Conflict Shorelines II: Conflict, Settlement, & Environmental Violence, Princeton University Seminar
Guest speakers will include the political activist and human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, Oren Yiftachel (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), Ariella Azoulay (Brown University, USA), Zvi Efrat, Sharon Rotbard (Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem), Yishai Blank (Tel-Aviv University Faculty of Law), Lital Levy (Princeton University), and more.
This course explores the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a history of spatial and environmental transformations by considering the threshold of the Negev desert. This desert edge is a conflict shoreline along which multiple struggles unfold: settlements displace native people in order to make the desert bloom, while climate change desertifies large tracts of formerly agrarian lands. This course investigates the nature of these contemporary conflicts by establishing relations among colonial history, architecture, literature, and climate change and by examining the political, legal, and aesthetic challenges that environmental violence initiates. It also includes a trip to the Negev during the spring break to conduct onsite investigations and to devise novel “testimonial strategies” to corroborate and expand the investigations of the Zochrot Truth Commission.
Political Conflicts and Climate Change
The course is the second in a three-course sequence that seeks to study the entanglement between political conflicts and climate change. Our point of departure is the growing number of conflicts that today unfold in complex relation to climatic and environmental transformations. On a global scale, some of these conflicts take place along environmental threshold conditions (“conflict shorelines”) in which climate transformations aggravate existing political tensions. Conflicts over land and resources now take place along the threshold of the tropical forests of Central and South America, and of Central Africa and East Asia. Other conflicts are located along the ebbing threshold of deserts, in relation to the drying out of the Sahel and other places across the Middle East. And others still are situated across the shorelines of melting glaciers, rising seas, and coastal cities, urban and natural environments increasingly vulnerable to climate instabilities.
We begin with the understanding that conflict shorelines are not simply determined by climatic factors, but are instead deeply complex historical and natural processes that bring together political developments, urban transformations, colonial histories, and patterns of city growth and migration in relation to changing climatic conditions. Such forms of violence need to be thought across larger temporal and territorial scales and at different speeds. They pose a set of epistemological challenges that demand thinking simultaneously along historical, political, geological and climatic lines.
“Slow Violence,” Rob Nixon notes, writing of the devastating effect of creeping entanglements of environment and politics, “occurs gradually and out of sight, [it is] a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space… incremental and accretive.” It is a form of violence that operates at various speeds, spatial scales, and intensities. The slow violence of the earth’s heating might convert into the fast and spectacular violence of armed conflict, when, for example, drying fields along the Sahel or the Great Syrian Desert reach a point in which they can no longer support their farmers. Inversely, the effects of wars might linger when conflicts leave their destructive effects for years and decades (and, in the case of nuclear residue, millennia) to come.
Environmental modes of detection and imaging, and the modeling of eco-systems, reveal tropical forests, for example, to be archaeological resources in which the spatial dispersal of plant types and their age register patterns of human inhabitation and movement when no other material traces remain. We need to see all changing environments as anthropogenic, that is, as equally constructed by human inhabitation, human-induced climate change, and natural processes. The epistemological models developed to study urbanism are a good starting point for interrogating such complex environments. Indeed, we might ask if the shifting line of the forest, or that of the desert edge, can be viewed as urban phenomena since they are manmade.
Investigating this kind of violence demands a shift in evidentiary and explanatory models, epistemologies, and structures of causation. Among other things, the immediacy of “evidence” is challenged in several ways. The analysis of armed conflict can no longer conform to the model of criminal law that seeks to trace a direct line between the two limit figures of victim and perpetrator, but instead requires the examination of force fields and causal ecologies that are non-linear, diffused, simultaneous, and that involve multiple agencies and feedback loops. In particular, the different shorelines of these contemporary conflicts connect to deeper histories of violence that often have colonial roots.
How to read?
Indeed, following historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, the investigation of the intersection of conflict and climate change must extend to include the perspective of the history of colonialism. Reading colonial and urban histories and literature against meteorological and climate data will allow us to investigate the ways in which colonial projects from the Americas through Africa, the Middle East, India, and Australia not only sought to overcome unfamiliar and harsh climate but rather to transform it in order to engineer the weather. Colonial cities, which most often configured terminal nodes of a vast web of resource plunder and extraction, acted as the urban engines of this process of re-engineering land and climate, a process that was intrinsic to colonialism, and which formed part of a violent project for controlling populations and territories. On the other hand, evidentiary practices related to climate are now oriented toward the future, investigating forms of evidence for destruction—such as large-scale catastrophes and climate events—that has not yet taken place. Modes of prediction involve algorithmic models but also the imagination, speculation, probability, and creativity, and are thus deeply cultural.
Casting its glance toward both the past and the future, this project therefore requires expertise in several disciplines and we are excited about the possibility of pursuing these questions with students from various disciplines. The three courses in this sequence will connect their long-term research plans with well-established local partners and with NGO and international environmental institutions, and will work to map the intersection of climate change, colonialism, and contemporary conflict.
In addition to the Princeton seminar, the series will include public events and discussions.