Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why We Should Care

I had a long conversation yesterday with the Minister of Environment for The Gambia. As we were talking, I started to see just how interwoven many of the problems we all face are. I believe it is precisely because of these hidden interconnections it is critically important that at some point Americans push through the distractions and begin to understand the nature of the problem.

Climate, environmental degradation, population, poverty, political stability, economic prosperity. They are of course, all connected to one another. If you begin to make changes to one of them, the others respond. Increasing population while keeping everything else the same will result in more people out of work, greater poverty, greater stress on the environment and political instability. Arguably, one of the most effective mechanisms to reducing political instability is to reduce levels of poverty.

One example the Minister offered was that farmers in one part of his country now are experiencing a serious drought - one way in which climate change has been forecast to impact the Gambia. They respond by getting mad at the government for not doing more to avoid this crisis and begin to listen to more hard-line voices trying to use the situation for political advantage. As restlessness grows, more extreme politicians are voted into office and the governments ability to sustain long-term policies to adapt to climate changes is decreased. This of course, feeds the cycle.

Another story he told me was about soil in Lesotho. An area he had been studying in Lesotho was prone to developing subsurface pipes in the soil where rainwater would accumulate and flow into adjacent streams. As farmers grew more prosperous in the area, they invested their wealth in more livestock. They didn't use banks, if they had extra money, they would buy more livestock as that was the source of their wealth. The more livestock there were, the more plants they ate off the surface. The more vegetation that was browsed, the more rainwater would move across the surface and find those pipes. The more water that was funneled into those subsurface pipes, the more they eroded and the bigger they got. Eventually the entire area was riddled with huge gullies that had destroyed the area and made it impossible to run livestock on. Inadvertently, the farmers had killed the golden goose because they didn't understand those interconnections.

Climate is intangible. There is nothing we can see, hear, or touch that is climate. It is a statistical phenomenon that is cumulative. Things build up over time and create a picture that we can only see when we step back. Babies begin to experience their surroundings and use the cumulative lessons learned to create a sense of self and who they are. It is difficult to think that there is one thing or single event that will define who someone is. If someone asks you why you do things a certain way or why you hold certain opinions, it is often difficult to explain precisely because these habits or opinions accumulate over time and are not linked to certain events. Similarly, even though we cannot feel or experience climate we will feel and experience it's cumulative effects. Small changes begin to add up and become patterns in and of themselves given enough time.

Climate is not the cause or blame for all hardship in the world. It should not be made into the monster under the bed waiting for us to fall asleep so that it can crawl out and eat us slowly. It is an expression of systemic change. An indicator that things as we have always known them are changing and transitioning to something else. It is important not only because of the direct, cumulative effects shifting weather patterns will have on society, ecosystems and the physical environment, it is also important because it impacts all those other intractable problems of human existence.

It will be impossible to solve poverty without acknowledging climate change. It is not possible to know how the physical environment will change without looking at the climate forcing mechanisms driving the system. It is not possible to protect ourselves from radicalism and extremism unless we know where human existence is spiraling into misery, lack of economic opportunity and hope. Things change: environmentally, socially, economically, politically. The great challenge is always to know how things will change and exert some degree of will to ensure that they change for the better.

1 comment:

  1. Mike:
    Thanks for posting this. Great to see your posts again!


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