I didn’t grow up in a family that hugged all the time. When a hug was important to and meaningful, yes, but I don’t remember it being a frequent occurrence after I was little. The community I grew up in included families from a variety of cultural backgrounds and personalities, and I did indeed notice that some families hugged everyone – often. Aside from noticing the differences, I didn’t think much about it.
But COVID changed that. One of the most prevalent complaints I heard, and read in blog posts, was how much people missed their hugs. And one of the biggest cheers that went up in blog posts a few weeks ago marking 2 years of life in a global pandemic – and the gradual return to normal (maybe or maybe not prematurely) – was the return of the hug. Boy, have hugs been missed by lots and lots…
It is a well-known fact, perhaps the only “fact” that is not disputed anywhere by anyone in the world. This fact is that we all have “good days and bad days.” Now some people might argue that there is a normal bell-shaped curve for humans that applies even to this fact. You probably learned in science that almost all human traits and characteristics follow the “Normal” bell shaped curve. If this is true, then some of us have more bad days than others and some of us have more good days than others. That would not seem to be very fair though. This raises the primordial question “Is life fair?” We all know the answer to this question because we have heard it from our parents many times and at a very early age.
I suppose in one sense, “life is not fair” means that life is indeed…
Lots of words of wisdom find their way on various social media feeds. Some of the words of wisdom are pearls and others not so much so. Sometimes the wisdom comes in the form of humour. Like this gem, which reminds us of in one small cartoon: having lots and lots of friends on social media may or may not be meaningful. Make sure you have some meaningful friendships in your life and that you nurture those friendships (which of course may include online friendships, like blogging friends!).
Or this gem, which does a good job of reminding us of how many “wolves’ voices” can be found on social media. Be wary of becoming a sheep.
In the non-humorous category, these quotes are gifts from the Internet that speak to an important message we can all stand to be reminded of from time to time: have the confidence to be…
During the 39–45 war the houses on our road near the southern edge of Lincoln were fortunate to have a long allotment appended to the end of the back garden. In childhood I loved this shaggy space, rows of vegetables and rhubarb, fruit bushes, a deep hedge where redcurrants and brambles grew, patches of weedy long grass, waggly old apple tree to swing on, and a chicken coop, until the fox got in.
After the war the allotments continued for maybe 10 years. Then the land was sold by the Council for house building. Our outdoor space was reduced to the back garden, with lawn, fruit trees and flower garden plus surrounding privet hedge, and the front garden with rose bushes and more privet.
As I got to help out, I soon realised that the purpose of gardening was to keep these spaces neat and tidy. The privet needed regular…
Another tragic atrocity is apparently beginning with Putin’s recent first shelling of Odesa, third city of Ukraine. I spent a couple of days there during our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia in 1965, when the Russian name Odessa was used.
At the time this Black Sea resort was a playground for the upper echelons of then-communist Russian society. I’d never seen so many overfed people before we went on that beach.
The harbour at Odessa is linked to the city by the Potempkin Steps, created in 1841 and made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.
Look down the steps at the port, and you can see why this city might be regarded as strategically important.
I recall that this was an attractive city to walk around, all now at risk to Putin’s cowardly cruise missiles.
Borders have changed in most parts of the world throughout history, and Russia, whether as Empire, Federation, or Soviet Union, is no exception. There’s a long history across that vast land of seeking to expand by absorbing neighbouring territory. Don’t forget, Russia had actually expanded to North America to their east. They had possession of Alaska (although I’m sure the indigenous peoples there would not have agreed, but what else is new) from the late 1700s until they sold it to the U.S. in 1867.
Let’s take a look at the changing boundaries of Russian influence over the centuries. [Click on any map for a closer look.]
Russian expansion in Asia, starting at 1533. Notice that Russia consisted only of the area shaded brown in 1533. And notice that that long-ago area already included what’s now Finland.
Another interpretation of Russian expansion (1300-1796). This one does not include…
In the spring of 2019, before everything changed, the federal government presented a budget that was the picture of sunny optimism. The deficit, then a mere $20-billion, was projected to decline to less than $10-billion in four years. This was not by dint of any exercise in fiscal restraint; indeed, it would have declined much faster but for some quite heroic increases in spending, so fast were revenues flowing in. But why not? The revenues were there; they would always be there; might as well spend them. The budget, I wrote at the time, was “a tribute to the pleasures of endless economic growth.”
Well, as I say, that was in the before times. The country has spent the past two years dragging itself through an endless pandemic. The $700-billion debt it was considered prudent to be carrying then – 10 years into an expansion – is now a $1.2-trillion debt. Revenues are as strong as ever; indeed, they are now higher than they were projected to be in that 2019 budget. But spending is even higher: not at the heights it reached in the worst days of the pandemic, to be sure, but far above anything that was ever imagined before. Where it is projected to remain.
Or rather, where it was projected to remain. The pandemic may – or may not – be subsiding, but just as the Trudeau government may have imagined it could settle into another age of endless growth, low inflation, and historically low interest rates, it has been blindsided by reality once again. The short-term economic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are bad enough: more supply squeezes, this time in minerals, energy and grains, another spike in inflation, and a heightened risk that this will become embedded in inflation expectations. (The interest rate on 10-year Canadian government bonds, at 2.2 per cent, is now at a four-year high.)
But the longer-term consequences are even worse, even assuming the present conflict does not spiral into the Third World War. A Russian debt default, possibly within days, will send lasting shock waves through world financial markets, especially if it is discovered that one or two institutions have more exposure to Russian debt than they have been letting on. Worse will follow, if sanctions are applied also to China and India, for their willingness to do business with Russia in defiance of existing sanctions. And that is just for starters.
What has yet to be fully understood is what a permanent rupture has just occurred in the world order. Unlike the pandemic, there can be no going back to the status quo ex ante. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has become not merely a source of instability or the occasional outrage, but an existential threat; even if it can be returned to its cage in the short term, it will be the work of decades to contain it. Predictions of Mr. Putin’s imminent demise will, I’m afraid, prove illusory, and whoever succeeds him could in any case be as bad or worse. This is not a short-term crisis, but a long-term one.
One consequence of this, clearly, will be a requirement – no longer a request – that Canada improve its contribution to the collective defence of the democracies: an increase in defence spending from its current 1.4 per cent of GDP to at least 2 per cent, and probably beyond that. (In the days of Lester Pearson, the great peacemaker, it was closer to 4 per cent.) If this were a short-term or at least finite military engagement, like the Second World War, where the troops could all be sent home at the end, we could simply add this to the debt, and pay it off over many years. But as we are probably looking at a more or less permanent increase, then some difficult choices will have to be made.
It isn’t just the Trudeau government’s pet projects – and there are many of them – that this new demand for spending will have to contend with. It is also the needs of the provinces, specifically for health care. Even before all this, the long-term fiscal prospects of the provinces were looking grim: as an aging population collides with a sclerotic and overburdened health care system, more than one of the provinces is at risk of defaulting on its debts in coming decades. Even radical reform of the health care system cannot avert this. I know the provinces have been in the habit of crying wolf. But this time, they really do need the money.
But so does the defence of the nation. The current crisis has cruelly exposed, if it were not evident already, just how threadbare our military has become: the mere provision of a few hundred rocket-launchers, anti-tank weapons, firearms and grenades to Ukraine has more or less exhausted our own stockpiles. That we need to spend more is self-evident; even more urgently, we need to spend better. Military procurement has been a national disgrace for decades. Played for politics, corrupted by lobbyists, and caught between competing regional interests, projects have routinely come in years late and billions of dollars over budget. Perhaps we could afford this nonsense in the past. We cannot now.
I said everything has changed. But in truth, the golden age we have left behind was never really a golden age. Even that complacent 2019 budget projected economic growth in future years of just 1.8 per cent a year, on average, after inflation – half as fast the economy grew in the 1970s and 1980s, a third as fast as in the 1960s. The only way we will ever be able to afford all of the many new burdens we are piling onto the tax system is if we can generate faster growth – much faster. That is an issue that this government has been content to ignore until now – every bit as much as it has ignored our national security.
So as much as everyone will be looking to see whether, in the coming budget, the government grasps the scale of the new challenges facing Canada, it will also be crucial that it includes, at long last, policies to address the old.
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I recently read an opinion piece from a UK journalist suggesting that Ukraine’s biggest mistake in recent years was to get rid of its nuclear weapons. When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine ended up with a significant part of the former Soviet arsenal – 176 ICBM’s carrying 1900 independent warheads, coupled with around 2600 tactical nuclear bombs. It made them the world’s third largest nuclear power. What happened? In return for solemn guarantees, they gave them to Russia, largely to reduce proliferation but also as part of a general sense that the Cold War was over and the world now faced a future of permanent peace.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has, of course, shown just how effective a ‘solemn guarantee’ actually is, internationally. In point of fact I am hard-pressed to think of any international treaty guaranteeing peace that has lasted more than a generation or so. That aside…
Thanks to a series of astonishingly foolish decisions, Europe has allowed Vladimir Putin to control much of its energy supply. Here’s what it needs to do.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th March 2022
As Russia threatens to cut off the fossil gas on which much of Europe depends, the continent’s storage facilities are a crucial line of defence. So you’ll be glad to hear that Germany possesses a massive gas storage reservoir, under the town of Rehden, in Lower Saxony. The biggest strategic reserve in western Europe, it can hold enough fossil gas to supply 2 million households for a year.
You’ll be less delighted to discover who owns it. It belongs to a company called Astora. Astora is a subsidiary of the Russian state company Gazprom. Altogether, it owns about one-quarter of Germany’s gas stores. All of them are almost empty. They have been run down to 10% or less of their capacity. According to the German minister for economic affairs and climate action, these storage facilities have been “systematically emptied”.
Idiocy is nested within idiocy like a stack of Russian dolls. Germany has allowed private companies to control its strategic reserve, and has imposed no legal requirements on how much gas the reserve should hold. Nor has it prevented companies controlled by foreign states from owning it. Instead, like the UK, it has ceded this crucial security issue to a mysterious deity it calls “the market”.
With the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Germany hooked itself to Russian gas, even as analysts warned that this might become a major strategic liability. Their warnings have been vindicated: this is the pipeline Russia is now threatening to shut in retaliation for sanctions. As if to reinforce its dependency, in 2005 Germany commissioned a second pipeline, Nord Stream 2. The approval was rushed through by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, just before he left office. Within weeks, he was appointed to run the Nord Stream AG shareholder committee, overseeing the pipeline’s construction. He later joined the boards of several Gazprom companies, and became chair of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company.
Why does Germany need Russian gas so badly? Partly because in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster, the federal government decided to shut down all its nuclear plants, owing to the risk of tsunamis in Bavaria. The nuclear shutdown is to Germany what Brexit is to the UK: a needless act of self-harm, driven by misinformation and the irrational allocation of blame.
Within two months of this ruling, Gazprom and the German company RWE signed a memorandum of understanding. It stated that “in light of recent decisions by the German government to reduce their nuclear power programmes, we see good prospects for the construction of new modern gas-fired power plants in Germany”. In 2019, Angela Merkel explained to the World Economic Forum: “We will have phased out nuclear energy by 2022. We have a very difficult problem … we cannot do without baseload energy. Natural gas will therefore play a greater role for another few decades … it’s perfectly clear that we’ll continue to obtain natural gas from Russia.” Germany now relies on Russia for 49% of its gas supply.
Technically and politically, it seems to be too late to reverse this crazy decision, which replaced a low-carbon source of electricity with a high-carbon source. As a result of these stacked idiocies, Russia doesn’t have to wage war on Germany to inflict deadly harm. It needs only to cut off the gas.
A similar dependency afflicts much of Europe, which collectively receives 41% of its gas imports and 27% of its oil imports from Russia, as well as almost half its imported coal. While our government has promised to phase out Russian oil by the end of 2022, this year alonethe UK is likely to fund his war machine to the tune of £2bn in payments for liquefied gas.
Gas and oil, and the banks that finance them, are among the Russian businesses that have not been sanctioned by the EU, the UK and the US, though they represent, by a long way, Russia’s most important source of foreign exchange. Why not? Because we have reduced ourselves to craven dependency on that despotic government, through a dismal failure to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. While we sternly condemn Vladimir Putin, we quietly slip him the money required to sustain his atrocities in Ukraine. Like a ruthless pusher, he exploits our addiction.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, Europe had a gas crisis, and households faced soaring heating bills. Today we have a gastastrophe. We are lucky in just one respect: that Putin invaded Ukraine in the spring, rather than the autumn. Now we have until October – when major heating demand kicks in again – to implement the comprehensive energy transition that should have happened years ago.
Can it be done so quickly? Yes. When governments want to act, they can do so with great force and effect. When the US joined the second world war, it transformed itself from a largely civilian economy to a military economy in a similar period. Manufacturing, services, administration: all were comprehensively retooled. Almost everyone, in one way or another, was mobilised to support the war effort. The federal government spent more money between 1942 and 1945 than it did between 1789 and 1941. With similar determination and resources, rolling out a massive programme of home insulation, heat pumps, renewable energy, public transport and other mature technologies, we could transform ourselves from a high- to a low-carbon economy just as swiftly and decisively.
And, perhaps, go further. On the promise of a scientific discovery that was only three years old, in late 1941 President Roosevelt approved a strategic programme to develop two entirely new technologies. Both were delivered in less than four years. That these were nightmare technologies (explosion and implosion nuclear weapons) does not detract from the principle: when governments use their power, the old rules that are held to determine what is possible no longer apply. I wonder what would happen if governments invested similar resources and political will in the development of kinder nuclear technologies, including new designs for small modular reactors and the fusion programme. I suspect things could shift at extraordinary speed.
The measures needed to forestall environmental catastrophe are the same as those required to release ourselves from dependency on the autocratic governments and ecocidal corporations that control the world’s fossil fuels. Starving the Russian military machine of funds, preventing the collapse of life on Earth: we can do both at once. So what are we waiting for?
What Putin has embarked on is impossible to comprehend from any vantage point. It seems that he’s been fuming at his lessened sphere of influence ever since NATO allowed many more countries into their defense fold, right at Russia’s border, including countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. According to several analyses, he has been fuming ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union and subsequent perceived weakening of Russia as a super-power. In fact, some of these analyses suggest that he’s pining for the true glory days, the days of the Russian Empire. Hmm.
But think of what he’s prepared to do to regain this supposed glory. He’s invaded a sovereign country with absolutely no justification except that he thinks Ukraine owes its allegiance to Russia, by hook or by crook. As we now all know, he’s prepared to slaughter thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, not…