The last two weeks have shocked the world. As Vladimir Putin intensifies his attack against Ukrainian sovereignty, the world looks on in disbelief. Many have commented on this being the “first combat war since World War II”, and the “first war fought on social media”. While it is absolutely not the first war in 80 years, it is the first war that appears to touch many of our lives in very real and tangible ways and that has made all the difference. It’s become apparent that unless we can see, feel and touch something, we don’t believe it exists.
Congo, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bosnia- atrocities have taken place in all of these countries right in front of our eyes. Right now, there are ongoing wars or minor conflicts in around three dozen countries, most of them in the Middle East, North West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The difference is none of these countries have obvious close cultural, geographic, or political ties to European hubs like London, Paris or Berlin. And none of these countries have economies tightly coupled with global supply chains.
It’s hard to imagine that the war in Congo impacts my personal expenditure. And yet it is now even harder to believe that the Ukrainian war won’t impact my spending.
We believed economists in the early 2000’s when they told us that globalisation would make recessions impossible, in the same way that we now believe economists who say that massive government debt doesn’t matter. We believed politicians when they told us that the New World Order, in which the West had permanently secured a pole position, had eradicated Great Power Competition, and yet we now face rising interest rates, out-of-control debt obligations and a hot war with Russia and China.
We believed the restaurant and retail lobbyists when they told us that it was safe to open commerce during the busiest period of the year during a deadly pandemic, just as we continue to believe that Ireland is completely insulated from climate change and that we’ll enjoy cheap energy forever.
The difficult thing about existential threats is that it takes an incredible amount of time, energy and conviction to even acknowledge their existence before they materialize, let alone work towards mitigating their subsequent realities.
A changing climate increases the odds for pandemics, which increases the odds for economic turmoil, which increases the odds for societal inequality, which increases the odds for political tension, which increases the odds for hot wars.
The complexity of the geopolitical crisis today is mirrored in decision-making across many dimensions spread over years, if not decades. Yet, after we collectively ridicule the people who have dedicated their lives to warning us about particular risks, it comes as a surprise to us when that risk becomes a certainty. In a cruel irony, we blame those in power for not having done anything sooner, when we know that doing so would have removed them from power.
In this column I want to cut through the noise and acknowledge the small number of people in the world who already know how we got here and who have been trying to prevent it for a very long time. These people choose the difficult path over the easy path; the long road over the short; the hard-fought battles over the easy wins.
To the talented engineers who choose to work for defence contractors like Boeing, Lockheed or Northrup; who are constantly ridiculed for killing babies in the Middle East. Political leaders, not engineers, create genocide. Without you, and without an active military industrial base, we would not have the security and safety from which to cast such judgment. While your dedication may provoke debate over champagne dinner parties with financiers, consultants and philanthropists, there are billions of people who rely on you.
To the academics who spend their entire lives working on complex issues surrounding energy, economics, engineering, science, innovation and politics. You work so much harder and under a lot more pressure than your private sector peers, and you do it for a tiny fraction of the compensation. You choose to continue your computational biology work instead of making trades at the hedge fund which offered you a life of luxury. You are in the lab seven days a week and make sacrifices across all dimensions of your life – where you live, the car you drive, the number of kids you have – to continue your work. Financiers and consultants may refer to your work as “coming down the price or learning curve”, but behind every increase in accessibility to new drugs, energy or ideas, are people like you who spend their lives tirelessly making it happen.
To the historians, analysts, think tanks, geopoliticians and security experts who have long predicted Russian and Chinese aggression, but have been criticized as being polarizing and extremist. It is easy to live in the present peacetime, with a high-growth economy that is seemingly boundless. It is harder to make ourselves remember how we got here, and why. We worship those who build the future and we ignore those who can help us understand where we’re actually going. Those who look backwards in time are harshly critiqued as being less hopeful, imaginative or constructive as those who look forward. It is the ultimate failure of society to not realise that they are often the same.
To the economists who have shown maniacal realism in the face of populism over the last decade and have told us what we didn’t want to hear: debt is not free. When the rise of Stephanie Kelton and Modern Money Theory shook the Western world, people were quick to believe what suited them – that we could keep printing money and incurring debt at no societal cost.
Economists who perpetuated this idea rose to fame and those who tried to expose it were shunned. They are behind the times; they are forcing inequality; they are anti-climate; they are racist; they don’t know what they are talking about. Thank you to those very economists who will still be here as interest rates rise to help us fix a problem we all too willingly got ourselves into.
To the founders of deep tech start-ups who see their friends make billion dollar valuations overnight, while they sit on the sideline in decades-long battles with commercialising unproven technology. You spent fifteen years working tirelessly to become an expert in gallium nitride semiconductors before you could even begin to think about founding a company. And now you will spend another decade trying to get it to market, with the odds working against you. Your progress and valuation will constantly be compared to dating apps or Clubhouse, and investors will never speak your language. The entire private and public financial market structure goes against your existence. Your perseverance is the only way that we can escape energy, climate, geopolitical and security crises.
To the investors that make capital allocation decisions and build portfolios to create long-term value: you have had a difficult few years. Memes, stonks, retail trading, crypto, Elon Musk, and just about the whole internet has told you that you are wrong. You are not. Without long-term and patient capital investing in the businesses that create real value, the entire world would be reduced to a financialized pump-and-dump SPAC in the gutter of the S&P. Trolls on subreddits may think of you as worthless, but the financial tide is changing and the value you create will soon be rewarded. Society already has been rewarded, because of your portfolios that don’t chase the casino.
To the climate scientists who face traumatising data every single day that looks into a future that most of us have not yet understood. Politicians call you liars. Capitalists call you obstructive. The internet makes fun of you and society calls you bat shit crazy. You warn us of humanitarian disasters, of supply-chain woes, of conflict and devastation. Yet even when we see these things happen, we can’t believe that you’re right. You are told not to worry; and somebody with an infinitely louder voice than yours will tell us that we can just move to Mars. Eventually, we will all be losers here but at least most of us don’t have to live with the realisation of it yet.
For the people who are still wondering “How did we get here?”, I can tell you how.
We marginalized the people who dedicate their lives to understanding and working towards resolving the complexity of our world. We chose to read 360 characters at a time instead of 360 pages. We engaged in activities that lead to shorter attention spans with higher highs. We cancelled before we tried to understand. We made, and lost, a quick buck instead of investing in long-term change.
To the many VCs who last week realized for the first time that we need to invest in energy sovereignty as a peacekeeping strategy – great. Better late than never. But while you turn your decades-too-late idea into Twitter thought leadership to attract likes and followers for your instant gratification, I have one question for you. How are your NFT and crypto investments going?
Tweeting is easy, and taking action is hard. But the people of Ukraine, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Bosnia have it much harder, and Ireland won’t come out of this unscathed. During the pandemic, the effects lagged the data by two weeks. Despite the fact we knew this as a certainty, we never took the appropriate action at the appropriate time. Time and time again, we failed. I have lost any faith that the several-year lag of data on the impact of a changing climate will lead to anything but catastrophic outcomes for us all.
This is precisely why the Ukrainian crisis, war and genocide is so shocking to us all. For the first time in a very long time, we are starting to feel in a tangible way, the difficult decisions that we’ve collectively shunned for so long.
The question we should be asking is not “How did we get here?” but “How do we get out of here?”.