Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Syrian crisis: the cause is more than "political economy"

A paper from 2013 called "Did Drought Trigger The Crisis In Syria?" is useful, but as is often the case for authors with a background in political science and economics, they see only part of the spectrum. The paper usefully describes policies which heightened inequality and which also increased irrigation, including from groundwater extraction, but the authors are especially blind to limits to growth, including demographic factors. 

Risk multiplication vs political economy: is there a pre-eminent cause?

The paper acknowledges that "invoking drought as a destabilizing force in Syria is intuitively appealing" but that if "terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s."

Further: " When one delves into the details, drought as an external factor recedes and political economy takes center stage."

Political economy is usefully defined here as "the study of how those in power structure access to economic resources".

How can political economy be disentangled from the environment?
My fundamental criticism is that the paper refuses to accept the "risk multiplier" concept. Elsewhere, one of the authors has argued: "The environment is a quintessentially human category and susceptible to adaptation, not an external variable that mechanically triggers socio-political consequences." Sure, the environment is not an external actor, but it is surely an external variable to which people react. Also, how can something such as a drought be  a quintessentially human category?

In any case, I argue that
the dysfunctional political economy is part of the milieu in which the drought interacted. Would the conflict have occurred so early, with abundant rain?

Eco-social tipping points
Secondly, the article does mention that the population of Syria was growing rapidly in recent decades. It does state "Before climate change was a commonly employed term, political rulers in the region faced dwindling per capita water resources, desertification, deforestation, soil salinity, and the like." However, I have long argued, there are thresholds of scarcity which matter .. societies, even poorly managed, can cope with declining per capita resources ... to a point.

Third – there is no hint of understanding of the demographic dividend, nor that an under-appreciated aspect of limits to growth is that co-operation is also not infinite.

PS There are many analyses of the Syrian conflict which are more balanced than the one which provoked this blog, such as Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest