The Banality of Environmental Destruction

We’re facing an environmental cataclysm that is endangering all life on this planet, yet none of us think we’re participating in something horrific.

Graphic about greenhouse gas emissions.

Graphic by Nigel Holmes, adapted from his book {title}Instant Expert{/title}. Credit: Nigel Holmes ({link url=""}{/link}).

We ask, “How could something really horrific be accepted by everyone around me? Surely my career and my way of life can’t be that bad if everyone else is doing it too. If it were, somebody would have stopped it already. Right?”

We are having trouble recognizing this horror because there are virtually no bad guys in the game. There are a few, probably, at Monsanto and in oil and gas companies, and a few in public office. But even they are not sitting around tables in the evenings smoking cigars and plotting the extinction of the polar bear. Most of them don’t have malicious intent. They’re just following the prevailing logic and ethic of our culture—the logic and ethic of commerce. They’re just being smart businesspeople, doing what they’ve been raised to do. The banality of evil.

And then there’s the rest of us. We’re not evil and yet we are all semi-knowingly participating in the creation of this global catastrophe. Most of us eat meat and dairy products that require massive quantities of water, fossil fuels, and pesticides to produce, destroying forests and jungles. Most of us live and work in buildings that are burning fuel 24/7 for lights, computers, appliances, heating and air conditioning systems. This is all normal for our culture.

Terrible and Terrifyingly Normal

Hannah Arendt, the twentieth-century political theorist, had some insights into the concepts of “evil” and “normal” that seem to have direct bearing here.

In 1961 she went, as a reporter for The New Yorker, to the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a Nazi lieutenant colonel who had been responsible for the operations side of the project of forcing millions of Jews into concentration camps and later deporting them by train to places like Auschwitz. If there were ever an example of a psychopathic monster—grand evil incarnate—Adolf Eichmann should be it. But Arendt published a series of articles about the trial that she later turned into a book subtitled, A Report on the Banality of Evil. In it she made the argument that Eichmann was actually not psychopathic, not exceptional in his propensity for violence, and not particularly hateful or malicious. What he was was unintelligent, rule-oriented, and insecure, with a desperate need to belong. He was a joiner who wanted to be part of something. He wanted to advance his career. He wanted respect and a good life. He often spoke in clichés. While he was in prison in Israel awaiting his trial, five different psychiatrists interviewed him and found no evidence of any pathology. He was a psychologically stable, normal person.

{{{subscriber}}} [trackrt]

How to Read the Rest of This Article

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun‘s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article. Click here to read a PDF version of the article.

(To return to the Spring 2015 Table of Contents, click here.)


Comments are closed.