Tackling Climate Change Through Teaching Environmental History
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Climate change has an impact around the world, even on countries that have so far been spared from the worst natural disasters. This is true for Qatar, which has largely escaped the catastrophic fires and floods that ravaged other places in recent years. The small Gulf state, although wealthy and stable, hosts large numbers of migrants whose home countries have been threatened by food and water insecurity, economic loss, and associated political conflicts.
As for those inhabitants of Doha who have never travelled elsewhere, they only need to step out of their air-conditioned spaces to feel the life-threatening summer heat. A further increase in temperatures could have a detrimental impact even on the desert animals that are most adapted to Arabia’s climate.
Global warming is a problem that requires the collaboration of researchers from many different disciplines spanning the humanities and sciences. History is one of them.
Global warming is a problem that requires the collaboration of researchers from many different disciplines spanning the humanities and sciences. History is one of them. After all, any prediction of future trends requires a thorough understanding of past interactions between humans and our planet.
Studying Past Middle Eastern States
Fortunately, we have an ever-expanding body of scholarship on environmental history that examines how our societies have shaped nature and vice-versa. The Middle East is an especially fertile area for such investigations, as we have thousands of years of written records about the management of water from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, for instance. How to deal with droughts is thus hardly a new question.
What perspectives can long-gone empires and civilizations offer for the young people we teach?
The vast Ottoman Empire, for example, was able to control the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers from source to mouth. The Ottomans ran these water bodies in a way that allowed them to ship people, grain, metal and timber from Anatolia to southern Mesopotamia.
This is a far cry from the situation today, in which any boat attempting to go from Turkey to Iraq via Syria would encounter huge physical and political barriers, including highly controversial dams. Freight transportation thus relies on trucks that emit much more carbon dioxide per ton of cargo than ships.
History allows our students to imagine an alternative, a necessary step for any subsequent action.
We have thousands of years of records about the management of water from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. How to deal with droughts is thus hardly a new question.
Of course, I am not proposing to bring back the Ottoman Empire, an entity many people experienced as oppressive. Just as the Danube today does well without the Habsburgs, the Tigris and Euphrates could thrive without the House of Osman. However, keeping these watercourses navigable and free from pollution requires that we treat them as border-crossing ecological systems rather than as landscape features that adhere to the logic of nation-states.
Learning from Smaller Communities
Although political unification (as in the European Union, for instance) can help join forces, tackling big issues does not necessitate large states or federations.
Traditional architecture, as found even in small towns and villages across the world, has countless sustainable features. They include the use of renewable materials like bamboo and renewable energy such as wind.
In Msheireb Downtown Doha, a neighborhood I encourage my students to explore, streets are oriented to capture the cool breezes from the Gulf while buildings shade most pedestrian routes.
Although an ever-larger section of humanity is living in cities, sustainability lessons can even be found far away from permanent settlements.
The Bedouin have long mastered survival with minimal water consumption. Because the Arabian Peninsula is devoid of perennial rivers and lakes, many of its nomads have relied on camel milk for hydration. As rates of lactase persistence have remained high among Arabs, camel milk products could easily be sold by supermarkets and restaurants. With camels producing significantly less methane than cattle and goats, herding them is also more sustainable.
Bedouin star-lore also shows the value of a sky free from light pollution. In the contemporary Gulf, governments have tried to attract tourists with glitzy attractions such as the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa. However, far away from the fireworks and other lightshows at these developments, dark-sky parks would also have great potential to attract visitors.
Such preserves themselves would also be excellent settings for teaching environmental history, situating students within the kinds of spaces our species has evolved.
Integrating Environmental, Political and Economic Topics
Teaching environmental history may not save the planet, but I hope my students take away a few examples of when rivers were better-managed, or houses were more sustainably built.
Because environmental topics are among the most crucial ones of our time, they have long had a place on my syllabi. However, I often dedicated a separate week or two to them. My course on the Modern Middle East, for example, had a unit on environmental transformations after sections on politics and economics.
I have gradually realized that I need to integrate environmental perspectives into most lessons, rather than keeping them as a distinct segment.
Modern wars and even just the upkeep of large armies in peacetimes have a huge carbon footprint. The United States military alone with its enormous fuel consumption is a bigger polluter than as many as 140 countries. Emission-intensive processes are at the basis of much economic activity, even in those nations not typically labelled “oil states.”
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I am not sure how much even the best teacher of environmental history can contribute to saving our planet. I hope that all of my students take away a few examples of when rivers were better-managed, or houses were more sustainably built.
At the very least, I also wish that they will see the connections between otherwise distinct news items: like climate change and military operations, whose carbon intensity typically goes unreported by most of the media.
Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.
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