Land grabbing, or how to feed future generations

A leaked draft of the latest IPCC report surfaced last weekend, this time warning of the serious food security risks awaited due to climate change. Despite the fact that increased temperatures are expected to improve agricultural conditions in higher latitudes, that will not entirely offset lost productivity in tropical zones, particularly Africa. The evidence also shows that crops are in fact much more sensitive to temperature changes than anticipated. Global productivity of staple crops is expected to decline by 2% every decade, while demand by a growing population is expected to rise 14% per decade in parallel.


Food security is not something the average layman worries about in the Gulf, despite the fact that we grow practically nothing and process very little in the way of food. The very words ‘food insecurity’ usually only bring to mind images of famine in far off places like Somalia, places we can’t and don’t identify with. Yet I’ve often wondered what the grand plan is for feeding future Gulf generations should our substantial imports falter for any reason. Saudi Arabia long ago abandoned its domestic wheat farms due to irrigation costs, and the global food price surge in 2007 cost GCC governments a lot of money in food imports. Surely we can’t just be eating at the mercy of our agriculturally productive neighbors?

Well, it turns out our governments have thought long and hard about this, and have found the solution in buying up their own farms abroad, in places like Sudan, Pakistan and Australia. It’s a bit like direct foreign investment, except it’s in food and cash crops instead of infrastructure or real estate. If we want to get technical, it’s also referred to as land grabbing. The ‘investors’ pick fertile underdeveloped farms with a good water supply and use modern agricultural technology to transform them into highly productive farms whose yields are either sold for cash or used to feed GCC citizens at home. Qatar has even dedicated an entire arm of its sovereign wealth fund, Hassad, to this enterprise.

It’s an ethically dubious, politically dangerous approach. What happens when citizens of those precarious countries where GCC governments own farms wizen up to these deals? What happens when the host governments are too inefficient to secure their own citizens’ food supply, and the only thing separating angry hungry crowds from a foreign government’s productive and lucrative farm is a tall fence? Host countries allegedly promise security forces as part of the deal, but I’m fairly certain that’s just adding fuel to the fire. Countries like Egypt and Sudan are already struggling with restive, vulnerable and impoverished populations unable to accept the rolling back of food and fuel subsidies. What happens when they get wind of these land grab deals is anyone’s guess. In the meanwhile, someone’s got to come up with better solutions for the GCC to feed itself.

Petri Dish Hamburgers on Mars

There have been some great sci-fi stories on the Guardian lately. A few weeks ago there was the piece on Elon Musk’s mission to establish a human colony on Mars (and secure a burial plot for himself in the process). His reasoning: preempt the inevitable decline of human civilization and capitalize on our resources while we’ve still got them. Today there is a story about a €250,000 hamburger grown in a petri dish out of bovine stem cells over the course of three months. Mark Post, the Brit scientist responsible for this dubious culinary product, hopes to wean us off ‘inefficient’ cows, free up pasture land for agriculture, reduce methane emissions and of course spare the world’s cows from the slaughterhouse. Quite a few birds with one stone, it seems.cartoon

It’s possible that these guys are brilliant scientists onto something. Musk’s earthly plans (high speed trains and electric cars) are not half bad, after all, and at least he’s DOING something about the planet’s environmental challenges. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of people thought they were bat-shit crazy, and not in an endearing way. Musk and Post’s visions of the future come up hard against the concept of ‘nature’ and what is ‘natural’ – why would anyone want to eat meat grown out of a petri dish or live on a desolate, frigid planet without even a breathable atmosphere? Are we that bent on unlimited hamburgers and extreme survival? Is humanity really prepared to let go of its ‘natural’ sustenance in pursuit of relentless expansion? Is any incarnation of human life better than no life at all?

We could flip the questions around, of course. What is ‘nature’ anyway and (why) does it know best? Why is ‘natural’ better? After all, humans have not gotten where they are by submitting to the various hostile forces of nature. We don’t throw our hands up in the face of disease, drought, or famine – we view it as our duty and our right to surmount them. We build cities and cars and planes and defy the physical limitations of our bodies every day. Some of us have even come to view the trappings of human life through the lens of modern capitalist economics, where the chief rationale and driver of decision making is efficiency. Observe how Post explains the advantages of his lab-grown meat:

“Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein,” Post told the Guardian. “So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With cultured meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [produce] any methane  . . . The human appetite for meat means that 30% of the Earth’s useable surface is covered by pasture land for animals, compared with just 4% of the surface used directly to feed humans. The total biomass of our livestock is almost double that of the people on the planet and accounts for 5% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of methane emissions – a much more potent greenhouse gas.

Cows may be inefficient by Post’s standards, but they are also natural. If we’re eating too many cows for our and the planet’s good, should we be trying to eat less cow or growing more in labs instead? In the early 20th century America’s food industry was held up as the paragon of modern science and efficiency, saving housewives’ time and raising nutritional standards; today we rail against all that passes for ‘food’ in America as diabesity and heart disease begin to ravage the population. Will the petri dish hamburger fall into the category of life-enhancing innovations, or will it join the reviled ranks of aspartame and high fructose corn syrup? I think that’s one culinary adventure I’d rather spare myself for now.

Update: I didn’t realise Sergy Brin was the funding behind the hamburger. Here’s a great Guardian video explaining his line of thought:

The End is Nigh! Or isn’t it?

If we discovered tomorrow that there was an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and – because physics is a fairly simple science – we were able to calculate that it was going to hit Earth on 3 June 2072, and we knew that its impact was going to wipe out 70% of all life on Earth, governments worldwide would marshal the entire planet into unprecedented action. Every scientist, engineer, university and business would be enlisted: half to find a way of stopping it, the other half to find a way for our species to survive and rebuild if the first option proved unsuccessful. We are in almost precisely that situation now, except that there isn’t a specific date and there isn’t an asteroid. The problem is us. Why are we not doing more about the situation we’re in – given the scale of the problem and the urgency needed – I simply cannot understand.”


That’s an extract from an article in the Guardian a couple of days ago, itself an extract from a new book called Ten Billion by Professor Stephen Emmott, in which he argues that humanity’s current levels of consumption are completely unsustainable and are leading to irreversible planetary changes bound to wipe many of us out. Emmott’s last sentence hits the nail on the head and brings me back to one of my central themes: turning matters of fact into matters of concern. It is a fact that we are fast bringing the planet to the brink of collapse. It is a fact that we need to radically alter something about the way we live, whether it’s our patterns of consumption or the technology we employ or the energy we tap. It is a fact that we must make urgent changes. But nobody seems to care. Nobody seems to be able to muster the necessary level of concern to do anything worthwhile about the facts.

Scientists and intellectuals are often perplexed when the larger public refuses to acknowledge facts that ‘speak for themselves’: witness Al Gore and his inability to rally a significant American public behind his scientifically valid cause. Bruno Latour argues that the West’s beloved distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ is to blame here. It’s proven so hard to do anything about climate change because ‘facts’ are rarely born as such, and it is through a ‘value’-driven process of reducing perplexity that they become institutionalized as facts. Climate change is an example of a fact in the process of being born: the scientists assert that it is objectively true, while peddlers of doubt use all manner of often value-based arguments about the right to development and a right to dominate the earth, even the right to question scientists, to generate debate. Politicians seize upon the debate as an excuse for their inaction and wait for the facts to be definitively established. Smoking is an example of a fact that has surpassed the debate stage to become institutionalized: a consensus was reached, and smoking has been irreversibly established as a carcinogen. Politicians are now free to legislate against it.

At the risk of oversimplifying a long and complex argument, Latour proposes bridging the fact-value divide by breaking down facts to their attributes of perplexity and institution, and breaking down values to their attributes of consultation and hierarchy. One starts with perplexity – does the subject of debate exist, who are the stakeholders involved, and what is therefore under discussion? Then one proceeds to consultation, making sure all the concerned parties are included in the discussion, with no arbitrary cut-off criteria. Once the subject of discussion and its stakeholders have been decided, one proceeds to the institutionalization stage, after which the issue ceases to become a subject of debate and instead must be ranked within the general hierarchy of a society’s concerns.

I realize this is all highly theoretical and more than a little idealistic, of course. It remains, however, a very accurate analysis of the ecological debate today: politicians engage in little more than hand-wringing as they wait for the scientists to ‘prove’ climate change, all the while encouraging us to recycle, flush less and buy hybrids, all measures about as effective as sneezing at global warming.

As Emmott puts it, “this needs to be a different debate than just some one-dimensional discussion about “population” or “climate” or “going green”. The debate we urgently need to have is about us – about how billions of us live, behave, consume irresponsibly, about how billions more want to live, behave and consume. . . Our entire market economy and the way corporations work need to be changed. We need to urgently move away from corporate success being based on who is most effective in influencing government regulation, avoiding taxes and obtaining subsidies for harmful activities to maximise the returns of just one stakeholder – shareholders – to one based on resource conservation, genuine innovation (not just technological innovation) and the satisfaction of multiple stakeholder demands.

And on that dire note, I leave you. Next week I’m skipping the politics and trying something with a more powerful track record in global influence: religion. Given the ironclad hold of Islam on so much of the Middle East, can it actually be put to better use than censoring VoIP services and legislating on women’s attire? Stay tuned to find out.

From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern

The governments of the GCC are ostensibly laying plans for the diversification of their economies and reduction of their reliance on fossil fuels. Just last March the UAE announced the inauguration of a $600million solar power plant aimed at meeting some of its residential power demands. Saudi Arabia allegedly hopes to meet one-third of its electricity demand using solar energy by 2032. All the GCC governments have some version of a 2030 national envision that entails a diversification of the economy intended to maintain high standards of living while reducing reliance on oil revenue. But given the vagaries of the neo-liberal economic model and the systematic political impotence of the Gulf governments, it is hard to put a lot of stock in these visions.

For the most part, GCC governments are hoping to kick the can down the road by addressing immediate challenges rather than embarking on strategic long-term change. As evidenced by ongoing demands for government housing and jobs in Bahrain, for example, the average citizen considers economic development as a right owed to her by her government. On one hand the government cannot realistically, sustainably continue to provide for its citizens in the manner they await; on the other hand rampant corruption and resource mismanagement result in even less government responsiveness and efficiency than can be expected. Sustainability and other macro concerns of economics and ecology rarely enter the debate as far as popular political demands are concerned. There is no reflection upon the cosmos of world we inhabit – what petro dollars have done to our society and whether we want to proceed down that road. The remarkable ecological indifference with which most Gulf residents go about their daily lives is shocking.

This problem of getting anyone to care is in fact at the heart of most of the GCC’s troubles today. To use Bruno Latour’s extremely pertinent turn of phrase, the foremost challenge of the Persian Gulf in the age of the Anthropocene boils down to turning matters of fact into matters of concern. A matter of ‘concern’ does not refer to a problem merely keeping one up at night: I use it to imply a holistic understanding of a problem and an assumption of a collective responsibility to address it. Caring about carbon emissions means not just carpooling to work, but simultaneously recognizing and caring about the economic, socio-political and cultural /religious principles according to which the country runs. It requires an acknowledgment of our place in the wider scheme of things, as we relate to other countries and the planet itself. It requires that we reorient our conception of justice and progress from the idea that we also are entitled to whatever other (seemingly happier) people have to a more sophisticated one rooted in concern about our place in the world.

Some of this indifference can be pinned down to a simple lack of awareness and/ or perspective. The average citizen is concerned with providing a decent standard of living for herself and her family – immediate problems of housing and employment take precedence over the macro contexts of economic and political theory. A powerful sentiment often observed among discontented populations in Bahrain, for example, is that of perceived inequity: why do other citizens of the Gulf have so much while we have so little? Why can our government not provide for us as much as other Gulf governments provide for their citizens? The same sentiment reigns in Saudi, where class and income inequality have reached alarming levels.

The future of the region depends not on a certain model of democracy or a certain energy technology winning out, but on first of all getting both leaders and citizens of the Gulf to acknowledge the existence of a problem, assume personal responsibility for it, and then go about finding solutions and building consensus in accordance with their unique cultural, religious and contextual environment. All political or economic demands and reform agendas must be framed in a larger ecological setting for them to be of any real value. As long as the average citizen thinks of herself (or at least is only able to act) as a subject of rule rather than an agent of change, there is little incentive to assume any responsibility for the status quo. The Gulf is now an endangered homeland until its people develop the sense that they are as bound to the fate of the planet as everyone else.

Who’s afraid of the Apocalypse?

We Gulfies have it good. We enjoy a standard of living on par with most industrialized nations, something that manifests itself in more than just a voracious appetite for luxury products. The unfortunate combination of a naturally arid environment, abundant fossil fuels, and lax energy policy have meant that we consume far more electricity and fossil fuels than elsewhere in the world. We have used oil revenues to transform swathes of uninhabitable desert into dense, comfortable cities where we have become used to a lifestyle completely removed from the physical realities of our environment. We have come to rely on cheap and abundant electricity, systemic air conditioning, desalinated water, food imported from all corners of the globe, and cars that cost next to nothing to run.

So how do we compare to other nations? Let us start with the Gulf’s carbon footprint. A carbon footprint measures the overall carbon dioxide and methane emissions for which we are responsible on a national level. According to World Bank data presented by sustainability advocacy group Carboun, “the Arab world, which constitutes 5% of the world’s population, emits just under 5% of global carbon emissions, … and except for Saudi Arabia, no single Arab country is responsible for more than 1% of global emissions. The energy use of an average Arab person is still below the world average and less than half that of an average European.”[1] The news seems at first reassuring, but it belies the individual consumption habits it represents. Viewed on a per capita emissions basis, it emerges that four of the GCC countries are ranked among the top 5 carbon emitters in the world, “with Qatar topping the global list at a staggering rate of 12 times the global average” (El Gendy).

Carbon Emissions

Carbon emissions represent only the big picture. A Deloitte whitepaper citing the latest available data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) reveals that “in 2008, each person in the GCC countries consumed on average 9.650 TWh [terawatt hour] of electricity against a global average of 2.782 TWh and a Middle East average of 3.384 Twh.”[2] By comparison, Americans consumed 13.985 TWh, the Japanese 8.063 Twh and Europeans 6.285 TWh. Tellingly, 47% of the GCC states’ energy use was residential, compared to a global average of 25% and an American one of 33%. “In fact, head-to-head when absolute numbers are compared, each GCC resident is almost at par with the average consumer in the USA: both using more or less 4.5 TWh of electric energy in their respective homes in 2008” (Deloitte).

The obvious question that now presents itself, as far as residents of the Gulf are concerned, is ‘so what?’ Presented with these facts, why should the average citizen of the Gulf care if her electricity consumption is on par with that of the United States, or if her family drives more cars than 3 European families do? After all, she is entitled to her fair share of her country’s natural resources, resources that if she didn’t use someone else would swoop in to exploit. Does not the Gulf have as much right to development as the rest of the world? In the name of what principle should it be asked to lag behind?

For now, it would appear that very few people in government or civil society place the looming ecological crisis high on their priority list. Driving the excessive patterns of consumption is a combination of environmental and socio-political factors. The unavoidable need for air-conditioning, water desalination and private transport represents part of the equation. The other part of the equation is socio-political: GCC governments have subsidized petrol and electricity prices for so long that it has become a political impossibility for them to now suggest a reduction or reversal of these subsidies. Citizens are completely removed from the real cost of these services and have come to regard the cheap exploitation of their one valuable natural resource as an unquestionable right. Electricity rates are so cheap and bill payments so little enforced that there is virtually no incentive on the consumer end to reduce consumption. Governments are in fact already struggling to keep up with their domestic demand, as can be evidenced by the increasing frequency of blackouts and brownouts during the summer months in some countries.

In my last post I talked about the Anthropocene, and the fact that collective human activity has now become a force of geological change on our planet. Our levels of energy consumption render us extremely comfortable, but they are outrageous, unsustainable, and downright irresponsible. And energy consumption is but the tip of the iceberg. Unless we adhere to planetary boundaries — measures of a ‘safe’ operating space for the planet — we are almost certainly driving our species down the path of extinction. The infographic below shows the nine boundaries and the extent to which we’ve exceeded them in  yellow.

planetary boundaries

The trouble with such apocalyptic talk, though, is that it’s actually rather easy to file away in the back of our minds and not give  another thought. The idea of human extinction is so large, so unreal, that we cannot identify with it in the same way we identify with something more personal: an illness or a death in the family. One must, ironically enough, be taught to care about the apocalypse (which, on a side note, explains why religious teaching dwells so much on the end of times, and incessantly tries to relate the afterlife to the present). In trying to rekindle our sensitivity to the state of the planet, we have to start with our expectations for ourselves. We have to consider that rather than expecting to work hard to trade up (cars, homes, vacations), we have to work hard to trade down if we expect ourselves, much less our children, to survive at all.

Not that I meant to end on such a downer. Tune in next week for more thoughts on the Gulf, the Anthropocene, and where we fit in it all.

Something New to Say

Hello everyone,

It’s been just over a year since I’ve posted anything to this blog, partly because I got too busy preparing to move for grad school, but mostly because I ran out of substantive things to say. There are enough people ranting on the internet already without me adding to the din.

I am very pleased, however, to announce the revival of this blog, for I have found new and interesting things to share! For the last seven months I’ve been a graduate student at Sciences Po Paris, and this semester I’ve had the immense pleasure of attending a class entitled “Political Philosophy of Nature,” taught by the delightful Bruno Latour. The subject of the class is difficult to describe in straightforward terms, but it would be fair to say it has been an incredibly eye-opening experience for me and everyone else I’ve spoken to about the class. It’s taught me so much in fact, that I feel obliged to share some of the things I’ve learned about, all the while remaining within the original parameter of a Bahraini blog. Not to mention that I’m also being graded on this ;)

What exactly is ‘political philosophy of nature,’ you might ask, and what makes it so interesting? Political philosophy is (very generally speaking) a discipline that deals with the fundamental ideas and theories behind government, principles of rule, law, legitimacy – all the spheres where humans interact to form or submit to systems of governance. For too long, this discipline has been focused on human beings as sole actors, with the planet and its other inhabitants constituting little more than a backdrop for human thought and endeavor. The political philosophy of nature attempts to remove Nature from the backdrop and bring it firmly to the foreground of our politics. Why? Because nature no longer signifies the kind of eternal majestic wilderness Keats and Wordsworth reveled in – ‘nature’ is also carbon emissions and acidifying oceans and melting ice caps and disappearing tuna fish. Nature, far from being an infinite economic resource, is a rather finite space where the global economy is simply one dependency among many. Ultimately, ‘nature’ needs a seat in our parliaments and a vote in our elections, because it’s as much a part of our socio-political systems as the constitution or the ballot box are.

This is not going to become a blog about convincing you to ‘go green’. One of the, erm, less bright aspects of this class is a certain doomsday vision – according to many scientists, we are already well beyond the point of staving off major planetary change and must simply learn to deal with its consequences. Instead, I’d like to shed some light on a new way of thinking about being. A good place to start is with the concept of the Anthropocene. The short explanation is that the Anthropocene designates a geological era where collective human activity has become the primary agent shaping the earth’s ecosystems, much like asteroid impact once altered the state of the earth, set off an Ice Age and killed off the dinosaurs. This means that humans are well on their way to rendering the earth uninhabitable for themselves, unless they can halt or reverse the rate of change by adhering to planetary boundaries. A far more eloquent and scientific explanation of the Anthropocene and what it means can be found in this TED talk by professor Will Steffen. I cannot recommend the 18 minutes of this video enough.

Living in the age of the Anthropocene has vast ramifications for us all, no matter what country we live in or what kind of government we find ourselves subject to. All of mankind is intimately bound in this together. We must cease to think of ourselves as citizens of ‘x’ country and begin to see ourselves as inhabitants of a borderless planet where the conditions necessary for our survival are not guaranteed to continue. The Anthropocene demands that we find new ways of relating to one another and to the world we live in. We must reexamine our relationships with science, religion and politics; our notions of fact, value and consensus.

Over the coming series of posts, I will attempt to tackle the challenges posed by the Anthropocene as they relate to the Persian Gulf. The combination of oil politics, lack of economic diversification, looming energy insecurity, hereditary rule, and what appears to be complete nonchalance towards the state of the planet make us a prime and riveting case for examination in the light of this new world vision. I am not nearly intelligent or learned enough to propose solutions. This will rather be an exercise in exploring complexity and achieving a more comprehensive understanding of an immensely controversial topic. I hope you enjoy the process as much as I do.

Compensation Schizophrenia

“BD 10M Unrest Payout Hope,” declared the front page of the GDN yesterday in typical tabloid fashion. Inside, the paper explained that a new Civil Settlement Initiative (CSI), proposed by the National Commission tasked with implementing the recommendations of the BICI report,  has found BD10M to hand out to unrest victims along the following guidelines:

a) ” ‘The [Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments] ministry will have its own team of investigators who will evaluate each case and will then come out with a compensation figure, which is up to the applicant to accept or not,’ said Dr Al Deerazi, former secretary-general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society.”

Ah, the good old take-it-or -leave it-approach. How quaint.

b)” If the applicant agrees to the compensation amount proposed by officials, he or she will have to sign a document agreeing to drop any court case.”

Ah, bribing people to shut up. Always effective.

Apart from a complete lack of transparency of procedure, there are two things severely wrong with this initiative. The first is immediately obvious: it is a way to avoid charging or trying anyone connected with the year’s crimes. Anyone in the government, that is, because everyone from opposition bystanders to party leaders has already been prosecuted in military court and handed a swift draconian sentence.  The second is less obvious but equally worrying: According to the GDN, “[t]he CSI initiative [is] different from the National Victims Compensation Fund, set up by His Majesty King Hamad last September.”

So now we have two compensation funds? Different how, you might ask? Are we that eager to redress all wrongs?

If only. The CSI operates in direct opposition to the National Victims Compensation Fund set up by the King last year. The reason for this new initiative can be found in the BICI report. Para 1679 on page 401 states very clearly that Royal Decree Law No. 30 of Sept 22, 2011, establishing the National Fund for the Reparation of Victims, requires that “a final criminal conviction must be rendered against the perpetrator of the human rights crime for the victim to receive compensation.”

Here we go again with the mixed messages. So there’s a fund that requires criminal convictions for payouts, and there’s another that requires one to renounce the right to litigation in order to receive compensation. In addition to an apparently inexhaustible supply of mystery money. Who exactly is running the show again, and why is the CSI trying to one-up the King?

It’s a bit of a catch-22, because we all know no one is really going to be punished for their crimes, except maybe the five Pakistani policemen currently on trial, whom I’m sure will be cleared of murder one way or the other. On one hand, the King’s approach might mean very few victims actually receive compensation for lack of convictions. On the other hand, the CSI’s approach means no one gets tried and (allegedly) everybody gets paid, whether they lost a window pane, a car, a job, or a father last spring.

I wish I could believe the conflicting proposals are simply a way to offer the victims more choice. But it seems clear to me the government has forgotten that the point is justice, not money. There has been no progress on any side in pushing cases to court. No government or law enforcement figure has been held accountable yet.

Settling out of court is normally a cost-cutting procedure. It’s resorted to when a trial looks set to drag on too long, to the point where any restitution is undone by the cost of litigation. It is NOT a way to bypass justice and avoid convicting torturers, murderers, and those complicit in their actions. It is NOT a way to erase crimes from our country’s history books by ensuring no official record of them is maintained

While respecting their right to choose, I sincerely hope none of the victims or their families accept the Civil Settlement Initiative. It is insulting to their cause and to the memory of their loved ones. Financial restitution will ease some of the victims’ pain, yes, but only the delivery of justice will create the requisite peace to put the past behind us and rebuild this torn nation.

Grave crimes against civil and human rights were and continue to be committed in this country. We should be recording them, redressing them, and writing them into our history books for our kids to read, so we can truly say Never Again.