Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’
Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder. Arnold J Toynbee
I’m not sure where to start but as a result of finishing a particular book, plus a recent essay on Tom Dispatch, then another recent essay from Simon Johnson of Baseline Scenario fame, there were so many thoughts bumping around this aged brain that I had no alternative than to offer them to you, dear reader. You should also be warned that this is going to be two posts, covering today and tomorrow.
So let’s start with the book: The United States of Fear by Tom Engelhardt. To be brutally honest, I purchased the book more as a gesture of support to Tom who has been very supportive of Learning from Dogs, in particular allowing me permission to reproduce any essays that were published on TomDispatch, as a number have so been. What an error of judgment! Tom’s book provided another one of those rare but inspirational occasions where you know the world will never look quite the same again!
The back cover page of the book sets out the theme, thus,
In 2008, when the US National Intelligence Council issued its latest report meant for the administration of newly elected President Barack Obama, it predicted that the planet’s “sole superpower” would suffer a modest decline and a soft landing fifteen years hence. In his new book The United States of Fear, Tom Engelhardt makes clear that Americans should don their crash helmets and buckle their seat belts, because the United States is on the path to a major decline at a startling speed. Engelhardt offers a savage anatomy of how successive administrations in Washington took the “Soviet path”—pouring American treasure into the military, war, and national security—and so helped drive their country off the nearest cliff.This is the startling tale of how fear was profitably shot into the national bloodstream, how the country—gripped by terror fantasies—was locked down, and how a brain-dead Washington elite fiddled (and profited) while America quietly burned.
Think of it as the story of how the Cold War really ended, with the triumphalist “sole superpower” of 1991 heading slowly for the same exit through which the Soviet Union left the stage twenty years earlier.
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that it was put together from 32 essays previously published online by Tom; the complete list with titles and dates is on pps. 205 & 206. So giving you a real feel for the book is easy! I’m going to do that by linking to one of those essays available in the archives of TomDispatch here. That essay was called Washington’s Echo Chamber and appears in the book starting on page 170 under the sub-heading of Five Ways to Be Tone Deaf in Washington. Let me quote you a little,
So much of what Washington did imagine in these last years proved laughable, even before this moment swept it away. Just take any old phrase from the Bush years. How about “You’re either with us or against us”? What’s striking is how little it means today. Looking back on Washington’s desperately mistaken assumptions about how our globe works, this might seem like the perfect moment to show some humility in the face of what nobody could have predicted.
It would seem like a good moment for Washington — which, since September 12, 2001, has been remarkably clueless about real developments on this planet and repeatedly miscalculated the nature of global power — to step back and recalibrate.
As it happens, there’s no evidence it’s doing so. In fact, that may be beyond Washington’s present capabilities, no matter how many billions of dollars it pours into “intelligence.” And by “Washington,” I mean not just the Obama administration, or the Pentagon, or our military commanders, or the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but all those pundits and think-tankers who swarm the capital, and the media that reports on them all. It’s as if the cast of characters that makes up “Washington” now lives in some kind of echo chamber in which it can only hear itself talking.
As a result, Washington still seems remarkably determined to play out the string on an era that is all too swiftly passing into the history books. While many have noticed the Obama administration’s hapless struggle to catch up to events in the Middle East, even as it clings to a familiar coterie of grim autocrats and oil sheiks, let me illustrate this point in another area entirely — the largely forgotten war in Afghanistan. After all, hardly noticed, buried beneath 24/7 news from Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that war continues on its destructive, costly course with nary a blink.
That was published by Tom a little over 18 months ago! Seems as relevant today as then! Let me stay with perspectives from 2011.
On the 24th August 2011 Noam Chomsky wrote an essay entitled American Decline: Causes and Consequences. Chomsky, as Wikipedia relates, is Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Here is how that essay opens,
In the 2011 summer issue of the journal of the American Academy of Political Science, we read that it is “a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal — is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay.” It is indeed a common theme, widely believed, and with some reason. But an appraisal of US foreign policy and influence abroad and the strength of its domestic economy and political institutions at home suggests that a number of qualifications are in order. To begin with, the decline has in fact been proceeding since the high point of US power shortly after World War II, and the remarkable rhetoric of the several years of triumphalism in the 1990s was mostly self-delusion. Furthermore, the commonly drawn corollary — that power will shift to China and India — is highly dubious. They are poor countries with severe internal problems. The world is surely becoming more diverse, but despite America’s decline, in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.
So, according to Chomsky, it’s not as ‘black and white’ as Engelhardt sets out. But do read the full essay.
Nevertheless, the idea that the USA is ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ is supported in an essay published by Mattea Kramer on TomDispatch on the last day of September. I’m going to end Part One by republishing the essay in full. (Note that this is being published here after the first ‘debate’ had taken place.)
Tough Talk for America
A Guide to the Presidential Debates You Won’t Hear
By Mattea Kramer
Five big things will decide what this country looks like next year and in the 20 years to follow, but here’s a guarantee for you: you’re not going to hear about them in the upcoming presidential debates. Yes, there will be questions and answers focused on deficits, taxes, Medicare, the Pentagon, and education, to which you already more or less know the responses each candidate will offer. What you won’t get from either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is a little genuine tough talk about the actual state of reality in these United States of ours. And yet, on those five subjects, a little reality would go a long way, while too little reality (as in the debates to come) is a surefire recipe for American decline.
So here’s a brief guide to what you won’t hear this Wednesday or in the other presidential and vice-presidential debates later in the month. Think of these as five hard truths that will determine the future of this country.
1. Immediate deficit reduction will wipe out any hope of economic recovery: These days, it’s fashionable for any candidate to talk about how quickly he’ll reduce the federal budget deficit, which will total around $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2012. And you’re going to hear talk about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan and more like it on Wednesday. But the hard truth of the matter is that deep deficit reduction anytime soon will be a genuine disaster. Think of it this way: If you woke up tomorrow and learned that Washington had solved the deficit crisis and you’d lost your job, would you celebrate? Of course not. And yet, any move to immediately reduce the deficit does increase the likelihood that you will lose your job.
When the government cuts spending, it lays off workers and cancels orders for all sorts of goods and services that would generate income for companies in the private sector. Those companies, in turn, lay off workers, and the negative effects ripple through the economy. This isn’t atomic science. It’s pretty basic stuff, even if it’s evidently not suitable material for a presidential debate. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service predicted in a September report, for example, that any significant spending cuts in the near-term would contribute to an economic contraction. In other words, slashing deficits right now will send us ever deeper into the Great Recession from which, at best, we’ve scarcely emerged.
Champions of immediate deficit reduction are likely to point out that unsustainable deficits aren’t good for the economy. And that’s true — in the long run. Washington must indeed plan for smaller deficits in the future. That will, however, be a lot easier to accomplish when the economy is healthier, since government spending declines when fewer people qualify for assistance, and tax revenues expand when the jobless go back to work. So it makes sense to fix the economy first. The necessity for near-term recovery spending paired with long-term deficit reduction gets drowned out when candidates pack punchy slogans into flashes of primetime TV.
2. Taxes are at their lowest point in more than half a century, preventing investment in and the maintenance of America’s most basic resources: Hard to believe? It’s nonetheless a fact. By now, it’s a tradition for candidates to compete on just how much further they’d lower taxes and whether they’ll lower them for everyone or just everyone but the richest of the rich. That’s a super debate to listen to, if you’re into fairy tales. It’s not as thrilling if you consider that Americans now enjoy the lightest tax burden in more than five decades, and it happens to come with a hefty price tag on an item labeled “the future.” There is no way the U.S. can maintain a world-class infrastructure — we’re talking levees, highways, bridges, you name it — and a public education system that used to be the envy of the world, plus many other key domestic priorities, on the taxes we’re now paying.
Anti-tax advocates insist that we should cut taxes even more to boost a flagging economy — an argument that hits the news cycle nearly every hour and that will shape the coming TV “debate.” As the New York Times recently noted, however, tax cuts might have been effective in giving the economy a lift decades ago when tax rates were above 70%. (And no, that’s not a typo, that’s what your parents and grandparents paid without much grumbling.) With effective tax rates around 14% for Mitt Romney and many others, further cuts won’t hasten job creation, just the hollowing out of public investment in everything from infrastructure to education. Right now, the negative effects of tax increases on the most well-off would be small — read: not a disaster for “job creators” — and those higher rates would bring in desperately-needed revenue. Tax increases for middle-class Americans should arrive when the economy is stronger.
Right now, the situation is clear: we’re simply not paying enough to fund the basic ingredients of prosperity from highways and higher education to medical research and food safety. Without those funds, this country’s future won’t be pretty.
3. Neither the status quo nor a voucher system will protect Medicare (or any other kind of health care) in the long run: When it comes to Medicare, Mitt Romney has proposed a premium-support program that would allow seniors the option of buying private insurance. President Obama wants to keep Medicare more or less as it is for retirees. Meanwhile, the ceaseless rise in health-care costs is eating up the wages of regular Americans and the federal budget. Health care now accounts for a staggering 24% of all federal spending, up from 7% less than 40 years ago. Governor Romney’s plan would shift more of those costs onto retirees, according to David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, while President Obama says the federal government will continue to pick up the tab. Neither of them addresses the underlying problem.
Here’s reality: Medicare could be significantly protected by cutting out waste. Our health system is riddled with unnecessary tests and procedures, as well as poorly coordinated care for complex health problems. This country spent $2.6 trillion on health care in 2010, and some estimates suggest that a staggering 30% of that is wasted. Right now, our health system rewards quantity, not quality, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of paying for each test and procedure, Medicare could pay for performance and give medical professionals a strong incentive to provide more efficient and coordinated care. President Obama’s health law actually pilot tests such an initiative. But that’s another taboo topic this election season, so he scarcely mentions it. Introducing such change into Medicare and the rest of our health system would save the federal government tens of billions of dollars annually. It would truly preserve Medicare for future generations, and it would improve the affordability of health coverage for everyone under 65 as well. Too bad it’s not even up for discussion.
4. The U.S. military is outrageously expensive and yet poorly tailored to the actual threats to U.S. national security: Candidates from both parties pledge to protect the Pentagon from cuts, or even, in the case of the Romney team, to increase the already staggering military budget. But in a country desperate for infrastructure, education, and other funding, funneling endless resources to the Pentagon actually weakens “national security.” Defense spending is already mind-numbingly large: if all U.S. military and security spending were its own country, it would have the 19th largest economy in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Switzerland. Whether you’re counting aircraft carriers, weapons systems, or total destructive power, it’s absurdly overmatched against the armed forces of the rest of the world, individually or in combination. A couple of years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave a speech in which he detailed that overmatch. A highlight: “The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.” China recently acquired one carrier that won’t be fully functional for some time, if ever — while many elected officials in this country would gladly build a twelfth.
But you’ll hear none of this in the presidential debates. Perhaps the candidates will mention that obsolete, ineffective, and wildly expensive weapons systems could be cut, but that’s a no-brainer. The problem is: it wouldn’t put a real dent in national defense spending. Currently almost one-fifth of every dollar spent by the federal government goes to the military. On average, Americans, when polled, say that they would like to see military funding cut by 18%.
Instead, most elected officials vow to pour limitless resources into more weapons systems of questionable efficacy, and of which the U.S. already owns more than the rest of the world combined. Count on one thing: military spending will not go down as long as the U.S. is building up a massive force in the Persian Gulf, sending Marines to Darwin, Australia, and special ops units to Africa and the Middle East, running drones out of the Seychelles Islands, and “pivoting” to Asia. If the U.S. global mission doesn’t downsize, neither will the Pentagon budget — and that’s a hit on America’s future that no debate will take up this month.
5. The U.S. education system is what made this country prosperous in the twentieth century — but no longer: Perhaps no issue is more urgent than this, yet for all the talk of teacher’s unions and testing, real education programs, ideas that will matter, are nonexistent this election season. During the last century, the best education system in the world allowed this country to grow briskly and lift standards of living. Now, from kindergarten to college, public education is chronically underfunded. Scarcely 2% of the federal budget goes to education, and dwindling public investment means students pay higher tuitions and fall ever deeper into debt. Total student debt surpassed $1 trillion this year and it’s growing by the month, with the average debt burden for a college graduate over $24,000. That will leave many of those graduates on a treadmill of loan repayment for most or all of their adult lives.
Renewed public investment in education — from pre-kindergarten to university — would pay handsome dividends for generations. But you aren’t going to hear either candidate or their vice-presidential running mates proposing the equivalent of a GI Bill for the rest of us or even significant new investment in education. And yet that’s a recipe for and a guarantee of American decline.
Ironically, those in Washington arguing for urgent deficit reduction claim that we’ve got to do it “for the kids,” that we must stop saddling our grandchildren with mountains of federal debt. But if your child turns 18 and finds her government running a balanced budget in an America that’s hollowed out, an America where she has no chance of paying for a college education, will she celebrate? You don’t need an economist to answer that one.
Copyright 2012 Mattea Kramer
Let me close with another quote from Arnold J. Toynbee:
Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed
when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.
Part Two continues tomorrow.
What we can learn about healthy lifestyles.
I am indebted to Schalk Cloete who has been leaving some very thoughtful comments on Learning from Dogs. Schalk writes the blog, One in a Billion and more information about him can be learned here. One of the very generous aspects of Schalk’s Blog is that his material is free from copyright, so I gratefully offer the following from his blog.
Perfect health the traditional way
There are a number of very special traditional communities around the world that enjoy amazing health and longevity completely without the help of modern medicine. People still contribute actively to their communities in their 80′s and 90′s and often surpass the magical age of 100 sometimes without ever visiting a doctor.
The most well-documented of these communities is the Okinawa islands in Japan, but a number of other such communities also exist. These include the region of Abkhasia in the Soviet Union, the Symi island in Greece, the Italian village Campodimele, and the mountain communities of Hunza in Pakistan, Vilcabamba in Ecuador and Bama in China.
So, what are the secrets of these amazingly healthy people? Well, I don’t really think we can call them “secrets”, but here they are: these people simply eat a healthy, nutrient dense and predominately plant-based diet (Okinawan food pyramid given below), they never over-eat, they live very active lifestyles and they have a very strong sense of community. Basically, they live the polar opposite of the modern western lifestyle.
These healthy lifestyle choices have some pretty impressive results. One fun statistic about Okinawa is that they boast 15% of the world’s confirmed super-centenarians (those over 110) while having only 0.0002% of the worlds people, thereby giving them a concentration of super-elders close to 100,000 times greater than the rest of the world. Wow…
In John Robbins’ excellent book “Healthy at 100″, he discloses a lot of well documented research on Okinawa, stating that they are about 15% as likely to die of heart disease and cancer as Americans. They also live 5 years longer on average.
When it comes to healthcare spending, Okinawa has the lowest healthcare costs in all of Japan, which already has a three times smaller per-capita healthcare expense than the USA. Thus, they have about a 7 times smaller chance of dying from degenerative disease and live 5 years longer, all while incurring about 5 times fewer healthcare expenses. Not bad, I’d say.
Unfortunately, the younger generation of Okinawans are rapidly screwing up these awesome stats by succombing to the American lifestyle brought by the US troops stationed on Okinawa. It really is quite sad how many grandparents have to bury their grandchildren in Okinawa nowadays.
But this just shows how alluring our modern consumerist lifestyle really is. These young Okinawans saw the vibrant health of their parents and grandparents first hand, but still chose to consume their bodies into oblivion. Unthinking consumerism is indeed a very powerful enemy…
Fascinating article from Schalk, as I’m sure you will agree.
Cherishing the here and now.
Over a week ago there was a fascinating and very thought-provoking BBC radio broadcast by Mr. John Gray, the political philosopher and author of the book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, .
The BBC website then carried a further article by John Gray. But before quoting from that article, I do recommend that you put aside just 14 minutes to listen to that broadcast. If you click here you will be taken to the BBC podcast page for the Point of View series and then scroll down to the item that is headlined: The End, yet again? 26 Dec 2011.
There will see that a simple ‘right click & save target as’ allows you to download the audio file so you can listen at your pleasure.
Indeed, having listened to Point of View over the many years when living in England, I can thoroughly recommend them. Described on the website, “Weekly reflections on topical issues from a range of contributors including historian Lisa Jardine, novelist Sarah Dunant and writer Alain de Botton.”
Here are some extracts from the John Gray article that appeared on the BBC website.
A Point of View: The endless obsession with what might be
If we can stop thinking about what the future might bring and embrace the present for what it is, we would be a lot better off, writes John Gray.
It’s been some time now since history didn’t end. Twenty-odd years ago, when the Berlin Wall was coming down, there were many who believed that there would be no more serious conflicts.
The American writer Francis Fukuyama, who promoted the idea of the end of history in the autumn of 1989, declared that the chief threat in future would be boredom. A new era, different from any before, had arrived.
Of course it hadn’t. The end of the Soviet Union was followed by conflicts and upheavals of the sort that happen when empires fall apart – war in the Caucasus and economic collapse in Russia, for example.
In any realistic perspective the idea that a single event – however large – could mark the end of human conflict was absurd. But those who were seduced by the idea were not thinking in realistic terms.
They were swayed by a myth – a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government.
When you’re inside a myth it looks like fact, and for those who were inside the myth of the end of history it seems to have given a kind of peace of mind. Actually history was on the move again. But since it was clearly moving into difficult territory, it was more comfortable to believe that the past no longer mattered.
Then later on in the article, John writes,
The implication is that sudden shifts are relatively rare in history. But consider continental Europe over the past 70 years – until recently a normal human lifetime. Unless they were Swedish or Swiss, an ordinary European man or woman lived during that period under several quite different systems of government.
Nearly all of Europe, some of it democratic, succumbed for a time to Nazism or fascism. Half of Europe moved from Nazism to communism with only a brief interval of democracy. Most of that half, though not Russia, became functioning democracies after the end of the Cold War.
Not only have political forms changed during a normal lifetime, systems of law and banking have come and gone along with national currencies. The entire framework in which life was lived has changed not once, but several times. In any longer historical perspective discontinuities of these kinds are normal.
The article then concludes, thus,
We seem to be approaching one of those periods of discontinuity that have happened so often in the past. It may seem unthinkable that the European banking system could implode, or that a global currency like the euro could dissolve into nothing.
Yet something very much like that was the experience of citizens of the former Soviet Union when it suddenly melted down, and there is nothing to say something similar could not happen again.
For believers in progress it must be a dispiriting prospect. But if you can shake off this secular myth you will see there is no need to despair. The breakdown of a particular set of human arrangements is not after all the end of the world.
Surely we would be better off if we put an end to our obsession with endings. Humans are sturdy creatures built to withstand regular disruption. Conflict never ceases, but neither does human resourcefulness, adaptability or courage.
We tend to look forward to a future state of fulfilment in which all turmoil has ceased. Some such condition of equilibrium was envisioned by the American prophet of the end of history with whom I began.
As Fukuyama admitted, it’s not an altogether appealing vision. But living in fear of the end is as stultifying as living in hope of it. Either way our lives are spent in the shadow of a future that’s bound to be largely imaginary.
Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.
The task that faces us is no different from the one that has always faced human beings – renewing our lives in the face of recurring evils. Happily, the end never comes. Looking to an end-time is a way of failing to cherish the present – the only time that is truly our own.
I have extracted more than perhaps I ought, and there was so much more to read than is presented here. So please go to the BBC website and read it in full; it’s a very powerful essay.
You may also be interested in learning more about John Gray’s pivotal book: False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism
Finally, let me take you back to a piece that I wrote back in September about Transitions. I closed that piece thus,
There is significant evidence, real hard evidence, that the patterns of mankind’s behaviours of the last few decades cannot continue. Simply because mankind will go over the edge of self-extinction. Darwin’s evidence and all that! We have to accept that humans will see the bleedin’ obvious before it is too late. We have to keep the faith that our species homo sapiens is capable of huge and rapid change when that tipping point is reached, so eloquently written by Paul Gilding in his book, The Great Disruption, reviewed by me here. We have to embrace the fact that just because the world and his wife appears to be living in total denial, the seedlings of change, powerful change, are already sprouting, everywhere, all over the world.
So let’s welcome those changes. Let’s nurture those seedlings, encourage them to grow and engulf our society with a new richness, a new fertile landscape.
Let’s embrace the power of now, the beauty of making today much better and letting go of tomorrow.
For today, I am in charge of my life,
Today, I choose my thoughts,
Today, I choose my attitudes,
Today, I choose my actions and behaviours.
With these, I create my life and my destiny.
It’s very difficult to make predictions, especially when they involve the future!
Stray dogs demonstrate remarkable skills at staying alive.
Before I start, a big word of thanks to Paul Gilding who passed this story to me. Apart from reading Paul’s powerful book, The Great Disruption, and exchanging a couple of emails, he doesn’t know me from Adam. But the fact that this undoubtedly busy man (his book has been a great success) not only responded to an earlier email from me and then dropped me a note to say that I might enjoy the following article, says a great deal about the integrity of the person.
The article, from the website The Dog Files, is about Moscow’s stray dogs. I’m taking the liberty of reproducing it in full.
Each morning, like clockwork, they board the subway, off to begin their daily routine amidst the hustle and bustle of the city.
But these aren’t just any daily commuters. These are stray dogs who live in the outskirts of Moscow Russia and commute on the underground trains to and from the city centre in search of food scraps.
Then after a hard day scavenging and begging on the streets, they hop back on the train and return to the suburbs where they spend the night.
Experts studying the dogs, who usually choose the quietest carriages at the front and back of the train, say they even work together to make sure they get off at the right stop – after learning to judge the length of time they need to spend on the train.
Scientists believe this phenomenon began after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, and Russia’s new capitalists moved industrial complexes from the city centre to the suburbs.
Dr Andrei Poiarkov, of the Moscow Ecology and Evolution Institute, said: “These complexes were used by homeless dogs as shelters, so the dogs had to move together with their houses. Because the best scavenging for food is in the city centre, the dogs had to learn how to travel on the subway – to get to the centre in the morning, then back home in the evening, just like people.”
Dr Poiarkov told how the dogs like to play during their daily commute. He said: “They jump on the train seconds before the doors shut, risking their tails getting jammed. They do it for fun. And sometimes they fall asleep and get off at the wrong stop.”
The dogs have also amazingly learned to use traffic lights to cross the road safely, said Dr Poiarkov. And they use cunning tactics to obtain tasty morsels of shawarma, a kebab-like snack popular in Moscow.
With children the dogs “play cute” by putting their heads on youngsters’ knees and staring pleadingly into their eyes to win sympathy – and scraps.
Dr Poiarkov added: “Dogs are surprisingly good psychologists.”
Now had this been a normal day then I would have had the time to complete this story about the tenacity of dogs. But a failed wireless modem earlier today (Thursday) meant the loss of too many hours fighting technology. It was all sorted just a little before 5pm. It is now 6.15 pm and dinner is ready and, frankly, my brain is too tired to continue.
So stay with this fascinating story about stray dogs as I continue it tomorrow (Saturday, 20th.).
From out of darkness has to come the dawn
One side effect of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Northern Japan on the 11th March causing an explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power station is that the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster is much more a news item than I suspect it might have been.
The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Russia occurred on the 26th April, 1986, twenty-five years ago today. One major difference between the two disasters was, of course, how they were reported.
Here’s a small extract from a fuller article in The Financial Times published on the 19th April written by Tony Barber who was in Russia those 25 years ago.
Twenty-five years after the explosion at the Ukrainian facility, I vividly recall every detail of those terrible days of April 1986. I was a 26-year-old foreign correspondent working in Moscow for Reuters news agency. On Friday, April 25, I flew to Kiev to spend a couple of days with Rhona, an ebullient Scottish friend who was teaching at the city’s university under a British Council programme. I was the only western journalist in Kiev that weekend.
While we caroused the night away, extraordinary events were unfolding 130km to the north. Technicians were conducting experiments that involved the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms at the plant’s fourth reactor. After a tremendous power surge, the reactor blew up at 1.23am on Saturday, April 26.
Except for high-ranking Communist party officials, the KGB and a number of scientists, doctors and fire-fighters, no one in the Soviet Union, let alone the wider world, knew anything about this. Soviet habits of secrecy and deception kept millions of people in the dark even as radiation spread across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and beyond.
Certainly the disaster in Japan was widely broadcast across the world without any delays or restraints. But the thrust of this Post today is to point out what, in the end, will have to be understood by the majority of the world’s peoples and their representatives in power. That is that our dependence, our love affair, with cheap carbon-based energy has to come to an end, and soon.
On the 26th March, The Economist published a briefing on nuclear power entitled, When the steam clears. As with so many of this newspaper’s essays, it was very well written [I am a subscriber to The Economist; have been for years.] Here’s a taste of the article,
When last year a volcano closed the skies over Europe and a blown-out oil-rig turned the Gulf of Mexico black, there was no widespread enthusiasm for giving up oil or air travel. But nuclear power is much less fundamental to the workings of the world than petrol or aeroplanes. Nuclear reactors generate only 14% of the world’s electricity, and with a median age of about 27 years (see chart) and a typical design life of 40 a lot are nearing retirement. Although the world is eager to fly and thirsts for oil, it has had little appetite for new nuclear power for the past quarter of a century.
And towards the end of the article, this,
Distressing though it is, the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi is not in itself a reason for the world to change energy policy. The public-health effects seem likely, in the long run, to be small. Coal, with its emissions of sulphur, mercury and soot, will continue to kill far more people per kilowatt hour than nuclear does. But as an opportunity to reflect it may be welcome. [my italics]
Power of hope
We need a continued growing awareness of the craziness of using coal and oil as primary sources of energy, and from that awareness a growing political pressure for change. Change that recognises that mankind’s present energy strategies of continuing to pump carbon-based gases into the atmosphere are insane; pure and simple.
We need more of these examples:
University of Minnesota researchers are a key step closer to making renewable petroleum fuels using bacteria, sunlight and carbon dioxide.
As the world continues to grapple with energy-related pollution and poverty, can innovation help?
The clock is ticking, as I wrote here a few days ago.