The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Holocaust Analogy

Have a look at Averting Our Eyes on Dot Earth. Some of the main points are not unusual.
So far that seems to have been the story: the special interests have been cleverer than us, preventing the public from seeing the crisis that should be in view.
The peculiarity is the analogy to the Nazi Holocaust that Hansen makes. He seems at first to be backing down a bit.
I regret that my words caused pain to some readers. I hope that they will accept my apology for having caused discomfort, an apology that is heartfelt.
Yet Hansen walks right back into the trap he just squeezed out of at the end of his discussion. It seems quite deliberate.
A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea — an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?

Alas, that metaphor probably would be greeted with the same reaction from the people who objected to the first.
It is very difficult for me to deal with this with any equanimity, but I feel I ought to say something.

I understand as well as anybody that people still get very upset about Hitler. My elderly father, still alive, certainly has a right to; he was a Jew in Slovakia in the 1940s, and most of his friends and relatives didn't survive the war. His father died in the gas chambers, as did my oldest cousin. My aunt, still alive, was there too. She has a number tattooed on her arm, and not out of a sense of fashion. My late mother spent the war hiding in closets and under beds.

I think us descendants of holocaust victims should stop being so attached to the uniqueness of our suffering. It was a particularly horrible event in human history, and in some ways it has no parallel, but on the other hand there have been other uniquely horrible events with no parallel.

If we compulsively complete the destruction of the earth out of some idiotic sense of inevitable economic destiny it will also be uniquely horrible.

It's dangerous to make analogies on this scale. I think Hansen believes there eventually comes a time where it is dangerous not to make them as well.

Whether that time has already arrived is hard to say. I certainly would not speak in the terms Hansen has spoken, perhaps because the comparison is more palpably terrifying and painful for me than it is for him. It is hard for those of us who are suffering losses from this disaster every day of our lives even sixty years after its end to hear the analogy come from the lips of those for whom it is a rather academic matter. Thus perhaps it is for the likes of me and not the likes of him to say such things. I am not sure, for the likes of me may lack the courage.

Alas, if time for such talk hasn't arrived, it certainly seems to be approaching rather than receding.


Zowish said...

I'm not directly connected to any of the WWII horrors, but I'm more than tired and bored by every petty tyrant being compared to Hitler and every incidence of mass human suffering called another Holocaust. In deference to those survivors, let's find a better allegory for the effects we face from climate change. Noah's flood and War of the Worlds come to mind.


Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, Howie. I appreciate your thought and its generosity very much indeed.

Alas, fiction and myth won't do the job. The analogy here isn't about the evil itself.

A big part of the German story is about people shutting their minds to a problem, or perhaps limiting themselves to individual action out of fear of retribution and futility in the public arena.

Most mid-century Germans didn't actually want a genocide, but they mostly preferred not to think very hard about where those trains were going.

David B. Benson said...

Are analogies with volcano eruptions and tsunamis to be preferred? I think not, as there is a sense of fatalism, unavoidable catastrophy, in such events.

What about known climate wars such as among the Mayans or the fall of Ur III? Such ought to be enough, but possibly only for those few who have read Jared Diamond's Collapse or know their pre-history quite well.

If Dr. Hansen's appeal doesn't seem to fit properly, suggest something which will...

Michael Tobis said...

David I suggest this analogy. It is far more apt.

The collapse of Rapa Nui happened long ago and far away and is more than a little mysterious. Some of the theories I've heard about it are startlingly reminiscent, though, of our current confusion.