Losing Ground: Syria's Climate Nomads

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by Evan Cestari
Black & Green Review

The climate wars have already begun. In the parlance of the State, climate change has proven to be a “threat multiplier” that has become typified by, among other conflicts, a war in Syria that to date has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced over 9 million.[1] With people throughout the Middle East escaping the ongoing resource wars and desperate for some semblance of stability, Europe now faces its greatest refugee influx since World War II and fears over a reactionary fascist backlash loom in the background. All this when we’ve only just scratched the surface of climate change. With a 0.85°C increase in global average temperature over since the Industrial Revolution, the United Nations estimates that 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes.[2] Meanwhile, as global average temperature is widely expected to climb past a catastrophic 2°C limit, analysts predict that number to more than double to 150 million in the next 35 years. Ten times that figure, or nearly 10 percent of the world’s population, are at direct risk of displacement due to climate change.[3] What an increasingly probable 6°C or higher global temperature increase may bring becomes a frightening proposition.

The Syria-Climate Connection

The haunting image of a refugee Syrian toddler’s corpse washed up on a Turkish beach is now weaved into our nightmarish cultural subconscious. But sadly, such a tragedy had been long predicted in a part of the world where water was scarce, populations growing, and pressures to develop advanced agricultural economies reached new levels. At least since the 1970s, Syria, Iraq and Turkey were locked in tense standoffs, and even “undeclared wars” over access to the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.[4] By 1999, Turkey, a NATO member and European Union candidate nation, succeeded in quelling Kurdish resistance and wasted little time in advancing a series of dams and irrigation projects that left Syrian farmers with a trickle of their former flows. Meanwhile, population growth surged in all three countries at a rate that would double the number of inhabitants in mere decades. As analyst Michael T. Klare stated in 2001, “The stage is being set for a series of recurring crises over water supplies in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.”[5]

Enter the threat multiplier, climate change. From 2006 to 2010, as moist Mediterranean winds weakened and surface temperatures spiked to new highs, an epic drought plagued the region. It was reputed to be the worst in Syria’s recorded history and at least two to three times more likely to occur due to climate change. In an area already short on water, 1.5 million starving villagers fled to overcrowded city centers. With a crippled domestic agricultural industry also came a catastrophic loss of imports as Russia, a main supplier of grain, halted all exports in 2010 after a “once in a century” heatwave triggered wildfires, destroyed crops and claimed the lives of over 50,000 Russian people. Food riots erupted throughout the Middle East, eventually cascading into the Arab Spring. The Bashar al-Assad regime reacted swiftly and violently to the desperate migrants while brutal ISIS gangs, dependent on an economy of pillaging and slavery, stepped in to fill the void. As the conflict escalated throughout both the cities and countryside, both sides didn’t hesitate to deploy chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and other indiscriminate weapons causing the casualty figure to surpass 250,000. Determined to escape what can only be called a living hell, 3 million Syrians sought refuge abroad, including 150,000 who treked to parts of Europe by the Autumn of 2015. It is currently uncertain exactly how welcoming the European nations will be. Some states, such as Germany, have pledged to take in tens of thousands; others, such as Hungary, have actively resisted the influx.

Syrian economist Samir Aita notes the historical irony of the disaster’s location: “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”[6] However, considering the rising climate pressures, it is doubtful that any political leader, democratic or authoritarian, could have ever succeed. Despite attempts to obfuscate the crisis as the result of mismanagement, the truth is that it is more structurally rooted in a globalized industrial economy that is both perpetrator and victim of its own catastrophe.

Climate Migrations in Past Collapses

Like every other symptom and driver of a collapsing civilization, what is new here is the global scale rather than the crises themselves. Mass migrations due to climate change have been repeatedly pointed out as a culprit in the sequence of events leading to the collapse of complex societies. In his sweeping history of the role of climate change as a “serial killer” of civilizations, Eugene Linden convincingly portrays the Mongolian barbarian intruders that overwhelmed the Roman Empire in the 6th century as exiles of a conflict catalyzed by sudden global cooling around 536 A.D.[7] Ethnic Avar horsemen, who increasingly lost economic and political influence to their rival Turkic herders after a severe drought decimated their primary equine resources, moved west gathering other disaffected groups on the edges of the Empire. Few historians point to barbarian invasions as the sole cause for the collapse of the Roman Empire, yet combined with other factors including food shortages, disease, and population overshoot, Rome became progressively overburdened by a series of related and ruinous catastrophes.

Jared Diamond illustrates another example of such a process in his book Collapse while discussing the last stages of Greenland Norse society shortly after the start of the Little Ice Age between 1400 and 1800. While Greenland’s Western settlements experienced the worst effects and became unable to grow hay for livestock, the Gardar settlement in the East was located in a more resilient area that could still support cows, the preferred source of protein among the settlers. Diamond suggests how the final breakdown unfolded:

[A]t the end, Gardar was like an overcrowded lifeboat. When hay production was failing and the livestock had all died or been eaten at the poorer farms of Eastern Settlement, their settlers would have tried to push their way onto the best farms that still had some animals: Brattahlid, Hvalsey, Herjolfsnes, and last of all Gardar. The authority of the church officials at Gardar Cathedral, or of the landowning chief there, would have been acknowledged as long as they and the power of God were visibly protecting their parishioners and followers. But famine and associated disease would have caused a breakdown of respect for authority, much as the Greek historian Thucydides described in his terrifying account of the plague of Athens 2,000 years earlier. Starving people would have poured into Gardar, and the outnumbered chiefs and church officials could no longer prevent them from slaughtering the last cattle and sheep.[8]

In both Linden’s and Diamond’s accounts, developed states over time became overpowered by hungry people. And in both cases, climate change fueled that hunger.

Migration and the Collapse Forecast

What remains clear, even to those in power, is that the Syrian situation is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the displacement that is in store. Tesla CEO Elon Musk publicly called Europe’s refugee crisis a “small indication of what the world will be like” adding that the tens of millions of refugees today will increase exponentially. Indeed, all this was forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its very first report on climate change in 1990 which foretold “millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought.”[9] As the effects of climate change continue to be felt more directly in the First World, we become more and more likely to see conflict. John Gray wrote in his 2003 book Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern that “global warming may well overtake scarcity in energy supplies as a source of geopolitical conflict.”[10] Gray foresaw major disruptions in food production leading to mass migrations that would eventually be blocked by both autocratic and democratic regimes.

Echoing such a proscription, in 2008 journalist Mark Lynas painted a dismal prognosis in his book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet:

With structural famine gripping much of the subtropics, hundreds of millions of people will have only one choice left other than death for themselves and their families: They will have to pack up their belongings and leave. The resulting population transfers could dwarf those that have historically taken place owing to wars or crop failures.

...Conflicts will inevitably erupt as these numerous climate refugees spill into already densely populated areas….Tens of millions more will flee north from Africa towards Europe, where a warm welcome is unlikely to await them; new fascist parties may make sweeping electoral gains by promising to keep the starving African hordes out. Undaunted, many of these new climate refugees will make the journey on foot, carrying what they can, with children and old people trailing behind. Many of them will die by the wayside. Uprooted, stateless, and without hope, these will be the first generation of a new type of people; climate nomads, constantly moving in search of food, their varied cultures forgotten, ancestral ties to ancient lands cut forever. But these people may not be content to remain passive victims, for they will surely know that the world they inherit is not one that they have created. The resentment felt by Muslims towards Westerners will be tame by comparison. As social collapse accelerates, new political philosophies may emerge, philosophies that seek to lay blame where it truly belongs- on the rich countries that lit the fire that has now begun to consume the world.[11]

Today, Lynas seems incorrect only in terms of exactly who would be the first to experience such climate change induced famine. Certainly, it is not difficult to find parallels between the ideology Lynas describes and the bloodthirsty quest for revenge espoused by ISIS.

Of course, the blame of the rich nations that Lynas describes only scratches the surface; anarcho-primitivism digs deeper to lay the finger on domestication and civilization itself. As Tim Garrett, professor of Atmospheric Studies at the University of Utah explains, civilization is fundamentally a “heat engine” programmed for climate change as it “consumes energy and does 'work' in the form of economic production, which then spurs it to consume more energy.”[12] The task facing anarcho-primitivists then becomes engaging the crisis and the “climate nomads” in ways that expose the underlying culprit while resisting emerging fascist and xenophobic tendencies. Simultaneously, we can lead attempts to reconnect with wild places that may be on the margins for agriculture, but which may allow a more flexible resource base through foraging. The solutions to foraging in dry environments will undoubtedly vary from area to area, but any attempts to do so can draw hope from contemporary foragers. As !Kung elder Moloreng states in James Workman’s important book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought; “The old...They know how to live without the water.”[13]

Perhaps the most hopeful vision we can draw upon is that of the Greenland Inuit during the course of the Norse civilization’s decline. While not immune to the effects of climatic variations in an already marginal environment, with large fluctuations in the populations of prey species meaning sporadic community starvations, Inuit culture as a whole was able to draw upon a wider variety of food resources to adapt through the Little Ice Age that starved out the Western Settlements and eventually even the rich Gardar. Amidst social collapse the Norse were unable to overcome their ingrained contempt for Inuit culture and could therefore not seek assistance from those who most knew how to persist. It is now our duty to not repeat their mistake.

[1] http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/science/earth/study-links-syria-conflict-to-drought-caused-by-climate-change.html?p...
[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/refugees-global-peace-index/396122/
[3] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/nov/03/global-warming-climate-refugees
[4] Diane Raines Ward, Water Wars. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002. Pp. 192-196
[5] Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2001. P. 181.
[6] Quoted in Thomas Friedman “Without Water, Revolution.” New York Times, May 18, 2013.
[7] Eugene Linden, The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. Pp 56-67.
[8] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2006. P. 275.
[9] IPCC (1990) First Assessment Report, P. 103, para. 5.0.10.
[10] New York: New Press, 2003. P. 69.
[11] Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Washington DC: National Geographic, pp.180-181.
[12] http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705346695/University-of-Utah-professor-Tim-Garrett-says-conservation-is-futile.html?p...
[13] New York: Walker & Company, 2009. P. 238

This is an essay from Black and Green Review no 2.
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