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From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I discussed some of the recent literature in America on Secession and the potential for a second American Civil War. In part 2, I want to lay out a few of the factors which concern me when looking at the potential for a U.S. national break-up. I want to reiterate that I don’t expect this to occur. Nevertheless, here are some potential catalysts that I am watching:

The centrally vital issue to consider is the impact of Climate change-induced stressors on American regional ways of life.

If you want to find the root of future American political grievances, look no further than the land that supports the population.

The American inland West presents an exemplary case to illustrate this.

As Colin Woodard explains in his book, American Nations, the culture that arose in the West – from the plains region to the Cascade-Sierra mountain ranges – was driven explicitly by corporate interests since white colonization. Much of the promise of inland Western infill was built on these lies. First came the mining corporations, railroads, and savvy hucksters and grifters seeking to profit off of federal funding for agricultural development projects. This last set is essential as efforts supported by extractive industries to lobby the federal government to fund large-scale irrigation projects and make the region capable of supporting agriculture were necessary to white settlement. 

Along with this grift came the attendant historical Myths of the old West still run strong in the U.S. inland West today. They’re narratives that any American would be familiar with: rugged individualism and taming a harsh natural environment. But they, too, are lies. Wealthy extractive industry elites promoted white settlement of the inland American West and funded by Washington D.C. 

Now, climate change threatens to disrupt the systems at the heart of sustaining life in the Inland West. Our hotter future may permanently alter people’s way of life in this region. Every year, we see the impacts of climate change dramatically in the rural West, with hotter winters reducing rainfall – and subsequently, mountain snowpack. This results in dryer summers leading to more frequent large forest fires and diminishing aquafers needed to maintain rural agriculture throughout much of the West. As a result, the threat of large-scale disruptions to agricultural production creeps up year on year. 

In May of last year, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation had to cut off irrigation access to farmers in the Klamath Basin area in southern Oregon. What followed was a familiar scene: Protests from farmers who rely on this irrigation access for their crops. Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen – who notably invited notorious Malheur Wildlife Refuge Occupier Ammon Bundy to the scene – bought the property next to the irrigation headgates and threatened to break in and turn the water flow back on – as they had in 2001.

Ultimately, they did not challenge federal authorities this time. As water access, wildfires continue to pressure rural agricultural economies of the Inland West. However, tensions can be expected to flare. Since the end of the American Civil War, the cultures that have grown up in these areas have defined themselves by ways of life that cannot be sustained on a hotter planet. Unfortunately, many rural people also perceive these alterations are made-up if not caused by urban-coastal left-leaning “elites.” This perception is likely to drive future reactionary violence unless West Coast urbanites find a way to successfully build bridges to rural populations of the inland West and find a way to support them in an era when climate displacement is increasingly likely.

What’s worrying here is reminiscent of a phenomenon identified by 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldoun. For Khaloun, the rise and fall of states and empires followed a cycle of Umran (wherein cooperation is critical) and Asabiyya (wherein factionalism and tribalism are paramount). In Encounters with Islam: On Religion Politics and Modernity, Malice Ruthven notes Khaldoun’s observations: “leadership exists through superiority, and superiority only through asabiyya-social cohesion group feeling. In desert conditions, the social solidarity of the tribe is vital to its survival. If and when the tribes decide to unite, their cohesion puts the city-folk at their mercy. Inspired by religion, they conquer the towns, which are incapable of defending themselves, and become the rulers until such time as, corrupted by luxury and the loss of their group cohesion, they are in turn replaced by new nomadic dynasty.”

This is precisely the sort of social cohesion which appears to be emerging in America’s rural inland west. Bolstered by outrage entrepreneurs like the Bundys and Donald Trump, this phenomenon could pose genuine future threats to the stability of this region of the United States, as climate change makes the stakes much direr for rural communities. But this phenomenon alone doesn’t doom Americans to a steadily escalating path toward entrenched political violence. 

Similar phenomena would have to emerge simultaneously in other regions of the country for this to be a significant concern. At present, no nearly-identical phenomenon is occurring in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, the Southwest, or – despite much hype about Texas secession making it into the Republican state party platform at the moment I’m writing this – in the American South. However, if it does, it will take a lot more than that to support a full-fledged shift into civil war. The obstacles to this will be difficult to surmount.

In part 3, I will go into the obstacles I see to be a practical or likely outcome of America’s political tensions. Some of these mirror those expressed by Brookings’ William G. Gale and Darrell M. West (In Is the U.S. Headed for Another Civil War? and How Seriously Should We Take Talk of U.S. State Secession?), mentioned in Part 1. I encourage you to read their articles on the subject in the meantime.

To Be Continued…

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