Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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Can the Ukrainian war become the inflection point for climate action?

United Nations logo — Andrew D'Entremont, photographer, 9/2104 — Courtesy Flickr CC

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” — Yogi Berra

You’d think everybody would be sick of this stuff by now. Resource wars, dictators, armies, death and general mayhem — haven’t we had enough?

Apparently not. As the war in Ukraine proves, human derangement yet abides in some quarters. But perhaps not for long.

So, I’ll go out on a limb and make a few predictions. First, the war in Ukraine will grind to a halt within six months or a year. Second, when it’s over, the world as a whole will be in much worse shape, economically, than it was when it began, with a number of countries and regions in truly desperate shape. And third, that situation could be the beginning of a long-term, downhill trajectory for civilization; or, it could be an inflection point wherein we take a turn toward a much healthier, more viable future for humanity. In any case, even if there is a desire for a return to “normalcy,” things won’t go back to where they were before the conflict — they will keep moving in a new direction.

The “Big Mess” scenario is easy enough to predict. By the end of the war, Ukraine will be devastated physically; Russia’s economy will be in shambles, and ongoing sanctions will keep that way for some time; spinoffs from these problems will severely effect food availability across a vast swath of poor countries, mostly in eastern Africa and the Middle East. There, the resulting famines, mass migration, political instability, including rebellions and civil wars, will drain global GDP, with the possible exception of fostering banner years for arms manufactures. The international monetary fund has already predicted a sharp decline in global economic growth for 2022 due to the fallout from the war. 2023 could well be worse as the world stumbles toward some sort of recovery. (Not that economic growth is necessarily an indicator of positive sustainable development; but for now, it is one of the best indicators we have of the change in global poverty rates and other key indicators of general prosperity.) Meanwhile, climate change will continue to harm agriculture and economic activity across the rest of the planet — those areas not directly affected by the war.

We must acknowledge that the war’s aftermath could be even worse than that. It’s possible, assuming Putin’s regime won’t outlast its Ukrainian debacle by many months, that a nuclear-armed and economically devastated Russia could spin out of control during leadership struggles between various factions. Said civil “disturbances” could spill across borders, starting more conflicts. But these “all bets are off” prospects are too radical for any type of meaningful attempt at predictions, so they won’t be discussed here.

What is clear is that as the war ends, it will not suffice to “let the chips fall where they may,” allowing each country to deal with its own problems in the name of national sovereignty. This would lead to more chaos and disorder, some of it truly dangerous in our era of nuclear armaments. We’ll have to create a way to move forward as a global community, much as the United Nations was created after WWII.

One approach to this great reconstruction could be to try to re-establish the old, pre-war world order, where fossil fuels provide most of the world’s energy, and certain countries and groups within those countries monopolize those energy sources, generating vast income inequality and, likely, more chaos and conflict. The connection between fossil fuel economies, especially those of petrostates, and autocracy and war are well established. Falling back into the old economic/energy regime world order would be setting up the next war, just as falling back into the pre-World War I patterns of nationalist competition and conflict led, in just two decades, to World War II.

Alternatively, the Ukrainian war could serve as an inflection point that separates the old fossil-fuel/monopoly/oligarchy-autocracy development trajectory we’ve been on for the past century from a new curve bending toward decarbonized, distributed energy and relative equality, in terms of energy stocks, between all nations.

This possibility exists because all nations have access to one or more sources of free, decarbonized energy…

This possibility exists because all nations have access to one or more sources of free, decarbonized energy and simply need the means to harvest it to become relatively self-sufficient and prosperous. If such independence were achieved, the interdependence of nations could be based on mutual benefit rather than energy exploitation. 

Every country has at least some access to the sun. Many of today’s poorest countries, lying in the equatorial and subtropical belts, have vast solar-harvesting potential, enough to meet their own energy needs and to provide a surplus for export. Most countries have shorelines with steady offshore winds high above the ocean’s surface, and 100%-reliable wave energy availability, as well as geothermal and hydroelectric potential. Those sources alone, if developed, could end both energy deprivation and its associated conflicts.

Hearteningly, the global youth climate movement has already mastered these lessons. They see that the distributed nature of localized solar and wind energy production — who, after all, owns the sun and wind? — greatly reduces the impetus for conflict over energy reserves concentrated in specific locales. If Ireland boosts its energy efficiency and runs on offshore wind and home-grown biogas, why does it need Russian fossil fuels? 

One indication that the Ukrainian war could serve as turning point toward global decarbonization is the kick in the pants the conflict has already given Western Europe. After decades of declaring its good intentions about meeting climate goals, while taking its sweet time about actually implementing those goals, the EU and adjacent countries (Britain, etc.) are suddenly forced to reduce their deep reliance on Russian hydrocarbons as quickly as possible. While this to some extent means looking for other sources, such as natural gas from the U.S. and elsewhere, it also means (1) quickly reducing their energy demand, i.e., increasing efficiency while, Heaven forfend, turning down the thermostat and wearing a sweater in winter, while (2) simultaneously increasing their renewable energy supply — ASAP.

Since decarbonization has been part of the bloc’s long-term goals, recently codified in the European Commission’s “green new deal” agreement of 2020, action on the policy can, and will be implemented with a new sense of urgency.

This process will still take a few years, of course, but the fact that it is now Europe’s most urgent project — other than directly helping Ukraine win the war — means that it is finally being given the priority that all fossil economy divestment should be given — and that it can serve as a post-war model for much of the rest of the developed and even the developing world.  

There are simple, irrefutable answers to those who say such development is too expensive. First, it’s cheap; buildout expenses are minimal compared to the ongoing costs of energy wars and especially the mounting costs of climate chaos. Also, the advantages of distributed energy harvesting are immediate and local, serving the populations of countries where hydrocarbon energy resources are currently extracted and shipped elsewhere at considerable cost for infrastructure, transportation and military support.  

Before WWII ended, forward thinkers were already laying the groundwork for programs such as the Marshall Plan and institutions like the UN and the European Common Market (now the EU).

(Despite the UN’s shortcomings as a “world governing organization,” which it was never really intended to be — it’s an intergovernmental coordination mechanism — the very existence of the organization is a tremendous achievement, and a model that we can build on. To give but one example of its critical role in global affairs, the UN is the sponsoring organization for the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), without which we would not have a global organization for building a scientific consensus on global heating.)

Precedents such as the Marshall Plan and the Creation of the UN and EU, plus the advent of the internet, creates an opportunity for the world’s ordinary citizens, who are currently forced to be frustrated, passive witnesses to the horrors in Ukraine, to take immediate action: we can create and promote a vision that will bend the curve of post-war developments toward a greener, safer and saner future.  

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.