How Israel’s war in Gaza is linked to the Climate Crisis and why that matters
Months into the war, it is absolutely natural that people who care about Israel living far from the front feel worn out from the daily barrage of criticism directed towards Israel. “Enough is enough,” a dear friend wrote recently, “I know this is a sensitive subject but history will not be on Israel’s side. I’m not sure what to do but I can’t support the government’s response and I don’t begrudge those who protest it.”
I believe Israel needs to take statements such as these very seriously. We cannot afford to win this battle against Hamas and lose the support we need for our long-term survival. This isn’t an article, however, addressing the specific concerns of this war. Instead, this is a case for those of us who hold liberal democratic values to take no less seriously the system of thought that struggles with the idea that war is necessary, even while recognizing its costs.
Because as nearly any left-of-center Israeli believes, there can be no peace without victory over Hamas. Victory requires trusting that our brothers and sisters and children and cousins fighting on the front – not Netanyahu – are making decisions that reflect our values even as they wage war. I fear that if we cannot convince our struggling allies that free peoples must make painful choices when seeking long-term security then we will be unable to contend with the truly existential challenges facing us in an age of climate change.
I have come to believe this because I have observed that most of our struggling allies live in a world in which personal security is assumed. They have never been called to take up arms to protect the people they love. They live in States who keep the on-going violence to secure resources out of sight and out of mind, leaving them to primarily face questions of consumption. Those same people who question Israel’s use of violence are safe because of centuries of violence that maintain the stability they benefit from. When one can order nearly anything online and expect it the next day it is hard to accept that maintaining security for trade or resource extraction is often at the expense of other people.
The cycle of consumption conveniently leaves existential questions open to manipulation by interests who maintain their power by fueling the cycle. For example, both the immediate conflict in Gaza and the collapse of our climate can thank one particular group for their origin: Big Oil.
The countries and kingdoms that control a large part of the world’s petrochemical resources – such as Qatar, Russia, and Iran – determine policy for the broad alliance of companies (“Big Oil”) whose products and services depend on petrochemical production: plastics, fertilizers, drugs. Nearly every product anti-Israel and pro-Israel protesters consume is either made from, or by, or using Oil. Big Oil is even bigger money: Big Oil earned $200 Billion of profit even during the price-dip of 2022, $52 trillion in pure profit over the past 50 years.
Instead of investing in a full transition of our economy away from petrochemicals, the States and Kingdoms who control the resources have invested heavily in the Middle East conflict, among other wars. Since the 1990s, a significant portion of that money went to arm Hamas. More went to turning the academic training grounds of tomorrow’s leaders against Israel. Without either, Hamas would be hard pressed to carry out the horrific assault on October 7 nor fire the tens of thousands of rockets since.
Even setting aside ideological yearnings for Islamist reconquest aside, for Big Oil, conflict is good for business. To maintain its grip on the developed world, Big Oil’s financial profits lubricate consumer society. Big Oil invests to create the illusion that citizenry in developed countries requires no more than a periodic ballot and a daily credit card swipe. The greatest achievement of this consumerism ethos has been the outsourcing of the onerous responsibilities of citizenship – the expectation to sacrifice for your fellow citizen – to a professional army, a professional police force. While the poor and impoverished put their lives on the line to advance in Maslow’s hierarchy, those of us who are wealthier are told that we can shift corporate behavior through consumer preferences.
Israel, while consumerist in many ways, has avoided falling fully under Big Oil’s spell due to the mandate of national service. Israel’s continued commitment to the ethos of comprehensive citizenship is why Israelis of all political backgrounds recognize that sometimes hard prices need to be paid and extracted to stop belligerence. It is nearly certain that Israel will make very costly, very painful mistakes in Gaza. We will cry for the innocents on both sides, yet we know we cannot stop until Hamas and its people surrender. History taught us that force is often the only way to convince the citizens of a belligerent power to give up their support for an ideology they believed was the path to salvation.
While I hope our struggling allies never know a day of war, existential challenges are already on their doorstep. Until now, Big Oil has proven to be expert at diverting our eyes by convincing us that we can consume our way out of climate collapse. Even as the war in Gaza rages, they’ve turned the annual climate change conference of COP23 into an oil sales event. Until we neutralize the power Big Oil has over our lives, we will be unsafe, as a people and as a species. We will win one battle and end up losing the war. We cannot afford to lose the war, even if we make mistakes along the way.
To address the existential crises facing us as a species, we will need to revive the spirit of comprehensive citizenship and its ethos of responsibility. We will need to learn how to do hard things, again. We will need to pay a high price for long term safety. Hopefully, it will not come to War. It will, however, require the conscription of citizens in industrialized nations to do the real, hard work to build infrastructure adapted to a world post-Oil. To give up on the creature comforts that currently make up so much of their lives, just as Israeli reservists leave their families for an uncertain future on the front. We need to convince our struggling allies that marches and political declarations are no substitute for political will and personal commitment.