On the 14th of October 2019, I walked to the furthest corner in the university cafeteria for my lunch break and as soon as I sat in my seat — overlooking the busy crossroad of 5th Avenue and 14th St — I broke into tears. Over the past 24 hours, I had been closely following whatever loose threads of footage and information I could access online about the fires (more than 120 within two days) that had been ravaging through Lebanon’s mountains. Sure, forest fires are “normal,” especially in our part of the world — but not in these numbers. The past 15 years have seen an increase in the intensity and number of forest fires due to the changing climate.
The deep grief I felt that day was somewhat similar to the grief I had felt when the forest I lived by, in Jouret el-Balout, was slowly being eaten to make way for the autostrad el-saree’. The same grief I felt when my Palestinian grandfather’s farm by the Jordan Valley was underwater because of heavy flooding. The same grief when the huge numbers of jellyfish on Sour’s sandy shores kept us from swimming in the sea, after I had read studies on how jellyfish will in fact thrive in warming seas. The same grief when witnessing our rivers and seas reeking of toxic wastewater. The same grief knowing the Israeli military’s ecocide on occupied lands.
The grief has been perpetual. When it arrives, it sits heavily on my chest until my lungs feel blocked and my heart painfully squeezed. The grief is also anticipatory — deeply-seated worry and anxiety before the loss. Most of the time though, the pain works its way into numbness: lethargy disguised as an acceptance of what feels like a collective sleepwalk into extinction.
But this time, the grief from the fires weighed heavier than usual, leaving no room for a crossover into numbness or lethargy.
I was mid-way through my first semester of an environmental policy masters in NYC, and had started the literature review for one of my research papers related to climate change and the Mediterranean region. Too many of the studies recorded (and projected) a steady increase in fires, among other things. I didn’t have to wait much to see these findings manifest in the tiny part of the globe I know as home.
The fact that the forest fires relied on natural rain and aid from foreign governments to be turned off after days — as opposed to a proper response from local authorities — was even more infuriating and reason for deep mourning. It was another painful reminder that our very life and existence are in the hands of a globalized system that rewards the behavior of incompetent warlords and profit-seekers. Less “industrialized” or less “developed” nations, like our little Levantine ones, are more prone to climate disasters. This vulnerability is not only due to their physical geographical placements (on average, the Mediterranean region is warming at a rate 15% higher than that of the global average), but also because of the incompetence of our governments and the policies implemented which, too often, systematically weaken public institutions while strengthening private sector entities that do not have the public well-being’s interest. Adding to this injustice is the fact that our nations contribute least to the climate crisis: the G20 nations alone — the ones actually making the global decisions — are responsible for 80% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Other culprits are also in our backyard: the KSA, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE are also among the top of the list of countries with the highest per capita CO2 emissions.
And since October 14, 2019, there have been more fires across Lebanon and Syria; apocalyptic realities have been communicated from Australia and the US West Coast as well. Millions of acres of land have been burned. On the 14th of September this year, the areas on the so-called Golden Coast were measured to have the worst air quality in the world. Those with financial capabilities fled in their private jets while others became homeless, struggling to breathe. Climate activist Mary Heglar described it aptly, “I don’t need a time machine to see climate change. All I need is a window.” This September as well, Sudan and South Sudan witnessed the worst flooding in their modern history, affecting more than half a million people.
This is what climate change looks like and this is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the global environmental (in)justice struggle.
The climate crisis is the result of the same asymmetrical patterns of economic development that have evolved over at least the past two centuries. These patterns have allowed today’s developed nations to attain their current levels of income, in large part through not having to account for the environmental damage now threatening the lives and livelihoods of others. Although the majority of environmental treaties state that “the poor need economic development,” they still neither acknowledge ecological limits to the current model of development nor the fact that the dominant economic model has also increased global inequalities.
The culprits’ unsustainable model of economic growth and development has also been made possible by the underconsumption of the rest. This asymmetrical dynamic exists within the developing nations too, and the climate narrative here must be crafted carefully as to not dismiss the role of public officials in the environmental deterioration over decades, with marginalized communities bearing the heaviest brunt of it. In Lebanon, this includes the exposure of these communities to the pollution of its longest river, the Litani; Chekka’s shore and farmlands which have been poisoned by cement and quarry businesses; and the dams, many of which are useless and have been constructed without proper environmental and social impact assessments. All this and coupled with ongoing efforts to prevent the public from having access to public spaces, from shores to the parks. The list goes on and on and on.
These fires heavily triggered Lebanon’s October 17 Revolution; the work and momentum that followed also contributed to the environmental justice movements across the country, like the mobilization against the Bisri dam construction. But discussions on climate change in the mainstream narrative still feel non-existent, which is understandable given our minimal contribution to the global problem. This is compounded with the fact that our existence in Lebanon is threatened by more “immediate” factors, like the violence of the repressive police state or systematic impoverishment.
"October 18" by Hadi Afif
But this grief, this awakening, coupled with the forces triggering the revolution, has been pushing me to actively work against destructive systems that have led to where we are and towards ones that foster life and regeneration. How can we re-imagine what our communities will look like given the climate crisis? How can we rebuild our relationship with our lands to one of stewardship and not pure extraction? This is where the momentum in the environmental justice movement could manifest: working towards the comprehension of the nitty gritty consequences of environmental degradation and the changing climate on our home bioregions.
We also have to work towards disintegrating behaviors that are a result of the artificial split between nature and society, between humans and the environment.
An increasing number of us live in urban centers, with attempts to “leave it for a relaxing weekend in nature,” as opposed to actually investing in it as an intricate part of our home, our being, our collective ecosystem. We have been made to perceive that our cities are not part of the ecosystem either — but every time green forces its way out of cement is a push back against that. All this to say: every single interaction, from our breathing to our modes of transportation to what we consume, has a direct impact on natural cycles.
The initial grief that drove me to invest energy and time in this field, I recognize, is a sign of deep, deep love for all that is around me. As bell hooks describes, the contemplation of death (and for me, in this case, the death of our ecosystems due to extractive and industrial civilization) has always been a subject that leads back to love. Confronting the possibility of death brings with it an obsession with love, love that is inextricably tied to understanding the miraculous existence of the strange, balanced, constantly shifting Earth, with processes to which our human experience and existence contributes.
But with deep love also comes anger. Anger at the world systems, anger at the fires and the authority’s inability to properly deal with them, and an intense, flashing desire for our revolution to also work and mobilize on issues related to the changing climate. With this anger, comes the hope that with the ongoing revolution, and with the precarity of climate change, we will work towards rebuilding our connection to the land.
"October 18" by Hadi Afif
Our Earth’s health, the condition it is in, translates to that of ours. The Earth is an extension of our body — we evolved together. If we are violently learning anything, it is that the global economic, political, energy, and individualised social systems rooted in the planet’s destruction are crumbling, and with it the glitz of the unsustainable consumer culture. And it is these times of transition that what we build matters even more. When Mahmoud Darwish writes “على هذه الارض ما يستحق الحياة”, I think of all life, all that contributes to and is an intrinsic part of our ecosystem, all that deserves to exist and thrive here, on this land. For me, there is no revolution without an awareness of and mobilization towards this.
Yusra Bitar is a researcher from the Levant ecoregion, currently completing her MA in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management at the New School. Previously, she worked as a consultant in Beirut, focusing on issues related to climate change, agriculture, and food sovereignty.