Mar 1, 2018
Journal of Historical Sociology
From ‘Resource Curse’ to ‘Climate Conflict’, more and more analyses of the current crisis in the Middle East start their reasoning from geo-physical or natural conditions as determinants of social life. Paradoxically, despite its resource riches giving rise to conflict, the region’s ecology is portrayed as fragile, alien and hostile. This part of an imperial oriental imagination, which assume that a scarce nature is mismanaged by societies and states overall incapable of negotiating modernity. This precarious, crisis driven environment is now pushed to the edge by the effects of climate change with looming desertification and weather extremes and a scramble for shrinking oil reserves threatening to make the region all but inhabitable, turning the region into a vicious cycle of conflict and environmental degradation. This article suggests that this environmental oriental determinism in Middle East can be overcome by entering political ecology into the register of historical sociological analysis. Re-socialising and historicising nature-society relations avoids reifying the Cartesian nature/society divide, offering historical sociology a better toolkit to navigate the current crisis. Vice versa, it argues that political ecology can benefit from recognising the role of geopolitical relations in the social reproduction nature. Introduction With the Syrian civil war in its sixth year, a debate has emerged on whether its origins are to blame on a drought that preceded the outbreak of the civil war. Rural resource scarcity resulting from the drought is thought to have contributed to rural-urban migration, swelling the ranks of the urban poor, eventually fuelling a revolutionary potential to the point that protests broke out (Gleick, 2014; Kelly et al., 2015). Climate change, thus, revealed the institutional inadequacies, as mirrored in policy debates on adaptive capacities and climate change resilience. Political causes for conflicts from Sudan to Syria are now overshadowed by debates about ‘climate conflict’ in those regions. Despite the obvious political dimension contributing to its outbreak, namely the ruthless oppression of popular unrest by the Assad regime in the wake of the Arab Spring, this argument finds a lot of popular uptake with policy makers, from UN representatives to Prince Charles (Selby and Hulme, 2015). Apart from obscuring political culpability for the ongoing violent oppression, this argument is problematic in different ways, too: Sociologically, it isn’t clear whether this expansion of the urban poor population contributed to a pre-existing revolutionary mood or whether it was the very ‘trigger’ explaining social unrest at a time when the whole region was already politically in flames. Ecologically, while there was in fact a drought, there is a lack of reflection on the fact that droughts are a recurring feature of Syria’s ecology. At minimum an extreme severity of the drought itself and its unique social impact would need to be explained. It subsequently relates the increased intensity of the drought to global climate change and warming, a causal relation similarly difficult to produce evidence for. Last, it doesn’t question to which extent environmental degradation emanates from neoliberal agricultural policies which had led to an intensification of land use and soil exhaustion when it may very well have been pricing developments that led to the alleged migration-inducing shortage of resources (Selby et al., 2017).