Ukraine: the cosmological episode of Europe

[Version in French]

It takes a brutal shock to bring a dreamer back to reality. This is what has just happened to Europe with the invasion of the Ukraine, a transformative event which has led to a questioning of fundamental mental models. Will Europe finally get real?

“In the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; (…) after Auschwitz, it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.” Primo Levi

“I have always been resolutely opposed to the increase in military spending in recent years. Given the current situation, I think this position is no longer tenable.” So said Sven Lehman, a German Green MP, the day after the Russian attack in Ukraine. A statement that illustrates the profound change underway in Europe and the world.

Cosmological episode: European mental models in turmoil

With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Europe is experiencing what organization theorist Karl Weick calls a cosmological episode, i.e. a shock so severe and unexpected that it completely challenges the mental models (deep beliefs) on which we have based our understanding of the world until now. It is our way of seeing the world that becomes obsolete in a few days, placing us in an extremely fragile situation. Importantly, our core beliefs also define our identity. In other words, what we believe determines who we are. When a cosmological episode occurs, the challenge to our core beliefs threatens our identity. Weick shows that if the gap between our beliefs and reality is too large, we are no longer able to make sense of what is happening. We can then fall into a state of shock, defined as the annihilation of vital functions under the effect of a violent emotional shock. This is what some victims of aggression experience. The shock is so violent and so inexplicable that the brain disconnects and functions only on a strictly physiological level. In the case of a group, the brutal questioning of mental models leads to a dislocation. The collective no longer has an identity, it is no more than an addition of individuals; it is every man for himself, and in general leads to panic.

Reality shock (Source: Wikipedia)

Surviving the cosmological episode: shock or rebirth

But the dislocation is not inevitable. The shock can lead to an awareness and a quick recovery after the initial disarray. This is what happened with the invasion of Ukraine: it suddenly gave a sense of purpose to Europe, but also to NATO and to the West in general, which for years had been suffering from a deep identity crisis. The surprise has revealed the obsolescence or inaccuracy of beliefs, and these are shamelessly modified, and not only in the military field. This is what some have called a reality shock. Indeed, in recent years, Europe seemed to live in a bubble of idealism.

In Politics as a Vocation, the sociologist Max Weber distinguished between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. He wrote: “There is a profound abyss between acting in accordance with the maxim governing an ethics of conviction and acting in tune with an ethics of responsibility”. The ethics of conviction, or activist ethics, is to act out of idealism, that is, to aim for an end without concern for the consequences, because only conviction counts; the ethics of responsibility is never to decide without concern for the consequences. The militant ethics ignores reality in order to aim at the ideal, whereas the ethics of responsibility begins and ends with reality, however unpleasant it may be.

For the last twenty years, the historical pragmatism of the founding fathers of Europe had gradually given way to idealism. Without worrying about the consequences, Europe has embarked on an “energy transition” towards alternative sources that are not ready. Without considering the consequences, Europe has asphyxiated its agriculture in the name of ecology. Without considering the consequences, Europe convinced itself that the end of the USSR in 1991 meant that there would be no more wars and that we would always end up getting along with autocrats by selling them a yacht here and a passport there. Without worrying about the consequences, Europe let its industry and science decline, convincing itself that a life closer to nature was a universal ideal rather than the fantasy of a few jaded yuppies. And the list can go on of a Europe that was in denial of reality.

But reality always wins in the end, and here we are. Europe’s passivity has allowed Putin to believe that he had a free hand. Pushing for an all-electric energy strategy while closing nuclear plants means that we will run out of electricity, unless we buy gas from Russia. The reduction of our agricultural production means that we are heading for a major food crisis. We are reaching the point where the consequences of disconnecting from reality will start to happen. Ukraine is just the beginning.

Welcome to uncertainty…

Two years ago, we entered a period of maximum uncertainty where everything became possible. This is not a happy prospect, but at least it seems that Europe has finally realized this. From now on, we can hope that the militants will give way to politicians with an ethic of responsibility to solve the mess created over the recent years. This is not to say that issues like climate change are not important, of course. It’s about recognizing that these are complex issues that cannot be thought of as ideal. It is about accepting the reality of agriculture, energy, or geopolitics, the reality of advancing tanks, and its complexity which involves trade-offs and forbids simplistic solutions. Accepting that if there is a climate emergency, there is also a health emergency (at least 6 million deaths with Covid and it is not over) and now a health, military and democratic emergency with Ukraine where civilians are dying under the bombs. Welcome to uncertainty. Welcome to the real world. What took you so long?

➕Read my previous related articles: 📄Putin, Ukraine and the paradox of strategy; 📄Covid-19: How Crises Disrupt our Mental Models and What That Means.

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