Iran’s environmental crisis: why we should be mindful of depicting a dystopian future

In our age of computers and satellites, our sense of both urgency and fear has become central to the process of addressing environmental challenges. This sense of necessity for urgent action can be seen in calls to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and extinctions, ocean acidification, etc. It comes as no surprise that addressing them should become central to intellectual debates and the rhetoric of politicians.

One popular rhetorical strategy is to depict an apocalyptic scenario to raise awareness and to create a reaction. But the question is whether consciously fostering this image is the best strategy to stop environmental crises. And what are the caveats associated with that strategy? Do we need to be concerned about the issues of power, agency and control in dealing with an environmental problem which comes out of objective science? And if so, what are the concerns, and how they should be addressed?

Great wall of China surrounded by sand.
Imaginary Future for Great Wall of China after a severe drought.

These questions are the essence of recent online debate between Melissa Leach, Robyn EckersleyAndy StirlingVictor Galaz and Johan Rockström exploring the meaning and political implications of using the concept of ‘Anthropocene’. In these debates Stirling critiques the notion, suggesting that it potentially lays the foundations for planetary geoengineering. He believes the control-oriented rhetoric of Anthropocene reproduces current ‘patterns of privilege’ rather than challenging existing power dynamics and relations. Some of the titles in his article are very telling: “Dominion over Creation”, “A discourse of fear, not of hope”, “Power and knowledge”, “Science and democracy”.  

While these discussions are unravelling the Anthropocene from a conceptual point of view, I was wondering how these questions could be asked at a local or a state level. According to Frank Biermann and colleagues these questions then have ‘greater societal and policy relevance.’

Iran’s environmental crises

I have  looked at how Iran is dealing with its serious environmental crises, which Iran’s former Minister of agriculture and current advisor to the President describes as a “more dangerous” enemy than the country’s classic foes, such as Israel or the United States. The environmental challenges range from deforestation to massive biodiversity loss to groundwater depletion. Iran’s rivers and wetlands are drying out, as is Lake Urmia, once the largest salt water lake in the Middle East. Soil erosion is another problem, with Iran claiming the largest share of soil erosion by any one country in the world, around 7.7% of all soil erosion. Frequent dust storms have led the country to have four out of the ten most polluted cities in the world in 2013.

Human activities and development projects in all of these environmental problems play a pivotal role. In the case of Lake Urmia recent research undermines any notion of a crisis caused primarily by climate changes. Area of this Iranian lake, which is about seven times the area of Bahrain, has decreased by around 88%, mainly due to massive dam construction and irrigation projects designed to boost the agricultural economy of the region. This pattern of land and water management is not limited to the Lake Urmia region, and can be found throughout the country. Fixes often focus on the supply rather than demand-side factors — solutions that construction companies prefer.

However, as the frequency of reporting on environmental issues goes up, the ‘legitimacy’ of engineers, engineering companies, and their technocratic perspectives (as the dominant experts and managers in Iran’s decision-making) has been called into question by the public. People are now beginning to ask ‘why’.

There are similarities between the Anthropocene concept and how the environmental crisis is playing out in Iran. Just as the Anthropocene potentially lays the foundations for planetary geoengineering, supporting the dominant paradigm, which supports engineering ‘fixes’, in Iran a similar trend can be observed. I have observed two ‘trends’ in Iran.

First, the hegemon/dominant actors who benefit from current ‘patterns of privilege’ begin to question and criticize themselves, to a certain degree. Secondly, urgent or crisis-filled narratives are used to push the discussion towards an expert-oriented discourse.

For example, once the water crisis drew extensive public attention, the key policymakers at ministerial-level joined the discussion to denounce ‘their own previous actions’, by rolling back on dam projects for example and calling a halt to new ones.

At the same time there were quite a few crisis-filled narratives circulated in the society, like the following:

“In 30 years [Iran] will be a ghost town, uninhabitable, and people will have to migrate… of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will live under uncertain circumstances” (E.Kalantari) .

Given this terrifying imaginary future, it is predictable that people would again welcome back engineering fixes as the quickest shortcut in producing tangible outcomes. And they would consider a high risk of failure for ‘democracy’ as a redemption strategy from that apocalyptic scenario. Experts (engineers) again can be trusted and remain as the gatekeeper in defining the ‘most reasonable’ solution during this time of crisis.

By using this strategy the engineering paradigm not only has remained a powerful discourse, but prescribes a new range of engineering fixes for solving the problem, such as new Mega interbasin-water-transfer projects, or the Mega-Canal project connecting the Caspian sea with the Persian Gulf. Fixes for a problem it has likely created.

This is exactly what dominant actors are interested in (think of Stirling’s argument). This is how engineering options in Iran could come back again to the table —some of which are similar in scale to some planetary geoengineering proposals.

Invoking a sense of fear and urgency is a double-edged sword for society as a whole: on the one hand, it can provoke ‘awareness’, but on the other hand it might let the dominant actors decide what the future will look like.

by Ehsan Nabavi, Centre for European Studies, School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University

One comment:

  1. At this stage in the climate change game, I would argue for a soft crisis, a not so bad dystopic outcome. Having published academic papers to little avail, I have shifted to climate ‘fiction’ strategy. And people don’t read utopian stories much. Geoengineering can be stopped, in synch with carbon emissions reductions. As dramatized in climate novel Pinatubo II

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