A few months ago Egypt was named the greenest country in the Middle-East by a Yale group, even topping neighbouring Israel. It even turned out to be one of the best improving countries in the world. If you ever visited it, this might sound odd, and I in fact haven’t met an Egyptian that took the news seriously. But yet, the ranking seems credible. Maybe Egypt’s people care more about the environment than we think?
Me, I am particularly interested in non-Western ways of looking at the environment. In the West much people reached a level of prosperity, and now they start to care about the environment. But not everybody who cares about the environment fits in this stereotype. And maybe luckily.
A few months ago I decided that I wanted to search out how a specific Egyptian or Arab environmentalist might look like. I read too much books, but also interviewed some interesting people, and I thought it might be interesting to share my discoveries with you. I say share, because I want you to interact with me, by letting me know if you (dis)agree.
West vs. South
First, of all, I don’t assume that the West is more advanced than the South (or the East). Yes, the use of words like ‘sustainable development’, ‘resource management’, ‘greening the economy’ stays limited to those with a Western education. But that’s just lingo. Turn your focus on other parts of the world, South America for example, and you’ll hear ‘rights of nature’, ‘cosmo-visions’, ‘bien-vivir’ or ‘caring for the seventh generation’.
This is because their analysis differs entirely. The West rarely questions technology and economic growth, and the South seldomly criticises tradition and strong family ties. Their history differs, the values of the Enlightenment helped the West dominate the world and subsequent crises showed the South local tradition’s ability to offer resilience.
But there were also occasions in which the viewpoint of the West and the South met. Some Western aid workers’ experiences made them question the virtues of progress and Southern intellectuals tried to share their analyse on the failure of development.
In the ‘90s a hotchpotch eventually united under the umbrella of ‘post-development’. They argue that any attempt to make development more sustainable, balanced or effective is useless, we shouldn’t improve it, but abandon it instead. The concept of development is wrong.
They wrote interesting books, try Ivan Illich’s “Energy and Equity” for example. Post-development consists for a fair part of people from the global South who use their own cultural roots to analyse society, development and the environment.
Vandana Shiva builds upon Gandhi’s concept of local self-sufficiency.
And Majid Rahnema reflects on his own experiences as an Iranian and UN-official.I thought this might also offer interesting insights about the Arab world, but unfortunately it offers very little examples of Arab thinkers. Also, it gives you plenty of nice insights, but is very ambiguous. It might be useful as a way to criticise ideas, but gives very few inspiration to make things better.
Looking to Green Islam?
Maybe Islam has something to say about this. I had heard about Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an American-Iranian professor who had written numerous books on how the loss of spirituality, Islam thus, causes a deterioration of the environment – and society. His books give you plenty of new angles to look at science, but if you look at it as a whole, his message is quite simple and is merely that the West is to blame. It’s also very academical, difficult to translate to society.
Compared to this, the work of Fazlun Khalid is more interesting. A former officer in the British Army, he uses Islam to create awareness about the environment in theUK, and he also sets up Islamic initiatives to foster environmental care in Indonesia, Saudi-Arabia and Zanzibar.
Yes, this already linked with the Arab world, but still originated in the West. A bit in the same way Wester aid agencies promote environmental care in Egypt. There was still nothing really genuine about it.
Maybe I had to look at the local political movements instead. The region’s new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed to base their politics on ethics, and maybe that also involved the environment. So I set out and asked them.
“Nature’s not our biggest concern” their think-tank’s Jamal Himdan answered, “but we are anti-nuclear, we believe in large scale renewables and want to fight pollution.”
Pollution was, thus, just part of their social justice approach.
Social justice, here we have it again. Each and every person I interviewed seemed to mention it, and in each article I had to explain that it was one of the main demands of the revolution. But is anybody serious about it? And has it already caused a change?
I’m doubtful, and so is Mohamed Nagi of the Habi Center for Environmental Rights. He told me that if something changed it was for the worse.
So far outside the street protests, nobody seems to do anything with the message, the SCAF didn’t, and when campaigning most politicians find it more tempting to imagine new big-scale investment opportunities than explain how they will ensure their citizen’s basic rights.
Sarah Deputy, who’s analyzing Egypt’s Toskha Project, told me last week that she also was amazed at how nothing’s changed.
In the end, Egypt’s newly-elected politicians all seem to propose a new version of Toskha. The abovementioned interview with the Brotherhood for example, shows you a lot more about big projects then about empowering the Egypt’s citizens.
Last time Saudi Arabia was pushing for Toskha, now the European Union seems to be in for a massive solar energy adventure.
But still, it’s not because those in power don’t understand what’s going on, that things cannot change. People in Egypt have been standing up against big polluters and even resource squander, and have had an impact.
I call this environmental justice. Maybe I am skipping a few steps, but it looks like the same forces are at work as elsewhere in the world. Protests that started fifteen years ago inBoliviaeventually culminated in what is known as the Climate Justice-movement. Experiences of how native and black Americans were affected by bad policy have led Rob Nixon to coin environmental justice as the environmentalism of the poor. This may look as a very leftist view, but it is not, as it criticises the governments much more than anything else.
Joan Martinez-Allier and Sunita Narain have described their own experiences in the same manner, and argued that the potential of environmental justice is far bigger than the efforts the West is pushing for. Their books should in fact be compulsory reading for everybody with an interest in the environment.
The Only Hope
To me, Egypt environmental justice seems to be very promising. Look at what the most media popular example, the Zabaleen have been able to perform. They combined caring about their livelihood and contributing to the environmental sustainability of the economy at the meantime.
Yes, except for them not many examples are known. But that might be because they don’t get any publicity. Also all the other environmental initiatives, at least those that gain publicity aren’t very promising. On a recent conference called “Green Visions for Cairo” the most feasible idea academic experts proposed was to move all the government’s offices from downtown to the desert. That’s not only infeasible, but also runs contrary to what I understand as sustainable.
And the last “Cairo Climate Talks” I attended resulted in a discussion on why gmo-vegetables are still restricted in Egypt. Every time the organisation, or the experts weren’t to blame, they always tried to navigate away from bad proposals, but it just shows how unsuitable easy solutions are in densely populated Cairo/Egypt.
I could go on for a while, showing you initiatives that went wrong, but I think there are more interesting stories to follow. A lot has already been written about failures. But the stories on environmental justice, or the environmentalism of the poor if you want, haven’t received a lot of attention. Especially not in the Arab region. And that’s what you might expect from me in the future.
Image of Egyptian crowd by Paul Vinten from Shutterstock