We are tired of the pandemic, sick of the war in Ukraine, and nobody wants to hear about climate change. Right? Roughly 90 years ago, things were similar, but much, much worse. Humanity had struggled through the Spanish Flu, which claimed possibly more than 50 million lives worldwide, and was mired in a terrible economic depression. We were still mourning the thousands who never returned from “The Great War” and were not yet aware of the black cloud of Hitler and Nazism forming on the horizon. Colonialism had only just loosened its grip on the world. Slavery was still common. Women had few rights, and Indigenous populations were still being ravaged in the Americas.
Lest we forget, critical vaccines to stop some of the terrible diseases that afflicted humanity had yet to be invented. We can look at our lot now and observe, optimistically, that humanity has made it through much rougher times.
All that said, we have simultaneously experienced three transformative global events in the past two years. Each one will dramatically change the course of human history—hopefully for better in the long term.
Let’s consider them in context: Climate change was already here, of course, but it seems the pandemic made us take more note. The impacts have only just begun but are showing themselves to be terrible and devastating. Unless we act globally to repair the damage to our atmosphere of the last 100 years of industrialization, the outcomes will be dire. We know time is running out. Scientists have been warning us for several decades.
The pandemic has been “The Great Reveal” because it outed so many of our shortcomings. We had long ignored warnings from medical scientists of pending deadly diseases that would stalk humanity. Pandemic plans collected dust, while the resources needed to battle an unseen foe were non-existent.
That was only the beginning. Many social issues emerged: how poorly we care for elders, social divides, over-crowded housing for Indigenous communities, and myriad health-care issues. And that does not address dysfunctional partisan bickering, outright denial, and the nether world of conspiracy theories. All of society’s foibles, inequities, and inadequacies, so long subverted, were suddenly brought under a spotlight.
Now there is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We have come to realize—finally—that it is a fresh step in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s campaign to return “Mother Russia” to the former glory (and power) of the Soviet Union. The civil war in Syria started as a peaceful uprising 10 years ago. But as the U.S. pulled out, the world watched as Putin’s military systematically destroyed resistance to President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. Cities were reduced to rubble, schools and hospitals were bombed, and starving civilians lived under siege and suffered poison gas attacks. The world watched in horror but did nothing. What happened in Chechnya was just as bad. The crimes against humanity now underway in Ukraine are not new.
Humanity’s complacency has allowed all these urgent matters to fester in our consciousness until they finally emerge as imperatives demanding action. Complacency is our great weakness. We continue to ignore reality when it is inconvenient. Then we wait so long to act that we end up facing a seemingly impossible crisis.
Putin will not stop at Ukraine. He wants NATO gone and the former Soviet countries returned to Russia. Will we leave the Ukrainians alone to fight our battle for us? Meanwhile, as we try to crush the Russian economy “to teach Putin a lesson,” we must remember those black clouds on the horizon in the 1930s. A punished, angry Germany was fertile ground for Hitler. We must avoid even worse outcomes with Russia.
Then there is the small (microscopic) matter of the threat of viruses. Six million deaths worldwide from COVID-19 speak to a harsh reality: We must prepare, but that’s not all. We must also fix our health care system that, by design, is discriminatory. And we must adjust a pharmaceutical industry that, by design, cares more for profit than human life.
Amazingly, the invasion of Ukraine may turn out to be the catalyst that leads the world away from dependency on fossil fuels. An alternative to Russian natural gas in Europe is an imperative, and the answer is renewable energy— a rare positive takeaway. But that is only one small step and climate change is another monster that is already upon us.
We must act now on all three of our current challenges. Most important, we must replace our complacency with awareness and action.