The Climate of Middle East Studies

The Climate of Middle East Studies

In his recent lecture series, The Great Derangement, the novelist of the Indian Ocean world, Amitav Ghosh, asks his fellow artists and scholars to join him in considering our present intellectual production from the perspective of a future reader: 

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first, and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they—what can they—do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight?[1] (also viewable on YouTube).

Ghosh describes as unthinkable the scale of the coming transformations, whose violent impact will be felt disproportionately by the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world. By unthinkable, he means that contemporary narratives, categories, and styles of thinking about the world are proving themselves deeply inadequate to apprehend these transformations. As a novelist, he is particularly concerned about how literature and art’s conventions, institutions, and debates limit the ability of authors and artists to portray climate change, let alone confront it. 

Climate change’s violent impacts are expected to be particularly grave in the Middle East. Like Kolkata and New York, rising sea levels will inundate coastal cities around the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf.[2] By the end of this century, soaring daytime temperatures could make substantial parts of North Africa and the Gulf uninhabitable.[3] Increased aridity and salination will send many already vulnerable Middle Eastern countries into inescapable water, power, and food crises.[4] It is reasonable to expect that just three generations into the future, the cities, communities, and landscapes that make up the Middle East will be unrecognizable.

So how are scholars of the Middle East—specifically, those in the humanities and interpretive social sciences—addressing climate change? Has our response thus far been proportional to the scale of these coming crises? In the last decades, a number of committed scholars of the Middle East have worked to consolidate a conversation on climate and environment. Perhaps the richest conversations on these questions take place in the fields of early modern and modern history, anthropology, and sociology, as well as in interdisciplinary studies of energy, political economy, and technopolitics. Nevertheless, the growing number of excellent studies in these and other conversations continue to occupy too small a corner of Middle East Studies, broadly construed.

Thinking with Ghosh’s provocation, are there conventions, debates, and modes of thinking that are limiting scholars of the Middle East’s ability to confront climate change? I posit three interrelated kinds of problems that may be doing exactly that, which I discuss under three headings: disciplines, coloniality, and agency. To be sure, each of the concerns I raise are problems for scholars more broadly, but I see them operating within Middle East Studies in particular ways.

I come to these questions as someone who began graduate school thinking of myself, prematurely, as an environmental historian. I was interested in the colonial history of conceptions of a malleable global climate, but have since moved away from those questions, and now struggle to see how my work can speak to them. More immediately, I come to these questions as someone trying to wade through the dread and guilt that colors much analysis of climate change in order to see how my professional practice can address it. 

1. Disciplines

The first, most straightforward problem concerns disciplinary territory. Much scholarship on urgent concerns like water, pollution, or famine, and the majority of scholarship on the longer-term effects of climate change, comes from the quantitative, or systematizing, social sciences: political science, development studies, international humanitarian and NGO research, and the policy and think-tank world.

Much useful work has emerged from those conversations, including many of the sources I cite in this piece. But I worry about Tim Mitchell’s warning in Rule of Experts, that the humanities and interpretive social sciences might be failing to sufficiently contest the assumptions on which those conversations are based.[5] This failure leaves untroubled the notion that climate change is the kind of problem that can be best (or only) addressed in policy, quantitative, or humanitarian terms. And this problem is all the more urgent because policy experts and international institutions have failed—consistently, for four decades—to generate any meaningful restraint on the power of the forces driving climate change.

One outcome of this failure is the dominance of scholarship that frames climate change as a security issue. This framing partly derives from an older, Cold War-era policy scholarship on “water wars” in the Middle East. This scholarship perceived water scarcity as a factor that would inevitably lead to interstate conflict, through the lens of the “water wars to come”—the prospect of a future war, which authorizes all manner of interventions and sacrifices in the present. Although it exists, excellent critical scholarship on water remains minimal, while water wars scholarship has rejuvenated in recent years. Security concerns dominate discussions of water in Gaza and Sinai—in which Israel and Egypt’s governments, respectively, restrict water access as a security weapon—, international water-sharing crises, and megaprojects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  

I am not convinced that scholars in the humanities and interpretive social sciences have sufficiently spoken back to that security-focused scholarship. This, again, is not at all to discount the rich activist networks that have mobilized around water and climate crises, nor the politically engaged scholars who work with and draw on those networks. Rather, it is imperative that Middle East Studies scholars continue in this vein to take up these struggles, contextualize and historicize them, expose the contradictions and violence of the securitization of water and climate, and contribute to reframing these as tangible issues around which communities can make claims.

2. Coloniality

Related to this is the question of environmentalism’s colonial legacies and the problem of decolonizing our conceptions of climate and environment.

This problem emerges partly from the fact that, despite the rich literature on these questions from South Asia and Southeast Asia, the climate and environmental humanities remain largely Euro-  and America-centric, in all senses. 

As scholars of European imperialism have demonstrated, the concepts that are essential to climate politics in the West emerged from a Euro-American genealogy of conceptions of nature, society, and capitalism.[6] In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a constellation of these concepts and processes—bourgeois aesthetics, conservationism, imperial scientific networks, and plantation management practices, among others—mutually informed orientalist knowledge production and colonial practice. These intersections produced what many term “environmental orientalism” and “colonial environmentalism.” These are, respectively, the notion that stereotypically “oriental” and degraded environments exist and produce negative effects on societies, and that Euro-American interventions are legitimate in order to rehabilitate degraded “oriental” nature.

The scholarship on these projects has very effectively identified and critiqued them. But I wonder about the extent to which we have addressed the deeper question this work evokes: whether the tools developed by American and European environmentalists and scholars are so fundamentally reliant on settler-colonial a priori conceptions about people and nature that they are worse than useless for scholars of the Middle East and the decolonizing world.

In this respect, I think climate studies have much to learn from the scholars who are decolonizing feminism. The “woman question” in colonial and postcolonial politics and societies has much in common with questions of nature and climate. Those decolonizing feminism are, among other practices, tracing different genealogies, deconstructing categories, seriously attending to difference, identifying shared projects, and taking responsibility for their scholarly works’ implications, without sacrificing a commitment to justice and women’s flourishing on their own terms. Precisely that kind of work is needed in order to dismantle Western environmentalism’s imbrications in imperial power and build new tools that are up to the task.

3. Agency

Third, there is the problem of agency in climate change, of attributing causal agency to climate change in our analyses. If my concerns seem esoteric and academic, this one may seem worst of all. But agency is a central problem for Ghosh’s analysis, and one I see coming up again and again in scholarly and public discourse on climate change in the Middle East. 

Serious scholars working on and in the Middle East are constantly called upon to push back against analyses that posit oblique, timeless forces that determine the course of events. We oppose those academics and pundits who rely on essentialized, deterministic forces, like Islam and modernity, to flatten complex, historically constituted social, political, and economic dynamics into simple, monolithic processes. Climate change poses a problem for us in this context because it is often portrayed as just such a deterministic force.

We can see this oppositional dynamic at work in the scholarly, policy, and media debate on climate change’s role in the Syrian catastrophe. International institutions, think tanks, celebrities, and some climate scientists have made it conventional wisdom in certain policy circles that drought derived from climate change was a critical factor driving Syrians into war.[7] Of course, critical scholars and activists have refuted this by demonstrating that portraying climate change as the cause of the Syrian catastrophe silences the revolution. As Jessica Barnes has recently argued, this manner of centering climate change in analyses of the Syrian conflict and the Arab uprisings depoliticizes these struggles, obscures or exonerates autocracy and brutal inequalities, and reproduces a deeply familiar stereotype of passive Arab societies, incapable of politics, that simply respond violently to deterministic forces.

I share in that critique and believe it needs to be broadcast much more loudly and widely. But I worry that it sets aside a problem that will become more and more pressing in the coming decades.

So often, we implicitly conceive of agency as a zero-sum game. In that framework, if we ascribe agency to climate and non-humans, we must take it away from people and their politics. The “environmental” catastrophes of the present—drought in Yemen and Gaza, toxicity in Lebanon, salinization in the Nile delta, and countless others—have clear and immediate causes and do not derive from climate change. But climate change will, soon, make them all much worse. And as the effects of climate change grow, we are pressed to find ways to include non-humans as agents in our analyses without either silencing or absolving sociopolitical agents.

Sea level rises and other climate change-derived transformations cannot, of course, ever be thought of as simply “non-human,” but as ongoing effects of a modern, capitalist social order. But knowing that does not reduce the urgency of recognizing that human agency takes place within a network of non-human forces. When a wildfire breaks out in a settler-colony beset by drought, and families are forced from their homes, who or what is responsible? The farmer who discarded a cigarette? The dry grasses that spread it? The settler-colony and its regime of landscape management? The oil companies? The wind? No one is in control; the event is more than the sum of its human agents. As Ghosh argues, the obstructions that discourage us from acknowledging non-human agency are unique to our era. His challenge to us, as (willing or unwilling) subjects of that social order, is to explore how that order and its culture have made non-human forces unthinkable as agents in history. By doing so, we can comprehend the realities of our plight and better understand the nature of what we call climate change.

The concerns I have raised are just a few of many facing critical scholars of the Middle East, drawing on a slice of the dynamic and quickly-evolving broader scholarly conversation on climate change. But each of these three concerns also reveals the potential for scholars of the region to join colleagues who work on and in other parts of the Global South and indigenous communities, who are pioneering this conversation’s most vital new directions.

Decolonizing conceptions of climate and environment, and reconsidering modes of narrating agency, requires readily available tools in our repertoire. Critically engaging the quantifying social sciences’ and policy-sphere’s jurisdiction on climate change matters, too, builds on a project well under way elsewhere. We can begin by addressing these three concerns, and by rethinking how our research and teaching might attend to climate change’s local and regional gender, class, race, and political-economic dynamics. Climate questions are for specialists and environmentalists no longer; they are pressing down on all of us, and on all the issues and communities we care about.

 Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 23.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), section 2.3.4; Josh Holder, Niko Kommenda, and Jonathan Watts, “The Three-Degree World,” Guardian, 3 November 2017; Kieran Cooke, “Sinking Cities,” Middle East Eye, 8 October 2018.

[3] Jeremy Pal and Elfatih Eltahir, “Future temperature in southwest Asia projected to exceed a threshold for human adaptability,” Nature Climate Change 6 (2016): 197-200; David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, 10 July 2017.

[4] Amal Kandeel, “Climate Change: The Middle East Faces a Water Crisis,” Middle East Institute, 29 November 2018; Deniz Bozkurt and Omer Lutfi Sen, “Climate change impacts in the Euphrates–Tigris Basin based on different model and scenario simulations,” Journal of Hydrology 480 (2013): 149-161; Richard Conniff, “The Vanishing Nile: A Great River Faces a Multitude of Threats,” Yale Environment 360, 6 April 2017.

[5] Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 2.

[6] A comprehensive list is outside the scope of this piece, but frequently cited works include Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa(Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007); Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Fabien Locher and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, “Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (2012); and Andres Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016).

[7] See for example Peter Gleick, “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria,” Weather, Climate, and Society 6. no. 3 (2014): 331-340; and Zane Razzaq, “Framing the Syrian War in Terms of Climate Change Oversimplifies a Complex Tragedy, Warn Experts,” New England Climate Change Review, 21 November 2016.