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The Coming Environmental Crisis in the Middle East: A Historical Perspective, 1750-2000 CE


This essay argues that the Middle Eastern environment, with its legacy of squandered water resources, deforestation and pollution of all kinds, reveals a distilled essence of the coming environmental crisis of the planet. This is so because of the evident vulnerability of Middle Eastern semi-arid and arid landscapes. The essay examines the transformation of the regional environment over the period 1750-2000 CE. It considers modern human impacts in three broad ecological zones: the Middle East of the river valleys (where we survey the role of engineers in major water management projects), the Mediterranean zone of dryfarming (where we examine the imposition of the California model of irrigation in Morocco), and the pastoral rangelands (where we evaluate the impact of scientific range management in the Maghreb). In the course of this survey, we come to understand that modernity was an outgrowth of a deeply rooted Eurasian development project. Ottoman reformers did not need the authorization of the West to adopt the fruits of this dimension of the developmentalist project, since they already internalized it from the start. Colonial policies toward the environment differed little from those adopted by indigenous modernizing elites. We conclude that from an environmental perspective, the history of the Middle East reveals an underlying continuity between the pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods, despite the undoubted massive environmental transformations introduced since 1800.

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