“They came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
As Martin Niemöller expressed in this well-known quote, if we stand by long enough because we feel disassociated or exempt from taking action, soon there will be no one left to help us when the moment that we must take action comes around. This sentiment affects me deeply, because, like any other human being, I am a citizen of earth and I am witness to the slow death of my brothers and sisters. The impact of my own lifestyle and the way of life we live in our country, and in many other affluent nations, is undermining the very lands, animals, air, and water that we depend on. Renowned authors and scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have noted in their book, The Dominant Animal, that:
People grow crops on about 12 percent of Earth’s land surface, have paved or built on another couple of percent, graze their livestock on 25 percent or so more, and in various ways exploit most of the roughly 30 percent that remains in forests or tree farms. It is only the remaining surface in high mountains, under ice, or in extreme desert that human beings have not extensively exploited. (p. 206)
This scale of exploitation of our planet is an injustice, not just to the other animals and plants that inhabit it, but also to the future generations of humankind who will inherit lands that have been pillaged and raped of all their worth. We must all take responsibility for righting this wrong before it is too late; before extinction ensues upon the human race, as it has befallen so many other species already.
As Martin Niemöller admits, when injustice affects another group that we are not directly involved in, it is easier to just turn a blind eye. But when that injustice threatens our own lives, we will look back upon our inaction with regret. Similarly, if we don’t take seriously the imminent threat of ecological catastrophe, then we may find ourselves without a way to procure even the basic necessities of life. This was the conclusion of the Union of Concerned Scientists back in 1992 when they issued their World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, and that was over twenty years ago! Part of that statement said this:
Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society.
This dire warning should be a wake up call to all with ears to hear. But I often wonder how many have actually heard it, and of those who have, how seriously do they take this call to action? Have we been making enough effort to make the changes that are needed, politically, socially, and individually?
Obviously, I completely agree with the sentiment expressed in the quote by Martin Niemöller with which I began this discussion. I think Niemöller basically sums up the problem of apathy that is plaguing our world today in various ways. I hope that we will all someday see the importance of standing against injustice, as soon as it is recognized, instead of waiting until there is no one else left to fight. If we continue to be primarily concerned about ourselves as a nation, or even only as members of the human species, then we may one day find ourselves asking why we didn’t speak up for the other inhabitants of our planet. By then it may be too late. Or the Earth may just purge us from existence like a disease, as theologian Sir Lloyd Geering has imagined the possibility. In his book, Coming Back to Earth, Geering states the situation succinctly:
The earth has been a living, evolving system for some three and a half billion years. We humans are very late comers on the scene. If we threaten the ecosphere too severely, it will eliminate us from its system—though no more by conscious decision than does one’s personal immune system eliminate invading bacteria. (p. 119)
But we can take the time now to understand the interdependence and right to life of all living things. We can take responsibility for the environmental crises we face and turn a potential catastrophe into an opportunity for peace and unity. The survival of our planet and the continuance of humanity both seem like a good reasons to overcome our political divisions, economic discrepancies, and religious disagreements.
If you’re unfamiliar with Martin Niemöller, I would encourage anyone who reads this article to look into his life and writings. The reasons for his reflections on action can be better understood through an examination of his words and activities in response to the Nazis. This was a man who originally supported the Nazi regime, but later came to realize that Hitler’s agenda was oppressive and racist. He eventually came to view the inaction of himself, and the German Church as a whole, as being responsible for the misery inflicted on millions of Jews (Blum, 1990). Though there is some controversy about what exactly Niemöller said in his famous quote, and which groups of people he originally mentioned, his thoughts certainly continue to resonate with us in their universal application and appeal (Marcuse, 2000). Regardless of how his words were originally voiced, like any words spoken out of truthfulness and conviction, I think we can learn from his perspective and apply what he said to the injustices that are all around us in our day.
Even in America today, we are still in danger of being led into a nationalistic way of thinking that resembles the ideals of Nazi Germany. Though now, in addition to the subjugation of races and classes of people, it is the species and genera of plants and animals, and the very soil and water which we depend on for life that is being exterminated. If we don’t speak up for them, who will be left to speak up for us, nourish us, and provide us with sustenance? We are faced with a crisis that could one day cause the extinction of the entire human species.
Our planet can survive without us but we can’t survive without it. We must understand that although we appear to live independently of the natural world, everything is made up of the same elements and will return to that which it came from. Just because we call ourselves human, doesn’t mean that we have no responsibility toward all that has been named otherwise. This is the realization Martin Niemöller came to in regard to the way humans are arbitrarily grouped and discriminated against for various reasons. Let us not make the same mistake that he regretted making, in our response to the exploitation and oppression of the multitude of our planet’s inhabitants.
Blum, G. (1990). Martin Niemoller. In Great lives from history: Twentieth century series
(Vol. 1). (F. Magill, Ed.). Pasadena, CA: Salem Press. Retrieved from History Resource
Ehrlich, P. & Ehrlich, A. (2008). The dominant animal: Human evolution and the environment.
Washington: Island Press.
Geering, L. (2009). Coming back to earth: From gods, to god, to gaia. Salem, OR: Polebridge
Marcuse, H. (2000, September). Niemöller quotation page. Retrieved from
University of California, Santa Barbara, History Department Web site: http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/niem.htm
Union of Concerned Scientists. (1992). World scientists’ warning to humanity. Cambridge:
Author. Retrieved from http://www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html