Place-Born Resistance and Action in Lebanon

Once Upon a Time in a Collapsing World, There was Hope in Collapsed States

By Sammy Kayed

Standing on a 600 year old bridge with members of a community fighting against upstream polluters

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Environmental Racism and Justice

For over 50 years, science has been building confidence and warning about the incalculable consequences of a planet whose stabilizing processes unravel with climate change, biodiversity loss, and natural resource degradation. That scientific confidence is becoming a lived truth for more and more people who breathe, drink, eat, laugh, love, and pray in environmental breakdown. Researchers used to convincingly separate instances of social, political, and economic collapse from its environmental backdrop but this is starting to look more like analytical gymnastics than anything else. Belief in civilizational collapse used to be reserved for conspiracists and doomsdayers, but now it enters the highest echelons of governance and knowledge production.

Inspired by scientific confidence, theorists discuss how civilizational collapse will never look like the all-consuming flood in the book of Genesis. It’s more likely to happen gradually in place-based bubbles which ultimately extinguish diversity in how we organize ourselves, produce unfathomable inequalities, and degrade our knowledge and ability to perpetuate society at a global scale. There are some understandably popular reactions to today’s unprecedented number of collapsology headlines including invincibility, othering, cognitive dissonance, insularity, and panic. Then, there are those who are living in the places that make those headlines possible.

These bubbles of collapse can be understood as places where planetary breaking points are mixing with commonly cited local drivers (e.g. political misrepresentation, poverty, corruption, denied civil rights, failed development aid, fractured society, etc.) to produce disarray in communities or even entire countries. I feel as though I live in one of these places. So I keep wondering; what would it mean if we are experientially closer than others to the civilizational collapse warned of by scientists? I write this piece in my evidenced belief that those who are inside these metastasizing bubbles of collapse are not only the victims of disproportionate damage; they are some of the most relevant creators of perspectives and attempts for the deep social-ecological change required to keep collapse from becoming global in scale. The experiences shared here come from the tiny state of Lebanon.

Many people that were on the streets during the Thawra — an attempted revolution sparked on October 17th 2019 which called for the 40-year old war factioned government to step down — look back with a sense of being defeated or co-opted. Depending on the hour, the electric atmosphere wavered from collective therapy, to street festival, to violent insurrection as hundreds of thousands of people protested the problems’ source but were frazzled in the search for common solutions. Thawra episodes have come and gone ever since, fueled or slowed by freefalling currency values, COVID-19 lockdowns, bank policies forcibly holding the population’s money, government electricity grids powering down to 2 hours per day, the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion in history near Beirut’s urban center killing over 200 people, the world’s 2nd greatest number of displaced people per capita, youth unemployment reaching 60%, repeat shortages of medical supplies, 3 hour lines to fill cars with fuel, and the remaining government services on periodic strikes because, at the time this article is being written, they are paid 7% of what their salary was worth two years ago.

The economic, political, and emotional crises of Lebanon, whose area is smaller than Los Angeles County, are happening in a country that is experiencing its environmental limits all at once. During the dry season there are 24hour periods where over 100 wildfires have been reported. About 70% of residents are at risk of dangerous water shortages and nearly 60% of domestic water harbors bacteria from sewage. It’s estimated that 941 open trash dumps are strewn across the tiny state while urban air pollution is some of the worst in the Middle East with established connections to our cancer rates — the highest in West Asia. Between 2019–2021, Lebanon recorded the fifth highest rate of forest cover loss among conflict areas.

As is usually the case, the gravest burdens fall along economic, racial, and gender lines affecting women, migrant workers, displaced Palestinians, and Syrian refugees the most. Although incomparable, the privileged are not immune as wealth is trapped in banks and practically unsellable real estate. Alas, everyone experiences some sort of mental toll for having to constantly come up with new tricks to turn a blind eye, desensitize, and generally justify a privileged position when living under unabating shocks and tectonic inequalities. And so, in 2022, the country reports itself to be the world’s 2nd most depressed.

For me the most disturbing realization, considering the intensity of scientific alarm over our future, is how normal ongoing collapse can look and feel. Daily life in Lebanon abounds with contradictions. Restaurants, dance clubs, and bars reaching maximum capacity during a pandemic, traffic-jammed highways at the peak of a fuel crisis, hikes surrounded by invasive wildflowers replacing deforested mountains, seaside boardwalks filled with families enjoying the last pockets of urban public space, and people who are financially struggling express gushing generosity.

The country has become a spectacle for economists, researchers, and aspiring anarchists who see it as one living example of history’s most rapid state collapse. In typical fashion, foreign financial aid subscribing to outworn and technocratic development models have poured in to attempt remediation. Between 2019 and 2021, $4.496 billion in aid has entered Lebanon. But what’s there to show for it? Getting out of this systemic mess is more about rethinking how, where, and with whom we organize collective efforts than it is about more money and technology.

We have cultural and natural riches, ancestral equilibriums, constructive frustrations, and formidable drives for honest and deep change. Many have reached breaking points in their tolerance of what feels like an untouchable system collapse. Our response was to create the Environment Academy (EA) as a place born movement aiming for justice and transformation. Right around the beginning of the Thawra in October 2019, Dr Najat A. Saliba and I co-founded EA out of the American University of Beirut — Nature Conservation Center. We invited hard-hit communities to self-organize around the environmental breakdown they deem intolerable and to create their visions for change. We are now centered around 20 frontline communities and over 100 local changemakers that are pulling 70 diverse experts and media professionals, 30 public authorities, 15 private enterprises, and 10 civil society organizations into their ideas of transformation. Although they are not necessarily the most destitute or marginalized, all 20 of these communities suffer from environmental breakdown and they all hold the possibility to demonstrate that civilizational collapse is not our unavoidable trajectory.

In focus group discussions (held in Arabic and translated for this article), about 70% of community members report that they joined EA because action in the areas they called home was their Thawra against a failing government and that if they didn’t do something, nobody else would. As one community member south of Beirut fighting for access to safe water in their community put it, “I can’t claim that you (government) are working wrong unless I show that I am working right. Everyone starts from themselves, in the places they call home, and for me this is a revolution.” Others working on restoring a public space that was ravaged by both wildfires and open solid waste dumping agreed: “Change in my village before change in my country. This was my personal motto. ” After a year and a half of collaboratively creating local actions, another member of a coastal community said “we always talk about how we need a revolution and that the country needs to change. Instead of just talking and talking about this, it was beautiful to actually go through an initiative and get the satisfaction that we’re actually doing something.” Instead of waiting for policy makers, foreign aid, business models, and high level meetings to save us from doom, these community members are organizing to make examples of what change looks and feels like.

For many of us fundamental system change may always seem out of reach, but place born action feels different. In an attempt to bring back the civil-war ravaged trees the region is named after, a community member from a part of Mount Lebanon tells how after the Beirut port explosion she “had no more trust in anything. It felt like there was nothing left. Like my world was going dark. My little local initiative felt like the only thing I had control over. So I grasped on to it. Slowly, I started to feel like I could do something. Here, I had some control to create something positive.”

I don’t claim to know what exactly will create the transformation we need, but I know that we need genuinity, possibilities to express and lift frontline views on change, and sustained collectivity to achieve it. Place born action affords us this. As collapse bubbles become more frequent around the world, I fall asleep knowing that place born resistance and action can spring out of them. After 10 years between academia and impact startups, I’ve learned that the least corruptible answers for social-ecological transformation come from answers on how we can leave our high seats of disciplinary knowledge and entrenched business models to get behind the visions and genuine actions of frontliners. At this time, the world needs their insights more than they need the world’s money.

Sammy Kayed is the managing director and co-founder of the Environment Academy at the American University of Beirut

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