’ people behave depends on the dominant message that holds sway in their environment. Of course, there are those magnificant examples of ‘rational man’, who believe themselves to be the endpoint of human evolution.

    It seems a bit strange that on the one hand they ‘know’ they are more intelligent and in every way superior to most people, and at the same time they say that everyone has the same chance of success in their system.

    My current obsessive complaint about ‘them’ lol is that they deny that ‘marketing’ is setting the values for our society and the values that marketing uses to influence us are the opposite of those that are required for people to succeed in a capitalist economy.

    I am reading John’s book bit by bit and enjoying it but economic thinking doesn’t come naturally to me. Reminds me of when, as a ‘mature aged’ student I had to learn statistics. I did it, but it doesn’t come naturally. Character building though :)

  59. Julie Thomas says:

    JC hehehe too much choice for me in your response; I just don’t know which bit of your prejudiced narrow minded thinking to start with.

    All I can say is teaching a pig to dance is hard and it irritates the pig. You aren’t that irritated yet but I don’t think you have the ability to dance so there’s not much point in any more interaction eh?

  60. Dan says:

    The seriously, seemingly intrinsically greedy people I know are not only unremarkable in terms of intellect (measure it however you like: academic results, life decisions, IQ, whatever) but are also unhappy in their personal lives and seem to be ‘missing’ a component or two (ie. personality disorder style). Low EQ in other words, and no serious reflection on what actually makes them fulfilled/satisfied.

    As for the sheeple who believe that they can be a celebrity if only they buy Paris Hilton’s fragrance or whatever – I’d strongly suggest that a surer path to life satisfaction (though not pecuniary success) is to apply yourself to getting really, really good at something that other people enjoy or benefit from.

  61. JC says:

    I normally don’t dance and especially not with pigs, Julie. Call it a small personal failing of mine. How about you, do you normally swing a leg or two if a good looking porcine shows up at the front door?

    No, there’s possibly no point in interacting especially when all you seem capable of is over used cliches and illiterate economic nonsense that would fail 11th grade.

  62. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan I don’t think that they are really that ‘greedy’. It seems to me that it is more that the philosophy that turns greed into a virtue makes sense to them because of their brain type. I do think that some of the left libertarian types in particular, have aspects of Asperger’s, so that it simply is more difficult or even impossible for people with this type of brain to put themselves in another person’s shoes and imagine that other people think differently and are not capable of competing with them.

    Ditto the sheeple; it’s not useful to pejoratively judge them for their poor choices. Human capacity, not just IQ, is distributed ‘normally’ and it is quite clear that we aren’t all wired to make choices rationally.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228381.800-decision-time-how-subtle-forces-shape-your-choices.html?DCMP=NLC-nletter

    New Scientist has an article that makes this argument; unfortunately the free period has expired and one has to sign in to read the article

  63. Julie Thomas says:

    JC economics is the answer eh?

    We don’t need to take into account the fact that people are complex and the evidence from the science of psychology and neuroscience shows that rational economic man is a flawed concept?

    Can I ask if you are a climate science denier, or sceptic or whatever euphemism is currently politically correct these days. Just need to know whether you are completely stupid or if you have some intellectual credibility.

  64. Dan says:

    Heh, I’m happy to be an elitist in my own post-materialistic, slightly Aspy way.

    I saw that New Scientist article and thought it strange that (from my brief reading of it) it took free will/choice as assumed. From philosophically/metaphysically materialistic position, there’s troublingly little evidence for free will and substantial evidence against.

  65. Dan says:

    [email protected]:

    Economists use ‘rationality’ in two ways (whichever happens to be convenient at that particular moment) – it’s an example of John Holbo’s two-step of terrific triviality.

    1) the vacuous way: since people are utility maximisers, whatever people do is rational.
    2) people are rational in the strong sense of having information-processing ability that is to all intents and purposes infinite.

    This second definition is the basis of a lot of economic analysis around diminishing marginal returns, etc. When it’s pointed out how ludicrous this is, proponents move with straight faces and alacrity to claim that they’re referring to the definition of rational described at (1).

  66. KB Keynes says:

    yes he is Julie

  67. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan I have many aspie traits as well, as well as lots of other dysfunctionalities. My faviourite excuse at the moment, for my dysfunctional behaviour is Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppositional_defiant_disorder

    It is currently only applied to children, but many of us are just grown up children.

    The dummies guide to free will is surely the understanding that Norman Doige gives us; brains can change themselves. Self insight – not sure how people get to ‘have’ or come by self insight – gives us the tools to change ourselves; to choose to overcome the wiring that evolution has bestowed upon us.

  68. Julie Thomas says:

    NB Keynes? You are famous man. I’ve been reading about you in JQ’s book.

    He is a climate denier? So that’s why he thinks farmers are rational?

  69. Julie Thomas says:

    JC I mean, not JQ

  70. Dan says:

    But where does ‘choice’ come from? If we’re basically a complex series of electrochemical interactions, imho it’s probably out. The physicist Paul Davies makes an extremely flaccid argument* in favour of free will coming out of ‘the edge of chaos’ in very complex systems (ie. the human brain).

    NB: you can get out of this quandary by talking about a soul, or a spark of the divine, or something. I can’t bring myself to go there.

    *incidentally I think he’s a wonderful writer and communicates astrophysics ideas very convincingly indeed.

  71. JC says:

    JC economics is the answer eh?

    Depends. I wouldn’t suggest you see an economist if you have a sore tummy for instance.

    Can I ask if you are a climate science denier, or sceptic or whatever euphemism is currently politically correct these days. Just need to know whether you are completely stupid or if you have some intellectual credibility.

    Ah the litmus test.

    Only if you post what you rate yourself out of 10 in the looks department and subtract 2 points, as in the past I tended to find women always exaggerate. You go first Julie and then I will admit (or not) if I’m a 6000 year old earth creationist and da Nilist..

    yes he is Julie

    Homes, that’s a really cheap shot. I’m surprised at your audacity of hope.

  72. Dan says:

    Last time I spoke to JC about the topic I was surprised that he accepted the scientific consensus, and acknowledged the need for governments to intervene in a ‘necessary evil’ capacity.

    JC, please let me know if I’m recollecting through rose-coloured glasses.

  73. JC says:

    No your specs are clear vision lenses, Dan.

    I’m not a scientist so I just accept what hey have to say. My concern is that with emerging world projected to smoke up a storm at around 9 times the US 2006 base line by 2050 it’s potentially serious destabilizing issue. However I don’t cloak it in moral terms as I think it’s a technological problem mixed in with confusion and difficulty ascribing property rights. How do you divide the skies/atmosphere mixed in with free rider issues.

    Global climate is pretty optimum for human habitation in the present so why fuck with that is my view. Perhaps a 1 to 2 degree warmer world may be even better but it may be hard to turn off the thermostat.

    But here’s my quandary. What moral right does the rich have to tell the poor world to use less energy when energy consumption has a 1 to 1 correlation with living standards?

    Adaptation would be fine in different times but we’ve essentially fenced each other off so mass movement of people has next zero possibility with national borders. Like what are the chances Australians say would willingly accept 300 million Chinese move here as a result of adverse weather in China for instance.

    So the real issue is technological in nature.

  74. We’re getting somewhere now. Julie is declaring farmers to be irrational, brahmins, & wants to know if one is a “climate denier” before interlocution commences.

    All the essential stuff for a rational conversation about farming & mining.

  75. Yobbo says:

    Yep, once again the left shows their intellectual rigour in this thread.

  76. Dan says:

    Julie’s checking for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    [email protected]: nice to have some overlap here (in that we both accept the bleeding obvious), although I’d argue that the issue where political action is concerned is in fact a moral one rather than technological (the positivism of scientism – not science – is what got us into this mess in the first place). But we may be talking about different things.

    “How do you divide the skies/atmosphere”

    You don’t. We’re all beneficiaries, and there are a myriad of non-human beneficiaries.

    “Global climate is pretty optimum for human habitation in the present so why fuck with that is my view. Perhaps a 1 to 2 degree warmer world may be even better but it may be hard to turn off the thermostat.”

    I’d take a broader view than what happens to be good for us humans, but you’re damn straight that there are pro-cyclic mechaisms built in to the climate system. The fewer of those that are promoted, better.

    “But here’s my quandary. What moral right does the rich have to tell the poor world to use less energy when energy consumption has a 1 to 1 correlation with living standards?”

    We don’t, but tough luck for both them and us. In any event, the (really) poor are also often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

  77. Julie Thomas says:

    Hehehe this is fun but I do become addicted to fun things and I know I have to limit myself to small periods of talking through my hat. Also, more excuses, there is only one device connected to the internet in this house, and youngest son – 24 going on 17 – is back home for some of the care that only a mum can provide, and doing what comes naturally to mothers, I let him take control of my PC. He sleeps in as the young people like to do, so it’s all mine in the morning.

    Dan, I would google the Dunning-Kruger effect but you know how slow my internet is.

    I think we need to understand more clearly what ‘choice’ is before we can really understand how people make choices; there are so many different areas of choosing.

    If you mean how do we make the choice to develop free will; I think it is something like Davis suggests and it is flaccid, but we just don’t know enough yet to be able to apply physics to human behaviour. But I think it’s something to do with probability, and randomness so each time we are suprised by something unexpected, our brain has a chance to see a different possibility and choose to follow that neural pathway rather than the well trodden one.

    I think being ‘the other’ can also be significant in providing a stimulus for some brains to see that it is possible to do things differently – make a different choice – but other brains will not have the wiring that makes this ‘easy’.

    Relax, no souls or Gods work for me as an explanation, the human brain is sufficently complex and ‘mysterious’ to provide me with my dose of magic.

  78. Julie Thomas says:

    JC #72

    Do you think that there may be some things that economic theory can and should take into account about human nature, that would make it work better?

    LOL I will not provide you with a rating of my attractiveness! This way of ‘socialising’ is great; no face to face gives me the freedom to be myself rather than being aware of how you are judging me.

    If you are the type of person who is wired not to be aware of how others view you, or not to care much, you won’t understand this easily. It’s up to you, maybe you can learn to dance; and you know brains need exercise just as much as bodies do, if you want it to keep it working well.

  79. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan perhaps free-will or the ability to be able to choose what to do, rather than to do what the brain chemistry of the moment requires that we do, is a capacity that we need to learn. It isn’t an all or none thing; we develop it; like enlightenment, lol.

    So we start out with the unique set of genes that we inherited. The environment reacts to these inate characteristics and the person reacts to the enviroment – physical and social. But ‘chance’ is ubiquitous in these interactions; it is chance that creates the differences between identical twins.

    For example, one twin is looking one way and misses seeing some significant event that the other one did see; this initial event can cascade so that the two identical people turn out differently.

    If the environment is ideal, the person develops the capacity to make choices well. But the genes for choosing well are distributed normally – like IQ – so it is unrealistic to expect that all people will ever be equal in their ability to choose.

    Such sloppy imprecise language. If I was still an academic, I’d fail myself.

  80. Dan says:

    Julie, this is interesting but you’re still assuming at least the capacity for free will. I’m asking a more basic/fundamental question: Do we have (the capacity for) free will? I’m very interested in the arguments of anyone who manages to argue for without referring to theism.

    Apols that this is completely O/T.

  81. Patrick says:

    lol Dan not hard; isn’t evolution built on random iterations? Sensible to assume, as base case before you try and come up with theories, that random iterations in thoughts/actions/reactions also a part of evolution?

    It would be strange if the fittest models weren’t those which could ‘evolve’ over their lifespans not merely over generations, wouldn’t it?

  82. Dan says:

    Patrick, that has absolutely no relevance to the question I posed. None. Zip. It is merely a hopeful, post-hoc claim that physics can be denied (or an attempt to sneak in the idea of something supernatural, but I don’t think so).

  83. Dan says:

    In fact reading it again it is not even that; you’re making a claim about learning, not free will. Amoebae can, in a limited sense, learn, though I don’t think anyone would propose that they have free will.

  84. Dan says:

    It’s inspiring that you are willing to ascribe the category ‘not hard’ to incredibly difficult, unresolved philosophical issues you either haven’t understood or thought about. Your intellectual life must be easy indeed :\

  85. Tel says:

    I’m asking a more basic/fundamental question: Do we have (the capacity for) free will?

    If you could have predicted that I was about to post this comment before I posted it, then I would not have free will. Since you failed in that prediction, I do. Thank you for playing.

    I’m very interested in the arguments of anyone who manages to argue for without referring to theism.

    When and if I ever meet God, I’ll give a different answer.

    … isn’t evolution built on random iterations? Sensible to assume, as base case before you try and come up with theories, that random iterations in thoughts/actions/reactions also a part of evolution?

    The whole statistical gist of evolution (as I see it) is that the style of iterations does not matter. Random iterations will do it (as per biological mutation caused by radiation, etc) but also deliberate steps into the unknown (as per economic entrepreneurship) also does the job. All that matters is that you have enough base material to cull out the successful from the unsuccessful.

    After a great number of iterations, the culling process determines what the outcome looks like, not the perturbations. That’s the “crux” of evolutionary theory.

  86. Dan says:

    [email protected]:

    “If you could have predicted that I was about to post this comment before I posted it, then I would not have free will. Since you failed in that prediction, I do. Thank you for playing.”

    Joke, or…? I don’t get it.

  87. desipis says:

    If you could have predicted that I was about to post this comment before I posted it, then I would not have free will. Since you failed in that prediction, I do.

    Huh? You do realise there’s a substantial amount of middle ground between you having free will and Dan being omniscient right?

    deliberate steps into the unknown (as per economic entrepreneurship) also does the job.

    Except any common constraint on the individual steps will also be a constraint on the outcome.

    the culling process determines what the outcome looks like, not the perturbations.

    It’s actually a combination of both. Only with random (i.e. unconstrained perturbations) does the outcome purely reflect the culling process.

  88. Dan says:

    (In fact I actually am omniscient, it’s exhausting.)

  89. Tel says:

    Dan: I’ll let you write up the answers to your own questions then, presumably they had some rhetorical purpose.

  90. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan Yep that’s what I am doing. I do think that ‘free-will’ or the ability to make a ‘choice’ is all about learning, but it is also all based on inherited characteristics. So the new way to conceptualise the nature-nurture debate is not that it is 50/50 but that it is 100/100; not sure how the maths computes lol.

    An amoeba can learn and so can the most stupid person, but not like an intelligent person can learn and there is no actual threshold at which one can say, this person is capable of free-will and this person is not. Like, psychological diagnoses, we could construct a set of criteria that would sort people into the two groups?

    But perhaps the problem lies in the way we are conceptualising ‘free-will’? I’m doing a practical analysis and bugger the philosophical.

    But Daniel Dennet was on RN yesterday

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2011/3373189.htm

    and seemed to be saying something like that; that the free will thing isn’t a ‘real’ problem. The transcript isn’t up yet, and I’d like to read that more carefully to see if I understood his position, but basically I don’t think we know enough about the brain and the relationship between mind, brain and consciousness and the way evolution has shaped our brains, to be able to think in a way that will elucidate this problem. Perhaps it is a ‘koan’ and we should use it to examine our minds?

    I keep thinking that there is something important in the idea that human differences are the key. In psych research, there are often quite large ‘individual differences’ in the results; but like the placebo effect, these are mostly regarded as annoyances.

    However, there is more and more evidence that people differ significantly in their response to many things; including their physical response to drugs. Some people feel pain more acutely than others and painkillers don’t work as well for them, so the negative attitude that many doctors and nurses take toward people who claim that their painkillers don’t work, can be unfair.

    How can you measure or account for these indidivudal differences on how we make choices?

    But it seems to me that these differences are absolutely essential for ‘adaptation’ to take place in any group of people faced with an unknown in their environment; the entrepreneur urges change and facing the problem head on, the shy careful person wants to avoid the problem. Surely, a functional society needs all types of people to negotiate to provide the best solution?

    There seems to be a lot of wrong assumptions about the nature of early human societies. In the introduction to “The Bell Curve” the author imagines early man sitting around the camp fire discussing who was the most intelligent.

    The assumption that they did this is quite wrong by all the current knowledge and speculation in human anthropology. The original society of the Australian Aboriginals shows that their society had a mechanism for valuing everyone and competition on the basis of abilities was negated by the network of reciprocal obligations and responsibilities that were based on one’s position in the family. And this society was perhaps the most stable and psychologically comfortable society that has ever been.

    But when it comes down to it, after all, we are constructing this knowledge, making it up as we go? Physics has moved into such rarefied debate that what Paul Davies thinks about is philosophy (or poetry?)

    And in practical terms there is enough information around to convince anyone that economic man is not the basis for useful economic thinking and the old conservative ideas about human nature, while they have some basis in reality, and were pretty good at predicting behaviour when society was less complex, are also not adequate now.

  91. Dan says:

    [email protected]: I’m a determinist but I’d like not to be.

    Jul[email protected]: Thanks for the link; I’m asking about the ‘mechanism’ or whatever through which some hypothesised free will operates. Literally asking the question: how is it physically possible?

    I also note the experimental result that we make our choices at a subconscious level and then come up with a post-hoc justification for them (which is obviously quite the opposite way around from how it is subjectively experienced and frankly how one would want it to be).

  92. Dan says:

    ps. I should add that I am not denying its metaphysical possibility, but I’m not proposing it, and no-one else seems to be doing so either.

  93. Pedro says:

    “I also note the experimental result that we make our choices at a subconscious level and then come up with a post-hoc justification for them (which is obviously quite the opposite way around from how it is subjectively experienced and frankly how one would want it to be).”

    But perhaps we are thinking at a subconscious level but it happens so fast we don’t know why we made that decision? Still, a lot of choices are made consciously.

    This looks interesting: Thinking, Fast and Slow
    By Daniel Kahneman

  94. Dan says:

    “Still, a lot of choices are made consciously.”

    How do you know? In fact, how do you even know they’re choices?

  95. rog says:

    And then there are all those unconscious choices to think about.

    But I do like Matts creation of the straw-man-who-is-a-straw-man.

  96. Tel says:

    [email protected]: I’m a determinist but I’d like not to be.

    Incorrect, I’m an empiricist so if you are intending to demonstrate determinism (or omniscience) you are going to have to get some predictions right. If you want to wave hands about metaphysical possibility while being unable to link this to any practical outcome then I’m not even going to bother contradicting you. I don’t have to, I’m an empiricist, and a skeptical one at that.

  97. Dan says:

    Huh? No, I was referring to myself. I’m, uh, pretty sure that I’m a determinist.

    Incidentally, if you are an empiricist, you’re dreadful at it. Where’s the empirical evidence in favour of free will?

  98. Tel says:

    My apologies, I thought it was your omniscience talking.

    Where’s the empirical evidence in favour of free will?

    Well lack of predictability rules out determinism, and free will does seem to be the default belief once determinism is ruled out. Naturally, I’m skeptical about any magical properties that free will bestows, but it is the only workable belief system that supports the evidence at hand.

    Sure there are corner cases, you might argue that with regards to, say Death and Taxes, we are all deterministic and none of us have free will. I’d agree with that, but this only provides a very narrow handle on a man’s life.

    Look at this another way, you are into Phyche right? So suppose you not only study the subject but turn out to be very good at it, so amazingly good that you find yourself doing the whole positronic brain shtick, and are soon cranking out shipments Nexus-6 like there’s no tomorrow.

    As bad scripts seem to have it, soon there is no tomorrow when the inevitable Frankenstein problem occurs and you are facing off one of your own robots, at a game of Ro Sham Bo, to the death. Most movie bad guys never expect this to happen, but you planned ahead! You have a full set of blueprints, including a faster-than-life emulated world running in a parallel processing virtual machine. This sucker is totally deterministic, it may be rational, but it can’t win Ro Sham Bo. Ha ha, they laughed at you back in Evil Genius school, let them laugh now.

    Being insufferably smug, you have to explain this to the Nexus-6 threatening your life, but that’s OK because even after the explanation of what’s going to happen it still can’t win, because you still have the virtual machine… and by the way the emulated robot in the virtual machine is pulling out a pair of virtual dice which it rolls behind one hand, looks at the numbers, then puts the dice away. Being a virtual machine you easily backtrack and check the numbers and follow through the sequence to ultimately determine the robot’s move. Easy, huh?

    Then the real robot pulls out a pair of dice, rolls behind one hand and puts them away, but you can’t check the numbers, because this is the real thing, not a virtual machine. You would be better off playing Russian Roulette.

    So now we have the best Psyche student in the universe, can’t beat his own moderately rational robot at a simple Ro Sham Bo, with every possible advantage laid on. So that’s the best you can hope to do with determinism? Waste of time if you ask me. I’ll stick with knowing what I don’t know, it’s a whole lot safer.

  99. desipis says:

    Well lack of predictability rules out determinism

    Determinism isn’t about practical predictability, its about theoretical predictability given perfect knowledge and infinite computing resources.

    but you can’t check the numbers

    If determinism is true then you can just check your virtual machine for the numbers, and hence predict the behaviour of the robot.

    free will does seem to be the default belief once determinism is ruled out

    Imperfect evidence, therefore believe whatever you want by default?

  100. Dan says:

    Tel: good post. However…

    Of course there is randomness. Most determinists would, I think, acknowledge this then go on to say, for any set of circumstances generated out of whatever combination of randomness and predictability, we still don’t have choice about how we react to that set of circumstances.

    This is determinism without fatalism.

  101. john says:

    “I’ve spent a lot more time on marginal farmland than I have on minesites”

    Most of the contentious coal seam gas areas are found between the western slopes of the great divide and the east coast itself, they are relatively well watered and fertile (by australian standards) and the center of the controversy; Liverpool plains and up to the darling downs are one of the very few parts of Australia that is genuinely arable land are definitely not “marginal” and that is the issue.

  102. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan Try this then; best I can do.

    Take a person who has cognitive dissonance, and if we are ‘thinking people’ we always have some cognitive dissonance, (the question is; what level of intelligence is required to be a thinking person?)

    Anyway, then there is a chance event in the environment. Neurons fire in response to this event, and the brain, as is it’s wont, tries to match the new input to what is already there by creating new neuronal connections that reconcile the new event with the existing neuronal set-up and relieve the dissonance.

    But if the cognitive dissonance is strong enough to have sufficiently ‘destabilised’ the existing neuronal set-up, through the new connections already made, then the new input can tip the person over – something like Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’? – into a brain state where ‘rationalisation’ does not relieve the cognitive dissonance and the brain has to actually ‘change’ its default state.

  103. Dan says:

    Haha! Great explanation, thank you. It is, however, completely deterministic in its orientation :P

  104. john says:

    Dan The ‘problem’ is a artifact of a dualism that is as entrenched as it is misleading.
    Try this.

    “Moreover, Gödel’s construction revealed in a crystal-clear way that the line between “direct” and “indirect” self-reference (indeed, between direct and indirect reference, and that’s even more important!) is completely blurry, because his construction pinpoints the essential role played by isomorphism (another name for coding) in the establishment of reference and meaning. Gödel’s work is, to me, the most beautiful possible demonstration of how meaning emerges from and only from isomorphism, and of how any notion of “direct” meaning (i.e., codeless meaning) is incoherent. In brief, it shows that semantics is an emergent quality of complex syntax, which harks back to my earlier remark in the Post Scriptum to Chapter 1, namely: “Content is fancy form.””

  105. Dan says:

    I’ll have to think about it more, but at first blush it seems to avoid the ‘problem’ in favour of addressing a different issue.

  106. john says:

    determinism is free will at a different level of grain , it is the same thing and it is not the same thing at the same moment

  107. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan so you don’t think that chance events – including random genetic mutations -can be conceptualised as a way in which the universe provides a non-deterministic kick in the pants?

  108. Julie Thomas says:

    John I agree that dualism is an artifact that we western peoples seem to be ‘determined’? to construct for ourselves. I think Spinoza was one of the few western thinkers who recognised this way of thinking and saw it as a problem. He said that to set up what you like against what you dislike is a disease of the mind and that to see the truth, one needs to hold no opinions for or against anything. Eastern thinkers were well aware of the idea.

    I came across this website a while ago. They are a group of mostly Australian academics and others who are also thinking along the lines of duality as a fundamental problem for the human psyche and human social evolution.

    There is a discussion of Gödel’s thought on this page

    http://beliefinstitute.com/bio/prof-reg-cahill

    and I like the diagram they provide on this page

    http://beliefinstitute.com/article/evolution-human-psyche

    Also, to go back to your earler comment; as you say the Darling Downs is certainly not marginal land. It is prime farming land, topsoil up to 30 feet in depth apparently. It is rated the most reactive soil in Australia which makes it difficult to build a house that stays level and square.

    But also socially, it is a ‘blast from the past’ and it seems to me that the social relationships and interactions between people of different classes/groups tend to be more civilized out here than they currently are in the city, where banker’s rules or (survival of the fittest) is the norm.

    Perhaps the fact that the Greens, or the ex-Green, Drew Hutton, has been able to forge a relationship with these farmers says something about this group of farmers being less ideologically driven than those in some other areas?

    I wonder if it might be that we lack a significant number of ideologically driven lefties, who contribute to the splitting of people into separate and opposed tribes by using terms such as ‘structural violence’.

  109. Julie Thomas says:

    John #107 that is so very Zen!

  110. Dan says:

    [email protected]: chance events such as, say, being hit by a bus coming around a corner too fast, or manifesting a genetic disorder, or picking up a flush in a poker game, don’t strike me as having anythng to do with free will.

    They may be a kick in the pants for fatalism, but that isn’t the same thing.

  111. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan each chance event provides us with an ‘opportunity’ to change our way of thinking and to show free will. Free will is an emergent property of chance events?

    There is an urban myth that says there are two meanings inplicit in the translation of the chinese ideogram for ‘crisis’; danger and the opportunity for overcoming the danger.

  112. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan when musicians improvise or ‘jam’ is what they produce determined?

  113. Dan says:

    Or… chance events, like predictable events, change consciousness in a complex but nonetheless determined/unchosen manner. I’m certainly not arguing in favour of stasis. But growth =/= free will

    Look, I want to agree with you, I really, really do – I’m just not at all convinced.

  114. Dan says:

    @113: I believe so, yes – out of a combination of influeces, emotions, and a myriad of other variables.

    Of course that’s not to say it can’t have real ‘chemistry’/’magic’ if all of the musicians are on the same page (or complimentary pages).

    My subjective experience of playing music (on my better days) is actually like being a ‘channel’ for something extra-personal. I feel about as responsible for my musical output at these times as a surfer is responsible for the wave (s)he’s riding.

  115. Julie Thomas says:

    lol I’m fine that you don’t agree with me; that would be boring and I’d be burdened with the idea that I had ‘changed your mind’. That’s way too much responsibility.

  116. Julie Thomas says:

    Dan – and the above was also in case you didn’t know. It’s ‘the flow’; that ‘channel’ and that was a real hot topic for the sport psych research students I knew.

    Is this when we manage to overcome the duality of self and environment?

  117. Dan says:

    Yes; the dao.

  118. Julie Thomas says:

    Okay last chance for you to recant.

    Apparently we need to read Michael Gassaniga’s book “Who?s in Charge?”

    “Writing with what Steven Pinker has called ?his trademark wit and lack of pretension,? Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility; it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, ?It wasn?t me who did it——it was my brain.? Gazzaniga convincingly argues that even given the latest insights into the physical mechanisms of the mind, there is an undeniable human reality: We are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.”.

    I like that last sentence.

  119. Dan says:

    Yeah, I’m well aware of determinism’s consequences as goes moral responsibility.

    But saying that we have free will because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have moral responsibility is just about the worst example of arguing from consequence I can think of. No joke.

  120. desipis says:

    it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, “It wasn’t me who did it——it was my brain.”

    In that case, the response is “We’re not punishing you, we’re punishing your brain.”

    Or more to the point, the murder is his brain.

  121. rog says:

    Anyway, I think that the key argument is that damage by farming is repairable whereas damage by mining is not and is often catastrophic.

  122. desipis says:

    As well as the fact that income from farming is sustainable while income from mining is not.

  123. Pedro says:

    “Anyway, I think that the key argument is that damage by farming is repairable whereas damage by mining is not and is often catastrophic.”

    Why is it damage and not just change? Is a new volcano damage in the same sense?

    “As well as the fact that income from farming is sustainable while income from mining is not.”

    But that does not mean that the land will cease to produce income. The question is what does changing from mining to farming do to the long run income stream?

  124. Tel says:

    Determinism isn’t about practical predictability, its about theoretical predictability given perfect knowledge and infinite computing resources.

    Infinity is a big number. If there’s some distant theoretical possibility and the chance of it ever effecting my life could be reasonably estimated at perhaps less than one in a billion, I’m going feel comfortable about ignoring it.

    If determinism is true then you can just check your virtual machine for the numbers, and hence predict the behaviour of the robot.

    We know it’s NOT possible to do that for simple systems like rolling dice — a small error in initial conditions rapidly amplifies. Randomness is a fact of life. Implying that determinism is not true (or at best, it’s applications are highly limited).

    By the way, perfect information is not something you can hope to base any empirical decision on, but when one option is looking hopeless, it’s time to choose the other option (fair enough there may be more than two options, but I suggest that any exotic options would be quickly weeded with Occam’s Razor).

    I’ll also point out that a belief in free will is essentially the minimal belief state, because it imposes the least constraints on outcomes (i.e. no constraints at all). Belief in determinism implies that constraints do exist, by being the higher order of belief, it demands a higher burden of proof.

    Dan:

    This is determinism without fatalism.

    That’s a bit like having the cake while also eating it. If the distinction between determinism and free will becomes redefined as a hypothetical argument about the immeasurable and inconsequential, then as an empiricist I simply declare it all irrelevant. I can highly efficiently not believe in a wide ranging array of phenomena (provided they remain unobservable).

    Julie:

    Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility…

    Bah! Punishment for punishment sake is barbaric. The only humane justification for any such action would be to prevent the crime happening again, and there are a range of approaches, possibly including punishment if you can gather evidence that a deterrent effect exists.

    Of course, if determinism worked as advertised on the box, the crime wouldn’t have happened in the first place. The fact that we have crime at all demonstrates pretty convincingly that either Dan isn’t as omniscient as he pretends, or else he’s out there encouraging the buggers.

    To some extent though we can actually deter crime. Putting police everywhere, cameras on every street corner, etc, makes it more likely that common criminals will get caught. People are at least predictable enough that they will avoid pain, and if it’s not viable to pursue a career then few will bother. If you want to call this determinism then yeah it sort of might fit the bill, but hardly something to write home about. Just ordinary incentive and disincentive.

    However, the crime problem doesn’t go away, it just moves around. Incentives open up for more complex and cunning criminal activity and we get increasing levels of fraud and white collar crime. Free will still exists, it just exists at the boundary where real decisions are made, not stupid decisions.

  125. Julie Thomas says:

    Tel

    There is bugger all crime out here here where I live and it’s not the police presence. There are 2 or 3 police at each of the stations in the bigger towns but none in my town and many of the other little towns.

    A while ago we had a Sargeant Dread, who published a newsletter revealing all the ‘crimes’ committed in his area. It was an A4 sheet, double sided, but it was a large typeface and only came out once every 3 months. He didn’t publish names but the bastard did provide the address and the age of the ‘perpetrator’ so it wasn’t difficult to work out who the person was.

    He was such a bastard that one afternoon he breathalysed all the mums waiting at the local primary school to pick up their kids. It was very embarassing for a few of them who had lunched together and indulged in a couple of glasses of wine.

    But the very worst crime happened when a bus shelter that the ladies on the hall committee had painted with local birds – it was very nice too – was vandalised by some of the high school kids. They painted penises on the birds.

    But there is an old-fashioned sense of community (and this is what I think Gazzaniga is thinking of) that is still based on reciprocal and long term relationships; we all know we will be running into each other at some time in the future; we can’t be anonomous like in the city so we all know that it’s in our own interests to make sure other people are ok.

    I am not suggesting that village life is the answer, just making the point that we can make crime go away and I think Gazziniga is right about the idea that responsibility for individual behaviour is in the interactions between people. The trouble is that if the group decides the norms, it takes away the individuals freedom.

    Maybe it is all down to brain chemistry whether we believe in free will or determinism? I’m quite sure that the ability to believe in God lies in brain chemistry. I can’t believe in God but I can believe in free will for some reason.

  126. Julie Thomas says:

    Pedro It’s all to do with the context I think, whether the changes that mining makes to the environment is damage or progress so if a new volcano wipes out a town it is damage but perhaps if it doesn’t affect any person, it is just change.

    Like the tree in the forest conundrum; if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is listening, does it make a sound? It’s something like that anyway.

  127. desipis says:

    Randomness is a fact of life. Implying that determinism is not true (or at best, it’s applications are highly limited).

    The fact that something is of no subjective use does not imply it is not objectively true. Can I use the concept of free will to predict the outcome of something?

    I’ll also point out that a belief in free will is essentially the minimal belief state

    No it’s not. Belief that free will is possible (but not certain) is the minimal belief state. Belief in free will puts constraints on what deterministic rules are possible; belief in the possibility of free will does not.

    Determinism (or at least the significant possibility of a deterministic world) is the justification behind science. If there are no rules by which the world operates then we can’t learn anything through science. Given both people and the wider world are unpredictable, there’s no special reason to assume that people have free will and the world doesn’t. Do you apply the concept of free will to all complex systems we don’t fully understand (yet)?

  128. Dan says:

    [email protected]: Omniscience has nothing to do with it; I don’t understand why you keep trying to smuggle it in. We’ve already agreed randomness exists, ruling out perfect information. But that has no bearing on free will.

    I’m beginning to think your understanding of what determinists posit is selective.

    [email protected]: Just so.

  129. john says:

    Julie a post of mine went missing . I meant nothing zen like by what I wrote.

    Randomness is not all that relevant to this theme.

    The relevance of Gödel is that his work was on the nature of systems of symbolic representation that are capable of making representations of ‘itself’. Such systems are intrinsically incomplete.

    Representation of ‘representation’ is a pretty close to awareness of ‘being aware’ : mind . A system of representation as complexly and recursively referential as the mind , if it was truly ‘mechanistically deterministic’ would almost very quickly end in a frozen infinite recursive loop.

    You might find this interesting
    http://ripplingbrainwaves.blogspot.com/2010/05/meaning-through-isomorphism.html

  130. Tel says:

    We’ve already agreed randomness exists, ruling out perfect information. But that has no bearing on free will.

    OK, then describe a measurable outcome that would change depending on whether either determinism or free-will were in operation.

  131. Tel says:

    Julie, sure there are many approaches to changing people’s behaviour, and in a small community where everyone knows everyone it works a bit differently to how it does in an overcrowded and busy city.

    The quickest and easiest way to eliminate crimes is just start deleting statutes from the books… cuts costs too, but anyhow I was merely using it as an example that human behaviour can somewhat be influenced by incentives and disincentives.

  132. Tel says:

    By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie “Hot Fuzz”, you really should.

  133. desipis says:

    OK, then describe a measurable outcome that would change depending on whether either determinism or free-will were in operation.

    Given the current state of technology and understanding of the human mind, I’m not sure you could devise a particular experiment to indicate one way or the other. However, a continual improvement over time of our ability to understand and model the mind would suggest that a deterministic model of the mind is an eventual possibility.

  134. Dan says:

    Tel:

    a) Not relevant.
    b) Measureable = a question of technology, ie. our ability to observe, not a question about the fundamental nature of matters.

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