This roundtable is a conversation about how anthropology, history, and comparative literature, and the interpretive social sciences and humanities more broadly, are addressing the climate crisis as it pertains to the Middle East. By bringing together scholars who work directly on the climate crisis with those whose work addresses these questions more indirectly, it seeks to inventory the methodological, critical, and institutional tools we possess to engage the crisis, and to imagine the new tools we need to create.
Today’s climate crisis emerged within imperial power relations and capitalist ethics that have long impoverished, disenfranchised, and devastated communities throughout the Middle East. But this crisis distinguishes itself by forcing us to reconsider questions of scale and duration. It invites new thinking about the local, regional, and global, and new reckoning with temporal frames that exceed those in which politics have conventionally operated. These kinds of new thinking are urgent, as the climate crisis no longer hides behind the horizon of expectation. Climate effects have arrived faster than many—even as recently as a decade ago—expected, and are escalating in unexpected and devastating ways.
With this new urgency, a creative moment has arrived. A few narrow perspectives have long dominated analyses of climate politics. Among the most pernicious: status-quo technocratic reasoning, technological utopianism, and incitements to personal guilt and despair, each commonly underwritten by a settler-colonial environmentalism. But in recent years, activists and scholars working from, on, and in indigenous communities and throughout the Global South have shaken these analyses’ grip and are driving the most dynamic new analytic perspectives.
This roundtable began as a discussion at MESA’s Annual Meeting in 2020. In my remarks then, I considered what conversations on climate have taken place at MESA, in light of the dynamic conversations emerging elsewhere. To be certain, MESA is not necessarily representative of the field of Middle Eastern Studies more broadly, and clearly not representative of activists and scholars in the Middle East. But the fact that climate has not been a major part of the scholarly agenda at MESA just as certainly reflects a broader lack of critical attention. Within MESA, political scientists are doing the most consistent work to build a conversation on climate. One product of that is the recent IJMES special section on climate. Another is the recent MERIP issue on nature and politics. These are the product of a few dedicated, critical scholars who have been working for years in a fairly lonely corner of their field to build this vital conversation.
In that light, this roundtable invited MESA scholars from the interpretive social sciences and humanities to reflect on what their disciplines can tell us about what the climate crisis is and what its implications are for our studies of the past and present. How does climate require us to rethink our past work? What methods can we learn from one another, and from our peers working on and from communities elsewhere?
Jadaliyya’s Environment Page is proud to feature three articles that propose provisional answers to these questions. In "Oil Contingency: Histories of Oil and Climate Change," Arbella Bet-Shlimon thinks through her training as a historian of oil in the Middle East and the telling absence of a climate framing in that field. Bet-Shlimon argues that historians of oil may contribute to the emerging conversation on climate by interrogating the contingencies of oil’s hegemony and the climate crisis’s emergence.
In “Oil Sensoria,” Elizabeth Holt proposes to expand our thinking on the relationship of Arabic literature and oil beyond analyses of petrofiction, meaning works that explicitly engage themes of oil and its apparent effects. By analyzing Arabic publications imbricated in oil capital and Cold War imperatives, Holt reveals how literary texts produce and sustain the institutions and infrastructures of the global oil order, and points to possible ways out.
Finally, in “Climate and Commensuration in Palestine,” Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins interrogates two dangerous commensurations that undergird analyses of Palestine and climate: between Palestine and Israel, through the idea of a “shared environment,” and between climate change and occupation. These commensurations, Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues, obscure power relations, diffuse accountability, and normalize injustice.
Read the articles in the roundtable here:
- Oil Contingency: Histories of Oil and Climate Change by Arbella Bet-Shlimon
- Oil Sensoria by Elizabeth Holt
- Climate and Commensuration in Palestine by Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins
[Zozan Pehlivan, who presented at the MESA roundtable, was unable to contribute to this forum, but her Jadaliyya article, “Wildfires in Mount Cudi and the Ecological, Ideological, Political, and Historical Dimensions of Forest Fires: Turkey’s Destruction of the Kurdish Environment” may be read productively alongside this conversation.]