Denaturalizing Gas and War: On Energy Humanities and the Cyprus Gas Conflict

March 2, 2022

Zeynep Oguz

The climate crisis demands immediately putting an end to fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Yet despite mounting scientific evidence against its sustainability, fossil gas is still being promoted as a cleaner and reliable transition fuel, and new gas frontiers are being forged all around the world.

The waters of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea are one such frontier, and the contested island of Cyprus sits at its centre. In the last decade, the discovery of huge offshore gas deposits in the continental shelves and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt has propelled these states and their neighbours to collaborate on an extraction and transportation plan that greenwashes fossil gas. In November 2021, the Eastern Mediterranean Conference & Exhibition was held in Nicosia, Cyprus. Presenters, who included oil and gas company chairpersons and state officials from Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, and Italy, repeated their commitment to “transitioning to a green, circular economy, leveraging on sustainability and the use of renewable energy sources to achieve long-term sustainable growth” while also noting the importance of “the effective use of natural gas as a stepping stone to complete decarbonisation” as cornerstones of their respective energy strategies.

A new natural gas frontier: the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Satellite photo courtesy of NASA, Visible Earth.

These shared goals, however, are eclipsed by intensifying political conflict between Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece. The recent natural gas discoveries in Cypriot waters triggered new geopolitical disputes between Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece over maritime sovereignty rights and the political future of the island, which has been politically divided since the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974. The Turkish government, which opposes any drilling activities in the contested EEZ of Cypriot waters, has initiated its own exploratory drilling activities in the region. The conflict got so heated that in August 2020, two warships—one Greek, one Turkish—crashed into one another off the east coast of Crete.

Popular media coverage and mainstream geopolitical discourse on the issue frame hydrocarbon prospects as potential drivers of either peace or conflict in the region, through a security-oriented perspective that valourizes national interests and competing nationalisms on the island. In so doing, they take existing political units and competing interests for granted and essentialize ethnic and religious identities. The Atlantic Council, an influential US-based think tank that is deeply invested in the region’s issues, for instance, sees the discovery of significant natural gas deposits in the EEZs of Israel and Cyprus as a possible energy source other than Russia and the Middle East that would help diversify Europe’s natural gas suppliers. Such a perspective not only ignores the urgency of a decarbonized energy transition, but also fails to undertake a participatory approach that fully considers the environmental and political aspirations of the peoples of Cyprus, Europe, and the United States.

More recently, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fossil fuel industry and their allies in Europe have seized the opportunity to use the war as an excuse for greater oil and gas development in the name of “energy diversification.” In North America, the American Petroleum Institute lost no time in tweeting “As crisis looms in Ukraine, U.S. energy leadership is more important than ever” with a photo that reads “Let’s unleash American energy. Protect our energy security.” Yet what the world needs is not the expansion of an industry infamous for war profiteering and planetary ecological collapse, but a faster and dedicated transition to wind and solar power.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fossil fuel industry and their allies have seized the opportunity to use the war as an excuse for greater oil and gas development. Yet what the world needs is not the expansion of an industry infamous for war profiteering and planetary ecological collapse, but a faster and dedicated transition to wind and solar power.

As critical geopolitics scholars argue, depictions of world politics by politicians and policymakers often take limited ethnocentric views that naturalize and justify warfare and exploitation (“Arabs versus Jews”, for example). In the case of Cyprus, they also naturalize the prospect of resource extraction. Ecological crises facing the planet, however, require radical shifts from the conventional worldviews that geopolitics, security, and extractivism rely on. How might energy humanities challenge these narratives in a moment when the planet is on track for a catastrophic level of global heating? How can it intervene in debates when stopping fossil fuel exploration and production around the world should be the absolute bare minimum for international climate policy?

An energy humanities perspective can reveal that issues of ecological and political justice are entwined. It can direct attention towards what mainstream debates rarely explore: namely, what Cypriots—the Turkish and Greek inhabitants of the entire island—envision for their political and environmental future in the wake of these discoveries. While the majority of the Cypriot population is conflicted about gas development, and see gas prospects as drivers of further geopolitical and military conflict, the bi-communal “Don’t Dig!” (Kazma Birak) campaign, for example, has been urging both sides to take climate change concerns seriously and leave the gas under the seabed. The campaign can be understood not only in relation to the global climate movement, but also in light of the history of internationalist and democratic movements in Cyprus that have long advocated for the unification of the island.

Photo by Emmaus Studio on Unsplash.

Energy humanities can therefore also expose warfare as an ecological problem and the greenwashing of fossil gas as entangled with the ongoing processes of militarization and colonization. In the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has become clearer that Europe needs to lessen its dependency on Russian gas. But as the international Gastivists Network warns us, “this gas cannot simply be replaced with gas from somewhere else; this is a moment we can take a step towards untangling fossil fuels, war, & the military complex.”

The ongoing conflict around offshore Cypriot gas has helped to increase militarization in the region, with Greece, Turkey, and even France, carrying out military drills in the Eastern Mediterranean Seas almost on a daily basis now. The implications of a hyper-militarized Mediterranean Sea for planetary and local environmental-political futures are manifold. Such an atmosphere silences the democratic demands of the people living on the island; their demands regarding the political future of the island (a unified Cyprus), as well as the future of the gas fields (left under the ground), leading to highly autocratic and technocratic decision-making processes regarding a practice (offshore drilling) that is already prone to undemocratic governance. The militarization of the region also increases the military spending of all parties, a largely undocumented and secretive practice with a giant carbon footprint.

But neither war nor ecological collapse are inevitable. Taking ordinary people as makers of political worlds, energy humanities can denaturalize both mainstream geopolitical discourses around conflicts and greenwashed energy politics. In doing so, it can point to possible futures beyond military occupation, ethnic conflict, and fossil-fueled extractivism.

Zeynep Oguz is an environmental and political anthropologist currently based at the Social and Cultural Anthropology Lab at the University of Lausanne.

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