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A pictures of houses built into the Himalaya-Karakoram mountains

Dr Ben Campbell from our Anthropology Department explores increasing concern about climate change and the melting of the Earth’s North and South Poles, but challenges us to consider the so-called Third Pole, the Himalaya-Karakoram mountains, and look beyond climate change as a matter of technical solutions to re-thinking our relationship with the planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2022 report has drawn attention to the rapid impact of climate change in the Himalaya-Karakoram Mountain ranges. Four kinds of risks are identified: flooding, livelihoods affected by hydrological change, ecosystem and species loss, and intangible losses of cultural values. This obviously goes way beyond the limits of natural science comprehension, and some truly trans-disciplinary approaches are needed.

The Third Pole is not simply a place of nature. The flanks of the mountains are home to many millions of people, and the river systems that originate there bring life-giving water, and energy, to a quarter of all humans on the planet. Discussion of climate change needs to recognise its thorough entanglement in human lives, in social worlds.      

The social science of climate change

The social science of climate change has gained momentum in the last 20 years, but natural sciences still dominate the topic, and reports on climate change adaptation are generically being produced that demonstrate remarkably little understanding of what makes a difference in people’s relationships with the non-human world. Narratives around climate change focus too much on the phenomenon as a matter of technical solutions, with virtually no attention to the power inequalities of class, caste, ethnicity, and gender.

These are dimensions that social scientists know profoundly affect how people come to have different capacities to be aware of environmental threats. These differences configure how people can mobilise institutional networks of formal and informal kinds to cope with livelihood challenges and give voice to their concerns in ways to mean something in their communities.

Empowering people on the ground

Climate change is an extremely abstract concept and often produces an elite, expert knowledge enclave, rather than empower people on the ground to translate their perceptions into action, for re-making their environmental relationships for the long term.  

The astonishing diversity of local practices in the Himalayas, of languages, and vernacular forms of everyday life play out in the immense variation that is noticeable in just moving up, down and across valleys and ridges. This diversity emphasises an intrinsic principle of the power of place, or politics of location, that pervades grounded rationalities for mountain livelihood resilience. The concept of verticality is one that runs through and intersects all the idioms of seasons and time, of the value of things, and the dependence of different communities on each others’ distinct local produce, such as salt or high forest products like bamboo exchanged for grain.  

Re-thinking our relationship with the world

From this immense range of local knowledge, practice and resourcefulness, Himalayan people now see the world differently. Road infrastructures have been bulldozed up the slopes. Dams and run-of-river hydro-plants climb ever higher to catch waterpower head and flow. The young generation no longer aspire to take on their parents’ experiences of twentieth century peasant productivism and a huge number have taken new routes to earn a living by, for example working a couple of years in The Gulf countries.

As the controversies around the Qatar World Cup made public, temporary labour conditions on construction sites there are very risky and precarious, do not provide a ‘proper job’ with dependable income, and in many ways reflect severe conditions of economic marginalisation back home, especially among the ethnic and Dalit communities.  

Complexities, realities and perspectives

This is all very complex, and in this turbulence of place, technology and productive re-evaluation, people who were born to old patterns of livelihood expectation now find themselves often in tension between generational perspectives. Class and status have shifted as social parameters, and these are the dynamics that are shunted further and recomposed by climate change, both its geo-physical realities and social salience.

Many old subsistence cropping patterns have been made redundant by more uncertain rainfall, and disease affects overstretched cash crop commodity regimes. The beliefs in local territorial gods have not, however, been abandoned as the gods in fact now appear to have become more capricious and bad-tempered, due to their neglect, allegedly.  

Himalayan resilience

Back in the 1970s, the fate of the Himalayas looked bleak. ‘The Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation’ assumed a simple mono-causal process of too many people living off fragile soils that was destined for disaster. That theory failed to recognise the capacity of people to observe and respond imaginatively to their environments. Community forestry and off-farm income helped stabilise the slopes, reverse deforestation, and now the satellite evidence evidences a considerable greening of the Himalayan region.

Find out more

  • Ben is part of a publishing project, producing The Routledge Handbook of the Himalayas, led by three senior anthropologists, who are seeking to integrate approaches to climate disruption by exploring the enormous variety of environments, developments, and modes of wellbeing that affect how people respond to disruptions in local settings and the increasing arrival of infrastructures and opportunities of global economic change.
  • Find out more about Dr Ben Campbell

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