8 Billion From The Middle East and North Africa: Between Life and Death in the Human Boiler

Stephen Pascoe, 15 November 2022

N’entendez-vous pas sur la Côte d’Azur les cris qui nous parviennent de l’autre bout de la Méditerranée, d’Egypte ou de Tunisie ? Pensez-vous qu’il ne s’agit que de révolution de palais ou grondement de quelques ambitieux, en quête de place ? Non, non, la pression augmente constamment dans la chaudière humaine.

Sauvy, Alfred. “Trois mondes, une planète.” L’Observateur, 14 August 1952.

News of the birth of the planet’s eighth billion human will provoke a mixture of intellectual and emotional responses, among them awe, fascination, hope and bewilderment. For many, the dominant feeling will be one of alarm: that the coming milestone is a portent of a human mass spun out of control. Interlocked with the climate crisis, and an ever more alarming set of predictions about the prospects for human life on this overheated planet, the imposing figure appears as the landmark of a humanity that has well surpassed its limits to growth.

Not so long ago, another milestone — of the global urban population outstripping its rural equivalent for the first time in human history — was greeted in some quarters as cause for qualified optimism. The argument went that city-dwellers, per capita, use fewer resources than their counterparts in the countryside, occupy less land, and achieve economies of scale impossible in areas of lower population density. This prognosis, while containing a kernel of truth, overlooked the devil in the detail. It glossed the way that each and every human community, whether rural or urban (or somewhere in between), is always constrained by its access to food and resources within global supply chains, as well as by the inequalities of uneven development and by localised environmental conditions. In a word, such urban optimism was blind to geography.

The uncomfortable truth, then as now, is that the inhabitants of different regions will not share the same fates in our ecologically precarious futures. Among the planet’s sociocultural blocs, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) occupies an especially paradoxical position. The region is often made to stand as a cautionary tale for the rest of the world in the stakes of climate change; advance warning of what awaits other regions as temperatures rise, rainfall declines and aridity increases. Some pundits suggest that parts of the region are already uninhabitable, especially during the summer months which year upon recent year have seen heat records smashed. The gulf between the air-conditioned population and their opposite has been exacerbated by electricity crises in Lebanon and in Iraq, in both countries spurring popular uprisings in 2019 that are far from settled. Anticipated water shortages across the region will likely provoke further unrest in coming years.[1]

And yet, the still inexhausted supplies of hydrocarbons in the region — at once at the origin of much of our planetary woes and still powering the majority of global economies — have made the oil-producing countries politically un-abandonable. The perilous entanglement of American global power with petrochemical autocracies has fuelled a culture of permanent war and circumvented meaningful democratic reform or energy transition.[2] The MENA region thus remains central to our collective global futures, and in the ways of life sustained by possible energy regimes, for better or for worse. 

The region has long been central to the articulation and framing of urgent global questions. When the French demographer Alfred Sauvy invented the “third world” in 1952 as an alternative to the rival capitalist and communist spheres that had emerged in the cauldron of the Cold War, he had his eyes (and ears) firmly on the Middle East. Writing in the weeks following the Egyptian revolution that brought Gamal Abd-El Nasser to power, Sauvy asked his French audience: “Do you not hear, from the Côte d’Azur, the cries that reach us from the other side of the Mediterranean, from Egypt or Tunisia?” Against those who might see the revolutionary struggle of this decolonizing age as simply “palace revolutions” or the rumblings of a few ambitious upstarts, Sauvy saw them instead as expressions of a pressure that was “rising constantly in the human boiler”.[3] Sauvy meant chaudière in the sense of a pressure cooker, demanding a release valve both political and demographic. Reading his text seventy years later, la chaudière humaine now assumes a grislier apparition: the “human boiler” has become the earth itself.

The eighth billion human is expected to be born today, on the 15th of November 2022.[4] The child will thus come into the world at precisely the moment that Egypt will be hosting the COP 27, the “last chance to achieve a healthy future for humanity”, according to the World Health Organization.[5] The conference will be held in the glittering Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Shaykh, at a comfortable distance from the unruly conurbation of Cairo, that “massive collision between the rural and the urban”[6] that straddles the Nile Delta with an effective population approaching twenty-two million. The conference will be held under the auspices of a government that has stifled dissent, jailed environmental activists and quashed the remnants of the popular revolutionary currents that sought to deliver Egypt from authoritarian repression a decade ago.[7] The most prominent of the political prisoners, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, on hunger strike for several months, has vowed to stop drinking water on the day that the conference begins in order to escalate his demands for individual freedom and collective political reform.[8] By the end of the conference, El-Fattah anticipates that he will be either dead or free.

COP27 is taking place in Sharm El-Shaykh. Image: Unsplash.

Travelling from the COP27 convention centre in Sharm El-Shaykh in two distinct directions, one finds two vastly different sites, which hint at the disparate futures of the region. Crossing the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza strip, can be found one of the highest population densities in the world.[9] The population in question is comprised chiefly of the descendants of Palestinians cleared from their land and their homes to make way for the establishment of Israel in 1948 and systematically barred from returning ever since. Faced with acute land and housing shortages, it has recently been reported that some Gaza residents with nowhere else to go have taken to living in cemeteries, making shelter among the graves.[10] Scarcely a more apt metaphor for the stranglehold of the past on the present could be imagined. Here, the unresolved traumas of the twentieth century suffocate the lives of the twenty-first century.

Taking an alternate itinerary from Sharm El–Shaykh, across the Red Sea, one lands on an entirely different vision of the future. In the northwest of Saudi Arabia, excavators are currently “digging a wide linear trench in the desert,” clearing sand to make way for “The Line”, or Neom.[11] This piece of utopian futurism envisages a linear city of 170 kilometres, buttressed on each side by a mirrored glass “earthscaper” reflecting light back on the desert, while housing nine million residents inside amidst a cacophony of forests, high-speed rail, vertical gardens growing fruit and vegetables harvested by robots and various amenities for residents.[12] While the project has been greeted with scepticism and incredulity by urban planners and architects, as an attempt to greenwash the appalling human rights record of the country under Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Sultan, the bulldozers push on through the sands of the desert.

As we eight billion humans hurtle into ever more unstable set of ecological horizons, it is perhaps in this respect that the MENA best suggests the outlines of the future. It is of a planet divided, not so clearly along regional lines or in clearly demarcated hemispheres, but between those zones of privilege building their way out of crisis in insulated and fortressed worlds for the privileged, sitting uncomfortably alongside what the recently departed urban scholar Mike Davis famously called “a planet of slums”, where the many billions are left to fend for themselves. 

Stephen Pascoe is a Research Fellow at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, UNSW Sydney. Cover image: Unsplash.

[1] Anchal Vohra, “The Middle East is Becoming Literally Uninhabitable”, Foreign Policy, 24 August 2021. Jamie Fico, “What happens to oasis farming when the water runs out?”, Jadaliyya, 15 December 2021.

[2] Jacob Mundy, “Oil for Insecurity, Permanent War, and the Political Economy of Late Imperial America,” in Daniel Bertrand Monk and Michael Sorkin (eds.), Between Catastrophe and Revolution: Essays in Honor of Mike Davis (New York and London: OR Books, 2021), 161–191. Cf. Omar Robert Hamilton, “Before the COP: Sustainable power,” Madamasr, June 16, 2022.

[3] Alfred Sauvy, “Trois mondes, une planète,” L’Observateur, 14 August 1952.

[4] “World set to reach 8 billion people on 15 November 2022,” United Nations Population Fund, 11 July 2022.

[5] “What is at stake at COP27? Our last chance to achieve a healthy future for humanity,” Statement by the WHO Council on the Economics of Health for All, 13 October 2022.

[6] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York: Verso, 2017), 9.

[7] Naomi Klein, “Greenwashing a police state: the truth behind Egypt’s Cop27 masquerade,” The Guardian, 18 October 2022. 

[8] “COP27, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and the Dreams of the Revolution – A Conversation with Omar Robert Hamilton and Ashish Ghadiali,” Middle East Report and Information Project, November 4, 2022.

[9] Adam Taylor, “Gaza City is being hit by missile strikes. This is how densely populated it is,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2014.

[10] “Gaza struggles to accommodate the living and the dead,” Al Jazeera, 6 October 2022.

[11] Tom Ravenscroft, “Drone footage reveals The Line megacity under construction in Saudi Arabia,” Dezeen, 19 October 2022.

[12] Jenny Southan, “The Line: Saudi Arabia to build 170km long ‘Earthscaper’ City,” Globetrender, July 27, 2022.