Imagine you are a clever, curious visitor from
another galaxy. You see a beautiful blue planet upon which the
of intelligent beings has increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 6
billion in 2000, and is heading for a projected maximum of
10 billion in 2100. You see that about 700 million people, currently
about 10% of the population, are living in extreme poverty and are at
risk of dying by
hunger or disease, for example due to insufficient fresh water. You see
the problem of poverty could easily be solved by sharing, but humans do
not seem very good at this, although they do like to talk about it. You
see that greenhouse gas concentrations
have suddenly increased in the past century due to human activities,
and predict on that basis that global temperatures will rise by
3°C in the 21st century and another few degrees in the
depending on how those humans respond to the situation. You know about
the different effects of global warming on the human habitat (some
positive, most negative, some catastrophic), and conclude that
global warming will indirectly kill a large proportion of the global
human population - billions - in the next
two centuries. You are curious about the implications of this
development for evolution: will humans adapt when survivors of
climate change pass their genes to future generations? On top of that,
you observe that a lot of humans are currently doubting that climate
change exists, or is a problem, or is caused by humans.
On that basis
you wonder if the adjective "intelligent" is appropriate for this
particular species. Perhaps not yet.
the purpose of this text, I will assume that "only" one billion will
die as an indirect result of climate change. From the perspective of a
greeny from outer space, this is a conservative estimate.
How can we stop
this catastrophe from happening before it is too
late? Given that it is already too late to stop a lot of these
future deaths, how can we minimize the future impact of climate change?
How can be get the world to finally take the problem seriously? How can
we defend the rights of our children by encouraging or forcing
governments and multinational businesses to
greenhouse emissions, regardless of the economic cost, in the next few
years? How can we get people to realise that human lives are more
important than money?
For these things to happen, influential people will have to make
are made with words. Perhaps we need a new word to make the
seriousness of the situation clear?
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word "genocide"
was coined in response to the Holocaust:
1944, apparently coined by Polish-born U.S. jurist Raphael Lemkin
(1900-1959) in his work "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe" [p.19], in
reference to Nazi extermination of Jews, literally "killing a tribe,"
from Greek genos "race, kind" (see genus) + -cide. The proper formation
would be *genticide.
To understand this we also need to understand the suffix "-cide":
word-forming element meaning "killer," from French -cide, from Latin
-cida "cutter, killer, slayer," from -cidere, comb. form of caedere "to
strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay," from PIE *kae-id-, from root
*(s)k(h)ai- "to strike" (Pokorny, not in Watkins; cognates: Sanskrit
skhidati "beats, tears," Lithuanian kaisti "shave," German heien
"beat"). For Latin vowel change, see acquisition. The element also can
represent "killing," from French -cide, from Latin -cidium "a cutting,
The Holocaust was the worst crime in history, because it was the only
case of industrialised mass murder. No matter how bad climate change
gets, it will not be possible to compare it with the Holocaust, because
climate change is not about murder. We do not want to kill future
generations. We are "merely" indirectly killing
future people, causing their deaths by producing
greenhouse gases. No-one is forcing us to produce greenhouse
The German word for genocide is Völkermord,
the murder of a Volk.
The word Volk
means nation, people (the singular of "peoples") or cultural group; it
tends to be avoided today because of its shocking Nazi associations
("deutsche Volksgemeinschaft“). The German suffix "-mord",
the English word "murder", implies killing with premeditated
intention by a person with no mental disability. Murder is one of the key
elements that make the
Holocaust uniquely horrifying. One could argue that the
English translation "genocide" is inadequate
to describe the Holocaust, because the suffix "-cide" does not
the word "homicide" legally includes both murder and unintentional
killing. The word "pesticide" is simply something that kills a
The word genocide is problematic in another way. It generally implies
the expressed intention
to kill all
members of a given cultural group or "race", combined with
the killing of a significant
proportion of that group. The complexity of this
definition is not immediately clear from the word itself.
The related term "ecocide" was recently introduced and has become
popular. According to WIkipedia (10.4.2014), "The term ecocide refers
to any extensive damage or destruction of the natural landscape and
disruption or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory to such an
extent that the survival of the inhabitants of that territory is
endangered." This is a welcome addition to our vocabulary but one may
also argue that it trivialises the human cost of climate change.
Climate change is not just about "endangering" the survival of humans,
the inhabitants of planet earth. It is already clear that hundreds of
millions and possibly billions will die as an indirect result of
climate change. This is no longer a matter of probability. That being
the case, we should talk about the human cost directly. Of course the
environmental cost is also enormous and absolutely devastating - but
according to universal foundations of human morality, all
lives have the same value, and that is the greatest value that we have.
It follows that the human cost of global warming will be even greater
than the environmental cost.
A remarkable thing about climate change is the enormous time difference
between cause and effect, which is essentially due to the thermal heat
capacity of the oceans. It takes an enormous amount of heat
and an enormous amount of time to heat up the oceans by just
is about all that has happened so far. On average, the time difference
between cause (emissions) and effect (resultant human suffering) in
climate change is of the order of a century. In other words,
of people in the 20th century will primarily affect people in the 21st,
and the emissions of people in the 21st century will primarily affect
people in the 22nd. We will not have to suffer as a result of our
environmental negligence; future generations will do that for us. That
presents the human species with an unprecedented moral challenge.
The way things are going, climate change will kill a significant
proportion of the group we call "future generations". For that reason,
it may be appropriate to introduce the word "generatiocide". This
is not based on Latin in the usual way, although the word "generation"
is based on the Latin words "generatio" and "generare". Instead, people
will think of the English word "generation", and pronounce
"generatiocide" accordingly. I don't think there
is a word in Latin for "generation" in the sense of all people in a
given age group. Again, the Online
Etymological Dictionary can help:
early 14c., "body of individuals born about the same period" (usually
30 years), from Old French generacion (12c.) and directly from Latin
generationem (nominative generatio) "generating, generation," noun of
action from past participle stem of generare "bring forth" (see genus).
Meanings "act or process of procreation," "process of being formed,"
"offspring of the same parent" are late 14c.
gap first recorded 1967; generation x is 1991, from Douglas Coupland
book of that name; generation y attested by 1994. Related:
Generational. Adjectival phrase first-generation, second-generation,
etc. with reference to U.S. immigrants is from 1896.
Thus, generatiocide means killing a significant proportion of a future
generation or future generations. We who are primarily
for greenhouse emissions are collectively guilty of this crime, because
we are well-informed about the consequences, but we are continuing to
produce greenhouse gases as if we neither know nor care. For
German construct "Generationsmord" would not not appropriate, because
suffix "-mord" clearly implies murder. Generatiocide is about indirect
killing, not murder.
I am not religious, and I don't believe in the Day of Judgment, as many
Christians do. But if
there was a god, she would surely convict us of the crime of
generatiocide, and the punishment
would not be pleasant. God is unlikely to be pleased when she sees what
a mess we are making of her beautiful creation, and how callous we are
toward other descendents of Adam and Eve.
Generatiocide sounds like genocide, and the similarity is intentional.
But there are two important
differences, and it is important to keep them in mind. First, we do not
intend to kill future generations. Instead, we are "merely" letting
them die as a result of our greed, negligence and dishonesty. Second,
the number of people who will die as a result
of generatiocide will certainly be much larger than the number that
died in any case of genocide.
Does that make
generatiocide worse? To answer this question, we must quantify
difference between murder and indirect killing (or causing
by negligence). Initially, this seems impossible. But the
extensive discussion surrounding the trolley
in practical philosophy (ethics) suggests otherwise. In the trolley
problem, the killing of one person is compared in various situations
with allowing five people to die (i.e. knowing that they are going to
die, being in a position to prevent their deaths, and doing nothing). When the ratio is set to
tend to disagree about which is worse, but they tend to agree at much
smaller or larger ratios like 2:1 or 20:1. This suggests that we
intuitively consider the killing of one person to be roughly equally as
bad as allowing five people to die. In other words, the active,
deliberate option is about 5 times worse than the passive, negligent
option. If that is true, then allowing 30 million to die would be
comparable to killing 6 million people, which is what happened in the
Holocaust. It is already highly likely (I should really say certain,
but perhaps a miracle will save us) that far more than 30 million
future deaths will be attributable to global warming. I mean that in
the sense that without global warming, and if other relevant factors
such as the global economy remained constant, the deaths would
not happen (more).
don't want to insist on the truth of that statement, but I do insist on
the following: Whichever way you look at it, global warming, in
conjunction with global poverty, is by far the most important problem
facing humanity today; and the response of the culprits - the rich
countries, that's us - is so far woefully inadequate.
The main conclusion from this discussion, of course, is that greenhouse
gas production must fall rapidly and radically in the next few
years. If we don't manage to do that, future generations will
accuse us of generatiocide, and they will be right. If we have to talk
about generatiocide to get people to act, then so be it.
The idea of
generatiocide arose in a Facebook discussion initiated by Frank
Pagram about the equally quirky word "regicide". Thanks for
and also to Vincent P. Difesa for comments and support.
The opinions expressed on
this page are the