A story of good intentions, flawed execution, solutions that make problems worse, tyranny, corruption, climate change, mass urbanization, unemployment, frustration, and slaughter. In other words, the daily news.
In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded catastrophically. Throughout 1926, the entire basin, that vast region that encompassed the Ohio and the Kentucky, saw enormous amounts of rain and flooding. Industrialization and urbanization reduced traditional floodplains, and farming altered natural runoff patterns. The real danger though was the lower Mississippi, from Cairo on down, where the great rivers west and east flowed into the granddaddy of them all.
In the spring of 1927, the floods started, wiping out millions of acres of land of seven states, and killing tens of thousands. Poor levee construction and management contributed to the disaster, but the real story was of massive neglect of the black communities, abandoned by local governments and left to drown or starve or die of disease. In the sodden aftermath, many decided that this way of life– this brutal sharecropping to hideous racists– was over. The Great Migration, the movement of black Americans to northern cities, accelerated.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the Great Migration on American lives. Cities were reordered, shaping urban politics for decades to come. The Democratic machines in the north started to appeal to blacks, making them slightly more liberal, and setting the stage for the eventual national realignment that is still controlling our politics today. The movement of blacks spurred redlining, white flight, racial backlash, and more. This isn’t to say none of this would have happened anyway. The Great Migration started after WWI, and there were race riots in cities before 1927. But, in an inescapable metaphor, it turned into a flood, and changed life in America forever. We’re still living in its historic legacy.
All that is a long-winded way of saying that these things matter, and the land we live on and water we drink to live or in which we drown, impacts the way we vote and the way we relate to our fellow citizens and the state. A stark example of this is Syria, whose brutal and region-changing civil war can be traced, in large part, to a historic drought.
Today’s must-read is in Foreign Policy magazine, in an article titled Inside the Syrian Dustbowl. In it, Peter Schwartzstein details how the Asad government tried to strengthen Syria’s agricultural industry, turning to a well-regarded multi-national aid group, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). This group has been around for decades, researching how to help spur growth in, well, the dry areas of the world.
Syria, almost by default, had been the region’s breadbasket, exporting wheat and grain to places like Egypt and Jordan, but increasing droughts made it harder to grow. In an attempt to keep the economic backbone of the country alive, they increasingly turned to wells, which increasingly ran out, as the drought intensified. Year after year of crops failed.
Schwartzstein paints ICARDA in a slightly negative light, as acquiescing to a short-sighted strategy, but is very fair. He shows how these groups have to navigate. Standing up to a dictatorial government means, at best, not being able to do the good you are doing. Not standing up means implementing a strategy that might not work. And even if the strategy does work, in the short term, you might be robbing the future. But if that means people don’t starve today, well…
In short, it didn’t work. Farmers gave up, and moved into the cities. These cities became overcrowded, with dangerous rates of unemployment. Discontent at a repressive and incompetent government welled up. The Arab Spring sprung into being, and Syrians rebelled, peacefully. Asad, knowing that any challenge to his rule meant the end of Alawite dominance, and probably brutal reprisal, responded the only way he saw fit: with more repression. The war bloomed and quickly mutated, became monstrous, spurred a refugee crisis that will reshape the Middle East and has already altered European politics, pushing it further to the right, with Brexit being one of the consequences.
It’s a too-neat line, sure. Obviously, if a drought happened in a country that wasn’t a still-loose amalgamation of tribes and cultures, borne of the fall of the Ottoman and selfish European meddlings, and wasn’t run by the son of a man who crushed his enemies, making political reconciliation different, things might not have turned out the way they did. Local context will always matter.
But here’s the thing: the same sort of story can, and is, playing out all over the world. It’s a different story each time, because history and culture are different everywhere, and local actors react to their circumstances based on their circumscribed set of options, but the cause/reaction is the same. Fewer resources. Less arable land. Policies that, almost by necessity, rob the future to soothe the roiling present. People leaving desiccated rural areas. Cities becoming unmanageable, overpopulated, poor and underemployed. Discontent turns to violence. Depending on the situation, that can turn to war. It could also simmer as inner city violence, like we see in so many American cities.
This is the story of the world now, and as we saw, America has never been immune, nor will it be. We’re still dealing with the sins and catastrophes of the past. The 1927 Flood was made much worse by the legacy and continued presence of virulent racism, and that racism, and the reaction to it, and the backlash to that, still shapes our politics. That’s an inescapable truth. That story is being played out everywhere in the world, in countries that are already on the brink of violence, and those that aren’t. The impact of climate change won’t just be on the coasts. It’s going to alter everything about our lives, and our world.