Sustainability in a Changing World, a talk by Alize´ Carrère

On Monday night I was at a talk by Alize´ Carrère.

While the presentation was entitled “Sustainability in a Changing World,” its real focus was on how individuals/communities/cultures are adapting to the climate change that they are currently facing.

Her key examples were the Lavakas of Madagascar, floating gardens and floating farms in Bangladesh, The Shupta Project, and the last was about a community spear fishing Crown of Thorn Starfish and turning them into organic compost.

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species,                                                                        it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives;                                      it is not the strongest that survives;                                                                             but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.                           Leon C. Megginson

The Lavaka are the “holes” made in the landscape when the ground collapses after deforestation and the tree roots are no longer available to help stabilize the soil structure. The question then becomes what should one do – restore the prior landscape or adapt to the new landscape? Restore would focus on replanting the missing forest to regain habitat while creating a carbon sink. However, many of the local individuals have opted to adapt to the new landscape. The vegetation in the Lavakas is less prone to fire, and the drainage in the Lavakas makes them an ideal place to grow crops.

As to the floating gardens and farms in Bangladesh, the issue there is that the combination of Sea Level Rise, more powerful monsoons, and river flooding due to glacier melt means that in some parts of the country ‘wet’ has become the predominate condition. As such housing, schooling and agriculture have needed to adapt to a water world. So boats have become the architecture of education, while rafts and constructed floating islands have become the ‘fields’ of farming. Frequently the buoyant farms have nets suspended underneath them for fish farming and/or a mesh enclosure around them that serves as a duck pen. Adaptive innovation provided a way to maintain community independence thus avoiding the uncertainty of becoming a climate refugee.

The Shupa Project has allowed people to continue farming and living in the region even though the presence of glacial melt water has become unpredictable. The adaptation in this project was to siphon water from the glacier fed streams and use the difference in pressure between high elevation source of the water and the lower elevation farming areas to create a water fountain. During the winter, the water droplets are caught on strands of thread or metal and freeze. Some of the ice shupas created are as much as 90 feet tall! Then the melt water from the ice shupas is used as the irrigation source for agriculture.

Regarding the Crown of Thorn Starfish (COTs), this issue was generated by over harvesting the trumpet shell conch because of their value in the tourist and shell trades. Once the predator was gone, the COTs population increased and resulted in the overgrazing and killing of the coral reefs. The adaptation was to spear the COTs and transport them to land. (The COTs are speared due to the toxicity of the starfish). Once the COTs have dried, they are crushed and used as fertilizer.

Alize´ spoke of the three options a community has relative to environmental changes it is experiencing: mitigate, adapt, or suffer. The degree to which the previous examples are coping mechanism or solutions will be determined by the success of mitigation at the planetary scale relative to the adaptive capacity of the community.

She then expanded the conversation to how do you teach high-stakes problem in a low-stakes environment? The concern is that those with a “comfortable reality” are potentially the least adaptable. Adaptation is a mindset. But if you believe that you or your community has sufficient financial capability and an adequate period of time to avoid or minimize the impact of a changing environment, then you may not respond to the coming risks and liabilities soon enough or fast enough. Rather than adapting, the functional outcome of your strategy may be to make yourself a climate refugee. Currently, it is the people on the edge who are adapting.

She closed the presentation with the request that we make an effort to change the narrative of climate change and its associated attributes from doom and loss to one of resilience. With apologies to Vivian Greene, our climate focus should not be on the size of the harm, but our ability to adapt to the change if we want our communities to have a viable and, hopefully, verdant future.

– Tim Rumage

7 Nov. 2017


Images of the aforementioned and similar projects can be found on line.

Alize´ is a Cultural Ecologist and a National Geographic Explorer