Update Sat 28 Sept 2013: this post created some debate. An response to the article below can be found here  Further comments welcome



September 21st is International World Peace day, and this year the UN is also dedicating this day to peace education. Today across Europe, volunteers are trying to bring awareness of ecocide as a international crime against peace through actions and online campaigns (there are EU and AVAAZ petitions you can sign at the end of this article if you live in Europe or elsewhere). Below is an article that was originally at the end of my former post on how the UN has been recently promoting an International Convention on Ecocide -but I removed it as the ideas needed more work and space; it is my contribution for Peace Education Day 2013. It is a long article but I believe it important to think about ecocide deeply as it affects us all – ‘Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished’ (definition from eradicatingecocide.com).

This article describes the work of the political theorist Hannah Arendt who is best known for her work naming and identifying totalitarianism the 20th Century and her later thoughts on ecocide. Her biographer Elizabeth Young-Bruehl wrote in 2006 that ‘no-one reading Arendt’s seminal book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ carefully would ever have trouble identifying a regime as fascist’. Interstingly Young-Bruehl wrote briefly that Arendt in the early 1970s was thinking about ecocide being a new form of totalitarianism in this century. Arendt’s deep analysis of totalitarianism is useful for identifying how totalitarianism forms and how it is perpetuated. Similarly, I believe while environmental violence is often easy to observe, the cultural norms that surround us and which allow it to occur are often less realised.

the iconic  Pulitzer prize winning photograph of the 'flower-power' anti-Vietnam war protest movement came to mind when thinking about how the law against war-time 'ecocide' arose also at this time, photo by Marc Riboud taken at the Pentagon, Washington D. C, 21 October 1967

The flower – a symbol for peace and nature seen in the iconic Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of the ‘flower-power’ anti-Vietnam war protest movement. This image came to mind as the concept ‘ecocide’ originated and has been legally recognised as a crime since the Vietnam war. Ecocide was the name given  to the widespread and longterm ecosystem destruction when toxic herbicides were used by the US during the Vietnam War.  Hannah Arendt in the early 1970s presciently wrote of ecocide as a new form of totalitarianism in the 21st Century’. Photo by Marc Riboud taken at the Pentagon, Washington D. C, 21 October 1967

Accidentally finding Arendt’s interest in ecocide

I’m still finding information on ecocide that is helping me explore further how it threads so seamlessly through our everyday lives. And some of this understanding has arisen when I’ve been exploring something else entirely. For instance in April I was advised to look at the writing of leading 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975). A colleague, Iain Biggs, suggested that I look to Arendt’s work as my own transdisciplinary eco art, action-based practice was leading to new political understandings (i.e in my work on national non-clearfell forest policy (2012) and how I developed a motion against ecocide (2013) that was adopted by the The Green Party of Ireland and Northern Ireland). It was an helpful suggestion in thinking how my work, circling ongoing explorations of ‘deep sustainability and its opposite, ecocide’, is creating a ‘thinking space*’ for new policies (and other works besides) to form. Arendt passionately argued through much of her writing that civic engagement in politics that encouraged a plurality of ideas was fundamental to counter totalitarian states. However, when exploring Hannah Arendt’s ideas I was to find something else too; Arendt had presciently thought in the early 1970s that ecocide would be a new form of totalitarianism in the 21st century!

Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

Hannah Arendt, political theorist, author and lecturer; her best known works: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1968), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), On Violence (1970)

However, I need to back up a bit to explain how Arendt came to this idea. Arendt is best known for seminal studies on totalitarianism; chiefly her examination of Nazism and Stalinist communism. After reading some  of Arendt’s work, and particularly the excellent and accessible biography of Arendt by her late student Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, aptly titled ‘Why Arendt Matters‘ (2006), I could see how Arendt arrived at critical understandings of totalitarianism; how the ideologies of totalitarian states led to the Holocaust, for example.  Arendt’s series of books and teachings were driven by acute personal experience and reflection. A German Jewess (who later emigrated to the US), Arendt had suffered first-hand under the Nazis fortunately escaping from a Nazi concentration camp in southern France in 1941. Arendt later provided piercing analysis of genocide and violence by arguing that totalitarian states often led to such activities when they overwhelmingly suppressed emergent publically-centered and publically-engaged politics. Totalitarianism, in her view, was when erroneous ideologies, bodies of ideas, were uncritically adopted instead, which in turn led to ‘an absence of thinking’ and to devastatingly “thoughtless” actions.

Arendt wrote both academic books and general articles. She is most  popularly remembered for her seemingly controversial analysis of the Nazi SS lieutenant colonel, Adolf Eichmann, that was published as a series of essays for The New Yorker magazine in the early 1960s during his trial. The filmed trial with live recordings caused a sensation and was followed by audiences around the world. Eichmann was one of the main logistics organisers for the mass exterminations performed in German concentrations camps and is often referred to as one of ‘the architects of the Final Solution’. Eichmann at the end of the trial was convicted and hung on 31 May 1962.  Arendt’s views of Eichmann’s behaviour, following her attendance of his trial in Israel, outraged many people and Jews in particular (although many were quick to criticise her without reading her writings), when she came to the conclusion that she didn’t think that Eichmann was inherently ‘diabolical’ or anti-Semitic, but has abandoned his morality, his autonomy, to terrifyingly banal ideologies of evil that arose in the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany. Arendt thought that Eichmann was not stupid but highly ambitious, that he was an embodiment of a ‘banality of evil’. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann’s total adoption of Nazi aims meant he unquestioningly ‘followed Nazi orders’ (Eichmann also argued this in his own defence) to develop the worst industrial-scale and industrially organised concentration camps the world has ever known. Arendt spent most of life trying to understand how societies can work  to prevent such tragedies and her work ‘The Human Condition’ is still often referred as a key political text of the 20th Century.

Interestingly Arendt didn’t believe that totalitarian ideologies disappear and in her view the totalitarian ideologies from the WWII  filtered into the Cold War and US post-WWII societies. In this context, while reading Young-Bruehl’s review, I was startled to find that Arendt had also been looking at the concept of ‘ecocide’ before her death in 1975; particularly as I knew the term had only being coined in 1970! I wondered why Arendt was familiar with this new term.

The Invention of Ecocide by David Zierler (2011)

In The Invention of Ecocide  David Zierler (2011) argues that scientists that successfully lobbied to ban the used of chemical herbicides, particularly Agent Orange in the Vietnam war, and in all wars thereafter, did more that Rachel Carson to push forward ecological awareness in international politics

Arendt, I knew, couldn’t be looking at the term ‘ecocide’ lightly, even though it is only mentioned briefly in Young-Bruehl’s 2006 biography of Arendt’s work. Young-Bruehl’s wrote that Arendt in the early 1970s anticipated that new forms of crimes against humanity in the 21st century would evolve following technological developments to make ‘massive environmental pollution of ecocide and nuclear weapons more feasible’ (Young-Bruehl, 2006, Kindle local 986). The term ‘ecocide’ was only coined by scientist Arthur Galston at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in 1970 (Galston subsequently led with others to successfully argue at the US Senate to outlaw the use lethal ecosystemic herbicides in all subsequent wars, see Zierler, 2011). This conference dealt with growing international scientific concern against the use of Agent Orange (and other new chemical agents) in Vietnam, as its longterm (and unfortunately ongoing to this day) poisoning of Vietnam’s forests, lands and its peoples was becoming shockingly apparent. Ecocide was recognised as an international War Crime during the final stages of Vietnam War in the early 1970s. As I have written previously*, ecocide, the large scale destruction of ecosystems by man’s activities didn’t arise in the 1970s; it has been occurring over the millennia but it is has accelerated with the technologies and ideologies of industrial growth society that believe in the civil religion of economic progress at all costs. Ecocidal ideologies are fundamentally, I have presented previously, alternatively perpetuated and obscured by the erroneous beliefs and images we have of the natural world**.

In one of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s last blog posts before she died in 2011, she wrote of a conference where was asked to comment on ‘the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today’. Her concluding comments were that she believed

‘Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth.  Untrammelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalise destroying the very habitat in which they are  to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalise destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over. No one since 1975 has written The Origins of Economic Totalitarianism… ‘ (Young-Bruehl, 2011)

I think Arendt’s early insights of ecocide where she appears to see it as a another form of totalitarianism are fascinating and so important to think about today. While I’m not an Arendt scholar, I think Arendt’s later ideas on ecocide have been overshadowed by her former and much more detailed work on the Holocaust and the still lingering hostility from many about her perception of Eichmann (also her early pre-WWII relationship to Nazi sympathiser and philosopher Martin Heidegger has distracted attention from her later writings). In fact while researching Arendt’s connection to ecocide, I discovered a Arendt’s involvement at the Eichmann trial, and the widespread public outcry and personal costs to her, is the feature of the 2012 film, Hannah Arendt.

While its important that Arendt’s ideas about Nazism are not lost, I think its very timely to reflect, particularly when the majority of the world’s scientists have confirmed that industrial growth society is overshooting many of the UN’s recently accepted ecological boundaries for the Earth, that Arendt in her deep analysis of the Holocaust, saw  familiar totalitarian patterns in the of ecocide in Vietnam. That she saw ecocide becoming the totalitarianism of the 21st century.

Conferences about Arendt’s work continue today, chiefly led by the US Hannah Arendt centre for Politics and the Humanities established in 2006 (it has website and blog). Its mission is to bring together non-partisan politics and the humanities. As far as I can see no conference has yet addressed specifically Hannah’s ideas of ecocide – I’d imagine she’d think it was well overdue. The center has great aims however and Director Roger Berkowitz writes it ’emphasises Arendt’s call for ‘relentless examination of issues from multiple points of view, with an emphasis on unimagined and unintended consequences—what Arendt called “thinking without banisters”‘.  Berkowitz touches on Arendt’s ideas and ecological degradation here but I think much more could be explored,

‘In her book Men in Dark Times, Arendt explains that darkness does not name the genocides, purges, and hunger that mark the tragedies of the twentieth century. Instead, darkness refers to the way these horrors appear in public discourse and yet remain hidden. Concentration camps in the mid-twentieth century—and now environmental degradation, the emergence of a superfluous underclass, and dangerous economic irresponsibility—confront us daily. They are not shrouded in secrecy but are darkened by the “highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives, who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns.” Darkness, for Arendt, names the all-too-public invisibility of inconvenient facts.’ (Berkowitz, 2013)

Ecocide is therefore something we should all think about and do our best to act against. I think we have all asked ourselves what we would have done if living in Germany in the mid-20th century. A different but somehow similar situation is now occurring with ecocide, in how it is both right here and ‘hidden’ in political denial and our world of mass distractions and hyperconsumerism. Much of Arendt’s work talked about action as such a necessary part of humanity, what she called ‘the human condition’ – the name of her most celebrated work. The very least we can do today is inform ourselves, think again our actions to our environments and sign the petitions to help make ecocide a crime not only in war-time.


If you find these ideas interesting, please feel free to comment.


Young-Breuhl Elisabeth (2011) ‘A thinking space’. Who’s Afraid of Social Democracy? a blog by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Accessed April 10, 2013 http://elisabethyoung-bruehl.com/2011/10/26/64-a-thinking-space/.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (2006) Why Arendt Matters. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, Kindle edition.

Sign and Share now

sign and share now, thanks!If you live in Europe or you are a European citizen, there is ongoing online Europe-wide petition which you can sign to support a law against corporate ecocide here, and over 50 000 have signed it already. On Sept 21st, 2013, there will be widespread invitations to ask you and all you know across Europe to sign this petition http://www.endecocide.eu/ as a million signatures are needed before a EU-wide referendum can be instigated.

The AVAAZ International ECOCIDE petition is here

15 thoughts on “The absence of thinking – Hannah Arendt and the totalitarianism of ecocide

  1. Thanks for the putting this article out there Cathy. The comments about Eichmann are illuminating. It begs the question: If an action is committed in the true belief that is for the greater good then is it a nobel action even if others may later judge it as evil?


    • My article was really trying to highlight the important legacy Arendt gave us in recognising totalitarianim and the need for engaged politics rather than center on the controversy of the Eichmann trials, which the current new film also centers on. I think her points about totalitarianism are more important than getting sidetracked about definining evil. As Arendt wrote, many people wanted to read the controversial views written by other people about her Eichmann trial reports but failed to read her writings on the issue. As the planet is under so much threat, recognition of totalitarian ‘unthinking’ is more important just now I think


  2. I find this really helpful. I hadn’t known about Arendt’s writings on ecocide. I know that many will be upset by this connection because ecocide is not understood generally as a bigger destructive force than genocide, incorporating genocide. The reasons for this misunderstanding are to do with the adoption of erroneous ideas, the unthinking at the heart of all this.


    • Thanks Bridget,
      I don’t think Hannah wrote at length about ecocide, it was a new term but she noted the scale of military/industrial ecosystem destruction but its the connection she made between ecocide and totalitarianism that I find prescient and important. It’s like the quote I found this morning that talks about the resistance of seeing the earth we are part of… “Much modern environmental wisdom […] has as its main theme the message that humans are animals and have the same dependence on a healthy biosphere as other animals. On the surface it is puzzling that an apparent truism should find so much resistance and should need to be stressed so much. But the reason why this message of continuity and dependency is so revolutionary in the context of the modern world is that the dominant strands of Western culture have for so long denied it, and have given us a model of human identity as only minimally and accidentally connected to the earth” – Val Plumwood.


  3. Hi Cathy,

    I don’t think Hannah Arendt was in a Nazi concentration camp per se. Southern France was unoccupied (though controlled by Vichy collaborationists). It was a French camp afaik, though she might well have ended up in a Nazi one if she hadn’t got out.

    There was a lot of opposition to H.A. in the mid twentieth century, due to her relationship with Heidegger as you say, also due to her unorthodox views of anti-semitism and Marxism. Also I suspect the fact that she could actually write (like Susan Sontag) would have put off a lot of academic critics. The Human Condition is a great book.


    • Thanks Paul,
      its a shame that her relationship with Heidegger and the Eichmann trial writings overshadow her other works, in popular reception of her work but its understandable too. ‘The Human Condition’ is outstanding as is her book on Violence. I’m very curious about, and I probably shouldn’t get sidetracked just at the moment with other writing commitments, about her work on the dissonance of the US images of the Vietnam war and the reality of that war. Are there writings where she drew on these ideas further, just asking as I find her championing Walter Benjamin’s work very interesting in regards to my tentative ideas about ecopornography.


  4. This morning I heard a report on the radio that stated that it has now been determined that there is a 90% probability that man is responsible for climate warming.
    One could ask… why are we arguing about determining this responsibility, and why have we now separated the world into two camps, those who believe in man as an agent of climate warming, and those who don’t believe ? Each camp has its own reasons for believing what it believes, but the heat and friction increase every day between those who believe, and those who don’t.
    In one of history’s most famous trials, a man in power asked another, who although helpless, scourged, and martyred, would go on to become one of the most powerful totalizing influences on the Western world, “what is Truth ?”, and got silence for an answer. Those paradoxes…
    At the point where I am writing this letter, a chief in the Amazon forest, in defense of his people sends out elaborate E-Mails which I receive, in an attempt to legally defend his people’s right to live, while preserving their traditions, on the land on which they have lived for centuries now.
    So… just what is totalitarianism in this context ?
    The word “total” is in totalitarianism.
    Question… is there a place on this in many respects tiny globe now which has escaped the modeling influence of Western civilization, its ideas, values, beliefs, its ways of doing business ?
    I think… not.
    So, maybe there we have totalitarianism : in the superficially ? unmitigated triumph of Western civilization all over this earth. (Admit that we certainly started evangelizing a long time ago, and long before the industrial revolution, too.) There certainly is a totalizing effect of our colonization of physical place/space on this planet…over time.
    In such a context, pointing a finger at relatively recent liberal practices sidesteps the problem involved.
    Because, remember, the Amazon chief has international legal advisors to help him mount his campaigns to resist “liberal” exploitation of his people’s land… He feels compelled to become subservient to the tactics, strategies of Western civilization in his “combat”.
    Question : maybe Arendt, in her insistance on promoting civic consciousness, lost sight of the power of the consciousness of an individual subject, tied to a unique physical place ?
    The concept of “mass”, which accompanies any examination of totalitarianism, is an outgrowth of EnLIGHTenment thought, as is the industrial revolution itself. (But the Enlightenment didn’t emerge magically from nowhere. It is propped up on its Christian heritage.)
    In the end, in a world where every advantage has its accompanying disadvantage, it can be a long time before we see the disadvantages, but… they are there.
    And since corruption is the way of the world, (corruption as simply what happens to any living thing over time, and we can make a case for the idea that ideas are living things too), the most beautiful, and luminous ideals/angels can turn out to shine with a very diabolical light indeed…over time.
    And what is dark and hidden ? Well… we used to be able to accept that the foetus in the womb was safe, hidden away from curious, probling eyes, and out of the light…Can we now ? That’s debatable.
    Could it be time to start reembracing what is dark and hidden, without falling into the temptation of making it into something diabolical ?
    And in private, not social, spheres ?


    • Hi Debra,

      Many thanks for your thoughts. There has been a follow up article to this article by another reader that you might also find interesting. http://ecoartfilm.com/2013/09/26/nature-for-sale-or-arendt/.

      I agree, Western culture’s negative relation’s go back much further than the Industrial Revolution. I have tentatively explored this in an earlier articles here The Anthropocene: 10 000 years of ecocide.

      In response to your comments about the inescapable spread of Western civilization’s extract at all costs society and the ability to somehow critique it (I think stopping it may be impossible) I found Elisabeth Young-Breuhl comment interesting:

      “No one since 1975 has written The Origins of Economic Totalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a pariah position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required. But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.” Elisabeth Young Bruehl (2011, http://elisabethyoung-bruehl.com/2011/10/26/64-a-thinking-space/)


  5. Kathy, Thank you for this terrific piece on ecocide and Hannah Arendt. I’m going out to get her biography tomorrow. We’ll have to get together soon and have a visit in the
    lands that we are each stewarding. The land becomes the book, something that is lost on people
    who cannot or choose to not have a deep connection to place. Ecocide is worse than burning a library.


    • You are so welcome Ana,
      So good to hear from you and yes would love one day to see the land you live with and you are always welcome here too. I like you sentence ‘ecocide is worse than burning a library’ – to me, ecocide is burning a living library!


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