Philosopher and journalist Hannah Arendt coined the term ‘banality of evil’ in 1963, when covering the trail of a Nazi Adolf Eichmann who was charged with moving Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. Based on Eichmann’s trial, Arendt’s thesis was that people who carry out great acts of evil are not necessarily ‘monsters’, ‘crazy psychopaths’ or the ‘unhinged’, but often normal, everyday people. People like me and you. During the trial Eichmann said he was just ‘doing his job’; following orders. Six psychologists assessed him; he bore no signs of mental illness. Yet he sent untold numbers of men, women and children to their death.
Sending millions of people to their death is unthinkable. It is much easier to comprehend if people who commit such atrocities are somehow distanced, different, from us. It’s easier if the actor is ‘crazy’, or that there are extenuating circumstances. It’s hard to cope with the unimaginable when there is no explanation. Arendt’s conclusion, that there is really nothing to separate Adolf Eichmann from the rest of us, is disturbing. She is implying that the only thing that prevents us from committing heinous acts is our differing circumstances. Arendt pushes us to acknowledge a terrifying capacity in ourselves.
It makes me feel a little panicky to even think about it. How blinded am I to the evil I commit?
If (as it was in Eichmann’s 1940s Germany) an atrocity was wrapped up and normalised, if it was systemised, if I were separated from the victims, rewarded by society for my assiduous compliance, if everyone else were doing it, if it seemed hopeless to resist (even if I found the implications of my actions abhorrent), would I have been a Good German?
And here is the evidence
Let’s bring this into my life time and compare it to a similar burgeoning atrocity: Climate change.
Climate change is pretty damn likely to cause some freaky weather over the next century or so, and that freaky weather is going to mean that food is harder to grow. Especially for people who already live in marginal environments. And the food that does grow will be more expensive for us all. A food system that is rapidly consolidating into the hands of a few multinationals and precarious living conditions for millions combines with climate change to foretell an accident waiting to happen.
Except it’s not an accident.
It is wrapped up and normalised, systemised, I am separated from the victims, rewarded by society for my assiduous compliance, everyone else is doing it, it seems hopeless to resist, (even though I find the implications of my actions abhorrent).
I should mention here (clearly) that I am not rounding up people and putting them on trains to death camps. But I am consuming fossil fuels, as we all are, and things are heating up. I watch passive aggressively while Monsanto patents seed and slums balloon with people who have no land to grow on anyway. In an email exchange I had with some climate scientists recently, one of them asked “How many scientists – even climate change scientists – do you know who have stopped driving their cars, taking international flights or who are doing major energy retrofits on their houses?”
The question was rhetorical.
There is a sense that we are coming to the end of something; that things cannot carry on as they are. Unsustainable means that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. It has to stop. Really. Literally. But it’s just not. Living differently has been co-opted and is busily being sold back to us. Capitalism is feasting on every alternative.
Even the people I know who live off-grid drive everywhere, the people I know who hang banners for Greenpeace get flown in to climb up power stations, I flew to Canada and back to study climate change.
As another climate scientist, Stewart Cohen, said: the biosphere doesn’t care why you emitted the carbon.
In continuing to do what we’ve always done we’re committing an act of banal evil. Those remote people who are going to starve over the next 50 years to 100 years in the slums of poor countries are comparable to those people herded into trains in Nazi Germany. They aren’t being murdered for their religion or ethnicity (at least not explicitly), but for their poverty.
I may not be a psychopath, I may have many ways of making myself feel better about colluding with the status quo, but just doing my job perhaps isn’t a good enough excuse.