Cold Capitalism And The Carbon Curtain – Analysis


Imagine yourself as a civilian in eastern Ukraine in autumn 2022. Only a few months ago, an apartment building in your neighborhood was obliterated by a HIMARS rocket, which sent a wave of concrete dust careening in every direction. You and your family moved your belongings to a friend’s cellar, a humid, drafty, and claustrophobic space but somewhat safer from the rockets screaming daily overhead. The air outside is murky with a perpetual haze of smoke that infiltrates the lungs.

Even with the sun smoldering behind cataract-like clouds, you tried to tend your friend’s garden, which had promised tomatoes, carrots, beans, and potatoes, but now struggled to bring its crop to fruition. Instead, you now go every day to the electrical station, where Ukrainian militias distribute food aid, medicine, and bottled water underneath a tarp that says “Civilians”. Fuel supplies are limited and the station powers only a handful of buildings- the radio station, the municipal office, the school. Occasionally a car drives through, never leaving without every seat occupied. When you take a detour on the way back, through the central park where most of the trees have already shed their summer foliage, you keep your eyes turned away from the bodies yet unmoved from where they scattered at the moment a building was violently disassembled. Your body, your family, your land, your sustenance, and your mobility hover between survival and annihilation under the unrelenting atmosphere of Moscow’s shameful war.

This battle-scarred corridor stretching from the Crimean to the Kola Peninsulas has become a place of truly global significance. The conflagration of war in the region is dated to February 24, 2022, but the ensuing international rift has a deep history as well as a complex and entangled geography. The military conflict itself can be traced back at least to 2014 and is burdened with the legacy of imperial Russian and Soviet approaches to Ukrainian territory and identity. It is also riven through with all of Vladimir Putin’s dealings with the West, from Gazprom energy deals and assassinations of Russian nationals to the Syrian Civil War and the Olympics doping scandal. But the explosion of discourse on these recent events is veined with the suspicions, triumphs, and utopias of the long 20th century. It is also distended with the glut of carbon-based energy that fueled the most rapid surge of global human activity in history.

If so many (1) are calling this a “new Cold War”, how can we understand, characterize, name the new geopolitical normal that now has at its center the gaping wound of the Donbass, a coal basin and heavy industrial center, located far east of where the Cold War placed its markers? When Winston Churchill first referred to the Iron Curtain in a 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, his declaration of unsurmountable difference between the USSR and the West became itself a flashpoint in the nascent conflict; Stalin took his words as no less than a ‘call to war’ (Wright 2007: 47, 56). If this is indeed a “new Cold War”, not only have we invoked the specters of Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we’ve also foreclosed the possibility to understand today’s conflict differently.

The Geoeconomics of Post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine

Few conflicts in history have emerged, as it were, fully “unprovoked”, yet this word is almost religiously chorused when US-based media speaks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Notwithstanding the Kremlin’s position that it was NATO expansion and the extension of EU membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states that forced their hand, much of the world recognizes the flawed and prejudiced stances taken by both the West and Russia with regard to Ukrainian sovereignty.

Russia utterly denies the existence of a genuinely independent Ukraine. The West exalts it. Both are petrostates dependent in distinct ways on geographic and economic connectivity. The conflict is in the geographical significance of the Ukraine, how its identity is to be interpreted and acted upon as it becomes once again the divide between “Eastern” and “Western” ideologies. It must be stated here that Western accusations of imperial expansionism on the part of Russia are historically flawed; they misinterpret the political rationale of both the Chechen and South Ossetian military interventions and fail to recognize Putin’s less ambitious drive to stall or halt change and preserve the integrity of Russia’s regional alliances of autocratic corruption. In contrast, it is an expansionist, militaristic, and nominally democratic economic model that beats at the east-west divide. Here, I argue that what Russia, and particularly the Kremlin and political hardliners, is actually resisting, by waging war on Ukraine, is the ongoing dissolution of borders under the hegemonic logic of Western neoliberalism.

In this essay, I will sketch out some of the economic restructuring that has taken place in Russia and the post-Soviet bloc as a result of and reaction to capitalism’s apparent triumph over socialism. I will then relate these developments, especially in the oil and gas sector, to Russia’s contemporary relationship with Europe, its more recent pivot towards China, and its paradoxical approach to asserting “great power” status. Ultimately, this essay posits an alternative framing to the “New Cold War”, suggesting that the crisis is not unidimensional but encompasses a range of wicked problems that might be called “Cold Capitalism” and/or the “Carbon Curtain”. I begin, however, with a discussion of the theory and history of neoliberalism, an economic movement inextricable from the high energy exploitation of fossil fuels in the post-WWII era.

Triumphant Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, for all its variations, should be fundamentally understood as the pervasive ideology that the foremost role of government is to facilitate the smooth functioning of the entrepreneurial free market. As David Harvey (145) wrote in 2006, “State after state, from the new states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union to old-style social democracies and welfare states such as New Zealand and Sweden, have embraced, sometimes voluntarily and in other instances in response to coercive pressures, some version of neoliberal theory and adjusted at least some of their policies and practices accordingly.”

From its experimental inception in Chile under Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s to the US’s forced privatization of Iraq’s state firms in 2003, neoliberal tactics have sought sociopolitical transformations favorable to capitalist accumulation, especially by those well-resourced Western companies with the requisite scale and expertise to realize a profit. Among its most prominent institutional actors are the so-called Bretton Woods organizations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, who provide loans to “developing nations” for prescribed forms of economic development.

Often involving elaborate but clandestine trade deals that require countries to pass business-friendly laws and tax regimes, neoliberal expansion has been marked by increasingly porous borders, the offshoring of labor, the deregulation of industry, and the invisibilization of economic “externalities” (Roy 2019, Brand 2020). While such policies can improve certain indicators of well-being and economic growth, it is nearly always at the expense of marginalized or disempowered minorities.

As sociologist Johanna Bockman (2013) argues, neoliberalism is always proposed as a solution to economic backwardness and stagnation, allegedly freeing individuals from what is perceived or experienced as excessive government control and restriction of entrepreneurialism. But she points out that neoliberal policies solve one problem (state overreach or oppression of entrepreneurialism) by introducing several more (inequality, corporate democracy, unemployment, social precarity) through exceptionally competitive socioeconomic models. Countries that open up to the free market by adopting prescribed institutions of liberal democracy have in many cases witnessed the loss of social cohesion, the extraction of natural resources by foreign capitalists, increased economic inequality, worker exploitation, and environmental destruction (Girdner and Siddiqui 2008, Lebaron and Ayers 2013, Feldman 2019, Clift and Robles 2021).

Critical economic geographers have emphasized that capital constantly seeks new sources of accumulation and subsequently eliminates and transgresses borders in service to capital circulation. Borders, however, are only eliminated for certain classes of actors, while they remain a fixture for other types of bodies, organisms, and information. Hence, Henri Lefebvre’s shrewd observation that the preservation of the nation state as a “container” for controlled social reproduction provides a reliable and familiar scaffolding for the measurement and circulation of labor and capital. Over the last several decades, nations such as Poland, former Yugoslavia, and the Baltic states have renounced their socialist past and created institutions of governance that are compatible with neoliberal market dynamics. Post- Soviet Russia, however, never adapted to its institutional norms and pressures.

Even as early as 1993, the abrupt and chaotic elimination of state price controls on essential commodities, welfare and pension programs, and industrial subsidies led to dramatic inflation, widespread economic precarity, and organized crime in Russia. These neoliberal market liberalization policies, introduced through the mechanism of “Shock Therapy” and intended to give rise to private property-based entrepreneurialism, were instead thwarted by protectionist and opportunistic elites, who reconsolidated Soviet industries under their own oligarchic fiefdoms (Heller 1998, Rutland 2013).

From the 1990’s onward, Russia’s economy staggered and stumbled towards solvency, seeking its place in the global market while divorced from valuable assets and resources formerly incorporated in the USSR’s geographically-dispersed command economy. In a rapid form of socioeconomic (mal)adaptation, party and factory bosses became kleptocrats over the nation’s few profitable industries and average citizens bargained, begged, and compromised for survival in an informal system of resource-sharing known as blat (Ledeneva 1998, Kryshtanovskaya 2008).

This trend pervaded the entire former Communist bloc, leading global capitalists and architects of neoliberalism to regard the region as an unstable and uncertain investment environment. While corruption was already endemic to the post-Soviet political and economic system, the capitalist world’s cynical “liberation” of Soviet citizens into a lawless free market and subsequent withholding of investment demonstrated the darkest side of neoliberalism- the structural weakening of national bargaining power and the devaluation of national assets. This tendency (or goal) of neoliberalism is plainly apparent in recent relations between the IMF and countries like Argentina and Turkey (Onis 2006, Chorev and Babb 2009).

Following his ungainly ascent to the presidency, Vladimir Putin, through distinctly nefarious means, sought to undo the Yeltsin administration’s hands-off policy towards regional self-determination as well as Russia’s economic and normative dependence on the West. He asserted his position’s autocratic potential to discipline the oligarchs and press their companies, especially extractive industries, into the service of national needs with ever-higher levels of state involvement. As the economy stabilized and oil prices climbed in the early 2000s, Russia became almost entirely reliant on fossil fuel and mineral revenues to fund the government and grow the economy.

In a phenomenon known as the “resource curse”, the availability of lucrative raw minerals allowed for some of the world’s highest levels of corruption to take root under an increasingly despotic Kremlin with little concern for long-term economic stability. In the 90’s and early 2000s, the country nationalized Rosneft and Gazprom, while building partnerships with international companies like Shell and Total to secure both new technology and economic legitimacy. Arguably, over the last twenty years, it has been Russia’s ability to leverage its energy resources that secured its cooperative relationship with the EU, and Germany in particular. It is also Russia’s energy economy that has driven its agenda in the Arctic, where it now operates several of the largest oil and gas fields in the world and has solidified its economic alliance with China through development of a maritime LNG delivery corridor. Without a doubt, however, energy economics have also played a central role in fomenting the conflict in which we are embroiled today.

The co-dependence engendered by major Russian pipelines carrying energy across Ukraine has led the two nations to indeed behave as “bratskie narody”, bound by a contentious brotherhood that now bears resemblance to Cain and Abel’s. As a case in point, from 2003 to 2009, Russia and Ukraine were engaged in a series of “gas wars”, involving heated negotiations over fair compensation for gas prices, privileges, and risks associated with Russia’s six pipelines delivering gas across Ukraine and into Europe (Van de Graaf and Colgan 2017). These “gas wars” culminated with Russia shutting off gas deliveries to Ukraine and Europe in the middle of winter 2009.

Four years later, Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine came after the popular uprising against then-president Viktor Yanukovich, who had betrayed Ukraine’s populace by retracting his public commitment to establishing an association agreement with the EU, under pressure from the Kremlin. Van de Graaf and Colgan (ibid.) suggest that Moscow’s offer of a significant discount on natural gas sales to Ukraine likely factored into the decision to abandon the EU bid. Petro Poroshenko, elected as Yanukovich’s replacement, fulfilled the suspended promise and signed the agreement that would set Ukraine on the path to EU membership. Effectively, Ukrainian leadership would pursue reforms and reorganization to meet EU legal, financial, and judicial requirements and become integrated into the borderless free market system of its Western neighbors. In order to halt or at least stall this process, by which one of its bordering satellite states would become the easternmost extension of US-centered economic power (2), Russia orchestrated the separatist revolt in the Donbas region, which carved out the ignominious Lukhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

The Carbon Curtain

Here I propose an alternative lens through which to view the newest rift between Russia and the West across the compromised nation of Ukraine; not geopolitical realism, the rules-based international order, the sovereignty of independent states, or even human rights. Instead, carbon itself, as oil, gas, fuel, human bodies, agricultural output, methane leaks, global warming, and the petrodollar may serve a more potent critical analysis. The solidity and violence of an Iron Curtain is inconceivable in today’s deeply integrated world, but the Carbon Curtain is a more capacious “carrier bag” (Leguin 1986) for the messy, organic stories taking place in the 21st century.

Geographer Gavin Bridge (2011, 821) has argued that in our contemporary era, “carbon provides an ordering logic and mode of accounting through which space and social practice are being rewritten.” Of course, carbon constitutes a very broad category of things, not least being living organisms. Bridge identifies the narrow use of the word ‘carbon’ as a shorthand for greenhouse gas, itself a product of decayed organic matter, and invites a deeper engagement with carbon and its infrastructures as a material agent that gives rise to a particular social, political, and economic order. This reflects what Weszkalnys and Richardson (2017) understand as the “distributed” character of resources, which operate simultaneously on physical and social reality, drawn as they are from nature into the realm of human value, emotion, and semantics. Hence, we can understand major oil conflicts in history, especially those in the Middle East, as not only being about control over the resource, but about what access to that resource means for national identity, social structure, and territoriality. The current war in Ukraine is not, we must recognize, a war over the Donbas’s coal resources or Crimea’s offshore hydrocarbon reserves. It certainly relates to Russia’s ability to participate in the global energy economy, but it is more fundamentally a manifestation of the planetary-level entanglement of (post)industrial societies, neoliberal globalization, and fossil fuels.

Western nations have long innovated and controlled the technological means of extracting and refining oil and gas, which they have used in both colonial and post-colonial eras to transform regions of the Global South into resource colonies and petrostates. The collapse of the USSR’s highly integrated and centrally-planned economy left each former Soviet state to intensify production of its own parochial resources with inferior technologies and the new imperative to attract foreign investment.

Writing in 1996, Princeton economist James Watson recognized the complex resistance of Russia’s business community to Western investment strategies that sought to profit off of the weakened position of the country’s oil industry. He notes that, in contrast to other countries where Western companies discovered and developed fossil resources from the outset, they were, in Russia, capitalizing on an industry that had been developed at great pains by the Soviets themselves. Throughout the 1990s, despite a popular desire for improved material conditions, many in Russia saw the approach of Western oil companies as akin to colonization, especially under proposed production-sharing agreements.

Today, a number of non-Western nations control their own mineral resources (e.g. Venezuela, Saudia Arabia, Nigeria), but in all cases, control was achieved through anticolonial struggle and the purchase or seizure of corporate assets. In order to wrest back control over their own economies, the Global South’s primary recourse was to assert self-determination through their natural resources, as happened in the formation of OPEC, the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, and Venezuela’s nationalization of its oil industry. In order to survive economically in the post-socialist world, Russia, in contrast, adopted Western institutions and accepted the uneven playing field. Carbon, and hydrocarbons in particular, thus plainly infuse the geopolitical arena in which international power relationships are contested and transformed.

What may be the strongest evidence that carbon is a critical dimension of the current war is the sabotaging of the Nordstream-2 pipeline and the European pivot from Russian to American energy markets. Russia’s abundant reserves of oil and gas have long made it the supplier of choice for Europe; even after the annexation of Crimea and an atrocious track record of oil spills and gas leaks, Russia’s state-run energy companies were never barred from exporting to Europe. Most sanctions levied against Russia by the US and EU between 2014 and 2022 rather prevented Western banks from financing energy projects in Russia and Western companies from supplying them with new technologies. (3) Knowing the corrupt and often irresponsible behavior of Gazprom, Rosneft, Lukoil, and others, these policies ensured that the EU would continue to meet its energy demands at the expense of Russia’s environment and the sovereignty of Ukraine.

After Western nations sought to pivot and reduce dependence on Russian energy throughout 2022, resulting in an unprecedented windfall for non-Russian fossil fuel companies, the conclusive blow to Russia came with the still-unexplained (4) sabotage of the Nordstream-2 pipeline, which precipitated what is described as the largest methane release in history. (5) The US government and energy sector were ambitiously prepared to respond to that development, as industrial lobbyists had pressed from the very outset of the war for increased production, especially of natural gas. (6) Not only that, but US officials, including Joe Biden himself, repeatedly intimated in recent years their aggressive opposition to the pipeline. The EU’s energy markets have thus shifted towards the west and Russia’s to the east of the line of battle, where the gargantuan fossil and financial resources of two petrostates are pitted unyieldingly against one another. The Carbon Curtain drapes across the divide, choked with concrete dust and eaten by decay like a jaundiced shroud over a shattered Ukraine.

The Carbon Curtain drapes, but it also blows and flutters. Its weave is threaded with the contrails of planes carrying refugees and corpses (themselves unthreaded of entrails) across the globe. This is the second dimension of the Carbon Curtain and one that is familiar to virtually any warzone: the carbon of bodies, moving and unmoving in ways they could never have dreamed of.

The UN currently estimates that over 8,500 civilians have perished in the war and over 14,000 have been injured. US intelligence documents have indicated between 35,500 and 43,000 Russian soldiers and between 15,500 and 17,500 Ukrainian soldiers killed (7). Over two and a half million Ukrainians have sought refugee status in Europe and nearly 300,000 have been admitted into the US (8). The rapid dispersion and welcoming of refugees compares interestingly with the fates of refugees from the other major 21st century invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan; in the earliest years of the Iraq war, the US accepted fewer than 200 Iraqis (9) and its track record has remained poor despite immense internal displacement and insecurity (10). This is also notwithstanding the more than 250,000 estimated civilian deaths under the US occupation of Iraq (11) or the 100-200,000 estimate for civilian deaths in the Gulf War ten years prior (12).

Thus, where US-inflicted death and flight were highly restricted to the Middle East between the 1990s and today (with Jordan and Syria welcoming the majority of refugees), and a refugee crisis of immense proportions continues unabated at the US’s own southern border (13), the Ukrainian refugee crisis (not to mention the mass exodus of people from Russia) has seen a much broader dispersal and international acceptance of those fearing for their lives. What this double standard and accompanying disproportionality say about the politics of humanitarianism is not for me to say, but it has, for the last year, been the beneficent policy of Western nations to ensure that beds, water, and plates of food are available for displaced Ukrainians.

The third piece of evidence for the distinctly carboniferous nature of the Russo-Ukraine war is both countries’ roles as two of the five top grain exporters in the world. Industrial food production under a socialist model was a major development item for the USSR and Communist China, with notoriously tragic consequences in the cases of the Holodomor, Khrushchev’s corn campaign, Trofim Lysenko’s pseudoscientific agronomic program, and the Great Chinese Famine. Ukraine and the chernozem (black earth) belt across southwestern Russia were the USSR’s most productive agricultural zones and, after 1991 and the struggle to adapt socialist production to capitalist conditions, they became the world’s breadbasket.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion, however, grain and oilseed supplies were cut off to food insecure countries in North Africa and Southeast Asia, exacerbating an already critical hunger crisis. Through the lens of carbon, which makes up the foods we eat and constitutes our bodies, we can see how conflict in Eastern Europe diffuses out into a global politics of scarcity brought on by the distributive logics of neoliberal capitalism. With supplies curtailed, nations of the Global South become the hungry casualties of geoeconomic competition between agricultural exporters in the Global North, i.e. the US and Russia.

Countries like India, the UAE, Mexico, and Israel have resisted US pressure to impose sanctions on Russia, demonstrating a precautionary skepticism of the West’s ability to fairly meet demand or provide markets for their economies. The Black Sea Grain Initiative, which sought to preserve Ukraine’s ability to export corn, barley, and wheat, lapsed in October 2022 and now faces hurdles for both supply and demand (14). Transoceanic shipping lanes, once laden with critical foodstuffs, have diverted or gone silent, encompassing the organic and mineral dimensions of the fourth and most catastrophic dimension of the Carbon Curtain: climate change.

Together, Russia and the United States generate around 25% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (albeit less than China, which alone clocks in at around 35%). But in the lucrative and mobilizing atmosphere of war, the dire reports of the IPCC might as well have burned in the rain of heavy artillery. Domestic extraction of oil and gas in both countries has accelerated in the wake of the invasion (the Willow project in the US and the Semakovskoye gas field in Russia, for example), and many of the scientific efforts to monitor and understand climate drivers, like frozen methane hydrates in the Arctic permafrost and seafloor, have been disrupted (15).

With key scientific data and assets now stranded and locked away behind Russian borders (and vice versa), the fundamentally planetary problem of climate change becomes impossible to measure or respond to (though many argue that we are long past the tipping point where we might have taken effective action to curb atmospheric warming). In this way, the Carbon Curtain envelops all of humanity in a miasma of uncertainty and distrust, where the common challenge faced most acutely by the Global South is rendered unsolvable while Europe, Russia, and the West revisit their oldest identity crisis on the blood-soaked fields of Ukraine.

The Carbon Curtain thus becomes a rift in reality, in what is known and knowable, in our shared timeline to curb or prepare for the 21st century’s climatic extremity. Like the Nordstream-2 pipeline itself, the localized geographic rupture has leaked with explosive force into a new and terrifying normal. The worst predictions of the IPCC become inevitable and the frontline of the Ukrainian and Russian armies grows contiguous with the precarious frontline of the vulnerable South.

Spillover: The Excesses of Cold Capitalism

In contrast to the Iron Curtain, which metaphorically implies something solid, opaque, and impenetrable, the Carbon Curtain is like hazy air, abstractly molecular yet interpenetrating every organic body and plot of land. Fossil fuel-driven capitalist globalization over the latter half of the 20th century has linked every reach of the planet in ways that make the two-world system of the Cold War a remote impossibility. Western nations remain trading partners with countries not participating in the sanctions against Russia, and the geoeconomic power of India and China in particular shift the geopolitical calculus of Western interventionism.

To disentangle what neoliberal globalization has brought about– widely dispersed and interdependent industrial assets, complex and unreliable supply chains, and, of course, energy co-dependence– would require a kind of epiphany that neither global leaders nor civilians are likely to have. Unlike the Berlin Wall, the Carbon Curtain has no symbolic physical manifestation, no imaginary to mobilize a movement, and connectivity persists across political borders. With the aid of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or other means of skirting state-maintained firewalls, people on both sides of the divide can peer into the information sphere and daily lives of the “Other”; today, the West and Russia view each other not exclusively through state media, but through the viscous substrate of the internet (itself powered by energy-intensive server farms), where one may find any opinion and any fabulation thinkable. While it is known that Russian authorities can surveille the virtual activities of its citizens, communication among a global civil society cannot be stamped out of existence. Even residents of totalitarian North Korea have outside channels.

Unlike an iron curtain, which in 19th century British theaters was meant to protect from fires, a carbon curtain holds a surplus of flammable energy. Surplus and excess are both core features of capitalist accumulation, constituting the incentive structure for entrepreneurialism: the capitalist organizes labor and resources in such a way that he or she can generate and appropriate a surplus. This may be the unifying thread in the Carbon Curtain analogy. Capitalism, and by extension neoliberalism, posits a world of “rationally self-maximizing” individuals, whose success is measured in private accumulation of wealth in measurable currencies and capital.

As Marxist scholars have shouted for decades, this system is structurally incapable of producing equity or equality because it relies on exploitation, i.e. the creation of surplus through the intentional undervaluation of both human labor and nonhuman nature in the form of resources. It embodies the distorted logic of social Darwinism: exploit or be exploited. You either have wage slavery at home or actual slavery in the Global South. You either outcompete and drive competitors into submission, or you are driven into submission. You either secure profit at any cost, or you violate US corporate law (and its exported variants) and are fired or worse. Along with all the financial surplus this entails for the world’s largest companies and the governments that suckle them, it generates other surpluses of resentment, trauma, death, and planetary energy.

As a zero-sum game rooted in structural inequality, this kind of geoeconomics can be called Cold Capitalism. It is bone-chillingly indifferent to the fires it starts and the waste it creates. It rebukes the idea of responsibility and subsists on conflict, competition, and coercion. And it is truly paradoxical in that it waters the seeds of its own destruction. In Walter Benjamin’s oft cited words, “People find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Approaching a conclusion, it should be understood that despite gradations of socialist programs around the world, every country, including Russia, is a participant in Cold Capitalism. There are no meaningful alternatives, in a paraphrase of Margaret Thatcher’s glib justification. The isolation of Russia and by extension its globally-competitive national industries has shifted the energy marketplace to favor companies like BP, Shell, and Exxon; the West’s ability to damage Russia is not contingent on its authoritarian status or ideological militancy as it was in the Cold War, but on its neoliberal entanglements.

Furthermore, where the Cold War is posthumously attributed start and end dates, Cold Capitalism is as old as capitalism itself and resides only half in external, material events. Its other half is psychosocial, ingrained in the homo economicus of John Stuart Mill’s formulation. The Carbon Curtain is one of its expressions, and might even be boiled down to the psychological curtain certain humans hang between themselves and other carboniferous lifeforms including other humans. In this way, it can be a context- specific shorthand for “Othering”, dehumanizing, and devaluing that which is not part of “self”, “family”, or “nation”. It is the Russians, the Americans, the Ukrainians, the foreigners, the North, the South, the West, East, Right, and Left. As beings caught in complex social orderings, divisions, and hierarchies, we are all guilty of participating in this perplexing drama of colonial modernity.

While Russia and Ukraine should for now be understood as the only two parties to the conflict, the fact remains that the US has supplied over $24 billion petrodollars in the form of military aid to Ukraine (16) and Russia is receiving a modest quantity of nonlethal supplies from China (17). Germany has supplied tanks to the Ukrainian army in a strange echo of 1941 (at least as that echo is heard in the Ural Mountains). And both Finland and Sweden reacted to Russia’s war with the escalatory response of joining NATO. Whether these facts justify calling the conflict a “proxy war” is up for debate (18).

But what can pull us out of the nested and ever-deepening polycrisis of war, poverty, disinformation, and climate change, of which this war is only one facet? Without the possibility of cooperation and resource sharing at the global scale, we can expect that nonrenewable energy sources will continue driving competition and conflict under warmer, wetter, and more unpredictable climatic conditions. Shortages and catastrophic events will afflict cross-border regions, in many cases without the political possibility of delivering aid or supporting response efforts. Soldiers with explosives will continue expanding the carbon curtain, rather than dispersing it. Are we prepared for the planetary social hierarchy to disintegrate from the bottom up? To let the oceans die, then the forests, then the campesinos, fishermen, and subsistence communities, the immigrants and refugees, the poor, the disabled, then the farmers, the workers, the tradesmen, the students, the teachers, the artists, only for the whole structure to finally collapse on its super rich architects once their money doesn’t put food on the table or water in the tank? Capitalist logic has led too many to accept the high cost of doing business. Most are not prepared to be reduced to scavengers, to be forced to survive. We can see nothing, no one, and no future from within the bloody fog of war.

Nicholas J. Parlato is a Doctoral Student, Arctic and Northern Studies, Maritime Law & Society in the Anthropocene, Research Assistant, CAPS University of Alaska Fairbanks


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  18. russia-ukraine-war

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