Sweating fearing to shiver


What makes our current situation so unnerving is an outbreak of “non-simultaneity”. At least that’s what I recently heard Robert Habeck, German Minister for Energy and Trade, say to a gathering of German industrialists.

What a big word, I thought to myself. And what a difficult – although perhaps profound – concept. It’s exactly like Habeck. Leader of the Ecological Greens in the German government coalition, he is also serial co-author (with his wife) of novels and children’s books. He has an intellectual curiosity rare among politicians.

A simple example of the non-simultaneity he was talking about could be the backstory behind this week’s weather. Much of Europe has been stifled by record high temperatures. People sweat and pant, doing their best to stay hydrated and avoid heatstroke.

At the same time, people like Habeck are trying to prepare Europeans for the opposite scenario during the winter months, when they will likely have to shiver in cooler homes and offices, as the whole continent will have to conserve the natural gas that Russia , as part of its economic war, will no longer be up to the task.

In a roundabout way, these problems are related. Heat waves are a consequence of climate change, which is caused by cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. This same dependence on oil, gas and coal also explains Europe’s vulnerability to Russia under its bellicose tyrant, President Vladimir Putin. For decades he has been building pipeline infrastructure so that Russia can energy-wise hold Central and Eastern Europe hostage.

Hence the tightening vice of non-simultaneity from which Habeck now groans. He and his Greens campaigned for a radically accelerated exit from coal, oil and gas and a simultaneous gallop towards 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 Russian gas. It is commissioning floating LNG terminals that will be ready for the winter and fixed terminals on land in the longer term.

Habeck also yelped from the nastiest cut of all. To get through this winter of power shortages, he must restart the dirtiest power plants, the coal-fired ones.

So there you have it, the asynchronous logic of 2022, embodied by a single minister. The man wants to slow global warming but now faces local burns and frosts. He wants to get rid of the coal but is now lighting the old ovens.

Being a German intellectual, Habeck probably used the term “non-simultaneity” (or “non-synchronism”) with a specific philosopher in mind. The German word Ungleichzeitigkeit refers to the theories of Ernst Bloch, German thinker of Hegelian and Marxist tradition.

In the 1930s, after having emigrated, Bloch attempted to explain the rise of Nazism. Germany, he concluded, was a “classical land of non-simultaneity,” in which the atavistic feudal traditions of the peasantry and old aristocracy continued to coexist with the capitalist institutions of the industrial age.

Because Germany had never had a successful revolution, Bloch’s thought, attitudes, worldviews, and narratives from different eras persisted, causing confusion and myth-making in the present. As he said, “All people do not exist in the same Now.”

In a roundabout way, these ideas carried on into the science fiction genre of cyberpunk, pioneered by writers such as William Gibson, best known for observing that “the future is already here – it just isn’t not evenly distributed”. Often cited in Silicon Valley as an optimistic notion about tech adoption, the thought is instead a distinctly dark view of dystopia, the “combination of low life and high tech.”

Whether the context is Bloch’s, Gibson’s or Habeck’s, non-simultaneity would seem to explain much about much nowadays. Take Russia and the European Union.

In the EU Now, international relations today are orderly and generally polite, conforming to post-modern and even post-national norms regarding respect for borders and rules. Putin’s Now is set in the 18th century, when imperialist czars conquered however they could and could.

In today’s Other Nows, there are people who believe that what matters is soft power, creativity, ideas and the intangible — while others are convinced that relevant measures are territory, weapons 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 has become fashionable to swear by “The Power of Now,” as one hit title puts it. The past and the future, according to the theory, are distractions our minds create to torment us. Rather, the path to enlightenment is to recognize that the only real thing is the present moment.

It can work during meditation. The rest of the time, reality plays with us by mixing past, future and present until we can’t agree on anything except that there is something to worry about. Who is responsible for climate change, war, famine, even the pandemic? Where are we going? And what do we do now?

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• When Jet and Gulf Streams go wild, we’re in: Andreas Kluth

• When the weather gets hot enough to kill: David Fickling and Ruth Pollard

• Many winters are coming. Start saving energy now: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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