The solstice marks the passing of darkness. This year, it also points to a brighter future free from the dominion of petro-tyrants.
Some say the world will end in ice.
It’s not a fear very many of us have. In the modern world, it seems almost quaint. If anything, climate change has tipped the balance of our fears in the other direction. When we read about melting glaciers, wildfires and heat waves, we might wish for a little more winter.
However, it’s a fear our ancestors were intimately familiar with. The Norse told stories about Fimbulwinter: a three-year winter that extinguishes almost all life and ushers in Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods. The Greeks had the myth of Hades and Persephone, when a goddess’ grief made the earth barren.
In fact, to those long-ago people, every winter must have felt like a small apocalypse. They depended on the land’s bounty for everything: food, clothing, shelter, fire. When the cold and the dark came and crops ceased to grow, it must have felt to them like God turning his face away. They knew the sun had always returned in past years, but how could they be sure it would come back this time?
To stave off this fear, they created winter holidays and rituals. In the depths of darkness, they feasted and kindled light. In defiance of the frozen earth, they decorated home and hearth with evergreen trees and holly and mistletoe—everything that was still green and alive. They watched the sky and marked the solstice because ancestral wisdom told them that after that day, the world would begin to warm up again.
This knowledge was so important, they built it into their very architecture. Take Newgrange, a five-thousand-year-old tomb in Ireland, kin to the better-known Stonehenge. It’s an earthen mound with a stone passageway leading to an inner chamber. On the winter solstice, the sun shines directly down the passage, flooding the chamber and its spiral-carved stones with light.
Imagine the work it must have taken for prehistoric, pre-literate people to plan and build this. Imagine what motives must have driven them. Nothing could be a better symbol of their devotion to the cycles of the world.
Most of us no longer fear that the earth will stay frozen or the sun will stay dark. However, in 2022, the fear of winter has reared its head in a different way.
In the war that’s raging over Ukraine, energy is Vladimir Putin’s chief weapon. “General Winter” has saved Russia from invaders in the past. Now, Putin is trying to weaponize it against the people of Europe.
At the beginning of the invasion, Putin believed his army would conquer Ukraine within days. The planners were so sure of swift victory, Russian soldiers packed parade uniforms for the triumphal march through Kyiv. Putin thought it would be a fait accompli before the U.S. or Europe could do more than lodge token protests.
However, he had what he thought was an extra guarantee. Russia has long been “Europe’s gas station“, selling oil and gas that powers the continent’s industry and heats its homes. In Putin’s mind, Europe was hooked on Russian energy, and it was his hand on the throttle. He offered a devil’s bargain: either Europeans look the other way and let him wage his lawless war, or he’d turn the gas off and they’d freeze in the dark as winter winds howled.
But Europe didn’t give in to blackmail. Instead, when the war broke out, the EU slapped harsh sanctions on Russia. They cut their usage, they found alternate sources of gas. They dared Putin to do his worst, even canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have cemented their dependence on Russia.
This was a brave stance, and it came at a cost. Energy prices have risen, causing inflation and economic stress. But, so far, the catastrophe that Putin hoped to cause hasn’t materialized. What’s more, opinion polls show that a 75% supermajority favor continued support for Ukraine. It turns out the European people were more willing than Putin expected to turn down their thermostats and wear sweaters in the name of defending democracy.
Worse for Putin, he won’t be able to use this tactic again. This was his only card to play, and he’s played it.
Energy blackmail is a gun with one bullet
To make it through the winter, some countries are burning more coal. This is unfortunate, but it’s temporary. It will fade soon. In its place, a massive project to build out renewable energy is gaining momentum.
According to the International Energy Agency, Putin’s war has “turbocharged” the green transition. Over the next five years, the world is set to add 2,400 gigawatts of solar and wind energy—as much as the power consumption of China, as much as it added in the twenty years before that. By 2025, renewables are forecast to become the world’s biggest power source.
Throughout Europe, heat pump installations are booming. Countries are building pipelines for green hydrogen, and hydrogen trains are already running. Rising investment is speeding new energy-storage technologies like carbon dioxide batteries.
All this is born out of the belated, but welcome, recognition that reliance on a tyrant was folly. Renewables are far friendlier to democracy. No autocrat can shut off the wind or the sun, any more than they can halt the march of the seasons.
A country that’s self-sufficient is in control of its own destiny. Ancient farmers could face the winter with more courage if they had sacks of potatoes in the root cellar, meat drying in the smokehouse and and ample firewood for the hearth. Just the same way, a nation with a secure, homegrown energy supply can look ahead to the future without fear.
Nations racing to join the green-energy gold rush are acting in their own self-interest, but the planet as a whole will also benefit. Petro-tyrants like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran will have nothing to offer the future, and their wealth and power will dry up and blow away. And as humanity repowers itself with sun and wind, our overburdened world will finally get relief from the sky-clouding carbon we’ve been spewing out.
Solstice comes, the world turns
When we’re in the middle of a dark season, it can seem endless. We can doubt, just as ancient people did, whether light and warmth and green things would ever return.
But the lesson of the winter solstice is that every darkness passes. The world never ceases in its turning. Just when all seems darkest, light is peeking around the corner. The sun comes creeping back after the long death of winter, and new life uncurls under the snow. It’s happening in our time, if we have eyes to see it, and if we don’t lose hope.