The shock of the first few days has, as always, given way to the ordinary horror of bombardments and refugees of war. The furious pace of the first attacks will be followed by the slower and less spectacular pace of negotiations and compromises. As many predict, peace will be bitter for Ukraine, given that the conditions laid out by the Russian regime for a cease-fire and accord are so severe and the military commitment of Europe and the United States unlikely.
Amidst the uncertainties that war brings, Vladimir Putin’s launching of an open conflict on Russia’s western front has nonetheless exposed an obvious fault line.
In response to Russia’s military and territorial aggression — which seems rather backwards to Western minds shaped by Kantian pacifism and the idea of war’s historical obsolescence — Europe and the United states have responded with economic sanctions. Initially selective in nature and targeting the famous Russian “oligarchs” and the Kremlin’s power structures, the sanctions soon were expanded to Russia’s entire economic and financial structure at the risk of weakening the population rather than its government. In a context where nuclear deterrence is once again relevant and prevents the deployment of troops, we are witnessing an asymmetric war in which the means invested by the opposing sides are completely unequal. In response to the shelling and the deployment of troops, to military strategy and the direct occupation of territory in areas adjacent to the direct battle, there is a coordinated effort to disconnect Russia from the international trade and financial system.
As Nicholas Mulder demonstrated in a recent and timely book 1 , the invention of economic sanctions dates from the interwar period and pacifist institutions like the League of Nations and grew directly out of the desire to avoid the use of force in resolving international conflicts. If international law was intended to guarantee peace by making wars of aggression illegal, it was accompanied by the possibility of adapting business law and access to financial institutions to penalize states demonstrating warmongering tendencies. This mechanism can be viewed as a way of replacing direct confrontation with a less violent form of coercion, based on the liberal and internationalist ideal of eliminating violence, but also as an insidious means of geopolitically exploiting the rules of international capitalism. Moreover, economic sanctions can inflict very real violence, particularly against civilian populations exposed to the deterioration of their material conditions of existence, which can go so far as to cause famine. The economic weapon thus deserves its name and, in a subversion of Clausewitz’s famous maxim, it is indeed an extension of war by other means, though within the framework of a desire to humanize conflict that is specific to liberal democracies and their contradictions 2 .
Ecology, a weapon of war
It is still impossible to predict the consequences of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. Above all, it is impossible to predict their indirect effects on the energy and food supplies of countries that purchase from them, as Russia is a key extractive player in the raw material economy. But this asymmetrical confrontation has already opened up space for a new discourse of ideological and economic mobilization among European nations and the United States, which can be called war ecology.
War ecology, in the context of military aggression carried out by a petrostate against one of its neighbors for the purpose of imperial consolidation, consists of seeing the turn towards energy sufficiency as “a peaceful weapon of resilience and autonomy” 3 . The underlying principle is simple: Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, particularly in terms of oil and gas supplies, implies indirectly financing the military effort led by Vladimir Putin, and is therefore involuntarily complicit in the war. Yet if the economic sanctions imposed on Russia were intended to immediately strangle the regime and provoke its downfall — with a very uncertain success —, the transition to energy sufficiency makes more sense in an intermediate time frame. It means a complete break with this toxic dependence, both in terms of geostrategy and climate policy. Within the context of Europe’s emerging war ecology, sufficiency makes it possible to kill two birds with one stone by aligning the need to coerce the Russian regime with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, the “economic weapon” can be broken down into a first phase — meant to affect the immediate financing of Russia’s war machine — and a second, more structural phase — meant to target the very basis of this oil and gas state’s political economy — while at the same time giving new momentum to Europe’s energy reorientation plans. In this second phase, the principles of political ecology are not simply adjusted to wartime, they are redefined and made subordinate to the imperative of carrying out war and integrated into a strategy of confrontation in which the enemy is at once the source of geopolitical destabilization and the holder of the toxic resource. War ecology therefore emerges as the historical heir and ideological successor of the war economy.
From a theoretical point of view, the birth of war ecology reflects a deeper shift of the discourse on sovereignty in the nations and regions which, historically, have received a significant portion of their subsistence from imports. Indeed, Europe has long dealt with being energy dependent, whether on the United States, the Middle East, or Russia, so long as it was compatible with a focus on higher value-added activities, and so long as the prospect of peace and geopolitical stability mitigated so-called “strategic” imperatives. As the Covid crisis has already suggested, sovereignty in the 21st century can no longer continue in the essentially abstract form it has taken in recent decades; in a context where Europe increasingly sees itself as a fortress under siege, the need to control resources is more and more pressing. In claiming the status of a world power, Europe is coming up against the material conditions of power — known to all but whose consequences have generally been deferred.
The war ecology mechanism is a resounding success. In France it has been championed by the Minister for Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire, in a call for households to exercise restraint, as well as in an op-ed published by former President François Hollande 4 . Also in France, Yannick Jadot, the Green Party candidate for the presidential elections, continues to repeat that current circumstances only confirm the platform his party has always promoted. The former British Secretary of State for Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, frames war ecology differently, stating that the “net zero” strategy and climate policies are now integrated into the broader framework of national security principles. American President Joe Biden has adopted similar rhetoric, while German Finance Minister Christian Lindner describes renewable energies — the upside of independence from Russian gas — as the foundation of future freedom 5 .
In the first days of March, the International Energy Agency — whose founding mission is not at all to create the material conditions of perpetual peace — published a ten-point plan aimed at reducing the Union’s dependence on Russian gas 6 . Beyond the market mechanisms that contribute to increasing the price of energy in generala — at the pump and in electrical outlets — we are moving towards the voluntary regulation of industrial and domestic consumption patterns, which is a legitimate regulation in the context of civic mobilization in the name of peace, stability, and autonomy.
The era of fossil fuel wars
The timing was apt when Ukrainian representative to the IPCC, Svitlana Krakovska stated, “this is a fossil fuel war” 7 , directly linking the military aggression against her country and the long-term, systemic threats that climate change poses to human society. In the context of a scientific and diplomatic institution created under the authority of the United Nations to represent the universal mission of science and the trans-ideological value of preserving the planet, this statement thrusts the climate issue into a new space of questioning.
To all these institutional plans and statements is added a flood of cultural messages that, under the guise of supporting the Ukrainian people, recommend turning down the heat, putting on a sweater, and riding a bike instead of taking the car 8 .
We know to what extent the history of ecological policy is linked to that of pacifism, the fight against the race for power, for arms, and the desire to undermine the foundational dynamics of material excess of all kinds. In 1977, Amory Lovins was already envisioning that what he called the “soft energy path” would be a guarantee of international stability. Yet this counterculture itself seems to be swept up in the rationale of war ecology at a time when the fight against Putin’s regime appears to be a just and justifiable war — especially if it is carried out through peaceful and co-beneficial means.
In the maelstrom of immediate reactions to the war in Ukraine, we also find the counter expression of these benevolent feelings of solidarity. From the earliest days of the war, some international finance actors demanded that arms investments be recognized as part of social and environmental “impact” finance. The underlying logic is both unforgiving and cynical: if the common objective of liberal democracies is to guarantee the security of populations against Russian military aggression, then arms are a vector of democratic stability on par with the decarbonization of the economy 9 . Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics at Harvard, explains that the peace dividend — the idea that the world economy and prosperity benefit from peace — risks becoming obsolete if the famous “liberal values” are not protected by a robust system in which sustainable growth and the defense industry are seen as two complementary pillars 10 . This argument has the merit of pushing the logic of war ecology to its limits: if defending democracy relies on total mobilization against Putin’s Russia, and if this mobilization is backed by energy sufficiency and the ability to not yield in a showdown, then the spheres of influence linked to renewable energies and arms have shared interests and values. This lends a whole new dimension to the English expression “climate hawk”.
The examples of adherence to war ecology are endless. For the most part, they come from the liberal establishment and ecologists; it brings together former political rivals and harnesses the expertise of energy economists and engineers in charge of planning the reorganization of supply chains. In this sense, it is a structural phenomenon which reshapes the landscape of national and international political alliances, making it possible to express pre-existing concerns with new language — for the proponents of sufficiency — or, conversely, to understand the social value of environmental aspirations in a new strategic realism. These matters were discussed at the European summit in Versailles on March 1oth and 11th, 2022, and there is an understanding that engineering a coordinated break from dependence on Russia will be an extremely powerful rallying point for various national interests within the European space and will activate aid mechanisms and the transfer of funds to countries most affected by this dependence, such as Bulgaria, which is 100% dependent on Russian gas.
As several commentators have noted, we are perhaps witnessing “Europe’s geopolitical awakening” and an acceleration of the European construction process driven by the shocks of war. And even if we view this kind of statement from a distance, or even with skepticism, it is true that Europe is rediscovering the historical and political context that laid its foundations: the ordeal of war spurs economic and ideological compromise that places the quest for peace at its core through new production and distribution mechanisms.
One of the images circulating today to popularize war ecology explicitly references the fight against totalitarianism and fascism 11 .
This reinterpretation of a propaganda image from the Second World War, promoting the limiting fuel consumption to benefit the liberating army against Nazism, leads back to the historical link between energy policies and war. One of the undeniable structural elements of the modern world order is the equating of political power with control over resources 12 . The thirst for territory that traditionally drove military rivalries between nations has gradually been redefined; it is now the direct or indirect conquest of energy — through markets and infrastructure — that is the common thread that runs through the confrontations of geopolitical powers since the second half of the 19th century. This historical thread has not been completely cut, as is evidenced by the desire to quash the Russian war effort by depriving it of its fossil fuel backing. But the historical link between war and energy has undergone a fundamental change in recent days; wars are no longer fought solely for resources in the hope of conquering a territorial or geological lebensraum, but through energy policies. Energy is no longer simply a power source that feeds armies and the productive effort, it is also a risk factor that must be overcome. In this interplay between energy-power and energy-disaster, war ecology is a political concept whose future holds great potential.
Obviously, the control of resources is a frequently used coercive instrument. In the case of the economic sanctions against Iran, for example, the diplomatic isolation and economic weakening of a rival country already involves mechanisms that affect energy. During the 1977 oil crisis, massive energy conservation measures were taken, and President Carter poked fun at William James when he announced that energy conservation was … the moral equivalent of war 13 . But in the present situation, an additional element makes all the difference: the United States, to a very limited extent, and above all Europe, are voluntarily agreeing to an immediate economic sacrifice in the name of a higher good, which is stability, democracy, and ultimately, universal harmony on the Earth we share. It is this element that truly allows us to discuss war ecology, by accepting its parallel with the war economy; an effort is required of civil society in the context of a strategic rivalry, an effort that aims to integrate private behavior and individual choices into a direct contribution to the dynamics of confrontation. Carrying out the war through ecology, in this case through rapid energy sufficiency, makes each one of us a potential actor in the mobilization and involves the responsibility of each of us in the course of events.
The strategic matrix of the 2020s
The question is no longer simply to use energy as a means and an end to the confrontation, but to integrate climate policies into a new and grand historical narrative. While the sacrifices called for by environmentalists from both industry and consumers to mitigate the climate shock were usually framed as burdensome, uncertain, and inconvenient, this same effort, now repackaged as a matter of international security, subversion of tyranny, and in some ways patriotism, has suddenly become not only acceptable, but actively sought after.
The decarbonization of the economy has become an opportunity to eliminate the contemporary incarnation of totalitarianism and, by a curious historical reversal, it is no longer energy intensification that makes victory possible, but abstinence that is called upon as a weapon of war.
There are a growing number of studies which cast doubt on the ability of economic sanctions to apply sufficient pressure on the Russian regime to obtain a withdrawal of troops from Ukraine or to trigger an overthrow of Putin 14 . It is possible that whatever Russia suffers may fuel a sense of victimization and fan the flames of nationalism, that sanctions may spill over to civilian populations through the disruption of food markets, and even do more harm to Europe itself than the intended target. At the same time, clear thinking is needed to critically examine war ecology at a moment when it seems to be imposing itself as the European Union’s geostrategic matrix.
On the one hand, it is obvious that ecological and security interests are now converging, and that we finally have an argument that will mobilize spheres of influence and investment that were previously resistant to the energy transition. If the debate on the security dimension of the climate crisis has been ongoing for several years, the Russia-Ukraine war is a point where these considerations crystallize, and it seems impossible to turn back.
Once again, historical analogies can be made. The creation of the modern welfare state is largely a product of the post-war environment, and if the reinvention of the “warfare state” as a “welfare state” puts the true ambitions behind social protection measures in a somewhat harsh light, we must come to terms with the fact that ideal ends must be achieved through realistic means. The shift towards a decarbonized energy base, or even towards a certain civic culture of energy conservation, could have been achieved through the sheer force of socio-ecological arguments, but history is filled with irony, and perhaps a war will finally give birth to this transition.
On the other hand, it is clear that this is a risky gamble — the wager as great as the reward. If it turns out that the culture of self-restraint does not have the intended geopolitical effects, this could diminish the potential for mobilizing climate issues in the future. And if the organization of energy sufficiency in Europe turns out to be chaotic, inefficient, unjust and socially perceived as a burden, war ecology would quickly be considered a new episode in the disastrous history of the European project. For the time being, it is mainly individual responsibility — turning off the lights, riding a bicycle, etc. — and resilience in the face of crises that have been mobilized. There have been no concrete investment plans for new energies and efficiency and no planning strategy has been prepared, meaning that the systemic aspect of these challenges is lagging. If the European energy transition leaves some of the more economically vulnerable parties behind (in particular certain Eastern European countries), it could create new fault lines within the continent. Finally, if this transition is imposed at the international level in the form of structural adjustments and exogenous constraints, as was the case with fiscal austerity, then these fractures could take on a global dimension.
In addition to all this, war ecology must contend with the opposite strategy, promoted by representatives of the fossil fuel coalition. This strategy argues that fossil fuel extraction should be intensified in all parts of the world outside Russia to compensate for the losses caused by a possible boycott and reiterates the fact that it is only by mobilizing energy that the enemy can be defeated. For example, we saw American diplomacy move to restore partnerships with Venezuela, and the European Union’s attempt to increase its supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG). To a lesser extent, we are also seeing the erosion of some environmental standards in Europe to make more room for extractive and agricultural activities, again to make sure there is enough regulatory space to compensate for import losses. And in the absence of a true socio-economic strategy for energy conservation, the principle of supply substitution is bound to predominate.
In other words, war ecology’s success largely lies in the way that geostrategic and distributive dimensions are structured. As ever, and as Helen Thompson brilliantly reminds in her latest book, geopolitics and class relations cannot be separated. The energy economy, and in particular fossil fuels, is one of the most powerful intermediaries between these two poles of human justice, which are the regulation of international power relations and the creation of redistributive institutions. In fact, energy drives both the quest for power and employment opportunities in industrial societies; the price of fossil resources is a defining historical driver of commercial and social relations on a planetary scale. The idea that the climate challenge is shuffling the cards in this arrangement between geopolitics and social justice is already present in people’s minds, often in a latent state, often in a purely declarative form, looking to a somewhat abstract future. This connection is now absolutely present. The war is helping to redraw the space of political possibilities. But it is not a blind and impersonal mechanism: for the moment, war ecology is a disparate set of measures and ambitions of circumstances, and whether or not it can be cemented as the backbone of the Europe of the 2020s, depends entirely on our ability to translate it into social policy. This is especially true given that this mechanism is not just about reducing our overall consumption of fossil fuels, but also about creating a collective mobilization and a community of interest in European society around the principles of ecology. This is because behind war ecology, ecological patriotism is taking shape.
It is clearly too early to definitively declare what the consequences of this historic moment will be, but we cannot overstate the importance of the political movements that are coalescing around war ecology. With a bit more distance, it is very clear that the success of this strategy goes hand in hand with the internal threat that Putin’s regime poses to Europe. Indeed, Putin seems to be the global champion of an ideology focused on decline, nationalism, and militarization which is entirely uninterested in the climate problem. Putin is only awaiting for Europe’s reinvention to fail so as to devour its remains. Stated otherwise, the invention of a development, cooperation and civic construction model that incorporates the planetary imperative into the game of geopolitical rivalries depends on Europe’s ability to not fall entirely under the influence of Putin’s totalitarian model 15 .
- Nicholas Mulder, The Economic Weapon. The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, Yale University Press, 2022, 448p.
- Samuel Moyn, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 416p.
- I am borrowing this expression from Thierry Salomon, an engineer specialized in energy policies.
- François Hollande, « Pour arrêter Vladimir Poutine, arrêtons de lui acheter du gaz », Le Monde, 7 March 2022.
- https://twitter.com/ZiaWeise/status/1497896784378671106?s=20&t=jY- 4vkyPVd6DauvL80umITA.
- IEA, A 10-Point Plan to Reduce the European Union’s Reliance on Russian Natural Gas, March 2022.
- Olivier Milman, ‘This is a fossil fuel war’: Ukraine’s top climate scientist speaks out, The Guardian, 9 March 2022.
- See for example:https://twitter.com/createstreets/status/1500012971317157889?s=20&t=jY4vkyPVd6DauvL80umITA.
- Jeff Sommer, Russia’s War Prompts a Pitch for ‘Socially Responsible’ Military Stocks, The New York Times, 4 March 2022.
- Kenneth Rogoff, Is the Peace Dividend Over?, Project Syndicate, 2 March 2022.
- See for example:https://twitter.com/no_face/status/1497023409926156292?s=20&t=jY4vkyPVd6DauvL80umITA.
- See Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, and more recently Helen Thompson, Disorder. For a discussion of recent developments in the energy-power equation, also see our article on “Le tournant réaliste de l’écologie politique” on le Grand Continent.
- Miller Center, April 18, 1977: Address to the Nation on Energy.
- Dominik A. Leusder, Strangling Russia’s Economy Won’t End Putin’s War — But Could Be Disastrous for Civilians, Jacobin Mag, 2 March 2022.
- My thanks go to Magali Reghezza and Stefan Aykut, whose critical review was very beneficial to the text.
To cite the article
Pierre Charbonnier, The Birth of War Ecology, Sep 2022, 76-82.
To read in this issueSee the whole issue
War Ecology: A New Paradigm
The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army in February 2022 has, in the opinion of many, ushered in a new era in European and world history. As is often the case, the war does not end at the front lines, nor with the suffering or death it causes. Viewed from a distance, the war … ContinuedRead the article
The Ukrainian War of Independence and and the World’s borders
This text attempts to tie together categories of the imaginary, the real, and the symbolic. This is not easy to do in so little time. The truth is that this is not easy in and of itself, as this would require imagining several points of view that will never be aligned. Let us begin with … ContinuedRead the article
Peace-building in the age of wartime ecology
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia brings together a range of security issues: energy, military, finance, food, climate, etc. These fields, which are usually addressed separately, can no longer be treated as such, given the depth with which this crisis aggravates all these factors beyond the conflict itself. Soaring energy and commodity prices, inflation that … ContinuedRead the article