I was really interested in this piece by Cathy Fitzgerald on Hannah Arendt and her prediction that a new form of totalitarianism involving state-sanctioned ecocide would arise. This was a newly invented term in 1970 and Arendt talked about it in her last few years. Cathy acknowledges that Arendt is mainly associated with commentary on the ‘banality of evil’ of Nazism, and that the importance of this work shouldn’t be lost. But Cathy concludes that “A different but somehow similar situation is now occurring with ecocide, in how it is both right here and ‘hidden’ in political denial and our world of mass distractions and hyperconsumerism.” I agreed with the importance of updating Arendt’s thinking and, as a film about her opens in our cinemas this week, I shared the article on social media. I felt that it could be controversial but wasn’t sure how it would turn out.
Very quickly there were comments that the article was a gross misrepresentation of Arendt’s work, questioning that she had ever talked about ecocide, that she couldn’t have been talking about ecocide except as a crime against another country within war. The commentary went on that early environmentalists were fascists and that Hitler was a vegetarian, and then to accuse ecocide campaigners of being anti-progress and anti-human.
So, as I was challenged to find evidence that Arendt had talked about ecocide, I bought and read the book Cathy referred to ‘Why Hannah Arendt Matters’ by her late and highly regarded biographer Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, and around 15 blogposts by her and by members of the Hannah Arendt Center.
Arendt’s thinking on totalitarianism does have many resonances with the crisis today. She said that totalitarianism is the elimination of politics, of people speaking freely, of being human. Her message was that the ‘radical evil’ of totalitarianism could occur in any ideological framework, and that it occurs when people are trapped by erroneous thoughts, unable to think freely. Totalitarianism does not have a traditional hierarchical power structure but is more like an onion, with many hegemonic, forceful and bureacratic layers reinforcing the empty power centre. She talked about the existence of a ‘supersense’, an ideology that is all-encompassing and difficult to challenge, and referred to consumerism. She proposed that there was emerging a new kind of totalitarianism “where it would assume its more authentic form”, even more embedded and onion-shaped than it had been in its first incarnations.
There’s plenty of evidence that worldwide so-called democratic governments are slipping faster and faster towards totalitarianism. For example, the UK government will block online access to ‘esoteric content’ by the end of 2013 and is banning charities from lobbying during election periods. The Russian government is banning homosexuality and arresting Greenpeace campaigners for being ‘pirates’. One could also point to mass internet surveillance, and many more issues. I would argue that the root of this is that governments are in the grip of corporatist interests, which in turn are in the grip of erroneous thinking that it is moral for humans to have more things and money by destroying the regenerative power of nature.
So, where does Arendt talk about ecocide? I will need to go back to more original texts to find more, but it seems clear that she was thinking around it, as a broad category, and using the term. This post is where Young-Bruehl most explicitly describes Arendt’s views on ecocide. For example, “Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth” (referring to a speech called ‘Home to Roost’).
Bruehl-Young describes how Arendt “anticipated that variations of crimes against humanity would appear in the future, particularly as technological developments like nuclear weapons and massive environmental pollutions made various kinds of state-sponsored genocide and ecocide more feasible”. She goes on to talk about Arendt’s backing of a European ‘comity’ to ensure protection against aggression and environmental destruction: “Environmental protection is, in Arendtian terms, a clear sign that the human condition she called ‘earth’ – the condition that humans live upon the earth together and share it as their common home – has been recognised politically”.
Arendt was also critical of consumerism: In ‘The Human Condition’, she wrote about how labour and “work were evolving into activities for supplying not the necessities of life but an unprecedented superfluity of goods and techniques for making more goods, including destructive goods.” Those labouring in this system are very liable to become thoughtless, including the scientists who design and produce the technologies and knowledge for this system.
The critical commenters wondered if the Hannah Arendt Center would endorse their view that linking Arendt to ecocide was wrong. However, many articles on their website suggest they wouldn’t be able to do this. (Update: the Center did respond to say that ‘the views of the wonderful Young-Bruehl were being equated with Arendt’s’, which is disappointing, as equation was not Cathy’s intention.)
In this piece David Breitenbucher of the Center reviews Melanie Challenger’s book ‘On Extinction’, which deals with the Sixth Mass Extinction being caused by ecocidal deforestation and climate change. He says that Challenger was very strongly inspired by Arendt’s work, especially ‘The Human Condition’. He connects Arendt’s work to Challenger’s thus, for example: “the never-ending process of labor and consumption coupled with humanity’s ability to deny intrinsic value to nature; with such a picture, one cannot help but consider, in Challenger’s words, that ‘the lunacy of pursuing profit despite all warnings to the contrary’ may be characterized not as a reckless and irresponsible gamble pursued by some but rather the unavoidable consequence of living within and being a member of modern society.”
Arendt focused on nuclear technologies in particular, as this was the overwhelming genocidal and ecocidal threat at the time. Bruehl-Young contends that her sights would have broadened if she were alive today. We now have nuclear weapons and unsafe nuclear power stations, but we pay less attention to these ongoing terrors because we also have to contend with the breaching of nine planetary boundaries, not least of which is anthropogenic climate change. The more that these terrors weave together, adding forcing effect to forcing effect, the more that we see general denial about human agency in causing and mitigating them. We are not thinking, with utterly devastating consequences.
Another piece talks about Arendt’s view that humans should not desire to leave Earth for space, because “The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.” and that the wish to abandon Earth is akin to our species-wide wish to commit genocidal suicide.
So, it’s clear that there is much in Arendt’s work to influence and support the work of environmental political theorists. Why then should anti-greens find it so difficult that she may have embraced environmentalism herself? I think it comes partly down to the massive post-War effort in turning our culture towards empathy, and the continuing threats to these efforts, which put up defences. Arendt was very influential in the spread of post-Holocaust empathetic humanism, which has relatively expanded the catchment of identity (i.e. not other) to allow equal humanity to be bestowed to many people in formerly colonial or ‘developing’ countries. However, the line of identity is still drawn differently for different people, increasingly too tightly round national borders and religious sects. Breaking these boundaries open to allow a more tolerant and egalitarian ethos is very important work and has been a focus of attention by liberal humanitarians. However, I believe there is a line in the sand for much humanitarian attention. It does not stretch enough to dwellers of the wild, the billion indigenous people and millions of species (especially non-human persons) who depend on wild ecosystems for their livelihoods. To care about wild-dwellers is to deny aspirations to better standards of living for those invited into the realm of common humanity.
Arendt’s idea that totalitarianism is ideology-agnostic is ironically applicable today: If there is denial of the existence of a new ecocidal totalitarianism, this is perhaps evidence that it is as effectively embedded as Arendt predicted. This takes the form of confusing twists and appropriations of ethical ground. We are familiar with the twist whereby capitalists claim the ground of libertarianism, agreeing with Arendt’s ‘radical evil’ and using this to accuse left-greens of wanting to destroy freedom and human rights with their legislations and carbon taxes. At the same time, they obfuscate the totalitarianism most strongly effected by capitalist governments through their most powerful ‘onion layers’ – the fossil fuel, arms and agribusiness companies.
These effects are bringing suffering upon four groups in turn, and in time, first the non-human wild dwellers (already mostly destroyed), second the human wild dwellers (ditto), third the poor, fourth the wealthy and powerful. Progress eats itself.
So, a new reading of Arendt reminds us that we must renew our reading continually, so as to not stop thinking. We need to identify much more clearly the overlaps and connections between Genocide and Ecocide, and to continually review and extend our relationships.