We can learn all we need to know about global warming from subsistence farmers struggling for survival
I learned the most about climate change hiking back from a remote village in Nepal’s impoverished Far West region.
There was no road, just a trail that wound through hundreds of small fields which had been plowed and planted with corn two weeks beforehand. The land was parched. A river could sometimes be glimpsed snaking its way through a verdant valley far below, tantalizing as a mirage, and almost as impossible to reach. In the hill country, the villagers had always relied on the monsoon rains, which arrived like clockwork in mid-June, to nourish their crops. If rain didn’t come soon, the seed would rot instead of sprout — a disaster for the villagers.
Recently, the monsoon’s onset had become less predictable. It came later or earlier, but not at the appointed hour. This year it was late. If the skies did not open today, the crop might be lost. Lives would change. Cows or water buffalo, essential for each family’s nutrition and economy, would be sold to buy rice and lentils. Young people would migrate in search of livelihood, susceptible because of desperation to horrifying exploitation. Children would drop out of school, for lack of tuition. Critical health treatments would be postponed, perhaps forever. The faces in the villages we passed through were tense with an expectation that was on the verge of transforming into mourning.
Suddenly, clouds began to darken and coalesce. Soon thick drops began to fall. From the distance, we could hear a joyful clamor of relief and celebration.
The happy ending was great, but what stayed with me long afterwards was my enhanced awareness of the farmers’ vulnerability to the vicissitudes of weather. In the West we understand that climate change will eventually affect our lives. But mostly, for us, this is part of a barely imaginable future, existing for us now only in abstractions: a big data cloud feeding a computer simulation.
In Nepal, though, where the organization I founded, Tevel b’Tzedek, works with thousands of farming families, the dire consequences of climate change are already here. I’ve told villagers that some people in the West question whether climate change is real. They’ve laughed in disbelief. On the other side of the divide, the global economy has so inured Westerners from the weather that I’ve had people say to me, only half jokingly, “Do we really need agriculture? After all, you can get all the vegetables you need in the supermarket.”
In Nepal — and among hundreds of millions of subsistence farming families all over the world–the impacts of climate change are many. The monsoon is shorter, with the rain descending in intense bursts which the soil can’t absorb, causing springs the villagers rely on to dry up. Women must walk farther to fetch water, and become vulnerable to sexual attack. At every station in the watershed, effects are different: in the higher hills, the intense rain erodes the fertile topsoil, while in the subtropical Terai it causes flooding, ruining crops. There are extensive reports documenting the changes in monsoon rainfall, but who believes those braniacs called scientific experts anymore (unless, of course, you yourself need a doctor)? The irony is that the salt of the earth — the hundreds of millions subsistence farmers in Asia, Africa and South America — could bear heart wrenching testimony to the affect of climate change on their lives, but their experience is as far below our radar as their villages are from the road or the electricity grid; their voices are hardly heard in their own countries, much less in ours.
It is ironic too, that the Christian right, with its base in rural America, are among the hard-core opponents of action on climate change, for two reasons. Firstly, because many are themselves from farming families who lost their homestead as family farms have given way to giant corporate mono-culture tracts. And also because the Bible puts man-influenced climate change front and center, connecting human action to timely rainfall: “If you follow my statutes…I will give you the rains in their season” (Leviticus 26.4). And: “…if you listen to my commandments, I will send rain in your land in the proper time… so you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil” (Deutoronomy 11:4).
Why though, are the poorest in the global south suffering first, for “sins” that originate in the West where carbon footprints dwarf those of the average small farmer? I would not dare to venture an answer. But it is clear that our capacity to empathize with others is being tested. The suffering of the two-thirds world is a test of our human solidarity. If we amplify their voice, and respond with compassion and empathy by cutting our carbon emissions, and using the many methodologies that exist to help the villages grow enough food in the meantime, we will indeed merit to the abundance the Bible promises as reward.