New Internationalist

Climate change first hand

It rained last week. That’s normal for India. March, April, May and June are our summer months. They are mostly unbearably hot, and dry and dusty or hot, sticky and humid. Temperatures soar. There’s no respite from the heat.

April showers, as anyone who’s ever lived here will tell you, are a longed for, much awaited event. We actually pray for the rain to bring the mercury down. So when the rain gods smile and it finally arrives, it’s a joyous event. Children dance in the rain, adults run outside to catch the first glorious drops on their faces. The parched earth drinks the water greedily and everyone heaves a sigh of relief. Every year.

This year, however, the April showers went on and on. The first day, we were delighted. There were huge hail stones, which is fairly normal. But last week, it was not just the normal few. We had an unprecedented hail storm. The next day’s paper had a picture on the front page of a place in Ooty with huge ice rocks piled high. It looked like (to the average Indian) an exotic European winter destination, not our little hill station.

Of course, temperatures dropped, the pathetic, dried up plants perked up and everything’s getting green again. But now we’re worried. It’s been a week of heavy rain, rolling mist, proper monsoon weather. Does this mean the monsoon will be delayed, washed out by too much rain too soon? Local farmers are devastated. The flowers have all fallen off the bitter gourd vines, mangoes have been knocked down by the hail stones, fruit trees damaged, crops lost, tea badly damaged too, chaos all around Ooty.

We are experiencing climate change first hand. Not from books, journals, or dire warnings from prophets of doom. Ordinary people know that something’s going wrong with our world. The weather’s not normal and this can spell disaster for farmers, the food chain and the world in general.

If ordinary people are beginning to get the fact that the climate is changing drastically and that this spells disaster, I wonder why our governments don’t go into disaster management mode. I think people will change their behaviour if they get clear instructions on what’s good for the earth. At least in small ways like using less water, banning plastics, encouraging organic gardening. Wherever folks start small initiatives, people respond. People respond when they see how they or their grandchildren will be affected. So pesticides cause cancer. Plastics are choking our ground water systems. The whole earth is going into water crisis.

I know environmental groups are doing their best, and doing a good job in many places. But it’s too little mostly. More people need to spread the word in small, simple messages, start neighbourhood groups, encourage small efforts. Even as I write this, I know I sound simplistic. But I’m convinced that making a start however small is important and crucial and will draw in a lot of people. I dont think we have a choice anymore.

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  1. #1 Ludwig Pesch 27 Apr 12

    So true, small steps taken continuously, by many and with conviction, especially those based on personal experience, are the only way forward. Governments are sadly not capable of bringing about the change that was needed way back in the 70s when mindless consumption and excessive mobility became the norm, a cul-de-sac as we now know if we care to look around. At best, we now may hope for a costly multinational-sponsored dance on the pattern ’three quick steps forward, two backwards’. Reaults from this are all too predictable and irrational. A chain of financial crises still ensures that luxury car makers succeed (see latest figures for India and China published by German manufacturers); while decent public transport systems are exceptions and far in between, however grand and welcome where they function (with my compliments to the creators of Kolkata's subway and defenders of the ancient, if a little all too run down streetcar or tram system); not to mention the uphill struggle to regain cycle paths (!) in a flat city like Chennai where activists hope to have a mere few km's re-dedicated by 2012 (there was an extensive network in the 80's I enjoyed using before the car frenzy set in and effectively squeezing out cyclists).

    Keep up your good blogging work as people ’like us’ (also i Europe) can't just think in terms of policies based on statistics or projections into a distant future. Sharing observations as insightful as Mari's are something I always look forward and spread among friends and family..

    Thanks again!

    PS As for pollution: two of my dearest friends recently died in India from cancer in quick succession, in one of the big cities they didn't want to leave - they liked the people too much even to consider treatment ’back home’ in Europe.

  2. #2 DavidCohen 27 Apr 12

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's contributions need to be taken seriously by governments all over, especially mine in the United States. Voices like Mari's gives this veteran activist (now well into my eighth decade) hope and encouragement. In my country there are beginning to be urban gardeners and urban farms. Directions change. That is all to the good.
    We need effective and accountable government. We also need strong, active and accountable civil society organizations that keep the pressure on governments, provide them with needed feedback and most of all strengthen the stake of we the people in sustaining our environment and thereby creating a world filled with livelihoods and without hunger.

    David Cohen,
    Washington DC

  3. #3 Stan 27 Apr 12

    I grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Bangalore. But went to school in the city. Where kids like me were the oddities. Friends would ask us for the time and when we looked up at the sun - they would laugh. Thought we guys were loonies looking at the sun to tell the time rather watches (which we were not rich enough to own). Perhaps that should have signalled where we heading to as a ’civilisation’ - so disconnected from nature that we feel we are independent of it. Perhaps Genesis Ch1 Vs28 has a lot to answer for when it says that God told man ’Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ”

    We need to re-define what we mean by ’development’. When developed nations - defined by their high GDP and growth, which translated is nothing but a measure of their consumption - are held up as models for ’under-developed’, ’developing’ nations to emulate, we seem to have got it terribly wrong. Is it time that the badge of honour of being ’developed’ should turn into a badge of shame.

    Even as I write this I hang my own head in shame. Because thanks to my upbringing, and conditioned thinking I am a child of the ’development’ mantra. And as I push 60 I am forced to re-think the very foundations and assumptions on which we built our lives.

    This is even more of a dilemma when we think of the adivasis we work with - the;y perhaps have the lowest carbon foot print in the world. Do we keep them there or do we seek to make them ’developed’ like everybody else and increase their carbon shoe size?

  4. #4 Dhun Daruwala 27 Apr 12

    Great article.

  5. #5 Sabita Banerji 28 Apr 12

    Thanks for another insightful and important blog, Mari.I remember me and my sister putting on our swimming costumes to go out and dance in the first rains when we were kids in Assam! But clearly we're now experiencing too much of a good thing. In Britain too we are experiencing floods (days after an official declaration of drought was made!). I totally agree with you, Mari, that small actions spreading and accumulating could make the kind of exponential change that might mitigate climate change. Much more effective that government instructions. The not-for-profit behaviour change company, We Are What We Do (http://wearewhatwedo.org/) has found that giving people ’clear instructions on what’s good for the earth’ - or even for their own health has little effect. What does change behaviour is creative ways of making it more appealing for people to choose good behaviour over bad.

  6. #6 Niral 28 Apr 12

    I don't know if the government or the environmental groups can do enough before it is too late. In our country consumerism and urbanization seems to be just increasing in leaps and bounds along with the population.

    I wish I was back in the 50s and 60s.

  7. #7 Aloke Surin 28 Apr 12

    The last sentence says it all. Everyone everywhere has realized that the seasons ain't what they are supposed to be like anymore. Governments need to implement legislation to prevent further deterioration of the climate process. ’Sustainable development’ is not a trendy catchphrase any more. It should become the law. The hitch is that millions of us will have to redefine our lifestyles and consciously bring about changes to our daily behaviour in almost everything that we do : how do we use power, water, transportation, the air around us. It remains to be seen if homo sapiens respond constructively and collectively to a threat that could very well end our very existence...

  8. #8 Jagadish Pradhan 30 Apr 12

    A very simple article on a subjectwhich appears to be a comlex one, but it is highly inspiring to get into action at local level.It reminds us of the saying 'Think Globally,Act locally'. By the time Governments wakeup it may becomae too late and hence it is high time that the ordinary citigens have to act.

  9. #9 ianruston 31 Jul 12

    (almost)totally agree. The only reservation being we have almost definitely left it too late. Nevertheless we must plod on for our childrens sake. Although I sometimes think it would be best if we(humans)were wiped out. Here in the UK we had a heatwave in March-which used to be Spring-followed by an inordinate amount of rain(leading to much flooding)for 3 months. I know we are lucky compared to others and when you consider our contribution, historically.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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