What environmentalists can learn from the Nazis

“What luck for the rulers that men do not think.”

-Adolf Hitler

For the last several days, I’ve had Nazis on my mind.

A couple of things conspired to put them there. First, last week I watched GOOD, the 2008 film starring Viggo Mortenson based on the award-winning play by C.P. Taylor. GOOD tells the story of a novelist and academic in pre-world war Germany who is gradually won over by the Nazi government.

A couple days after seeing the movie, I happened upon an essay by environmental writer and farmer Derek Jensen. In it, Jensen compares his fellow environmentalists with the Nazi doctors who worked in the concentration camps.

As the production notes for GOOD so aptly put it, the film is the story of a good man whose life takes a tragic turn – not from intent, or evil malfeasance, but by getting too absorbed in his unexpected good fortune to realize that it was actually bad fortune. It’s not just about one man, or even about the Germans. It’s a parable of conscience and consequence for all of us.

The play’s central character, John Halder, played by Mortensen, finds that several of his personal and professional problems are suddenly solved when he consents to write a fairly innocuous paper for a high-level government bureaucrat.

Photo by Reece Donahi

Up until that point, Halder is a very stressed individual. His wife suffers from an undefined mental illness that renders her incapable of little more than playing the piano all day. His elderly mother, who lives with them, has dementia. In addition to caring for his wife and mother, Halder must also tend to his two children and do most of the housework. His anxiety is compounded when the chair of his department at the school where he works threatens to fire him if his teaching doesn’t hew closer to the National Socialist Party line.

The other jobs Halder ends up doing for the government, none of which do much damage in and of themselves, increase his income to the point he can afford to rent an apartment in which to escape the pressures of home and work – and enjoy regular assignations with a young coed who finds him fascinating. But all of this eventually takes its toll. Increasingly, Halder hallucinates. When he drags his feet answering his Jewish friend’s request to help get out of the country, the hallucinations become more frequent.

Halder manages to find out the name of the concentration camp his friend’s been sent to and goes looking for him there. As he walks through the camp, the enormity of what he has done – and what he and his country have become – suddenly dawns on him. Emaciated prisoners drop dead from exhaustion, new prisoners are disgorged from cattle cars, and ominous smoke pours from the camp’s chimneys.

Derek Jensen’s essay, “You Choose,” is one of over eighty contained in the book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I featured local conservationist Curt Meine’s essay from Moral Ground in an earlier post.

Jensen contends that all the solutions to environmental problems offered by environmentalists today have one thing in common: “they all take industrial capitalism as a given, as that which must be saved; and they take the real, physical world – filled with real physical beings who live, die, make the world more diverse – as secondary, as something which must conform to industrial capitalism.”

Jensen does not say that environmentalists are Nazis, but he does say environmentalists are like the Nazi doctors who, having sworn the Hippocratic oath, did everything in their power to care for the sick or wounded inmates of the death camps who were brought to them, but never questioned the very existence of those death camps.

“To ask how we can stop global warming while still allowing that which structurally, necessarily causes global warming – industrial civilization – to continue in its functioning is like asking how we can stop mass deaths at Auschwitz while allowing it to continue as a death camp.”

Hyperbole aside, there are some obvious problems with Jensen’s argument. Even fueled by polluting fossil fuels, what Jensen calls industrial capitalism (I admit that those who believe this a contradiction in terms have a point) has improved the lives of millions of people and, in certain places and at certain times, even greened parts of the planet. Yes, it’s largely been a game of put and take: the rich donate to preserve nature with the wealth they earn despoiling nature. Tens of thousands of jobs are created in one place at the cost of thousands in another. And much of the growth that “creates” that wealth is far from sustainable. Still, it can’t be denied that the total number of people living in abject poverty has decreased worldwide in recent decades as economic globalization has taken hold.

But the other problem with Jensen’s argument is that industry and capitalism don’t cause global warming – fossil fuels cause global warming. Socialism and communism have nearly matched capitalism in their output of greenhouse gasses. Just look at China. The craft guilds of Europe thrived before the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution. Increasingly, industry is being powered by renewable energy again. And to some degree, renewable energy is re-civilizing industry.

I’m not defending capitalism or industry; both are fending all to well for themselves. Jensen makes some excellent points, and his essay and GOOD both got me thinking about my own relationship with industrial capitalism, and my motives for becoming an activist in the movement to curb global warming.

I have often argued for bold action to transform our economy into one that runs on clean energy, but I must admit that those arguments have often assumed that the values and structures that undergird the economy will remain in place. This despite the fact that many of those values are antithetical to values I and millions of other people hold dear. Justice, cooperation and compassion, for starters. If we convert all our factories and homes to run on renewable energy but do nothing about our compulsive consumerism or the inherently unjust economic structures that effectively enslave millions, we will continue to do great injustice (and physical damage) to the planet, to our fellow humans, and to the other creatures we share the planet with. We should never forget that the slave trade was largely fueled by wind energy.

In this blog and elsewhere, I have urged people to join the movement to curb fossil fuels and slow climate change, and to do so for themselves and future generations. Indeed, I believe we have a moral obligation to try to leave the planet in as good or better condition than we found it.

The central point of this post

Like many of my fellow activists, however, I am guilty of forgetting that there are millions of people starving, suffering and dying, and thousands of species being driven to extinction, right now because of the way we procure and use fossil fuels, and the self-interested policies rich nations enforce on a daily basis. Wealthy nations like ours exploit and hoard the resources of other, poorer, nations, ensuring that millions remain impoverished.


  • Thirty years ago Haiti imported no rice; today, Haiti imports nearly all its rice. Though Haiti was the sugar-growing capital of the Caribbean, it now imports sugar as well. Why? The US and the US-dominated world financial institutions — the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — forced Haiti to open its markets to the world. Then the US dumped millions of tons of US subsidized rice and sugar into Haiti, undercutting their farmers and ruining Haitian agriculture. By ruining Haitian agriculture, the US has forced Haiti into becoming the third largest world market for US rice. Good for US farmers, bad for Haiti. (excerpted from “Why the U.S. Owes Haiti Billions” by Bill Quigley, Huffington Post, 1/17/10)
  • According to a recent Gallup poll, the average American spent more than $700 on Christmas last year. Many of the gifts we gave are not things we needed but rather toys that will end up in a landfill in a few years. Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates there are 1.4 billion “extremely poor” people on the planet.

No, I don’t think I’m just like a Nazi because I sometimes forget these things, or because I’m often remiss in questioning the structures that support the despoiling of the planet, or because I’ve spent time trying to treat the symptoms of our sick economy instead of taking steps to cure the disease. I don’t even believe the men and women who thoughtlessly despoil the Earth and its inhabitants in order to line their own pockets – or the politicians who bow to them – are on a par with Hitler’s minions.

But Jensen’s simile, as inexact as it is, contains more than a kernel of truth and reminds us how essential it is to challenge the dominant paradigm and work to build systems that work with nature, don’t destroy our natural capital, are coherent with our deepest values, add real value to life and are sustainable.

Jensen thinks it’s past time we brought the industrial infrastructure down before it kills any more of the planet. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps not, but the suggestion assumes that “we” are on the outside when in fact we are all on the inside.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

Even the most reclusive hermit is somewhat complicit in the environmental and human carnage. Most of us live lives supported in myriad ways by that industrial infrastructure Jensen writes about. And Jensen fails to acknowledge the real likelihood that millions of people would suffer and die if this infrastructure was brought to crashing halt.

What we can do today is work to bring about meaningful structural change to the human systems that support life. That begins with each of us becoming more aware of how much we take from the planet – and in the case of people like me who live in wealthy nations – from other people and other species. It means deciding to live more simply so that, yes, others may simply live. It means becoming more engaged politically to multiply our power for change.

And cautionary tales like GOOD remind us how easily we can and often do trade our deepest values for material and financial comfort – and become that which we abhor in the process. The Nazi’s rose to power in Germany not primarily through force — Hitler was elected — but largely through promises of security and prosperity.

What assumptions, large or small, have our own desires for security and prosperity helped us to swallow? What moral impulses, and what actions, have we supressed in order to remain comfortable — or stave off hardship?