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New year. New decade. And as we hit reset, we desperately need a new war.
Because as I see it, we’ve got the 2020s to engage in a concerted battle against the climate emergency, and not much longer.
So far, we’ve proven ourselves wholly incapable of doing the society-bending work required to save what we can of the Earth that we now know.
We need total war.
Total war is an old concept, and one I’d argue we would struggle mightily to understand today.
For a couple of years I’ve been working on a book about women volunteers during the Second World War in Halifax. When it comes right down to it, I’ve been writing a book about total war. Not in the sense of the enslavement of civilians or the strategic bombing of non-military installations. But, rather, the concept of the war against Germany and the Axis powers as expansive and consuming — the idea that every person, every ounce of energy, every minute of the day was spent in the service, tangentially, of winning the war.
In war, it’s a given that combatants’ daily lives are changed. In total war, everyone’s life is turned upside-down — and those flipped priorities, those sacrifices, are looked upon as a necessary part of the effort.
It’s what we need now.
In 1942, Chatelaine magazine reminded its readers that common resources were in life-disruptingly short supply: silk, metal and rubber, among them. It meant no more stockings; fewer umbrellas and a stop to lipstick in metal containers. Gone were rubber gloves, and rubber-lined corsets. Hot water bottles were by prescription.
In their meagre off-hours, Halifax women fed and housed service members; with their extra pennies they bought war stamps. School children would haul scrap; they ran medicine bottle recycling depots where they would receive, wash, sort and pack bottles to supply forces’ dispensaries. At the Oxford Theatre on Quinpool Road, sometimes the cost of admission was a can of salvaged fat used to produce military explosives.
All this was simply, as many who lived through it have told me, “the done thing.” Every choice and every action was passed through the lens of what it meant in the fight to win the war. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, but most didn’t gripe, they got on with it.
It’s what we need to do again. And now.
The good news? Today’s narrative is similar: we’re facing a clear aggressor — the climate emergency (though “ourselves” is a reasonable stand-in) — and have a dire need for collective action. We have no Winston Churchill and no Mackenzie King and if Mar-a-Lago were under water, Trump would be sending climate-denier tweets from the roof, but we have Greta Thunberg and her brilliant armies of committed protesters.
The big difference between now and then? When it comes to the climate emergency there are no civilians. No non-combatants. We’re all in.
Total war, while pushed by government, was achieved by many millions who made daily sacrifices for years upon years.
It sounds like a lot. And it was. But it was also unambiguously necessary. And remember, amid the sacrifice, society chugged forward. People got married and divorced; they had children, and bought groceries and exercised; they gardened and attended school and worked and volunteered and made music and had parties.
Life went on. But it did so under the auspices of a simple idea: that it would not continue to go on in any recognizable way, without everyone doing their part.