Climate Change Is Not World War
Mr. Scranton is a professor of English at Notre Dame. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts introduced their Green New Deal proposal in February, they chose language loaded with nostalgia for one of the countrys most transformative historical moments, a new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era . They are not the first to hark back to the struggles of that era. Former Vice President Al Gore, Senator Lamar Alexander and the environmentalist Lester Brown have all been calling for national mobilization to fight climate change for more than a decade. In 2011, environmental groups wrote a letter to President Barack Obama and Chinas president, Hu Jintao, demanding wartime-like mobilization by the governments of the United States and China to cut carbon emissions. In 2014, the climate psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon and the journalist Ezra Silk founded the group Climate Mobilization, dedicated to an all-out effort to deploy the strongest and most aggressive solutions for reversing climate breakdown. Two years later, Bill McKibben wrote an article and that the only way to keep from losing this war would be to mobilize on the same scale as we did for the last world war. Yet much of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet. The experience of war brutalized, dehumanized and traumatized millions. More than 30 million Americans were uprooted from their homes and migrated across the country for military or economic reasons; the 16 million service members among them were stripped of their civilian identities and then shuttled through a vast national bureaucracy in the greatest experiment in social mixing and mass indoctrination in American history. Some were sent to isolated bases in Texas and Alaska, others across the sea to fight in the South Pacific or North Africa. More than 400,000 were killed, and 670,000 more were wounded. Women entered the work force en masse, experiencing new forms of financial and sexual independence. Both marriage and divorce rates spiked. More than a million African-Americans served in segregated military combat and support units, and millions more migrated north and west to work in an expanding defense industry: the black populations of Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia nearly doubled from 1940 to 1950. Ferocious race riots erupted in cities as whites protested working with blacks, and blacks protested discriminatory violence from the police and military commanders. Entire industries were retooled to meet wartime needs, and the material culture of American life was transformed beyond imagining: food production, housewares, automobiles, home building, highways, television, film, clothing, travel and music all underwent phenomenal metamorphoses from the 1930s to the 1950s, spurred by wartime consumption, government investment and a metastasizing military. Meanwhile, free speech and labor organizing were curtailed, Americans of Japanese descent were interned in concentration camps (as were draft resisters), families were separated, careers were derailed, and young peoples educations were disrupted. The nation was swept by waves of racial hatred, primarily against the Japanese, whom many Americans thought deserved to be exterminated. Much of that racial hatred was fed by mass media propaganda focused relentlessly on war. The war was, , the first and only thing in the world. It dominated news, advertising, magazines, literature, Hollywood, childrens cartoons, radio programming and politics. Total mobilization during World War II also led to the birth of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower would in 1961 define as the military-industrial complex. Annual military spending (adjusted for inflation) skyrocketed from less than $10 billion before the war to nearly $1 trillion during it, and except for a brief dip between the end of World War II and the Korean War, has never sunk below $300 billion, whether the United States was at war or not. The country now spends more on its military budget than the next seven nations combined, and maintains the largest number of military bases on foreign soil of any country. Such is the legacy of Americas mobilization during World War II, which inaugurated a long-term transformation in American politics, permanently shifting power from the legislative branch to the executive, and gave birth to the national security state, the nuclear arms race, and a culture of militarism. As the journalist Fred Cook wrote in 1962, No break with the traditions of Americas past has been so complete, so drastic, as the one that has resulted in the growth of the military-industrial complex. When people who have never personally experienced war and have little historical sense of what it was like to live through World War II talk about a war for the climate or demand a World War II-scale mobilization, they are reaching for old-fashioned costumes in which to dress contemporary problems. But the global challenge we face today in climate change differs from what the United States faced in World War II in several key ways. First, . There is no clear enemy to mobilize against, and thus no way to ignite the kind of hatred that moved Americans against Japan during World War II. No clear enemy also means no clear victory. It was easy to tell when World War II was over: The Americans, British and Russians had killed enough Germans and Japanese that Axis leaders surrendered. How would we know when the war on climate change ends? Second, as opposed to World War II, when national mobilization meant a flood of government money that truly did lift all boats, the transformations required to address climate change would have real economic losers. Many major players in industry, tech, energy, and government have little incentive to go along with climate mobilization, since it would undermine their profit and power. Third, mobilization during World War II was a mobilization against enemies, while whats required today is a mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world against itself? The demand for a World War II-scale mobilization to fight climate change faces other problems as well. While many supporters voice the need for revolutionary change to face the existential challenge climate change poses, the fact is that climate change is just one of several progressive concerns. Democrats show a profound lack of unity on whether climate change should come before economic justice, racial justice, revitalizing American democracy, labor rights, immigration reform, health care and gun control. Campaign promises that we can fix everything at once are sheer pabulum; real legislation requires real priorities, compromises, and sacrifices. In seeking support from Southern Democrats for his efforts to mobilize for war, for example, Roosevelt left Jim Crow segregation untouched, even while his administration was drafting black men into the military. What similar compromises would modern-day Democrats be willing to make? Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like Americas total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that its difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. Nevertheless, total mobilization may be our only hope. Ecological collapse is happening all around us. We may be nearing or have already crossed the line where it becomes unstoppable. Piecemeal, consensus-driven, incrementalist solutions are tantamount to global suicide. According to a summary paper last year from leading scientists on global climate trajectories, the changes needed to stabilize the earths climate require a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions. Such a program would be another order of magnitude larger and more complex than Americas military mobilization during World War II. The problem of climate change is bigger than the New Deal. Its bigger than the Great Depression. Its bigger than war. The problem of climate change is the problem of how and whether human beings can live together sustainably on this planet. What would total mobilization really mean? Judging from what happened in World War II, it would mean social upheaval, violence, censorship, curtailed freedoms, dubious compromises and radical changes in American culture and politics. Yet it also just might mean the survival of human civilization. Roy Scranton (@royscranton), an assistant professor of English at Notre Dame, is the author of , the novel and .