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November 1941 and the Turning of the Tide
Alex Steffen, 8 Mar 10


It's understandably common for people working on bright green issues to be dispirited these days. We're currently living in the wake of the failure of climate talks in Copenhagen, the miring of climate legislation in the swamp of the U.S. Senate and what seems like a steady torrent of bad news (from methane melt to the tragedy still unfolding in Haiti). We're not only failing to move rapidly enough towards zero-impact economies, we often seem to be losing ground these days, both because of political attacks by entrenched interests and because as the science of planetary boundaries is better understood, the problems look worse than they did before.

In private conversations, more and more people I respect have told me that they suspect the war for humanity's future is un-winnable.

But it's worth, in dark times, getting a little historical perspective. Consider November, 1941.

In November, 1941, many people around the world thought that Germany, Japan and their Axis allies were almost certainly going to win the War.

Things did, indeed, look grim. France had fallen. Essentially all of Continental Europe was controlled by Axis powers, their allies (Vichy France, Hungary, Bulgaria) or countries friendly to them (like Spain, Finland and Sweden). The Blitz had pounded London flat. Having invaded Russia in June in the largest military operation in history, the Germans had driven easily across European Russia, taken Kiev, surrounded Leningrad and were at the gates of Moscow. Things were so bad in Russia that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made a direct appeal to the people for resistance -- only his second public appeal ever (in general, his style was more "prison camp" than "public relations"; that he felt the need to appeal to the people was a sign of how bad things had gotten).

As the Nazi's rule took hold in occupied territories, it became even more clear what fascism really meant. Organs of state repression became ubiquitous across Europe: occupation spurred a wave of arrests of intellectuals, dissidents and political "undesirables"; censorship was absolute; abduction, torture and political murder were daily commonplaces; reprisals against civilians for resistance acts increased. In November 1941, general deportation of Jews and Gypsies became common, Himmler ordered the arrest of all homosexuals and the death camps began full operations, with 12,000 people a day being murdered. Mobile murder units called "Einsatzgruppen" killed 1,000,000 people in Ukraine and Russia during the months of September, October and November alone: whole villages burning, miles of mass graves filled with bodies.

Things weren't much better in the Pacific Theater. Japan controlled Korea, Vietnam, and much of Northern and Coastal China. The Chinese army was near collapse, being beaten badly in every fight with the Japanese, with some observers estimating it would disintegrate within months; meanwhile Chinese Nationalists and Communists were nearing civil war, threatening to make the Japanese invasion of China a three-sided fight. Millions had died in the fighting or in Japanese atrocities, and millions more were refugees; famine and disease were spreading. There seemed little reason to assume the Japanese wouldn't conquer China, and perhaps even India, in the coming years.

Around the globe, the Allies were taking a beating. Rommel was driving across Africa, and it looked like North Africa and the Middle East would soon be in the Axis sphere. U-Boat wolfpacks were loose in the North Sea, hunting convoys, with massive losses of Allied shipping; German raiders had spread out across the oceans, sinking ships from Argentina to Australia (the sinking of the HMAS Sydney on November 19th, 1941, with the loss of all hands, remains Australia's worst naval disaster). Countries from Mexico to Iraq were declaring friendship with the Axis, many seeing opportunities to change the balance of power with developed nations, and some worried that a wave of colonial revolutions was imminent, which would further damage the Allied war-making capacity. It was truly a World War, and the Allies were losing, badly.

Less than four years later, the Allies had won completely.

What happened between -- after America entered the War because of Pearl Harbor and the Russians and Chinese made almost unfathomable sacrifices against the German and Japanese armies -- is a story for a different time. The point is that it might've been very hard for a person of good conscience, a believer in democracy, opposed to the march of Fascism, to read a newspaper in 1941 and believe that anything other than utter ruin and 1,000 years of darkness were in store.

What if this is the November 1941 of the sustainability movement? What if the tide may turn far faster than we think? What if five years from now, the political landscape has been transformed? Certainly, things are grim: but isn't it perhaps worth remembering that others have been through far worse, and triumphed?

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So -- who is the "Japan" in this scenario for the green movement? Who is going to bomb Pearl Harbor and pull the Americans into this against their will? Maybe I have an overly-simple view of history, but wasn't the US sitting on the sidelines of all this (despite a lot of wrangling and stern newspaper op-eds) until Dec. 7?

Posted by: Julie Gabrielli on 8 Mar 10

They ignored the issue for decades, then laughed at it for years. Now they're fighting it.


A sense of urgency about the need to do something has gripped the sustainability movement in the lead up to Copenhagen. I think this stridency is what has laid it open to claims of 'alarmism'.

Now, an 'ism' could be described as a mode of thought that seeks to impose itself on others (meme-ism?) In the face of the evidence I can cheerfully call myself 'alarmed', but I'm not an alarmist going around caricaturing chicken little.

I don't think you are either.

Would you prefer to choose the type of mud being thrown and be referred to as a resilienist?

Finally, in the spirit of the piece:

dit dit dit dee,
dit dit dit dee,
... and this is radio Free Australia calling to our beleaguered friends in the occupied states of America, with an address by Robyn Williams:

"Or do we have a complete shambles? Actually, not quite. As with so called fundamentalist views among Muslims or Christians, it is a loud minority attracting all this attention, a persistent few in the blogosphere, overwhelming those of you with commonsense and erudition."

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 8 Mar 10

And what if we didn't redirect the industrial behemoth that won WWII against Nature itself?

The world certainly turned on a dime to prevail against a settling Nazi Dark Age, but only to more deeply entrench an industrial-corporate paradigm as the model of Peace, at the cost of perpetual war with living systems...

Posted by: Josh Stack on 8 Mar 10

"What if?" indeed.

Thanks for posting this, Alex. It's a very useful reminder. Despair is easy; transforming a planetary civilization demands a wee bit more of us.

Re: "What if this is the November 1941 of the sustainability movement? What if the tide may turn far faster than we think? What if five years from now, the political landscape has been transformed? Certainly, things are grim: but isn't it perhaps worth remembering that others have been through far worse, and triumphed?", I say this:

Yes, it's worth remembering. And it's worth remembering that the victory against fascism didn't coming from remembering, or imagining or hoping. It came from strategies tested and refined in the face of fear and sometimes defeat, from extraordinary courage and commitment from millions of "ordinary" people who kept on doubling down and kept pushing, from "blood, sweat and tears", from a recognition that "do or die" sometimes isn't a cliche, that failure sometimes is not an option.

Posted by: Gil Friend on 8 Mar 10

This analogy works to some extent if you figure in the enormous destruction, death and dislocation of World War II itself. That is, even if we quickly devote most of our attention and resources to building a sustainable human civilization, we will have to do so while suffering the consequences of the past--in particular, the accumulating effects of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. We pay the price for our present pollution in thirty years. There's no avoiding that.

Posted by: Captain Future on 8 Mar 10

I'm not sure I agree, Captain Future. At essence, this analogy is Man versus Man, when as you recognize, the so-called sustainability war is Man versus Nature.

Even while we continually devalue the humanities, it doesn't take a PhD or scholar of ancient literature to recognize how badly the Man v. Nature war goes for Man.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 8 Mar 10

"the so-called sustainability war is Man versus Nature."

I don't think that makes much sense, Josh: "Nature" doesn't want anything, isn't "acting" from any conscious volition, isn't taking a side here. This is all about human choices; all about political conflict; all about Man v. Man. Sustainability is an entirely human challenge.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 9 Mar 10

Paul Hawkwen's latest book, "Blessed Unrest" is worth a read. He presents a good case for the ongoing awakening of a social justice/env protection "immune system" in the form of literally millions of grassroots initiatives. Very inspiring and inclusive. Watch the trailer at:
There is also a Youtube clip of him talking about "Bioneers"

Posted by: simon on 9 Mar 10

thanks for this, alex. when i start feeling full of despair and apathy, i oftentimes think about marilla cuthbert telling anne shirley in "anne of green gables": "to despair is to turn your back on god."

instead of god, i think possibility. there is still a possibility for us to transform the way we live, to make the leap from a society with an expiration date to one that could go on indefinitely. while that possibility still exists, the only moral thing to do is to put everything we have into making it reality. any other response is a cop out.

Posted by: Megan Dietz on 9 Mar 10

I agree we need to remember great triumphs such as the victory against fascism, but I believe its overly simplistic to compare it to the situation we have now.
Its a very tough situation with the wars we have now; nobody wants to acknowledge the real reasons as long as we can keep our borders safe and the energy flowing.

Also, the war on the environment is such an abstract concept. Terrorism has a face; the planet doesn't. Its very easy for somebody to say we need to save the planet and list all the reasons why, but until you put someone in harms way directly its terribly hard for them to grasp. People are not good at planning for their futures and even those who are; environmental security isn't part of their portfolios.

Posted by: Dave on 9 Mar 10

propoganda front page of hope? please elaborate. im interested in this perspective because it is one that appears to be growing.. is it a complete distrust in us and allies politics that spawna such a view? or is it a subjective distrust in humanity? the comment smells as if it has surfaced from the foul smelling swamp of apathy that too many are allowing themselves to be lost to. if this is a war of man vs man let us please define the two sides because i, like many, are confused about which team to fight for.

Posted by: patrick on 9 Mar 10

It pays for us to remember that Industry (and by extension us) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nature.
We take care if it, it takes care of us.
We need to mend the greatly out of balance symbiosis and reconnect.

Posted by: Dave on 9 Mar 10

Nice work, Alex! We have to start by acknowledging what the reasonable and well-informed readers of Worldchanging know - that the situation is not good, and that failure is quite possible. To do otherwise is to retreat into fantasy, and that will not help us act as wisely as we can. Thanks for both bringing us back to the reality of this moment, and the need to keep striving. It is an honest, modest heroism we can all earn.

Posted by: Dan Miner on 9 Mar 10

Excellent essay. Two points to correct, since you can revise it
"countries friendly to them (like Spain, Finland and Sweden). The Blitz had pounded London flat."

Spain & Portugal were essentially fascist, but neutral.
In a different way than Switzerland or Sweden, which hadn't squelched democracy. Or Ireland, during "The Emergency"

London wasn't bombed flat, but there was rubble in "Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Canterbbury, Cardiff, Clydebank, Coventry, Exeter, Greenock, Sheffield, Swansea, Liverpool, Hull (the most heavily bombed city outside of London), Manchester, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Nottingham, Brighton, Eastbourne, Sunderland and Southampton". Churchill had warned since 1934 non-stop that this might happen, to no avail.

But this doesn't take away from your main point. One of my most prized possessions is a copy of War and Peace from that winter that my mother read, not knowing if the invasion of Russia would turn out as badly for one little military man as it had for the one in 1812.

It was a dark winter, indeed. But as Camus learned,in the depth of winter, there can be inside us an invincible summer.

Let us listen to those rays of hope.

Posted by: Jim on 9 Mar 10

What I see in Alex's historical precedent is not the "war" part, but the "world" part. We turned the tide and liberated oursevles from despair when countries acted together, became Allies, formed an alliance.

It is the failure of global leadership to form an alliance at COP15 that, I think, has cast the shadow of despair over the sustainability movement. But I am with the person who posted about Hawken's Blessed Unrest.

Consider the possibility that the form that a global alliance is going to take this time is authentically new, different from any kind of historical example. Consider that, if a key solution to climate change is distributed energy, that a blessedly restless movement of creative, inventive human 'energy' distributed all over is the form of the alliance this time that turns the tide.

And also consider that this post COP15 stage we are in is, first, just that, one stage in our process. As with all dark nights of the soul, there is some change within ourselves required, some deepening of our beings.

As the Jungians tell us, the shadow holds a gift. The shadow we feel that has fallen over the sustainability movement holds some gift inside it that we can only find this way, with a dark night of the soul of our movement.

Sometimes the gift is right in front of you, obvious, but you cannot see it because it is so obvious. Take Alex's metaphor seriously, the "turning of the tide." Consider that the gift inside our current dark is a new idea of how we have to act, the form of action - and activism - required of us. A tidal turn, reversing the wave of despair.

Consider that the test, now, of our political optimism is to deepen our optimism. Optimism that faces, squarely, the agony of collapse, is a stronger optimism. A movement that comes through its dark night of the soul is a much, much stronger movement -- not tougher, but deeper, the politics of optimism whose eyes have opened even wider and seen the non-negotiable necessity to do what worldchangers are committed to doing. Who grasp that we have no choice but to persist, carry on, and make our global alliance and ensemble of worldchanging actors into a tidal wave that reverses our current untenable condition of mutually assured destruction of people and planet, and makes a tidal shift toward mutually assured VITALITY of persons and places, humans and habitats, all over a planet cared for by all.

There's a gift in this shadow, people, a big one: victory.

Posted by: MimiK on 10 Mar 10

The public in 1941 generally had a much better grasp of the threats it faced, many of which were not looming, but immediate. People were accordingly willing to make (or forced to accept) huge personal sacrifices for the war effort. The dynamic between government and industry was also different back then, to say the very least.

I'm all for remaining hopeful, whatever the odds, but this comparison really doesn't work for me on any level.

Posted by: Phila on 12 Mar 10

I would like to add a few thoughts here about the situation re. the green movement in general. It seems that despite the green conciousness movement that has emerged with the internet and people around the world , the industry is still ahead of us. Most of us still drive pollution spewing cars , consume cheap energy for our homes, eat food from all over the world at high cost, buy cheaply made consumer goods that break down and then throw away into the trash to burn for more energy! The system is completely rigged towards these ends! We dont even realize how much energy we truly use and waste and we cant even afford it , so the society go's into recession and they pump some more invisible money to fix it.Its like trying to fix a broken down clunker in our garage with the door closed , poisoning ourselves and our homes and children so that maybe we can sell it for an uprade. All the noise and pollution and waste and war continue to devour our own future and the solution is obvious. Tell the leaders to go green , the savings over 10 20 50 years will be win win. And the same go's for our overall health,,,,its time to go with Peace Energy Now!

Posted by: Sam on 13 Mar 10

Read the Four Freedoms speech which also introduced the Lend Lease program to resupply England. It was given almost eleven months to the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

The fact is that the US was preparing for war since at least 1938 in a variety of different ways. In a PBS documentary on the Conservation Corps of the 1930s, it was pointed out that thousands of young men were prepared for the discipline of the military by their experience in the CCC camps. Consciously or not, there were a lot of things that prepared the US for war.

Perhaps there are analogues today but I would like to see them pointed out. History is important and we should examine it more deeply.

Posted by: gmoke on 14 Mar 10

I never ascribed a “conscious volition” to Nature or claimed it was “taking a side” or held any intent or consciousness for that matter. I am not an extreme Gaian.

My point was the conflict of "Man v. Man" is fundamentally different than "Man v. Nature".

If you truly believe what you wrote - "This is all about human choices; all about political conflict; all about Man v. Man. Sustainability is an entirely human challenge" - I'd just say that you fundamentally misunderstand the interrelationship of humankind and "Nature."

Posted by: Josh Stack on 15 Mar 10

Perhaps a "manhattan project" is necessary ... but how does one pick what technology?

Posted by: Joseph Scarpa, LEED AP, Green, EcoBroker on 19 Mar 10

Alex thank you for all your work to inform people on ways to transform this earth into something more habbitable. I would like you to look into the Zeitgeist movement or Venus Project and comment on what you think on Worldchanging .com Peter Joseph would be a great interview. Thanks again

Posted by: joe vessa on 5 Jul 10

It is the failure of global leadership to form an alliance at COP15 that, I think, has cast the shadow of despair over the sustainability movement. But I am with the person who posted about Hawken's Blessed Unrest.
Posted by: rachat de credit on 5 Jul 10

Posted by: Porco on 20 Jul 10

there is a possibility for us to change the way we live, to create the leap from a community with an End date to one that could go on indefinitely. while that possibility exists, the only moral subject to do is to put all we have into making it reality.

Posted by: Router comparison on 8 Aug 10

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Posted by: Spider on 8 Aug 10

We take care if it, it takes care of us.
We need to mend the greatly out of balance symbiosis and reconnect.
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Posted by: jacky on 20 Sep 10

thats our government at work . I would also like to thank you for the increased cost of my healthcare! Can't wait to see what you do with cap & trade

Posted by: mesothelioma on 4 Oct 10

This is awesome stuff, literally Worldchanging!

I have enjoyed reading this and will be back when there are more updates

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Posted by: Will on 7 Oct 10

The battle marked the turning of the tide of war in favour of the Allies.However, due to the relocation of Soviet industry in 1941.

Posted by: Ron on 7 Oct 10

What Does "Turning of the Tide" Mean? any way nice article.

Posted by: Adi on 7 Oct 10

People fail to plan their futures and even those who are. the environnement security isn't part of their portfolios.

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Posted by: Alex Michael on 11 Oct 10

very nice big thx for this nice post =)

Posted by: Peter on 20 Oct 10

All I have to say is, you have made me rethink again that not everything is lost. We need more people to embark on this type of thinking and more people to be proactive against this modern war we're in.

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