Stop Comparing Climate Change to the Second World War

Geocracy 14 min read

In a world where knowledge is king, one should beware of geeks bearing gifts. You probably want to know which geeks I am talking about. Where do I even begin: with Elon Musk wanting to take us all to Mars while selling the rest of us batteries and electric cars? Or with Justin Trudeau acting like a runway model on a state visit to India? Or Bill Gates funding massive geo-engineering? Everywhere we look, we are being sold a version of the liberal imagination that's laughable and scary at the same time. 
While we spend most of planetary concerns worried about the doings of American conservatives, let's not forget the hidden dangers of the standard-alternative model that I see everywhere: a future framed around renewable energy, electric cars and solar farms but in almost every other way the same imperialist-capitalist system that led us to our current situation. IMHO, the standard-alternative is even more dangerous than the fossil fueled society it's criticizing, for it uses the enormous weight of science and technology to convince us that the way out of our current crisis is to double down on the very processes that brought us there. 

The first myth to reject on the way to planetarity is the myth of the heroic (mostly white, mostly male) scientist-technologist who will save the planet while opening vacation resorts on Mars. The struggle for the future is always about whose imagination is etched in stone and whose imagination is cast to the winds. Will the stone be turned into a statue of Elon Musk and his space-faring Tesla? I hope not.

Not that I think we can address the challenge of planetarity by turning to the past, of seeking wisdom from an ancient tradition or returning to ways in which our ancestors lived. The crisis we face is unprecedented; not only do we need to look outside western modernity, we must also set aside the romance of the noble savage or the wise monk. Nevertheless, it's the standard-alternative that's my first target, for it's so widespread, so taken for granted that even the idea of system change is cast within its iron frame. That's why we have to question the increasingly louder calls for a World War II style mobilization.

The Background

On August 15th, 2016, Bill McKibben wrote a deeply felt article in the New Republic called “A World at War,” comparing the devastation wrought by climate change to a world war and inviting a world war like response from the United States. Bill isn’t the only climate activist making the case for a World War Two style mobilization. The Climate Mobilization is founded on this very comparison and their sense of urgency is greater than Bill’s. Then there's the infamous NYMag article by David Wallace-Wells that went all old-testament on our planetary future.

The climate emergency is real. If unchecked, it will end human life as we know it. It’s not clear our current civilization is worth preserving but I live in it and my daughter might have to live in its ruins. So let’s agree that we want a version of the vast human system to survive, even flourish. If so, our response to the emergency has to be monumental. Let’s also agree that we should look to previous responses to civilization ending threats for some guidance.

Yet, I find the comparison to the second world war disturbing at best and nauseating at worst. It’s a matter of some anguish for me to write a polemical essay against the world war two analogies, for I respect Bill and others who are making the world war two claim. I hope this essay offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on their choice of metaphor. Our disagreement starts with the interpretation of the second world war.

The Great Patriotic War

Believe me, I get the logic. Who doesn’t want to compare their struggle with the supreme example of national unity and sacrifice? While I don’t buy the hype around the greatest generation, it was clearly a time when the American populace united against an existential threat. That also happened to be spectacularly evil. 

Except that the US didn’t win the war. The Soviets did, while being led by a man who was pretty nasty himself. If the US sacrificed its men by the thousands on the fields of France and the islands of the Pacific, the Soviets sacrificed their men, women and children everywhere. By the millions.

The Soviets didn’t call it the second world war. They call it the Great Patriotic War, for that’s what it was: a war where the enemy came within shouting distance of the Kremlin, a war in which the USSR lost about twenty six million people, about fifteen percent of its population. In comparison, the US lost about half a million people, less than half a percent. 

Even my country, India, suffered more than the United States. We lost between two and three million people due to starvation. That’s right; one of the US’s allies in the fight against evil let millions starve to death on the streets of Kolkata and elsewhere in Bengal. The war on the eastern front was clearly more important to the British than the lives of brown noncombatants. Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that the war ended with the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Is that part of the comparison to climate change as well?

One War among Many

While the second world war was (on balance) heroic, I can’t separate it from the other wars in which America has played a role. Doing so makes it clear — at least to a non-American like me — that an imperial thread runs through them all. Apart from the Cold War, which can be justified by quoting Reagan asking Gorbachev to tear down the wall, we have:

Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Angola, Panamá, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

Quite the long (and incomplete) list isn’t it? Let’s also not forget the euphemistic “war on drugs” which has devastated vast tracts of Columbia and Mexico because of insatiable demand in New York and LA. The rest of the world cowers and hides when America goes to war. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war against terror, a war against drugs or a war against climate change.

Soft Power

While I have much to complain about perpetual war, we know it’s not the cause of the crisis. Just as the drug “war” depends on customer demand on the city streets of America and Europe, the “war” against climate change depends on customer demand in the developed world, but increasingly in China and India as well. Except that the carbon addicts have it better. While we revile those who suffer from drug addiction, we generally applaud those who are addicted to the other carbon compound. 

In fact, carbon addiction is constitutive of our current notion of flourishing. It’s the shadow soft power to the menacing hard power of the US military. The hard power of war is in service of the soft power of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Together, they form an imperial model that I might call the energy empire.

Soft power has its collateral damage too. There’s no doubt that the United States has historically been the greatest contributor to carbon emissions; China has overtaken the United States in recent years, but we also have to take into account the carbon footprint of goods produced in China for American markets.

Even that may change as middle class consumers in China, India and other developing countries develop a taste for the luxuries that Americans take for granted. When Gandhi wrote his manifesto, “Hind Swaraj,” a little over a century ago, he warned that there’s no point replacing the British colonizer with brown overlords; instead, he argued that Indians have to change the modern way of life.

Unfortunately, that modern way of life is like honey to every bee in the world. 

The Energy Empire

European colonization between Columbus and Hiroshima was literal conquest: direct control over lands and people throughout the Americas and Asia — “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” as the famous saying goes.

Land and people are concrete and tangible: it’s this parcel in this town that I own, not that parcel in that city. In contrast, energy is far more abstract: it can be sourced from oil or gas or wind or sun and transported from one end of the earth to another. Try doing that to land.

As a consequence, the energy empire has great advantages over the previous era of direct colonization. There’s no need to replace local potentates with your viceroys. In fact, the energy empire’s dominant mode of interaction is the carrot, not the stick. That's why the Energy Empire has been a better Ponzi scheme than its predecessors. 

Energy being fungible, it’s easy to justify fossil fuel extraction in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s easy for the United States to say that our energy consumption is devoted to keeping our citizens happy. I actually think that’s the honest truth. Further, America doesn’t even have to play the energy empire game as a zero sum game: it’s perfectly fine, even desirable, to invite others to the table. That's why the entry of China into the world system has been central to the growth of the energy empire. While we often draw contrasts between the democratic west and an authoritarian China (and not always in praise of the former), almost everyone fails to make the connection that the full flourishing of the energy empire requires Chimerica. After the cold war ended, Francis Fukuyama wrote a famous book called “The End of History,” in which he argued that liberal, market democracy has won and the rest of the world will fall in line sooner or later. Instead, he should have said that the energy empire has won; while the empire prefers consumption driven individualized market democracy, it’s perfectly compatible with consumption driven single party autocracy. The deep relationship between the US and China is founded in the mutually shared interest in the energy empire.

Here’s my main point: unlike nineteenth century colonization, the energy empire isn’t driven by the one people’s need to enslave another; instead, it’s driven by a fossil fuel backed idea of universal human flourishing. Which is why the imperial nature of the energy empire’s soft power is well hidden. Or I should say, well hidden from the carrot eaters, i.e., the citizens of the empire. The stick is prominent in the lives of those are enslaved and slaughtered to meet citizen’s needs — primarily nonhuman creatures by the billions. This essay is not the place to discuss the intimate relationship between energy imperialism and our inhumanity towards the creatures of the earth. I will let that claim remain undefended; it’s a rain check for a future exposition.

The empire also wages war as an important if well hidden feature of its business model; the way software engineers embed bug trackers in their program. Continuous war at the periphery is the calling card of the energy empire: in Iraq, Libya and Yemen for the major power and internally, in places like Bastar and Jharkhand, if you’re a smaller power like India.

Even the major power isn’t averse to internal war: one glance at the militarized confrontation between armed police and nonviolent protestors at Standing Rock should convince us that the energy empire will respond to its critics with deadly violence wherever it’s challenged.

American Followership

I am sure Bill and others in the climate movement are aware of the dodgy history of American war analogies - the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on terror. In fact, the war analogy is only partial; no one is calling for pitched battles. The war analogists have more regard for the war effort than the war itself.

As Bill says, “Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale.”

Isn’t that a clever reformulation of another national myth? The myth of the innovative American who rolls up their sleeves and solves every problem thrown their way. It’s a myth confirming an unconscious hypothesis we take for granted: that the West in general and the US in particular are the natural leaders of the world. So what if that model of development has brought us to the brink of complete destruction? We will retool our minds and machines and presto, problem solved! 

Call me a skeptic, but I am not convinced. On the contrary. I am sure that we need less American leadership and more American followership. Or even better, accept the leadership of the indigenous peoples demonstrating exemplary courage and forbearance while resisting the energy empire in Standing Rock and elsewhere. The massive shifts we need to address climate change will not come from men in suits sipping wine in Versailles, or by Al Gore talking to his best friend, Elon Musk. We must consider the possibility that our very idea of invention and innovation is shaped by the energy empire even if it's used to make solar panels

Why else would we consider insane ideas such as geoengineering? What style of thinking does geoengineering betray? Are geoengineers planetarians? Absolutely not - they are human supremacists who want to "solve" the problem of climate change by injecting even more anthropogenic control into the system. I don't think it's coincidental that they are all prominent white men. Which is why it's important to ask the planetarian question: who gets to imagine that planetary future? Who will be our leaders in this new terrain? In my explorations, I want to make sure that the Jim-Bill-Al-Elon-Justin (Jim Hansen-Bill Gates/McKibben-Al Gore-Elon Musk-Justin Trudeau, JBAEJ for short) vision of the future isn't the only one. Or even the most prominent one, however well-intentioned and committed they might be. The western system even at its most enlightened cannot be the chief guide on this tour. 

More on going beyond JBAEJ in the next essay in this series; let me end this essay with two quotes from Kyle Powys Whyte:

"A decolonizing approach to allyship must challenge the resilience of settler privilege, which involves directly facing the very different ecological realities we all are dwelling in. Sometimes I see settler environmental movements as seeking to avoid some dystopian environmental future or planetary apocalypse. These visions are replete with species extinctions, irreversible loss of ecosystems, and severe rationing. They can include abusive corporations and governments that engage in violent brainwashing, quarantining, and territorial dispossession of people who stand in their way.

Yet for many Indigenous peoples in North America, we are already living in what our ancestors would have understood as dystopian or post-apocalyptic times. In a cataclysmically short period, the capitalist–colonialist partnership has destroyed our relationships with thousands of species and ecosystems. Zoe Todd and Heather Davis characterize the ecological footprint of colonialism as seismic. The ongoing U.S. colonial legacy includes forcing Indigenous peoples into grid-like reservations that empower corporations and private individuals to degrade our territories; fostering patriarchy and conditions for sexual violence in Indigenous communities; brainwashing Indigenous children through boarding schools; and brainwashing everyone else through erasing Indigenous histories and experiences across U.S. culture, education, and memory."

Kyle then goes on to say: 

"Nobody can claim to be an ally if their agenda is to prevent their own future dystopias through actions that also preserve today’s Indigenous dystopias. Yet how many environmentalists do just this? I do not see much differentiating those who fight to protect the colonial fantasy of wilderness from those who claim the Dakota Access pipeline does not cross Indigenous lands. Indigenous environmental movements work to reject the ancestral dystopias and colonial fantasies of the present. This is why so many of our environmental movements are about stopping sexual and state violence against Indigenous people, reclaiming ethical self-determination across diverse urban and rural ecosystems, empowering gender justice and gender fluidity, transforming lawmaking to be consensual, healing intergenerational traumas, and calling out all practices that erase Indigenous histories, cultures, and experiences.

Perhaps these goals and values are among the greatest gifts of Indigenous spirituality and wisdom. I want to experience the solidarity of allied actions that refuse fantastical narratives of commonality and hope. Determining what exactly needs to be done will involve the kind of creativity that Indigenous peoples have used to survive some of the most oppressive forms of capitalist, industrial, and colonial domination. But above all, it will require that allies take responsibility and confront the assumptions behind their actions and aspirations."

The language of war and the language of wilderness are both the languages of empire. That’s the real reason why I find the use of war terminology unacceptable: it’s the mind of Agent Smith speaking through the mouth of Neo.