What makes our current situation so unnerving is an outbreak of “non-simultaneity.” At least that’s what I recently heard Robert Habeck, Germany’s energy and commerce minister, tell a gathering of German industrialists.
What a big word, I thought to myself. And what a difficult — though possibly deep — concept. That’s just like Habeck. A leader of the environmentalist Greens in the German governing coalition, he’s also a serial co-author (with his wife) of novels and children’s books. He has an intellectual curiosity that’s rare among politicos.
A simple example of the non-simultaneity he was talking about might be the backstory behind this week’s weather. Much of Europe has been sweltering in record-busting temperatures. People are sweating and panting, doing their best to stay hydrated and avoid heat stroke.
At the exact same time, people like Habeck are trying to prepare Europeans for the opposite scenario in the winter months, when they’ll probably have to shiver in cooler homes and offices, because the whole continent will have to conserve natural gas that Russia, as part of its economic warfare, will no longer deliver.
In a circuitous way, these problems are connected. The heat waves are a consequence of climate change, which is caused by the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels. That same dependence on oil, gas and coal also explains Europe’s vulnerability to Russia under its belligerent tyrant, President Vladimir Putin. For decades, he’s been building an infrastructure of pipelines so that Russia can, in terms of energy, take central and eastern Europe hostage.
Hence the tightening vise of non-simultaneity Habeck is now groaning about. He and his Greens campaigned for a radically accelerated exit from coal, oil and gas and a simultaneous gallop toward renewable energy sources. In their minds, they joined the government to save the planet.
Instead, Habeck is spending his first year in office negotiating with countries from Canada to Qatar to get more liquefied natural gas to replace the piped Russian sort. He’s commissioning floating LNG terminals to be ready by winter, and fixed ones on dry land for the longer term.
Habeck is also yelping from the unkindest cut of all. To get through this coming winter of energy shortages, he’s having to re-start the dirtiest power plants — those fired by coal.
So there it is, the nonsynchronous logic of 2022, embodied in one minister. The man wants to slow global warming but is dealing with local scorching and freezing now. He wants to get rid of coal but is instead firing up the old ovens now.
Being a German intellectual, Habeck probably used the term “non-simultaneity” (or “nonsynchronism”) with a specific philosopher in mind. The German word Ungleichzeitigkeit harks back to the theories of Ernst Bloch, a German thinker in the Hegelian and Marxist tradition.
In the 1930s, having emigrated, Bloch tried to explain the rise of Nazism. Germany, he concluded, was a “classical land of non-simultaneity,” in which atavistic feudal traditions among the peasantry and former aristocracy continued to coexist with the capitalist institutions of the industrial age.
Because Germany had never had a successful revolution, Bloch thought, attitudes, worldviews and narratives from different eras lingered, causing confusion and mythmaking in the present. As he put it, “Not all people exist in the same Now.”
In a roundabout way, these ideas lived on in the science-fiction genre of cyberpunk, pioneered by such writers as William Gibson, best known for observing that “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Often cited in Silicon Valley as an optimistic notion about tech adoption, the thought is instead a distinctly noir vision of dystopia, the “combination of lowlife and high tech.”
Whether the context is Bloch’s, Gibson’s or Habeck’s, non-simultaneity would appear to explain a lot about a lot these days. Take Russia and the European Union.
In the EU’s Now, international relations are today orderly and generally polite, hewing to post-modern and even post-national standards about respecting borders and rules. Putin’s Now is located in the 18th century, when imperialist tsars conquered as they could and might made right.
In today’s other Nows, there are people who believe that what matters is soft power, creativity, ideas and intangibles — while others are convinced the relevant measures are territory, guns and soldiers. There are those who want to save humanity from ecological suicide, while others deny the very science that tells us we have a problem.
Among New Age types, it’s become fashionable to swear by “The Power of Now,” as one bestselling title puts it. The past and future, the theory goes, are distractions our minds create to torment us. The path toward enlightenment is to recognize instead that the only thing real is the present moment.
That may work during meditation. The rest of the time, reality is messing with us by mixing pasts, futures and presents until we can’t agree on anything at all, except that there’s a lot to worry about. Who’s to blame for climate change, war, famine, even the pandemic? Where are we heading? And what do we do Now?