Fatalism slips into our movements like rust. In conversations with scientists and activists, I hear the same words over and over again: “We’re screwed. The government’s plans are too small, too late. They are unlikely to prevent terrestrial systems from slipping into new states hostile to humans and many other species.
What we need, in order to have a good chance of stabilizing our survival systems, is not slow and gradual change, but sudden and drastic action. And this is widely considered to be impossible. There is no money; governments are powerless; people will not tolerate anything more ambitious than the lukewarm measures they have proposed. Or so we are told. This is a striking illustration of a general rule: political failure is, at bottom, a failure of the imagination.
Leaving aside the obvious lessons of the pandemic, when the magic money tree miraculously erupted, governments discovered they could govern (albeit with varying degrees of jurisdiction) and people were ready to change. radically their behavior. There is a bigger and more powerful example. This is what happened when the United States joined World War II.
There is unease in environmental circles with military analogies. But war is one of the few precedents and metaphors that almost anyone can grasp. And we would be foolish not to learn from this remarkable lesson.
Before the United States declared war, President Franklin Roosevelt had begun recruiting troops and building his “arsenal of democracy”: the material with which he supplied the Allied forces. To “overtake Hitler,” he called for production levels widely seen as impossible. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the impossible happened.
The day after the attack, Roosevelt requested and obtained a declaration of war from Congress. He immediately began to reorganize not only the government, but the whole nation. It has set up a series of agencies with little supervision but coordinated by simple but effective measures such as the “controlled materials plan”.
He introduced, for the first time in US history, the federal general income tax. The government quickly increased the maximum rate until in 1944 it reached 94%. She issued war bonds and borrowed heavily. Between 1940 and 1945, total public spending increased about tenfold. Surprisingly, the US government spent more money (in current dollars) between 1942 and 1945 than it had between 1789 and 1941. From 1940 to 1944, its military budget increased 42-fold, exceeding that of the United States. ‘Germany, Japan and UK combined. .
Civilian industries have been completely re-equipped for the war. When the auto industry was ordered to move into military production, its massive equipment was immediately taken off the ground and replaced, often within weeks, with new machinery. General Motors began to produce tanks, aircraft engines, fighter jets, cannons, and machine guns. Oldsmobile began to manufacture artillery shells; Pontiac produced anti-aircraft guns. In 1944, Ford was completing a long-range bomber almost every hour. During its three years of war, the United States manufactured 87,000 warships, including 27 aircraft carriers, 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks and armored vehicles, and 44 billion cartridges. Roosevelt described it as a “production miracle”. But it was not a miracle. It was the realization of a well-established plan.
The American war effort mobilized tens of millions of people. Between 1940 and the end of the war, the number of American troops increased 26-fold, while the civilian workforce increased by 10 million. Many of the new workers were women.
From 1942 to 1945, the manufacture of cars was prohibited. The same goes for new appliances and even the construction of new homes. Tires and gasoline were strictly rationed; meat, butter, sugar, clothing and shoes were also limited. Rationing was considered fairer than the taxation of scarce goods: it guaranteed everyone an equal share. A national speed limit of 35 mph has been imposed, to save fuel.
Posters warned people: “When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler! Join a rideshare club TODAY, ”and asked“ Is this trip really necessary? ”They warned,“ Garbage helps the enemy: save the material. ”The Americans were asked to sign The Consumer’s Victory Pledge: “I’ll buy carefully; I’ll take good care of the things I have; I won’t waste anything. Every material imaginable – gum wrappers, rubber bands, used cooking grease – has been recycled.
So what is preventing the world from responding with the same decisive force to the greatest crisis humanity has ever known? It is not a lack of money, capacity or technology. On the contrary, digitization would make such a transformation faster and easier. This is a problem that Roosevelt faced up to Pearl Harbor: a lack of political will. Today as then, public hostility and indifference, encouraged by traditional industries (today, especially fossil fuels, transport, infrastructure, meat and the media), outweigh the request for intervention.
The difference between 1941 and 2021 is that now mobilization must come first. We need to build popular movements so big that governments have no choice but to respond if they want to stay in power. We need to make politicians understand that the survival of life on Earth is more important than their ideological commitment to limited government. Preventing Earth’s systems from tipping over means reversing our political systems.
So what’s our Pearl Harbor moment? And now ? After all, to extend the analogy, the Pacific coast of the United States recently suffered an unprecedented climate attack. The heat domes, droughts and fires there this year should have been enough to shock everyone at their isolationism. But the gap between these events and people’s understanding of the forces that brought them about is arguably the greatest public reporting failure in human history. We need bodies equivalent to Roosevelt’s Office of War Information, constantly reminding people of what’s at stake.
As the American mobilization has shown, when governments and corporations decide to be competent, they can achieve things that, at other times, are considered impossible. Catastrophe is not inevitable. It’s a question of choice.