I can’t say I have confidence in the future, but I have a lot of confidence in its unpredictability, based on the fact that the past has regularly delivered surprises. It’s easy to forget in retrospect how astonishing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution were in 1989, or the arrival of the Zapatista army on the world stage in 1994 or how marriage equality seemed like a long shot just before it became a reality in countries all over the world not long ago or how Ireland and Argentina recently legalized abortion. The terrible too comes along without warning. Often a major event – this unforeseen global pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine – then itself has indirect consequences that matter. The pandemic led to a radical shift in the US labor market, including rising wages, worker walkoffs and refusals that at times have seemed tantamount to a general strike, and remarkable labor organizing against some of the most resistant low-wage employers.
Both the pandemic and the invasion have significant consequences for climate politics. First of all they should shake loose the expectation that we know what will happen, that the world of next week will be pretty much the same as last week. Second they should mean that people stop saying we can’t make dramatic changes because 2022 seems to be as much about sudden and profound worldwide change as 2020 was.
The pandemic pushed oil prices through the floor – one amazing day in the spring of 2020, Texas crude futures dropped to -$37 per barrel. For a while demand also plummeted. What history teaches us over and over is that another surprise is coming, and though the invasion of Ukraine wasn’t a surprise to a lot of us, the way it’s unfolded – Russian fumbling, Ukrainian valor, global response – has been astonishing. Maybe it’s appropriate that it’s Lenin who once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The past week was a decade and an earthquake.
Oil prices are high now, but Oilprice.com reports, “Shares in Rosneft, Gazprom, Lukoil, and Surgutneftegas collapsed on the London market, losing as much as $190 billion of their combined market capitalization, or 95 percent.” I don’t know if the world has ever seen a crash like that. The sheer volatility of fossil fuel has made it a bad investment, and on Tuesday the climate divestment movement celebrated that its efforts have resulted in $40tn being divested from fossil fuel. In events not just unforeseen but almost unimaginable until they happened, BP, Shell, Exxon and a number of other major oil companies walked away from their Russian investments and partnerships, which throttles both Russian capacity to extract and to market the stuff. Germany declared that renewables were freedom energy and vowed to accelerate its transition away from fossil fuel and dependence on Russian supplies, and the world acknowledged what climate activists have long been shouting, that fossil fuel is inextricable from corruption and violence. The Nord Stream pipeline company promptly collapsed into bankruptcy. Had anyone described this energy situation a week before it happened, they would have been laughed out of the room.
Putin is fighting a retrograde war in Ukraine with a faith in the determinative political power of violence that is as misplaced as it is widespread. His mantra seems to be “make Russia great again,” and his heavy assault techniques sometimes worked in the second world war – and even then sometimes didn’t. What imperial powers should have learned from their wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq is that the will of the people cannot be flattened by bombardment, that hearts and minds are never won that way, and that the damage to your own standing may be what’s most lasting.
And in a hyperconnected world, a new equivalent to war has emerged, not as invasion but as exit, blockade, withdrawal and isolation. Russia has been swiftly cut off from everything from sport to technology to material trade to international banking, and the impact is crushing already and will rapidly grow worse. No one in Russia is being bombed but would-be economic refugees are streaming out. Experts widely suspect this policy blunder will be, one way or another, the end of Putin’s grip on Russia, though no one knows how his reign will end.
Despair is a delusion of confidence that asserts it knows what’s coming, perhaps a tool of those who like to feel in control, even if just of the facts, when in reality, we can frame approximate parameters, but the surprises keep coming. Anyone who makes a definitive declaration about what the future will bring is not dealing in facts. The world we live in today was utterly unforeseen and unimaginable on many counts, the world that is coming is something we can work toward but not something we can foresee. We need to have confidence that surprise and uncertainty are unshakable principles, if we want to have confidence in something. And recognize that in that uncertainty is room to act, to try to shape a future that will be determined by what we do in the present.
It would be unreasonable to predict that we can leave the age of fossil fuels behind and do what the climate requires of us, but it would be unwise to say that it’s impossible, and only our actions can make it possible. The livable world of 2072 is almost unimaginable. But the way that I imagine it is possible is by thinking how unimaginable the 2022 we’re all in now would have been in 1972 and how little it resembles either most science fiction or prediction. We see no farther than the little halo of our lanterns, but we can travel all night by that light.