Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Three countries, three destinies

This is a post about three countries:

(1) Sweden. Just like it established the most socially responsible state in world history almost a 100 years ago (most of the rest of us, especially the US, has a lot of catching up to do), Sweden is once more leading the world -- this time in its energy policy.

(2) Poland. This country is the most remarkable success story to come out of the former Soviet-dominated states. It has remade itself into a flourishing bastion of the West -- so much so that I hear from people in England that employers there prize Polish immigrants above all others as employees, especially above Brits themselves.

(3) Japan. It seems the only thing Japan got right after WW2 was economic growth. Culturally, it's still mired in its WW2 war criminal record as far as the rest of Asia is concerned.

1. Sweden plans to be world's first oil-free economy
·15-year limit set for switch to renewable energy
·Biofuels favoured over further nuclear power
By John Vidal, Guardian environment editor

Sweden is to take the biggest energy step of any advanced western economy by trying to wean itself off oil completely within 15 years - without building a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The attempt by the country of 9 million people to become the world's first practically oil-free economy is being planned by a committee of industrialists, academics, farmers, car makers, civil servants and others, who will report to parliament in several months.

The intention, the Swedish government said yesterday, is to replace all fossil fuels with renewables before climate change destroys economies and growing oil scarcity leads to huge new price rises.

"Our dependency on oil should be broken by 2020," said Mona Sahlin, minister of sustainable development. "There shall always be better alternatives to oil, which means no house should need oil for heating, and no driver should need to turn solely to gasoline."

According to the energy committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, there is growing concern that global oil supplies are peaking and will shortly dwindle, and that a global economic recession could result from high oil prices.

Ms Sahlin has described oil dependency as one of the greatest problems facing the world. "A Sweden free of fossil fuels would give us enormous advantages, not least by reducing the impact from fluctuations in oil prices," she said. "The price of oil has tripled since 1996."

A government official said: "We want to be both mentally and technically prepared for a world without oil. The plan is a response to global climate change, rising petroleum prices and warnings by some experts that the world may soon be running out of oil."

Sweden, which was badly hit by the oil price rises in the 1970s, now gets almost all its electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric power, and relies on fossil fuels mainly for transport. Almost all its heating has been converted in the past decade to schemes which distribute steam or hot water generated by geothermal energy or waste heat. A 1980 referendum decided that nuclear power should be phased out, but this has still not been finalised.

The decision to abandon oil puts Sweden at the top of the world green league table. Iceland hopes by 2050 to power all its cars and boats with hydrogen made from electricity drawn from renewable resources, and Brazil intends to power 80% of its transport fleet with ethanol derived mainly from sugar cane within five years.

Last week George Bush surprised analysts by saying that the US was addicted to oil and should greatly reduce imports from the Middle East. The US now plans a large increase in nuclear power.

The British government, which is committed to generating 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2012, last month launched an energy review which has a specific remit to consider a large increase in nuclear power. But a report by accountants Ernst & Young yesterday said that the UK was falling behind in its attempt to meet its renewables target.

"The UK has Europe's best wind, wave and tidal resources yet it continues to miss out on its economic potential," said Jonathan Johns, head of renewable energy at Ernst & Young.

Energy ministry officials in Sweden said they expected the oil committee to recommend further development of biofuels derived from its massive forests, and by expanding other renewable energies such as wind and wave power.

Sweden has a head start over most countries. In 2003, 26% of all the energy consumed came from renewable sources - the EU average is 6%. Only 32% of the energy came from oil - down from 77% in 1970.

The Swedish government is working with carmakers Saab and Volvo to develop cars and lorries that burn ethanol and other biofuels. Last year the Swedish energy agency said it planned to get the public sector to move out of oil. Its health and library services are being given grants to convert from oil use and homeowners are being encouraged with green taxes. The paper and pulp industries use bark to produce energy, and sawmills burn wood chips and sawdust to generate power.


More than twenty years ago, one of modern history's pivotal events took place in Poland. One night when I was having dinner in the Forum Hotel in downtown Warsaw, I sadly observed the inner disintegration of a valiant nation.

Out on the street in the snow and bitter cold, desperate Poles stood in food lines -- the currency had collapsed, as many feared a Soviet invasion was imminent to destroy the Solidarity free trade unions that threatened the communist regime.

Inside the dining room, another symbol of the breakdown was taking place. Every night, I would order smoked salmon, creamed mushrooms, a delicious steak and a good bottle of red wine. Every night, the entire meal cost the equivalent of $2; and one could also make money on the deal.

In the invasive mood of national hysteria, in a "play" whose tempo was accelerating every minute, the waiters had become avid money-changers. At every table in the Forum on those ominous nights, they were giving incredible rates, right there in the open, so some lucky Poles could escape Poland with some cash. They were also selling Russian caviar for low prices, but they were careful to hold to their standards and presented the caviar with dignity, bringing it out under neat pink napkins.

What was wrong with the country to its communist rulers -- and particularly to the Soviet Union, which looked at Poland as its own -- was the fact that in a bare two years, a bunch of burly dock workers led by a "little electrician" had formed an unthinkable power center right within Poland. These new unions, moreover, were backed by the Roman Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II himself.

Within days, on Dec. 14, the country's putative leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, and the Polish military declared martial law. The country sank into darkness. Solidarity leaders were thrown into jail, and much of the world was certain that the great democratizing experiment of Solidarity was dead.

Except that it wasn't at all.

When I spoke with Solidarity's now-legendary leader, Lech Walesa, here six years, the stolid, husky, infinitely clever "little electrician" from the shipyards at Gdansk recalled those dark years.

"During that time, not one of the great politicians of the world who came to Poland -- and I spoke to all of them -- believed it was possible to overcome communism," he said that day. "They all wanted to defeat the system, but communism had created such changes that people didn't believe that overcoming such a system was possible."

Even today, two decades and a universe of changes later, no one in Poland is quite sure why Gen. Jaruzelski, an upright and rigid Polish officer, initiated martial law -- and the opprobrium of so many of his fellow countrymen. His position has generally been that he did it to avoid and pre-empt Moscow's threat of an invasion.

But whatever the genuine reasons of this now elderly and ailing man, the fact is that eight years of martial law, as unpleasant as they were for Poles, marked the crucial interlude while the Soviet Union was collapsing internally and while many Polish leaders were struggling and (above all) studying for the future they believed was inevitable.

When I was in Poland some years ago for the sixth time since the events of 26 years ago, "new Poland's" brilliant economics planner, Leszek Balcerowicz, told me how he and others in the team that would transform Poland would study "deep into the night" to answer one question: "What would Poland do if it were free?"

"In my student years," he told me in Warsaw, "I asked, 'Why are some countries rich and some poor?' My conclusion was that it was the system. Nothing original. And so we studied countries like Germany after World War II, South Korea, Japan, and even Singapore and Chile.

"For me, the direction was clear. We had to set free the energies of the people and to liberalize enterprise. We had to establish a sound currency, pension reform and an independent central bank, and undertake a complete reform of public finances."

This they did -- and much, much more. While Poland still has tremendous problems, particularly in agriculture and privatization, today it is a country of the West, no longer of the East. Its democratic political system and economic free enterprise system are so in place that they are not even discussable anymore in Polish salons; and Polish officials even travel to Russia to give the Russians lessons on the transformational policies that carried Poland from communism to democracy.

In fact, the historic Eastern border of Europe, or the "Eastern Frontier," which for centuries was the German-Polish border, has now definitively moved to Poland's eastern borders with the dour and dingy remains of the Soviet empire.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from the story of Poland under martial law in the 1980s and from the successes of its modern renaissance in the 1990s. The organizing genius of Solidarity, of creating an alternative power structure right in the middle of a totalitarian dictatorship, will always stand as one of Poland's great gifts to history.

The seemingly simple determination of Balcerowicz and his serious and open-minded team, to study without illusion what works and then apply it politically, is a lesson that many undeveloped countries could surely copy. Reordering structures in much of the world is the crucial key to change.

3. NY Times Editorial: Japan's Offensive Foreign Minister

People everywhere wish they could be proud of every bit of their countries' histories. But honest people understand that's impossible, and wise people appreciate the positive value of acknowledging and learning from painful truths about past misdeeds. Then there is Japan's new foreign minister, Taro Aso, who has been neither honest nor wise in the inflammatory statements he has been making about Japan's disastrous era of militarism, colonialism and war crimes that culminated in the Second World War.

Besides offending neighboring countries that Japan needs as allies and trading partners, he is disserving the people he has been pandering to. World War II ended before most of today's Japanese were born. Yet public discourse in Japan and modern history lessons in its schools have never properly come to terms with the country's responsibility for such terrible events as the mass kidnapping and sexual enslavement of Korean young women, the biological warfare experiments carried out on Chinese cities and helpless prisoners of war, and the sadistic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in the city of Nanjing.

That is why so many Asians have been angered by a string of appalling remarks Mr. Aso has made since being named foreign minister last fall. Two of the most recent were his suggestion that Japan's emperor ought to visit the militaristic Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese war criminals are among those honored, and his claim that Taiwan owes its high educational standards to enlightened Japanese policies during the 50-year occupation that began when Tokyo grabbed the island as war booty from China in 1895. Mr. Aso's later lame efforts to clarify his words left their effect unchanged.

Mr. Aso has also been going out of his way to inflame Japan's already difficult relations with Beijing by characterizing China's long-term military buildup as a "considerable threat" to Japan. China has no recent record of threatening Japan. As the rest of the world knows, it was the other way around. Mr. Aso's sense of diplomacy is as odd as his sense of history.


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