- Robert Jay Lifton Author, ‘Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir’ and ‘The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide’ Dr. Lifton is author of The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide and Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. His most recent book is Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at The City University of New York.
Two threats endanger humankind: nuclear weapons and global warming. These same threats also enhance our awareness that all of us, as human beings, are members of a single species. That enhanced awareness might well be the most important outcome of the recent Paris climate meetings.
In 1985, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War had delegations from more than 60 countries when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Within that movement, we spoke of common security, in which the security of any contending nuclear power is dependent on the security of one’s adversary. Soviet and American delegates would express this principle in gallows-humor toasts to each other: “To your health and that of your people and your leaders. Because if you die, I die. If you survive, I survive.”
There is a parallel concept in climate-change discourse, that of our common home, as expressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical letter on climate, quoting his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. To be sure, different cultural groups have lived under highly varied geographical and climate conditions, and people in certain areas — the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Bangladesh in South Asia — are now most devastatingly vulnerable to climate disaster. But that does not mean that the rest of us who live in places like North America and Europe are immune to extreme climate suffering. Climate change by definition is planetary.
The evolutionary truth is that our extraordinary capacity for adaptation has enabled the human species to make the entire planet our habitat. Now, under present human-caused global warming, it is painfully clear that emissions of advanced industrial countries have threatened the very habitability of Pacific Islands and South Asian areas; and that the destruction of Amazon rainforests, whether by natives or industrial outsiders, has much to do with lethal pollution in Beijing and droughts in California and Texas. The point is that the climate change now occurring is an event of our entire species, and one that we have lethally imposed on most other species as well.