The underlying reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may well include a vision to re-create a Russian empire.  The urgency to act is likely to be due to two other factors.

Russia’s financial dependence on oil and gas is very high – 60% of exports and 40% of the federal government’s revenue derives from oil and gas.  As the world acts against climate change by reducing fossil fuel consumption Russia stands to suffer a significant decline in income in coming decades.  This negatively impacts the flow of cash to the government and to the oligarchs who support Putin.

In addition, the Russian population is shrinking by up to one million a year, from a base of over 140 million.  President Putin has allocated considerable funds to encourage young people to lift the birth rate, but other countries have tried this without much success.  A shrinking population lowers the tax base which reduces tax revenue.

Ukraine possesses abundant supplies of minerals such as uranium, iron ore, and many others.  Much of Ukraine’s iron ore is exported to China.  These resources and Ukraine’s population of 43 million would be a valuable acquisition to more than offset Russia’s population and income decline.  And to preserve the wealth of the rulers.

The cost of sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion may not be large compared with what they face by the end of the decade.


Enigma Horizon, a sequel to Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon is a wonderful book by James Hilton concerning Shangri-La in remote Tibet.  It was written in 1933 and the reader is left to wonder whether the events described actually happened and, if so, what happens next.  It offers some hope for the future in the event that a war decimates civilization.

I felt a need to extend the story and have made a beginning in Part 1 of Enigma Horizon.  Hugh Conway makes it back to Shangri-La and takes up the mission placed in his hands by the founding High Lama.  It is mostly a delightful life in the hidden valley which he loves, but all too soon worrying signs emerge.

Conway realizes that he must take action to ensure the success of the mission – that seclusion alone is too risky.  Over time, it becomes clear that he must anticipate the future rather than wait for it to unfold.

Part 1 is available for purchase now and Part 2 is expected to be finished by the end of 2021.


Australia’s climate policy

With COP26 in Glasgow just days away, Australia’s government is still prevaricating over a 2050 target and a 2030 target.  After eight years in government it is the states, private enterprise, and individuals who have got on with the job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  But now is the time for the federal government to belatedly join in with targets, strategy, and guarantees of achievement.

Australia has been setting new temperature records every six years on average, with each peak almost 0.2 degrees C hotter than the previous.  At that rate, by 2050 the peaks will be 2.5 degrees C hotter than they were  before the 1970’s.

Australia has suffered significant damage during the last peak in 2019, which resulted in tragic, extensive bushfires in 2019-20 with much loss of animals, vegetation, and property.

Australia must not do just its share – it must do much more than its share because it will be so badly scarred otherwise.

To cut or not to cut, that is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The heat and drought of a changing climate
Or to take arms against more fossil fuels

May WS forgive me.

Charlie Nelson
Charlie Nelson


Preparing for the future

Sometimes we can make accurate forecasts about the future, but mostly long-term forecasting errors are large. For example, Australia’s first Intergenerational Report which was prepared by Treasury in 2002 predicted a 2012 population of 21.5 million while the actual population was 22.9 million, making the forecast 6% too low. The forecast population for 2042 was 25.3 million but that figure was exceeded by 2019! Net migration was assumed to be a constant 90,000 people per year but actually averaged 225,000 between 2008 and 2019. The total fertility rate was projected to fall from 1.75 in 2000 to 1.6 by 2042, but it averaged 1.85 between 2001 and 2018. In 2018 the total fertility rate was still 1.75. This forecasting error meant that the predicted infrastructure need expected in 2041 was actually required in 2018.

How, then, can we prepare for the future given the high degree of uncertainty. Fortunately, there is a range of techniques available to imagine the future.

One of these is developing a range of scenarios, plausible futures, and developing robust plans to cope with all likely futures. Here is a scenario developed by the OECD in 2011:

Imagine this. The year is 2017 and a virulent strain of H5N1 avian flu has jumped from poultry to humans in the crowded southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. The virus quickly spreads across the porous border into Hong Kong, then sweeps rapidly through the rest of Asia. The World Health Organisation declares the outbreak a pandemic as governments around the globe break open their vaccine stockpiles in an effort to protect their citizens from the deadly virus. But the measures taken by health authorities do little to stop the spread of the virus. The pandemic ends up killing more than 50 million people around the world, transport and trade systems grind to a halt, and the global economy tips into a recession more severe than that caused by the financial crisis of 2008-10.

This was accurate enough for the world to make plans.  It did not predict a specific Corona virus pandemic and the predicted timing was three years early.  We should have been much better prepared and rehearsed.

My report on preparing for the future describes foresight tools and the skills and traits needed by people preparing for the future.  It is available at

A wet spring possible in 2020 for south eastern Australia

The Indian Ocean Dipole has switched to negative in recent days. This potentially means higher than average rainfall for south eastern Australia – if it persists. The most recent value of the Indian Ocean Dipole Index is -0.68, below the threshold for a negative event.

In a negative event, westerly winds intensify along the equator, allowing warmer waters to concentrate near Australia. This sets up a temperature difference across the tropical Indian Ocean, with warmer than normal water in the east and cooler than normal water in the west.

A negative IOD typically results in above-average winter–spring rainfall over parts of southern Australia as the warmer waters off northwest Australia provide more available moisture to weather systems crossing the country.

More information.

The most recent such event was in the winter and spring of 2016 and before that in the spring of 2010.


Melbourne Airport rail link: go via the Upfield line

The COVID-19 pandemic makes the case for the Melbourne Airport link to run via the Upfield line.

First, we don’t know when air traffic will return to previous levels.  It may be one year or five.  It will eventually recover, but in the meantime the economic case for building according to the existing plan is weaker as it offers little in the way of co-benefits.

Second, the Victorian government (and the federal government) will be cash poor after spending billions to minimise the economic damage of the pandemic.  They will not be able to afford both the airport link and the Melbourne suburban rail loop which is due to commence construction in 2022.

By connecting the airport with Broadmeadows and Fawkner as soon as possible, trains from the airport can connect with regional lines and the city.  The trains could run to Broadmeadows, Fawkner, express to Coburg, then express to the city.

The Upfield line, which includes Fawkner, is very crowded now and there is only one train every 18 minutes at peak hour.  The extra train services would provide a better service on the Upfield line.

Construction of a sky rail section of the Upfield line will be completed in 2020, removing level crossings at Bell Street and Moreland Road (plus two on less busy roads).

The link between the airport, Broadmeadows, and Fawkner would also be the first stage of the suburban rail loop.  Subsequently, connections can proceed east to Reservoir and West to Sunshine and then on to other lines.  This provides an enormous co-benefit because it connects radial suburban lines, reducing the number of people going into and out from the CBD on crowded lines.  It also provides access to the airport for travellers on the Wodonga and Shepparton lines.

Lets get started and remove the problem of the missing airport to city link, while reducing traffic on the roads, and providing the first stage of the much needed suburban rail loop.



Climate change: above the tempest

Gail and I left Melbourne on a 6am flight on 11 August 2019, bound for Vanuatu via Brisbane.  There had been an Antarctic blast over south eastern Australia for several days and we were glad to be escaping from it.

Gail had told me of a news report which, in addition to describing the freezing weather, also mentioned that there were unseasonal winter bushfires in New South Wales.

As dawn broke, with us above the roiling clouds of the tempest, all was calm.

About 80 minutes after take-off we were reaching the boundary of the clouds.  Between breaks in the cloud I could see snow on the ground.  I estimated that we were above northern New South Wales, not far from the coast.  Rare snow indeed!

As I looked down on a snow covered village, I saw smoke from bushfires in nearby hills.  I also saw beaches beyond the plumes of smoke.  The fires were in remote country and so were probably not controlled burns.  It was a very worrying picture given the season.

The tempest would soon yield to conflagration.

To be continued …

The wisdom of Hippocrates

Historians agree that Hippocrates was born around the year 460 BC on the Greek island of Kos.  Little else is known about him, but much wisdom is attributed to him:

  • “It is far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has.”
  • “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
  • “Walking is man’s best medicine. ”

We seem to have forgotten this wisdom in our 21st century focus on treating illness rather than the whole person and rather than preventing illness.

Hippocrates reputedly lived until the age of 90, quite remarkable for his era.  Perhaps it was a nutritious diet, plenty of exercise, fresh air, and sunshine that was the secret to his longevity!

Lowering the risk of developing non-contagious diseases

If there was a cheap pill which lowered your risk of developing non-contagious diseases such as heart disease, depression, dementia, and cancers, would you take it?

Of course, there is no such pill.  But there are ways that you can lower the risks.

You will probably guess what these ways are, but to understand why it is necessary to review the path of human evolution.  This information was recently provided by Herman Potzer in Scientific American, January 2019.

Our closest living relatives, the great apes have quite low levels of physical activity, yet suffer no ill health effects as a consequence.  But humans evolved on a different path beginning some six million years ago.  As we descended from the trees there were gradual anatomical changes.  The size of the brain increased substantially.  Our physiology adapted to the intensive physical activity that hunting and gathering requires.

Humans have evolved to require far higher levels of exercise to be healthy.  We have developed a dependence on physical activity.  We do need at least 10,000 steps per day.

According to Wikipedia “The Paleolithic diet, Paleo diet, caveman diet, or stone-age diet is a modern fad diet requiring the sole or predominant consumption of foods presumed to have been the only foods available to or consumed by humans during the Paleolithic era”.  This means a diet with much less fat, processed foods and especially sugar.

But to go with the diet, we need the activity of the hunter gatherer, as well as the food, in order to be healthy.  Our large brain size suggests that we also need frequent mental activity.

Here are some guidelines for limiting the risk of developing some specific diseases.

Bowel cancer

An article in The Age on January 22, 2019, reported that the incidence of bowel cancer amongst young adults is rising – by up to 9.3% per year since the mid-2000’s.  This information is based on a study published in “Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention” this month.   Lead author Eleonora Feletto, Research Fellow at Cancer Council NSW, said that eating less red meat and processed meat, limiting alcohol intake, not smoking, and increasing physical activity are all lifestyle factors which reduce bowel cancer risk at all ages.

Eating less red meat also has side benefit – it will reduce the greenhouse gasses emitted by cattle and so help to limit climate change.


ABC news reported on 24 January 2019 that a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry provides the strongest evidence yet that exercise has a protective effect against depression.  Based on genetic and other data from 300,000 adults, the study found that replacing sedentary behaviour with 15 minutes of vigorous activity each day can reduce depression risk by roughly 26 per cent.  While such a correlation had already been identified, the use of genetic data shows a causal path.  The research team looked at people who carry genetic variants associated with increased physical activity, and whether these variants impacted their risk of depression.  It was found that higher levels of physical activity (objectively measured, and indicated by associated gene variants) were linked to lower levels of depression.


In April 2017, Scientific American carried an article by Miia Kivipelto and Krister Hakansson, both at Karolinska Institute Sweden, which reported on a gold-standard clinical trial that found that cognitive impairment can be prevented or delayed by promoting changes in behaviour and by managing vascular risk factors.

In the trial, 1,260 men and women between the ages of 60 and 72 were randomly assigned to a control group and a treatment group.  The trial took place between 2009 and 2011.  Two hundred experimental drugs intended to treat Alzheimer’s disease have failed in the past 30 years but association studies over the past 15 years have indicated that good diet, exercise, an active social life, and the achievement of higher education levels may diminish the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias later in life.

The main ingredients in the recommended diet of the intervention group were fruits, vegetables, whole grains and rapeseed oil, along with a fish meal at least twice a week.  The only food supplement was vitamin D.  The physical exercise included muscle-strength training, aerobic exercise, and posture balance.  The intervention group also used a computer program to train on a range of cognitive tasks including memory improvement.

After two years the treatment group showed clear benefits: overall cognitive performance improved on average in both the treatment and control groups, but the treatment group benefitted 25% more than did controls.  The risk of waning cognitive performance was 30% higher in the control group.

More recently, a study published in Nature Medicine by Xu Chen and Li Gan (“An exercise-induced messenger boosts memory in Alzheimer’s disease”, January 2019) suggests that a hormone released during exercise, Irisin, which initiates biochemical reactions throughout the body.  Irisin does exist in the brain.  There is, as yet, no proof that this hormone can prevent Alzheimer’s but it may allay some of the effects.   The hormone appears to operate by enhancing synaptic plasticity and memory.

Prostate cancer

An informative book on prostate cancer is Dr, Patricks Walsh’s guide to surviving prostate cancer (fourth edition, 2018) co-authored by Janet Farrar Worthington.

Walsh and Worthington say that there are some risk factors we can’t do anything about, such as age and being of African ancestry.

Their advice about what men can do to reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer includes:

  • Lose weight.  Too much fat, especially around the middle, increases a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer that is more aggressive and more likely to be fatal.
  • Don’t smoke.  Smoking does not appear to cause prostate cancer, but smokers who develop prostate cancer are more likely to die of it.
  • Eat smarter – the relationship between diet and prostate cancer is complex and it cannot be definitely said that eating too much red meat causes prostate cancer.  Variety is the best advice, focused on a diversity of high nutrient foods and a minimum of junk food.
  • Exercise.  Scientists are increasingly sure that a lack of exercise has an influence on the development of the disease, especially on lethal prostate cancer.  Exercise helps men do better at every stage of the disease.

More on prostate cancer at

Other cancers

Fourteen cancer types, including breast cancer, have been declared by the World Cancer Research Fund to be associated with being overweight and especially obese (The Age, February 4, 2019).  The recommendations are more exercise and eating more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

Heart disease

Heart disease and stroke are major killers.  Lifestyle recommendations to lower the risk include:

  • Don’t smoke;
  • Good nutrition – choose a diet that emphasizes intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; includes low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts; and limits intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.
  • Be physically active every day to a total of at least 150 minutes per week.
  • Then of course, there is blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides to minimise.


We are not taking these evolutionary precautions

Many of us are not taking the advantage of the healthy lifestyle which we have evolved to require.

An October 2018 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ( “Nutrition across the life states” shows that a high proportion of people do not have a healthy diet and that this starts at a young age.

The report shows that:

Australians of all ages generally:

  • do not eat enough of the 5 food groups—vegetables, fruit, grains, meat and alternatives, and dairy products and alternatives
  • eat too much food that is high in energy and low in nutrients (‘discretionary food’)
  • eat too much sugar, saturated fat, and sodium (salt).

This suboptimal food and nutrient intake begins from an early age (as young as 2), which means  good eating practices are not being established in early childhood to take forward into adulthood.

Despite this, the nutrient intake and nutrient status of Australians is generally adequate, but physical activity levels are low, and levels of overweight and obesity are high.

Leading contributors to discretionary food intake include pastries, snack foods and ice cream, while for adults, alcoholic drinks also dominate. Although sugar-sweetened drinks are leading contributors to added sugars intake, they feature lower down the list of leading discretionary  foods for most age groups.

Perhaps in two million years, humans will have evolved to remain heathy with a sedentary lifestyle and a diet of processed food with little in the way of vegetables or fruit.  That will be too late for you and I.

There are, of course, other factors which can cause disease even in people who stick to the evolutionary guidelines and I will write more on this in future posts.

Charlie Nelson




The eclipse and the owl

The total eclipse of the Moon over Melbourne encouraged me out of bed at 3.30am on 28 July 2018.  An alignment last seen over 1200 years earlier was the main attraction.  A very bright Mars was to accompany the Moon through a longer than normal total eclipse.

I was standing at my tripod-mounted camera taking photos of the early stages of the eclipse when I heard a rustle behind me.  Then a bird flew close to my head and perched on a nearby fence.  It was too dark for birds!  I shone my torch towards it and saw that it was an owl!  It flew away too soon for me to identify the species of owl, but I was pleased that it was in the neighbourhood and that I had seen it.

A rare eclipse and a rare sighting of an owl in suburbia!  What did this very rare conjunction mean?

It probably signified nothing, but my imagination had been stimulated.

The owl is associated with wisdom in most cultures and also with wealth in others, especially in India.  Whatever wisdom I may possess, I was certain that I was lacking in wealth.  Could this alignment of the moon, a planet, and an owl be a harbinger of changing fortune?  I hoped so, but understood that this was simply an unlikely random event – and they happen frequently!

What we experience in this world is so unlikely as to be almost impossible.  Out of the billions of stars, how many harbour life?  None that we have discovered yet.  Why is it that the Earth’s shadow is just the right size at the Moon’s orbit to eclipse the Moon?  Why is it that the Moon appears the same size as the Sun, despite the Sun being vastly larger?  The Moon is just the right distance away to totally eclipse the Sun when the astronomical geometry aligns.

The probability of these conjunctions is infinitesimal – no other planet in the solar system provides such events.  Likewise, the existence of life.

While all this is so unlikely that it seems like magic, what we are doing to our world has predictable consequences.  Extinctions, climate change, pollution of the air and the oceans, and the list goes on.  Yet we do nothing to stop the inevitable.

If only humans had the wisdom of owls!