Since it started more than three weeks ago, the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have dominated many of our hearts and minds. So many people killed; so much destruction and displacement; and so much fear and uncertainty with the world seemingly on the edge of nuclear conflict.
This past Thursday I was temporarily lifted out of this horror by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman when he took a break from his recent columns on Ukraine to write one about China and its COVID response instead. In a sardonic aside, he said he was trying to limit his reading of news about Ukraine to 13 hours a day.
I haven’t been quite this obsessed, and I understand those who limit their consumption of news about the war to only a few minutes a day, or even to eliminate it entirely.
On the other hand, I take seriously those who say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in world history. And one of the many changes caused by the war, and which has generated a lot of conversation here, is energy prices.
Gas prices have risen sharply in the past few weeks, largely because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For many years, Russia has been among the top three countries in oil production; and with economic sanctions in place against it, some of the 10 million barrels a day of oil produced in Russia is now off the market. This is important news for Canada, which produces about 4 million barrels each day, and which is now getting higher prices for its oil and new investments for its oil industries.
Having been an environmentalist since I was 13, I pay close attention to such discussions; and I wonder if the time has finally arrived when humanity might adopt alternatives to fossil fuels and thus rein in climate disaster, which threatens to make the world uninhabitable for us and our descendants.
For decades, climate scientists have said that burning 100 million barrels of oil each day is destroying the climate; and last year’s heat domes and floods in Alberta and B.C. helped to drive home their point. Humanity’s best hope is to decrease the use of fossil fuels by about 95%. This would mean massive changes in urban infrastructure and a return to a time when virtually every trip involved walking – including to school, to work, to recreation, and to visits with family and friends. It would also mean 95% fewer trips by airplane, and the use of trains for inter-city transportation.
But imagining such a pedestrian and transit-friendly world is difficult, if not impossible, particularly in Edmonton which is the most suburban city in Canada and the one with the coldest winters.
Such changes would involve a vast shift in the workforce. People who earn a living by mining fossil fuels, by building roads and parking lots, by manufacturing cars and trucks, by maintaining those vehicles, by insuring them, and by caring for the 10s of millions of people injured in vehicular crashes each year, would have to find other work. Some might be recruited to rebuild cities in which people lived radically closer to one another. Some might find work in healthcare and education or in arts and entertainment.
A “simple” way to achieve this would be to radically increase the price of gas. If gas were to be artificially set at $2.50 per liter this year, $5 next year, $10 in 2024, and so on until use of automotive vehicles had dropped by 95%, the transition would occur. Would the price of gas have to reach $50 per liter to reach this stage or $5,000 per liter? No one knows, but we do know that people change their activities in reaction to price increases; and if we thought increases were permanent, we would adjust. We would find jobs close to where we lived; we would reduce our consumption of meat; we would travel between cities on trains instead of cars; and we would journey to other continents on ships instead of planes.
But as I said, it seems impossible to imagine such changes; and most economists – wrongly, I believe — say they would wreck the economy. True, there would be no more All Terrain Vehicle’s, Sea Doo’s, and leaf-blowers. But other activities might increase, like hiking, swimming, and raking.
I raise the issue of gas prices today having heard Jesus’ words about the cost of following him. Jesus tells a rich friend to give all his money to the poor and to join a movement in which the last will be first and the first will be last.
Many of us are like this rich man. We are drawn to the idea of following Jesus but are reluctant to give up all our wealth.
Do we also need to give up large suburban dwellings, frequent air flights to exotic locations, and the ability to drive to big parking lots at Costco and Safeway?
As someone who has argued for such changes for more than 40 years, I believe the answer is “yes.” But this does not mean I am now going to give up my Costco membership, frequent road trips to Calgary to visit our grandson, and annual vacations in Mexico. I would only do so if political changes occurred that made such activities untenable. The important point for me is that today’s massive social challenges make such radical changes seem more possible.
One of the changes that has arisen out of the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a renewed resolve by many people to work for a world marked by peace, human rights, and the rule of law. Vladimir Putin is rushing towards a “Mad Max” future, which unfortunately seems plausible when thinking about seemingly unstoppable challenges like climate disaster, the rise of robots, and the use of religious creeds to preserve elite domination through patriarchy and disdain for science.
In the last few decades, many places on earth have been forced into in a Mad Max present. Since 2011, Syria has been destroyed, and it groans under the horrifying rule of dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are suffering from deep and ongoing trauma. Towns like Lytton BC are trying to rebuild after horrifying heat and a devastating wildfire last summer.
Putin is trying to force Ukraine into such a Mad Max moment. But strong Ukrainian resistance, Russian military incompetence, and worldwide revulsion at Russia’s attempt to obliterate Ukrainian independence still give me hope that this horrifying scenario might not occur.
I am also cheered by how Putin’s fascist puppets around the world – from the Bolsanaro regime in Brazil, to the Republican Party in the United States, to the so-called “Freedom Truckers” in Canada – now find themselves on the defensive.
When I was young, I concluded unhappily that Mad Max was the only plausible future whether because of population growth, the misuse of fossil fuels, or the rise of computer networks. But I also realized I was still alive, and Mad Max was not yet on Canada’s immediate agenda.
So, when I stumbled back into church 20 years ago and encountered Jesus’ stark words about the last coming first and the first last, I was thrilled. Here, hidden in plain sight in the tradition bequeathed to me by my family, lay core truths that could illuminate our lives. Not only are we all fragile and mortal, so are all human institutions and empires. Death and resurrection aren’t just moral imperatives. They are inevitable moves for us as individuals and as a society.
Giving our wealth to the poor and following Jesus to a place where the last come first and the first last is often seen as a difficult moral choice. Perhaps, but I also affirm it to be the best option to awaken us to the here and now, which is the only place we can give and receive love.
Not only is there grief and loss on this path. There is also joyous freedom and deep and abiding love.
Whether humanity achieves justice or not, we can struggle for a non-Mad Max future — for Ukraine, or against the pandemic, or against climate disaster. These struggles are joyous paths, and they are available to us all.
Fear often looms in moments of death and destruction. But we’ve been shown by Jesus among others that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
The Good News is that we’ve already lost everything, which paradoxically means that we can be joyous and free.
With this Christ-like truth in our hearts, we can see that our empires are dying, our institutions are obsolete, and our fears and desires are infantile. In the space opened by these grief-filled realizations we can also sing with joy “Glory to Ukraine,” “Down with oil and its life-destroying illusions,” and “Praise be to Jesus who leads us to the cross each Lent and who guides us towards new life arising from the ashes.”
Thanks be to God.