WASHINGTON -- Ever since the slaughter in Syria began two years ago, the most accepted explanation for the heinous cruelty there has been that this was a fight between historically warring ethnic groups.
The French protectorate that became Syria early in the 20th century had the added incentive to hatred in that the ruling al-Assad family dictatorship came from the mountaintop Alawites, a tribe always tiny and bitterly persecuted.
But now, some acute analysts are examining the awful fighting that goes on and on with a depth that should give us pause to reconsider the conventional wisdom. It is not only politics that are at play in the eastern Mediterranean, these analysts are saying; the real causes of this disaster are drought, the loss of farmland and the threat of water losses.
Bolstered by the Syrian government's thoroughly incompetent water mismanagement, the drought that began in 2006 wreaked havoc on the already land-poor desert landscape. Three million farmers, out of a population of 20 million, lost everything and fled to shantytowns surrounding the cities. Young people who were coming out of the universities, meanwhile, graduated with no jobs, no respect, no future.
"The collapse of Syrian agriculture didn't create the country's ethnic and religious fault lines, but it did leave millions landless, many of them available and ready to fight," David Goldman, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and London Center for Policy Research, wrote in an revealing column in The Wall Street Journal, "The Economic Blunders Behind the Arab Revolutions."
Goldman quotes economist Paul Rivlin from a 2011 report for Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center on Syria: "By 2007, 12.3 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty and the poverty rate reached 33 percent. Since then, poverty rates have risen even further."
When you look at Egypt, now approaching three years into what was supposed to be true revolutionary change, you find a similar story.
In half a century, Egypt's population has soared from 20 million to 90 million. It is not creating near enough food for its population. University students face only taking part in the mob in the street.
Most important, the water from the Nile -- which has nursed and nourished Egypt for centuries -- is about to be dammed by neighboring Ethiopia, leaving the region with the threat of all-out war between nations as well as hunger and water shortages within them.
These shortages are not, of course, the first things that pop into the journalists' heads when covering Egypt or Syria in the throes of revolution. Politics is the first thing (who took power from whom). Then ownership of land, commodities and industries. Then, which groups can still be held down, their labor mulcted for more power from above.
But more and more, historical analysts are seeing that it is these in-depth, multifaceted cultural factors that lay the basis for conflict or no conflict, for revolution or evolution, for war or peace.
When the mineral or water wealth of a country or region is misused, when people are hungry or thirsty and their land is taken from them -- and they don't know why -- it is natural that they should embrace the first cause that comes along and offers them some dignity and hope.
Overpopulation exacerbates all the problems at once. It is unlikely that Egypt's present revolutionary outbreaks will be easily resolved, simply because of the pressure of too many people. There is no space for them to resolve their differences; and the more intense those differences, the less likely they are to be resolved.
Today, even without political leaders preaching revolution, Egypt's streets are so jammed with people that tempers rile easily in the always intense heat and impoverishment and explode every day.
Add to this people who are hungry, farms without enough water to grow even enough grain for the home market and the best young people without hope, and you have a clear pre-revolutionary situation that is ready to explode at any moment -- and surely will.
This happened in 1994 in Rwanda in Central Africa, when 800,000 people were killed in a war caused by ethnic hatred, land use injustices, overpopulation and water shortages. Indeed, Rwanda might be considered the modern age's first real environmental war.
History's pages are filled with such disasters that we do not study with sufficient urgency. When you look at the exquisite Mayan ruins in Mexico and Central America, you may not realize that these ruins are there, alone and without their native peoples, because they crown a history in which the advanced Mayans were driven away by changes in the environment, most probably drought- or warfare-induced.
In today's Iraq, the ruins of the great ancient biblical cities of Babylon, Ur, Nineveh and Hatra seem often lost, like unset jewels in the desert, all because the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, on whose banks these cities once stood, changed riverbeds so many times in history, leaving ruptured civilizations behind.
There are many other societies -- unexpected ones, often enough -- that are on the edge of disaster. One notes Yemen (whose water will soon run out), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Mexico (which alone among them has the opportunity to send its people to its comparatively rich northern neighbor).
The equation is really not so hard. When we look at a human being, we don't judge him or her only on political tactics; we judge on beauty, culture, wisdom and knowledge. So should it be with a country. Today's disasters, like those in the past, have many fathers and mothers, and to deal with them successfully, we must take into account many points of causation. It is really not so difficult, once we understand it.