On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:

 

God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,

To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.

We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.

Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business

And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want

 

The world we have now.

 

birds(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)

Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal.  We can often see how to make the world better.  “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.

If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.

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While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow.  Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality.  Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian.  And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.

But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong.  There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.

SphcowThe world is complex.  In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.

Which brings us to Syria.

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syria_tmo_2011210Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change.  Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet.  Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.

Like Syria.  The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.

That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth.  The violence was already there.

Al_Assad_familyWhile Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses.  Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime?  The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.

After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government.  Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways.  He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.

Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare.  You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.

Saleh wrote that:

International_Mine_Action_Center_in_Syria_(Aleppo)_12It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs.  What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.

This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all.  The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story.  How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time.  Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country.  They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution.  U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.

Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.

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While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy.  It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing.  I was wrong to blithely write what I did.

Plows don’t oppress women, people did.  (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)

Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians.  But it made an awful situation worse.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”

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While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.