By Emanuel Pastreich and Alexander Krabbe
A comparison between the culture of denial and self-deception that swept Europe during the Holocaust and the disgraceful failure of so-called "advanced nations" to take even the most basic steps to address the catastrophe of climate change may strike readers as a painfully stretched analogy that undermines the authors' credibility.
Sadly, the resistance to this analogy that we have encounterd suggests the depth of the denial of climate change that lurks among intellectuals, and extends to the entirety of the educated classes around the world. For, if truth be told, the consequences of global warming and the resulting accelerated climate change will be far deadlier for humanity than the Holocaust, leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions, or billions, as agriculture collapses in the face of spreading deserts and the oceans die as a result of warming waters and increasing acidity.
That we can read about this catastrophe in newspapers and refuse to end our thoughtless consumption of fossil fuels and our mindless plunge into a fantasy of immediate gratification without concern for future generations suggests nothing less than mass psychopathology.
The analogy to the Holocaust is imperfect and tentative, but it explains how a shadow has fallen between the knowledge of catastrophe and actual action. It offers precedents for the psychology of educated people who fall over backwards to deny an obvious disaster, who refuse to admit that their daily actions had anything to do with the radical crimes carried out in secret.
We can imagine a future date, if humanity manages to survive in some form, at which this brutal truth of how those with the learning to grasp the problem who pretended that they had nothing to do with this suicidal process will be forced out into the open and the public will be forced to take responsibility for the immensity of the crime that we have committed, and face the bitter fact that we betrayed future generations every time we drove to the market in a car or typed on a computer using energy generated by coal.
The denial of the Holocaust was not limited to the refusal of Germans to acknowledge the systematic rounding up of Jews (and other undesirables) for transport to concentration camps and on to death camps. The denial of this crime spread around the world, including all the nations of Europe. Educated people in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium and elsewhere knew full well that Jews in their country, and elsewhere, were being rounded up and sent to their deaths. It was an open secret. There were a handful of people who pursued the issue, who looked at the facts (disappearing Jews, threats of violence and a rhetoric of annihilation) and were led inevitably to the unpleasant explanation for what was occurring.
Even intellectuals in the relatively free nations of the United States and the U.K. were swept up in the systematic denial of the reports of the Holocaust and those brave eye witnesses who testified as to what was happening were dismissed. Officially, the Allied governments claimed that did not learn about the Holocaust until the first liberations of concentration camps in 1944, but in fact they were fully aware of the number (in the millions) who were being killed by 1942 and deliberately avoided offering any assistance.
Moreover, in 1980 the American historian and journalist Walter Laqueur found out that the British had already cracked the encrypted code of the SS in 1941 and constantly listened to the radio traffic of the Nazis. In 1996 Richard Breitman published British listening records that included success reports from the German "SD-Einsatzgruppen" and police battalions, about the "extermination of the Jews" during the summer of 1941. There was no doubt as to what was happening.
Szmul Zygielbojm of the Polish government took tremendous personal risks in June 1942 to smuggle detailed reports about industrialized mass murder to London. Although the Daily Telegraph did mention his materials eventually, it was on page five of a six page newspaper (similar to the treatment that catastrophic climate change receives these days). Zygielbojm met with "indifference, disbelief or even suspicion," eventually took his life after his wife and son were killed during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
Refugees trying to escape persecution, such as the passengers of the ship the German liner MS St. Louis that came to the U.S. in 1939 were turned back without any serious discussion of the reasons the passengers were fleeing. The U.S. even turned away 20,000 Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany in much the way that refugees from climate change (whether in Central America or Syria, or Northern Africa) are turned back without a second thought from the U.S., Canada or Japan today.
The use of Jews as slave labor to aid the German economy (and the economies of other countries), the misuse of the property confiscated from Jews in Germany, and across Europe, profits generated through budgets related to the "Final Solution" project were deep secrets that had real financial benefits.
The point is not to berate the Europeans for what they did then, but rather to suggest that the mentality was strikingly similar to what we see today. Fossil fuels (petroleum and coal above all) are dirty and immoral sources of energy and wealth whose catastrophic implications for the environment have been carefully hidden from sight while the immediate consequences are disguised through misleading reports in the corporate media that understate their deadly implications.
The best and the brightest of so-called "advanced nations" have their fingers all over this crime, whether in the promotion of economic theories that ignore climate change and assume that growth and consumption are necessary, or policy reports that vastly understate the gravity of the situation, or media reports that fail to mention "climate change" when reporting massive hurricanes, forest fires or droughts.
The number of people who are dying now, and who will die in the future, are carefully guarded by these gatekeepers, much as the mass killings of Jews were hidden from the writings of professors, journalists and government officials in Paris and Budapest, in Berlin and Rome, during the 1940s. Similarly, today we see educated people distracted by trivialities like Trump's temper tantrums, and unable to focus on the disaster that stares them in the face.
We created this cognitive dissidence and we are all guilty. The industry of death around us has been hidden with our permission and with our consent. Factories in China or Vietnam use coal that destroys the ecosystem and pollutes the local region so that rich nations can enjoy inexpensive products without having to consider the price paid by our precious Earth. We pat ourselves on the back for being environmentally friendly because we do not have the domestic pollution we had in the 1960s and 1970s. But the unspeakable damage to our shared ecosystem is the same, whether the factory is in downtown Paris, or in rural Myanmar.
How is such an approach different from the scheme whereby placing the death camps in Poland allowed all of Europe to enjoy a false sense of innocence? As the recent Hungarian movie "1945" (directed by Ferec Torok) shows, the confiscation of the possessions of Jews was a massive industry that was assiduously covered up by those involved. It was too easy to blame the entire project on a small group of SS officers.
The current project of death encompasses the production of petroleum, the entanglement of the U.S. dollar with the use of petroleum, and the creation of fraudulent mechanisms like "carbon trading" that distract us from the necessary steps such as banning the use of fossil fuels. The myth that market mechanisms can solve the problem is embraced by environmental groups that limit their discussions to the most superficial solutions.
Even more grotesque is the transformation of the military in the U.S. (and elsewhere) into a massive consumer of petroleum and massive producer of carbon emissions that devotes its work to promoting wars to secure only more petroleum and natural gas, and thereby to create petroleum wealth for a select few. The generals embrace the mission of "security" while ignoring the real security threat of climate change. The scale of the horror is so great that many prefer to simply play stupid and let the insane project proceed unimpaired.
Today we deny the deaths of millions in wars over oil and the death of tens of millions as the consequence of climate change globally.
We can understand the mass pathology behind the killing of the Jews, or the embrace of fossil fuels, through a comparison with incest. Incest, sexual relations between close family members, is ethically offensive and disruptive behavior in our society. It results in tremendous psychological damage for victims (and at some level all family members involved are victims) that last for a lifetime.
There is a disturbing pattern in incest. Although disputes between family members about money or power often spill out into the open where they can be addressed by the family as a whole, and can be resolved, incest is often swept under the rug. Families try to maintain a semblance of normality for years, or even for decades, pretending that the unspeakable relationship does not exist. The same behavior is true for other forms of child abuse.
Similarly, when addressing the denial of climate change, we must confront the capacity of humans to embrace false narratives at the family level, the national level and the global level that spare them the pain of facing the truth and taking responsibility. We must recognize the ability of humans to deny the truth despite the tremendous damage that such action causes them over the long-term.
Such was most the mentality of thoughtful people in Prague, in Budapest or in Warsaw who felt comfortable sitting at cafes sipping their favorite drinks, reading intellectually complex novels and discussing the weather, or enjoyed the latest movies with friends while avoiding any mention of the mysterious disappearance of Jews from their neighborhood. They even struggled to block out the memories of evictions and roundups they had witnessed.
Of course the Gestapo and other fascist groups were so dangerous that silence was demanded. Yet the totalitarian system could never have been established if citizens had not practiced psychological denial for long enough to allow totalitarian rule to take root. The willingness of educated Germans to ignore the Nazi Party's actions from 1933 on allowed that organization to establish a system that would eventually make criticism impossible.
Eventually those who tried to help Jews, homosexuals, dissidents, disabled people, Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, POWs, critical authors, Sinti and Romanies were charged with crimes that demanded immediate and brutal punishment.
Although the Trump administration has made climate change a topic that government officials are not allowed to discuss, let alone respond to, discussing the topic is not illegal yet. Nevertheless, the brutal suppression of the protests against the Keystone SL tar sands pipeline last year, including ridiculously long prison sentences, suggests that it is entirely possible that the debate on climate itself will be criminalized in the years ahead, forcing us to make even more difficult decisions at even greater sacrifice.
We who fight for climate justice must recognize that we may not have much time before not only is radical climate change unavoidable, but also before the discussion of the topic is made impossible. Creating a sustainable future may require profound sacrifice and moral courage that goes beyond any "carbon trading" schemes that have been floated by multinational investment banks.
Climate change is already killing millions around the world, and will kill hundreds of millions in the years ahead. Yet the vast majority of the well-off (and well-off means those who make more than $US40,000 a year) are indifferent to the relationship between their overheated homes, their minivans, their imported cheap products, or their offices with ridiculously high ceilings in the lobbies and glass and steel exteriors that require vast amounts of energy to keep at a comfortable temperature, and climate change. They do not see, or they do not want to see, a link between the hurricanes devastating the coasts, the spreading deserts, the increases in forest fires, and their own daily actions.
In a grotesque burlesque that has become commonplace, we remark to each other as a greeting that the weather is so cold. Yet we are fully aware that today's winters are so warm that flowers continue to bloom into December, and beyond. We intentionally wear heavy jackets when we go out, willing to put up with the inconvenience because the ritual somehow reassures us that the climate has not changed at all.
The painful pursuit of truth
There were brave men and women who risked their lives, and often more importantly, their relations with their own families and friends, to get the truth out about the Holocaust. More often than not their stories were dismissed as exaggerations. It was assumed that the unfortunate deaths of a few Jews were being exaggerated into a fantastic mass murder. The arguments for dismissing their stories (and such arguments are made even today) were based on the assumption that the fascists could not possibly have engaged in something so terrible and that the populations of Europe could not possibly have allowed something on that scale to happen. In effect, the scale of the crime made the task easier, not harder.
The psychology we see today regarding climate change is identical. The reports produced by scientists based on the scientific method that speak of massive destruction are dismissed or ignored because they are Pollyannish. The rosy predictions made by politicians, television personalities, columnists and businessmen, constructed from self-interest, ego and primitive denial are embraced by many as a precious salve for their deeply troubled collective conscience.
The scale of the catastrophe, which threatens humanity with extinction, is so large that those who embrace the culture of denial find it easy to dismiss. But there is no scientific basis for such dismissal. If anything, multiple mass extinctions from prehistoric times suggest that such scenarios are all too possible. That bitter reality is detailed in Elizabeth Kolbert's book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" (2014). Certainly the current massive die-out of insects, amphibians, and reptiles indicate that the process of extinction is inexorably working its way up the food chain towards us.
It is no longer a secret that a small group of billionaires are making a fortune off of encouraging waste among the population and forcing us to be dependent on fossil fuels, often using taxpayers' money to subsidize this addiction to a dangerous energy source. They are fully aware of the crime that they are engaged in and they are informed about the coming catastrophe. Yet they march forward towards mass destruction, much as the leaders of the Third Reich did when they started their invasions of Eastern Europe and Russia, knowingly launching a catastrophe that destroyed them as well.
Just as a small group of intellectuals, such as Austrian-German Orientalist Adolf Wahrmund (1827-1913), pushed fake science about Jewish inferiority in Europe from the late 19th century, and tried to convince French and Germans that the contradictions of capitalism could be traced back to racial characteristics of Jews, a circle of fraudulent "experts" have made a fortune from paybacks from fossil fuel industry to push their denial of, or understatement of, climate change.
These professional deniers and scientists for hire such as Fred Seitz, Robert Jastrow (founder of the notorious George C. Marshall Institute) and William Nierenberg pawn off fake science using glossy brochures and fancy PPT presentations with the criminal intention of misleading the public about a national security crisis. The process is immoral and illegal, but even today is described in the media as merely matter of differing opinion ― much as rabid anti-Semitism was treated in Europe from the late 19th century.
Today's professors, lawyers, doctors or businessmen and reporters contribute to the promotion of a fossil fuel-based economic system that defines the economy in terms of consumption and waste. They are amply rewarded for their work, through consulting contracts, through their connections to corporations pushing automobiles or fossil fuels, or through other financial links. They shamelessly discuss economics while ignoring the impact of wasteful energy consumption on the environment and they promote "free trade" while ignoring the tremendous emissions that result from the transportation of products across the world by container ships. This shameless work forms a perfect parallel to the pseudo-science of racial inferiority promoted by anthropologists and physiologists in pre-war Europe like Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927) who provided Hitler with his roadmap for systematic "scientific" attacks on Jews.
The Washington Post reported in November 2017, that the U.S. became the biggest polluter per capita in the world and that it has the most climate change deniers of any country. Such an extreme situation could not have been reached without the massive collaboration of countless American intellectuals in this institutionalized death march.
Some intellectuals have written books about the magnitude of climate change that receive attention in the mainstream media. For example, Naomi Klein has written, and spoken, in a persuasive and blunt manner about the scale of the threat to humanity, saying that the Earth is "fucked" by the false promise of perennial growth on a planet with limited resources. Her "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate," published in 2014, is a rare example of a widely read book that suggests that the economic and ideological assumptions of our society will be fatal.
So also Clive Hamilton, an Australian professor who is a member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of his country, published a powerful critique of flawed economic policies "Growth Fetish" in 2003, and the trenchant "Requiem for a Species" in 2010. Hamilton suggests that even the experts behind the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have vastly underestimated the dangers ahead because of economic and political pressures.
But most climate change discourse has been laughable and pathetic. The most representative artifacts of this culture of understatement are former Vice President Al Gore's two inconvenient movies: "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006) and "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power" (2017). Both films are more a promotion of Al Gore than a serious effort to address the threat of climate change. The saccharine narratives assume unwarranted optimism that multinational corporations that pursue profit can solve this catastrophe if only upper middle-class citizens raise their awareness of climate change. The movie avoids any consideration of serious actions such as the categorical prohibition of the use of fossil fuels, or even heavy taxing of pollution.
The road forward
2018 was a turning point in the modern Holocaust of climate change. The vastly increased warming of the North Pole led to a smaller difference in temperature relative to the equator, which disrupted the Northern Hemisphere's jet stream. The result has been reduced air circulation at the altitude of nine to 12 kilometers with the consequence of minimal seasonal variations around the world. The resulting extreme rainfall in Italy, the unprecedented drought in Germany, the massive fires in California and Greece show that extreme climate is a reality, but governments, and their citizens are incapable of articulating responses on the appropriate scale.
Most of us lack the bravery, and the intellectual clarity, necessary to face the ugly truth of climate change and its roots in our culture and habits. We have externalized the problem and therefore are unable to move to the next step of changing our behavior so as to make progress.
There is still hope. We see a rising awareness of climate change around the world that makes an honest discussion about the scale of the threat possible. But we cannot allow half-truths and rosy projections to delude us. The struggle ahead will be profound and disorienting. We will have to challenge the consumption-based economics that underpins every aspect of our current ideology. The circumstances may be entirely different, but a moral bravery on a par with that which was required to confront the Holocaust will be demanded of us if we wish to find a solution.