A Kurdish response to climate change
Anna Lau, Erdelan Baran, and Melanie Sirinathsingh,
Open Democracy UK.
For 4000 years since the breakdown of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, almost every major societal collapse has featured five trends: spiralling migration, state collapse, food shortages, epidemic disease and climate change. What makes the present era distinct is that whilst previous collapses have been geographically contained, the globalisation of carbon-intensive industry since the 1800s and particularly over the last four decades means that the relationship between cause and effect has been obscured. Many of the people worst impacted by human-caused climate change today are also the least responsible for it. The Climate Stories project believes that averting further damage and building a different future means being led by those who are the first to hear the earth rise up in protest, have considered the causes and are innovating solutions. In this spirit, this article documents reflections from a series of conversations with members of the Kurdish movement on climate change.
Exploring the roots of a 21st century ‘climate crisis’
Historically, two key opposing trends have run through environmental movements. The first is reformist and favours environmental engineering. This approach still views nature in terms of how it can serve human needs through “environmentally-friendly” reforms and technologies. For the Kurdish movement, this avoids the question of who has profited from environmental damage and delays an effective solution to the problem. The second is a deep ecology approach, which tends to be anti-technological and anti-human. This is also limited because like it or not, it is humans who have, over time, developed most capability to shape nature. This power can be used to renew and protect nature, or to destroy it. So when a deep ecologist says “humans are responsible for everything” they imply that the chiefs of the fossil fuel industries are no more guilty than our Kurdish grandmothers who live in their villages tending the land.
To move beyond these two approaches, we need to understand the positive role human technologies have played – and could play again – in the reciprocal relationship between biological nature and human society. Do we really need to have a bird inside a cage in our house to show our love to it, when it is its nature to fly outside?
We also need to understand the roots of today’s climate crisis. How did the idea of controlling nature arise in the first place? Can humans control ‘external’ nature if they don’t first create structures of domination among themselves? Our views on this are based on studying our 5000-year history. Imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan has written about how hierarchy began to be institutionalised for the first time in the temple complexes of ancient Mesopotamia, beginning with the rise of the male priest and the institutionalisation of patriarchy. From here followed the state, slavery, the standing army, private property; features of many societies we know even today.
For Öcalan, two civilisational tendencies run side-by-side. Towards the end of the Neolithic Age, structures based on hierarchy, violence and subjugation became more prominent. Yet in the same era, around 2,300 B.C, the first word to express the concept of freedom – amargi – literally “the return to mother”, also emerged. This is the foundation of what he describes as “democratic civilisation”, which runs through many historic struggles and continues today, especially in indigenous societies that still practice communal politics; in Rojava, our most well-known model of what we can call “ecological society”, many talk about “a return to our nature”. In other words, returning to a society based on women’s freedom, ecology and democracy in all spheres of life.
Women and land
In Kurdish, the word Jin has dual significance: it means woman, but also comes from the root Jiyan, meaning life. So for us, oppressing Woman inevitably means oppressing life itself.
This takes a central place in our theory of liberation, and women’s science, named jineology, has become a fundamental tenet of the Kurdish movement. For centuries, Woman was the keeper of knowledge about food, nature, growing, medicine, healing. She was vital to the system of agricultural production in which crops were shared equally among communities and held important social power.
Today, according to the World Food Organisation, women still make up the majority of the world’s farmers, cultivating more than half of all the world’s food. In Kurdistan too women are central to the rural economy. Many Kurdish households in rural Turkey are headed by the mother, with fathers and sons often lost to war or disappeared. Our local examples make us wonder about the social contradictions we observe: today’s global agricultural output can feed one and a half times the world’s population, and yet roughly 800 million people are chronically undernourished. In our view, this is a symptom of how capitalist modernity has functioned over time, with very particular kinds of political infrastructures and social processes being institutionalised. These have privileged moving resources to a minority, even across great distance, impoverishing many in the process. This has its roots in the earliest form of domination, of men over women.