Thursday, July 6, 2017

Global Warming and the Holocaust’s Warning: It Can Happen Again

Global warming and its effects are often presented to us as predictions as to what is going to occur in the future.  Some number of decades in the future the sea will rise to such a level that coastal cities will be flooded and that will be terrible.  A focus on this relatively distant time allows us to avoid the effects of climate change that are already being manifested.  The world will not be sitting and waiting for that day to arrive.  Mass migrations and social and military conflicts will arise long before those cities become uninhabitable.  Two recent sources have elaborated on the difficulties to be faced long before ocean rise has us fleeing inland.

The first is a piece in the London Review of Books by Naomi Klein: Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World.  Klein was invited to provide the annual Edward Said lecture in London in 2016.  This article is the text of that presentation.  Said (1935-2003) was the son of a Palastinian woman and an American army veteran who became an influential academic.  Perhaps his most important work, and the one most relevant here, was the book Orientalism (1978).  In it he described the way in which Western nations produced self-serving perceptions of cultures unlike their own.  These perceptions were in fact prejudices that were used to justify colonial or imperialistic actions on the part of the more powerful nation.  This act of creating a picture of a culture that serves the motives of those in power is what Klein refers to as “othering” in her title.  One begins by defining another group of people as “different,” a term that is just a step away from “unequal,” which is another step away from “sub-human.”  And once a group of people attain that status in the view of the powerful anything can be done to them: plunder their resources, make them slaves, murder them all….  Klein introduces us to “othering” and explains the relevance to global warming.

“He [Said] was, of course, a giant in the study of ‘othering’ – what is described in Orientalism as ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region’. And once the other has been firmly established, the ground is softened for any transgression: violent expulsion, land theft, occupation, invasion. Because the whole point of othering is that the other doesn’t have the same rights, the same humanity, as those making the distinction. What does this have to do with climate change? Perhaps everything.”

We have arrived at our sorry state because the powerful used othering to justify extracting carbon from peoples and regions where it existed.

“But for the past three decades, since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created and climate negotiations began, this refusal to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. And this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent. It would have been impossible without Orientalism, without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools – of ranking the relative value of humans – are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures. And they are what allowed for the digging up of all that carbon to begin with.”

The process of othering can also occur within a nation.

“And the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coal mines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills. As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the US government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated ‘national sacrifice areas’. Think of the mountains of Appalachia, blasted off for coal mining – because so-called ‘mountain top removal’ coal mining is cheaper than digging holes underground. There must be theories of othering to justify sacrificing an entire geography – theories about the people who lived there being so poor and backward that their lives and culture don’t deserve protection.”

Klein discovered an interesting and instructive way of associating climate—and climate change—with political and social discord.  She attributes it to Wyal Weizman, an Israeli, who emphasized the need to appreciate the “aridity line,” which is the locus of points where rainfall begins to fall below the level necessary to grow cereal crops without resorting to irrigation (about 200 millimeters or 7.9 inches per year).  Weizman referred to this as The Conflict Shoreline in a 2015 publication.  Klein provides this plot of the current aridity line.

The red circles indicate areas in which drone strikes are occurring as a way of indicating how armed conflict and climate issues coincide.  It has been argued that the upheavals of the “Arab Spring” were generated by climate and associated food security issues.  To the extent that this is true, one must view the refugees that the ensuing struggles have generated as the first of many climate refugees.

“And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

“But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis.”

Climate and climate change are participating in the creation of refugees who flee the unrest and violence spawned by life near the aridity zone.  As the climate changes, the location of that aridity zone will change also, generating strife in other locations.  These refugees will become “the other” that must be dealt with.

“Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants, casting their need for security as a threat to ours, their desperate flight as some sort of invading army. Tactics refined on the West Bank and in other occupation zones are now making their way to North America and Europe. In selling his wall on the border with Mexico, Donald Trump likes to say: ‘Ask Israel, the wall works.’ Camps are bulldozed in Calais, thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean, and the Australian government detains survivors of wars and despotic regimes in camps on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus.”

We have a picture of what climate and climate change are doing to generate political unrest and violence now.  As the globe continues to warm, climate changes will generate political and social unrest in more locations, and if history has any validity as a predictor of the future, it will not go well.  Klein uses the recent experience in England when extreme flooding occurred as an example.

“….the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries in the world think they are going to be OK, that someone else is going to eat the biggest risks, that even when climate change turns up on their doorstep, they will be taken care of.”

“When they’re wrong things get even uglier. We had a vivid glimpse into that future when the floodwaters rose in England last December and January, inundating 16,000 homes. These communities weren’t only dealing with the wettest December on record. They were also coping with the fact that the government has waged a relentless attack on the public agencies, and the local councils, that are on the front lines of flood defence. So understandably, there were many who wanted to change the subject away from that failure. Why, they asked, is Britain spending so much money on refugees and foreign aid when it should be taking care of its own? ‘Never mind foreign aid,’ we read in the Daily Mail. ‘What about national aid?’ ‘Why,’ a Telegraph editorial demanded, ‘should British taxpayers continue to pay for flood defences abroad when the money is needed here?’”

“The point is that this could have been a moment to understand that we are all affected by climate change, and must take action together and in solidarity with one another. It wasn’t, because climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political model, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.”

Timothy Snyder is one who also believes things are going to get “meaner and uglier” due to climate change.  His book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, provides a terribly distressing view of what humans are capable of when dealing with those they have defined as “the other.”  Snyder wishes to make two things clear: the Holocaust was more horrible than we thought, and mass murder on the scale of the Holocaust can happen again.

The close association of Auschwitz with the Holocaust is a convenient fraud used by both the Germans and the Russians for their separate purposes. For the Germans, it allows the picture of an impersonal killing factory run by a few men merely “following orders” to be responsible for the murders.  It also allows the fiction that many Germans were not aware of the killing of the Jews.  For the Russians, Auschwitz allowed them to erase from their history the fact that most of the Jews killed were technically Soviet citizens and that many of them were actually killed by other Soviet citizens.

“In the history of the Holocaust, Auschwitz was a place where the third technique of mass killing was developed, third in chronological order and also third in significance.  The most important technique, because it came first, because it killed the most Jews, and because it demonstrated that a Final Solution by mass killing was possible, was shooting over pits.  The next most important, and the next to be developed, was asphyxiation by the exhaust fumes of internal combustion engines.  At around the time that these carbon monoxide facilities were coming into use, in early 1942, the policy of murdering all Jews was extended from the occupied Soviet Union and occupied Poland to all lands that fell under German control.  Auschwitz became the major killing site for Jews in 1943 and 1944.”

“It is possible that some Germans did not know exactly what happened at Auschwitz.  It is not possible that many Germans did not know about the mass murder of Jews.  The mass murder of Jews was known and discussed in Germany, at least among family and friends, long before Auschwitz became a death facility.  In the East, where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening.  Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them.  During the war, wives and even children visited the killing sites; and soldiers and policemen and others wrote home to their families, sometimes with photographs, about the details.  German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave.”

The point of bringing this history up here is not to beat upon Germany because of what Germans had done at that particular time and place.  The crucial point is that we must recognize that the place and conditions in which Germans committed mass murder also induced many non-Germans to assist them.

“If the killing of 1941 involved locals, then perhaps it was a result of local antisemitism rather than German politics?  This is a popular way to explain the Holocaust without politics: as a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans.  This sort of explanation is reassuring, since it permits the thought that only peoples associated with extravagant antisemitism would indulge in disastrous violence.  This comforting and erroneous thought is a legacy of Nazi racism and colonialism.  The racist and colonial idea that the Holocaust began as an elemental explosion of primitive antisemitism arose as Nazi propaganda and apologetics.  The Germans wished to display the killing of Jews on the eastern front as the righteous anger of oppressed peoples against their supposed Jewish overlords.”

The circumstances of time and place were more important in generating massacres than antisemitism.  What Snyder’s description of the Holocaust tells us is that if humans are put in a position where they believe their lives or those of their families are at risk, and there is some sort of authority encouraging them, and there are others around them participating, many will be capable of cold-blooded murder.

When we think of the Holocaust we should not focus on the image of Auschwitz, but rather on an image of an individual looking into the face of a helpless man, woman, or child and pulling a trigger—perhaps repeating that act hundreds or thousands of times.  Most often the killing was of Jews, but the murderers were capable of killing whoever was brought before them.

“When the mass murder of Jews is limited to an exceptional place and treated as the result of impersonal procedures, then we need not confront the fact that people not very different from us murdered other people not very different from us at close quarters.”

And circumstances can be replicated.  How many times will the growing numbers of climate refugees be met with open arms?  Or will they more likely be met with hate and violence by people who view them as a threat to their way of life?

Snyder describes the basis of Hitler’s actions residing in a concern over food security for his German people.  The overall goal was to conquer the lands to Germany’s east, kill, transport to Siberia, or enslave the resident peoples, and allow the growing German population to take over the land and thrive.  Today, one of the main contributors to strife in Africa and the Middle East is concern over food security.  As global warming proceeds, these concerns will worsen and spread to other regions leading to greater social and political turmoil. 

“During the hot summer and droughts of 2008, fires in fields led major food suppliers to cease exports all together, and food riots broke out in Bolivia, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, the Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.  In 2010 the prices of agricultural commodities spiked again, leading to protests, revolutions, ethnic cleansing, and revolution in the Middle East.”

“Climate change as a local problem can produce local conflicts; climate change as a global crisis might generate the demand for global victims.  Over the past two decades, the continent of Africa has provided some indications of what these local conflicts will be like, and hints about how they might become global.  It is a continent of weak states.  In conditions of state collapse, droughts can bring hundreds of thousands of deaths from starvation, as in Somalia in 2010.  Climate change can also increase the likelihood that Africans will find ideological reasons to kill other Africans in times of apparent shortage.”

The genocide in Rwanda was the result of Hutus and Tutsis othering each other in a time of food crisis.

Food insecurity is already becoming a global problem that will ultimately require global solutions.

“Even as Africans themselves struggle for access to arable soil and potable water, their continent presents itself as the solution to the food security problems of Asians.  The combination of weak property rights, corrupt regimes, and one half of the world’s untilled soil has placed Africa at the center of Asian food security planning.  The United Arab Emirates and South Korea have tried to control large swathes of Sudan.  They have been joined by Japan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in consistent efforts to buy or lease agrarian terrain in Africa.  A South Korean company has tried to lease half of Madagascar.”

The Middle East might correctly be referred to as a disaster zone, but it pales in comparison to the coming situation in Bangladesh, a nation where most of the land will eventually be underwater.  Two-thirds of the country has an elevation of less than 17 feet.  It has already experienced frequent flooding from its many rivers and has also experienced some of the deadliest storms in history.  Life will not get better.  With a population of 160 million, climate change will produce many millions of refugees.  An examination of a map of the country makes clear that the only path out of Bangladesh is into India.  What is the current attitude of India towards immigrants entering from Bangladesh?  It built a wall in an attempt to keep them out, and it occasionally talks about rounding them all up and sending them back home.  Does this scenario sound familiar?  How would India respond if the immigrants were climate refugees and the number were not millions but tens of millions?  The movement of Muslims out of India to form Pakistan and Bangladesh was accompanied by incredible levels of violence.  How likely is it that the recombination of those populations would be peaceful?  How would the United States respond if climate change forced tens of millions of Mexicans to move north across the border?

If the situation becomes threatening enough, people with more power will likely use that power to protect themselves from people they will consider “the other.”  And the holocaust has taught us that it would not be difficult for such a confrontation to escalate to mass murder.

Snyder fears most the emergence of a power with colonial ambitions and the will and need to exert global influence over food issues.

“The future might hold the….most fearsome possibility: an interaction between local scarcity and a colonial power capable of extracting food while exporting global ideology.”

Who might be possible threats along this line?  Snyder suggests China because it will have severe food security issues as time goes on and may find it necessary to impose its will in order to survive intact.  A second possibility is Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Fossil fuel energy is by far Russia’s greatest product.  It is in its interest to encourage, or direct, the continued consumption of carbon emitting fuels as long as it can—no matter the consequences.

 Putin seems to be utilizing methods that would have been easily recognized by Hitler.  The othering has begun.

“President Vladimir Putin of Russia developed a foreign policy doctrine of ethnic war.  This argument from language to invasion, whether pressed in Czechoslovakia by Hitler or in Ukraine by Putin, undoes the logics of sovereignty and rights and prepares the ground for the destruction of states.  It transforms recognized polities into targets of willful aggression, and individuals into ethnic objects whose putative interests are determined from abroad.”

“Putin also placed himself at the head of the populist, fascist, and neo-Nazi forces in Europe.  While supporting politicians who blame global Jews for planetary problems and applying techniques of state destruction, Moscow generated a new global scapegoat—the homosexuals.  The new Russian idea of a ‘gay lobby’ responsible for the decadence of the world makes no more sense than the old Nazi idea of a ‘Jewish lobby’ responsible for the same, but such an ideology is now at large in the world.”

“Just as the purpose of the alliance with Hitler in 1939 was supposed to turn the most radical force in Europe against Europe itself, so Russian support of the European Far Right is meant to disrupt and disintegrate the most peaceful and prosperous order of the early twenty-first century—the European Union.”

It seems appropriate at this point to conclude by repeating Naomi Klein’s earlier warning.

“….climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political model, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.”

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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