NY Times Dialogue on Human Violence Omits Climate Change

by Felix Kramer

Climate Wars by Gwynne DyerLast week, the New York Times published a provocative  letter in its weekly “Invitation to a Dialogue,” and, as usual, invited comments to be published in its Sunday Review.

The letter, by Robert J. Lifton, critiqued popular Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Lifton, a renowned psychologist who has written about the human responses to the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Vietnam, questioned Pinker’s optimism that the world is getting less violent. His opinions were compelling, concluding:

There is a terrible paradox here. Dr. Pinker and others may be quite right in claiming that for most people alive today, life is less violent than it has been in previous centuries. But never have human beings been in as much danger of destroying ourselves collectively, of endangering the future of our species.

We are not helpless about our fate. There could not be a more crucial moment to draw upon our gradual taming of individual violence, along with our growing awareness of the grotesque consequences of numbed technological violence, to achieve lasting forms of what can be called peace.

I was worried that no one would take discussion to an even broader level, in the context of the violent world we are steadily creating, and the warning signs the world is ignoring. His letter sent me to the book, which, although erudite and compelling, includes within its 696 pages only four dismissive paragraphs (pp. 375-377) on whether climate change could threaten international security.

Pinker looks only at the potential for armed conflict among poor countries for resources, and concludes, “maybe so, maybe not.” That compelled me to send in a response to the piece:

Robert Jay Lifton is right to redefine violence and peace. Corporations and governments collaborating in plunder will make our planet increasingly unlivable, unleashing violence on an unimaginable scale. Business-as-usual treats our atmosphere as a garbage dump, altering our climate and  disrupting nature. Within our lifetimes, warming will spread epidemics and diseases to insects, birds, and animals, and through them slaughtering countless people. Extreme weather, from dust storms to floods, will spark desperate responses…. Instead of reassurances about human progress, we need wake up calls to avert species suicide.

I perfectly understand that my submission — surely one of hundreds or thousands the Times received — was not accepted. But I was shocked that in the responses that were published, the subject of global climate change’s impact never came up!

Lifton’s response to these letters never mentioned the environment, but he at least pointed to the power relationships that impede change:

I’m also in full agreement with Dr. Pinker and the other letter writers about our capacity to take constructive steps to diminish the dangers we face. Indeed, much protest over the years has sought to do that, whether as 1960s and 1980s opposition to war and weaponry or today’s Occupy movement. We would do well to channel more of this protest into combating all violence, but especially the numbed technological variety.

Pinker’s point of view was welcomed by a few deniers. The only other critique I’ve seen was in the Times Book Review last October by bioethicist Peter Singer, “Is Violence History?” which concluded fittingly:

If he had been able to see, before his book went to press, a study published in Nature as recently as August of this year, he might have been less sanguine about maintaining peace despite widespread climate change. Solomon Hsiang and colleagues at Columbia University used data from the past half-century to show that in tropical regions, the risk of a new civil conflict doubles during El Nino years (when temperatures are hotter than usual and there is less rainfall). If that finding is correct, then a warming world could mean the end of the relatively peaceful era in which we are now living.

I guess this is one more time when the editors at The Times made their selections with blinders on.

Felix Kramer is a fierce climate hawk and founder of the California Cars Initiative.

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15 Responses to NY Times Dialogue on Human Violence Omits Climate Change

  1. Toby says:

    I have the advantage of reading Pinker’s book, and have just passed the few pages (from an 800-page book) in which he discusses climate change.

    It is important to mention that he does NOT deny global warming, and agrees that its consequences will be extremely serious.

    However, he quotes research that shows a general disinclination of human beings to go to war over resources. This is against a backdrop of a decline in violence as a solution, and a general civilizing influence and recognition of the value of human life all over the globe. This last is the main theme of the book.

    I am in two minds about the thesis, but I urge everyone to read the book. Hardly a page goes by without an interesting statistic or challenging assertion. Pinker’s view of history is the “Whig view”: ever onward, ever upward (with some hiccups and backslidings!). In his view, the Enlightenment was the decisive shift in history away from religious dogma and towards secular science, which fostered sympathy for “the other”.

    One thing Pinker does emphasise is the value of states, governments, democracy and international relations (both trade and treaty agreements) in mitigating and preventing violence.

    Taking a wider view of his book, there is much in there for climate hawks to put to good use.

  2. Leif says:

    A major difference with this climatic disruption round of ecocidal violence is that in the past, forward visionaries for the most part were able to run from their personal threats to more forgiving locations around the world. This will only be a short tern option. It is folly to think that possible future pockets of habitation scattered here and there will welcome or even support the 7+ billion of us. The lucky few already there will face starving hordes. Unimaginable violence is a given.

  3. Rockinon says:

    “research that shows a general disinclination of human beings to go to war over resources” — Oh? Many military folk believe it was over the availability of resources that Japan entered the Second World War.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    It should be mandatory that a scientist should fact check everything science related in todays media world.

    The lamestream media most of the times, sucks when it comes to scientific topics.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    In Vandana Shiva’s book, Water Wars, she points out that conflicts over resources are often presented to the public as religious or ideological conflicts.

    So, although the public may not have been motivated to go to war over access to oil, gas and rare minerals in central Asia, the US did spend about a trillion dollars in the last decade on armed conflict that is otherwise difficult to explain in practical outcomes.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    That doen’t mean I condoned Hussein, Taliban or AlQaeda, but it is curious that the US has been silent on the horrific wars in central Africa which involve mass use of rape and torture. Rare minerals from the Congo are the essential components for cell phones and guided missiles. Could that contribute to the silence?

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The tensions are increasing, internally and externally. The utter greed of the few is creating a ripe environment for the rabble rousers. By stifling peaceful protest, violent protest is so much more likely.

    Hungry people with nothing to loose are dangerous. Armed hungry people with nothing to loose are even more dangerous.

    Hope for many is a scare resource, take the last of that hope away and watch out.

    We try to keep the Mexicans out Texas, Will the Oregonians try to keep the Texans out of Oregon.

  8. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight”, it is our “Manifest Destiny”. Will Canada, citing the above, construct a 50′ electrified fence at the border?

  9. adelady says:

    I rather thought a brief look at the simmering disputes over glaciers and their waters in the India, Pakistan, China regions would give anyone cause to pause over the idea that people won’t fight for ‘resources’.

  10. I am currently finishing Pinker book. It is important to say that this book is not about speculation on the causes of future wars. It is about the fact that there is less war today and less violence than there ever was. Once we said that, nothing goes against the fact that there COULD be other wars, including about climate. But this is not the point of the book.

  11. A Jessen says:

    There is that tendency of some to extrapolate/to assume that any decline in violence will continue. But then the chronic resource stresses that can ignite tensions have been relatively few, at least for now. If we want to consider a contemporary regional case, though, what if Iran actively blocked the Strait of Hormuz? Nobody would be up in arms over the loss of that oil capacity?

  12. Toby says:

    I am afraid it is difficult to summarise the research. We know trade rivalry were major differences leading to wars between Britain and France in the 18th century. Those struck me as counter examples – wars such as what the US calls King George’s War and the French and Indian War. Those were fought over access to North American resources.

    Notwithstanding Iraq and the Japan Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, evidence of wars over resources ALONE are rare in the 20th century. Even in those instances, USA went into Iraq for reasons other than oil alone.

    In his book “Collapse” Jared Diamond posited a scarcity of land lying behind the Rwandan genocide, but there were many others reasons behind that horrific event.

    I suggest you obtain the book – it is well worth its price for a thoughtful read.

  13. Toby says:

    Again, I recommend reading the book. Pinker’s point is that a whole raft of simmering disputes do not explode into violence as often as they used.

    War (between states, at least) is not considered a viable alternative in the settlement of disputes for the most part.

    Pinker presents plenty of data to support his conclusions.

  14. @A Jessen: well, reading Pinker, I must say that the answer could be No. Because Iran will not necessarily block the Strait of Hormuz.

    If there has been so few wars since 60 years, despite of the fact that the same factors were at play than before (lack of resources, territorial ambitions, crazy dictators, etc.) it’s because of a lot of factors, some of them having their origins in the Middle Ages. And those factors could very well be at play to block the scenario of a Hormuz war.

  15. fj says:

    There’s direct violence and the indirect equivalent of violence sometimes called structural violence since the violence is not direct but equivalent because the pain and suffering is equivalent to being the victims of violence; and much more pervasive and includes climate change.

    That’s not to say that the direct violence in not a serious problem and has been considered a health crisis; it is obvious and easy to recognize the manmade stuff like transportation, which is a major culprit where globally over 3300 people are killed daily in road accidents adding up to over 1.3 million killed and 50 million gravely injured each year; declared a health crisis by the World Health Organization; and Bloomberg has donated $100 million to address this crisis with his philanthropy.