Lebanon, Radical Hope, and the Natural Economy in the Age of Climate Breakdown
We are entering an age of climate breakdown. Lebanon is already at the center of multiple interrelated collapses — economic, political, and ecological. But the coming climate crisis will dwarf all the problems we have faced so far.
Over the next few decades, our region will warm at twice the rate of the global average — more rapidly, in fact, than any other inhabited part of the world. This is the sobering assessment set out by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Reviews of Geophysics.
At current predictions, average temperatures in the region will rise by a minimum of 5°C by the end of the century. The environmental and human cost will be enormous. There will be less snow on Lebanon’s mountains, and it will melt faster. In the springtime, the streams that have been the wellspring of life for millennia will begin to run dry.
Rising sea levels will overwhelm coastal communities, with saltwater contaminating freshwater sources. Waves and storm surges will become more powerful, leading to increased erosion along Lebanon’s 220 km coastline — home to the majority of the population, and most of its major cities, including Beirut, Tripoli, and Saida. Rising tides will not spare historic treasures, such as Byblos and Sour.
Mediterranean cyclones, or Medicanes, with wind speeds that can reach 154 km/h, will increase in power, as well as potential for widespread destruction of infrastructure and natural habitats.
For the region, and for Lebanon in particular, many of these changes are already locked in. The world has already reached too many climatic tipping points — a point of no return that the IPCC defines as “a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganizes, often abruptly and/or irreversibly.” Even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the global climate will still keep changing.
Rising tides will not spare historic treasures, such as Byblos and Sour.
This point of no return must be our starting point. If our world’s natural systems can reorganize, then so can we. Our region is uniquely vulnerable to the changing climate. It is also uniquely rich not just in natural life and landscapes, but in age-old systems for preserving that abundance of life.
The solutions to these climatic changes, and the disasters they will unleash, are beyond the capabilities of the current global economic and political system. In order to build in the natural resilience that our ecosystems need to survive, we need to master new breakthroughs in ecosystem management. But we must also draw on the collective wisdom that shaped the relationship between humans and nature since the first peoples settled in these lands.
Climate and Ecological Systems
Before we can set out solutions, we have to face the terrifying prognosis of climate change. We will have to endure a period of mourning for the Holocene era, the current geological epoch that brought us the Garden of Eden, with its richness and abundance of plants and animals. There is much that we will lose.
The Mediterranean basin is among the world’s top hotspots for biodiversity, containing some 13 thousand plants unique to the region. It ranks third in the world for plant diversity, just after the lush jungles of the Sundalands and the rainforests of the Andes. If we do not put in place urgent and radical conservation measures, the resulting loss of these habitats will be an act of ecological genocide.
The eastern Mediterranean coastline has its own distinct weather systems and microclimates. But in measuring the impact of climate change, geophysicists classify it as part of a greater region, called the EMME, for the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The EMME climate region sweeps from Egypt to the Persian Gulf, encompassing the entire Eastern Mediterranean coastline as well as Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece1 . It sits at key atmospheric crossroads, and at the mercy of meteorological processes created on other continents. Rising global temperatures are causing geographically specific climate feedback on these continents, throwing EMME’s weather systems into chaos.
Natural archives — corals, tree rings, cave deposits, and soil sediments — have preserved a record of past climate information. They show two millennia of gradual drying and warming of the region. No doubt human activity, such as clearing of primeval forests and widespread grazing and farming, has contributed to these changes.
We will have to endure a period of mourning for the Holocene era, the current geological epoch that brought us the Garden of Eden, with its richness and abundance of plants and animals. There is much that we will lose.
But the past 120 years have witnessed the most dramatic shift. This warming has accelerated over the past four decades, pushing current regional temperatures 1.4°C – 1.5°C higher than at the dawn of the 20th century.
The global north, with its unquenchable thirst for economic growth, is the main driver of global warming. Per capita, North Americans or Australians emit as much greenhouse gasses in 2.3 days as people in Mali or Nigeria do in a year.
But in terms of wanton environmental destruction, the EMME is fast catching up. Greenhouse gasses have risen dramatically since the 1950s, with a sixfold spike between 1960 and 2010. The oil industry and dirty electricity production are the major causes of this toxic mix. But vehicle exhaust and factory emissions have also contributed.
In Lebanon, air pollution is already above World Health Organization recommended values. Older cars, badly regulated factories, diesel generators, and poor public transport pump out a toxic cocktail of gasses and particulate matter.
One study of children in north Lebanon found that those who lived within three kilometers of factories, especially those living close to cement industries, had a high risk of respiratory problems. In 2018 Greenpeace ranked Jounieh — once a golden coast with long beaches and clear water — as fifth in the Arab world, and 23rd worldwide, in nitrogen dioxide pollution.
Over the past few years, temperatures in the EMME region frequently topped the 50°C threshold — at the edge of what many living organisms, including humans, can endure.
- 1The EMME climate region includes: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen.
These temperatures will increase as the earth warms further. The Pyrocene is already bringing us an epoch of firestorms.2 Wildfires have raged through Lebanon, Cyprus, and Greece in recent years, as well as the Amazon, Australia, the United States, not to mention the terrifying zombie fires of the Arctic permafrost.
Dust storms, along with choking air pollution, will combine into a toxic smog that will make our air unbreathable. The savage dust storm that struck in August and September of 2015 was just a taste of what is to come.
All of these dramatic changes are driven by a 1.2°C rise in average global temperatures. Now imagine what we can expect with a temperature rise above 1.5°C by 2030; above 1.8°C by 2050; and between 2.4°C and 2.6°C by the end of this century.
Toxic Rivers and Acidic Seas
Lebanon’s future habitability depends on its river systems and their vital ecologies. But chaotic and destructive practices of industrial agriculture have already degraded the country's 14 rivers and led to severely depleted groundwater — now a pressing regional problem.
Sistemic pumping for agriculture consumes some 70 percent of freshwater. That’s on par with the global average — but a substantial amount for Lebanon, considering that agriculture only contributes around three percent (or less) of the nation’s GDP.
Farmers use this water primarily for cash crops, such as bananas and citrus fruit, which are unsuited for dryland farming. Native rain-fed crops, such as olives and pomegranates, require much less water.
The coming period will see even more stress on these systems. Rainfall in the EMME region will fall by up to 20 percent by 2040, according to IPCC projections, and by 45 percent by the end of the century.
Lebanon got another taste of this future with catastrophic storms such as Norma and Miriam, the two back-to-back superstorms that killed at least four people in the winter of 2018–2019.
Less rain and more droughts, punctuated by heavy downpours, will put increased stress on river ecosystems; drying and polluted rivers will mean higher prices for less food and water, while violent downpours could wash away the topsoil and accelerate desertification.
If we do not act, our future will be at the mercy of droughts and scorching summers, punctuated by extreme rain and snowfall. Lebanon got another taste of this future with catastrophic storms such as Norma and Miriam, the two back-to-back superstorms that killed at least four people, two of them children, in the winter of 2018–2019.
Raw sewage and chemical waste are already seeping into our groundwater and threaten the very survival of these networks. Over half of Lebanon’s water resources contain physicochemical and biological contamination, thanks to uncontrolled dumping by municipalities, as well as agribusiness and industry.
The Litani River, the largest in the country, is one of the most polluted in the region. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the water table in some parts of the Bekaa Valley dropped by as much as 20 meters between 1996 and 2011. This groundwater, fed by the Litani, shows dangerously high concentrations of nitrates, a key element of artificial fertilizers.The Litani is on the brink of being declared as a dead river.
This pollution is finding its way into potable water. An analysis of 48 major bottled water companies carried out in 2021 discovered that approximately 80 percent were contaminated with chemical and biological matter.
Meanwhile, rising temperatures are tropicalizing our seas, creating a wildfire of aquatic extinction. The Mediterranean covers less than one percent of the earth's oceans, yet it hosts up to 18 percent of all known marine species. Over one in five are listed as vulnerable. Over one in ten are endangered.
Conservation and preservation are ingrained in the ways that Mediterranean people have lived for thousands of years.
The Mediterranean is also facing a growing threat from ocean acidification — caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — which alters the chemical composition of seawater, making it less hospitable to many forms of marine life.
As the acidity of seawater increases, it becomes more difficult for marine organisms to build and maintain their shells and skeletons, which can ultimately lead to a decline in their populations and disruption of the ecosystem. Add to this the unregulated pumping of sewage, nitrate-rich waste, oil spills, and toxic chemicals into the sea, and the very survival of marine ecology along the coast is under threat.
- 2There is some debate to describe the coming era. Among them are the Anthropocene, the unit of geologic time used to describe the period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on climate and ecosystems. Others prefer the term the Homogenocene, the global environment of “biological leveling” with the spread of invasive species, monoculture crops etc. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/anthropocene https://www.researchgate.net/publication/210289384_Review_A_Guide_to_th…
Working With Nature
Nature is incredibly resilient. Broken ecosystems can bounce back to life3 . By respecting and working with natural processes, we can produce an abundance of food while capturing carbon and build soil health. We need to return to regenerative farming systems, along with building practical water recycling and stormwater harvesting networks that can breathe life back into damaged ecosystems. We already have the knowledge to do this, as a wealth of studies have shown.
Regenerative agriculture maintains healthy soil, free from artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides: Polyculture systems — planting diverse crops, instead of just one; Permaculture self-sustaining food forests; Hydroponics, which recycles nutrient-dense water to produce higher yields in areas with poor soil quality or limited space all year-round. All of these systems can function with little to no pesticides or herbicides.
Alongside these are traditional livestock integrated agricultural systems that use animals, such as sheep and goats, to fertilize and enrich the soil. In an age-old practice, shepherds in Lebanon's hills would seed the pastures as they grazed their flocks. Now these shepherds are marginalized, and reduced to overgrazing in poor soil, which accelerates ecosystem degradation.
- 3There are three basic metrics for a healthy ecosystem: Biomass, the living organic material in an environment that are essential to soil health; Necromass, dead material that has captured carbon and break down into the layers of soil providing nutrients for further growth; and Biodiversity, the variety of different life forms present, the wider the biodiversity the more resilient an ecosystem becomes. https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.5555/1974137.1974192
Over the centuries farmers developed a number of successful strategies to conserve soil moisture and maximize yields, such as terracing, which helps to prevent soil erosion and allows crops to be planted closer together; crop diversification, which reduces the risk of crop failure; and drip irrigation and furrow irrigation, both of which preserve water.
Lebanon has all this knowledge within its collective memory. Conservation and preservation are ingrained in the ways that Mediterranean people have lived for thousands of years. This is why people, especially those who live and work on the land, are central to the transformation we need to prepare for climate change.
Who Owns the Land?
The key barrier to building integrated agriculture with natural ecosystems rests on the ownership of land. Control over Lebanon’s land is one of the damaging legacies of imperialism, from the final days of the Ottoman Empire to the French Mandate, and the dysfunctional sectarian state these occupations left behind.
The privatization of Lebanon’s land began with the Ottoman Land Code of 1858. Ottoman rulers hoped to set the conditions for the development of capitalism in the empire by imitating Europe’s confiscation of common lands.
Under the new Ottoman code, merchants and local administrators registered large tracts of land in their own names. “The result was land that became the legal property of people who may have never lived there,” writes Amos Nadan, in Revisiting the Anti-Mushāʿ Reforms, “while locals, even those who had lived on the land for generations, became tenants of absentee owners.”
The land registry established under the French Mandate (1923-1943), which did not recognize common ownership, set the conditions for further land grabs. This attack on the commons was part of a predatory global practice during colonialism's colossal multi-century looting spree.
For generations, agricultural communities managed agriculture sustainably through systems such as masha‘ common lands — lands held in common by villages. Local communities used these communal lands for grazing and agriculture. Today, many of these lands have been privatized and developed, leading to fragmentation and degradation of the landscape.
The land registry established under the French Mandate (1923-1943), which did not recognize common ownership, set the conditions for further land grabs.
The monopolization of land accelerated during the so-called Green Revolution, which spanned the 1960s and 1970s, and sealed the mass conversion of agriculture into agribusiness. During this era, industrial agriculture initiated many of the destructive practices that continue to this day.
This new class of landowners drove people off their lands and turned those who remained into day laborers. This transformation reduced small-scale farmers to precarious conditions, dependent on the market and the immiserating pressure of productivity.
In his study of degrowth communism, Japanese Marxist Kohei Saito categorized agribusiness as “robbery agriculture” which creates a metabolic rift between humanity and nature. Because this type of agriculture extracts as much nutrition as possible from the soil, and returns none, it is incompatible with sustainable long-term production.
“Thus, there emerges a grave gap between the logic of capital’s valorisation,” writes Saito, “and that of nature’s metabolism.” Saito concludes, “The capitalist system must be judged as irrational from a perspective of sustainable human development.” 4
- 4Saito: the Metabolic Rift and De-growth Communism, Michael Roberts. “In the key passage on the concept of the metabolic rift, Marx wrote that the capitalist mode of production ‘Produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process between social metabolism and natural metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of the soil. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, and trade carries this devastation far beyond the bounds of a single country (Liebig)’.” https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2022/11/27/saito-the-metabolic-r…
Lebanon’s current land ownership regime is shaped by colonial powers. Yet its natural state — and the one that has dominated most of the region’s history — was rooted in some form of cooperative ownership. Reclaiming this land will be crucial to the seismic shifts that Lebanon and its neighbors need to make in the face of the climate emergency.
We need a system that no longer classifies land into parcels, but manages it collectively as part of ecologically integrated systems. A return to the common lands, and extending it to all arable land, is not only possible but crucial to building resilience into the ecosystems that we need to survive.
In her study of holistic landscape design in Tibneen, south Lebanon, Reem Nabil Fayyad details the social advantages of common land ownership and how this approach integrates sustainable land use with vibrant local communities — practices rooted in centuries of ecological traditions. There are many such models across the country.
A return to the common lands, and extending it to all arable land, is not only possible but crucial to building resilience into the ecosystems that we need to survive.
If we don’t reclaim our land, the unquenching appetite of modern capitalism in Lebanon will. Today the last remnants of common lands are under threat from a government prepared to sell everything to service the Sovereign Fund.
This debt program could also unleash terrible devastation on vital and protected natural areas — the bedrock of biodiversity and essential for a functioning ecosystem.
For Lebanon’s politicians, protected lands are “mere commodities that can be turned into financial profit and political capital,” warns the Public Works Studio, in The Land We Stand to Lose to the Sovereign Fund. “Under legal cover, the public domain has been offered to those in power on a silver platter.”
What Is Holding Us Back
It is a common refrain, and widely perceived as an unalienable fact, that capitalism is a natural progression of human economic and social development.
But it is an unnatural system, one that distorts economic and social relations. In ancient agrarian communities, farmers decided collectively how to reproduce the conditions that sustain life. Under feudalism, the aristocracy determined those conditions according to their personal needs.
But under capitalism, unlike under these earlier forms of social organization, the reproduction of capital itself — not life — became the goal. Those who own capital will only invest with the certainty that it will produce a profit. “Thus profit becomes an end in itself,” writes Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital, “the decisive factor which determines not only production but also reproduction.”
A capitalist economic system suffers from a major flaw: the periodic crisis of overproduction. If the system produces too many goods, that lowers the market value, and turns investment into a loss.
Consider the apple. The value of an apple lies not its nutritional benefits — its value in sustaining life — but the price it can command at market. Produce too much, and the market price falls, no matter that its nutritional value remains the same. Under such a system, creating abundance is the road to financial ruin — as Lebanese farmers have discovered in recent years.
A similar logic permeates all sectors of the global economy under a system which designs production to extract the maximum return for minimal investment, irrespective of the environmental and human consequences. The logic of capital runs counter to basic human reasoning: capitalists see the threat to the planet itself as secondary to the need for capital to reproduce itself.
For an ecosystem, a forest is a source of water regulation, carbon capture, and biodiversity. But under capitalism, an ecosystem is classified by the wealth that can be exploited — so-called natural capital. In this system, a forest is valued only by the price of its timber.
Private Wealth Versus Social Wealth
What’s puzzling is whether anyone is reading these studies put out by IPCC and climate scientists. Surely capitalists understand the dangers of runaway climate change? One of the major problems of modern capitalism is that too much capital is invested in the global fossil fuel economy, so-called stranded assets. And the global north has the most to lose.
As with the rich of the global north, so to the rich in the global south. Lebanon has become a nation of staggering wealth inequality. The richest ten percent own nearly 70 percent of the national wealth.
The logic of capital runs counter to basic human reasoning: capitalists see the threat to the planet itself as secondary to the need for capital to reproduce itself.
Meanwhile, the rest — the nine out of 10 people who create this wealth — are forced to scrape by on a third of the national income. There is no justification for a system that rewards such a tiny minority for the economic, social and environmental chaos it has created.
It might strike people as odd that Lebanon’s ruling class is prepared to gamble a fortune on gas exploration, rather than invest this money in wind farms, or a functional solar energy system for a country that enjoys some 300 days a year of sunshine.
But this is precisely the logic of capitalism itself. A capitalist can make a one-time profit by selling a wind turbine or a solar panel. But here the profit ends. A diesel generator, on the other hand, requires a continuous supply of diesel that must be extracted, processed, shipped, and sold — the lifeblood for continuous capital accumulation.
Yet the solution is to hand. All wealth in society is created by labor power, whether a worker is harvesting fruit, building a house, or assembling a computer. Under capitalism, labor itself is a commodity sold on the market. In return for a day’s work, we hand over most of the wealth created to the capitalist, in the form of so-called surplus value.
There is no justification for a system that rewards such a tiny minority for the economic, social and environmental chaos it has created.
If this wealth is created by labor power, then we can use this power to produce social wealth to tackle the impact of climate change head-on, and in the process create jobs, support communities and begin the process of reversing ecological degeneration.
We can repurpose our industries in order to generate green economies, as part of so-called Green New Deal programs. We can implement systemic changes in the way Lebanon raises crops and animals, uses freshwater, manages forests and urban green spaces, and disposes of waste.
Building a Natural Economy
Before we set out solutions, we have to soberly face a chilling reality: the current global economic and political order has no solutions to the disasters it has unleashed.
Despite three decades of climate summits — and growing alarm among scientists and ordinary people — global institutions, international agencies, big business and governments have failed to implement even moderate or piecemeal solutions.
The over-reliance on future technology such as geo-engineering, carbon markets, net zero targets, nuclear fusion power, and even giant carbon sucking machines, is delaying any real or meaningful change.
Instead, Lebanon, and the world, needs to make an unprecedented move towards de-growth: to decouple the economy from a system of profit, and to implement a program of selected de-industrialization that prioritizes decarbonizing the economy.
We need to build sustainable and regenerative agriculture, clean the rivers, restore aquifers, and implement large-scale ecological restoration that includes rewilding — repairing biodiversity and ecosystem health by preserving and linking up core wilderness areas.
Reversing this ecological degeneration and addressing the climate emergency will require a seismic shift in Lebanon's economic and social relations. It will have to include a return to cooperative ownership and methods of harnessing labor power for the collective good.
This struggle for radical change is not just a theoretical one, but a practical necessity. It is especially urgent in Lebanon. It will give future generations, who will bear the burden of climate chaos, a chance of life.
We will have to accomplish this despite living in an unprecedented era of social and economic malaise, with attention turned towards the seemingly intractable economic and social crisis and the immiseration of the people who live in Lebanon.
Surviving the coming climate collapse will require generational thinking, something that runs counter to the short-term logic that drives the economy of our everyday lives. We will need a permanent revolutionary change in all aspects of our society — no small task, considering the ruling class’s grip over the country and region. We need a transition to a natural economy, based on the principles of ecological socialism — social ownership of production, distribution and exchange.
In practice, this will mean a just transition to a system of socially useful labor: the creation of a circular economy, one that plans production by integrating waste disposal and recycling; products designed for longevity and recyclability; solar and other renewable power; extensive, integrated public transport systems; closed-loop systems for resource use; and adapting homes and public buildings. Central to this would be greening towns and cities — which in itself can create thousands of jobs, such as planting gardens and maintaining urban farms.
With ecological socialism, social justice and a just transition to a natural economy should be the central pillar of all social and economic decisions. In practice, this could mean establishing community land trusts, cooperatives, social housing, and other forms of social ownership.
This struggle for radical change is not just a theoretical one, but a practical necessity. It is especially urgent in Lebanon. It will give future generations, who will bear the burden of climate chaos, a chance of life.
Above, all ecological socialism is founded on a system of basic logical rationalism: that of survival. All the solutions are in our hands, but it will require revolutionary change to make them succeed.