Last summer, as twenty percent of Pakistan lay beneath what once was a tamed Indus River, I recall reading a story of the plight of 40-year-old taxi driver Bakht Zada, who wondered aloud as he watched his livelihood, history and culture being washed downstream toward the Indian Ocean, "If this is not God’s wrath, what is?" The River he was watching flow through his town had, until then, been largely held in check by miles of levees and an upstream dam system that rivaled other modern engineering marvels around the world; in check, that is, until what United Nations officials are calling the worst natural disaster attributable to climate change drove the River beyond its banks, rendering the dams and levees meaningless, forcing thousands to flee and adding their desperation to the plight of millions in the region already in need of relief.
What we now know all too well is that the flooding, misery and desolation in Pakistan were not the wrath of a vengeful God but the direct result of frequently well-intentioned but typically misguided attempts to tame a River, and to put it to more “productive” use by exploiting its natural and human resources, and developing within its floodplains — all hampering the River valley’s natural resiliency and thwarting an innate human capacity to adapt and survive. And all perversely compounded by a climate run amuck at our own hands.
Pakistan was not alone in its misery while a fifth of its land drowned. At the same time, Russia’s drought-ridden landscape burned (and 700 people died there each day), China saw its worst flooding in decades, ice loss from Greenland’s ice sheet was expanding rapidly up its northwest coast, and Iowa in the United States was soaked by its wettest 36-month period in nearly 130 years of record-keeping.
Climatologists are now openly saying what laypeople have been wondering aloud for years. Last summer’s Pakistani flooding and Russian heat wave, and the other extreme weather events occurring to this day around the globe are linked to and exacerbated by climate change. As the Indus River overflowed, sixteen of Australia’s leading scientists, speaking through the Australian Academy of Science and across a range of disciplines, pointedly confronted climate change deniers in an effort to set the record straight on climate science in the middle of a national election in which the validity of climate change had been hotly contested. At the same time that Russian farms, prairies and forests were aflame, scientists at the World Meteorological Organization reported that “the sequence of current events matches . . . projections of more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.”
Researcher, writer and university professor Wolfgang Sachs once noted that “Nothing is ultimately as irrational as rushing with maximum efficiency in the wrong direction.” From where I sit, Professor Sachs has captured the human condition very well, as we heedlessly stroll down a road toward catastrophe at an all-too-efficient pace; wanting more, producing more and consuming more along the way. And all the while — as we want, produce and consume — the tempo at which we constrain and exploit nature ecosystems while pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere continues to increase, while evidence mounts daily that following such a path is folly.
The degree to which the Pakistani flooding and other extreme weather events are due to climate change layered upon more typical climatic cycles (or, even as Mr. Zada suggests, the wrath of God) is certainly debatable. However, that climate change is occurring at all can no longer be questioned by people of good conscious. Nor can we continue to rationally deny humanity’s historic and continued contributions to climate change. Yet, some still question and debate the latter point and still deny the former; fiddling, in effect, while the world — sometimes all too literally — burns.
The Idol of Productivity
That some still question (or concede but ignore) the human influence on climate change is ironic, to say the least, since the underlying cultural basis for rising greenhouse gas production — the perceived need for continuous economic growth built upon an ethos of ever-increasing production and ever-improving efficiency — goes largely unquestioned. In fact, the need for continuous growth and increased productivity is not only an unchallenged truism, but growth and productivity have been deified, particularly in western culture, where people take sophomoric pride in being proficiently productive. The more productive and efficient a people are, the cultural myth goes, the more likely we are to prosper as a nation, to survive as a culture and to be individually comfortable while doing so. We reach, yearn and strive for higher productivity; trying our utmost to do more, make more and consume more with less effort, less money, less guilt. And all the while we never even deign to question the precept that doing, producing and consuming more for less — all iconic measures of efficiency — are undoubtedly virtuous.
Many of our parents in Western society used to teach us as children that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Today, we can add “productive” and “efficient” to the list of qualities that raise us closer to the divine.
And while we continue to bow to the god of economic growth, scientists warn that the entire ice mass of Greenland will disappear if the earth's temperature rises by as little as two degrees Celsius; a group of nine Nobel laureates announce that unless the world starts reducing greenhouse gas emissions within six years, we face devastation; the U.S. Geological Survey reports that many of Asia’s glaciers are retreating as a result of climate change; China's state news agency declares that rising sea levels caused by climate change contribute to a growing number of coastal disasters; climate legislation has been officially pronounced “dead” in the United States; Canada has decided that it will delay greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts for at least another five years; officials in India assert that the nation will not agree to binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions; and Chinese analysts conclude that Western carbon dioxide emission reduction plans are inadequate and inconsequential.
Rachel Carson once observed that we live in a time “in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged;” seldom challenged, because we have elevated efficiency and productivity to a godlike status. Increasing factory productivity goes unquestioned, even if it means sacking workers who have dedicated themselves to a company for decades. Efficiently producing and employing ever-improved weapons of destruction go unquestioned, even when it results in shifting all-to-limited resources from life-giving endeavors to the killing of tens of thousands of fellow humans; civilian and military alike. Proficiently pumping pollutants into the air we breathe and water we drink is rewarded, so long as we are comfortable while productively poisoning the planet and one other.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” Albert Einstein warned, “It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” What we need now is a little less intelligent foolishness and a lot more people of courage to question our blind devotion to the god of productivity: to ask “why,” when output is deemed sacrosanct; to question power, when the idol of unbridled growth goes unchallenged; and to speak truth in the face of torrents of misinformation. As we look forward toward a potential future steeped in growth and productivity, I humbly suggest that we reframe the ingrained perspectives and policy and preferences that suck our economies, cultures and lives down that untenable path toward oblivion; that we envision and then follow a different, sustainable course.
A Path Forward
Here’s what I believe is happening that directly and increasingly contributes to catastrophes like those in Pakistan and elsewhere around the world; while at the same time making it increasingly difficult to find a path forward toward economic and environmental sustainability — happening not just in the Indus River valley, but everywhere. We are divided into two camps. Put most simply, they are “yours” and “mine.” You may have heard them referred to in other terms: east and west, urban and rural, farm and city, business and environmental, young or elderly, immigrant or resident, liberal and conservative, rich and poor. The specific labels matter little, really; because, in the end, this vision of the world always comes down to “yours” and “mine.” That perspective must change before we can ever hope to let go of our need for control based on a principle of limitless production and growth. Before moving on to transform our deification of growth at the expense of others, in other words, we must ultimately transform our very notion of “otherness.”
Radical transformation is never easy; and change appears most threatening to those in institutional power; however, speaking from the figurative epicenter of global power in Washington, DC, I would offer that such reframing is necessary if we are to collectively move from an invalid model of infinite growth within a finite world, and toward a balanced, sustainable and equitable paradigm of society and its connections with the natural world.
The Bakiga people inhabit the mountains and valleys around Lake Victoria in what is today Uganda — at the very headwaters of another river as great as the Indus — the Nile. Over hundreds of generations, their ties to the land and water and each other have informed an ancient wisdom strikingly opposed to the “yours and mine” mentality sweeping much of the world: “united jaws crush the bone.” That wisdom teaches that it has never really been a world of “yours and mine.” There’s is not a world vision based upon “you and me;” but upon “ours” and “us.” The Bakiga teach that all are connected. Everything is connected. Everywhere there are connections.
This wisdom from the Bakiga is a lesson for us all. What the people of the Nile River valley learned so many generations ago is that neither you nor I are right or wrong; good or bad; evil or moral; friend or enemy. We are simply different. In each place we speak different languages, hold to different customs, connect differently, interact with government differently, relate to nature differently. This is just who we are and what we do as blessedly assorted human beings. And the solutions that may work very well in one river town or on one farm or in one city might not work so well in another. And the only way to really determine how to live sustainably together — to determine what will work and what might not — is to listen to people where they live and work and play: along the banks of the Indus River; in the steppes of Eurasia; within the cities of Europe; among the islands of Micronesia; and in every home and shop and hamlet around the world.
What we will discover if we truly listen to one another is that we have everything to learn and nothing to fear from each other. We will find that diversity of opinion, when embraced honestly, is what animates thinking and provokes imagination. We will discover that the irrational fears keeping us apart — keeping us from solving difficult but very solvable problems — are, in the end, simply fear of losing control — control over things we really cannot control to begin with. Just ask the people of Pakistan who tried in vain to hold back the rising waters of the Indus River.
To solve what seem to be intractable problems allied with the unrealistic vision of perpetual growth, we will need to provide the room and carve out the time desperately needed to listen to each other. To listen to store owners who cannot maintain their businesses; listen to city officials whose tax bases are eroding and to farmers whose soils and livelihoods are washing away; listen to the scientists who tell us the earth’s natural places are unique treasures; listen to the workers and their families who can’t make ends meet; meet with artists, talk to politicians, speak to industry leaders, join with teachers, pay attention to the children and the poor and our elders, because everyone is a member of the economic and ecological quilt that forms our rich human tapestry, and all have a part to play in its protection.
All of us, together — not “you;” not “I” — had better make sure that this listening and understanding and cooperation and innovation come to pass; before 40-year-old taxi drivers and 22-year-old mothers and five-year-old children and 60-year-old shopkeepers, just like Bakht Zada, watch as our livelihoods, and histories and cultures wash figuratively, if not literally, downstream.
If we do not — if we fail to cooperate as a global community; if we do not move from glorifying the mythic god of growth to bowing toward and respecting one another — then I fear that Pakistani taxi driver Bakht Zada will have been correct all along. And that humanity’s demise, in the end, will be the result of a god’s wrath, albeit a god of our own making. If that is not God’s wrath, what is?
(Mark Gorman serves as Senior Policy Analyst for the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, DC, USA, focusing on water and watershed issues in the Mississippi River Basin. Before working for PEC, Mark served for over 22 years with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). He was co-leader of the a pilot PADEP regional watershed team effort (focused on the internationally-renowned French Creek watershed), and later co-chaired PADEP’s Lake Erie, French Creek and Oil Creek watershed team. Mark is a trained mediator and facilitator, and served in that capacity for seven years on the PADEP’s statewide Alternative Dispute Resolution team. Mark also served a three-year term as a member of the Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program) Advisory Council (2006 to 2008), and two-year term on Pennsylvania’s Water Resources Planning Committee for the Lake Erie basin (2007-2008).
The views expressed in the article are personal and do not reflect the official policy or position of the organisation.)