Climate change and the war in the Syria

For those of you interested in the debate over global climate change and the war in Syria, there is an important exchange published online in Political Geography 60 (2017).  It starts with an essay by Jan Selby, Omar Dahi, Christiane Frölich and Mike Hulme, ‘Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited‘:

For proponents of the view that anthropogenic climate change will become a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability in the decades ahead, the Syrian civil war has become a recurring reference point, providing apparently compelling evidence that such conflict effects are already with us. According to this view, human-induced climatic change was a contributory factor in the extreme drought experienced within Syria prior to its civil war; this drought in turn led to large-scale migration; and this migration in turn exacerbated the socio-economic stresses that underpinned Syria’s descent into war. This article provides a systematic interrogation of these claims, and finds little merit to them. Amongst other things it shows that there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in Syria’s pre-civil war drought; that this drought did not cause anywhere near the scale of migration that is often alleged; and that there exists no solid evidence that drought migration pressures in Syria contributed to civil war onset. The Syria case, the article finds, does not support ‘threat multiplier’ views of the impacts of climate change; to the contrary, we conclude, policymakers, commentators and scholars alike should exercise far greater caution when drawing such linkages or when securitising climate change.

Several of those whose work is criticised in the essay respond: Colin Kelley, Shahrzad, Mark Cane, Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir (their original contribution ‘claim[s] climate as one of many contributing factors to the unrest’ and ‘nothing [in the critique] refutes this, and none of their supportable arguments even offer reason for doubting this view’), and Peter Gleick (‘While the authors note in a few places that the research studies they critique do not typically claim that climate change “caused” the Syrian unrest, they themselves regularly repeat that very argument as a strawman that they then try to debunk’).

There’s also a blue-helmet response from Cullen Hendrix:

I fear getting the Syrian case “right” – or at least correcting a flawed dominant narrative – will negatively affect discussions of environmental impacts on conflict in the policy sphere. Many will read this article as “all this talk of climate change and conflict is wrong,” when in fact the evidence supports a much more limited conclusion: the impact of climatic factors on the Syrian civil war is not entirely clear. But the dramatic nature of the Syrian civil war and the vocal nature of those linking it to climate change have caused this case to exert inordinate influence on how influential non-specialists and the general public view the relationship between climate change and conflict.

There’s also a robust rejoinder from the original authors:

Firstly, we wish to emphasise that nothing in our analysis or our other writings questions the fact of anthropogenic climate change (though this really should go without saying) [Sadly it doesn’t: see here]. Second, we wish to note that, though some may read our article as evidence that ‘all this talk of climate change and conflict is wrong’, as Hendrix fears, this is not our view. Most academic studies of climate-conflict linkages are much more careful in their use of evidence, and on issues of causation, than the studies interrogated here. Moreover, though there is room for debate on where, when and howclimate change will affect conflict, we do not doubt that it will do so. Given the scale and the range of challenges posed by global climate change, it would frankly be incredible if it did not have some significant conflict implications.

And yet there is a long, sad history of people making overblown claims about climate change and conflict, the Syria example – and Al Gore’s recent extension of it to explain the UK’s vote to exit the European Union – being clear cases in point. Climate conflict discourse has historically been much more policy- and media-than research-led, and indeed policymakers and journalists often show scant regard for academic nuance on these issues (see e.g. Selby & Hoffmann, 2014). In the Syria case, this problem has been accentuated by the readiness of certain natural scientists, most prominently the authors of Kelley et al. (2015), to feed this un-nuanced policy and public discourse while using evidence casually and failing to engage with relevant social scientific research. To this extent the main implication of our analysis is simple: that far greater care is required, since without such care there really is a risk of climate conflict talk fuelling climate scepticism.

My sound-bites don’t do justice to the debate, nor to its importance.

There’s also a commentary from the Center for Climate & Security (‘a non-partisan policy institute’ whose Advisory Board is stacked with Admirals and Generals: even if the Trump administration dismisses global climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese, the Pentagon certainly doesn’t) here.

More on CCS from the Washington Post here.  The CCS was cited approvingly in a comic, “Syria’s Climate Conflict” (2014), produced by Years of Living Dangerously and Symbolia Magazine; you can access it via Mother Jones here.

If, like me, you wonder about the methodologies on which these arguments and counter-arguments rest, I recommend Thomas Ide, ‘Research methods for exploring the links between climate change and conflict‘, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 8 (3) (2017) to jump-start the debate.


The flu has restricted me to not so much light reading as lighter-than-air reading, so here are some short contributions and notices that appeared during the Christmas break and which address various aspects of (later) modern war and military violence:

Peter Schwartzstein on ‘The explosive secrets of Egypt’s deserts‘ – the recovery of military maps, aerial photographs, personal journals and sketchbooks from the Second World War to plot the vast minefields that continue to haunt ‘one of the most hotly contested killing fields of the twentieth century’.  You can find more in Aldino Bondesan‘s ‘Between history and geography: The El Alamein Project’, in Jill Edwards (ed) El Alamein and the struggle for North Africa (Oxford, 2012).

I discussed those minefields in ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and that essay intersects in all sorts of ways with my good friend Gastòn Gordillo‘s project on terrain, so here is a short reflection from him entitled Terrain, forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.

Not the ‘war on drugs’ but the war through drugs: Mike Jay‘s sharp review essay (‘Don’t fight sober’) on Łukasz Kamieński‘s brilliantly titled Shooting Up: a short history of drugs and war and Norman Ohler‘s over-the-top Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany (for another, equally critical take on Ohler, see Richard J Evans‘s splenetic review here; more – and more appreciative – from Rachel Cooke‘s interview with Ohler here).

Here’s an extract from Mike’s review:

9780190263478In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines. ‘Dutch courage’ – originally the genever drunk by British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War – has many components. With alcohol, soldiers can tolerate higher levels of pain and hardship, conquer fear and perform acts of selfless daring they would never attempt without it. It promotes disinhibition, loosens cultural taboos and makes troops more easily capable of acts that in civilian life would be deemed criminal or insane. The distribution of alcohol and other drugs by medics or superior officers has an important symbolic function, giving soldiers permission to perform such acts and to distance themselves from what they become when they’re intoxicated.

Opium, cannabis and coca all played supporting roles on the premodern battlefield but it was only with the industrialisation of pharmaceutical production that other drugs emerged fully from alcohol’s shadow. Morphine was widely used for the first time in the American Civil War and the 19th-century cocaine boom began with research into its military application. Freud was first alerted to it by the work of the army surgeon Theodor Aschenbrandt, who in 1883 secretly added it to the drinking water of Bavarian recruits and found that it made them better able to endure hunger, strain and fatigue. During the First World War cocaine produced in Java by the neutral Dutch was exported in large quantities to both sides. British forces could get it over the counter in products such as Burroughs Wellcome’s ‘Forced March’ tablets, until alarms about mass addiction among the troops led to a ban on open sales under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707During the 1930s a new class of stimulants emerged from the laboratory, cheap to produce, longer-acting and allegedly less addictive. Amphetamine was first brought to market in the US by Smith, Kline and French in 1934 in the form of a bronchial inhaler, Benzedrine, but its stimulant properties were soon recognised and it was made available in tablet form as a remedy for narcolepsy and a tonic against depression. As with cocaine, one of its first applications was as a performance booster in sport. Its use by American athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 brought it to the attention of the German Reich and by the end of the following year the Temmler pharmaceutical factory in Berlin had synthesised a more powerful variant, methamphetamine, and trademarked it under the name Pervitin. As Norman Ohler relates in Blitzed, research into its military applications began almost immediately; it was used in combat for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War. Ohler’s hyperkinetic, immersive prose evokes its subjective effects on the German Wehrmacht far more vividly than any previous account, but it also blurs the line between myth and reality.

This too blurs the line between myth and reality, or so you might think.  Geoff Manaugh‘s ever-interesting BldgBlog reports that the US Department of Defense ‘is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants”.’  Sustainable shooting.  But notice this is ammunition only for use in proving grounds…


At the other end of the sustainable spectrum, John Spencer suggests that ‘The most effective weapon on the modern battlefield is concrete‘.  To put it simply, you bring today’s liquid wars to a juddering halt – on the ground at any rate – by turning liquidity into solidity and confounding the mobility of the enemy:

Ask any Iraq War veteran about Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and Colorado and you will be surprised to get stories not about states, but about concrete barriers. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq became experts in concrete during their combat tours. Concrete is as symbolic to their deployments as the weapons they carried. No other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats. This was most evident in the complex urban terrain of Baghdad, Iraq. Increasing urbanization and its consequent influence on global patterns of conflict mean that the US military is almost certain to be fighting in cities again in our future wars. Military planners would be derelict in their duty if they allowed the hard-won lessons about concrete learned on Baghdad’s streets to be forgotten.

When I deployed to Iraq as an infantry soldier in 2008 I never imagined I would become a pseudo-expert in concrete, but that is what happened—from small concrete barriers used for traffic control points to giant ones to protect against deadly threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indirect fire from rockets and mortars. Miniature concrete barriers were given out by senior leaders as gifts to represent entire tours. By the end my deployment, I could tell you how much each concrete barrier weighed. How much each barrier cost. What crane was needed to lift different types. How many could be emplaced in a single night. How many could be moved with a military vehicle before its hydraulics failed.
Baghdad was strewn with concrete—barriers, walls, and guard towers. Each type was named for a state, denoting their relative sizes and weights. There were small barriers like the Jersey (three feet tall; two tons), medium ones like the Colorado (six feet tall; 3.5 tons) and Texas (six feet, eight inches tall; six tons), and large ones like the Alaska (12 feet tall; seven tons). And there were T-walls (12 feet tall; six tons), and actual structures such as bunkers (six feet tall; eight tons) and guard towers (15 to 28 feet tall).


But it’s nor only a matter of freezing movement:

Concrete also gave soldiers freedom to maneuver in urban environments. In the early years of the war, US forces searched for suitable spaces in which to live. Commanders looked for abandoned factories, government buildings, and in some situations, schools. Existing structures surrounded by walled compounds of some type were selected because there was little in the environment to use for protection—such as dirt to fill sandbags, earthworks, or existing obstacles. As their skills in employing concrete advanced, soldiers could occupy any open ground and within weeks have a large walled compound with hardened guard towers.

Now up into the air.  My posts on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia (here and here) continue to attract lots of traffic; I now realise that the project – a targeting gazetteer for Strategic Air Command – needs to be understood in relation to a considerable number of other texts.  Elliott Child has alerted me to the prisoner/defector interrogations that provided vital intelligence for the identification of targets – more soon, I hope – while those targets also wound their way into the President’s Daily Brief (this was an era when most Presidents read the briefs and took them seriously, though Nixon evidently shared Trump’s disdain for the CIA: see here.)  James David has now prepared a National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book (No 574) which provides many more details based on redacted releases of Briefs for the period 1961-77.

Two of the most critical intelligence targets throughout the Cold War were Soviet missile and space programs. U.S. intelligence agencies devoted a huge amount of resources to acquiring timely and accurate data on them. Photoreconnaissance satellites located launch complexes and provided data on the number and type of launchers, buildings, ground support equipment, and other key features. They located R&D centers, manufacturing plants, shipyards, naval bases, radars, and other facilities and obtained technical details on them. The satellites also occasionally imaged missiles and rockets on launch pads. There were four successful photoreconnaissance satellite programs during the four administrations in question. CORONA, a broad area search system, operated from August 1960 until May 1972. The first successful high resolution system, GAMBIT-1, flew from 1963-1967. The improved GAMBIT-3 high resolution satellite was launched from 1966-1984. HEXAGON, the broad area search successor to CORONA, operated from 1971-1984. High-resolution ground photography of missiles and rockets displayed at Moscow parades and other events also proved valuable at times.


Signals intelligence platforms [above] also contributed greatly to understanding Soviet missile and space programs. Satellites such as GRAB (1960-1962), POPPY (1962-1971), and AFTRACK payloads (1960-1967) located and intercepted air defense, anti-ballistic missile, and other radars and added significantly to U.S. knowledge of Soviet defensive systems and to the development of countermeasures. Other still-classified signals intelligence satellites launched beginning around 1970 reportedly intercepted telemetry and other data downlinked from missiles, rockets, and satellites to Soviet ground stations, and commands uplinked from the stations to these vehicles. Antennas at intercept sites also recorded this downlinked data. During the latter stages of missile and rocket tests to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific, ships and aircraft also intercepted telemetry and acquired optical data of the vehicles. Analysis of the telemetry and other data enabled the intelligence agencies to determine the performance characteristics of missiles, rockets, and satellites and helped establish their specific missions. Radars at ground stations detected launches, helped determine missile trajectories, observed the reentry of vehicles, and assisted in estimating the configuration and dimensions of missiles and satellites. Space Surveillance Network radars and optical sensors detected satellites and established their orbital elements. The optical sensors apparently also photographed satellites.

And for a more recent take on sensors and shooters, coming from Yale in the Spring: Christopher J Fuller‘s See It/Shoot It: The secret history of the CIA’s lethal drone program:

An illuminating study tracing the evolution of drone technology and counterterrorism policy from the Reagan to the Obama administrations.

This eye-opening study uncovers the history of the most important instrument of U.S. counterterrorism today: the armed drone. It reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA’s covert drone program is not a product of 9/11. Rather, it is the result of U.S. counterterrorism practices extending back to an influential group of policy makers in the Reagan administration.

Tracing the evolution of counterterrorism policy and drone technology from the fallout of Iran-Contra and the CIA’s “Eagle Program” prototype in the mid-1980s to the emergence of al-Qaeda, Fuller shows how George W. Bush and Obama built upon or discarded strategies from the Reagan and Clinton eras as they responded to changes in the partisan environment, the perceived level of threat, and technological advances. Examining a range of counterterrorism strategies, he reveals why the CIA’s drones became the United States’ preferred tool for pursuing the decades-old goal of preemptively targeting anti-American terrorists around the world.

You can get a preview of the argument in his ‘The Eagle Comes Home to Roost: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program’ in Intelligence & National Security 30 (6) (2015) 769-92; you can access a version of that essay, with some of his early essays on the US as what he now calls a ‘post-territorial empire’, via Academia here.

Finally, also forthcoming from Yale, a reflection on War by A.C. Grayling (whose Among the Dead Cities was one of the inspirations for my own work on bombing):

grayling-warFor residents of the twenty-first century, a vision of a future without warfare is almost inconceivable. Though wars are terrible and destructive, they also seem unavoidable. In this original and deeply considered book, A. C. Grayling examines, tests, and challenges the concept of war. He proposes that a deeper, more accurate understanding of war may enable us to reduce its frequency, mitigate its horrors, and lessen the burden of its consequences.

Grayling explores the long, tragic history of war and how warfare has changed in response to technological advances. He probes much-debated theories concerning the causes of war and considers positive changes that may result from war. How might these results be achieved without violence? In a profoundly wise conclusion, the author envisions “just war theory” in new moral terms, taking into account the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust and laying down ethical principles for going to war and for conduct during war.

For King and Countryside

Richard Harpum/Tommy

‘For the British soldier in the First World War, nature was always a matter of life and death’:  John Lewis-Stempel

When I was working on ‘Gabriel’s map’, and later on ‘The natures of war’ (both available under the DOWNLOADS tab), I immersed myself in the ways in which industrialised war violated the rural landscapes of Belgium and France on the Western Front during the First World War.  But I also noticed there (as in other war zones) the redemptive possibilities of ‘the natural world’:

A few miles behind No Man’s Land lay an agrarian landscape that would have been familiar to most European troops – though not to the considerable contingents from other continents – and many of them took refuge in a reassuring rurality whenever they were removed from the front line. Moving up to the trenches from Belancourt on a glorious June afternoon in 1916 the young Max Plowman exulted in the scene:

‘The tall corn is ripening, and between its stalks poppies and cornflowers glow with colour. Through the valley we are descending a noisy stream finds its way, and on the hills beyond, great elm-trees stand like wise men brooding. It is a lush green country, full of beauty. The war seems far away.’

Pastoral conceits like these – and they were by no means uncommon – were testaments to the horrors that closed in as the troops neared what Plowman later called ‘the palsied zone’. As he and his men marched towards Fricourt, they crossed the old front line. ‘The country here is stricken waste: the trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire.’ Later still, he described the sun glaring down ‘on earth that has lost its nature, for, pitted everywhere with shell-holes, it crumbles and cracks as though it has been subject to earthquake.’ As the landscape ‘lost its nature’ – a loss for which the all too human violence of war was responsible – so it also appeared less human. Yet even there, in the midst of all that, it was still possible to find sights and sounds that evoked the pastoral: the cornflower blue sky, the crimson rose, the fluting song of the lark. But these were all fleeting moments, and when he was finally relieved Plowman wrote that ‘it is cheering to be going westward: the farther you go in this direction the more human the world becomes.’  The opposition between the ‘un-natural’ and the ‘human’ really pits the savage against the domesticated, but passages like these are double-edged. They form a repertoire of ‘Arcadian resources’ in Paul Fussell’s resonant phrase, which function as what he saw as a characteristically ‘English mode of both fully gauging the calamities of the Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them’. Protection here is about more than solace, I think, because opposing these imaginative geographies works to repress the transformation of the domesticated into the savage which confirmed what Claire Keith saw as ‘the frightful interdependence of human death and environmental death’.


Those redemptive, even Arcadian moments have now been gathered and pressed within the pages of a new book: John Lewis-Stempel‘s Where Poppies Blow: the British solider, Nature, the Great War (2016):

Where Poppies Blow is the unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on.

At the most basic level, animals and birds provided interest to fill the blank hours in the trenches and billets – bird-watching, for instance, was probably the single most popular hobby among officers. But perhaps more importantly, the ability of nature to endure, despite the bullets and blood, gave men a psychological, spiritual, even religious uplift.

Animals and plants were also reminders of home. Aside from bird-watching, soldiers went fishing in village ponds and in flooded shell holes (for eels), they went bird nesting, they hunted foxes with hounds, they shot pheasants for the pot, and they planted flower gardens in the trenches and vegetable gardens in their billets.

In an interview, the author explains:

When the poet Edward ‘Adlestrop’ Thomas was asked why he was volunteering for service in the Great War, he picked up a handful of earth and said, ‘Literally, for this’. Men went to fight for King and Countryside, as much as King and Country. Nature worship was almost a religion in Edwardian England.

And when men arrived in France, they lived in trenches – inside the earth. ‘Certainly I have never lived so close to nature before or since’, Corporal Fred Hodges of the Lancashires observed, in words that spoke for the generation in khaki.

There was no escape from Nature 1914-18. Skylarks, say, buoyed men’s spirits -one Scottish miner said about the Western Front ‘What hell it would be without the birds’- and some Nature killed the soldiers. We think of the Great War as the first modern war; actually, it was The Last Ancient War. Disease, courtesy of rats and lice, was diabolical.

But I suppose, above all else, Nature healed the mind. Men looked at the poppies growing in the mud and the swallows which shared their dug-out and saw hope – a future for themselves and humankind.

You can capture exactly that sense in some of John Masefield‘s poetry, written when he was serving as a medical orderly – the book begins with his ‘August, 1914’ – and you can read more in the Preface and the first chapter of Where Poppies Blow (the splendidly titled ‘For King and Countryside’) available here.  As the remark I’ve used as my epigraph makes clear, though, there was always (and remains) a desperately dark side to the entanglements with a militarised nature.

Nature is a battlefield

And while I’m on the subject of ‘The Natures of War’, that essay describes how ‘nature’ – yes, I do know how complicated that word is – is much more than a ‘resource bank’ over which war is waged (resource wars, conflict commodities and the rest) but also a medium through which military violence is effected: the mud of the Western Front, the deserts of North Africa and the rainforests of Vietnam.


This month Polity publishes Razmig Keucheyan‘s Nature is a Battlefield: Towards a Political Ecology (originally published in French in 2014):

In the midst of the current ecological crisis, there is often lofty talk of the need for humanity to ‘overcome its divisions’ and work together to tackle the big challenges of our time. But as this new book by Razmig Keucheyan shows, the real picture is very different. Just take the case of the siting of toxic waste landfills in the United States: if you want to know where waste is most likely to be dumped, ask yourself where Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and other racial minorities live and where the poorest neighbourhoods are. This kind of ‘environmental racism’ is by no means restricted to the United States: it is very much a global phenomenon.

Keucheyan show how the capitalist response to the crisis has been marked by a massive expansion in ‘environmental finance’. From ‘carbon markets’ to ‘pollution permits’, ‘climate derivatives’ and ‘catastrophe bonds’, we are seeing a proliferation of nature-related financial products. Instead of tackling the root of the problem, the neoliberal strategy seeks to profit from environmental risks.

Moreover, with the rise in natural disasters, resource scarcity, food crises, the destabilization of the poles and oceans and the prospect of tens of millions of ‘climate refugees’, Western powers are increasingly adopting a military response to ecological problems. The Cold War is over: welcome to the ‘green wars’. From New Orleans to the Siachen glacier via the Arctic floes, Keucheyan explores the landmark sites of this new ‘climate geostrategy’.

The first chapter addresses ‘Environmental racism’; the second ‘Financialising nature: insuring climatic risks’; it’s the final chapter that most interests me, ‘Green wars or the militarisation of ecology’:

A doctrine emerges
A benevolent dictatorship
Chaos specialists
Terrorism and climate change
The new military ecology
Conservation and counter-insurgency
Agent Orange
From the Cold War to green wars
The end of conventional wars?
Double movement
Climate refugees
Nuclear deterrence and ecological crisis
War and biofuels
The oceans destabilised
The scramble for the Arctic
The North Pole and globalisation
Commodifying the thaw
The speed of the circulation of capital

Razmig is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his mapping of contemporary critical theory, Left Hemisphere (Verso, 2013).

A long day’s journey…

Anti-landscape of the Western Front.001

A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

JARMAN Sand.001

The conflict shoreline, colonialism and climate change


When Eyal Weizman was in Vancouver last March – joining us for Gaston Gordillo‘s  workshop on Space, materiality and violence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies – he delivered a public lecture on The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change.

It’s now available as an extended essay (96 pp) from Steidl in association with Cabinet Books:

The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than seventy times in the “battle over the Negev,” an ongoing Israeli state campaign to uproot the Bedouins from the northern threshold of the desert. Unlike other frontiers fought over during the Israel–Palestine conflict, however, this threshold is not demarcated by fences and walls but advances and recedes in response to cultivation, colonization, displacement, urbanization, and climate change.

The fate of al-‘Araqib, like that of other Bedouin villages along the desert’s threshold, its “aridity line,” is bound up with deep environmental changes. But whereas even the most committed environmentalists today conceive of climate change as an accidental and unintentional side effect of modernity, Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman argues that from the point of view of colonial history, climate change has never been simply collateral damage. It has always been a stated goal; “making the desert bloom” is, in effect, “changing the climate.”

In examining this history, Weizman outlines attempts—from the Ottoman era through the period of European colonization to the present—to scientifically define, measure, and map the threshold of the desert. Such efforts have been important because imperial and, later, national governments—whose laws have never recognized property rights in the desert—aimed to push back this threshold as they tried to expand the limits of arable land and bring the nomads under state control. In the Negev, the displacement of the weather and the displacement of the Bedouins have gone hand in hand. But while the desert edge, and the Bedouins, have been driven further and further south, global climate change today acts as a major counterforce. Predictably, the Bedouins are caught in the middle.

Brilliantly researched and argued, Weizman’s text—part detective story, part history lesson, and part scientific analysis—explores the changing threshold of the Negev through the extraordinary contemporary photographs of American artist Fazal Sheikh, as well as an array of documents, maps, and images, including historical aerial imagery, remote sensing data, state plans, court testimonies, and nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts. Together, these disparate forms of evidence establish the “conflict shoreline” as a border along which climate change and political contestation are deeply, perilously entangled.

You can find some of the background, and the relation to Eyal’s Forensic Architecture project, in an interview earlier this year:

I’m mostly trying to establish forensic architecture as a critical field of practice and as an agency that produce and disseminate evidence about war crimes in urban context. Recent forensic investigations in Guatemala and in the Israeli Negev involved the intersection of violence and environmental transformations, even climate change. For trials and truth commissions, we analyze the extent to which environmental transformation intersect with conflict.

The imaging of this previously invisible types of violence—‘environmental violence’ such as land degradation, the destruction of fields and forests (in the tropics), pollution and water diversion, and also long term processes of desertification—we use as new type of evidence of processes dispersed across time and space. There are other conflicts that unfold in relation to climatic and environmental transformations and in particular in relation to environmental scarcity.

Conflict has reciprocal interaction with environment transformation: environmental change could aggravate conflict, while conflict tends to generate further environmental damage. This has been apparent in Darfur, Sudan where the conflict was aggravated by increased competition over arable due to local land erosion and desertification. War and insurgency have occurred along Sahel—Arabic for ‘shoreline’—on the southern threshold of the Sahara Desert, which is only ebbing as million of hectares of former arable land turn to desert. In past decades, conflicts have broken out in most countries from East to West Africa, along this shoreline: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. In 2011 in the city of Daraa, farmers’ protests, borne out of an extended cycle of droughts, marked the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Similar processes took place in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Homs, al-Raqqah and along the threshold of the great Syrian and Northern Iraqi Deserts. These transformations impact upon cities, themselves a set of entangled natural/man-made environments. The conflict and hardships along desertification bands compel dispossessed farmers to embark upon increasingly perilous paths of migrations, leading to fast urbanization at the growing outskirts of the cities and slams.

I’m trying to understand these processes across desert thresholds. There has been a very long colonial debate about what is the line beyond which the desert begins. Most commonly it was defined as 200 mm rain per annum. Cartographers were trying to draw it, as it represented, to a certain extent, the limit of imperial control. From this line on, most policing was done through bombing of tribal areas from the air. Since the beginning, the emergence of the use of air power in policing in the post World War I period—aerial control, aerial government—took form in places that were perceived, at the time, as lying beyond the thresholds or edges of the law. The British policing of Iraq, the French in Syria, and Algeria, the Italians in Libya are examples where control would hover in air.

Up to now I was writing about borders that were physical and manmade: walls in the West Bank or Gaza and the siege around it—most notably in Hollow Land (2007). Now I started to write about borders that are made by the interaction of people and the environment—like the desert line—which is not less violent and brutal. The colonial history of Palestine has been an attempt to push the line of the desert south, trying to make it green or bloom—this is in Ben Gurion’s terms—but the origins of this statement are earlier and making the desert green and pushing the line of the desert was also Mussolini’s stated aim. On the other hand, climate change is now pushing that line north.

Following not geopolitical but meteorological borders, helps me cut across a big epistemological problem that confines the writing in international relations or geopolitics within the borders organize your writing. Braudel is an inspiration but, for him, the environment of the Mediterranean is basically cyclically fixed. The problem with geographical determinism is that it takes nature as a given, cyclical, milieu which then affects politics—but I think we are now in a period where politics affects nature in the same way in which nature affects politics. The climate is changing in the same speed as human history.


The conflict shoreline was originally commissioned in response to Fazal Sheikh’s Desert Bloom series (part of his remarkable Erasure trilogy: see image stream above, and also here).

Truth Commission

It has also been submitted as evidence for Zochrot‘s project on transitional justice, the Truth Commission on the responsibility of Israeli society for the events of 1948–1960 in the South.

Transitional justice mechanisms address the needs of communities and countries in conflict to cope with systematic abuses and structural injustices in order to facilitate reconciliation. Communities in conflict, both victims and victimizers, have developed a variety of innovative approaches to addressing the needs that result from ongoing conflicts. Hitherto, practices informed by the transitional justice paradigm have been used mainly to accompany and heal societies and communities in political transitions such as from totalitarian to democratic rule, or from an apartheid regime as in South Africa to an egalitarian democratic regime. Usually, these practices have been applied after a violent conflict had ended in a peace agreement, as in the former Yugoslavia, or in an armistice, as in Cyprus or Northern Ireland.

Many activists around the world have demonstrated time and again that silencing and ignoring the past prevent conflict resolution and the attainment of true reconciliation. Therefore, even in situations of seemingly intractable conflicts, several initiatives by civil society organizations, trade union or social religious organizations similar to state-sponsored mechanisms of transitional justice have sprung around the world. For the past 40 years, these initiatives have acted without government backing to bring resolve violent conflicts.

The Truth Commission established by Zochrot now joins these initiatives. The first of its kind in Israel/Palestine, the Commission is unique in that … it is active while the conflict is still ongoing, and against the background of the regime’s evasion of responsibility to the events of the Nakba, which began in 1948 and is still ongoing [the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ refers to the forced eviction and dispossession of the Palestinian people set in motion by the war of 1948]. The Truth Commission for Exposing Israeli Society’s Responsibility for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South which started its deliberations in late October 2014…

The Commission seeks to expose the events of the Nakba during those years – events that have profound implications for the ongoing Nakba experienced by the Palestinian Bedouins to this day. The Commission examines testimonies by Palestinian displaced persons and refugees, as well as Jews who lived in the south and Jewish fighters who took part in displacement and expulsion operations in the area. In addition, the Commission peruses relevant archive materials. The Commission’s report will be designed to encourage the Jewish society in Israel to accept responsibility for past injustices in the south, with reference to the ongoing Nakba, and for redressing them.

You can also read Tom Pessah‘s report for +972 here.

War Material

SARGENT Two soldiers at Arras

I’m thrilled to say that the (very!) long-form version of The Natures of War, the 1st Neil Smith Lecture which I gave at the University of St Andrews in November 2013, is now online (‘Early View’) at Antipode, all 54 pages of it.

Here is the abstract:

“Nature” is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations; it is also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted. The militarisation of nature is part of a dialectic in which earthy, vibrant matter shapes the contours of conflict and leaves its marks on the bodies of soldiers who are both vectors and victims of military violence. Three case studies identify some of the central bio-physical formations that became entangled with armed conflict in the twentieth century: the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second World War, and the rainforests of Vietnam. Taken together, these reveal vital connections between the materiality and corporeality of modern war and their continued relevance to its contemporary transformations.

You can still find the original, non-Harvard style version under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I’m truly grateful to Andy Kent for relieving me of the task of converting my original MS into the Harvard system.

The image above, incidentally, is John Singer Sargent‘s Two soldiers at Arras (1917), and is a perfect illustration of this passsage from the essay:

In the face of these horrors, some soldiers came to regard themselves as having become as “un-natural” as the militarised, industrialised natures in which they were embedded. The Tommy “will soon be like nothing on earth”, wrote one officer on the Somme in January 1916. “If only we could be clothed in rubber all over and fed through a tube I think some real progress in our equipment might have been made”. He was only half-joking. The next phase in the emergence of this cyborg warrior can be seen in the tank battles that raged across the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. But, as I must now show, even in the midst of this more fully mechanised warfare, bio-physical entanglements remained immensely powerful—and the human body intensely vulnerable.

I then do the same for Vietnam.

My plan is to rework this version: to incorporate as many of the images I used in the Vietnam extracts I posted online here and here (together with others from the Western Front and the Western Desert), to add a fourth case study of Afghanistan, and to include the revised version in a new book of essays that I’m calling War material.

The plan looks like this (in each case the original essays, apart from the intro, are available under the DOWNLOADS tab too; I’m re-working those versions, planing away any overlaps, and adding more images):

Chapter 1: War material

Chapter 2: Gabriel’s map

Chapter 3: The Natures of War

Chapter 4: Doors into Nowhere

Chapter 5: Lines of Descent

These are all more or less ready to go, apart from the introduction, but I’m debating whether to add a sixth chapter, called ‘Wounds of war’, which would parallel ‘The Natures of War’ in many ways and chart the changing geographies of casualty evacuation from war zones, 1914-2014.

Each of the essays in the book, even in their present form, has something to say about the way in which the conduct of modern war has – and has not – changed over the last hundred years, but the title also tilts at those who seem to think that everything we need to know about modern military violence was uncannily anticipated by Michel Foucault in his (I too think brilliant) Paris lectures in the 1970s so that this absolves them of the need for any research or even reading into the materialities of war (a strangely non-Foucauldian assumption, given his own frequent immersion in the archive and his densely empirical way of working).

I’d be grateful for any comments or suggestions.