Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Solving the Problem of Mutually-Exclusive Overlap in Iraq

Lots of news about Iraq lately. Too bad we haven't heard much about the recent approval of the Kurdish constitution.

Over a year ago, I discussed the problem of mutually exclusive minimum demands between the various parties within Iraq (1 2 3). I've also articulated this mutually-exclusive overlap as a catalyst of conflict in general. Specifically, the problem here is that the Kurds demand control over northern Iraqi oil resources, but the Sunni Arab population will never accept a federal structure where the Kurds get the northern oil, the Shi'a get the southern oil, and they get none.

It's easy to read about how the central government in Iraq plans to gather oil revenues centrally and then distribute it evenly through the country. What we're not hearing is that the recently approved constitution for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) isn't playing that game. The KRG constitution explicitly states that Kurdish law trumps Federal (Iraqi) law. It also says that the KRG will retain its Peshmerga militia. Oh, and that if things don't work out, they retain the right to "go their own course." As in become independent. Turkey is, literally, up in arms about this. The US isn't quite so sure how to respond--a strong and independent Kurdistan doesn't exactly help the (potentially unattainable) goal of a stable, multi-ethnic Iraq. But it also accentuates the ethnic divisions within Iran--specifically their large and sometimes restive Kurdish minority.

Mutually-exclusive overlap. The Iraq project WILL FAIL if this issue cannot be addressed. So how do you address mutually-exclusive overlap? That isn't so easy. The first step is recognizing that there is a time element to the creation of mutually exclusive overlap: The artificial divisions created under the Sykes-Picot Accord almost 100 years ago brought this process into high gear. And there will be a time component in any solution. If people think it can be fixed in 5 years, they should hit the history books. In some ways, the recent situation in the former Yugoslavia is informative, but in that situation there was not this highly concentrated and incridibly important feature: oil.

There are other problems with trying to translate the very limited success of erasing mutually-exclusive overlap in the former Yugoslavia to Iraq. But perhaps the one most worth mentioning is that much of the former Yugolsavia is locally self-sufficient. The Serbs and Slovenes and Croats generally have their own localized industry. Their own localized agriculture. Their own localized tourist revenue. They, for the most part, don't rely on the dole. They are a geography of small cities, local markets, domestic production, and localized agriculture. Iraq is not. Iraqi population has exploded over the past decades on their oil wealth. They are fundamentally reliant on it. They are not agriculturally self-sufficient. They have virtually no export product beyond oil. So whatever region does not receive the share of oil revenue that they have come to rely on (and the Sunni Arab regions have traditionally received the vast majority), they no longer have the surplus necessary to maintain the standards that they expect. That they demand. This is why, without an even distribution of oil wealth, there cannot be peace in Iraq--it is the classic problem of the "Arab Street." Many young men on the dole who have no legitimate prospects to support themselves or their families. But with the lengthy history of oppression of the Kurds and Shi'a, these newly empowered groups will not accept their traditional, disproportionately small share of oil revenues. This is one source--probably the key source--of mutually-exclusive overlap in Iraq. And the Balkan model does not provide a solution here. This problem is only solved by moving the Iraqi economy away from its dependence on oil.

Can this be done? I think that it can, and I think that it is informative to look at why the former Yugoslavia was more successful in erasing mutually-exclusive overlap: its higher degree of localized self reliance. If Iraq is to ever erase this mutually-exclusive overlap, it will require a focus on creating localized self-reliance, not on some dream of establishing Iraq as a tourist center or manufacturing center--the solution must be possible within the zero-security environment that currently exists. Anything that depends on first solving that security problem is getting the cart before the horse. Localized self-reliance--the ability to create a quality life on your own--is something that CAN be done in the current environment, and that CAN then pave the way to remove the reliance on oil and reduce the criticality of the existing oil-based mutually exclusive overlap. I have only seen one example of this actually taking place: Geoff Lawton's excellent, Middle East permaculture initiatives. With his wife Nadia he has worked to create local self-reliance in Jordan. And he has worked to create a self-dependent, permaculture orriented village in Iraq. This is far too little, but it is creating a model for how this CAN be accomplished--something that, if seized upon by other NGOs or governments, could, one day, actually solve this problem.


sventastic said...

Excellent post, Jeff.
The disastrous Iraq situation might well be considered a microcosm of the broader global Collapse that is to come.
With the outright destruction and following disintegration of remaining utilities and luxuries like clean water, sewage, and electricity in most urban environments, I am curious about localized responses to this degeneration of these material luxuries.
I suspect that there are various strategies being implemented to deal with these issues. I am particularly curious about the procurement of clean water.
Finally, I am curious about strategies and tactics based in non-violence in order to sustainably maximize resources in such a negative and volatile situation.

Mark Johnson said...

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Anonymous said...

Setting up a sustainable living arrangement for _some_ people in Iraq is definitely a lofty goal.

However, if it is indeed true that the carrying capacity of Iraq has long been exceeded, how do the sustainably living people make sure they are not killed by the rest that are not so fortunate?

Alfred said...

The way to spread the oil money is by paying individual citizens direclty their "share". Obviously, some central expenses of government need to be met first - say 30% of oil revenue.

I realize that this is a utopian vision because the USA and the other "players" (UK, Iran, Saudia Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey) have a vested interest in having their own politicians running the country.

Jeff Vail said...

The problem is greater than the logistics (and imperialism) behind paying people "their share." The problem is what share? Sunni regions have expanded to their carrying capacity under the preferential treatment they received under Saddam. Anything less than such an UNFAIR shair will not suffice to prevent the problem of the "Arab Street," (which is really universal, and has nothing to do with them being "Arab") from rearing its ugly head. But in order to placate the Sunnis with more than their fair share, the Shi'a and Kurds would need to receive less--and seeing as they are in power, with the Shi'a being the majority, that just won't happen. This is where the intractable nature of mutually-exclusive overlap becomes the core of the problem, and why solving the oil distribution conundrum is impossible. The only solution that I can think of is to remove the reliance on oil distribution, and to do that by building local self-reliance.

Anonymous said...

Building "local self-reliance" is indeed the way to go, and is ultimately the only stady-state point.

The process of getting there however, entails reduction of the popupation, which is alleged to have exceeded the "local carrying capacity," t least in the Suni-populated areas. Unless the _oil revenue_ is somehow used to reduce the population, something else will have to be used.

Arguably, the US presense these _is_ one way on the road to sustainability by population reduction. Arguably, oil revenue _is_ being used to support the US way of doing it.

Any other ways being discussed or promoted currenlty?

Jeff Vail said...

In recent history, oil had provided a security blanket that prevented starvation, as well as access to more modern medical care that greatly reduced infant mortality. The result was that the cultural-norm birth rate (many of which would historically die of famine or as infants) produced explosive population growth. Stability--the perception by individual households that they will be able to consistently and resiliently provide for their own needs--is one of the most efficient way of reducing the culturally desirable birth rate, and eventually reducing the actual population to a sustainable level. Women-focused micro-credit initiatives that provide permaculture/gardening training and facilitation are a very effective, and region-compatible way of doing this. Take a look at Geoff Lawton's Syria womens' permaculture initiative as well as his inspiring "Greening the Desert" initiative at:

Population in Sunni areas certainly is higher than the carrying capacity with current agricultural methods, but this kind of program could help to bridge that gap until population itself can be controlled...

Jason Godesky said...

Permaculture would effectively raise the local carrying capacity, and since we're talking about the Fertile Crescent--the original victim of agricultural expansion--you could easily see this as using permaculture to clean up our own mess, not just the mess the United States has made of Iraq, but the mess that civilization has made of Mesopotamia.

Still, even with a successful permaculture program, could Iraq support 28 million people? The civil war is about "mutually-exclusive overlap," as Jeff describes, and yet we're also talking about a Sunni population that has grown very large, both in numbers and footprint, due to an unsustainable state of affairs. You can also see this at an ecological level as a classic case of overshoot. Permaculture can help raise the baseline, so that the fall isn't quite as far and hopefully the landing not quite as hard, but it seems to me that one could easily see the current strife in Iraq as the means by which an unsustainable situation is cut down to a sustainable one.

Jeff Vail said...

In a perfect world (OK, my perfect world), we would spread localization, permaculture, and a self-conscious understanding of the need to reduce population throughout Iraq. Within a generation we would achieve something on the order of what is happening in Italy--a birth rate of 1.1 or so, resulting in a rapid halving of the population. And then Iraq would eventually settle in to a nice, stable, sustainable population of a couple of million people (or less) and we can all live happily every after, as other societies who begin to experience problems look to Iraq as a model of how to dig yourself out of trouble.

As Jason said, an opportunity to address the problems of hierarchal, agricultural civilization at its root, and at the current hotspot of these problems...spreading eventually to the rest of "civilization."

Pie in the sky, to be sure. I do honestly believe that this is possible. I don't claim to have all the details worked out, but I think it's at least close enough to possible to mandate that we give it a go. But--in keeping with my other widlely idealistic talk lately of nuclear disarmament and such--I don't honestly think this will come to pass.

At the end of the day, it is essential--whatever does happen to civilization in the next 50 years--that we understand why it is happening and how, at least on a local scale, it can be mitigated. I think that a moderately soft landing is possible. And I think that a moderately soft landing from a "crash" scenario will in fact come to pass. But only in very select locales. Iraq won't be one of them.

Anonymous said...

Will we never learn? The EU is now trying to split up nations into part regions and amalgamate them with part regions of other countries, divide and conquer, to produce a country called Europe. How long before there are wars of independence.

Jeff Vail said...

Just heard a bit on NPR this morning: A lady in Sadr City, Baghdad, was complaining how the price of vegetables has doubled, and how people can't afford to bake bread because they can't afford gas for their ovens.

Small, urban vegetable gardens are certainly part of the solution here--it is unreasonable to think that people can become agriculturally self-sufficient in a super-dense slum like Sadr City, but it would help to reduce the burden of these kinds of problems. It is reasonable, however, for the entirity of Sadr City to bake their bread in durable, cheap solar ovens. Any time there is the opportunity to build complete resource independence--even if only in a very limited part of one's life--it should at least be explored...