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Naomi Klein, Let Them Drown
In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these 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.
nine months from now you will lead a course called Advanced Seminar. It is a writing intensive course for undergraduates. what kind of writing are you good at? and what kind of writing can you hope to help the students learn through? You have led graduate seminars on design and on a variety of cyberpunk science fiction authors. in these the writings have been media artifacts after intense conversation. you have been beginning to explore solarpunk, decolonization, afrofuturism. are you prepared enough to explore these with the undergrads? I’m curious, what did you choose?
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.
As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love.
Five years after the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, a bleak, apocalyptic strain of post-revolutionary literature has taken root in the region. Some writers are using science fiction and fantasy tropes to describe grim current political realities. Others are writing about controversial subjects like sexuality and atheism, or exhuming painful historical episodes that were previously off limits.
In a literary culture where poetry has long been the most celebrated medium, writers are experimenting with a range of genres and styles, including comics and graphic novels, hallucinatory horror novels and allegorical works of science fiction.
“There’s a shift away from realism, which has dominated Arabic literature,” said the Kuwait-born novelist Saleem Haddad, whose new book, “Guapa,” is narrated by a young gay Arab man whose friend has been imprisoned after a political revolt. “What’s coming to the surface now is darker and a bit deeper.”
Science fiction and surrealism have long provided an escape valve for writers living under oppressive regimes. In Latin America, decades of fascism and civil war helped inspire masterpieces of magical realism from authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. In Russia, the postmodern novelist Vladimir Sorokin has published disturbing and controversial futuristic novels that surreptitiously skewer the country’s repressive government.
Dystopian themes are not entirely new in Arabic fiction. But they have become much more prominent in recent years, publishers and translators say. The genre has proliferated in part because it captures the sense of despair that many writers say they feel in the face of cyclical violence and repression. At the same time, futuristic settings may give writers some measure of cover to explore charged political ideas without being labeled dissidents.
“These futuristic stories are all about lost utopia,” said Layla al-Zubaidi, co-editor of a collection of post-Arab Spring writing titled “Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution.” “People really could imagine a better future, and now it’s almost worse than it was before.”
In the turbulent months after the uprisings, when the promises of democracy and greater social freedom remained elusive, some novelists channeled their frustrations and fears into grim apocalyptic tales. In Mohammed Rabie’s gritty novel “Otared,” which will be published in English this year by the American University in Cairo, a former Egyptian police officer joins a fight against a mysterious occupying power that rules the country in 2025.
Mr. Rabie said he wrote the novel in response to the “successive defeats” that advocates of democracy faced after the 2011 demonstrations that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. While there are parallels to present-day Egyptian society, setting the story in the near future allowed him to write more freely, without drawing explicit connections to Egypt’s current ruler, he said in an email interview translated by his Arabic publisher.
Nael Eltoukhy, whose darkly satirical 2013 novel, “Women of Karantina,” takes place partly in a crime-ridden Alexandria in the year 2064, said he felt that a futuristic farce was the best way to reflect the jaded mood in Egypt.
“In Egypt, especially after the revolution, everything is terrible, but everything is also funny,” he said in an interview. “Now, I think it’s worse than the time of Mubarak.”
Gloomy futuristic stories have proved popular with readers, and several of these novels have been critical and commercial hits. “Otared” was a finalist for this year’s prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Publishers say the books have caught on with the public in part because they distill a collective feeling of frustration.
This new body of post-revolutionary literature shows a sharp tonal shift from the ecstatic outpouring that arrived immediately after the Arab Spring, when many writers published breathless memoirs or dug out old manuscripts they had stashed away for years.
Alexandra Alter, Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel
The defining emotion of our time, the postnormal, is world weariness: weltschmerz. The sense of deep sadness when contemplating the evils of the world’s systems.
Postapocalyptic novels are a great medium for untangling and retangling the threads of weltschmerz. And of course, the hope and joy of the Arab spring led to a steep crash after the movement was co-opted.
There is a worldwide Human Spring coming, though. The outcome of that movement might define the fate of the world.
PS ‘Everything is Terrible’ would be a good title for a book.