Answering our Questions by Concrete Actions

This week I attended M. Bollig talk titled “Rapid Social Ecological Change in an East African Pastoral Community: The History and Political Ecology of the Pokot Pastoralism”. In his talk, M. Bollig described in details the rapid and almost revolutionary transformation of the Pokot community from a non-pastoral lifestyle to a pastoral one and then back again after 200 years to more diversified livelihoods.
According to the oral tradition of the Pokot and corroborated by other evidences, the transition from one communal organization to the other happened in one or two decades and was carried on by the youths against the will of their elders. At least in the case of the first transition, M. Bollig convincingly argued that there had been a main driving factor that caused of the transition: a severe climatic variation. As indicated by the oral tradition, there has been a severe drought on their territory which lasted for about 80 years, between 1760 and 1840. This drought made the maize cultivation impossible and transformed the savannah by changing the previous grass to tree ratios. The Pokot rapidly adapted to their changing world by becoming highly specialized and very successful pastoralists.
Confronted by such a case of rapid cultural and social transformation in the face of a severe change in the natural environment, I think that the question that was on everyone’s mind was whether or not our own civilization could adapt so rapidly to the most likely upcoming climatic changes. And, pushing a step further, whether or not our civilization, which is responsible for most the drivers of climatic changes, could rapidly and preemptively alter some of its basic social patterns to avoid the worst case scenario in terms of climatic changes. Even if it wasn’t the subject of the talk, it did provide some hope on the possibility of adapting to a situation rapidly, but, unfortunately, not preemptively. The case suggests rather that people change their way of behavior only when they are under great pressure and that, even then, the process is not without its opposition, as the case of the protesting elderly suggests. However, one might ask with a bit of hope, is it different if you are confident that you can predict the coming of a catastrophic event? Can we escape the seemingly inescapable circle of collapses followed by reconstructions if we can foresee the factors that will most likely trigger a collapse? Can we then restructure not to have to reconstruct?
I guess that those questions don’t have answers until either the preemptive actions have successfully been taken or it is too late. Not being able to answer them from a purely theoretical perspective might not however be a bad thing, since it could mean that it is now the time for actions, the time to give to ourselves the answers that we want. As Marx said in another context: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Replace philosophers by scientists, if you prefer, it is still true today.

4 Responses to “Answering our Questions by Concrete Actions”

  1. Culture Kid says:

    The question, “Can we then restructure not to have to reconstruct?” is an important one. Thomas Homer-Dixon addressed the question in his book-plugging seminar earlier in the semester. In fact, his book, The Upside of Down, examines the potential for human creativity in societal reconfiguration prior to catastrophe (implying that we should learn from our histories). However, there are still people who do NOT adhere to the notion that climate change is happening. And if people will not acknowledge global change, how is societal restructuring in preparation for – and not in response to – disaster even possible? Environmental risk perception tells us that people will not act to preserve the environment if they do not recognize a threat to it. Thus if there is no collective collusion in the fact of global change, reformation of policies and livelihoods prior to catastrophe becomes almost impossible

  2. crocus says:

    “Can we escape the seemingly inescapable circle of collapses followed by reconstructions if we can foresee the factors that will most likely trigger a collapse?” I would argue that the answer to this question is no. I don’t think that we can escape the cycle as there will always be change, adaptation, collapse, reconstruction etc. I think it is possible to change our behaviour to extend the time it takes to reach collapse or alter our behaviour to facilitate certain collapses and avoid others. For example, perhaps to avoid major environmental collapse, we can facilitate a breakdown and restructuring of the current management frameworks that have led to the risk of environmental collapse. In this way we can use smaller breakdowns to abate one large, potentially catastrophic, collapse. These ideas are evident in Buzz Holling’s paper that we read early on in the semester about panarchies and the adaptive cycle and, as Culture Kid mentioned, Thomas Homer-Dixon also touches on them. I don’t think that anyone would like to avoid collapse and re-genesis altogether, after all change is essential for progress and improvement. Rather it is the way that we meet future challenges and change our behaviours that will determine what will stand and what will fall.

  3. Jones says:

    I think Crocus has hit the nail on the head. Her ideas are also expressed by Richard Heinberg in ‘Powerdown’, a book about the choices and prospects we will face in a post-carbon world. Heinberg’s argument is partly based on the the assumption that collapse, in some form, is inevitable, and quite natural. However, the severity of the collapse (whether it is relatively quick and chaotic, or slow and ordered), is something that we can control.
    He argues that we will continually face energy crises as oil prices continue to soar and supplies continue to diminish. Since our economy is almost entirely dependent on fossil-fuels, it is imperative that we make the necessary steps now to ease into the coming fossil-fuel shortage (as opposed to fly into it blind and unprepared).
    Currently we are pushing for economic growth and demanding ever more amounts of energy, while slowly investing insufficient amounts in ‘renewable’ sources of energy. Furthermore, it is a rare event indeed, when a policy-maker suggests reducing the scale of the economy, and limiting our outrageous consumption patterns.
    So the question remains: how do we prepare for foreseeable collapses, so that extreme crises are avoided?