Learning from the past: climate change and the banality of evil

While a recent movie documenting her life accompanied by media covering has drawn some attention, Hannah Arendt’s work still remains largely underappreciated. I believe that if we would collectively learn from her, then we might solve some of the most pressing issues of global scale.

Recent published articles[1] prove that even intellectual people didn’t get Hannah Arendt’s point from Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a work in which she was analysing life and the cruel actions of Adolf Eichmann. Blindness and the inability to differentiate between facts and their own identity (many of those who criticised the loudest were Jewish) made it impossible for the audience to see what Hannah Arendt aimed at, that is, finding an explanation to an extremely pitiable tragedy which would enable us as a society to learn from it for the future. Instead of getting her lesson, the masses condemned her work accusing Arendt for lacking empathy for the victims.

Fifty years later, as a society we aren’t any wiser. Each of us prefers to think as being a victim rather than to make a change: we need to rush to work, we need to have a SUV to protect our offspring in case of accident, we need to provide our kids with the latest iPhone, because everyone has it, and of course “why should we abstain from doing something if nobody else does?” Later is one of my “favourites” of all excuses to take action against overconsumption. I remember well how even twenty years ago it drove me mad when my Swiss colleagues claimed that “it is useless if Switzerland tries to be green. Being such a small country surrounded by big polluters (sic!) we won’t change anything if only we care. If everyone was as good as we were, then we needn’t worry.” Indeed. Switzerland is one of the nations that didn’t even meet its very unambitious target of the first period of the Kyoto Protocol.

As complex as it is in terms of effects, impacts and feedbacks, anthropogenic climate change is quite trivial in its cause: overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and wrong attitudes (all by humans) account not only for 99 but a full 100% of it. We have been warned of climate change and possible consequences as early as in the 1970s. In the meantime more than 97% of scientific experts agree on the facts of climate change and a large body of literature is available to read about the harm it will do. Some of us have even suffered first consequences it in recent years. Yet, we don’t do much to change it.

Ah you do? Then I’m sorry. Maybe you are an exception, because what I observe is that every day there are more cars on the road, more ACs running at full speed and more food being thrown away[2]. I further learn that global energy demand will increase by as much as 56% in 2040, while 80%[3] of that energy will still come from fossil fuels! For a long time it has been acknowledged that GDP is a bad means to measure progress, because it only accounts for progress in economic terms, which in turn is enhancing the problem of climate change. Alternatives[4] to the GDP as an indicator of progress have been suggested for decades. Yet, reality didn’t change. While “awarding” economies for increased GDP, we motivate them to pollute further.

The banality of evil as described by Hannah Arendt lives from the fact that we do what we know is wrong (and eventually lethal), but because we think that we are not to blame for it (being only part and hence victim of the system) and because nobody is holding us responsible for it, we do it anyway. We all know that there will be more misery but as long as we enjoy what we are doing, we needn’t feel bad about its consequences, do we?

Maybe we could answer the question with one of my favourite quotes from Hannah Arendt. It was her answer to the question of whether we should judge or not: “Of course we should judge. In fact, we should judge vehemently[5].” As said above, there is a lot we could have learned from her.


[1] See for example here  or here.

[2] Various countries report that as much as 50% of food we buy goes to waste without being consumed, a large part of it not even being removed from the package to check if it was still good. See world , UK , USA or Switzerland.

[3] Recently there have been different estimates. See one of them here.

[4] See here  and here.

[5] My own translation. I believe the original said „Natürlich sollten wir urteilen und zwar zünftig.“
I’m not sure about the source, but believe it was in „Ich will verstehen.“

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About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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7 Responses to Learning from the past: climate change and the banality of evil

  1. innocent_bikestander says:

    This is music to my ears. You are so right – GDP is just one measurement of ‘success’. I would suggest, based on where that’s gotten us, we should be using different measuring sticks.

  2. Justin Roborg-Söndergaard says:

    Thanks again Urs for your thoughtful insights…attitude plays a great part in how we relate to our environment, attitude drives our behaviour; but both require conditions of trust which again links to our confidence in the systems that govern us. Without any clear signs from our political & governance institutions for a change in attitude linking to our trust in such systems, I believe perpetuates the system of consumption & waste. If the measurement of our success nationally is only based on national productivity (GDP), then the measure of our own success it can be argued remains within the same system, namely a material measurement of success. The unaccountability of such a system for its inherent ‘externalities’ i.e. consumption, waste, environmental exploitation & degradation, as you point out relieves us of a great responsibility, in other words we do not have to change our behaviour which then reflects on our attitude. So how to change our attitudes in an environment of distrust, what drives these attitudes if we are aware that what we do is ultimately destructive?

  3. Pingback: Reflecting on GlobalVisionRemixed’s thoughts on Arendt, Future Melbourne Network | ExMachinaSomnium: From the Machine Dream

  4. Patrick S says:

    Hi Urs, I started off writing a comment, but it got so long I thought I’d better make it a full blog post and link here: http://exmachinasomnium.net/2014/03/22/reflecting-on-globalvisionremixeds-thoughts-on-arendt-future-melbourne-network/

    Also, when your reading list permits I recommend John Ralston Saul’s book “On Equilibrium” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/300761.On_Equilibrium), which also tries to address some of the issues raised in this post.

  5. Patrick S says:

    N.B. re GDP and replacing it with better indicators:- there is an Australian fairly recent project in this space, that involves a coalition of different groups, called ANDI – a project to create an Australian National Development Index (http://www.andi.org.au).

    Looks like they are doing good work, and I have been thinking to invite them to speak at one of our Melbourne Emergence & Complex Systems meetups.

  6. Tom Wassmer says:

    Hi Urs,

    Good to read that somebody else connected Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “Banality of Evil” to environmental issues. It explains a lot of head- and heart-less decision making and might help humanity to persist?

  7. Pingback: 2014 – The year of change? | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

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