Originally written in 2018, in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s election, the essay reflects on the myriad denialisms that seem to surround us today.
At the outset of this essay, the topic I intended to address was denialism — a complex and serious phenomenon that can be widely observed today, and that, in its many forms, plays a central role in understanding the cognitive, psychic, and political paralysis in the face of anthropogenic global warming.
My main hypothesis would be that understanding this paralysis and other types of reaction to the prospect of climate catastrophe exhibited by almost the entire scientific community today can be largely illuminated by way of two comparisons: first, by the denialism of Nazis, ex-Nazis, neo-Nazis, and other extreme right-wing politicians regarding the Holocaust perpetrated by Germany during World War II; and second, by the denialism that characterizes, in varying degrees and forms, our attitude toward the practices of breeding, confinement, and mass extermination of animals in the factory farms of the global agro-industry.
I say that it was the topic and that it would be my hypothesis, not because I will address a different subject or because I consider that the hypothesis no longer stands. On the contrary, anthropogenic global warming is the greatest threat to life on the planet at present and in the near future; those who make a career and/or fortune from denying this threat claim that they are not denying anything, only exercising their right to skepticism. For this very reason, and because of the human and other-than-human dimension of the catastrophe to come, a denunciation of this attitude should insist on designating those who downplay global warming as ‘deniers’ — as deniers were and are those who advocate the revision of the history of the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. Those who say, for example, that the “supposed” gas chambers of Auschwitz were no gas chambers at all, or that the number of Jews killed has been deliberately exaggerated, or simply that Hitler may have killed many people, but he was an excellent statesman and did much good for Germany. I also continue to agree with those who argue that the very term “Holocaust,” used as a proper noun to translate the Hebrew term Shoah, can and should be used to talk about our society’s treatment of the billions of invisible animals reared and killed in agribusiness, endlessly tortured in scientific experiments, in addition, of course, to the mass extinction of species that we humans are causing (the sixth Great Extinction in the history of life on Earth). And this, despite the great sensitivity that these terms — Holocaust and Shoah, as well as the term “denialism” itself — rouse, for various reasons that I will touch on later.
So, if I maintain the theme and the hypothesis, what has changed? Why my hesitation?
What happened is that, in these last months, we in Brazil, as in other parts of the world, have been overcome by the feeling (and it is much more than just a feeling) of not only being submerged in the denial and denialism of much of the political class, of scholars and the population in general (fake news, or the inversion or denial of the truth, are other examples), but also of having plunged into the very desire for death and extermination of both meaning and any form of otherness — a desire that is the driving force of all fascism.
Over 97% of scientists working in the field of climate science today agree on the fact and causes of current global warming, as well as on the enormous gravity of its short-, medium- and long-term consequences. The disagreements among scientists concern projections of the speed of the future increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and oceans, as well as the estimated sensitivity of the earth system to this increase. They discuss how the various ecosystems will react, what their resilience capacity will be, the tipping points, and a number of other fundamental aspects that make up our fragile and complex biogeophysical system. Although the alarms of science have been sounding for several decades now, our current global situation is worse than it has ever been. From being a mere background for the unfolding of history and the building of civilizations, for the flourishing of cultures as well as for wars and intolerances, “nature,” and particularly the climate, has taken on a protagonism that is both unusual and terrifying — like a beast that, when provoked, reacts in the most unexpected ways. Inertia, that force discovered by Newton in the 17th century as a property of bodies, today seems to characterize human subjects and politics much more than the objects of the physical world. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important one is the enormous effort (political and monetary) that has been expended by the big fossil fuel, agribusiness, and mining companies to sow “doubt,” or to create the public perception that there is still doubt and controversy among scientists about the reality, cause or severity of climate change.
With rare exceptions, denial of global warming has become the default position of politicians on the United States Republican right. To a lesser extent and in smaller numbers, it is found in almost every shade of the political spectrum around the world. Notice that, in the context of climate change, the use of the term “denialism” instead of skepticism — to characterize those “maverick” scientists who attempt to justify their attitude of denial by claiming a “noble” kinship with philosophical or scientific skepticism — has a clear political purpose: to deliberately provoke historical resonances with the Holocaust denialism or revisionism I referred to earlier. The term “Holocaust” itself, although almost always reserved by historians to the genocide of Jews by the Nazi regime, has been used on occasion, and with the intention of evoking the same resonances, to describe the practices of breeding, confinement, and mass extermination of animals in agribusiness factory farms worldwide, as well as the torture of animals in industrial and scientific tests.
The rapprochement between these terms is particularly sensitive. The self-styled “climate skeptics” do not want to see their names associated publicly with Holocaust deniers, who have been unmasked time and again in various international courts and tribunals. On the other hand, the terms Holocaust (from the ancient Greek for sacrifice, ὁλόκαυστος: from ὅλος [hólos], whole + καύστος [kaustós], burned) and Shoah (from the Hebrew for “catastrophe”), have become proper nouns, capitalized and introduced by a definite article, and therefore, strictly speaking, untranslatable and inapplicable to other genocides (of which, however, we have so many examples, even if we limit ourselves to the 20th and 21st centuries). And perhaps more fundamentally: the two names, being reserved for this particular event, carry with them the idea not only of the extermination of a people but of the dehumanizing device that prepared and enabled this extermination (let us remember that the Jews, like other minorities and ethnic groups, were represented as pigs, as sub-human, dirty, immoral and degenerate). For this reason, to apply them directly to non-humans, that is, to “animals,” sounds to some — even many, I would say — like heresy. Let’s see what the South African writer J. M. Coetzee says about the language often used to describe the Jewish Holocaust (in the voice of Elisabeth Costello, one of the characters in The Lives of Animals and some other of his novels):
‘They went like sheep to the slaughter.’ ‘They died like animals.’ ‘The Nazi butchers killed them.’ Denunciation of the camps reverberates so fully with the language of the stockyard and slaughterhouse that it is barely necessary for me to prepare the ground for the comparison I am about to make. The crime of the Third Reich, says the voice of accusation, was to treat people like animals.
And just a few paragraphs later:
[…] we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, writes about the paradox contained in the denial of this “subjection of the animal” by “Western man”:
However one interprets it, whatever practical, technical, scientific, juridical, ethical, or political consequence one draws from it, no one can today deny this event—that is, the unprecedented proportions of this subjection of the animal. […] Neither can one seriously deny the disavowal that this involves. No one can deny seriously any more, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves; in order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence, which some would compare to the worst cases of genocide.
Nobody can deny it anymore, as Derrida says, but the fact is that we continue to do it.
Let us clarify that not every denial is revisionism, nor are all deniers criminals or “deniers” in that first sense we defined (the professional denialists). There are various forms and senses of negation. Shoshana Felman, analyzing Lanzmann’s film Shoah, calls attention to the distinction between three categories of witnesses that make up the narrative of the film: the victims (Jewish survivors), the perpetrators (former Nazis), and the bystanders (Poles). These three categories, three incommensurable perspectives, cannot be assimilated or subsumed into one another, let alone summed up into a single, complete account. They are distinguished not only by what people in each of these “topographical, emotional, and epistemological positions” saw, but above all by what they did not see.
The Jews see, but they do not understand the purpose and the destination of what they see; overwhelmed by loss and by deception, they are blind to the significance of what they witness. […] The Poles, unlike the Jews, do see but, as bystanders, they do not quite look, they avoid looking directly, and thus they overlook at once their responsibility and their complicity as witnesses […]. The Nazis, on the other hand, see to it that both the Jews and the extermination will remain unseen, invisible […].
It is possible to recognize similar perspectives to those of the three Holocaust characters described by Felman in the other two events we have highlighted. We can perhaps say that the exploited animals are the victims (the Jews, who not coincidentally were transported to their death in cattle cars); the big agribusiness entrepreneurs are the perpetrators (the high command of the Nazi regime); and we, the consumers, are the bystanders (the Polish bystanders). Within the context of climate change, we can say that the millions of humans and non-humans who are losing their worlds and their livelihoods, the hundreds of millions who will lose their worlds and their lives are the victims (the Jews) of climate change; the big businessmen of the fossil fuel industries and the political and economic classes allied to them are the perpetrators; and we are all to some extent bystanders, witnesses who see everything and, for the most part, do little about it.
Many climate change deniers do so simply because they cannot bear to think about the radical changes, and especially the radical changes that we will be forced to tackle, more and more. “We are all deniers,” some have said.
But we immediately realize that this distinction is insufficient to account for all the nuances of denial, all the little cover-ups and inconsistencies, all the interfaces, and even the internal and external mobility of these positions. Meatpacking plant workers slaughter and prepare millions of chickens and cattle, but they do so because they have no alternative, as they themselves are crushed under appalling and traumatizing work conditions; some contemporaries of these industries, on the other hand, refuse to eat meat so as not to collude with this extermination and the suffering of animals; yet they are bystanders, and continue in various ways to be implicated, contributing to other industries that cause destruction of ecosystems and death of many living things. Many climate change deniers do so simply because they cannot bear to think about the radical changes, and especially the radical changes that we will be forced to tackle, more and more. “We are all deniers,” some have said. And, after all, who would be able to welcome all the misfortunes of the world with an open heart?
And so we could go on, as with fractals, finding different ways of seeing and not seeing within each perspective, each position and function, different ways of being implicated and not feeling implicated, of sensitizing and desensitizing ourselves.
Denial is a real mystery, but a mystery absolutely central to understanding the world today. In Down to Earth, Latour states that “we can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and center.”
[…] [I]t is as though a significant segment of the ruling classes (known today rather too loosely as “the elites”) had concluded that the earth no longer had room enough for them and for everyone else.
Consequently, they decided that it was pointless to act as though history were going to continue to move toward a common horizon, toward a world in which all humans could prosper equally. From the 1980s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began instead to shelter themselves from the world. We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol, one among others. The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.
The tsunami that led to Bolsonaro’s election is driven by a mixture of all these affects together: madness, hatred against minorities, indifference to the devastation of the environment (including animals), contempt for culture (not to mention counterculture) and science, desire for revenge against political and ecological activism, a fascist and even neo-Nazi death drive. Let us not be deceived by the provisional and apparently paradoxical absence of negation in his discourses. Except for the occasional moments in the campaign when he had to say he didn’t mean what he said, the far-right candidate didn’t even see the need to hide his affinities and projects. And it is no wonder, since his words were and are echoed by hordes of bots, but also by very real people, who find all sorts of justifications to celebrate them, or occasionally (at best) to excuse them by saying: “They are just words, he doesn’t really mean them.” Many Jews in Nazi Germany said the same about Hitler — who was elected democratically, let us not forget. They believed that he would be their salvation. They downplayed his arrogant and violent speech. But they were fatally mistaken.
Capitalism’s promise of universal wealth can produce nothing but universal misery. If we were to stop today, shutting up shop, we would leave an overwhelming amount of unpaid promissory notes for subsequent generations. Of course, we are far from stopping. If all goes well, if there is a tomorrow, we will be remembered as the most irresponsible generation in history — that is, in the not insignificant history of human irresponsibility. For decades, the world wondered how the Germans under Nazism could have failed to react to the ever-increasing arbitrariness, truculence, and injustice that culminated in the Holocaust. Now we know firsthand how to do what they did.
The 1.5 ºC mark of warming above average preindustrial temperatures was set in the Paris Agreement as the maximum “acceptable,” or rather “bearable,” limit for global temperature increase before the consequences of climate change become catastrophic. We have just over a decade to carry out the drastic measures necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that so far we have failed to implement. The president of Brazil has consistently voiced that he will not respect this agreement. Even if he does not succeed in relinquishing it officially, it is very likely that he will abandon it in practice.
When the military dictatorship of 1964 fell upon this country, we needed more than 20 years to restore (and never completely) democracy. We don’t have another 20 years, we don’t have enough time or world to wait. Somehow, everyone on the camp of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte knows this. And we, on the other camp, have to begin now to learn how to live in the ruins.
I end with a quotation from the Scottish-American naturalist, a forerunner of ecological activism, John Muir: “When the time comes for a war between the species, I will be on the side of the bears.” This time has come. And by “bears” we mean all victims of ecocidal denialism and fascism — which is, as my colleague Marco Antonio Valentim said, the political regime of the Anthropocene (capitalism being its economic regime).
* This text is a shortened version of “Negacionismos,” published by n-1 edições.