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Ukraine through a different lens
Re-assessing our narratives in the context of the conflict.
Hey fam, I’ve been on the road for a few months, which interrupted my writing routine quite a bit. While I got started on the book, I dropped the ball on publishing the monthly pieces. Now that I’m back in New York, I’ve resumed the routine; it feels good to be back in the rhythm. And like many of you, watching the war in Ukraine from afar has surfaced a lot of feelings. I wanted to write something on the topic, and to do so in a way that meant I wasn’t just adding to the noise. This is my attempt. Great to be back, and you’ll be hearing from me regularly again.
The only thing I know for sure about what's happening in Ukraine is that it's causing human suffering on an absolutely unacceptable scale. I don’t have much to add to the opinions covering the geopolitical maneuvering, military strategy and economic fallout. They are all important, engrossing elements of this conflict, but there are others more qualified than I to comment on them.
So while bombs destroy lives and buildings all across Ukraine, I want to look at what's happening in our part of the world, and look at how the conflict is shattering narratives and concepts closer to home. The story of this war is the human toll of death and destruction; I do not want to distract from that. But to the extent I have anything to say at all, I’ll try add something from the perspective of someone trying to make sense of the world changing rapidly around us.
Conflict can be a catalyst for clarity and understanding as it forces people, institutions and narratives to adapt in real-time. The speed and magnitude of these reactions create openings that allow observers to see more clearly into certain topics, and give us the chance to update our models about the nature of the world. At least that’s my thesis. And for me, the conflict so far has revealed certain uncomfortable truths about the world we've been told we live in. This is a piece about what observing reactions to the war in Ukraine has taught me, both about specific concepts, and about truth and honesty itself.
The importance of understanding the "PIU"
Before I get into the specific observations, I want to briefly return to a concept I described in a piece I wrote in the middle of last year. In that piece I proposed a model that describes how we interact with the world around us in the digitally networked age. I called the model the "Personal Information Universe" or PIU. I described it as the individual informational universe we each inhabit, or the “ecosystem of subjects and sources that spits out qualified and curated content for our consumption,” populated by the people we trust to keep us informed on topics important to us.
Our reliance on our PIUs is pronounced during times of conflict. We have very little personal interaction with the event, and therefore rely on individuals (reporters, journalists, talking heads) and distributors (newspapers, TV stations, Twitter) to provide us our information and construct our narratives for us. I don't think PIUs are inherently good or bad, they're just a fact of modern existence, and we'd do well to understand and acknowledge that our interaction with reality and all its topics is mediated through our own PIUs, with all the blinkers, filters and biases they contain.
So with this qualifier and self-reflection in mind, let’s take a look at some observations.
#1 The selectivity of our care
One implication of the PIU observation above is that we will ultimately care about the things that the characters and sources in our PIU deem important. Right now, it's clear the conflict in Ukraine is important to a large group of influential people and institutions, which in our mediated world, results in Ukraine being important to us and everyone around us. And that's a good thing; the invasion of a sovereign state and the killing of its civilians is absolutely a bad thing we should care about, and our care and engagement is the manifestation of a healthy moral and human instinct. What has given me pause though is how we selectively indulge this instinct. I'll give you two examples.
The first example relates to our engagement with other conflicts. In the last 10 years, over 350,000 people were killed in Syria, with some estimates putting the toll at over 600,000. That conflict also involved credible allegations of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Not far away in neighboring Yemen, almost 400,000 have died in the world's largest ongoing humanitarian disaster, with a large portion of those deaths the result of the war's indirect consequences, like hunger and the spread of preventable disease; tragically, these deaths are disproportionately borne by the young. These are tragedies and atrocities on a historic scale that have received a fraction of the attention that Ukraine has generated in a matter of weeks. I leave this as an observation for now, not a judgment. And I'm not interested in the argument that "Russia poses a threat to global stability that the Houthis and Assad did not"—it completely misses the point here.
The second example relates to the corporate response to the war. I understand corporations now have an imperative to take a position on some moral issues; it's part of their "social license" to operate and is now being demanded by their stakeholders (employees, shareholders, customers) too. But let us never forget that corporations are driven by the profit interest, and the profit interest is patient. Do I think it's necessary for Apple and Nike to stop selling their products in Russia? Not really, because I think it only punishes Russian people and strengthens Putin's claims of western arrogance, but they're entitled to sell their products where they like. But the same companies pulling their products and services from Russia have no problem whatsoever sourcing from and selling to China, with its labor abuses, Uyghur concentration camps and outright censorship. Corporations are designed to make smart choices first, moral choices second. They know which markets matter (e.g. China) and which are expendable (e.g. Russia), and they act accordingly, moral murkiness be damned.
My observation here, based on these examples, is that contrary to what we may tell ourselves, pain, suffering and morality are not the main determinants of where we focus our attention. It's beyond the scope of this piece, but it's clear that what we "care about" is a function of something external to us. And to be clear, the critique here is a personal one: I have never devoted much care or attention to the conflict in Yemen, and if you bump into me in the street, you are likely to see me with AirPods and Nike’s. The observation is simply an honest one, and a prompt for a bit of self-reflection.
#2 The centrality of oil
Oil is having a real moment. The filthy black sludge has emerged from its underground wells and caverns to once again have its time in the sun. Russia accounts for ~10% of global oil production, and with this relatively small global percentage of supply under threat, the world has been thrown into turmoil. Prices at the pump are spiking, putting pressure on domestic governments as they manage already soaring inflation; Europe is fundamentally re-thinking its approach to its energy mix; the US is being pushed to resume its support for its domestic fracking industry; and Biden is potentially reaching out to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices down. We've been told for years that "data is the new oil;" right now it feels like "oil is the new oil."
I don’t like oil. It's bad for the environment, it's a finite resource, its dominant corporate players have been responsible for egregious and destructive behaviors for decades, and it's also the source of power and grift for many of the world's autocrats (see Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela etc.). But as much as I and we dislike oil, our world does not move or exist without it. Crude oil, and the petrochemicals we refine it into, forms "the material basis of our society." It's in everything from cars to shampoo to steel to toothpaste. And again, that's not a good thing, it's simply a fact we must address when we think about the role oil plays today, and the one it will absolutely play into the future.
I spent over a year working with a carbon removal company recently, building an advisory business and a growth equity fund. One of my biggest learnings through that experience was that the oil and gas industry must sit at the center of a greener future (the second biggest learning was about the scale of corporate greenwashing, see next section). As contradictory and paradoxical as that may sound, this industry contains the expertise and infrastructure that will form the building blocks of a more sustainable approach to energy and resources. Carbon, like oil, is simply a physical commodity that we must move from the air to the ground, and many of the tools and infrastructure we need to do that exist today in the oil and gas industry.
My hope is the impact of threatening 10% of global oil supply makes it crystal clear that we must approach oil and the energy mix with practicality front of mind, not moral judgments like oil=bad and wind/solar=good. Oil is here to stay, and we need to work with that fact, not naively wish it away.
#3 The inauthenticity of ESG
On the topic of naivete, I have a problem with ESG investing. To be clear, I like investment approaches that promote good environmental (E), social (S) and governance (G) practices, but I don't like ESG™ (to borrow Ben's use of the symbol at Epsilon Theory). To provide a bit of background, ESG™ investing is an enormous trend in finance where capital is theoretically allocated to companies and funds that do a better job of promoting good ESG practices, with the theory being that it rewards good-ESG companies with a lower cost of capital (i.e. makes their life easier), and punishes bad-ESG companies with a higher cost of capital (i.e. makes their life harder). Noble enough, and directionally positive, but also often full of shit in implementation.
ESG™ has been used for years to sell investment products on the premise that it allows investors to make a more positive societal impact with their capital. But the difference between what investors are sold and what their capital actually goes to support is laughable. I've written about it briefly here and here before. And now, ESG investing is rightfully coming under regulatory scrutiny to hold the industry to account for the truly breathtaking amount of greenwashing it profits from. Many ESG investors and companies are genuinely contributing to building more responsible enterprises, and that’s fantastic, and something I actively support with my time and capital. But ESG™ has grown well beyond that, and it’s now just another Wall Street product completely untethered from real world impact.
But back to Ukraine, which has shone a brighter light on the flaws inherent in ESG™ investing. First, Europe has been strategically hobbled by its under-investment in energy, because of a focus on the "E" of ESG, which has strengthened Putin's vice like grip on its energy supply, with the result that "S" of ESG is under threat across the world due to soaring energy and commodity prices. And to add more hilarity to an already contorted display of logical reasoning, defense stocks (companies that make weapons, fighter jets and radar systems)—stocks typically expressly excluded from ESG because war and hurting people is bad—are now being reconsidered because "if you supply weapons to the invaded underdog in an unprovoked fight, or to the countries backing said underdog to pass along, could we not file [the] activity under S as a social good?" Honestly, spare me.
The world is far too complex to fit into the logical and philosophical mold described by ESG investing. That’s been my thesis for some time, and the events in Ukraine, and ESG™'s response, make that crystal clear. We should invest with our principles and beliefs front of mind, and I have proposed dignity as my own personal guiding framework. But right now it’s clear that ESG™ is at best unsophisticated and well-intentioned, and at worst dangerous and extractive.
#4 The depth and danger of infantilizing our youth
I wrote a piece about a year ago looking at some of the words we now regularly use to describe things around us. One word in particular was "safe," where I took issue with how it was being used in an increasingly strange set of circumstances. I dislike the new use of the word "safe" because it's been weaponized to shut down discourse and the airing of potentially unpopular opinions.
My sense from friends at university, and from things I read about said universities, is that these educational institutions' primary objective is now creating "safe" spaces in which its students can be "protected" from potentially "harmful" ideas and uncomfortable conversations. It’s a dumb lexicon that inevitably leads to situations like the one at the Yale Law School last week, which is all the evidence you need to acknowledge we are raising future “leaders” to be intemperate brats, incapable of managing conflict and complexity, and liable to throw a tantrum at the drop of a hat.
When I think about the war in Ukraine, I am moved and humbled by images of the young men and women who have left their jobs and educations behind to take up arms against a foreign invader, putting their lives and dreams on hold to fight for their country; the level of bravery is breathtaking. Maybe it's my particular worldview and PIU, but I can't help but contrast this bravery with the vacuous use of the word "safe" in our universities, workplaces and conversations, especially amongst younger cohorts.
A society that invokes "safety" in the context of its potentially uncomfortable conversations is a sick society, one too lazy and entitled to perceive its own deterioration. Ukraine's people, and especially its youth, are showing us what courage looks like in the face of a truly "unsafe" situation. Ukrainian youths are defending their country, while brave Russians are protesting in the streets; and the risks they face are much more severe than hurt feelings. The contrast of the fighting in Ukraine alongside the tantrums in lecture theatres is striking.
If you are an administrator, teacher, manager or leader, I suggest you ditch the cowardice that’s making you bend the knee to every teenage student or millennial employees' neurotic demands for "safety." Because if there are words and ideas that leave them cowering, the future is going to be a scary place for them. You owe us—and them—more.
Bringing it together
While war, inflation, global warming and pandemics rage around us, the common disease inhibiting an effective response to each is the breakdown of trust in institutions. The images and stories of human suffering in Ukraine are heartbreaking; these are the casualties that truly matter right now. But the next great tragedy upon us is the erosion of trust, which I sense in my own personal, distinct feeling that it's hard to know anything with certainty any more. And I place a large portion of blame on a dominant culture and media that asks us to accept official narratives at the expense of our own senses and intuition.
The last several years have seen a divergence between on the one hand, official narratives in the media, government, and corporate worlds, and on the other, the everyday experience of real, critical thinking people. Take your pick from the many broken narratives around us: all of COVID’s “noble lies,” Russiagate and the Steele dossier, “largely peaceful protests,” now Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the list goes on and on. The only honest and rational assessment of the last few years is that the narratives we’ve been given have generally crumbled in time upon closer inspection; one can either honestly acknowledge that, or proceed with blissful ignorance. But ignorance will not do, because the calamity ahead of us is that "as the narrative continues to diverge, trust in any official consensus will continue to erode. Even if the official sources backtrack in the future and commit to the truth, trust will have already been lost. People, after being lied to, will look elsewhere, and they're liable to look everywhere and anywhere."
Arresting this erosion in trust requires us first to acknowledge and reckon with the dishonesty around us, which is something that doesn’t happen on a broad enough scale. In this piece, I covered inconsistencies in our approaches and defects in our narratives that have become clearer in light of the war in Ukraine. They are inconsistencies we are personally responsible for, like deciding what we care about, and how we express that care; and defects we are collectively responsible for, like acknowledging what a practical path to a greener future looks like, and pushing back on a culture of infantilization and cowardice.
The war in Ukraine doesn't exist to provide a mirror for navel gazers like me sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes. But it does provide another opportunity for us to exercise our critical-thinking-muscles. If you're reading this, I assume Ukraine has occupied a lot of your attention too. And if you got this far, I hope this slightly different perspective has given you some questions to ponder about the narratives we continue to live amongst, what we can do about them, and where we’re headed if we don’t make some serious changes to the way we interpret the world. And in the meantime, let’s all continue to hope upon hope for a swift end to the war and suffering.
In a recent post I shared what I’m currently reading. So to continue that practice, here’s some of the things currently in my PIU:
The Tyranny of Merit, by Michael Sandel
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by E.O. Wilson