The Absence of Thinking: Hannah Arendt and the Totalitarianism of Ecocide

As Cathy Fitzgerald reminds us in the preamble to this article’s first publication, it’s “important to think about ecocide deeply as it affects us all”. So what does Hannah Arendt, one of the key thinkers of the 20th century, have to say on the topic of ecocide? Read on to find out.  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

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

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 than 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

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

Read more responses to Fitzgerald’s engagement with Arendt and ecocide here.


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