Essential Books: Environment and Politics in the Middle East

While scholars of the Middle East have long been attentive to problems of land and property, resource extraction and accumulation, and the political nature of knowledge production, it is only within the last twenty years or so that many have begun to tackle these and other questions using explicitly environmental frameworks. The recent boom in environmental scholarship has built on foundational texts emerging from three distinct traditions: critical geography, American environmental history, and science and technology studies (STS), with much of the pioneering work on Middle East environments coming out of history. In this essential reading list, we lay out the larger body of foundational environmental work, and then review key pieces of exciting new research.


The first set of foundational texts grew from themes first raised by American environmental historians. Alan Mikhail, in Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2011), The Animal in Ottoman Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2014), and Under Osman’s Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History (University of Chicago Press, 2017), argues forcefully for the value of environmental analysis for Middle Eastern history, and for the need to include the Middle East in global environmental narratives. Mikhail locates the value of environmental history in its ability to push historians to consider new analytical chronologies and geographies, while also expanding our sense of who or what might be considered a historical actor. Mikhail’s 2011 book was concerned with how the Ottoman Empire was constituted through environmental governance, while his subsequent monographs have argued more broadly for the idea of “empires as ecosystems,” consisting of entangled webs of relation and causality. Like Mikhail’s work, Sam White’s The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2012) is concerned with the environmental history of empire. White’s work grapples seriously with climate – and climate change – as a factor in human history, taking head-on the issue of human, and natural, agency while maintaining a rigorously anti-deterministic perspective. Together, these works have paved the way particularly for scholars interested in the imperial and global aspects of Middle Eastern environmental histories.

Emerging from critical geography, Diana Davis’ pioneering Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa (Ohio University Press, 2007), and The Arid Lands: History, Power Knowledge (The MIT Press, 2016), tackle the ways historical and scientific narratives have been deployed to support capitalist and imperial expansion, as well as, more recently, political priorities like the War on Terror. She shows how environmental crisis narratives have been enshrined in ecological science despite a distinct lack of evidence. Davis’ work, which incorporates scientific as well as archival source material, has shown the fallacies inherent in many common-sense understandings of the environment. Exposing the Middle East as a crucial site for the production of anti-desert ideology, her work deftly interweaves the material with the representational, showing the extent to which they are produced together. 

Samer Alatout similarly uses historical political ecology to illuminate a long history of environmental politics in Palestine. In his 2006 article (“Towards a Bio-Territorial Conception of Power: Territory, Population, and Environmental Narratives in Palestine and Israel.” Political Geography 25: 601–21), he argues that while Israeli state and grassroots actors have embraced a discursive turn toward bio-power environmental concerns from the standpoint of a secure territoriality, Palestinians see environmental degradation as a result of a lack of sovereignty. Looking at an earlier period, Alatout likewise demonstrates how “natural” resources like water became politicized but then re-naturalized and remade in the language of science and economics, erasing the Zionist political project of exerting territorial control (2009, “Bringing Abundance into Environmental Politics: Constructing a Zionist Network of Water Abundance, Immigration, and Colonization.” Social Studies of Science 39 (June): 363–94; and 2011, Alatout, Samer. 2011. “Hydro-Imaginaries and the Construction of the Political Geography of the Jordan River: The Johnston Mission, 1953-1956.” In Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, edited by Diana K. Davis and Edmund Burke III, 218–45. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.)  

Somewhat earlier than Mikhail, White, Davis, and Alatout, Timothy Mitchell began to apply the insights of STS to Middle Eastern – and indeed global – environments. In Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (University of California Press, 2002), and more recently in Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso Books, 2011), Mitchell addresses the question of socio-technical systems, and the impossibility of meaningfully separating “society” from “nature.” Both works approach these questions through an exploration of the emergence and consolidation of economics as a discipline. Especially in his foundational essay, “Can the Mosquito Speak?” (2002), Mitchell unpacks the tensions produced by a social scientific epistemological distinction between human actions and the object world, which obscures the role of agencies that are not strictly human in bringing forth a world more often construed as the outcome of human planning alone. Looking at the present, Mitchell likewise argues that debates about climate change produce uncertainty in part because they breach the conventional distinction between society and nature.

Over the last five years, many more scholars have adopted, adapted, and built on the insights of these foundational texts. Unfortunately, this list cannot highlight everything. The remainder of the list thus focuses on new work, especially by emerging scholars, which engages in important ways with different subfields, regions, and kinds of actors.  

New Work on Environment and Politics of the Middle East

Jessica Barnes, Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

While Barnes’ work is a bit older than many of the other pieces we’ve highlighted, it remains notable for its innovative ethnographic and historical work tracing the ways in which resources are constructed and shaped through various actors’ conceptualizations and usages of those resources. In particular, Barnes traces how water is not only physically constructed and managed as a resource, but how it is discursively constructed as plentiful and scarce through various points in its journey across sections of the Nile and from farmers, local administrators, local water administrations, national government, and international organizations. While water in the region is often talked about as being political in terms of scarcity and conflict, Barnes frames water as political in a different sense. Here, water is political not due to an extreme condition, but due to the very everyday-ness of “moving, blocking, storing, redirecting, and utilizing water” as a resource (26). The water, its qualities and its amount, vary across the landscape according to factors including ecology, topography, uses, management, and methods of monitoring and assessing. This book provides countless clear examples of the complexity of water control, assessment, and usage from a variety of scales and perspectives.

Bridget Guarasci, “The National Park: Reviving Eden in Iraq’s Marshes,” Arab Studies Journal 13 (2015): 128-53.

Guarasci explores how conservation and environmental regimes utilize particular spatial imaginaries and, in turn, employ new realities of land use and recognition on the ground. Guarasci focuses on the web of multilateral organizations, donors, NGOs, and Iraqi ministries that shaped the planning of the marshland national park. She carefully traces the logics of the international effort that ultimately failed to build a national park as a tourism site in Iraq, but succeeded in giving companies potential future access to oil resources. Like other regimes, the park project utilizes Eden imagery and romanticization of an idyllic past. However, while previous development focused on agriculture, the marshland park project was developed for its tourism and oil potential. Guarasci describes the tensions which emerged as the responsible NGO’s (Green Iraq) Italian consultants presented their plan for the park to various ministries. Some declined to get involved and others complained that the marshland people were completely absent from this planning. Opposition then took a deadly turn when an anti-occupation militia attacked a ministry meeting for participating in projects associated with the US-occupation. This article illustrates the effects of conservation projects on land use and autonomy in addition to the geopolitical tensions as local and international actors try to enact their interests in the present and future “post-war” Iraq.

Faisal Husain, “In the Bellies of the Marshes: Water and Power in the Countryside of Ottoman Baghdad,” 19 (2014): 638-64; Faisal H. Husain, “Changes in the Euphrates River: Ecology and Politics in a Rural Ottoman Periphery, 1687-1702,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 47 (2016): 1-25. 

Faisal Husain pushes the boundaries of early modern environmental history through a deft blend of scientific sources and theories with Ottoman archival and manuscript sources. In two recent articles, Husain builds on the imperial environmental history pioneered by Mikhail and White, but flips their framing to engage an environmental history “against the state.” Focusing on marshes as non-state spaces, Husain explores the intertwining of ecological and political histories in early modern Iraq, arguing in his 2014 article that the Khaza’il tribal confederation flourished in the ecological niche offered by the Euphrates floodplain in the eighteenth century, and that they were able to use the web of species and ecological processes in the marshes to successfully challenge Ottoman power. Husain’s 2016 article can be productively read as a prehistory to “In the Bellies of the Marshes,” drawing together a set of seventeenth-century crises previously read as unconnected to narrate the formation of the ecological conditions that subsequently enabled the Khaza’il to flourish. Husain understands the impact of ecological phenomena broadly, arguing, for example, that the mass conversion of Iraqis to Shi‘ism in the nineteenth century was linked to another shift in the Euphrates basin ecology. The digging of a new canal to water the shrine city of Najaf disrupted the ecological politics of the Khaza’il-Ottoman relationship, enabling the rise of new political and religious configurations. Husain’s blending of scientific sources with traditional historical methodologies is particularly effective because he works on the early modern period, where ecological data and theories offer an important counterpoint to the perspectives and material offered by chronicle sources.

Aaron Jakes, “Boom, Bugs, Bust: Egypt’s Ecology of Interest, 1882-1914,” Antipode 49 (2017): 1035-59; Jennifer L. Derr, The Lived Nile: Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Jakes’ thought-provoking work on what he terms the “ecology of interest” offers a new, and robustly theoretical, approach to the environmental history of capitalism. Jakes draws on theorists recasting capitalism as “world-ecology” to critique and revise Mitchell’s account of expertise and development in modern Egypt. Understanding interest both figuratively – as in the interests of capital – and literally – the rates of interest on loans – Jakes examines how circuits of finance capital structured metabolic relationships. He argues that we can better understand the ontological division between society and nature as arising from the need to manage the cascading ecological failures resulting from the cotton boom. This article – and likely Jakes’ forthcoming monograph, Egypt’s Occupation – offers a new angle on the well-worn academic territory of Egyptian cotton by thinking through environment, empire, and capitalism together. In doing so, Jakes also provides the grounds for a direct analytical link between histories of imperial cotton cultivation and the postcolonial development state. “Boom, Bugs, Bust” can be productively read alongside Jennifer Derr’s The Lived Nile, which likewise explores the relationships among economy, ecology, and bodies. Derr clearly demonstrates how colonial political economy, by requiring perennial irrigation to cultivate cotton and sugar, created new ecologies – not just of the Nile, but also of human bodies and disease. Complementary to Jakes’ analysis of economic thought, Derr instead focuses on how labor functioned as a constitutive element of colonial political economy, serving to both maintain the infrastructure of capitalism in Egypt and as the primary vector for emerging disease ecologies. Together, the works highlight multiple new possibilities for the inclusion of robust accounts of capital within environmental histories, and vice versa.

Emily McKee, Dwelling in Conflict: Land Relations in the Negev Region of Israel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

Bringing together political ecology with cultural geography, Emily McKee argues that “everyday acts of memorialization in place” (11)—not just state and political forces—expose and create power differences between Israeli and Palestinian spaces and identities. Her in-depth ethnography of Jewish Israeli and Arab Bedouin communities in the Negev (Naqab) Desert offers a phenomenological investigation of “dwelling” and environmentalism in order to “grapple with” nationalism’s need to “root” people in their “purportedly native lands” (15). McKee uses Foucauldian discourse analysis to unpack Israeli environmental narratives, which take up Western ideas of land productivity as symbolic of value (146). She also shows how dominant environmental narratives form and reinforce a binary between Jews and Arabs, while her interviews with Cochin Indian Jews living on the physical and social periphery of Israel demonstrate the dissonance and ambivalence of naturalizing Israel as a Jewish state while marginalizing ethnic Jewish minorities. Additionally, McKee demonstrates how Bedouin strategically take up some Zionist discourses in order to justify their place in the land. Bedouin environmental groups and unrecognized communities fighting for state support claim Israeli colonialism has “disrupted native life” (47), which reinforces rather than challenges the idea of Bedouin as noble environmental savages, a natural, unchanging people in harmony with the landscape.

Nathalie Peutz, Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

Peutz’s ethnographic and historical research traces the different regimes of power the people of Soqotra have lived with since pre-modern times. While she does not focus solely on what would be traditionally deemed environmental issues, she skillfully shows the interplay between occupiers and governmentality, livelihoods and practices, and the natural resources and climate of the island. Peutz’s overarching argument is that while the nature-culture divide has often been critiqued in current scholarship and is in fact distant from the lived reality of pastoralists of the island, it is a central part of conservation organizations’ methodologies. She also argues that, after dealing with the nature-focused conservation efforts on the island, several Soqotran pastoralists have used the same conservation logic to assert their autonomy through cultural and linguistic heritage conservation. The heritage projects, she argues, must be examined as part of the long line of preceding and successive ‘development’ efforts, such as temporary British road building, the fishing cooperative of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and the establishment of biodiversity conservation zones. By framing biodiversity and conservation in line with other regimes of occupation and profit-seeking, Peutz highlights the governmentality of the biodiversity conservation project and the connections to the colonial and state regimes that preceded and coincided with it. Readers who want to use an excerpt for a lesson on conservation will find that Chapters 3 and 4 illustrate the governmentality of conservation efforts and how such efforts can have unintended disruptive social impacts, respectively.

Sara Pursley, “Gender as a Category of Analysis in Development and Environmental History,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48 (2016): 555-60; Sara Pursley, Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019). 

Both in a programmatic essay in IJMESand in her monograph – especially chapter 5, “The Family Farm and the Peculiar Futurist Perspective of Development” – Sara Pursley develops a compelling new research agenda for joining environmental with gender histories. The article and the chapter center on the Dujayla settlement, a program in post-World War II Iraq which aimed to design, plan, and produce a class of independent landowners as part of the Cold War development agenda. Pursley eschews a mode of writing gender, and gendered, histories  in which gender as a category of analysis is confined to cultural and urban histories, while social and materialist historians restrict themselves to narratives of women and women’s work. Instead, she explains how the nuclear family and its constitutive notion of inherent sexual difference structured the development project at Dujayla – and also experts’ understandings of its failure. Pursley shows how the ecological shortcomings of the project, from soil salinization to disease, arose from the gendered nature of the site’s design, but were reframed by experts as outcomes of gendered – particularly feminine – failure to develop. This process helped make “women” the prime target of development projects and experts, in Iraq and elsewhere. Read together with the rest of Familiar Futures, these pieces indicate how we might think the history of development, including but not limited to its material and environmental aspects, as gendered. Pursley’s focus on temporality as a key element of development ideologies offers an exciting and innovative approach to joining material with conceptual history.

Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Stamatopoulou-Robbins’ monograph is both a deep and thoughtful engagement with, and a radical rethinking of, the environmental anthropology of Palestine and the Middle East. On one level, it is a critical ethnography of “waste,” from its physical infrastructures to its environmental impacts to all the social actors concerned with it. Yet her project pushes past a basic environmental justice understanding of Palestinians living under “waste siege” whereby they are either passive victims of toxic pollution or resistant heroes to waste-as-colonialism. Instead she offers myriad stories of the “matter-of-fact, mundane” realities of the waste siege on/in Palestine (10), which together materially and discursively demonstrate that the non-sovereign condition of Palestinian life and space often looks multiple ways at once. Both formal and illegal infrastructures of waste disposal reveal Palestinian life as at once “hyper-governed” by international donors and Israeli militarism, and “hypo-governed” by state neglect and the absent presence of the Palestinian Authority (108-109). Stamatapolou-Robbins thinks alongside those who intimately interact with “waste” objects, from the rabish (thrift market) shopkeepers in Jenin who bring in used goods from Israel proper (ch. 2), to the bakers, municipal trash collectors, and ordinary people who abandon and collect bags of bread common in cities throughout Palestine (ch. 4). The spaces in which waste (re)circulates enable her to rethink the classic anthropological concepts of “the commodity” and “the gift.” Stamatapolou-Robbins contributes not only to environmental anthropology, infrastructure studies, and Palestine studies, but to fundamental theories of what role the state plays in maintaining or disciplining life, the role of objects in social relations, and what “shared responsibility” for global issues look like in an unequal world.

Omar Imseeh Tesdell, Yusra Othman, and Saher Alkhoury. 2019. “Rainfed Agroecosystem Resilience in the Palestinian West Bank, 1918–2017.” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 43 (1): 21–39; Tesdell, Omar, Yusra Othman, Yara Dowani, Samir Khraishi, Mary Deeik, Fouad Muaddi, Brandon Schlautman, Aubrey Streit Krug, and David Van Tassel. 2020. “Envisioning Perennial Agroecosystems in Palestine.” Journal of Arid Environments 175 (2020): 104085.

These texts are representative of exciting new work from Makaneyyat, an agroecological research collective based in Ramallah headed by Dr. Omar Imseeh Tesdell (Birzeit University). Makaneyyat’s work blends quantitative and qualitative spatial methods, in research and community settings, to understand the history, present, and future socioecological challenges facing Palestinian agriculture and agro-ecosystems. Tesdell et al. (2019) challenge normative understandings of community “resilience” too often reinforced in environmental studies, whereby communities either resist environmental degradation through unchanging practices or change whole cloth while leaving root causes of environmental degradation (e.g. state neglect, climate change, and capitalist accumulation) unchecked. Instead, Makanayyet’s work on the history of Palestinian rainfed agricultural ecosystems show that they are neither static nor apolitical. In the face of land and water resource restrictions from Israel’s occupation, Palestinian smallholders have adapted by both increasing diversity in their cropping systems and “changing social structure of labor to include women” in order to have a dynamic “continued resilience” (Tesdell, Othman, and Alkhoury 2019, 5). More work is emerging from ongoing projects on agroecological resilience to climate change, including mapping, conserving, and cultivating wild crop varieties both in Palestine and in wider seed banks, and experimenting with increasing crop diversity in olive farming for both economic and ecological protection (Tesdell et al. 2020).

Featured image: parched desert, free photo by Pixabay

Posted on Al Jadalyya April 22, 2020

[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on and Email us at for any inquiries. Finally, this article is part of the new Environment Page launch. All accompanying launch posts can be found here.]

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