Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 14
Featuring Tim Mak
What is the human side of war? Investigative journalist Tim Mak joins us from Kyiv to share an update on Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive, what life is like in a war-torn country, and what he has learned about resilience and mental health covering his first war. Plus, electric vehicles’ growth is explosive, and a battery breakthrough that could make electric passenger aircraft possible.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast looking at, well, what could go right? We’re always asking what could go wrong. That seems to be a familiar trope. And rarely do we ask the opposite question of what could go right. And part of the point of The Progress Network, and part of the point of this podcast is to ask that question in a world where that question is under-asked, in a world where everyone assumes that there are all these things that could go wrong, and none of us tend to assume that there are all these things that could go right. But given that the future is inherently unknown, and given that each of us are in the process of trying to create that future, presumably a future of our hopes and dreams and not a future of our fears, then it would behoove all of us to ask that question of what could go right a little bit more and entertain the possibility that things might not go as bad as we think and might actually go a bit better and are much more likely to go better if we all collectively take the time to try to make it go better and not wallow in all the things that are so evidently wrong in the world, of which there are many.
And we’re gonna talk today about an area that we’ve been focusing on a lot that is clearly an area of the world where a lot has been going wrong, and that is in Ukraine, going wrong largely because of the completely unprovoked and illegitimate, illegitimate from sort of any moral or security perspective, invasion of Ukraine by Russia. And the attention of the world has been focused on this conflict, probably less so in 2023, and that was to be anticipated. And we’ll talk a bit about that. But there is this question always of when we pay attention, as we should, to things that are going unequivocally abysmally wrong, as they are in Ukraine, what do we do about the human dimension? How do we look for areas of compassion, areas of human resilience in a way that doesn’t offset the harm and the tragedy that’s going on, but also allows for the incredible multiplicity of human experiences, even in the face of horrors of war? And we’re gonna talk to someone today who has done an extraordinary job with that dimensionality and with that complexity. So, Emma, tell us about who we’re talking to.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Sure. So today, we’re gonna be talking to Tim Mak. He is the founder of a new Substack called The Counteroffensive, where he is reporting from Ukraine. Before then, he was covering the war for NPR. He’s the author of a book about the NRA called Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA. And he’s also a former US Army combat medic and EMT. He has just returned to Ukraine after a couple month break in the US So he is going to be talking to us from Kyiv.
ZK: I’m looking forward to hearing what Tim has to say.
EV: All right, let’s go.
ZK: Tim, thank you so much for joining us today. Ukraine was clearly the story throughout Europe, throughout the United States, to some degree, I think, throughout the world for much of the first half of 2022. And I think one thing that people were legitimately both concerned by and anticipating was that the longer this conflict continued, the more the ability of people, outside of very specifically, in Ukraine or in Russia or maybe in Poland, that attention would just inevitably wane in the absence of dramatic shifts in whatever the status quo circa the summer of 2022. And more or less, I mean, there’s obviously lots of fluidity on the ground and things could change a lot between our conversation and by the time this episode goes on air, at least in terms of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. But in many ways that’s been the case, right? That there is a certain amount of Dugin status quo. There hasn’t been massive changes in the territorial mix in months. It’s not clear that there will be, and cynical the statement may sound, a lot of this is what people pay attention to in the news and how that then plays into politics. And human beings in our contemporary world do not stay focused on any one story for very long, even if that story is incredibly consequential. It’s just not the way human beings in the modern internet, social media-fueled world functions. So I guess maybe talk a little bit about that. And you’ve obviously been on the frontlines, literally and figuratively, of reporting about this and thinking about this. But maybe talk a little bit about how the relevance of this as a story kind of plays into this as a conflict.
Tim Mak (TM): Yeah, I think that’s a really important question, and it’s one that I’ve been thinking a lot about. I mean, the whole purpose of my new publication, The Counteroffensive, is to address this issue, right? Which is, do people still care about what’s happening in Ukraine or is declining interest in this going to lead to some outcome that folks don’t wanna see? The purpose of The Counteroffensive is to write compelling human interest stories and investigations that would be interesting, whether they happened in Ukraine or not. But what it does is it, and what we hope to do, is to write stories that talk about Ukrainian culture and history and language and cuisine and society in a way that’s wrapped up in the war itself, and then make you interested in reading about it because it’s less about the booms and the bangs, that I think a lot of folks are tired of reading, oh, well, the battles happened in this village and then they moved five kilometers over to this village and then now in the south they’re moving elsewhere three kilometers. I mean, I don’t think these are really interesting stories for folks to pay attention to long term.
But the heart of this, the heart of my approach, and I think the heart of what makes a compelling story is empathy. Can I imagine myself in that person’s position? I mean, the stories that I really like to write are those kinds of stories where anyone in the United States or around the world could see themselves in the people here. So what do I mean? I mean, I wrote a story last year about a jazz club in Odesa that refused to shut down despite there being no power and there being regular explosions in the city. And that when the jazz club owner realized that he could no longer sell tickets to his club, he decided, well, I’m just gonna deliver free jazz performances from the patio instead for everyone in the town to hear. These are compelling stories ’cause they hit us on a level— like you may be a jazz aficionado, you may relate to the stories that I write about people fleeing the country with their dogs, just their dogs in tow, because they love their animals that much. I mean, a lot of people can see themselves in the places of Ukraine. I think that’s what’s compelling and that’s what’s gonna keep people continuing to care about stories that come out of here.
EV: Yeah, I mean, one thing I really like about your coverage, Tim, I mean, both your formal coverage and kind of the “informal” stuff, for instance, that you’ve been putting on Twitter, these short video clips where you can really just see 30 seconds of what it’s like in Ukraine right now in this specific location. You put up that tweet about there being a polar bear that had, I think, gotten out of the zoo into a ditch or something like that. I’ll let you tell that story if you’d like. But I would love to hear just a little bit, since you’re in Ukraine right now, what is it like there right now? What’s the mood like? I mean, what’s day to day like? I know you just got back, but as far as you’ve been able to tell so far.
TM: The joke about the bear, we have to tell the story of the bear since you mentioned it.
EV: Please [laughs]. Yes.
TM: I was in Mykolaiv in the south, a place that was under heavy bombardment, and there’s a zoo there. And part of our security process whenever we go to a new place is we try to figure out do they have a backup power source and do they have a bomb shelter? So we call the zoo dutifully and we say, do you have a backup power source in case the electricity goes out? And they say, yes. And we ask, well, do you also have a bomb shelter? And then they sigh a little bit and they say, no, but we have a ditch. And we’re like, oh. And they said, and there may be a bear in it [laughs].
TM: And so that’s the story of the bear. But to answer your question, I’m in Kyiv right now, and this is a city that over the last couple weeks people have not been getting any sleep because there have been these drones coming in, these self-destructing drones that target various locations and then they just blow up. And they’ve been quite devastating to, I think, the general mental wellbeing of people in the city and also to, obviously, the people they hurt directly and physically. But here I am, I’m in the center of Kyiv and I’m looking out my window, and there’s a blues bar across the street. It’s a nice spring evening and people are on the patio having some drinks and listening to some— I can’t hear it, but I see someone with an acoustic guitar playing music. People are trying their best to live their lives. And that is both a testament to the resilience, and I’m more than happy to talk at a greater length of the resilience that I’ve seen over the last year, but it’s also the cause of some real deep concern among some Ukrainian soldiers.
And you might ask yourself, well, why would that be an issue of concern? Well, there’s large parts of Ukrainian society that are slipping into normalcy now, and Ukrainian soldiers are concerned on the one hand— so I spoke to a Ukrainian drone pilot just today at the hospital, and he’s recovering from being near the sight of a tank shell explosion in Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, where some of the heaviest fighting is happening right now. And he said he’s really concerned about this very issue, that he’s worried that people are forgetting about them, that they’re trying to live their lives, which was, on the one hand, admirable and exactly what Ukrainian soldiers are on the frontlines trying to fight for, but on the other hand, they’re worried getting bypassed and forgotten. And so when life does go back to normal, or when people do try to adapt, as all humans do, even in terrible and violent circumstances, there’s some real concern that the folks who are really paying the greatest price are being left behind.
ZK: Are they concerned as well about the continuance of Western military aid? I mean, certainly, the United States has continued to spend several billion dollars in military aid. There is the, I guess, imminent delivery of Abrams tanks, which was a kind of real step up in terms of just sheer hardware. If one is a military hardware geek, that will mean something. If not, it’s basically a much more land tank than anything that the Ukrainian army had until now, and certainly comparable, or actually not comparable, but better than most of what the Russians have. Although I guess on paper, the Russian military arsenal was much more impressive than it was on actuality if there hadn’t been such intense graft.
But is there concern that this is not gonna continue? I mean, there’s rumblings in the Republican party, certainly in the United States, that there should be some sort of endpoint, that maybe the United States should at some point use the amount of military aid as leverage to nudge Zelenskyy toward negotiations. I mean, right now, the stance of the Ukrainian government is not only we will not negotiate about Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas or the territories that were annexed, we we’re gonna put Crimea back on the table as part of the conditionality of ending this. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know where people are, whether this is— everybody postures at their most extreme in public, but I don’t know whether that’s commensurate with public attitudes or a sense of where this goes over the next year.
TM: I think that there’s a real concern that the war will go on and on. I don’t think that there’s deep concern at this point about eventualities that haven’t occurred yet, right? That all attention is on this potential counteroffensive, which may have already started, may not start for a while, may never happen. We really just are in the dark about it. And before you get to the question of are we worried about future aid deliveries coming to Ukraine? I think Ukrainian folks would tell you right now, they’re getting quite a lot of weaponry. And the real concern is a strategic one, where is this counteroffensive gonna take place if it does take place. Zelenskyy was asked the question you’re posing me, and he answered it earlier this week, and he said that he believes that there’s a real bipartisan consensus in Washington, D.C. to support Ukraine. And there probably is. That’s it.
I mean, there’s a presidential election obviously coming up, and one thing that I noticed is that Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters and his base are very adamantly against any sort of aid to Ukraine. I was in Texas in July at the National Rifle Association annual convention, and Donald Trump gave a speech there praising gun rights and basically telling the NRA’s line on guns. And that got some polite applause. But the biggest applause line of the night was when he promised to end aid to Ukraine. That was what that conservative base’s most enthusiastic response of the day was for.
Audio Clip: If I’m president, I will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours.
How would you settle that war in one day?
I’ll meet with Putin, I’ll meet with Zelenskyy. They both have weaknesses and they both have strengths. And within 24 hours, that war will be settled. It’ll be over, it’ll be absolutely over.
Do you want Ukraine to win this war?
I don’t think in terms of winning and losing. I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people and breaking down this country.
Now, I want everybody to stop dying. They’re dying. Russians and Ukrainians, I want them to stop dying. And I’ll have that done in 24 hours. I’ll have it done. You need the power of the presidency to do it.
But you won’t say that you want Ukraine to win. [Inaudible]—
You know what I’ll say? I’ll say this, I want Europe to put up more money because they’re in for 20 billion. We’re in for 170, and they should be—
That’s not an answer about who should win the war.
And they should equalize. They have plenty of money. They should equalize. We’re spending $170 billion for a faraway land, and they’re right next door to that land, and they’re in for 20.
TM: And so I think you have to understand— and of course, looking back at the history of Donald Trump’s impeachment, his first impeachment was over the issue of conditionality of aid to Ukraine. So I think you have to anticipate that if he were to be reelected, there would be some real restrictions for the Ukrainians. He said, well, we don’t have to worry about it because we will win this war before then anyways. That’s been the response from the Ukrainian government.
EV: I mean, how much of that— I mean, okay, we’re talking about a war. Obviously, predictions are a very dangerous game. But does that strike you as a realistic, vaguely realistic, completely unrealistic statement when Zelenskyy said something like that? Especially given that we don’t really know what’s going on with the counteroffensive. Like you said, you’re there, you’re not sure if it has started already or not, as are the rest of us.
TM: Yeah. One thing that I’ve realized is that Western intelligence failed in a number of ways when it comes to this conflict. You’ll remember that the West, and the United States in particular, predicted that Kyiv would fall in 72 hours. And here I am, well over a year later in the center of Kyiv, which is no longer under threat of falling at all. And that the CIA and DIA also did not anticipate in the right way the willingness of the Afghan government and military to fight when confronted with the Taliban because intelligence is, or American intelligence in particular, is really good at counting tanks and guns and soldiers and ambulances, but very bad, because it’s very difficult to do, at assessing will to fight.
What we obviously learned in the aftermath of the initial full-scale invasion is that the Ukrainian military very much had the will to fight, very much had morale. But how do you measure morale? How do you measure that people believe that a country is worth dying for or believe in the idea of the nation at all? So when we look at this counteroffensive and whether it be successful, you have to wonder, are the Ukrainian soldiers motivated to defend what they believe to be their territory? And then on the flip side, are the Russian soldiers who are in those trenches as well and in equally miserable conditions, how do they feel about the motivations why they’re there? Are they conscripted? Are they well trained? Are they well fed? Are they well rested? And do their defensive lines, however well-built they are, however many tanks they have, however many artillery pieces they have, are they motivated not to throw down their weapons and run away when opposing soldiers arrive? These are things that are really, really hard to say. But obviously, Ukraine has had what you would call a home field advantage, and they’ve been very much playing like it.
ZK: Making this a little more of a global question. One of the things that became clear in 2022, and I guess has settled in to just a structural reality in 2023, is that in the face of the United States, and most of Europe, proclaiming this kind of an existential, civilizational, generational conflict of import only equivalent to World War II, a lot of the rest of the world said, gimme a break. There’s always some fight somewhere. And Russia invading Ukraine is not fundamentally different than Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or Ethiopia and Eritrea, or different issues in territorial integrity in East Timor, or whatever’s going on at any given day in the Congo. I mean, you kind of go through the list, right? And a lot of people said, a lot of sort of non-Western nations and individuals said, this is your conflict, your fight, your region. This is not an existential threat to anything other than the Ukrainians and maybe the Russians, and I guess potentially the energy supplies for Western Europe, and we’re not gonna pick sides here because we don’t see this as a grand moral conflict between freedom and autocracy or dictatorship. We see this as yet another war between peoples who have been fighting in one form another, fairly or unfairly, morally or immorally for however many decades, generations, centuries. And enough with the highfaluting, good versus evil, us versus them.
TM: Yeah. Well, I’d have a few thoughts on that. I mean, firstly, just to start, we’re dealing with a nuclear armed country, which if threatened and if pushed back in a certain way, may act and has threatened to act, according to certain Russian government official and Russian military analysts, has threatened to act and to use nuclear weapons as a part of this conflict. So I’d say that immediately raises the stakes.
The second point I’d make is that the invasion of Ukraine dramatically changed the calculations of European countries. You’ve seen countries that have been neutral for many years, even Switzerland, taking sides in this conflict. You’ve seen Finland and other Baltic states attempt to join NATO. You’ve seen Poland dramatically increasing its defense budget and is a staunch supporter of Ukraine. We’re seeing the politics of Europe instantly, in a moment in February 2022 and ever since, change very dramatically in ways with deep geopolitical consequences everywhere.
And then my third point that I’d make on this is that being a global market, the effects of the war on energy and inflation all around the world have been felt by every single person, I would say, in the world, whether we know it or not. I’d add also that Ukraine being a major exporter of food, especially wheat, to most of the world and including in Africa, has meant that people are going hungry right now in Africa, today, cannot get oil to cook their food because of the huge increases of prices due to the lack of exports from Ukraine that have been traditionally gone to places like Syria and to East Africa. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, right? This conflict has obviously global effects that have touched all of us, whether you’re someone in London who has seen their energy bill go up three times, or someone in Ethiopia who has been unable to eat because you can’t afford the cost of flour, which has traditionally been much lower than it is today.
EV: Yeah, I mean, here in Athens we certainly had a winter of spiking energy prices that the Greek government very kindly paid for a lot of that. But anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Tim, you had mentioned before the resilience of the Ukrainian people, and at the start of the war, there was almost like mythical quality to that, right? There’s the famous story at Snake Island with the Russian aircraft, go F yourself. And other stories like that were popping up quite a lot. And [inaudible] saying this somewhat inelegantly, I mean, does the hype live up to the reality? I mean, what have you seen there since you made a particular mention of the resilience?
TM: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t think of the resilience in these kind of one-off stories because although I think they’re interesting stories, I look at social resilience more broadly. I really expected Ukraine to be in a much worse position than it is now. I mean, when the power goes out in a city, you expect mass panic and hysteria and looting and general destruction. But it happened in Kyiv and it happened in many cities in the winter when it gets down to -30 degrees, and people just found a way to adapt and live. That if you go to Odesa, a city that spent months without power, people have found a way to continue their businesses and find ways to— I spoke to a furniture store owner who, unable to bring furniture in by the Black Sea, which is traditionally what that port city of Odesa relies on, has created new roots over land through Romania to get the goods he needs. People find a way. People have been able to adapt to this, maybe with some complaint, but largely without a complaint. And right now, I’m sitting in central Kyiv, and the sun is setting and people are outside on a nice spring day enjoying a beer.
ZK: So add a little to your own endeavor with The Counteroffensive and the publication, kind of moving on from NPR, your focus now is certainly Ukraine, but do you also have a wider mission for this? I mean, there will be a post-Ukraine reality, hopefully one that is better than not. I mean [inaudible]—
TM: Post-Ukraine war reality, I think [laughs].
ZK: There will be a post-Ukraine war reality. That is absolutely a correct corrective to my careless statement. And one would assume at this point, barring something, that the attention will move on and should, that this will not be endless war. How do you apply some of what you’re doing now to other global frameworks?
TM: When I launched The Counteroffensive, my statement on it was, hey, this is not just about the anticipated spring counteroffensive for which we’re named after, that this is a counteroffensive against apathy and cynicism and ignorance about this war in particular and about the rise of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe and in Asia more broadly, that we really want to do with this publication is tell investigative and human stories that kind of compel us to put ourselves in the shoes of the people that we’re writing about.
We spoke a little bit earlier about empathy and how that’s kind of the basis for the writing that I’m hoping to do. Autocracy and empathy just don’t mix. Autocracy is of course when a government is ruled by a single individual and there is no humanizing of other individuals other than the cronies which help support the government and the state. I really do think that humanizing people and telling their stories, their struggles, their triumphs is a major tool in the battle against autocracy. And whether that happens in Ukraine or in Estonia or in Sudan or in Taipei, we’re gonna be trying to tell those stories for a freer world.
EV: Tim, I have a personal question for you about your own story. You had an interesting post recently where you talked with a handful of war journalists, right, about their experience and also their advice for you. And you had this one quote in there, you said there are a lot of things that you don’t understand are happening to you when you’re in there, meaning Ukraine, that don’t hit you until you come out. And I was wondering if you could expand on that in particular ’cause I was like, like what? That’s my reaction to that. And also, just generally, what your experience has been like covering war in a human way for yourself.
TM: Look, so I’ve been a reporter nearly 15 years. But this is my first war. I’ve been in Ukraine on and off since the day the war started. I mean, I landed in Kyiv the night the invasion began. Talk about timing. And I’ve learned a lot about— I mean, having not had any experience covering war before. I mean, I had gone to conflict areas, I’d reported from some dicey places, but a full scale war was not something that I was accustomed to. I guess the way I put it is this, from just a experience perspective. The big difficulty is that the folks that you run into, especially when you’re trying to tell stories in a traditional way, is that everyone’s having probably the worst day of their lives. And it’s like you’re holding out a cup and people just slowly pour a little bit of their sadness and their grief and their anger into it. And any sort of person who is trying to ask questions and relate takes on a little bit of that anger and sadness and grief. And if you don’t take care of yourself, then that has accumulating and detrimental effects. And I felt some of those. And I’ll be writing about that a little bit more, I think, in the future, because I want folks to—
The idea of The Counteroffensive is to not just write about the war, but to have an open reporter’s notebook. Here are the things that I— it’s a more intimate look at this war and a more intimate look at what’s happening on the street level. But also, unlike when I’m working for a larger mainstream media institution, I’m more able to talk about my feelings and my experiences in a personal way. I can use the word I, for example. I would not be able to do that at a POLITICO or NPR. Look, I mean, I think the long and the short of it is that I’ve had some mental health struggles as a result of this conflict. Look, I spent five years as a US Army combat medic. And so it’s not the violence and it’s not the gore, it’s not the blood that bothers me. It’s the mothers crying and weeping that really affect me. And I think most people, given the same experience, would also feel the same way.
Now, there are ways to address it, and you can look for it in a coming post that I’m actually thinking about a lot and writing about. How do you exactly fight PTSD? How do you increase resilience so that you’re less susceptible to it? And then after an acute traumatic event that you’re struggling with, what’s the best way to try to lessen the effects of it? So I interviewed one of the leading experts on PTSD with some of those things. And actually, since I haven’t written about it, I guess we’ll have an exclusive on this podcast right now.
EV: Oh, there you go.
TM: -[laughs] about what’s happening next. But social support and talking to people are the most powerful things, that you surround yourself with loved ones who are there to listen and help, that you seek therapy if possible, and that you offload as soon as possible after a traumatic event. But also, what I learned from, you mentioned a post that I wrote, interviewing some very experienced war correspondents, Sebastian Junger, Chris Hedges, Kim Dozier, among them, at least two of them no longer drink any alcohol at all and emphasized to me the sort of detrimental long-term mental health effects of drinking too much, especially in a conflict area with all the stress that involves and the inclination to drink that comes with it. I spoke to one of CNN’s very top international reporters and editors, Nic Robertson, and he says he makes it a rule, he doesn’t drink a single drop of alcohol when he’s in any sort of conflict area. It is a recommendation I’m not sure I can fulfill to the fullest-
TM: -but it’s something that I’m very cognizant of. I mean it’s one thing to have a drink or two, but there have been times where that temptation to drink five or seven or more has really affected me. And then you really feel it in your soul the next day. I mean, it’s one of those things as a war correspondent that I’ve learned. I try to mix stress and stress relief in a way that’s a little healthier for me.
ZK: I mean, I really appreciate your line of empathy being kind of the antithesis of autocracy and the idea of it’s hard to go as far as most deeply controlling governments go or attempt to go and also have that kind of component of empathy. It’s certainly a good question whether any governmental system is particularly good at empathy. I mean, I suppose when you focus on social safety nets and dealing with people’s health challenges, aging, education, there’s a certain quality of empathy that I think comes with that structurally, although one could maybe even make a greater indictment of the more obsessed you are with power and its maintenance, the harder it is to have anything resembling empathy no matter what your particular political system is ’cause that’s a particular driver.
And the one thing that I think we all need to think about is we have a legitimate and profound desire and need to focus on areas of humanity that are at their worst. And certainly wars and conflicts, and the Ukraine war in particular, given how unprovoked it was as an act of aggression, there are others globally, but that one is pretty intense, with the reality that the world we’re living in is actually more or less marked by a lot less conflict than it was for huge periods of the 20th century, probably huge periods of humanity in general. And it’s that kind of balance of us at our worst, which is manifest and also draws our eyes and our attention, not just in a rubbernecking sense, but in a human compassionate sense of we should be attending to suffering and trying to do our best collectively to have less of it and not more of it, right? With the global reality of we seem to actually be doing better doing less of this. And maybe that’s why Ukraine has become such a focal point, because there’s not that much else. Yes, there is stuff in the Congo and there is Yemen. I mean, there is a lot of other things globally we could all have been paying more attention to than we have been. But I wonder, what do we do with all that?
TM: Look, I don’t really have a lot of time for the argument that some people say, that the media is responsible for only focusing on negative things, right? Because right now, the media is probably more deeply connected to public attention than at any prior time. You think about newspapers. They were supported by— general ads and editors would have this gatekeeping function and decide what news was important and what wasn’t. But the internet has meant that news editors and news reporters have a direct insight into what’s popular and what’s not. And in fact, the economic incentives in the current day are for clicks and for attention. And the public has spoken. Their attention is drawn to negative things, that media is simply a reflection of society, not the cause of that general instinct. And we can understand that instinct, right? That instinct is protective, that we’re more worried about bad news than good news. But in general, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the argument that media is the cause of it.
That said, I think that we have a great well of empathy within us and that individuals really do care about the world and what things are going right and wrong. I think you’re right to take a step back, and I think this podcast is great concept, one in which one in which we look at the incredible progress that humanity has made over the last hundred years, but more importantly, acts to try to preserve that progress and build upon it. And that doesn’t happen without a cleareyed view of what’s going wrong and what we can do right, and the inspiring stories of people who are pushing and dragging and pulling humanity into a more positive outcome and future.
ZK: I think that might be a really perfect note to end this particular chapter of our conversation. And I certainly look forward to seeing what you do now in your next venture more independently, right? It’s one thing to be part of NPR or POLITICO or Daily Beast. These are all sort of organizations that— not all as big, but they still are, to be able to kind of bring your own voice more in line with the platform that you’re creating. And I really look forward to seeing how you create that and continue in that voice. I think some of what you’re saying about your own personal story, everybody has their own personal story, and how that interacts with the stories you’re reporting is something we could all use, to kind of, I guess, break the fourth wall, the myth of the oracular reporter as opposed to the human being trying to do the best that he or she can, dealing with the reality, particularly really hard realities in front of them. And I really salute that. So we will watch and listen and learn. And thank you so much for your time today.
TM: Thank you for having me. Like I said, I think this show is a great step in having the right mentality around viewing world events and current events. And I hope that folks who are listening will see some truth in my attitude towards news coverage and how to write about and listen to the voices in Ukraine. And I hope that folks will be interested in subscribing to The Counteroffensive.
EV: Yeah, go subscribe, guys. Thank you, Tim, so much.
TM: Thank you.
EV: That was a mix of taking a very difficult, dark topic. And I think what’s wonderful about Tim, he has this nice quote that I read on his Substack or his Twitter, I can’t remember where, to always try to find the joy in things even in war. That’s what kind of is getting him through, he said. So I really appreciate that approach to things and I also really appreciate his pushback at the end there re: the media and the consumers of media. I think sometimes people feel that the media is a force upon them that they don’t have any reactive power to. Apparently, some of the media don’t see it that way, right? [Laughs] we do have power with what we click on and what we ask for and how we satiate our appetites for negative news or choose not to. So that’s a point to remember.
ZK: Yeah. And again, it’s obviously what we’re trying to do with the recognition that a lot of this is how people are responding to what is out there, and that there is this, I think we’ve repeated this a lot on the show and in our newsletters and everything else and probably should just keep repeating, which is there is just a powerful human tendency, particularly in the moment, to respond to hot emotions, negativity, outrage, fear, stories of death and carnage. I mean, that makes up a lot of our collective narrative of history, right? History is often the story of war and death and change and revolution. It’s rarely the story of things going right.
I did this book years ago called Peace Be Upon You about Muslim, Christian, and Jewish coexistence, partly as a way of saying you would be hard-pressed to find a history of peace, partly ’cause it’s really hard to write an interesting history of peace and partly ’cause human beings just don’t gravitate toward that. Even tragedy and comedy, right? Both have the same whatever is upended dramatically, profoundly. The only difference is at the end of a tragedy, people die, and at the end of comedy, people get married, traditionally. So that’s something one has to push against. And part of doing The Progress Network is to try to push against that.
Part of what Tim is trying to do is say, hey, there are stories of joy even in the midst of horror and there are stories of human uplift even in the midst of chaos. And his own point during our discussion of seeing the blues bar across, it’s— we’re recording this— well, it’s east coast midday, it’s evening in Athens and Kyiv. He gravitates towards that, right? He’s having this discussion but he’s noticing the guy doing acoustic guitar. And even the tension within Ukrainian society of people wanna live a normal life, and presumably, what everybody is fighting for is so that people can live a normal life, but there’s also this agitation that if people are too able to live the life of joy and simplicity on a spring evening, they’ll forget about the horror and the conflict. And that’s always the problem. That’s always the tension. How do you kind of multitask around joy and horror?
EV: That was so interesting what he said about that tension even existing within Ukraine, right? You kind of think like, oh, the West is forgetting about Ukraine, it’s so far away. But even in Kyiv, they’re forgetting about Western Ukraine or they’re worried that they might forget about them. And I will say too that I didn’t just say go subscribe to his Substack or go read his stuff because he’s on the podcast. It’s really nice. He has this whole series called Dogs of War. He has pictures of dogs in various wild scenarios. The human element is absolutely there. That really is missing from the major outlets that did exactly what you described in the beginning, two kilometers advance or the Russians take back this territory, where it just feels so abstract and technical.
ZK: I’m really glad we had him on, and he’s a voice to be listened to if you have not already been doing so.
ZK: So let’s talk about the news of the week.
EV: All right. So we’re gonna start with batteries today. Batteries, a really exciting topic that we often ignore. Because there are a lot of breakthroughs when it comes to batteries, making them smaller and lighter. The problem is that a lot of these breakthroughs are really far away from mass production. So there’s a lot of battery news that comes out that we sort of reflexively ignore here at The Progress Network. But what just happened is the world’s largest battery manufacturer, which is called— the acronym is CATL. You’ll be forgiven for not knowing they exist ’cause I didn’t know [laughs] they existed until recently. They have just announced a new condensed battery, which has 500 watt-hour per kilogram. That will go into mass production this year. What does that mean? Why do we care? It means that things like electric passenger aircraft are now in the realm of being realistic. Just to give some comparison, the battery cells that are used in Teslas are 272 to 296 watt-hour per kilogram. And that’s considered really high by current standards. So this is big. It could be really big really soon.
ZK: Well, that’s a very energizing story.
EV: [Laughs] oh, god. Oh, that was a bad dad joke. Sorry, that was bad.
ZK: It’s all right. We gotta get one in every now and then just to keep people on their toes. The groan factor has to be present at all times. And maybe with this increased capacity, look, one of the issues which concerns many is in this rush toward electrification of cars mandates that you have in the United States and you have in Europe that all vehicles have to be electric by 2035, et cetera, separate from the fact that nobody seems to be investing commensurately in charging stations, is just the range capacity issues. It’s certainly true in most of the world, people drive within a particularly limited radius work to home. But the 300-mile outside capacity of most electric vehicles is a real problem if you’re talking about trucking and you’re talking about people wanting at least the optionality of driving state to state in the United States or country to country in Europe. So maybe this’ll be— again, one of the real limiting factors has just been the amount of range you can get from a battery.
EV: Yes. And there’s actually another problem with electric vehicles that I didn’t learn about until recently that I’m gonna talk about now that this potential new battery could help solve. I found this because of a New York Times article about Norway where 80% of new car sales are electric. So you would think like, oh my god, amazing. And it is, oh my god, amazing. The nitrogen oxides that cause things like asthma, they’ve fallen sharply, the air is cleaner, the birds are chirping. There is some grumbling about not having enough charging stations, as you mentioned, but there’s also this new problem which is that Oslo’s air has unhealthy levels of microscopic particles generated by the abrasion of the tires on the asphalt. Why is that the case? Because electric cars are much heavier, the batteries inside are much heavier than an engine in a normal car, in a combustion engine car. So there’s more abrasion due to the weight, and that creates its own problems that now need to be solved, which could be solved by these lighter batteries.
ZK: Well, that’s good. So people will no longer have little tiny microscopic bits of rubber in their lungs to compensate for how clean their lungs are ’cause nobody is smoking cigarettes anymore. So if it’s not one thing, it’s another.
EV: Always new problems to solve. But last bit of good news about electric vehicles, this is a little bit of a wonky one. Hannah Ritchie covered this on her— I think it’s a Substack. It’s not a Substack. It’s some sort of online publication. Sorry. In 2022, EV sales were 14% of new car sales. Now, it is going to be 18% in 2023. And you might say to yourself, well, that doesn’t sound like that big of a change, but compared to in 2020, it was just 4%
Audio Clip: EV sales jumping in 2022 compared to the years prior. The International Energy Agency releasing a fresh report on global EV sales and an outlook for the industry.
Yeah, so the IEA is sort of combining here battery EVs and plug-in hybrids together as electric cars they’re calling them. So they’re saying that sales will jump 35% in 2023. Now, last year, we sold globally, 10 million. The industry sold 10 million globally. They’re seeing 14 million units sold in 2023 and market share jumping from 14% to 18% globally for these electric cars. So one little nugget here is China still dominates that EV market. 60% of all electric car sales happened there last year. More than half of all electric cars in the world are in China.
EV: What’s happening here is that not only are the numbers growing really fast, but actually, even the estimates are continued to be off. It’s kind of like solar power, as what Hannah Ritchie says, that estimates continued to be off about how fast solar was gonna grow, and we’re seeing the same pattern right now with EVs. So they think, for instance, the International Energy Agency estimates that updated figures for 2030 is gonna be 36% of global car sales will be EVs. And Hannah’s point is, that’s actually probably gonna be wrong. It’s gonna be revised upwards. So EVs are exploding even more than it might seem right now.
ZK: And to be clear, Emma does mean that metaphorically.
EV: [Laughs] yes.
ZK: So in case anyone is concerned-
EV: Abrasing the street [laughs]-
ZK: -[inaudible] [laughs].
EV: -but not exploding.
ZK: Yeah. People get a little touchy about the word exploding and vehicles in motion. So these are good things. I do wonder how that’s gonna play out in the United States with these 2035 targets. And I think those are probably just like a lot of the carbon emission targets, they’re more aspirational than they are realistic. The only question is, do governments that are going to be in charge of enforcing these rules, will they clue in to the aspirational part before they start enforcing unrealistic targets? Probably yes, judging from past behavior. And the infrastructure of charging is gonna be important, even if you do have lighter, higher range batteries, which, again, it would seem people are waking up to, right? So even in Norway, which has done a much better job with its own infrastructure, people are saying, hey, if we’re all gonna drive electric vehicles, we better have high-powered charging stations such that we can do this in, I don’t know, I guess it’s 10 minutes to top off in a legitimate way, which is still way longer than people have been used to in terms of how long it takes to fill up your gas tank, but even so.
EV: Gives the last thing [inaudible] about the US context is that the long-range issues that you mentioned are of course much more severe there in somewhere like Norway. And Axios actually did a test road trip in the US coast to coast a couple of months ago to see if they could do it with an electric car. And the result was, yes, it’s possible with very considered and careful planning beforehand, which basically means [laughs] it’s not possible. So we have a little bit of ways to go there, but we’ll see what happens.
ZK: Yeah, it’s a real damper on the traditional college road trip and then let’s plan it for a few weeks. You can map out where the stations are-
EV: Right [laughs].
ZK: -and then we’ll go on a road trip. So thank you all for joining us yet again for What Could Go Right? Please sign up for The Progress Network newsletter, which is also called What Could Go Right? Go to the website or on mobile or on a desktop. Sign up. It is free, and it will bring you more of these news stories every week, many more of these news stories every week. And thank you so much for all of your time, attention, and care.
EV: Yeah, thank you so much, everyone. Thank you, Zachary, as per usual and we’ll see you all next week.
What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
Meet the Hosts