Summer for our family means mountains- the Himalayas on our back doorstep. Once we crossed two 5600m passes with our four children, another year we trekked over the divide, going from cedars, cows on green pastures, Hindu temples and Devagnari script to sparse yellow grass, wheeling griffins, Buddhist gompas and Tibetan script. This year we camped on a favourite patch up the Miyar Valley, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. We had a glorious week of scrambling up mountains, reading on endless sunny afternoons, climbing massive boulders, throwing a frisbee and roasting potatoes into the night.
On our last evening the angling evening sun started crystallizing in air suddenly turning blue-grey and thickening around us. Juniper scented smoke was wafting up from below. Why.. what … we wondered. From the edge of our little green tablecloth Kaaren saw a shepherds camp with smoke diffusing into the languid afternoon from fires smouldering over a couple of hectares around them. When night fell wild orange eyes were still flickering hungrily in the darkness.
Next morning we walked down and out through the site. Divaricating juniper lay charred and black around us. A desultory dog loped over, neither aggressive nor welcoming, but the shepherds had left.
“Why do this?” my kids asked, hearts aching for the little woody plants which recover so slowly at these altitudes “someone should stop them!”
We never had the chance to ask the shepherds but I can guess why. They’d cleverly converted the standing crop- unpalatable woody ground cover, into ashy fertiliser. The next rains will deliver a pulse of nutrients to the fast growing grasses recolonising the area. Returning post monsoon to this favourite campsite a verdant flush of fine grazing will greet the shepherds and their sheep . It’s a clever strategy.
In the short term. Grazing in these sparse alpine terrains is limited by nutrients- (nitrogen , phosphorous etc.). From years of nomadic pastoralism the shepherds know this- not the chemistry perhaps, but the practical implication. They've released the ecosystem’s limiting nutrients and their strategy will be reinforced, as it has for generations, by fine green grass and happily grazing sheep. But, really, only a fraction of the nutrients stay in the system. The rain will wash most down into the Miyar, the Chennab and finally the great Indus. Up here where the thin biological skin covering the hulking Himalayas depends on organically available nutrients these two hectares of ground cover turned to ash is a wound. This great short term strategy degrades the system's natural capital in the long term.
I explained this to my children. “they shouldn’t be allowed” wailed my daughter “can't they see?”
Actually humans barely can see. Our vision is good over the short term but over generations, history shows us to be blind. The shepherds positive reinforcement comes from human markets which reward short-term strategies. Markets pay for extracting resources, never for not taking what can be extracted. Markets do not have long-term vision. As the father of our economics said :
This is not about simple uneducated farmers following bad strategies because they lack education. This is about human beings doing what we’ve always done- thinking short term.
It is the very strategy that made my adopted home rich. New Zealand high country farmers of old repeatedly turned old tussock into ash. In colonial times Lady Barker celebrates short term gain over long term decline when she writes of “the exceeding joy of burning”. It was a profitable strategy, and NZ reaped short term profits. But, over generations not seasons, high country farming declined. Tussock, which once brushed horses' bellies, died back to isolated scraggy little plants. Just as farming was becoming unprofitable a new short-term strategy arrived. Areal topdressing. Every high country station had its air-strip from where light planes took off to sprinkle superphosphate and other fertilisers over the hungry land. Most ran off, causing downstream eutrophication, but just enough stayed to create a positively reinforcing a flush of grass. Just like the Miyar last month.
Grinding up a distant island, (Nauru was the source of our phosphate) shipping the rock flour to New Zealand and dusting it across the land from fossil fuel powered planes is aggressively and blatantly unsustainable. No-one cared. Fat sheep, iconic New Zealand drovers behind them and burgeoning economy positively reinforced our short term thinking.
Despite those buzzing planes the land was degrading. Hieracium (a weed) invaded, rabbits proliferated, erosion and bare ground increased. Our next solution? Tenure review. The government paid farmers handsomely to relieve them of the leasehold to highlands they’d mined the natural capital out of and gave that degraded land to the Department of Conservation (aka people of New Zealand) to restore at high cost. The high country farmers got to keep the still profitable flat, low ground. “Well done” we told them “Mine the natural capital out of this now and make us all rich in the short term. Neither you nor we will be around for the long term.”
This piece is not a criticism of Himalayan or New Zealand farmers. They are doing what the market (i.e us) tells them to. “Creating short term gain even by degrading our system's natural capital” might be a (the?) classic human strategy. But finding new land and mining its natural capital cannot go on forever. Colonisation is a strategy from the past to find and exploit new resources and nomadic herding is declining. The equation has changed- there is no more new land to 'discover and exploit now. Humanity has almost reached, reached or surpassed (no one is sure which) our planet's carrying capacity. Examine the evidence: global warming, water crises, the decline of biodiversity, global fish stocks. The way we think must change because humanity's relationship to our planet has changed.
Keynes long term, in which we are all dead, might now be our medium term, our short term even. We need to think differently about resources and organise ourselves differently, on local scales, regional scales and global scales. Keynes is passe. Can we change humanity’s unsustainable trajectory? Are changing thinking, relationships to our environment and human livelihood strategies valid subjects for development? Comments?