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Ukraine and Climate Change – Two Current Crises: Does History Repeat Itself?

Let us take two current crises. The first, the Russian war on Ukraine, has European roots but global consequences. The second, climate change, is global by definition. Both touch all of us. As John Donne put it four hundred years ago, no one is an island. ‘Every man [and woman, we would add] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ That is even truer of our inter-connected world.[1] I want to suggest that what connects these two crises and their global reach, but also distinguishes them from each other, is how they relate to time, that is to history and our awareness of history.

Heraclitus’ river

Let me state at the outset that history never repeats itself. As Heraclitus of Ephesus famously said of time in the early 5th century BCE, ‘you cannot step twice into the [same] stream.’ The water has flowed on. But he might have added that we also never step out of the ever-changing stream of time, and we change too. Hence, relating present to past is a given of human existence. Also, the stream of time (or history) is anything but straightforward. It loops, meanders and has many back channels. So even though the present (and present crises) are always new, they are connected upstream to what has gone before. And as we confront the meanderings of present time, we may confront the past in new ways. What yesterday seemed remote, today suddenly seems close, owing to the changing course of Heraclitus’s river. That is what history is. That is why it is never just a question of past and knowable facts. It cannot be finite, for it is about our changing relationship with time. History never repeats itself but with each twist of the river, the present creates new links to the past. Grasping those links and what they portend for our future is what history can teach us.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

So let me come to the first of the two crises – Russia’s war on Ukraine. I’m sure like many people, when I awoke on 24 February to columns of Russian tanks rolling towards Kyiv and Kharkiv, it seemed to me that we’d suddenly rounded a bend in Heraclitus’s river to meet scenes from the nightmare of World War Two. Vladimir Putin’s claim to be ‘liberating’ Ukraine from ‘fascists’ bent on a ‘genocide’ of Russians in the Donbass reinforced the sense of falling through time. Clearly, the crisis created by the invasion for Ukraine itself, the European Union and the global order was novel and profound. But how can we relate it both to recent history and, vitally, to historical awareness? How has it changed our relationship to the past?

There are many answers to this question but let me give two. First, it has transformed 1989 as an historical turning-point. In the west, we long thought of this as the fall of communism, the end of the USSR and the re-unification of a divided continent. Indeed, there was widespread acceptance of the idea formulated by Eric Hobsbawm and other historians of a ‘short’ 20th century, from 1914 to 1989, as an ‘age of extremes’ – of ideological confrontation, total war and genocide (notably the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews). Now, however, 1989 began to look less like a full stop and more like a semi-colon. Are we seeing a ‘long twentieth century’, in which the current war has parallels’ with, and connections to, the two World Wars and the Cold War? We may be experiencing such a realignment of past and present.

For this was a revelation of the invasion of Ukraine, though the evidence was building long before: if the Cold War was a real war (albeit of an unusual kind), then the USSR (and with it, Russia) was defeated. In Europe, we saw 1989 as the fall of (and ‘victory’ over) communism. The naïve belief that neo-liberal economics (riding high in the era of Reagan and Thatcher) could provide the shock-therapy to convert communist defeat into a free-market Russia was not the least egregious of our miscalculations. It helped plant the roots of a Russian kleptocracy, the oligarchs who now dominate the Russian economy, and a deeply unequal society.

So, insofar as we thought about post-soviet Russia at all, it was in terms of the economy. Our real attention was on the former communist states of Eastern Europe. They thought of themselves as having been liberated (rather like continental Europe from the Nazis in 1945). Indeed, the very institution set up to overcome World War Two in Western Europe, the EEC/EU, served in the early 2000s to help the Eastern European states (but not Russia) transform themselves into nation-states more-or-less based on liberal democracy and capitalism. It seemed proof that the EU, driven by a core belief that major wars should never engulf the continent again, had succeeded.

However, the Soviet Union had been defeated in the Cold War as a society, not just an economic and ideological system. Since Russia had always formed the core of the multi-ethnic Soviet Union (just as it had done of the equally multi-ethnic Tsarist empire), it experienced the defeat of 1989 as existential. We did not see this. The Russian people felt as much defeated, as liberated. But this was not total defeat as with Nazi Germany or Japan in 1945 (again, the historical model which prevailed in the west) but rather partial defeat, like Germany in 1918. So, we needed to go back to World War One to grasp what was going on. Both Imperial Germany in 1918 and Soviet Russia after 1989 lost territory and peoples; both changed political regime; and Russia (unlike post-1918 Germany) experienced a drastic change in its economic system. But post-communist Russia, like Weimar Germany in the 1920s, remained intact as a state. There was no enemy occupation (like Germany or Japan after 1945) to help turn total defeat into the reconstruction of the political system and political culture. Rather, like Weimar Germany, post-communist Russia had a period of relative liberalism (under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s) until a deep recession in 1998 precipitated the rise of an authoritarian regime. Under Putin, Yeltsin’s successor from 2000, this became a dictatorship. Like Hitler’s Germany (though I would not push the analogy further), Putin’s Russia felt humiliation at the ‘defeat’ of 1989 and nostalgia for a lost world.

Had the west (both the EU and NATO) understood this, they might have allayed Putin’s cold fury with a new security architecture. But we can never be sure this would have worked, that it would have been enough. As it is, they believed that everyone subscribed to their view that war had become unthinkable in Europe. The conflict in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s was a salutary reminder of war’s brutality. They also believed that economic growth would consign war to the past – that what had worked for Eastern Europe would work indirectly for Russia and for Ukraine. This belief went back to the first stirrings of the European project in the 1920s, in the idea of a European Union in response to the catastrophe of World War One.

All this failed to take account of a powerful revanchist nationalism in Putin’s Russia which, from the brutal retention of Chechnya in 2003-4, through Georgia, the Crimea and the fostering of secessionist conflict in the Donbass after 2014, led to the fully-fledged invasion in February this year of a sovereign nation-state, Ukraine, which Russia had itself recognised on the break-up of the Soviet Union. We can now better grasp the reading of history on which the insouciance of the west was based. But few of us saw this fully before we rounded the bend in Heraclitus’s river of time.

Putin’s view of history

As I suggested, there is a second and quite specific way in which the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forged a new relationship with the past, and that is in Vladimir Putin’s own head and the support for him by many Russians. Of course, Putin had many motives in attacking Ukraine, not least to quash the emergence of a functioning democracy there (as in neighbouring Belarus) which might infect Russia itself. However, to a quite unusual degree Putin’s actions have been explicitly driven by his reading of history. It is true that any ideology is rooted in interpretations of the past (we only need think of communism with its Marxist historical laws). But most ideologies turn on the promise of the future. However, Putin, in the words of a leading French historian of the country, has made himself Russia’s ‘historian in chief’.[2]

In effect, his future is the past. In his effort to reconstitute Russia as a great imperial nation, Putin is driven by an obsessive misreading of Russia’s history, and a total re-evaluation of the communist period. He also suppresses other interpretations of history. Thus, a major civil rights and history organisation, called Memorial, has since 1989 worked to recover the memory (and bodies) of the mass killings carried out by Stalin. It is now banned. State archives are closed for serious research into recent history. All school history textbooks have been purged and replaced by a single set of primers. Officially, Putin controls Russian history, its relation to the past. Proposing alternative histories runs the risk of substantial prison terms.

According to his views, contemporary Russia is the successor to the historic unity of the Russian people, which includes Ukraine and Belarus. The culminating moment in this epic was the triumph of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45 against Nazi Germany, restored as a national triumph but with the ‘crimes of communism’ relegated to the side-lines. This put Putin on collision course with a Ukraine that had its own nationalist revolution in 1918-20 (suppressed by the Bolsheviks), its own experience of World War Two, and which since 1991 has rebuilt itself painfully not only as a sovereign nation-state but also a functioning democracy. For Putin this can only be seen as Fascist resistance to Ukraine’s true vocation as part of Russia. As he re-fights World War Two, he seems ready to destroy all Ukrainians who disagree with him. Heraclitus’s river of time is in turmoil.

The climate crisis

I now want to turn, much more briefly, to the second crisis, climate change. My essential point is that if we were to tell the story of how this relates to historic consciousness – awareness of the past – in Europe and around the world, it would be a totally different matter. Perhaps the story would go something like this. Between 300,000 and 250,000 years ago, Homo sapiens emerged (as far as we know in Africa). It – we – developed conceptual thought and language some 70,000 to 50,000 years ago (while rival hominids were still around) – and so we became capable of framing ideas on how we interacted with the biosphere (via religion).  Despite the growth in that interaction with the Neolithic revolution, which brought about settled farming some 11,700 years ago, it resulted in only limited human impact on the environment, especially the ocean and the atmosphere. As we know the industrial revolution and growing urbanisation from the late 18th century began to change that, along with a rapidly increasing global population (I find it sobering that in my own lifetime this has increased three-fold, from 2.5 to nearly 8 billion people). As we also all know, the International Panel on Climate Change of the UN has warned the world that is near a tipping-point, which could make life unviable on earth. It is vital to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2050 in order to avert disaster.

We know this. It is a crisis more urgent than the war in Ukraine (or any one of a number of crises that currently face us, from a polarising global order to structural inequalities between the global north and south, from authoritarian populism to the risk of more pandemics in a shrinking world). Yet the role of history and the shifting lessons of Heraclitus’ river seem much less evident in the climate crisis. Not that we lack powerful ideas and images from the past about how we interact with our physical environment. But if we drew up an inventory of these, I believe we would find many disincentives to addressing the climate crisis. The very idea of nature as something to be conquered, to be tamed to our will, was fostered in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries by ‘exploration’ and the hunt for the raw materials for which our industrial societies have an insatiable appetite. True, there has been the counter-veiling imagery, derived from Romanticism, of the beauty of the wild or the healing powers of ‘mother nature’ – notions which helped shape the emergence of environmental movements from the later 19th century on. But even now, the fact that orthodox economics do not factor in the environmental costs of production (unless forced to by state action) shows how belatedly we come to this crisis, and how unarmed we are in terms of our experience and knowledge of the past. Environmental history is a new discipline.

The twin horsemen

In conclusion, let me suggest two things. First, Heraclitus’s river of time means that each new bend confronts us with the novelty of the present (including its crises) and that these in turn offer new connections and parallels with the past – plus possible insights for the future (those, by the way, are all we have, since the future will be different again – another turn in the river). But the river of time moves at very different speeds. To adapt the metaphor, surface eddies and swirls overlay deeper, slower-moving currents. We face two crises (among many) which imply radically different relationships with history and historical awareness. To grasp Russia’s war in Ukraine we need to reinterpret 1989, the Cold War and the two world wars back to 1914. Potentially, Ukraine up-ends our timeframes of recent history. However, to understand the gravity of the climate crisis, we must go back to the start of the Holocene (after the last glacial period) when we first began to impact the earth and especially to the industrial revolution, re-evaluating all we knew and took for granted about how we live in, and with, ‘nature’ so as to attain sustainable development.

The second conclusion is that we are much better equipped to deal with a war like that in Ukraine than with the climate crisis. However sobering the prospect of nuclear annihilation might be – and it marks the point at which war and the climate crisis join each other as the twin horsemen of the contemporary Apocalypse – our past experiences and historical knowledge equip us to think about war as they do about other contemporary ‘crises’, such pandemics and economic upheavals. We have lived through these, and that helps us deal with their challenges on each new stretch of Heraclitus’s river in the way we know best how to do – that is, reactively. A crisis shocks us, governments react, society mobilises and within ten years or so (which is one or two electoral periods in liberal democracies) – the issue is addressed.

But none of these mechanisms seem to me to work when it comes to the creeping crisis of climate change whose solution (or mitigation) lies in the long or medium term. The short term – the preferred timeframe for crisis-resolution – is, by definition, too late. The sense of urgency is too dispersed. More immediate crises, like the war in Ukraine, push it down the list of political priorities. And the past, i.e. the upstream lessons from Heraclitus’s river, have little to offer us because we as human beings have never been there before. We have never faced anything quite like this. John Donne, in the Meditation I quoted earlier, could not have put it more clearly. As this warning bell tolls, the one for climate change, there is no point in asking for whom. It tolls for us all.

[1] John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), Meditations XVII.

[2] Nicolas Werth, Poutine, historien en chef (Paris: Gallimard, 2022).

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