History is taking a fantastic step backwards by building the ruins of the future.
Once again, wildfires are burning across California, sparked by the dumping of burning trash into dry grass. While the catastrophic news of Amazon fires is still fresh and raging, California is ripe for another explosive fire growth by dry, warm weather and strong seasonal winds. Are the blazing headlines about wildfires making you nostalgic about the earth? If you looked at the world with an Eastern gaze, you would already be nostalgic. When an Eastern émigré gazes at the splendour of Western civilization, she stares at the glory of her own past, when successive Eastern Empires – the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Ottoman Empires – ruled over the world. Yet, each one, starting with the first great civilization that rose along the Tigris and Euphrates, crumbled into broken bricks on arid plains. In Mesopotamia, irrigation led to soil erosion. Over time, the soil became toxic and would no longer support crops. The once fertile crescent has gradually dwindled to a wasteland due to agrarian overuse and urban development. As it carries the weight of the past, the East is nostalgic of the earth it has left behind; a feeling of hiraeth, homesickness for a broken home to which one cannot return, a home so distant one may doubt it ever existed.
Nostalgia is usually the reverse affect of hope. A nostalgic gaze may look backward on what is lost, but also forward, longing to rejuvenate the past. This is one of the root causes of human migration from East to West. For the past centuries, the Western settlement was an imaginary geographical catalyst for the redemptive realization of future selves. Yet, can this equivalence hold today, now that the edges of the Western hemisphere are running out of time and space? Has the West lost faith in a redemptive future? In a strange inversion on the horizon of temporality, we could be reaching a point in history when the Western gaze into the grim future mirrors the Eastern gaze into the lost past. Could it then be the West is nostalgic – not of a mirage of Oriental history – but of a slim opening of time when it could have saved its own future self?
It seems that the West is incapable of imagining an alternative future to socioeconomic and ecological collapse. The West is haunted by the past and incapable of imagining the future other than a cyclical repletion of the history. It is essential to explore the spatiotemporal interdependency between external wars on the East and internal wars of the West. Plagued by the haunting memory of the East, the West wages war on the East to destroy the mirror of itself, attempting to free itself from the shackles of history and imagine an alternative future but, in doing so, it only manages to reproduce internally the haunting legacy of past civilizational collapse. For it seems the West is recreating the future by targeting the last drops of the East’s “livelihood”; its oil. It wages war on two fronts on the East where it drops bombs and on itself, destroying crops, forest mountains and its ecosystem as a whole. While military campaigned on the East resonate with the fumigating air raids of the West, the eastern blood extraction resonates today with the fracking of the Western soil. East and West are now plundered by the same technology of destruction, intoxicating the enemy and crop alike.
Between East, West and futures past
In recent history, the East has left the past behind and migrated to the West, escaping not only from depletion but from the bombing raids of the West and its allies. When the West bombs the East, what does it accomplish? According to Derrida, we can only encounter the present experience by comparing it with the past and anticipating the future. Our experiences are “haunted” by that which no longer exists and by what is yet to come. Our experience is ghostly: real but absent. Today the Western present is haunted by the Eastern past. Could we also say that the West, haunted by the Eastern past, tries to annihilate its possible similar future self by waging war on the East? To understand this compression of space and time we need to investigate the haunting of the present by past and future selves. What the West attacks in the East is the projection and displacement of its own apocalyptic prophecy, the forecast of its irreversible ecological disaster. Western conduct in the Middle East illustrates this compulsion to rummage through“the graveyard of Empires”. Planes over pipelines have historically fuelled consecutive rounds of “appropriation through pollution”, lying to waste the residual sediments and stocks of fossil energy. In Syria, cities have been reduced to toxic rubble, while decades of carpet bombing in neighboring Iraq have torn the land to pieces. Today, in the same region, the West has delegated to Turkey the task of dropping incendiary bombs on the Kurdish region of Syria.
Once the horn of plenty and the garden of civilization, the East has become a fossilized wasteland. As the nexus of environmental degradation and war demonstrates, the Middle East is plagued with toxic dust, oil-fire pollution and heavy metal contamination. The old breadbasket of the world is now littered with depleted uranium and dioxin, the legacy of fossil-fuelled bombing.
Preventive wars and accelerated futures
Yet, when the US drops five-hundred-pound bombs on roofs of historic buildings of Mosul’s Old City, leaving behind a trail of blood and rubble, is the mission simply to secure geopolitical control in the East, or can it be viewed as an obsessive attempt to symbolically destroy the image of the West’s own depleting future? As witnessed during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the West has a history of projecting onto the East features of decay, attributing to “the Old Man of Europe” signs of decadence which could easily be identified in post-war British or French colonial society. The impossibility to accept one’s own monstrosity is violently objected and disgorged outwards, towards a strange and distant beast on which the West drops bombs. With unconscious familiarity, the West steps into Eastern shoes, only to repeat the traumas of the past.
Ironically, the battle to destroy the mirror image of decay precipitates – rather than anticipates – the collapse of shared planetary boundaries. By repeating destruction in the East, isn’t the West accelerating its own path towards self-destruction? Waging “preventive wars” only seems to reproduce past traumas. Beyond the immediate affliction caused to people on the ground, bombing the Middle East today accelerates the coming of ecological disaster on a global scale. As it destroys the possibilities for the future not to repeat past destructions, the West is also bombing its future self. Thus, it spins the wheel of repetition and destruction, which grows in scale with time.
From the Arab Spring to Silent Scream
In the past, systematic drought, crop shortage, water pollution, and land contamination plagued the East. Consequently, people fled to the West. Today, the West faces similar irrigation and pollution problems. Pesticide bombing and techniques of agricultural warfare have increasingly contaminated the soil and the water table. Like the United States Air Force abroad targeting “rogue” agents, chemical companies regularly fumigate the domestic landscape with synthetic bombs, eroding it beyond repair.
The West, having eulogized the East, is now contemplating its own fossilization. Weapons of mass destruction, which allowed the West to conquer the East, are now turned against the West itself. If the external bombing is intermittent, internal bombing is incessant. With the boom in hydraulic shale gas fracking, the West has masochistically turned appropriation through pollution inwards. Recent studies have identified the cascading effects resulting in the industrial use of complex chemical fracking fluids on ecological habitats, which in turn significantly impact the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere.
As with Mesopotamia destroying itself through overexploitation, the West is imploding by itself, delivering its most lethal time bomb not over the Middle East, but over its own head. In a move from the periphery back to the core, the same energy companies responsible for the Century-long release of fossil fumes in the Middle East are now leaking toxic benzene and nitrogen oxides deep into the bedrock of the US landmass. The release of so many hydrocarbons by the fracking technology is turning the West into a time bomb machine.
The time machine carries a bomb inside
Reflective of the time, the nostalgic gaze of the eastern émigré, once looking backward to the historical loss, now looks forward to what is about to vanish, not only the Eastern motherland but the Western substitute fatherland. The future is taking a fantastic step forwards by building on the ruins of the past.
It’s in California, home to many immigrants who share the “Eastern gaze”, that the sequence of time bombing events has produced its latest complexity. The recent mega-fires at the edge of the Western Hemisphere reveal how the American dream has gone up in flames.
The power of airplanes has been used as a technique of warfare on the people of the East and on insects from the West. In the 20th Century, airplanes sprinkled the American countryside with chemical pesticides. This industrial mode of agricultural production drastically changed the type and spatial distribution of the vegetation. Then came patterns of suburban settlement, which accompanied rapid demographic growth in California, redesigned landscapes and generalized individual fossil fuel consumption. Carbon emission raised local temperatures and changed the climate, increasing the risks of forest fire disturbance. The extension of the summer season has turned many California forests into matchboxes.
Synchronicity of chemical fertilizer and chemical fire-retardant bombing
In turn, when wildfires burn land treated with pesticides, the chemicals and their combustion products are volatilized across the California landmass and contaminate it with toxic waste. Next come fire response teams, who bomb chemical fire retardants from above to extinguish the blaze down below. The chemical firestorm complex has ultimately trespassed the private properties of Hollywood billionaires (though Kanye West managed to save his $60 million mansion from the Woolsey fire by hiring a private firefighting force). Through geochemically engineered aerial campaigns, the firefighting bombs repeat the West’s compulsion for combustion. Intimately intertwined are the fossil-fueled war economy in the East and the sanitary firefighting regime in the West. Airplanes are thus a type of modern pharmakon, designed as a double-edged weapon igniting and repressing fires, depending on their use. As the firefighting regime in California is offered as a technological remedy to purge the climate, its airborne technology also spreads in the atmosphere the carbon pollution it is designed to remedy.
Having carbonized the edges of the continent, the West is facing the fact that appropriation of time and space has paradoxically led to dispossession of a polluted earth. Time-travelling chemical waste – “matter out of place” (Mary Douglas) – has colonized a planet out of space (Michel Serres). The future is already here, burning in fire and fury, the mirage of an American oasis in diachronic identity with its Middle Eastern nemesis.
Upon this realization, the collective psyche has entered a state of solastalgia, or “distress caused by environmental change”. The nostalgia for Paradise Lost is suddenly compressing the time Westerners think they dispose of to redeem and salvage the perforated ecosystems they inhabit.
What was once considered a temporary state of emergency – geopolitical warfare – has gradually become a permanent state of exception: the catastrophe of climate change. While the Western gaze into a grim future mirrors the Eastern gaze into a lost past, the present times reveal the synchronicity of political and natural terrors.
We live in a Post-Mesopotamian Era – The great civilization that once rose along the Tigris and Euphrates is now reduced to unexcavated banks or broken bricks on arid plains.
Recovery of A Paradise Lost –The image of Mesopotamia
Fear of ‘futures past’ destroys the present– As if bombarding the East was an attempt to destroy the image of the West’s own depleted future.
Agricultural warfare is increasingly contaminating the soil and the water table. Like the United States Air Force abroad, chemical companies regularly fumigate the domestic landscape with synthetic bombs, eroding it beyond repair.
Remorseless revenge of history – A Paradise Lost
Repeating the compulsion for combustion – Planes bomb fire retardants from above to extinguish the blaze down below.
THE END – In California, the future is already here, burning in fire and fury, the American oasis now analogous to its Middle Eastern nemesis.
Header Image: Andrea Booher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
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About the authors
Tina Beigi is an environmental engineer who is currently pursuing a PhD in Ecological Economics at McGill University.
Michael Picard is a research fellow at the Institute for Global Law & Policy of the Harvard Law School and teaches International Law at Sherbrooke University.