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Ecological Decline and Conflict:The Environmental Causes of Violence in the Middle East








Ecological decline really can undercut the basis of social cooperation. It does so by creating violence and war.

Consider the effects of desertification on the Middle East.






Maps 1 and 2 are physical maps of the terrain of Africa, the Saudi Peninsula and the Middle East. What is of interest are the regions marked in orange. These areas are the semi-arid, dry areas with tenuous water supply such as one might find in West Texas. There is low scrubby vegetation. It will support agriculture, but only marginally. It is better for herding, but only to a limited extent. The ground cover is fragile. If you overgraze, you lose the ground cover. This would cause the land to stop retaining water – turning the semi-arid into a full-fledged desert.   


The semi-arid contains a substantial percentage of the conflict and civil wars of the world. Northern Nigeria is the center of Boko Haram. Chad produced the mercenaries used by Kaddafi to bolster his regime. Sudan and Southern Sudan include the Darfur, the war between Sudan and Southern Sudan and the Civil War between the Dinka and the Nuer. Eritrea fights with Ethiopia, Somalia has the armed warlords who fight over Mogadishu, and the pirates who attack shipping off the Horn of Africa. The semi-arid in the Arabian Peninsula contains the only area of ongoing civil war and terrorism: Yemen. In the Middle East, the Western band of the semi-arid includes Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. This is the primary field of activity of ISIS. Farther East in the semi-arid is Kurdland with Kurdish-Turkish wars and the mercenaries who fight ISIS. The semi-arid continues into Western Afghanistan where it occupies the primary centers of activity of the Taliban.


In all of these settings, people are turning to warfare because normal economic life is no longer viable. Semi-arid areas throughout the world are desertifying. Between 1948-1962 and 1990-2004, 1.6 million square kilometers of semi-arid land converted to fully arid desert. This reflects a global drying of the earth in which 4.6 million square kilometers of land have transformed into drier formats while only 1.98 million square kilometers have from irrigation or natural sources transformed into wetter sources. The amount of land being reclaimed in moister systems is less than half the amount of dry land that is being newly created. Globally, nearly all of the land that has moved from semi-arid to arid is in the Eastern Hemisphere, either in Mongolia or on the edges of the orange zones illustrated here.


Why is the semi-arid desertifying? Most of this comes from population growth. Larger populations lead to larger herds. Animals are the primary source of sustenance – and people have to eat. So more people leads to more animals.


Larger herds eat more ground cover. With less ground cover, the land has less capacity to hold water after rains. Water that used to be absorbed by the soil runs off instead. The land becomes too dry to support agriculture or to replace the forage that supports herding.


Life becomes unsustainable. People become economically desperate whether they stay or whether they leave. If they stay, they are literally living in a desert with no way to support themselves.


If they move to the city, their options do not become dramatically better. They are farmers and herders with few urban skills. They arrive with no money, so they live in the slums. They have neither education, skills nor cash. The slums are already filled with other unemployed people due to the weak economic performance associated with rentier states. The migrants become landless workers who have lost everything.


Dying farms, dying towns, widespread unemployment and huge numbers of idle marginalized youth lead to many of the responses that produce joining terrorist organizations. What do people in the Global South do when they cannot get a job and cannot economically survive?

1. They can turn to crime. Poverty makes some people more predatory and violent than they would otherwise choose to be.

2. They can go to work for a local politician or warlord. Politicians and warlords are always looking for help and they always have funds to pay their supporters. Poverty makes some people more partisan than they would otherwise be.

3. They can go to school. Educational opportunities for the poor are often extremely limited. Religious schooling may be the only feasible choice. Poverty makes some people more religious than they would otherwise be.


This is the power of ISIS. It is a criminal gang AND a warlord organization AND a religious education organization. As such it covers all of the avenues taken by people who would otherwise be economically marginalized. Other terrorist groups may have more narrow lines of recruitment – but they can operate on similar principles.


Having no economic prospects can lead to some of the despair that would lead to someone being willing to put on a suicide vest. In the United States and Canada, it is not uncommon for gang members to throw themselves into violence knowing full well they are likely to die themselves in a few years. If you see no future for yourself, and you see no future for anyone around you, that is ever more reason to decide to go out in a blaze of glory. At least this way, you will make an impact on the world.

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Terrorism is not caused by Islam. Malaysia, Indonesia and Albania are all Islamic countries. None of them has a particular history of terrorism. But then, none of them are in the semiarid either.


Terrorism is not caused by any particular hatred of the United States or hatred of Israel. Neither the United States nor Israel is much of a concern for Boko Haram, or the Somali pirates.


Terrorism is not caused by irrational fanatical ideology. It is caused by people falling into violent disrupted lives, because normal, otherwise peaceful, life has become completely disrupted.


The ecological destruction of an entire region can produce a lot of social disruption. One of the side effects can be terrorism.

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