'The Great Big Book of Horrible Things': WWII and Climate Change

(Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What our great failure in the 1930s may teach about facing the rapid assault of manmade global warming  (Or "Hell is the truth seen too late.")

Nature's Edge Notebook #28

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

(This continues Notebook #27, "' Hug the Monster' for Realistic Hope in Global Warming - or How to Transform your Fearful Inner Climate.")

Sometimes, a little humor is indispensible.

Matthew White uses it elegantly in the title of his fascinating new, big and easy-to-read reference book.

"The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities" is a bright door stopper and mind opener.

That jaunty title, which often brings a smile to those to whom I mention it, even hints at one reason we may have evolved humor in the first place: A little sugar can make the worst sort of important news at least palatable, so we can swallow it, get it down to where we can try to digest it.

And with a growing number of the world's climate scientists now speaking publicly about the grave global "catastrophe" and the imminent "threat to global civilization" now building in the form of manmade global warming, White's book offers a simple, painful lesson.

It reminds us that humanity has often and recently failed to prevent collective calamity, even when many people can see it coming and try to warn everyone.

In other words, just because we see an immense and possibly preventable cataclysm approaching, it's important to realize that it doesn't mean we'll prevent it, necessarily … however unbearable the thought of that possibility may be.

"Hell Is Truth Seen Too late." - 18 th Cent. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes

Given what the world's climate scientists are now begging us to understand, it seems only logical that before we can begin to glimpse and assess any reasons for realistic hope in the rapidly growing climate crisis, it is important to see the true size of the problem.

And, as these scientists often tell us, the problem's biggest unknown is "What will the humans do?"  Will humanity respond adequately in time to make temperatures level off well within the lifetime of today's teenagers?

Harvard historian and social anthropologist Timothy Weiskel, in his courses on the many aspects of the crisis of manmade global warming, sometimes quotes the insight of 18 th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes that "Hell is truth seen too late."

The world's climate scientists are in effect telling us that one part of the truth we must now try to see is humanity's ability - or lack of it - for collective prevention of enormous manmade disaster, atrocity.

The record is worrisome.

What a Librarian Knows About Human Folly… and WWII

White, a librarian by profession, writes of great horrors with buoyant disinterest, almost as if he is simply bemused at human folly.

He defines "atrocities" as necessarily manmade, not natural, and ranks them according to a single simple measure - the number of people killed.

Writing in a crystal clear style, White is open about the methodology with which he clarifies blizzards of data, and about his reasons for arriving at the numbers he presents.

He's had decades of experience that includes maintaining the online " Historical Atlas of the 20th Century" a nd refereeing disagreements among a wide range of parties about actual numbers of people killed in various atrocities.

"Atrocitology is at the center of most major historical disputes," he says.

Atrocitologist and Necrometrician of Hemoclysms and Multicides - Ranking the "One Hundred Deadliest"

White is described in the forward (by Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker) as a "self-described atrocitolgist, necrometrician, and quantifier of hemoclysms" (massive bloodbaths).

In White's list of "The One Hundred Deadliest Multicides," there's a tie for second and third place.

Both are in Asia, with 40 million killed in each:

  • by the bloody conquering armies of Mongol warlord Genghis Khan in the 21 years from 1206 to 1227.
  • and much more recently, by the ruthless dictatorship of Chinese ideologue Mao Zedong in the 27 years from 1949 to1976.

In first place - history's greatest atrocity - is World War Two.

In just six years, from 1939 to 1945, 66 million people were killed.

That includes the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, the quarter million Roma Gypsies also slaughtered or shipped to death camps, as were many others, plus millions killed in death marches, the Sino-Japanese conflict and countless other WWII conflicts and battles, bombings and assaults, sieges and famines and other deprivations and disruptions in all hemispheres, east and west, north and south, on land and sea.

In all, WWII killed some 46 million civilians and 20 million soldiers.

(That 66 million does not include, says White, the 20 million people killed within the Soviet Union by the homicidal policies and massacres directed by dictator Joseph Stalin against his own citizens during the 25 years from 1928 to 1953.   These "internal" atrocities of Stalin are in a tie for sixth and seventh place on White's list with the Taiping Rebellion in China, which also killed 20 million people over the 14 years from 1850 to 1864. White's list of the 100 deadliest atrocities is full of surprises.   See more examples in Footnote below.)

For one thing, White's numbers are plain evidence of humanity's collective tendency to down-play horrendous threats, even when we see them coming.

Survivors of the Holocaust and of many other WWII atrocities offer heartbreaking accounts of loved ones or neighbors lost because they just couldn't believe that the worst would happen - that it would get so bad.

And though survivors, serious scholars and responsible leaders are still working to better understand why the many warnings throughout the 1930s failed to prevent this greatest atrocity of all, popular imagination often tends to forget such lessons in the comforting glow of the fact that "We won the war,"  some even calling  it "the last good war" - though most all of the survivors of its brutal battles, unspeakable death camps and endless dislocations whom this reporter has ever spoken with would not say there was anything good about it.

This is of course not to take the slightest measure of honor from those who finally had to sacrifice their health or, by the millions, their lives, to stop the grim pathology that had overtaken the world by Sept. 1, 1939, by which point there seemed no other possible way to stop it.

Nonetheless, reflecting on this greatest collective failure - the failure throughout the 1930s to prevent the greatest atrocity - may help suggest what failures at prevention might now be under way, despite the clear and widely reported rapid rise of manmade global warming.

After all, the failure to prevent WWII occurred recently, roughly speaking, within our own era.

It was well within the lives of people alive today who can still tell us firsthand about specific WWII horrors they experienced as young adults or children.

Weiskel, in a recent lecture on the failings of modern American news media adequately to engage and foresee the realities of various approaching crises, cites a passage in John F. Kennedy's 1940s book, "Why England Slept."

It was written as John F. Kennedy's senior thesis at Harvard in 1940 and then immediately published with the help of his father, Joseph Kennedy, American Ambassador to the U.K.   Ambassador Kennedy is reported to have encouraged appeasement of Hitler, countering the urgent advice of Britain's Winston Churchill.

Churchill, alarmed by what was clearly coming, had already published a book entitled "While England Slept" in 1938, the book whose title the young JFK referenced two years later in his.

Weiskel selects this sentence from JFK's book (which was published during the Battle of Britain but before Pearl Harbor) to project on a screen in front of his classes today (bolded highlight mine):

"To say that all the blame must rest on the shoulders of Neville Chamberlain or of Stanly Baldwin, is to overlook the obvious.  As the leaders, they are, of course, gravely and seriously responsible.  But, given the conditions of democratic government, a free press, public elections, and a cabinet responsible to Parliament and thus to the people, given rule by the majority, it is unreasonable to blame the entire situation on one man or group…"

A Free Press, Public Elections, A Cabinet Responsible to the People, Rule by Majority…

… and yet, England… and the United States… failed to prevent that greatest atrocity.

A free press, public elections, a cabinet responsible to parliament and thus to the people, and rule by majority were no guarantee.

But even without the benefit of the hindsight we now have about the horrors of WWII, a large segment of people, as historians have shown, could make out enough of the rough outlines of upheavals to come to try to at least get out of the way and in many cases prepare for what they realized the overall global society was not about to prevent.

The Rapidly Approaching Climate Catastrophe

But this time, say today's climate scientists, the rapidly approaching climate catastrophe threatens to kill far more people than all of White's 100 Deadliest atrocities combined.

Estimates heard in private conversations with scientists and economists reach even into the billions of people who could perish well within this century if the warming is not somehow controlled.

This reporter has heard figures in measured conversation, for example, such as this: If humanity does not now manage somehow to drastically cut carbon emissions so that the global temperature levels off at around 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial times, but reaches instead 4 degrees centigrade, it could mean some 4 billion people dying within this century because the world couldn't grow enough food in such heat and the drought it will bring - rice harvests, for one, would be decimated.

The Most Important "What If"

The "What ifs" of the 1930s are of course infinitely variable and impossible to conclude.

What if fewer editors had watered down reporters' submissions that cleanly delineated the direction of the military and ideological build-ups in Europe and Asia, or played those stories differently or more prominently in their media?

What if, in the two years leading up to his third election in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt had been more open with Americans about the inevitability of entering the European conflict, a notion then so unpopular with many voters?

What if, in the 1930s, the many forces and groupings of democracy at which the young JFK was pointing his finger in 1940 (possibly trying to protect, or downplay the position of, his own father) had somehow come together in a way that ultimately prevented the greatest atrocity of all, WWII.

All we can know for sure is that they didn't.

But to ponder now what those failures may have been could, of course, help to instruct us, give us ideas about what we may now be missing.

It might alert us to our own tendencies to down-play or ignore fast-approaching disaster that appears too frightening, or too big, to think about, much less report to viewers and readers, or explain to constituents.

Then there are the "What ifs" that are flipped toward the future, and asked in the negative:

What if we don't try to report or explain the full scale and challenge of the climate problem?… just as a number of professionals in the 1930s apparently didn't with the challenge they faced.

Knowing the general size of the problem, painful or frightening as it may be, would seem clearly necessary for any professional journalist or government leader trying to report on or assess the chances of any realistic hope we think we may glimpse amid all the bad news.

It would obviously help us get our minds around it, at least.

And that's a beginning.

To be continued…



"White's list of the 100 Deadliest Atrocities is full of surprises."

A few examples:

  • The Atlantic slave trade ranks 10 th, with 16 million killed (in 1452-1807).
  • The American Civil War, (in 1861-65) ranks 65 th, with 695,000 killed.
  • There's a two-way tie for 94 th and 95 th place, with 350,000 each for:
  • - the Roman-Jewish wars (in 66-74 and in 132-135)
  • - the sanctions imposed by many nations under the UN Security Council against dictator Saddam Hussein's Iraq (in 1900-2003)
  • There's a five-way tie for the end of the list (#96 though #100) with 300,000 each, killed by atrocities stretching from the Second Persian War (480 to 479 BCE) to those "killed internally" by dictator Saddam Hussein (1970-2003), a conflict White labels as "Saddam vs. everyone."


We invite you to follow our weekly Nature's Edge Notebook on Facebook  and on Twitter @BBlakemoreABC

Find more on our Nature's Edge website at   www.abcnews.com/naturesedge

All Nature's Edge Notebooks are listed on Twitter.com at #BBlakemoreABC