I admit I didn’t know this term either. I learnt it from a book by the Israeli architect and writer Eyal Weizman and an article written by Naomi A Klein.
In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how different forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.
Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants, casting their need for security as a threat to ours, their desperate flight as some sort of invading army. Tactics refined on the West Bank and in other occupation zones are now making their way to North America and Europe. In selling his wall on the border with Mexico, Donald Trump likes to say: ‘Ask Israel, the wall works.’ Camps are bulldozed in Calais, thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean, and the Australian government detains survivors of wars and despotic regimes in camps on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus. Conditions are so desperate on Nauru that last month an Iranian migrant died after setting himself on fire to try to draw the world’s attention. Another migrant – a 21-year-old woman from Somalia – set herself on fire a few days later. Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, warns that Australians ‘cannot be misty-eyed about this’ and ‘have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose’. It’s worth bearing Nauru in mind the next time a columnist in a Murdoch paper declares, as Katie Hopkins did last year, that it’s time for Britain ‘to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.’ In another bit of symbolism Nauru is one of the Pacific Islands very vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its residents, after seeing their homes turned into prisons for others, will very possibly have to migrate themselves. Tomorrow’s climate refugees have been recruited into service as today’s prison guards.
We need to understand that what is happening on Nauru, and what is happening to it, are expressions of the same logic. A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. When that happens, theories of human hierarchy – that we must take care of our own first – will be marshalled to rationalise these monstrous decisions. We are making this rationalisation already, if only implicitly. Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst, whether they are abandoned on the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or whether they are among the 36 million who according to the UN are facing hunger due to drought in Southern and East Africa.
This is an emergency, a present emergency, not a future one, but we aren’t acting like it. The Paris Agreement commits to keeping warming below 2°c. It’s a target that is beyond reckless. When it was unveiled in Copenhagen in 2009, the African delegates called it ‘a death sentence’. The slogan of several low-lying island nations is ‘1.5 to stay alive’. At the last minute, a clause was added to the Paris Agreement that says countries will pursue ‘efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°c’. Not only is this non-binding but it is a lie: we are making no such efforts. The governments that made this promise are now pushing for more fracking and more tar sands development – which are utterly incompatible with 2°c, let alone 1.5°c. This is happening because the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries in the world think they are going to be OK, that someone else is going to eat the biggest risks, that even when climate change turns up on their doorstep, they they will not pay the price but ohers.
The point is that this could have been a moment to understand that we are all affected by climate change, and must take action together and in solidarity with one another. It wasn’t, because climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political model, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.
It’s not by accident that xenophobic movements are rising in Western countries. And their voices will be even louder, when climate change will increase. Of course the rich countries will not be able to take all climate refugees. That can’t be the solution. But is as a solution to let them drown? Isn’t it necessary to act now and everywhere?
The most important lesson to take from all this is that there is no way to confront the climate crisis as a technocratic problem, in isolation. It must be seen in the context of austerity and privatisation, of colonialism and militarism, and of the various systems of othering needed to sustain them all. The connections and intersections between them are glaring, and yet so often resistance to them is highly compartmentalised. The anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war or occupation. We rarely make the connection between the guns that take black lives on the streets of US cities and in police custody and the much larger forces that annihilate so many black lives on arid land and in precarious boats around the world.
Overcoming these disconnections – strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements – is, I would argue, the most pressing task of anyone concerned with social and economic justice. It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo. Climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, wars, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice and against militarism. Indeed the climate crisis – by presenting our species with an existential threat and putting us on a firm and unyielding science-based deadline – might just be the catalyst we need to knit together a great many powerful movements, bound together by a belief in the inherent worth and value of all people and united by a rejection of the sacrifice zone mentality, whether it applies to peoples or places. We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises that we can’t afford to fix them one at a time. We need integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions, while creating huge numbers of good, unionised jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy. .
I’m safe. My family are safe. We don’t live in fear. I’m free. There aren’t bullets flying about. There aren’t bombs going off. I’m not being forced to flee my home and I’m not being shunned by the richest country in the world or criticised by its residents.
But I’m sure, we need to learn this: We are American, British, German that is okay. A decent national feeling connected with respect for all nations in world is not bad. But our common home is this planet earth. Let me say it with my favorite quote of Rev . Martin Luther King:
We will learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.