Should historians deal with the future? Most historians are very careful when it comes to making predictions and are reluctant even to draw inferences from the present. A different approach is taken by Timothy Snyder of Yale University, one of the best-known historians of the Holocaust in our time. His widely discussed 2010 book, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” presented a new approach to understanding the Holocaust, linking it to the mass murders perpetrated in Eastern Europe by the Soviets. In “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (2015), Snyder once more addressed the horrors of the first half of the 20th century but added an afterword in which his gaze is concentrated directly on this century.
According to Snyder, the Holocaust had an ecological dimension. Hitler saw politics as a war for resources that was being waged between the races. The fertile land of Europe is a limited resource, which the law of nature obliged one to fight for in order to to survive. It’s a life-and-death struggle. In Hitler’s conception, as Snyder presents it, there is no point – indeed, it is wrong – to avert shortages of resources by using technological means or through international arrangements. The struggle for existence is necessary and healthy, and it was the Jews who sought to curtail it. The Jews could be seen as being a force in opposition to nature, interfering with the war for survival by imposing their perverse notion of universal morality. Accordingly, Hitler adopted a combined policy of seizing control of agricultural regions in Eastern Europe and of disposing of the Jewish “obstacle.”
In the early 20th century, Snyder notes, the danger of food shortages threatened even European nations. Indeed, it was a danger that existed during World War I. However, Hitler was wrong: a war for resources was neither inevitable nor a law of nature. Already in his time, scientists had begun to develop efficient methods to increase agricultural output, making it possible to feed far larger numbers of people than had been imaginable in the past. The Green Revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s – the invention of artificial fertilizers, insecticides and other effective technological means – staved off hunger and provided nutritional security for billions of people.
Snyder, though, warns that the scientific solution is not everlasting. The Green Revolution has its limits. The demand for food is intensifying, not necessarily because of population growth, but because the standard of living is rising in much of the world – a prime example being China. Most countries’ grain stockpiles contain an emergency supply for a few months at most; food riots have erupted in periods of extended drought in recent years. The situation is compounded by climate change, loss of agricultural land and the collapse of ecosystems. Tragically, the Green Revolution itself contributed to the destruction of insects on a vast scale, a development liable to bring about the disintegration of the food chain in the foreseeable future.
In a possible scenario, Snyder warns in “Black Earth,” “leaders of a developed country might follow or induce panic about future shortages and act preemptively, specifying a human group as the source of an ecological problem.” The result is liable to be “a scenario of mass killing that resemble[s] the Holocaust.” Snyder hypothesizes that the traumatic experience of violent storms of an unprecedented scale and brutal droughts will make Hitler-style politics more acceptable. He also considers a number of vulnerable regions where a situation like this could arise, among them Africa, China, Russia, the Middle East and even the United States.
“Black Earth” drew both acclaim and criticism. Some critics argued that attempts to make inferences about the future based on the Holocaust are tasteless, even dangerous. But it’s not necessary to set out a complex interpretation of Hitler’s ideology in order to arrive at the conclusion that genocide is a possible result of the ecological crisis. The report published last year by the United Nations’ panel on climate change forecasts that the rise in temperatures will generate a large-scale food shortages within the next 20 years. David Wallace-Wells, author of the recently published “The Uninhabitable Earth” (2019), observed in an article in New York magazine last October, “What has been called a genocidal level of warming is already our inevitable future. The question is how much worse than that it will get.” It’s not by chance that the mounting protests seen in the past few months in Britain and elsewhere have been expressions of a movement calling itself the “extinction rebellion.”
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The World Bank, a rather conservative organization, predicts that 140 million people will become refugees by 2050 due to the effects of climate change. By the end of the century that number may run into the billions. Where will all these refugees go? More and more countries are closing their borders and protecting them by means of walls and military means. It would not be farfetched to surmise that millions of people are liable to end their lives in camps or even to encounter live fire during attempts to cross a border. In other scenarios, strong states might take over weaker ones in order to provide “living space” for their citizens.
Already today, droughts caused by climate change are generating political tension in a number of regions. The murderous wars in Darfur, Sudan, and in Syria have been attributed in part to the impact of prolonged drought. A decline in the flow of the Nile River is fomenting growing tension between Ethiopia, which lies along the upper part of it, and Egypt, where the Lower Nile flows. Many Egyptians blame the dam being built in Ethiopia for the phenomenon, but the real cause of the drying up is apparently climate change. The cooling-off in relations between Jordan and Israel – reflected in King Abdullah’s decision to exercise his country’s right to cancel the agreement under which Israel had access to the Zofar and Naharayim enclaves abutting the Jordan River for 25 years – is related to the serious water shortage in the Hashemite kingdom.
An ecological catastrophe is not like the case of a meteor striking Earth. It is not a one-time apocalyptic event, but a gradual deterioration, which will increasingly affect the systems that make human life possible. People will respond to the aggravated situation with political measures that might be humane but are also liable to be lethal. All these processes will occur on a vast, globe-spanning scale.
The study of the Holocaust and the study of ecology are fields with very little overlap. But it’s difficult today to recall the Holocaust of European Jewry 80 years ago without considering that a far larger genocide is a possibility that is becoming more likely and concrete. As Snyder warns on the final page of “Black Earth”: “We share Hitler’s planet and several of his preoccupations: we have changed less than we think.”
Drawing comparisons with the Holocaust is an overused and in many cases demagogic rhetorical device. But when we speak in vague terms about the “climate crisis,” it’s crucial to understand what could be at stake: nothing less than genocide, and possibly a more sweeping genocide than anything previously seen in history.