Are we any better than Nazis in the face of environmental catastrophe?

Yesterday I read a long article by the historian Timothy Snyder that is still rumbling around in my head. Granted, the article was published a few months ago, but it was new to me yesterday.

The premise is that we are not so far from living in Hitler’s world as we may think, we in the Western democracies. The environment is getting steadily worse, the economy is getting steadily more unkind to the non-rich, and easy, populist explanations blaming the Other are appealing to more and more people.

I highly recommend the essay by Snyder. Further, it taught me something that surprised me: Hitler accomplished most of his genocidal “achievements” in areas where he managed to destroy state institutions that supported some sort of rule of law. Destroying the center of authority does not create the conditions for a new democracy to flourish; witness what the US has done to Iraq. As I am thinking hard about the importance of social norms and social cooperation as the foundation for any sort of human welfare and prosperity, this struck me hard, especially as the frontrunner of the GOP presidential nomination gives every indication that he would relish smashing democratic institutions that stand in his way, to the extent his popular support allows.

Logician Kurt Gödel, famously, had serious reservations about taking the oath of US citizenship, because he saw how the US constitution does not preclude the establishment of a Hitler-style dictatorship. His buddies Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern convinced him to not make a big fuss about it in front of the judge, so Gödel became a US citizen. Whether this story is correct or a little overblown, it seems to me Gödels’ worry cannot be breezily dismissed, especially in a world in which the threat of environmental catastrophe will tempt people to fight for resources, potentially killing billions, instead of reaching for scientific solutions. Snyder’s discussion poignantly points out that, while Hitler worried about feeding the German Volk, which needed Lebensraum to grow and prosper, he totally missed that the Green Revolution, already partially started with the efforts of German scientists, would in short order feed a growing human population without strain, and without the need for the kind of universal war Hitler started.

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