These past weeks, like countless others, I’ve watched the tragedy in Ukraine unfold. With my wife being a citizen of the former Soviet Union, and with friends who have family there, I could not help but discuss and worry about the war daily. I also have to admit it’s been quite surprising (and attention-sustaining) how much the global community has rallied behind Ukraine—providing supplies, arms, money, even Bitcoin and NFTs to the Ukrainian government.1 More so is the fact that the US and Europe have so boldly isolated Russia—from banking restrictions to banning Russian oil (and we know how much we Americans value our cheap fossil fuels)—and that McDonald’s and Starbucks (and now many other companies) have ceased operations in Russia: when transnational corporations stop doing business, that really says something.
But I’ve watched with much ambivalence for several reasons. First, while not surprising (in our era of amusing ourselves to death), it is still horrible how death and destruction so quickly become spectacle—both in the news and in social media, with even the Ukrainian government posting photos of killed and captured Russian soldiers.2 Is it just that with COVID rates lagging and attention waning, news agencies needed a new story? Or is this truly bigger news than the ongoing conflicts and chaos in so many other parts of the world?3
Second, I (like many others) wonder if the attention comes in part because Ukraine solicits more empathy from Westerners—with their more relatable color and culture (and their poor pets!) than the millions of Syrians and Yemeni, or the Indians and Bangladeshi, displaced by conflict or climate disaster.
And third, I worry that this is just a prologue to the greater conflict ahead. Not necessarily driven by Russia, though Thomas Friedman makes a good case that it’s not easy to imagine a way out of this morass. With our population continuing to swell—even in the midst of a pandemic that killed an additional 6 million people over the past two years4—and as climate change and human expansion into the few remaining still-healthy ecosystems (like the Amazon rainforest, which is near its own tipping point as this recent study reveals), it is nearly inevitable that tens, or even hundreds, of millions will be displaced in the coming years; walls will be built; governments will radicalize; conflicts will be waged, and eventually people will be shot when trying to cross borders rather than being rounded up or directed home.5
Друг познаётся в беде́6
But what’s really surprised me—even though it shouldn’t have—are the stories of how Russians and Russian culture around the world are being targeted for the misdeeds of their autocratic, unelected leader. Last week, the Washington Post featured a story about the rising abuse of Russians around Europe, including a Russian chef in London raising money for Ukrainian refugees while receiving hate messages on his restaurant’s voice mail. Then there was an effort to cancel a course on Dostoyevsky at the University of Milan-Bicocca in Italy. And more worrisome is the breakdown in collaboration between scientists in Russia and several European countries.7
I know people have always done this—for example in the US, people attacked German-Americans during World War I and World War II, attacked Muslim-Americans during America’s ‘war on terror,’ even attacked Asians-Americans during COVID. It’s never right. As a fellow Gaian noted recently, there is no us or them, we’re all Gaians—we are all part of and dependent on one living Earth. Of course, that’s not to say a Ukrainian citizen should embrace a Russian solider trooping into her city (unless that’s a nonviolent tactic to persuade the Russian soldier that this is just not a war worth fighting in). When one’s home is threatened by a force that is clearly trying to subjugate one’s community, self-defense is a legitimate strategy. We see this in nature as well, and often a fierce little animal, like an otter, can fend off a larger one, like a jaguar. But Ukrainians outside of Ukraine, and even more so, non-Ukrainians, shouldn’t be attacking Russians who are not involved in the conflict (just as otters shouldn’t go seeking out fights with jaguars that are minding their own business).
I say this with some experience. I was raised in the Armenian Church, where part of the cultural teachings drilled into us was a deep hatred of all Turks. It took me years, and personal relationships with Turkish people, to realize that not all Turks are responsible for the Armenian genocide; and that many Turks are as saddened and appalled by this history as Armenians are (even if their government continues to deny it). That sounds like an obvious statement, but as a boy, just as you can be easily convinced there is a God above watching you, a devil below tempting you, a Santa who brings you gifts each year, and a tooth fairy who gives you a dollar for each tooth you lose, you can be convinced that one people or another are evil, or inferior, or all “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” to paraphrase one adult child who never learned any better.
The Gaian Response to the War in Ukraine
That said, I think it is important for those who see themselves as global citizens, and as Gaians, to recognize this conflict is a tragedy and requires engagement. Though as legitimate as sending money (or non-fungible tokens) to the Ukrainian government or charities,8 is bringing Russians and Ukrainians together; is supporting local businesses by both;9 is using less oil so the Russian petrostate (and all other dictatorial resource-cursed nations) are weakened, and we move to a more ecocentric, less unsustainable civilization.
At this moment, when philanthropic feelings are primed, consider reading more deeply into your newspaper, and identifying disasters and conflicts that may be getting short-shrift.10 Or even better, look for projects that work to address the root causes of these: climate change, which is often called a threat multiplier; corruption; wealthy inequality; consumerism; population growth, and so on. There are so many converging fronts we need to grapple with. Perhaps the key is not to get overwhelmed by the immediacy of the most recent crisis to unfold but to instead continue to roll up one’s sleeves and work in the ways that are possible for you to help make the world a better place. For everyone. And for all beings.
2) Arguably that’s a strategy to intimidate Russian soldiers. But for the majority of Twitter followers, it just adds to the spectacle.
3) Wikipedia tracks armed conflicts around the world, and there are currently five listed under “major wars” (greater than 10,000 deaths/year): Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ukraine, and Ethiopia.
4) Population grows by about 80 million people/year, thus COVID may have reduced population growth by only about 4%, meaning even in the midst of the pandemic, we added about 77 million additional people to the planet each year, assuming official COVID mortality rates are correct.
5) For a disturbing forecast of this future read Harald Welzer’s Climate Wars.
6) “A friend is proven in times of trouble.”
7) Special thanks to the Proud Holobionts listserv for drawing my attention to these developments.
8) Be careful of the many scammers though, as this Fortune article discusses.
9) Assuming we’re talking about Russians who disavow the war, not state apparatus like RT.
10) Like the recent floods in Eastern Australia. Or any of the ongoing conflicts that get forgotten in our natural tendency to focus on the new (or ignored as too remote or too alien by the media).
Teaser photo credit: Russian military vehicles destroyed on a road in Bucha, Kyiv Oblast, 1 March. By Mvs.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115859487