[Guest post by Clement Roy. Clement is interested in both geosciences and socio-political issues. He got a BSC. in applied physics and a MSc. in Environment at University of Geneva. He then worked in the field of energy, agriculture,and mining, and carried out a year of research around the world in geodynamics and paleoceanography (at Geotop of Montreal and University of Tokyo), before serving as an officier in the Navy French. He is now affiliated to the Institut de Physique du Globe of Paris as well as the French Institute of Geopolitics where he works respectively in the field of natural hazard and Asian piracy.]
Dear Kings of War readers. This is my first post here, and I would like first to thank David Betz for giving me the opportunity to contribute. As a guest- french scientist in the field of natural science, and former military- I am here to answer his ‘On strategic neo-catastrophism’ which put us in touch.
Earth cannot be only an object to be exploited. It is not either a living being, although it has some of its attributes (i.g. homeostasis), but can be treated as such because it makes us live, and because it has the power to destroy us. The next century appears to provide many threats and challenges: energy and mineral shortages, demographic and agricultural crisis, climate and ice sheets change, ocean acidification, deforestation, threats to ecosystems and fish stocks, all with a great economic cost. It thus appears that our situation is similar in many ways to that of ancient lost civilizations, reaching a population too large to thrive in their environment, and facing potential conflicts to seize the latest resources.
Interdisciplinary studies, crossing natural sciences, anthropology, and archeology, provide examples of ancient societies subject to environmental challenges. The Maya civilization, after reaching its demographic peak, collapsed between 750 and 900. In less than a century, the regional population shifted from three million to about four hundred thousand. Different assumptions about the collapse have been advanced: internal (or social) causes, or climate, as an external cause. Climate change could be the primary driver, affecting all the others, leading to a chain reaction, causing vegetation shift, and difficulties in the supply and management of water. In this context, conflicts between cities, so wars for ultimate resources were favored.
We can therefore make a link between environmental stress and political disorders. We learn through the example of the Maya, that the maximum exploitation of the natural environment, resource dependence, and natural environmental variability led their civilization to a very vulnerable position. Using the example of the Maya, and those, among others, of the Anasazi, Polynesian societies and Easter Island, at which we could add, more recently, Nauru and Kiribati, Jared Diamond (in “Collapse”) give us examples of societies coping with troubles, successful or not, with adaptive mechanisms according to their cultural values.
We also learn that if an environmental crisis occurs, it becomes quickly systemic and leads to economic and social aspects. According Joseph Tainter, anthropologist and historian, complexity is a natural way in the evolution of societies. Every adaptation, after problem-solving, complicates the society. But this complexity comes along with structural rigidity and therefore vulnerability when an unforeseen event occurs. The French system, very centralized, leaving little autonomy to local communities, although it may react quickly, is indeed particularly vulnerable to long-term crisis.
Humanity’s wealth depends on the diversity of culture it contains. But they cannot be thought apart from their growth substrate and environment. ‘Humanity is a piece of the world’, wrote Friedrich Ratzel in his ‘Anthropogeography’. He knew that well, as he was a disciple of Ernst Haeckel, one of the founders of ecology. Ecosystems are not discrete spaces; they are continuum. A continuum that species, including humans, can ionize, thus modifying more or less strongly. Indeed, any organization tends to change its environment in order to increase comfort, therefore its existence. But ultimately, this pressure creates a general level of stress to the ecosystem, which changes by a threshold effect.
Yet if environmental changes are continuous phenomena, our coping strategies crystallize on a discrete spectrum of solutions, often extreme. Ecologists become more radical; while governments want certainty before moving. We may observe this in the discourse on climate change: media bias, and positions cluster around on a favourite side. People expect a ‘solution’, while the necessary adaptation to this phenomenon is rather a way for us to redefine ourselves. But the truth is that we are adaptable only when our identity is strong enough, that is to say when our representation of our place in Nature is as strong as possible. This means quasi-static change in our mental universe. If a motion appears, from societies or Nature, people will either migrate elsewhere to find their former comfort, or struggle to re-establish the world they use to know in their physical environment.
Let’s propose here a draft concept. In a structural environment, the pioneer species is still subject to the environment and adaptation. The strength of the hazard is still structuring in a society, because of their inability to raise capital to erect a protection. This species may still be dominant, but it does not yet change the substance of the ecosystem. To conquer is not to submit. After a certain degree of control, the substrate of growth becomes obedient, i.e., it is the species that become structural for it. They then put pressure on the environment allowing it to create such a barrier, placing them ‘outside Nature’ in an artificial environment which maximizes comfort. The ‘Anthropocene’ is such an environment for humans: it buffers the potentially adverse and unexpected natural variations. And its ecosystem of accomplishment, which enabled the development of civilizations, is the City.
We therefore propose a two-axis analytical grid: (i) the importance of structuring, and (ii) kinetics of change. That means four types of situations, or four types of representations of Human position in Nature. But only one, the first, corresponds to a maximum comfort for us.
1- Obedient and stable Nature, as in the City, which allows the development of our species while avoiding the most uncomfortable situation.
2- Structuring and stable natural environment, as in the countryside.
3- But when the environment is dynamic, harmony disappears; the Man-Nature balance of power appears. By a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, if Nature has the initiative.
4- Or when population tries to re-appropriate their environment in a fluid context of insurgency and irregular warfare. In this case, it is an attempt to regain control against change in the substance of their ecosystem.
We should pay particular attention to current developments of Human-environment interactions and strategies in a global change. Because there is a level beyond which cohesion, sense of responsibility, and finally democracy are no longer favored. And when we all share the same plate, spit inside becomes a way of appropriating it: thus begins the race and wars for the last resources, to lose nothing of our competitiveness and inaction when it comes to cope with pollution.
So, here I would like to answer David Betz’s post ‘On strategic neo-Catastrophism’. It is not only conflict between nations that are to be expected. Conflicts inside the Nations may also be favoured. In 1979, Hans Jonas released its ‘responsibility principle’. What has become today? A rather vague principle, which leaves great flexibility in industrial activities, without making citizens more proactive. If governments become as inert as civil society, it is normal that a response emerges from non-governmental organizations and local communities.
Remember the great Frank Herbert science fiction novel ‘Dune’, adapted by David Lynch as a film in 1984: ‘who can destroy a thing, controls that thing.’ And maybe, like the burning of oil wells during the 1990 Gulf War, local population, in their struggle to re-appropriate their environment, would prefer to rather destroy it than abdicate to what they deem to be an external, imperialist, and dehumanized interference