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Week 14: Is this normal now?
In this issue: ▸ When brutality becomes normal ▸ Normalised ESG ignorance ▸ Normalised climate catastrophe ▸ Normalised inequality and resource depletion
“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” the great French philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in 1933 as she contemplated how to be a complete human being amid a world that seemed to be falling apart.
A core cause of this perplexity lies in the fact that while acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity. This was the revolutionary and, like every revolutionary idea, at the time controversial point that Hannah Arendt made in 1962, when The New Yorker commissioned her, a Jew of who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany herself, to travel to Jerusalem and report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann – one of the chief architects of the Holocaust.
In 1963, her writings about the trial were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She writes:
“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.”
When brutality becomes normal
For every day that passes, the war in Ukraine will become more brutal, and strangely it becomes and will become more distant to all of us. The shelling and the atrocities we can see or read about, people being killed, massacred, executed, becomes more or less normalised in the media factory. Our ability to cope, process and react to the inhumanity in these stories is paralysed in our brains.
In sociology and psychology, normalization refers to the process by which things that have previously thought of as abnormal become normal. That’s fairly easy to understand, but the concept itself is important. It’s the difference between treating something as other, or even scary, and adopting it into your lifestyle as something that’s to be expected.
There is another definition, specific to military discipline, that comes to us from Foucault: “Considering the mechanics of the disciplinary apparatus, I will be looking at their effects of normalization, at what they are directed toward, the effects they can achieve and that can be grouped under the rubric of normalization.”
People’s beliefs about normality play an important role in many aspects of cognition and life (e.g. causal cognition, linguistic semantics, cooperative behaviour). But how do people determine what sorts of things are normal in the first place? Past research has studied both people’s representations of statistical norms (e.g. the average) and their representations of prescriptive norms (e.g. the ideal).
Four studies suggest that people’s notion of normality incorporates both of these types of norms. In particular, people’s representations of what is normal were found to be influenced both by what they believed to be descriptively average and by what they believed to be prescriptively ideal.
Normalised ESG ignorance
Questions are being asked about how it could possibly be that ESG funds held at least $8.3bn (£6.3bn) in Russian assets just before the invasion of Ukraine began. Thanks to data from Bloomberg, we know this included stakes in state-backed firms such as Gazprom PJSC, Rosneft PJSC and Sberbank PJSC, as well as government bonds.
Russia is in the spotlight currently, but what about other states with appalling track-records on sustainability and human rights? Is it offensive to investors to hold the assets of these nations because their activities have come into focus or because they carry out these atrocities (even when not under media scrutiny)?
Boris Johnson recently travelled for talks to call for oil taps to be opened just days after Saudi Arabia executed 81 people. With a backdrop of rising energy costs and the need to cut ties with Russia this has been seen as necessary pragmatism, but given different circumstances is it something we’d want to do? Read more.
Normalised climate catastrophe
The world can still hope to stave off the worst ravages of climate breakdown but only through a “now or never” dash to a low-carbon economy and society, scientists have said in what is in effect a final warning for governments on the climate.
I read that “now or never” again, and again. What does it mean for real? Are we normalising this as well?
The course of action, based on what IPCC has published and dire warning they given humanity, is not making billions of people around the world leave their homes and work and take to the street to hold business and governments responsible, demanding action, now. Nope.
This imminent danger to the human species is watered down, fragmented into pieces of our realities we ought to uphold at any price. Yes, any price.
The report on Monday was the third and final section of the IPCC’s latest comprehensive review of climate science, drawing on the work of thousands of scientists. IPCC reports take about seven years to compile, making this potentially the last warning before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown.
The report found that it was now “almost inevitable” that temperatures would rise above 1.5C, a level above which many of the effects of climate breakdown will become irreversible.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said some governments and businesses were “lying” in claiming to be on track for 1.5C. In a strongly worded rebuke, he warned: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
Climate scientists are desperate. “We’re crying, begging and getting arrested,” one such scientist, Peter Kalmus, wrote. He continued:
“I’m a climate scientist and a desperate father. How can I plead any harder? What will it take? On Wednesday, I was arrested for locking myself to an entrance to the JP Morgan Chase building in downtown Los Angeles with colleagues and supporters. We chose JP Morgan Chase because out of all the investment banks in the world, JP Morgan Chase funds the most new fossil fuel projects. As the new IPCC report explains, emissions from current and planned fossil energy infrastructure are already more than twice the amount that would push the planet over 1.5°C of global heating, a level of heating that will bring much more intense heat, fire, storms, flooding, and drought than the present 1.2°C. I reduced my own emissions by 90% and wrote a book about how this turned out to be satisfying, fun, and connecting. I gave up flying, started a website to help encourage others, and organized colleagues to pressure the American Geophysical Union to reduce academic flying. I helped organize FridaysForFuture in the US. I co-founded a popular climate app and started the first ad agency for the Earth.”
He concludes: “Nothing has worked. It’s now the eleventh hour and I feel terrified for my kids, and terrified for humanity.”
Normalised inequality and resource depletion
So we are lied to and deceived, cajoled, in the pursuit of what? Power? Profit? Dominance? All of them?
There are some rather inconvenient facts that could explain why inaction and complacence is our chosen response.
High-income nations are responsible for 74% of global excess material use, driven primarily by the USA (27%) and the EU-28 high-income countries (25%).
China is responsible for 15% of global excess material use, and the rest of the Global South (i.e. the low-income and middle-income countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia) is responsible for only 8%.
In a newly published study entitled “National responsibility for ecological breakdown: a fair-shares assessment of resource use, 1970–2017”, the national responsibility for ecological damages related to excess material use is quantified, using a method rooted in the principle that the planet’s resources and ecosystems are a commons, and that all people are entitled to an equal, sustainable share.
It is a very insightful read, not least in light of the latest “now or never” IPCC report.
Have a great non-normalised Sunday!