A strange process is affecting the planet: the global life conditions, which have dominated the planet for thousands years are changing quickly, because of the massive impact of human activities and forms of development. Meanwhile, new life conditions emerge and they are not those that have supported the emergence and development of modern societies.
On the contrary, one must wonder if the modern world is going to be able to adapt itself to the new set of planetary conditions. These have been created through global urbanization, industry, chemical pollution, industrial agriculture, transformation and destruction of natural habitats and of animal and vegetal species. It goes with the disruption of the hydrologic cycle and climate change (John MC Neill, Something new under the Sun, an environmental history of the twentieth century, 2000).
This new era is qualified as the “Anthropocene”, in order to describe the fact that, at a global level, the human species has become the main geological and biological force on Earth ((Jan Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?, 2011).
In order to penetrate the reality of the Anthropocene and of its origins, we shall focus upon the case of Kazakhstan.
We shall combine the “Anthropocene” perspective to strategic analysis, to capture the paroxystic way this country has gone from the former geologic era, known as the Eocene, which lasted for 13000 years, to nowadays and the emerging Anthropocene.
This paroxysm for Kazakhstan exemplifies the violence of the different processes that are at the origin of the Anthropocene, and which are nothing less than the transformation of the very fabric both of the planetary ecology and of society (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules (1)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 25, 2016).
These dynamics will allow us to see, first, how the forced social and agricultural transformation of Kazakhstan have altered the social and ecological fabric of this country, and how these changes are reinforced by the global anthropogenic climate change.
Then we shall focus upon the way this transformation has been deepened by the military nuclear history of Kazakhstan, which is exemplary of the Anthropocene.
Finally, we shall turn to the way the emergence of the Anthropocene has been reinforced by the strategic history of the 20th century
Imposed transformation: the great socio-environmental dismantlement
Kazakhstan has known some of the most extreme forms of rapid and environmental, social and nuclear military transformation, imposed by the Stalinist regime, one of the most ruthless political power unleashed during the twentieth century (Robert Service, Russia, from Tsarism to the twenty-first century, 2015).
During the 1920s, the nomadic and semi-nomadic Kazakh people went through a forced settlement imposed by the Soviet authorities, without any preparation. In 1929, Stalin’s agrarian politics forced the Kazakh to give the majority of their cattle to the government, which killed 1,3 million people out of a 4 million strong population over a few years (Lucien Bianco, La Récidive, Révolution russe, révolution chinoise, 2014).
This went with a forced urbanization of the surviving population, and thus the social structures drastically changed (Ibid.). During the thirty years that followed, the Soviet program of agrarian development was accompanied by the massive transfers of population, which happened during and after World War II. It led to the installation of more than two million Russian people in Kazakhstan, which went with long-lasting social, ethnic, cultural, economic and political tensions. In the same time, this mammoth endeavour of social engineering came along the disappearance of the multi-millenarian way of life of the agro-pastoralist nomads (Sébastien Peyrouse, Marlène Laruelle, Éclats d’empire, Asie Centrale, Caucase, Afghanistan, 2013).
Within the same framework, the Soviet regime decided during the 1960s to transform part of the Kazakh steppe, in order to bolster agriculture, and thus the food security and economy of the Soviet Union (Robert Service, ibid). To attain this goal, the Amu Darya and the Syr Daria, the two rivers that were feeding the interior Aral Sea, were detoured by a gigantic work of canal development, in order to bring water to the chosen region to develop agricultural projects, especially related to cotton (Fred Pearce, When the Rivers run dry, 2006).
This immense Soviet water diversion’s project had as impact to devastate the Aral Sea. The Sea literally disappeared over the last fifty years as it was deprived of its two main water supplies. Furthermore, during the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of chemical pollution from the agricultural and industrial development of the region accumulated into the silt (John Mc Neill, ibid).
The current drying off of the sea exposes the polluted former marine basin to the constant wind, which spreads salt and chemically polluted dust from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and beyond (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary crisis rules”, ibid). As a result, chronic epidemics of blood and kidney ailments as well as specific problems for pregnant women and unborn children spread (Pearce, ibid).
So, today, the Aral Basin is constituted by a new system of topsoil, water, chemical, weather, and climatic conditions, with new interacting compared with those existing before the 1950s. These current conditions are not anymore favorable to the collective human existence (Valantin, ibid), contrary to what it was only sixty years ago.
This already dangerous situation combines itself with the effects of climate change on Kazakhstan. In effect, during the 20th century, the rising of the regional temperatures was twice the global average, reaching between 2°C and 3.6°C. This has heavy consequences on the Kazakh agriculture, which is the world 17th producer of wheat and 7th exporter. According to USAID, the spring wheat harvests could decrease by more than 70% after 2030, which could have dire consequences for the Kazakh food security as well as for the world food market and thus for the food security of numerous countries (“Kazakhsthan – Environment and climate change”, USAID, March 18, 2016).
In effect, the relative decrease of the Russian and Ukrainian agricultural productivity in 2010 resulting from a historical heat wave had heavy consequences in 2011 on the world wheat prices, with dramatic social and political consequences, notably subjecting the fragile Arab societies to heavy pressure, which, in turn, fed the tensions that drove the “Arab spring” (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013.
The long nuclear bombing
Between 1949 and 1989, what happened in the northeast region of Semipalatinsk, turned by Moscow into the place where the Soviet military prepared for nuclear war, is another aspect of the brutal forcing of Kazakhstan into the realm of modernity (Alain Joxe, Le cycle de la dissuasion, 1990).
Then, Semipalatinsk became the “nuclear polygone” where more than 456 nuclear and thermonuclear bombs were detonated. Semipalatinsk was one of the main spots of the Cold War nuclear arms race (“The Semipalatinsk Test Site”, International Atomic Energy Agency).
As a result, the 19000 square kilometres area became one of the most heavily irradiated inhabited regions in the world, the radioactivity affecting the health of one Kazakh out of ten, with heavy public health consequences.
The discovery of the immensity of the danger inherent to this region, notably because of the very large-scale environmental risk, to which should be added the contraband of plutonium and irradiated materials, led the Russian, the Kazakh and the American political, scientific and military authorities to work secretly together for ten years in order to decontaminate and neutralize this “plutonium mountain” (“Semipalatinsk Test Site”, Nuclear Threat Initiative NTI).
In fact, this international nuclear cooperation centered on Semipalatinsk is intrinsically inscribed in what we call here “Anthropocene politics”. Indeed, one if the strongest signals identified by the scientists in order to demonstrate the emergence of the Anthropocene is a singular layer of dust all over the planet, which is one of the effects of the different campaigns of nuclear test bombings since the first test explosion in 1944 in New Mexico (Sarah Griffiths, “Dawn of the Anthropocene era: new geological epoch began with testing of the atomic bomb, experts claim”, Mail On Line, 16 January 2015).
It must be noted that on 8 September 2006, Kazakhstan signed the Central Asia nuclear weapons free zone treaty, with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (“Central Asia nuclear weapons free zone (CANFWZ)”, Nuclear Threat Initiative NTI). This may indicate the particular sensitivity and awareness of the Central Asian Republics to the nuclear danger.
A strategic analysis of the Anthropocene in Kazakhstan
In other words, the forced settlement of a nomadic population, urbanization, the destruction of the Aral Sea and the long nuclear bombing of Semipalatinsk are manifestations of how, during the 20th century, Kazakhstan went through a massive socio-environmental transformation, exemplary of the dynamics of the Anthropocene.
This transformation was imposed in order to support the political project of accelerated modernization at the heart of the Soviet regime (Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain, Stalinism as a civilization, 1997).
It was exerted on the people, the social structures, the land, the surface water cycle, and the air to turn the country into a material support for the forced industrial, agricultural, and military nuclear development of Soviet Russia, which was imposing itself as a super power.
From a strategic point of view, it appears that the Second World War and the following Cold War have been a fundamental driver of the industrial, military and strategic dynamics, which synergy have been so powerful that they have altered the very geophysics of the Earth. Moreover, these changes, from radioactive pollution to anthropogenic climate change, are permanent transformations of the ecological conditions of the human social development.
In other terms, the case of Kazakhstan reveals the role played at the origin of the Anthropocene not only by the Soviet political, agricultural and industrial dynamics but also by the strategic and military dynamics of the 20th century (Gabriel Kolko, Century of war, politics, conflicts and society since 1914, 1994).
Similarly, the First and the Second World War have been major boosters for the development of modern agriculture and industry. Bolstered by this immense momentum, those latter have become essential supports for the development and power of modern societies and states, which growth is in itself a main driver of the Anthropocene (Tim Flannery, Here on Earth, a twin history of the Planet Earth and of the human race, 2011 and Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down, catastrophe, creativity and the renewal of civilization, 2006).
Furthermore, the transformation of Kazakhstan has induced the exploitation of oil in the Caspian Sea and at the north of the Caspian Basin, knowing that the use of oil is one of the main drivers of anthropogenic change, which hammers Central Asia (James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello, The Oil Road, Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, 2012 and IPCC, fifth report, 2014).
In fact, the fate of Kazakhstan condenses the way modern war, industry, agriculture, international competition and the alteration of ecology as well as of the social fabric are united in a self-reinforcing planetary-social loop of transformation so powerful and permanent that it changes not only entire continental regions, but our planet itself.
It now remains to see if this loop can be governed, or not.
Featured image: Fort-Shevchenko , Kazakhstan Bebop Drone 2015-09-02 by w0zny CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.