Friday, December 10, 2010

the coming age of slaughter


Video - Black Sabbath Original

TNR | The age of mass killing, the 1930s and 1940s, was also a moment of environmental panic. World War I had disrupted free trade, and the new Europe was divided between those who needed food and those who controlled it. By the 1960s, improvements in seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides would make surpluses rather than shortages the problem. But, during the crucial 1930s and 1940s, when the decisions were made that sealed the fate of millions, European leaders such as Hitler and Stalin were preoccupied with mastering fertile soil and the people who farmed it.

World War I, in which both Hitler and Stalin played a role, had seemed to show that conquest of cropland meant security and power. It ended in 1918 during a failed German attempt to colonize Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe. To us, the “Ukrainian breadbasket” is a strange notion—perhaps as strange as the concept of “Saudi oil fields” will be 70 years from now. In the 1930s, however, it was at the center of strategic discussions in Moscow and Berlin. The Soviets held Ukraine and wanted to exploit its black earth; the Nazi leadership, ruling a country that was not self-sufficient in food, wanted to take it back.

Both Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s Terror took place during an interval of environmental risk: between the identification of a critical environmental problem and the introduction of the technologies that would solve it. National Socialism and Stalinism both identified enemies to be eliminated, of course; and today, when we talk about Nazism and Stalinism, we understandably emphasize the hatred—the racial hatred of Hitler and the class hatred of Stalin. But there was an economic and environmental side to their ideologies as well: Both Hitler and Stalin made killing seem to serve a vision of economic development that would overcome environmental limitations. Perhaps we today tend to ignore this dimension because noting environmental limitations smacks of making excuses for horror. Or perhaps we see the economy as a realm of rationality and so assume that economic thought must not be implicated in apparently emotional projects such as mass killing. Or perhaps we have simply forgotten the environmental constraints of an earlier period, so different from those of our time.

We face our own environmental limitations and so have very good reason to recover this history. We have entered a new interval of environmental risk, an era in which we know that global warming is taking place but do not yet have the means to slow it. We Americans tend to see events of great importance as unique and the end of history around every corner. Of course global warming is an unprecedented challenge, and of course the Holocaust was an unparalleled tragedy. Yet the relationship is not as distant as we may think. We must use what we know of the dire environmental politics of the past to prepare for the calamities yet to come. We can recall that the most dangerous of ideologies were those that unified a promise of environmental mastery with the demonization of the group that seemed to stand in the way. Perhaps, by recalling this history, we can prevent a new age of mass murder.