What is natural?

What does it mean for something to be “natural”? The concept is all over the place. As branding it is something to aspire to. A state that must be protected. Something distinct from humans.

It’s especially jarring in discussions of nutrition and health. The absence of chemicals is ipso facto better for you. The diets of generations past something sacrosanct.

But it’s often an arbitrary distinction.

These orange carrots may not have been sprayed or grown with chemicals, but they’ve been altered by generations of farming. This slice of land may not have any obvious human alterations, no buildings or roads. But our presence in and around it has changed it. We’ve thinned it with our steps and diets. We’ve changed the climate, macro and micro.

Our perceptions of nature are almost always skin deep. Our recognised impact only the most brutal. I’m halfway through a Quarterly Essay on the Murray-Darling Basin, where much of Australia’s agriculture is located and water politics is fierce.

But right now I’m gripped by a contested state of nature:

These stories of the river are increasingly contested, as the engineers attempt to model and restore some portion of “natural” flows. The irrigators on the Lachlan, in their interviews with me, posed the question of what the Water Holder thought the “natural” state of the Cumbung Swamp would have been, and what “sustainable” might look like. What is natural? What people remember from their childhood, what the traditional owners have recorded in stories, or what the water engineers’ models tell us would once have happened before we built dams and locks and weirs and drew away so much of the water for our own use? And how to account for climate change?

The natural state lies outside living memory, in the realm of dreaming and anecdote. In both the real and the political landscape of the Murray–Darling Basin, nature is often referred to, used as a justification for action, but increasingly it is out of reach, a concept rather than a reality.

Put aside that natural appears to be conflated with “healthy”. It’s temporal.

The question seems to be about the baseline. At what point was the river system “natural”? And, if we pick a time when humans were present, why is it any more natural than it is now?

Blinded by belief

I’ve been sitting with the passing of Kobe Bryant for a few weeks now. I was a bit too young and removed to be aware of the rape allegations at the time. I wrote him off when I heard about it later.

I was never really a Bryant fan. My early memories were frustrated. I’d race home from school to find ESPN once again scheduled a Lakers beatdown of a terrible team. Rather than an actual game, between say the Pistons and Heat or Jazz. The Lakers, Bryant, were the only ones Australians wanted to watch, apparently.

Bryant had an incredible record. He was a champion, an MVP, and, until recently, third all time in NBA scoring. But I’d watch him throw up ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. Think about all the talent on the bench with half the opportunities. It felt like we were all giving him a bit much. Or, rather, he was taking it.

This feeling was really captured by Tara K. Menon’s reflection on Bryant in the Paris Review:

The details of the sexual assault case in 2003 make clear that Kobe’s self-obsession often came at others’ expense. In this case, a nineteen-year-old girl. The criminal case was dropped, but it seems almost certain he was guilty. He was definitely guilty of the aftermath: he hired lawyers to destroy a young woman’s reputation.

His apology, lauded by some as exemplary, was additional proof that he couldn’t see others fully. He was blinded by himself, just as he blinded so many of us for too long.

It’s a beautiful essay on the inability to let go of Bryant the hero despite what she knows of Bryant the person. He moulded her. She moulded herself after him. But note the repeated references to his self obsession.

No one held his hand and opened his eyes to another, more accurate vision of himself. He never saw himself clearly—not on his first day, not on his last.

Kobe’s impaired vision is fundamental to what made him one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. He thought he could do the impossible, and that belief made the impossible possible, again and again: playing through a dislocated finger , making both free throws after tearing his Achilles, forcing overtime with a buzzer beating 3 and then winning that game with a fadeaway three-pointer in double overtime, those eight-one points .

That belief is integral to success has been drilled into me. “Sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can” goes a line from one of my grandpas favourite poems. NBA commentators will often remark on how necessary it is for shooters. That they took the next shot as if they forgot the last one.

But Menon, Bryant, shows it can go too far. It can blind you to others.

This summer I read a great book about the process of basketball: the art of a beautiful game by Chris Ballard. The Kobe chapters are, somewhat predictably, about his legendary competitiveness. Note how early it starts.

He keeps bugging Brian Shaw, then a star player in Europe, to play him one-on-one. Eventually Shaw relents, and the two play H-O-R-S-E. “To this day, Kobe claims he beat me,” says Shaw. “I’m like, right, an 11-year-old kid, but he’s serious.”

Now Kobe is 13 years old and an eighth-grader in the suburbs of Philadelphia, skinny as a paper clip. He is scrimmaging against varsity players at Lower Merion High in an informal practice. They are taken aback. “Here’s this kid, and he has no fear of us at all,” says Doug Young, then a sophomore on the team. “He’s throwing elbows, setting hard screens.”

Bryant, now 17, is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and much stronger than the teenage Bryant. The game is not even close. “It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him,” says Ridder, now the Warriors’ director of media relations. After 10 minutes, West stands up. “That’s it, I’ve seen enough,” he says. “He’s better than anyone we’ve got on the team right now. Let’s go.”

The examples are endless. Bryant’s belief in his own powers started young and apparently drove him to greatness. It was plain every time he took the court. You could see it in his eyes.

But Ballard also reveals the flip side. Of Bryant basically tormenting teammates through an obsession with winning. How, as Menon noted, his self-obsession often came at others’ expense.

Now it’s 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and a franchise player. Still, when guard Isaiah Rider is signed as a free agent by the Lakers, Bryant forces Rider to repeatedly play one-on-one after practice to house-break this newest potential alpha male. (Bryant wins, of course.) When Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, it’s the same. “He was the man, and he wanted us to know it,” says Richmond. “He was never mean or personal about it; it’s just how he was.”

Unfortunately, this is probably what I will take away from Bryant. He was a joy to watch compete. Not just gifted but amazingly driven to be the best. But there was also a nasty side to that. What drove him to greatness likely drove him too far.

He was blinded by belief.

As always my emphasis

The immense opportunity of climate change

Dealing with climate change has always felt like a slog. Like we need to take our medicine in order to fight off calamity. In some respects this is correct, especially for countries without access to a lot of low-emissions power.

But reading Superpower by Ross Garnaut makes me realise that there is a huge opportunity. Especially for countries with access to large quantities of wind, solar, hydro and tidal power.

…Australia’s resource base placed it well for the energy transition: it had a wide range of high-quality renewable energy resources and economically favourable opportunities for geosequestration of emissions from traditional coal and gas generation… Australia’s hydro-electric resources and potential for pumped hydro-electric storage (PHS) in the Snowy Mountains and Tasmania, and perhaps its proximity to the immense hydro-electricity resources on the island of New Guinea, would play big roles in balancing solar and wind….

There’s already a company raising funds to supply a fifth of Singapore’s energy via an undersea cable from a solar farm in Australia.

But Garnaut goes further, pointing out that the more other countries put a price on carbon, the greater advantage there is for a country with Australia’s capacity to generate low-emissions electricity.

A price on embedded carbon would make imports from polluting industries and countries more expensive.

Australia is the largest exporter in the world of mineral ores requiring energy-intensive processing for conversion into metals. Australia in the post-carbon world could become the locus of energy-intensive processing of minerals for use in countries with inferior renewable energy resource endowments. Second, there are opportunities for export of hydrogen produced by electrolysis from renewable energy, through liquefaction or through ammonia as a hydrogen carrier. The natural markets are the renewable-energy-resource-poor countries of Asia, notably Japan and Korea.

Tackling climate change could move Australia up the industrial stack. It could rejuvenate manufacturing, countering some of the advantages of automation, geography and low cost labour. It should even benefit regional areas, as manufacturing is located near power generation.

But, most importantly, this isn’t just an argument for investment in renewable energy. Countries like Australia have a clear incentive to encourage everyone to cap, price and reduce emissions, to invest in moonshot technologies.

The more action on climate change the more competitive we become.