Sunday, August 15, 2010

What's It Gonna Take?

I was on vacation the last two weeks of July, cruising. When we cruise, we read. My first book was City of Thieves by David Benioff. During the 900 day Siege of Leningrad two young men have adventures, including an encounter with cannibalism (true), in searching for a dozen eggs. Good book, excellent even. Recommended.

But the big book I read was Winston’s War by Max Hastings, obviously about WW II and Churchill, from his accession to Prime Minister to his electoral defeat during the Potsdam conference. Hastings says, btw, that the defeat was warranted – not rejecting his wartime leadership, far from it, but with the war just about over the focus would be on domestic policy, and Churchill had scant interest in domestic issues, and what interest he had was retrogressive. This is not hagiography, but lots of warts as seen by others, and with full range of the doubts of people of the time, large and small people and doubts.

What struck me very forcefully, although I knew it before, was how Americans and the British for years denied the existence of the Nazi threat, or minimized it, or in the case of the British upper class, sympathized with it. It took so long for people to come to terms with it! In retrospect it is so obvious. It’s not in this book, but if the Allies had only stopped the Germans from occupying and remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1934, the Nazis would have backed down and history would have been different. That’s fact, not surmise. From then on it was a progressive steamroller, Chamberlain’s famous dance of appeasement, and war without Western preparation.

Then the Americans – even with much of Eastern Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium and France occupied, even with Britain under siege, most people in the US thought they could and should keep out of it. Just amazing.

Yes, there were mitigating circumstances. Britain and France had lost a generation in WWI and were loathe to re-engage. Americans did not like nor admire the British. “Toffs,” they were regarded as. Poor fighters (with reason.) Enslavers of the Colonies. Plenty of reason not to like them. Plenty of reason not to admire the French military as well.

Who saw the necessity of opposing Hitler? In Britain, Churchill first and foremost. In the US, Roosevelt for sure. But leaders are not dictators and it took time for the countries to catch up, to see more and more clearly what they were up against. No one wanted to change what they were doing, no one wanted to think of war again. So they denied it.

Denial is an essential part of life. We generally don’t think much about our own mortality, a kind of denial. If you look at yourself and think about it, right now, I bet you can think of things you are denying right now. Just not thinking about it, and going on as if it didn’t exist. It allows you to be functional. But sometimes it’s not a good idea.

In the case of WW II, it took Pearl Harbor for America to stop denying. That did the job pretty well. We still don’t know what would have happened with Europe if Hitler hadn’t declared war on us later that week. But he did and denial was over.

I do recommend this fine book. As a journalist, Hastings is able to take us back in time so vividly, to abolish knowledge of the ending just for a little, and see what the atmosphere really was at the time. He shows us that retrospective clarity is an illusion.

How does this apply to the present? We all know Santayana’s comment that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. That’s essentially a hopeful statement, implying an ability to form the future through reasoned action. But it’s also possible that those who do know history are just as doomed to repeat it as those who don’t. In John Steinbeck’s redo of the Arthurian legend (another book recommendation from Budd) Merlin is asked: “If you can know the future, why didn’t you look ahead and see that this woman would be the death of you?” Merlin replies, “Oh, yes, I can foresee it, but that doesn’t mean I can avoid it.” Makes sense to me.

So here’s the question: Given the power of denial, what’s the biggest issue we are not facing now? What is the equivalent of the brewing Nazi and Japanese crisis of the 1930’s?

Islamic terror? Nah. We are spending huge time and money on it, but it’s really just an annoyance – what can they really do, how many of them are there really? It’s mostly drama. Even if they got a WMD. Even if Iran went nuclear.

Islamic expansionism? Maybe – look at France and especially the Netherlands. Look at how Islam took Kosovo from the Serbs by sheer procreation of the Albanian-Islamic minority become majority. But while a problem, it will be handled more or less, and I don’t think that’s it.

Rising countries with non-democratic governments? Maybe. We used to like to think that liberal democracy was ascendant since the demise of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Certainly something to contend with – Fukayama’s “End of History” was ridiculous when it was published and is now risible. I love liberal democracy and the Bill of Rights, but that’s a product of our specific Western culture, and its ascendancy was based on our economic and organizational power, which will soon be matched. So, it’s a problem, and it’s true that most people are not conscious of it. But I don’t see it as an impending crisis, just a persistent challenge. Competitive coexistence is most likely.

No, my candidate for major pending crisis in denial, crisis in the same league as Nazi Germany and WW II, is the environment. It’s not an unknown issue, but neither was Nazism. It seems quite clear that overpopulation and industrialization are burning up our planet. Ever since we discovered all that fuel below the surface of the Earth we have been burning it up, and in the process burning ourselves up. We use some of it well, but the “externalities” (to use economist-speak for pollution and carbon dioxide accumulation) come back to bite us, as the lobster-pot we live in heats up, more and more obviously. It’s an impending crisis, but it just won’t explode in the next year or two, so it’s possible to deny it, especially if you are over 50, where the power lies.

I see the Nazi parallel. Hitler built the military month by month, people saw it, but most preferred to think one could reason with Herr Hitler, or thought he was pretty far away in space and/or time. Our decade of the aughts has gotten hotter and hotter, but what the hey! Maybe it’ll stop! Maybe it will be a good thing? Who cares what happens to Bangladesh and the Maldives? Not our problem, is it? Do we really want to change our habits and economy substantially? Or do we say, like St. Augustine, make me chaste, but not quite yet?

As in the 1930’s, the forces of inertia are still in control. Greed is in place – oil and coal interests pay “scientists” to deny global warming. They pay Congress not to tax carbon. Developing countries are also resistant. They say, why should the West have the good standard of living and not us? Politically, it’s a game of chicken. China and Brazil say, we’re going to make progress – why should you always be ahead of us? We say, hey, we’re already here, don’t you realize you will make it worse for all of us? Why are you burning coal? You are making it worse for all of us. It’s a game of chicken.

A gradual approach now, like rearming would have been in the 30’s, would be to hitch profits to moderating climate change, by government incentives. But governments are weak. Corporations and sovereign funds rule the world, and they make money by doing the same thing they have been doing, time after time. There is even an ideology that these entities should not be looking for the common good, that “the market” will take care of it, and technology will “appear.” These are arguments of convenience. We are dealing with economic externalities, and as I understand it, such effects by their very definition do not enter the market. So the ideological market argument is specious. We need strong governmental intervention, and not only are our governments weak, but populations are in denial.

No one really wants to change. Psychologically, it’s just denial. Morally, it’s selfishness of the current generation. Intellectually, it’s often just stupidity and ignorance of science. And as we look for leadership, George Packer tells us, don’t expect much from the Senate. Our institutions fail us just as much as the British ruling class and our own isolationists in the 30’s.

To be educated, to see the future to some extent, to know some steps we should be taking now, to see little happening, is to feel like Merlin.

So, I ask --What’s it gonna take? What will our Pearl Harbor be, or our invasion of Poland? Nobody knows. I don’t know. But if this really is the brewing crisis that is being denied, then it might take something dramatic.

The environment is not my field, so I can’t speculate intelligently about what it will take. Hunger and thirst, rising sea levels and tides? Maybe. Maybe even as the Earth gets more and more depleted of forests, would it be possible that the oxygen level in the air, at 21% for millions of years, would drop, and we would all be living as though we were high in the Andes and Himalayas?

This is as far as I can get. History allows us to reason by analogy, but it is never exact. I know we are denying something that is important, and if we prevented it, that would be better than fighting it later. And I think it’s the environment. And I think it will take something dramatic to move us. And I think there will be a lot of conflict, that it won’t be peaches and cream. I wonder what it will be.

Budd Shenkin

1 comment:

  1. I know the science is strong, but the remedy is a policy question and should be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny in determining who will be benefited and hurt in the massive change in our economy that is contemplated by climate change advocates. I tend to trust politics over science for these matters, and do not think we should give over to scientist what is at heart a political question -- the allocation of public resources toward one policy goal or another.