On a single day in July of 1943, more than 500 Allied planes bombed Rome, killing 1,500 people. The city got off lightly compared with Naples, which was attacked 200 times during the war and destroyed to the point that its citizens, in the words of one reporter, “camp[ed] out like Bedouins in deserts of brick.” Still, Italy suffered less than other parts of Europe: by war’s end, 50 percent of Warsaw’s citizens had been killed, many of the rest deported, and most of the city’s buildings damaged or destroyed. (The German Verbrennungs- und Vernichtungskommando — Burning and Destruction Detachment — destroyed libraries, palaces, and architectural monuments.) In the inhospitable sea of bricks that had once been a 600-year-old city of more than a million, only 150,000 remained.
The war killed, by some counts, 60 million people in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific — 2.6 percent of the earth’s population at the time. The Soviet Union lost 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages and an almost unfathomable 24 million citizens. Homelessness, displacement, poverty, and disease ravaged those the bombs neglected. Many died in combat, or were shot or gassed, but millions starved to death too.
Whereas human beings died by various means, the built environment was done in mostly by aerial bombardment. Not only buildings but essential systems of production were destroyed. The Blitz targeted cities throughout Great Britain. The munitions-manufacturing town of Coventry was nearly annihilated; in Hull nine tenths of the homes were damaged or destroyed; Birmingham and Liverpool were shattered. More bombs were dropped on London than on any other British city, beginning with the huge raids that damaged or destroyed more than a million homes, burned out the Surrey Docks, and killed nearly 30,000 between September 1940 and May 1941. The East End alone was targeted by a thousand German aircraft on a single night.
Britain and the United States bombed Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Mainz, Nuremberg, Worms, Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, and a host of other cities into rubble; firestorms left behind charred bodies and melted glass. “We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burned to death, burning people running to and fro,” said a survivor who, unlike so many others in Dresden, was not roasted or asphyxiated in the underground shelter where he had waited out the attack.
W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction describes the sequence of bombs that struck Hamburg on July 27, 1943 — first the huge explosives that smashed up the city, then the lighter incendiaries that ignited the upper stories while firebombs torched the lower levels of the wreckage: “Within a few minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some twenty square kilometers, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see.” Some 80 percent of the historic buildings of Germany were destroyed; the rubble was said to amount to 14 billion cubic feet, a number that, like the weight and number of bombs, is so large as to be incomprehensible.
Though Germany was ravaged like this over and over again, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, is considered the most destructive act of the war; it resulted in the death of more than a hundred thousand people, the evisceration of a vast city, and what was likely the largest man-made firestorm in history. Four more Japanese cities were similarly firebombed before the atomic bombs were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August. For the moment, the world returned to the enviable condition of having no nuclear weapons. (The only other bomb built by that point had been exploded before dawn a month earlier in New Mexico.) Japan was left in the unenviable condition of having little left for anyone to bomb. Nineteen forty-five is sometimes designated Year Zero.
From one perspective, what we call the world had never been more devastated. From another, however, the world was in magnificent, Edenic shape. No great garbage patch swirled around the Pacific, and albatrosses, sea turtles, and dolphins in remote reaches were not strangling on plastic they mistook for edible matter; we had not yet discarded the billion tons of plastic that will litter the earth for the foreseeable future, because plastic was a relatively new material just entering mass production. In Africa, elephants and rhinos thrived in intact ecosystems, and in Asia, the Bengal tiger and snow leopard were similarly doing fine. The Amazon rainforest was still largely intact, and the California sardine fishery had not yet collapsed. Neither had the Scandinavian herring fishery, the Peruvian anchovy fishery, or the Atlantic cod fishery off the coast of Canada that had been fished for half a millennium by Europeans. The idea that the world’s fisheries might collapse — now a looming possibility — was practically unimaginable.
Seventy years ago, the nonhuman world still seemed vast and inexhaustible. Its stability was assumed, a reassuring background that persisted even when everything in the foreground was smashed up. The human population at war’s end was less than a third what it is now, and the great orgy of consumption — the frenzy of getting and spending that started in the United States, spread to a recovered Europe, and has since caught on in China and India — had not yet begun. Certainly the earth had been damaged before. In just a few decades in the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, the Gold Rush deposited hundreds of tons of mercury into California’s waterways, displaced rivers, washed millions of tons of silt downstream, hunted out much of its wildlife, and deforested areas around the mines, all in pursuit of a largely useless metal. World War II followed on the heels of the Dust Bowl, a man-made environmental calamity that came about when the topsoil of the prairie was destabilized during a drought.
But so much of the environmental damage we are facing has been done in recent decades. This is especially worth remembering when those who don’t want us to do anything about the catastrophes around us suggest that the costs of action are prohibitively high. Though it is shaming and alarming to look back on just how destructive the so-called Greatest Generation and its successors have been, it’s encouraging to note that when it comes to living standards we don’t need to return to the Stone Age or the preindustrial era but maybe only as far as 1940: to more modest scales of consumption, to agriculture that uses fewer chemicals and fossil fuels, to more locally sourced goods, and to less corporatized globalization. Instead of thinking in terms of “going back,” it may make more sense to say that it is finally time to end the war.
In crucial, material ways, the technological modernization of World War II never ended. Pesticides, nuclear engineering, and plastics — all developed during the militarization of industrial production — are now part of a war by other means. All three industries sought profitable postwar applications and found them: in agriculture, in energy production, and in the creation of untold disposable plastic items, the ubiquity of which was aided by the rise of advertising and marketing.
We are, in other words, still in a wartime economy, only now the war is against nature. And just as Europe’s economic and partial political unification allowed us to understand the world wars as civil wars of a sort, so should we recognize the war against nature as another civil war. This is not the old false binary of culture versus nature; it’s the great majority of us against a small minority who have chosen short-term individual benefit over long-term global survival.
Take Mary Landrieu, the now-former Louisiana senator who in November of last year forced a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline in the Senate to further her chances in a runoff election (or, perhaps, to secure oil-company employment on her departure from public office). The pipeline, much of which is already completed, would ultimately connect Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. It is intended to carry diluted bitumen, a filthy substance that requires tremendous energy to extract and leaves behind vast pods of contaminated water. Climate scientist James Hansen said a few years ago that building the pipeline meant “game over” for the planet. For her part, Landrieu acknowledges the reality of climate change but thinks that we “have to be very careful” about moving away from fossil fuels.
Plants and animals did a beautiful job of regulating the carbon cycle over millions of years, producing the nice atmospheric mix — about 270 parts per million of carbon dioxide — that we’ve enjoyed for the duration of our human evolution into what we like to call civilization. For the past 200 years, humans have been doing a rush job of pulling all that stuff out of the earth and putting it into the air. Before Hansen gave groundbreaking testimony to the Senate in 1988, the people at work on this job knew about extinction and about air and water pollution, but they didn’t know about climate change. For a quarter of a century, we have known, but during that time we have only accelerated the transfer of carbon from earth to air. In 1988, atmospheric carbon dioxide was at 350 ppm, about the maximum Hansen thinks the planet can tolerate over the long term. Since then we have pumped that up to 400 ppm and seem to remain intent on scraping out every last bit of fossil fuel as rapidly as possible. We could quit now and limit how bad climate change gets. Or we can delay leaving the Age of Petroleum behind for a few decades and then have to make the transition anyway, on a planet whose wreckage will be far deeper and wider than anything World War II produced.
We have the means to end this war. As recently as a decade ago, those on the side of the earth and the future were saying that we needed to make changes we did not yet have the capacity to achieve. We needed a renewable-energy system that wasn’t yet technologically possible. But that system now exists, and some experts believe we could switch over to it for all our electricity generation without even meaningfully raising costs for the average American consumer. So much has changed that not only climate activists but also major investment advisers are warning that fossil-fuel corporations are vulnerable to the danger of “stranded assets” — another way of saying that we might succeed in keeping the stuff from being extracted, which would render it worthless in the short term. Similarly, the asset-management firm UBS has suggested that hydrocarbon power plants are bad investments because of the speed at which they are being replaced by decentralized renewable-energy facilities.
The technological obstacles to victory are gone. Now there are only political obstacles. None is greater than the Republican Party. A few dozen people in the Senate — mostly wealthy, mostly white, mostly male — have the power to prevent President Obama from successfully negotiating any treaty, and a few hundred more in the House are on a rampage against environmental sanity. (Some Democrats are good on this issue; some, like Landrieu, are terrible. But they don’t together represent a blockade against the environment; if Democrats are good at one thing, it is yielding.)
Since perpetrating this war is clearly unconscionable, pretending that there is no war has been the principal strategy of its generals. They assert that pumping billions of tons of carbon into the upper atmosphere has no consequences, that the extraction processes — from mountaintop coal removal to fracking to pulling petroleum out of remote fragile places such as the ocean floor — are harmless.
Of course, the war is acknowledged in private: Richard Berman, a political consultant, was secretly recorded advising a crowd of oil and gas executives that, as the New York Times put it, “if the oil and gas industry wants to prevent its opponents from slowing its efforts to drill in more places, it must be prepared to employ tactics like digging up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities.” Berman told his audience, “Think of this as an endless war.”
It’s not endless, though; the war will end. Soon, in victory, or later, in defeat. Victory would mean not having destroyed the earth as much as we might have — a modest achievement, but one that would expand the margin of survival for species, places, and billions of people. Defeat will mean that future generations will curse this turning point in our history and look back on the world as it was in 1980 or 1940 or 1750 as an almost unimaginable paradise of stability and abundance. They will not need fairy tales or stories of the supernatural; verbal and cinematic accounts of the abundant oceans, or of an unravaged Africa or Arctic, will seem more than magical for people who live on an earth that looks like Warsaw did in 1945. It will be interesting to see how those who deny climate change try to position themselves in the future, though maybe the history of slavery and Jim Crow is a good model for how something can be misrepresented, denied, and defended in ways that marry incoherence with confidence. Or maybe they will be like those French after World War II who, it turned out, had been Resistance fighters and had never supported the widely embraced collaborationist Vichy regime.
Looking back to 1945 reminds us how new this ecological status quo is, and how quickly things can change. It is remarkable how well Europe recovered from so much devastation, and how much work the parties to the continent’s civil war put into the effort. Americans, perhaps because we are exceptionally amnesiac, distracted, and misinformed, or because we don’t share a history of dramatic political upheaval with Latin America, Africa, and continental Europe, don’t quite believe in change. We have a hard time acknowledging that things used to be different and that they can be again. But they can. And, one way or the other, they will. That’s the best news, and the worst.