Climate of conflict

Issue: 137

Camilla Royle

Harald Welzer, Climate Wars: What People Will be Killed for in the 21st Century (Polity, 2012), £20

In this translation of a book originally published in German in 2007, Harald Welzer makes a gloomy argument: that climate change is already causing dramatic changes to people’s lives and that violence is always an option as a response to these changes. Using examples from the Vietnam War, the Rwandan genocide, the collapse of the Easter Island civilisation, Darfur and, in particular, the Holocaust, he attempts to explain not just the causes of extreme violence but the way violence is sustained and becomes part of a “violence economy”.

The book could be accused of being more about war than about climate change. It fails to mention the debates on the relationship between natural disasters and climate change or on the way climate change will affect specific populations. The section on climate change makes some misleading points, such as the suggestion that everything will be alright if we can limit temperature rises to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. There is no “safe” level of temperature rise. Welzer clearly sees himself as a social scientist, and he suggests that it is not his place to delve into scientific debates. However, by calling the book Climate Wars, he does acknowledge the social disaster that climate change seems certain to cause—disproportionately affecting the people least responsible for it and intensifying conflicts as refugees are held back by increasingly sophisticated border controls.

Welzer argues that the 21st century will see a revival of old forms of conflict: “We have seen a revival of fault lines that one would have thought more typical of the 19th century than the 21st.” These conflicts might look different from those of the past. New technologies will make violence possible on an ever greater scale, but conflict will nevertheless focus on the same issues. There will be wars over resources, class and faith, he claims.

Welzer’s background is in social psychology. In an earlier work, Grandpa Wasn’t a Nazi, he used interview data to record how the children and grandchildren of Germans who had been Nazi sympathisers reinterpreted their older relatives’ stories, attempting to explain away the worst parts even when the older relatives had admitted being involved in Nazism. Here he uses various concepts from psychology to attempt to understand how people in supposedly enlightened, rational societies can commit terrible acts of violence, especially when faced with unforeseen changes in their personal circumstances.

In the case of the Holocaust, Welzer argues that one factor is the concept of “shifting baselines”. He imagines a Holocaust with no start point; after the election of Hitler the Jewish population was excluded and oppressed gradually, using progressively harsher laws and propaganda. The concentration camps and mass murders, which would have been unthinkable in 1933, were acceptable (to some) eight years later as people had come to accept this way of relating to “non-Aryan” groups. Welzer also points out that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were able to distance themselves from their crimes. The job of designing more effective ways of killing people and disposing of the bodies was contracted out to the private sector. Some aspects of modern warfare are also carried out by private military companies and mercenaries. The US government signed 3,512 contracts with private companies for security functions in 2003 alone.

However, Marxists have attempted to find underlying explanations for the Holocaust that go beyond the ability of individuals to carry out violent acts. For instance, Leon Trotsky’s account of fascism proposed that the petty bourgeoisie, who felt threatened by both big capital and the organised working class, formed the core base of support for such movements. Hitler was able to draw these elements together and, in a period of deep social and economic crisis, offer them to the ruling class as a force that could destroy working class organisation. In such an account, the Holocaust cannot be explained just by referring to class interests: ideology also played a role, with Hitler using pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric and, of course, pseudo-scientific racism to galvanise his supporters and hold them together. Welzer’s attempt to explain the rise of Nazi ideology falls short. If it is all about psychology, why did the rise of the Nazis emerge in Germany and not elsewhere? Why at that particular time?

Welzer proposes that theory should be developed to explain instances of extreme and unexpected violence, as opposed to conventional social theories which, he argues, are concerned only with normality. He claims that it should be possible to apply social theory to identify some common factors and better predict where a potential for mass violence will result in an application of violence. This implies that there are common factors in every form of violence from cannibalism in the tribal society on Easter Island to immigration controls in 21st century Europe. The book misses out on a consideration of how capitalism in particular might perpetuate violence—and it draws no moral distinction between violence carried out by the most powerful in society and that carried out by desperate people trying to defend themselves. Welzer seems to find all violence equally regrettable. There is no explicit consideration of how private companies might profit from violence, how the powerful will use it to defend their property or how states operate to legitimise their own violent acts. The link between environmental change and conflict is doubtless an urgent topic for debate, but it is one that cannot be explained wholly by social psychology.