Some Thoughts on Ukraine from a S4F-activist on the 28th of February 2022

by Jöran Landschoff

It is not necessary to reiterate the „Zeitenwende“ that we are experiencing. Hardly any official has failed to point out the weight and utter significance of what Putin‘s invasion means. It is not the first time that there is violence and weaponized conflict in Europe since 1945, and the bloodshed and destruction in Yugoslavia and especially Kosovo in the 1990s can legitimately claim the term “war”. Therefore, it is the superordinate meaning of the war in Ukraine that causes it to mark a historical caesura; a former superpower that still maintains one of the largest and most powerful army on the globe denies the sovereignty of a state on the European continent and attempts to re-draw political borders by military force.

But about this many have written and will still write. I want to look at other consequences this will have. I do so not with ease, for it feels more than uncomfortable to not lay all our focus on the people of Ukraine. With the decisions made in German parliament on February 27th, however, I feel a (of course very personal, and therefore also German) comment from the perspective of the climate movement is justified.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced that 100 billion Euros will be invested in the strengthening of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) and defense in general. Being far from an expert in foreign and defense politics (I am a PhD candidate for German Linguistics), personally, I believe this to be the correct reaction and measure to be taken as an answer to the threat that has broken into our peaceful European political order. Again, real experts on this should (and will) debate this question. I rather want to look at some of the reactions I have already heard and read in my surroundings, the general tone being “of course, all of a sudden there is money for weapons and defense, while there was no money for the imminent threat that is the climate crisis.” While it is of course true that financial and political efforts to invest in climate friendly, CO2-neutral technology and structural transformation have been – let us say: rather humble, this criticism stands as an example for a great misunderstanding of democratic proceedings both in their politically-institutional as well as in their social dimension. Secondly, it takes democratic privileges for granted rather than emphasizing the need to defend them also for the cause of climate protection. I will focus on this and put aside the other problem that statements such as the one I quoted are irritatingly relativistic on the struggles and hardships of the people of Ukraine.

The decision to invest into defense structure marks a change of an era for Germany. I don’t think I need mention the historical reasons for German military to be a rather difficult and sensitive subject. “Never again must war come from German lands” is an iconic and famous quote every German citizen has heard many times in their life. It felt extremely strange to see our parliament, the Bundestag, applaud such decisions to arm our troops almost unanimously as was to be witnessed on February 27th. To make these investments possible, financial efforts have to be conjured up that are hard to fathom, and they do have the dimension that we in the climate movement would have loved to see for the cause to save our planet’s climate, biodiversity, and boundaries. This money is an expense that was not reckoned with in the government’s budget, and yes – it will be missed in the fight against the environmental catastrophe. The fact that it is mustered in an exceptional time, at a time when international relations and military alliances are changing fundamentally, is proof that we are experiencing a radical change in the assessment of what is necessary by political leaders. What is more: an amendment to the constitution is to be achieved for this purpose, which cannot be done without the support of the opposition, pointing again toward the exceptional circumstances.

But the climate crisis is an exceptional circumstance as well, you will say. Indeed, we are investing our time and energy in the climate movement because our way of life is endangering the very substance and foundation of our civilization, very much like the war in Ukraine is threatening our peace, our prosperity, and our well-being. The gigantic difference between the two threats is, however, that war, bombs, guns and soldiers and the destruction they bring are a very concrete, evident and historically known danger, while the environmental crisis is and will be a global profound change that has no example in known history or human memory. We know myths of floods, thunderstorms, eruptions of volcanoes, and all sorts of natural disasters, yes. But an all encompassing, fundamental transformation of climate and ecosystems, of quick shifts of formerly reliable weather conditions is difficult to put into one singular picture. While I believe we are unable to imagine the horrors of a war that reaches into Germany, I believe as well that the pictures of our history books, of movies and paintings, and the terrible footage that we receive from our Ukrainian friends these days are able to give us a much better idea than what we could imagine a climate crisis to be. The philosopher Günther Anders once described such unimaginable proceedings as “überschwellige Phänomene”. He was referring to nuclear war when he developed this term, but it is tempting to apply it to the climate catastrophe. When we try to imagine a horror that is unimaginable, we fail to react adequately and rather succumb to denial.

Another reason why I believe war is a much more tangible concept than environmental crisis is that we can integrate it much better into human behavior and action, meaning that it is much easier to find causation of concrete processes. Even if we are able to understand and imagine the consequences of a flood (and Germany has witnessed an exceptional flood just half a year ago), connecting it to a global climate system, emissions, and human interference with natural environments like riverbeds is much less coercive than tracing back a missile strike to soldiers, generals and presidents who ordered them. The appearing naturalness of natural disasters is the reason for the difficulty to accumulate and integrate them into a larger concept we call “environmental crisis”. They remain singular and arbitrary events for most.

All of this does not justify inaction of governments, you may say. Maybe not in this moral sense, but governments in countries like Germany that operate democratically have to answer to their voters, and it is them to whom justification has to be made. Arguing for the defense of political stability with a war on our doorstep, with an aggressor that appears to oppose what our political system is built upon, is a far easier endeavor than arguing for drastic and costly transformations in the energy, agrarian, construction and basically every sector of our society. Even if a majority of voters are stating that they are in favor of preventing the climate crisis, their actual voting behavior tells us that this is not their main priority.

So, would there have been 100 billion Euros to fight the environmental challenge we are facing? Yes, of course. But would it have been easy to justify it in the current democratic situation? Probably not. We as scientists, as activists, as journalists and as a society have been unable to convey the dimension of the catastrophe we are facing should we not miraculously reduce our emissions, our exploitation and destruction of habitats, of soil and of ecosystems. As a result, democratic systems prove unable to induce adequate action and the political will to meet the challenge, even though science has already provided the knowledge and the technological possibilities necessary. Democratically, too many problems coincide. The challenges of poverty, of participation, of discrimination and of equality are as present as they were in the 20s of the last century, even if their form has a very different shape today. We have to ask ourselves how people are to come up with the trust in a fundamental change for the good when looking at the last 100 years. Fears of existential difficulties that could result from the fight against climate change are no exaggerations. The problems people face in their everyday lives are much more real and far more visible than the ones the climate crisis will bring. Even those catastrophic ramifications of environmental crisis that are already visible are often not connected to their environmental causes.

Still, I do not know how else we are to tackle the great problem of our time if not with democratic principles, as incompletely established as they may be. The beginning of the war in Ukraine coincides with the newest IPCC-report that tells us that many of our worst expectations might have been too optimistic. I am crestfallen today – I have been since the 24th. Not only because of all the destruction, all that death, but also because of the overall meaning of these proceedings. I feel terribly helpless, both toward all of the voices I hear from Ukraine and toward history, because this war is such a gigantic setback. We know very well how utterly important international cooperation and global reciprocal support is in the environmental question. We know this not only because our adversaries will not cease to claim that “Germany is only responsible for 2% of global emissions – we can’t make a difference anyway”, but because we understand how inextricably we are connected in this globalized world. We know this because the conclusion of the fact that every nation only contributes a small percentage towards global emissions it that it is all the more important that we all move away from fossil energy at the same time, together.

Every war cuts deeply into our bridges, ruptures our ties. It costs us lives, it costs us hope, it costs us time and resources we need so dearly. Attacks on gas infrastructure as seen in the Ukraine even directly add to emissions. A task that already seemed impossible has become more difficult. It is clear to me that there has to be peace, there has to be cooperation, and this needs to be solved. Whenever I saw Robert Habeck, German Minister for Economy and Climate, these days, I felt like I could read something in his face that is on my mind as well: There are other things we wanted to do; this was not what we set out to do; this is not what we need in this time. But it is there. And we need to deal with it. If we are unable to protect our right and ability to protest, to inform, to do research and to take part in democratic discourse, our cause to prevent climate catastrophe is lost.

I search for hope in all this. And there seems to be opportunity in all the chaos. Never have German government politicians advocated renewable energies as they do at the moment. It seems that finally the realization that renewable energy provides independence from states and oligarchs who do not share the same values has come through. There is a chance it may become a majority opinion. It may even be that some obstacles for their development in my country are to be dismantled, that there may be some speed added to the transformation of the energy sector.

The war in Ukraine unveils once more how dangerous it is if too few have too much power. It is difficult to understand how this hunger for might has survived until today. I believe we have been unable to solve the problems of modernity; we are yet unable to come up with integrative forces in our societies, we are yet unable to reconcile our differences to work on common difficulties. I have always believed, and I still do, that there is a path to finding solutions across borders, across continents. That we can sit down and talk, that we can reach out to each other, mobilize and elect leaders that bring about the change we need. Today I fear, for the first time, for the prerequisite of this belief. Today I see that a single person can bring ruin to so much. We have taken a hit, we have been wounded, and it feels like the mountain to climb only became higher. Tomorrow, we will fight not only the climate crisis but also the foundation for this fight that we so far had the privilege to fight democratically. I find it hard to forgive that we are thrown back so far. That we have to spend so much effort, time and money on the resolution of senseless conflict. Tomorrow, we will continue. But today I think of all the people fearing for their lives, fighting desperately, hoping furiously, praying unrelentingly. Today I sign another petition, donate money and goods. Today I hope in my (still) safe home. Today I am shattered.