The Difference Between a Fact and a Truth
Addressing a transfixed multitude at Nuremberg, Adolf Hitler declared that ‘What is expected of youth today is different from that which was expected in the past.’ Such a statement is so general as to be hopelessly vague, but Hitler was aiming for abstraction on the grandest scale. He failed to achieve it not because the science of his day didn’t support it but rather because his idea of ethics was hopelessly narrow. Eugenics was considered a serious department of scientific discourse worldwide during much of the first half of the twentieth century and beforehand. The National Socialist Democratic Action Party harnessed a respected body of work that in turn had the direct support of much of the applied science community, especially physicians. No other profession could boast as many party members, which is a sobering thought even today.
Climate science is supported by about 97 percent of peer reviewed publications inside its broad field. For all intents and purposes, this discourse has the facts of the matter well in hand. There is virtually no serious debate surrounding climate change and its sources. And this state, something of our own time, indeed charges youth with a very different expectation from what previous generations of young people, including my own, were facing. But what is this expectation, and how does it differ in principle from what any self-styled ‘visionary’ might imagine the future to be?
If there is a difference, it cannot be understood along either factual lines or from those who resist them. In the 1930s and before, ‘The Jews’ were demonized by their persecutors, and were held up as examples of the failure to heed the facts of science. Today, those who resist climate change tend to demonize themselves. They often hail from neo-conservative bastions, are reactionaries or resentfulists, or are simply those who have been paid to shill for vested interests in the energy sector. It is these last who are the most cynical, and we might be forgiven if we at first imagined that it is these folks who are most like the Nazis. We would be incorrect, not that those aforementioned resistors are the best humanity has to offer. Indeed, the fact that most public voices critical of climate science and the environmental movement are people stumping for a moribund politics makes the former forces shine all the more brightly.
To our peril, I think. Why so? On the one hand, public resistance to climate science is seen as a form of ignorance of enlightened empirical discourse, just as were those who resisted eugenics, including the ‘lower forms’ which were the results of such ignorance. Not only ‘The Jews’ of course, but the Romani people, homosexuals, and the mentally ill to name a few. The brush strokes broadened, the canvas widened, and, befitting of someone who would have preferred to leave politics and ‘devote himself wholly to art’, Hitler eventually included the Slavic peoples, non-whites worldwide – though the Japanese were always exempted from this at least publicly; it was handy to have an ally which, at the time, had never lost a war – indigenous peoples or ‘primitives’ and many others. Once again, at the time, the science of these propositions went unquestioned even in serious circles and the ethics was left to be dragged along behind it.
Therefore it is only along ethical lines that we may begin to distinguish the climate-saving movement of today from the culture-saving movement of the pre-war period. Hitler attempted to assuage his would-be follower’s native skepticism by assuring them that he would rather do anything else, but that this had to be done and he was the only one who could do it. This too should sound uncomfortably familiar, as Canada’s own Green Party leader declaimed much the same sentiment in a recent interview, stating that she did not want to enter politics but that she felt she had to ‘save the world’. This appears as a noble sentiment, as it did for those who would later worship Hitler and only later still regret so doing. Though she remains my favorite young person simply because of her guts, Greta Thunberg urges us to ‘unite behind the science’, which also bears a too close resemblance to such calls that hauntingly echo down the unkempt corridors of recent history. In truth, we cannot unite behind any science. Not because it is not in possession of the facts, but rather because the facts and the truth are not the same thing. The facts of eugenics stated that miscegenation would destroy the human race. The truth is rather different, as any cosmopolitan person understands. The facts of climate science tell us that we ourselves are destroying the world and thence the human species as well. The truth is that we are asking the vast majority of people on Earth to remain beholden to a lifestyle hierarchy that favors those who are already at the top. It is claimed that wealthy populations stand to lose the most in the new order, which is why we resist the facts. But the Earth worlds on with or without us, and if other creatures could talk, perhaps 97% of them would tell us what we already know; that the Earth would be better off without humans upon it. Any humans. Vermin would be our only supporters, and it is sage to note that these very animals were used as metaphors for the ‘sub-humans’ in eugenics-inspired pre-war propaganda.
The saving grace of the environmental movement rests along its inclusive ethics. All inclusive, as we have but one planet upon which to reside. Where National Socialism was narrow, ‘climate socialism’ is broad. This is its truer nobility, for it is the first movement in human history that is more fully cosmopolitan and seeks ultimately to redress the global imbalance of access to resources and the disparities of power that come from the current allocations therein. This is the only argument in its favour, and at once we understand why the voices for this movement do not argue along these lines. As did the Nazis, the environmentalists desire us to believe in facts rather than consider truths. That said, we wealthy citizens are after all culpable along the lines of the truth of things, and this in itself may be uncomfortable enough to dissuade us from peering to closely in the mirror. Even so, the climate ‘issue’ remains a decoy; a way in which to avoid the truth by trumpeting the facts. It is a treatment of the symptoms and not the disease, to use a medical analogy also well-used during the 1930s. The facts alone tell us that there needs to be less humans living on Earth, which also resonates with the former facts of eugenics. Once again, the ethics of say, the anti-natalist movement, do not appear to favour one ethnic group above any other one. Yet we can call into question any motive that cites only the facts and skirts interrogatives that ask after the cultural and political backdrop of such statements. China’s former one child policy was an exercise in factuality alone. India’s recent legalization of gay relationships reflects nothing of the truth of local culture and everything of what Michel Foucault referred to as ‘bio-power’. Russia’s disdain of gays the same. Whether cast as progressive or regressive, policies, movements, positions, and persons occupying such are at risk for covering over the always ambiguous truth with the stolidly stoic concrete of fact.
It is our collective duty to work within the truth of things insofar as our consciousness can apprehend it. No region of truth alone is enough. Personal truths are often shrouded in subjectivity, those historical penned from the perspective of the times, past or present, and those scientific are too narrowly defined to offer a vision of truth that can claim to understand the human condition in whole cloth. What is left is thought itself, and this condition has remained unchanged for close to three millennia in the West, perhaps even longer elsewhere. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to think our way through the challenges of our times and not rely on the facts alone, whatever authoritative suasion they may possess. It is we who are in fact possessed by the idea that someone else can do the thinking for us. The briefest glance at recent history is enough to remind us that this way portends death alone.
Social Philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, education, health, art and social theory, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades in Canada and the United States.