Climate change in the Himalayas: Peer pressure and voluntary actions in Paris and Lima.

“How on Earth Do These People Survive?”

“How on Earth Do These People Survive?”

The state of the universe.
March 25 2015 3:49 AM

The Power of Peer Pressure

The best lessons in climate diplomacy come from Himalayan villages.

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The glaciers above Kumik are in rapid retreat, forcing the community to face some hard choices.

Photo by Jonathan Mingle

“How on Earth do these people survive?”

That was the question James Crowden, a British geographer, kept asking while spending the winter of 1976 in Zanskar, a remote Himalayan valley in northwest India. It was a fair one: Even in the best of times, Zanskar is a very tough place to live. The average elevation of its few dozen villages is 12,500 feet. The only link to the outside world is a 160-mile-long jeep track that is blocked by snow for more than half the year. The growing season for barley and other staple crops is a scant three months.

In the midst of all this apparent scarcity and hardship, Crowden marveled at the cheer and sense of abundance displayed by his Zanskari hosts. What cosmic joke were they in on that the rest of us seem to be missing?

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It’s a question I’ve pondered, too, over the course of many visits to Zanskar and neighboring Ladakh, and especially while living and working (and researching my new book, Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World) in a village called Kumik. It is one of the oldest settlements in the region, existing for more than a millennium. And it is now perhaps the first to be abandoned due to a changing climate.

“The older people think Kumik is the perfect village,” says Tsewang Rigzin, a son of Kumik and a government agriculture officer, “because it is close to the mountains, for grazing for animals, for fuel collection.” It thus offered a pragmatist’s kind of perfection: convenient access to the essentials.

But the limiting factor for life in Zanskar, in the “rain shadow” cast by the Himalaya, is water. And Kumik is now running out of it.

The mountains block the summer monsoon, so little rain falls through the summer; instead, the release of melting snow and ice makes agriculture possible in the arid zones of the Tibetan Plateau. But the snowfields and glaciers on the mountain towering above Kumik have receded steadily in recent decades, as winter snowfall has declined. The warm days of spring arrive sooner, and the melting peaks too early, so that the single stream irrigating fields often dries up in August, well before the harvest. And as many people in Kumik have patiently explained to me every time I asked whether they were bummed to be leaving their Arcadian oasis of tidy green fields and stately mud-brick homes, “Without water, you have nothing.”

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Kumik's lone water source. This canal now often runs dry in late summer.

Photo by Jonathan Mingle

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Crowden’s question came to mind yet again when I first visited the wind-scoured, sunbaked patch of desert plain where Kumik’s villagers are building a new community from scratch. It looked like they were colonizing Mars. (The name of the spot in Zanskari—Marthang—actually means “the red place.”) How the hell, I wondered, would these people build new lives, new homes, new fields and canals, with little outside or government help, in this hostile wasteland?

With Kumik-esque levels of persistent drought in California and Brazil, as more and more people realize we now all inhabit a dangerously warmer world, even some Very Serious People are coming to grapple with a version of Crowden’s question at a global scale: How on earth are we going to survive?

A deadline next week might offer some clues. By March 31, governments from 192 nations are supposed to submit their plans for reducing their emissions of climate-warming pollution to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some, like the European Union, have already done so. Others will turn in their homework late.

There won’t be any consequences for the laggards. That’s because the whole process, as determined by the agreement forged at the climate meeting in Lima, Peru, in December, is voluntary. The plans will form the basis for negotiations of an international climate agreement in Paris this December.

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The shift away from the original goal of a legally binding treaty has many critics. But other observers welcome this new, more flexible approach—because it might actually be feasible. The quest for a binding agreement, they say, incentivizes governments to commit to the least ambitious course of action. For developing countries, preoccupied with growing their economies in order to lift their citizens out of poverty, insistence on a binding agreement could deter any explicit commitment at all. The White House seems to have embraced this voluntary, “name and shame” approach, in the hopes that it could kick-start a “virtuous cycle” of action.

But the plan relies almost entirely on the power of peer pressure, on leaders and nations not wanting to become pariahs. Could this kind of public shaming really succeed?  

As unlikely as it may seem, some powerful lessons can be found in the farming villages of Ladakh and Zanskar, and in what I discovered to be the ultimate answer to Crowden’s question: what locals call the chu len me len, the “water connection and fire connection.”

During bitterly cold winters, people constantly burn animal dung in crude, smoky stoves to heat their homes and cook their meals. Before going to bed, Zanskaris would traditionally cover the embers in their hearths with a blanket of ashes, so in the morning they could rekindle the fire. But sometimes the embers would die out. In a place where temperatures can drop to 30 degrees below zero, this poses a rather urgent problem. Back before the road to Zanskar was built in the early 1980s, matches and kerosene weren’t available. So the only option was to go next door, where a neighbor would share hot coals from her own hearth. This “fire connection” enabled the unlucky household to relight its own life-saving fire.

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The “water connection” flowed from a similar recognition of each household’s tenuous foothold in the dry and wild trans-Himalayan landscape. Since most villages were built around one stream that courses down from the snowy mountains, villagers needed to figure out how to equitably share water from that single source. Communities evolved a complex set of unwritten rules that govern who gets how much water, and when. The upstream farmer ensures he leaves enough for his downstream neighbor. In times of scarcity, the pain is equally felt. Conflicts arise, but they are usually quickly resolved through listening, persuasion, and appealing to the interests of family and neighbor and the village as a whole.

But the logic of the “water and fire connection” goes much deeper. Water and hearth fires are necessary but not sufficient ingredients for survival. The labor required to plough, plant, grow, and harvest crops in the nitrogen-deficient alluvial soils during the short growing season would overwhelm a single farmer. This is why Zanskaris and Ladakhis have developed a sophisticated set of labor- and resource-sharing systems, to pool the use of draft animals and human labor for planting and threshing and irrigating, and share the burden of village infrastructure upkeep and planning.

How do these people survive? It’s pretty simple: They perceive the “water and fire connection” quite clearly. So they work together.

I realize this all sounds pretty Kumbaya, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. The whole cooperative system is backstopped by a terrifying practice known as chu len me len chaden. This means “the water connection and the fire connection are cut.” It’s a kind of nuclear option, an extreme measure resorted to only in the event of severe transgressions of village norms. If individuals or families fail to do their fair share or upset the delicate equilibrium of communal use of finite resources, they threaten the entire community’s survival. Obstreperous behavior—if someone habitually starts fights and feuds—is equally dangerous. In such cases the village threatens chu len me len chaden.

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The people of Kumik break to share bread and tea while working together on construction of a community hall for their new village.

Photo by Jonathan Mingle

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This amounts to a social boycott. Should the offending household’s fire die out, no one will carry embers to relight the family’s hearth. Water is not permitted to flow to that family’s fields. No one visits their hearth, or even speaks with them. The severing of these two connections amounts to a kind of death-in-life. As one anthropologist observed, “It is the ultimate sanction that can be applied since in a village it would be impossible to continue to live under such conditions.” So, though it was rarely deployed (especially in Zanskar, where the survival stakes are even higher, and people are consequently even more conflict-averse, than in Ladakh), chu len me len chaden has long functioned as a powerful deterrent.

So what lessons can this offer to bickering delegates at U.N. climate meetings, to the leaders who will jet in at the last minute to hammer out backroom deals? You might argue that cutting off your neighbor’s access to water and power is tantamount to sanctions—and sanctions like those currently placed on Iran for its nuclear program aren’t about to be deployed for climate malfeasants.

But what makes the boycott so horrifying for villagers is the social implications of being outcast: Nobody even talks to you. When a loved one dies, your neighbors won’t help you mourn and carry the body to the cremation ground. Zanskaris and Ladakhis are a tough lot, cheerfully game for all manner of hardship—as long as it’s faced together. For them, the absolute worst thing, the only true disaster, is to find yourself utterly alone. (This sentiment is summed up nicely in an admonition frequently heard in their language: Yato met-a? The gist of which is: “Are you alone? What, seriously? C’mon, where are your friends?!”)

It may seem preposterous to hang the fate of civilization on such a thin-seeming thread—playground politics, essentially—but few instincts in human affairs are more powerful. Avoiding the stigma of being an outcast—and the related desire to be held in high esteem by others—is perhaps our most primal adaptive strategy. We’re tribal, social creatures who crave approval and inclusion; world leaders are no different. Similar motivations apply when an entire nation’s reputation is at stake. Witness what mere embarrassment wrought upon recalcitrant Australia late last year. Prime Minister Tony Abbott had loudly pledged not to give a cent to the Green Climate Fund, designed to help developing countries transition to low-carbon development and adapt to climate change. (A move roughly equivalent to a household in Kumik refusing to contribute funds or labor to the construction or upkeep of a new canal.)

But when President Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the need for strong climate action in a speech at the G20 summit, basically calling out their Australian hosts for not doing their part in the village of climate actors, Abbott was surprised. At the Lima meeting a few weeks later there were even “reports of Australian officials getting the cold shoulder from international counterparts.” Australian officials soon announced they would contribute $200 million to the fund. In explaining his reversal, Abbott said Australia was making a contribution in the interests of being a “good international citizen.”

The motivating power of naming and shaming goes beyond awkward encounters at high-level forums and translates into real domestic political risks. India, for example, has been under intense pressure to announce a date by which it would peak its carbon emissions ever since China did just that in December in a bilateral agreement with the United States. This puts Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a bind: He knows he needs to increase India’s power supply (one avenue for doing this is investing in dirty coal-fired plants), but he also knows that being the lone obstructionist at global climate talks will impede his ability to deliver on a range of his campaign promises, many of which require global finance. He risks losing some international investment in India’s infrastructure, as well as other diplomatic collateral damage, by becoming a pariah in the global community of climate actors.

More than an explicit playbook, the lessons of chu len me len offer a kind of organizing principle. The conventional framing of the game of climate negotiations has, to date, pitted richer countries against poorer countries. Those who got rich by burning fossil fuels have taken up the available atmospheric space for carbon pollution, leaving little for the rest. India and other developing countries quite rightly claim they need and deserve money, plainly speaking, both to switch to lower-carbon energy systems and to brace themselves for the impacts that are already locked in by past carbon emitted by richer nations. To date, this has all been perceived as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. But climate change is a somewhat special game: We’re either all winners, or we’re all big, big losers.

At the micro scale, the people of Kumik are expert, self-aware practitioners of the very same kind of “community game.” I’ve asked them many times: Why not have some people go to the new village, and some people stay, and then there would probably be enough water—at least for a while—for those who remained? I was always met with blank stares, or chuckles and headshakes at my naiveté. “This is not possible,” they invariably replied. Unraveling their interdependent lives would be a wicked problem, beyond complex, striking at the core of their identity. Either everyone goes or everyone stays. Thrive together or go thirsty together.

One day I witnessed a villagewide meeting where accusations of corruption and graft flew back and forth, culminating with one guy threatening to break a table over the head of another. The next day, I watched as members of every village household—including some of the combatants—sat in a circle on the dusty site of their new village, laughing and joking as they assigned households into rotating pairs to protect the new fields from hungry, roving cattle. They can’t allow disputes to fray the cooperative fabric of village life. Necessity trumps rancor every time in Zanskar.

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A villagewide meeting is held in Marthang, the day after a heated argument between two factions.

Photo by Jonathan Mingle

What makes the chu len me len chaden such a ruthlessly effective risk management framework is its practitioners’ recognition of a simple fact: The only alternative to playing the community game is sure destruction. Absent that kind of clarity, neither a binding nor a peer-pressure agreement in Paris will save us.

Climate diplomats are getting increasingly savvy to the power of this “community” frame. Last month, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the environment minister of Peru and current president of the climate talks, predicted success in Paris and said, “This is not a competition among us. This is one team for one planet.”

Easy enough to say, of course, super hard to act on. For most of us, it requires a heroic act of imagination to perceive that we are, in fact, on the same “team.” The world is not like Zanskar, where the system boundaries of survival and the ligaments between snows and fields and people are painfully apparent.

This is one of the reasons I wrote a book about black carbon. I came to view it as a kind of tracer element in Earth’s human-atmosphere vascular system, illuminating the hidden links among climate, poverty, water stress, energy access, public health—and among nations. These fine particles produced by the incomplete combustion of fuel have alarming impacts at all scales: the global, the regional, the household, an individual’s lungs. Black carbon disrupts the South Asian monsoon (by altering the land-sea temperature gradient that drives the movement of moist air), helps melt the Greenland ice sheet (by increasing the solar energy the darkened ice absorbs), and accelerates the retreat of Himalayan glaciers. It blocks sunlight from reaching crops and, in concert with ground-level ozone, reduces grain yields in India by almost half. It is a major component of the stew of air pollution that kills more than 7 million people every year. It gets in your face. Soot-choked skies were the surest sign of the “progress” being made by the Industrial Revolution during its Dickensian peak. Nowadays, black carbon is the flashing red light on civilization’s dashboard signaling that it’s time for some serious maintenance. It reminds us that we all live downstream, and downwind, of somebody else’s water and smoky hearth fires.

Solving our black carbon problem—and the larger climate challenge—will require a kind of global chu len me len practice: carrying hot ‘embers’ from nation to nation, in the form of shared technology, finance, and ideas. Then one day those neighbors will carry them back, as a country like India perhaps shows the rest of the world just what a swift transition to a low-carbon economy really looks like.