LettersTheory & Practice

Climate & Colonialism

It is possible that the climate wars have already started. The ‘aridity line’ is usually considered to be 200mm of annual rainfall. Below that, you have desert. One could draw lines on a map of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia that mark the boundary between desert and conventionally arable land. These are lines that may be moving, as temperatures and rates of evaporation rise, causing all sorts of strife in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Eyal Weizman notes in The Conflict Shoreline: “Plotting the location of western drone strikes on meteorological maps demonstrates another astounding coincidence: many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza, and Lybia – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.” (12)

In parts of North Africa and the Middle East, modernizing states of the 20th century tried to push back the aridity line with modern irrigation and farming techniques. This too might be a contributing cause of desertification, as some of these techniques might not be designed to last. Sometimes the expansion of modern agriculture was at the expense of low intensity desert agriculture and pastoral practices which had endured for centuries. For example, the Bedouin people found themselves subjected to state control through displacement and concentration.

The best-known school of historical thought to take climate into account is that of Ferdinand Braudel. For him, climate was a long-run, mostly table and periodic layer to historical time. In this he was already clearly a European thinker. Those of us who come from the more capricious world of the Pacific ocean’s El Niño system might not see the old climate quite that way. In any case, Braudel was a Holocene thinker, where climate changed more slowly than historical time. That may not be the case in the Anthropocene. Weizman: “But the climate can no longer be considered a constant… The current acceleration of climate change is not only an unintentional consequence of industrialization. The climate has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continually acted to engineer it.” (12)

Weizman and his collaborators have touched on these matters in previous work, such as his book The Least of All Possible Evils (Verso, 2012) and Adrian Lahoud’s work in Forensis. In The Conflict Shoreline (Cabinet Books & Steidl Books, 2015) he digs in to a detailed case study of climate and colonialism. His research methods are from architecture, and among other things show what a kind of architectural research and theory can offer.

In an earlier book, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso Books, 2007) Weizman argued “against the geography of stable, static places,” but rather that “frontiers are deep, shifting, fragmented and elastic territories. Temporary lines of engagement, marked by makeshift boundaries, are not limited to the edge of political space but exist throughout it in depth.” (4) The border is in a field of tension with the center.

In situations of conflict about borders, “the mundane elements of planning and architecture have become tactical tools.” (5) His key field site was and remains Israel / Palestine, where “two insular national geographies occupying the same space.” (15) A space that includes the volumes of air space above as well as the volumes of mineral rights and so forth below. He introduced a “politics of verticality” into geospatial work. (12)

This was something of a change of direction in architectural research. After the heroic years of modernism, researcher had turned to ‘learning from Las Vegas’, from the vernacular, the semiotic, and above all the market. Fredric Jameson registered this change in his celebrated account of the work of hotel designer John Portman. For Weizman and other practicing architects, the new style “involved turning observations into concepts, concepts into tools and tools into design methodologies applied to the construction of building.” (259)

But architecture in a zone of conflict, even if it seems far from the border, cannot honestly share in such a program. It has to negotiate a relation between a professional and a political role. Research can’t lead to construction. In 2002 Weizman and Rafi Segal collaborated on A Civilian Occupation, a project commissioned by the Israeli Association of Architects. Who then tried to stop it being shown at the 2002 Berlin Architectural Congress, destroying 5000 copies of the catalog. Ironically enough, the resulting controversy made the project famous, which led to a series of commissions worldwide. (263)

Here Weizman showed the value of a kind of counter-mapping, perhaps even a cognitive mapping in the sense Jameson, Galloway, Toscano and Kinkle might want to give it. This developed into a practice of forensic architecture, about which I was fortunate enough to hear Weizman present at the GIDEST seminar at The New School recently.

Here I think Weizman has opened up a whole fourth quadrant in the practice of architecture. In the old days, architecture was obsessed with the thing itself, the building. Given that fancy architecture schools something think mere building is beneath them, one has to stick up for the humble practice of getting buildings done on time and on budget and that don’t leak.

Besides the thing itself, architecture concerns itself with two kinds of sign about it: iconic signs and symbols. Iconic signs resemble the thing itself. They are the plans and elevations and isometrics. The more symbolic architecture is that of language, the word, the logo and so forth. The postmodern turn shifted the emphasis from the iconic to the symbolic.

I think Weizman has created an architecture about a whole other kind of sign – the index. Indexical signs are traces of events: where there is smoke there is fire. The smoke does not resemble the fire. It is not an icon. Nor does it have a code like a symbolic sign system. Forensics is a matter of working backwards from the index to the event of which it is the sign, like in a detective story. A forensic architecture takes as its subject events that happen or don’t happen in build space, including the destruction of built space.

A fine example is The Conflict Shoreline (Cabinet and Steidl Verlag, 2015) which contains Weizman’s text and magnificent photographs by Fazal Sheikh from his Erasure Trilogy (Steidl, 2010-15). This book was submitted as evidence for the Truth Commission on Responsibility of Israeli Society for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South. Here Weizman’s focus shifts from Israel’s relation to Palestine to its relation to the Bedouin of the Negev desert.

The subject of the book is a small subset of the issues happening all along the line of aridity running across North Africa and the Middle East: the battle over the Negev: “a systematic state campaign meant to uproot the Bedouins from the fertile northern threshold of the desert, concentrate them in purpose-built towns, located mostly in the desert’s arid parts, and hand over their arable land for Jewish settlement…” (9)

Between 1948 and 1953 about 90% of the 100,000 Bedouin were forced out of Negev into Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt. About 12,000 became Israeli citizens, but were relocated to an arid and salt afflicted zone of the Negev that was under military rule until 1966. After that, they were relegated to concentration townships. The Bedouin try repeatedly to return to their land, only to be treated as trespassers, the settlements demolished.

What makes this a story about climate and colonialism is that the border of the desert itself is a meteorological fact rather than just a cartographic one. It is marked by the 200 mm annual rainfall isohyet – or rather by a line arrived at by averaging the recorded rainfall for several successive years. Below 200mm, ‘farming’ is not supposed to be possible. But this all depends on what one thinks constitutes farming. The aridity line is “defined by an interplay between meteorological data (rainfall/temperature), patterns of human use (modern agricultural practices), and plant species (the cereal types used in intensive farming).” (10) But the Bedouin can use much lower rainfall levels to farm. This is an inconvenient fact for a colonial narrative in which settler make an empty desert bloom with their imported farming methods.

A juridical procedure arose after the founding of Israel to displace Bedouin based on the aridity line. Permanent agricultural settlement was held not to be possible below the aridity line. And so the law could not recognize any Bedouin property rights in the arid zone. Indeed, in 1975 land taken from the Bedouin was declared state land by the Ministry of Justice. It’s a version of the doctrine of terra nullius familiar to those of us from other parts of the colonial new world. Thus, half of Israel’s total land area became an ‘empty’ place, but with the interesting feature that dispossession is coextensive with a meteorological definition of the desert. “The aridity line has become the sharp edge of a legal apparatus of dispossession.” (50)

Legal history is always a nuanced and complicated affair, but this ought not to exclude an appreciation of the hard edge of power within it. Before the Negev was under the jurisdiction of Israel there were the British, and before them the Ottoman empire. The 1858 Ottoman land law distinguished between cultivated and uncultivated land. It granted private ownership to those who cultivated barren land, and withdrew it if cultivation ceased.

The Bedouin tended to ignore attempts by the Ottomans and later by the British to register their tribal lands and agricultural fields, as they did not want to pay taxes on them to an external power. The Ottomans granted de facto autonomy to the Bedouins to maintain their customary land law, and the British continued this practice. Neither power really governed beyond the aridity line.

Israel applied the parts of the previous land regulation from Ottoman and British times that suited it. It declared the land uncultivated, but did not recognize local land ownership practices. It was ‘dead land’ that Israel would ‘make bloom.’ The abstract line of the isohyet began to have real effects.

Weizman details a 2009 court case in which Bedouin tried to reclaim their land, but the courts discounted oral testimony and relied instead on written accounts by European travelers in the Negev. One of which is Edward Palmer’s 1871 book Desert of the Exodus, which Edward Said discussed in his Orientalism. Palmer had a genocidal hatred of the Bedouin. But nevertheless, even his account could be read as offering evidence of settlement. But the court chose to see how barren the land looked to him rather than that he was witnessing the place in a time of drought.

Another contested source of evidence is aerial photography from 1917. Bavarian pilots surveyed the Negev, but the Germans left as the fortunes of war turned against them. There were the military successes of Auda ibu Tayi, working with TE Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, and also the arrival of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, led by the British, which incidentally, included Australian troops – and even some ancestors of mine.

After the war, Winston Churchill promoted air power. The British ruled the desert from the air. They bombed civilian populations during the Arab revolt of 1936-39. As Sven Linquist shows in his remarkable book A History of Bombing (New Press, 2003), the systematic bombing of civilian populations happened in colonial wars before being imported to the European theatre. However, the Brits did not get around to an aerial survey again until 1945. Some of this recon was leaked to Zionist paramilitaries and used in their occupation.

Weitzman offers a close reading of both the 1917 and 1945 photographs. “Just like a film, the surface of the earth is a recording device. Just like the terrain, the image has a distinct material topography.” (77) The problem for the Bedouin’s legal case is that whatever marks they may have left on the ground are below the “threshold of detectability.” (77) Their low-impact structures are more or less the size of the film grain. While the 1917 images are from summer, the more detailed 1945 ones are from winter, when the crops are gone.

Photographing the Negev is best after a rainfall, from October to November, which is the start of the rainy season. The optics are at their best, particularly early in the morning, when the shadows are long. These were the conditions under which Fasal Sheikh made his images, flying at 2,000 feet in a Cesna with the door removed. He flew only on weekends when there’s no military training flights. The Negev is a cluttered airspace. “This complex volume is an integral part of the architecture of the Negev.” (14)

The photographs are not self-evident. They have to be read. You can ‘unsee’ signs of past habitation. The narrative about the Negev that you bring to the act of interpretation shapes vision. For example, there’s two views about what happened to the abandoned ancient cities of the Negev. One theory is that over two millennia there was a slow movement of the aridity line northward that made them no longer viable. Another theory is that desertification was all caused by Arab neglect, reversed by Israel’s energetic policy of making the desert bloom. In the latter view the Bedouin, and the Arabs in general, are the fathers, not the sons of the desert.

But as Weizman argues: “Rather than neglecting the Negev, the Bedouins were the only people to have maintained their ancient knowledge of the land and further developed the existing infrastructure of ancient runoff farming…” (23) Sometimes they even maintained and build on the ancient systems themselves.

After the clearance of the Bedouin from the better Negev land, the Israelis adopted a different approach. They constructed water pipes – underground, for security reasons. The Jewish National Fund planted European style forests as a mode of climate modification. They were creating “geopolitical facts” in the desert. (24) Place names were changed. The Green Patrol, established in 1977, used the language of nature preservation against indigenous land use. Bedouin settlements are destroyed as interfering with ‘nature.’

But the Negev is still a desert, and desertification is increasing. This may partly be linked to unsustainable farming practices. But it may also be related to anthropogenic climate change. The whole story may be becoming part of the unfolding of the climate wars all along the aridity line.

It is possible that climate is one of the drivers of regional instability. In 2013 Israel fenced off its border with Egypt and built detention camps for refugees and migrants. The Bedouin, being stereotyped as ‘nomads’, are suspected of weapons smuggling and closely policed. The Jewish National Fund responded to desertification with even more forests, which is part of a general use of ‘ecology’ as a political tool.

While moving the Bedouin away from the arable parts of the Negev, the Israeli state has also established military firing ranges and dangerous industrial facilities close to where they have been settled. As Andrew Ross found in the rather different desert landscape of Phoenix, Arizona, there’s a kind of spatial injustice by which the toxic is distributed, and thus one has to be wary of ‘green’ projects that merely displace hazards elsewhere.

In his magnificent novel, The City & The City, China Miéville coined the verb to ‘unsee.’ In the book, the context is two cities interwoven into each other where citizens of each have to unsee the other, even when they are on the same street. It is possible that Weizman’s early work on the architecture of Israeli occupation was one of Miéville’s sources. But it seems to me that the notion of unseeing has a broader application. One can unsee the history of Bedouin land use. One can unsee the effects of anthopogenic climate change. One can unsee refugees and migrants pouring out of parts of the world that may have been destabilized at least in part by climate change.

Weizman’s forensic architecture offers powerful tools for seeing again what has been unseen by certain regimes of visual power. Images can pass through the world and leave little trace – like Hito Steyerl’s poor images. But architecture leaves traces. It leaves indexical signs even when the architecture is erased.

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

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