We ignored the harbingers of doom at high altitudes — and now the woes have arrived for us all
Thirteen thousand feet high on the far side of the Himalaya mountains, we have entered the past and the future at the same time. We are a medical expedition and also a pilgrimage, consisting of doctors, nurses, Buddhist clerics, supernumeraries like me, and a large staff of guides, muleteers, and camp tenders. We are bound for the isolated villages of Upper Dolpo, a remote region of northwestern Nepal, land of the snow leopard — both the actual animal and The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen's nonfiction classic. We are traveling the same trails Matthiessen walked in 1973.
As a medical mission, our purpose is to provide primary health care to people who rarely, if ever, see a clinician. As pilgrims, our purposes are as varied as our individual identities. Mine is to make peace with the anger and grief that have dogged me since finishing a pair of books, one on climate change, the other on extinction. They left me heartsick. My delight in the beauty of the world had been joined to sorrow at its destruction, and the two emotions were like cellmates who refused to get along. Their ceaseless argument soured the taste of life. I hoped that a long walk — about 150 miles in this case — might cure the resultant moral ache. (The story of that walk provides the backbone of my new book, The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss.)
The trails we followed led us into the past in the sense that the high Himalayan world — Sanskrit's "abode of snow" — is a relic of the Pleistocene, a land of glaciers, vast spaces, stony rubble, and frigid rivers. Its cynosure animal is less the snow leopard than the yak, a source of food, fiber, hide, bone tools, transport, and tractor power more essential to the Tibetan settlers of the region than even the bison was to America's Cheyenne or Sioux. Yaks enabled people to inhabit the wintry attic of the world, where today an Ice Age climate still lingers, even as it begins to fade away.
As much as we were entering the past, however, we were also plunging into the future. Lands at these high elevations appear to be warming two to three times faster than those lower down. The reasons for this are only partly understood. Changes in albedo — the reflectance of the land — are part of the answer: as snow packs shrink and glacial ice retreats, the newly bared and darker earth absorbs more solar energy than the white blanket that had covered it. The absorbed energy, in turn, warms the land and accelerates the melting of yet more nearby snow and ice. Windblown soot and dust, often set loose by human activities, can also darken the white, high-altitude world, yielding a similar effect.
From 1962 to 2006 the glaciers of the Himalaya appear to have lost more than a fifth of their ice. They did not all shrink at the same rate. In fact, some glaciers haven't shrunk at all, but measurements of the overall trend in the Sikkim-Nepal region put the average loss at seven inches of depth every year across the whole extent of ice. And, of course, the melting continues.
We used to say that climate disruption at high altitude presaged the changes that were soon to arrive in the rest of the world, that the cascade of broken balances exhibited by melting glaciers, erratic seasons, and unpredictable rivers was a harbinger of woes bound for environments closer to home. Sadly, such changes are harbingers no longer, for the woes have arrived.
Last summer saw nearly an entire Greek island combusted, significant swaths of Italy and Turkey turned to ash, giant expanses of the American Pacific Northwest set ablaze, and another full season of California flambé. Meanwhile, wildfires in Siberia consumed forested areas greater than all the rest combined, while floods in Belgium and western Germany drowned towns and villages that had never seen the like before. Then came an Atlantic hurricane season that has rivaled or surpassed the previous record-setting year in multiple categories. The future about which scientists and activists have warned us for more than 30 years is no longer on our doorstep. It's in the house.
Nowadays, the far Himalaya is less a model for the future than a mirror for the present. You see the same controversies over grazing and the same mistrust of land "managers" that preoccupy the American West. You see patterns of rural-to-urban migration that are common throughout the world, with young people leaving the family farmstead to seek their fortunes in the city. You also see the increased mobility of humanity expressed in legions of outsiders flooding into formerly isolated districts, much to the consternation of longtime residents.
In the case of Dolpo, the vast majority of outsiders invading the region are hunters of a weird fungus, yarza gunbu, that invades the head of a particular caterpillar soon after it hatches in the tundra grasslands. The fungus then consumes the unlucky caterpillar and erupts through the thin soil to produce a miniature tower, only a centimeter or two high, that (with a certain amount of imagination) can be seen to resemble an erect penis. As the snow recedes in the spring, yarza hunters pour by the thousands into the high country. Crawling on their hands and knees or shuffling stooped across the damp heights, they stare intently at the ground, straining to spot the phallic structure of their quarry. Gathered and dried, these rather unappetizing avatars of the male principle sell at cocaine prices as a remedy for impotence and a general tonic for health. Their market includes a large swath of Asia, especially China. Some call it "Himalayan Viagra."
Many Nepalis, especially urban youth, look to science to explain the perplexities of climate change, but in Dolpo and similar regions, yarza gunbu hunters often get blamed for the disturbed weather and chaotic hydrology afflicting the region. The newcomers, so the thinking goes, break unwritten laws, abuse pastureland, pollute streams, and cut shrubs and trees where none should be cut. Such behavior is said to upset the spirits of place. As a result, brutal winters now alternate with ones that are too warm, while avalanches fall where avalanches never fell before. The rains also seem to be affected. They start too early or end too late. Or they don't come at all. And the traditional rituals that people counted on to restore order when things slipped out of balance are proving inadequate to overcome such a high level of disturbance.
The Third Force: Stupidity
If opinion as to the cause of climate change is divided in Nepal, the division is generally benign. Not so in the United States, where it used to be said that, when things got bad enough, the nation's doubters and deniers would come around. Well, things have been bad enough for quite a while, as attested by the incineration of Paradise, California, in 2018, and Greenville, California this summer, the steady diminishment of the Colorado River, and so many other grim indicators. Rather than allow the light of realism to penetrate their thinking, the rightwing cheerleaders of America's culture wars, many of whom serve in Congress, persist in denying, dodging, or twisting the facts of global warming in ways that please their base and their corporate sponsors. Garret Keizer, writing in Harper's Magazine, theorizes that the problem goes deeper than the inevitable tension between liberals and conservatives. He argues that there is "a third force seeking hegemony over this world: stupidity."
Powered by social media, bullshit now travels at the speed of light. A Facebook algorithm is always available to help you segue from funny cat videos to anxiety-inducing clips about QAnon and chem trails. The main objective for Facebook and its advertisers is to keep viewers amused and aroused, to keep them plugged in. For many Internet users, real threats like global warming just can't compete with the loony ones.
The immoral and potentially fatal inability of the United States to take meaningful action on global warming means that Americans share more in common with rural Nepalis than they might imagine. Even through the pall of pollution that hangs over that country's capital, Kathmandu, people there can see that their climatic future will be determined by the billowing smokestacks of the United States, China, India, and Europe. They know that they have little agency on the world stage, little ability to influence events. This is not something new. Nepal is squeezed between the jealous powers of India and China. Each plays a different tune; Nepal dances, but it cannot dance to both at once. With two quarreling neighbors to appease, Nepal is far from being the master of its fate.
We Americans don't see ourselves as subject to the will of others. Since the early days of the republic, our autonomy has been a point of national pride. We chart our own path and we've long believed that, if something isn't right, we can fix it. If something needs doing, we will do it. We fought a world war in two hemispheres and came out victors. We rebuilt Europe. We walked on the moon. We won the Cold War and extended our economic reach around the world, exporting not just manufactured goods but our taste in music, film, fast food, and clothes. We spurred a Green Revolution in agriculture that vastly expanded the human carrying capacity of the globe, and we vanquished smallpox and polio. We were the good guys.
Today those attitudes and that pride seem so… well, twentieth century. Our scientists still develop vaccines, but the rest of us can't agree on using them. Our research institutions still pioneer the science of epidemics and climate change, but the general population can't agree on their underlying reality.
Implementing policies to control a public health crisis that has killed more than 700,000 fellow citizens or mitigating a shift in the global environmental equilibrium that threatens the future of civilization — these "big lifts" now exceed our strength. We can't even agree on a measure as simple as mask-wearing. More concerning yet, fidelity to the basic tenets of our electoral system, once the backbone of our democracy, now seems a relic of the past. Tens of millions of voters reject the clearly documented outcome of our last presidential election, and so do hundreds, maybe thousands, of public officials elected by that very system.
In times of stress, America has sought reassurance in the exploits of its vaunted military, but lately that hasn't worked out too well. Washington's 20-year war in Afghanistan bore a gloomy resemblance to its catastrophic effort to "save" Vietnam from communism, and not just in the way it ended. Imperial hubris, ignorance of local realities, and soaring civilian casualties are just a few of the dismal parallels to the earlier war. And we need hardly speak of Iraq: our invasion there produced an out-and-out disaster premised on out-and-out lies.
Which brings us back to agency. As Americans, we now confront a striking new reality: we don't have the clout we once thought we did. White America now shares its humbled condition with people who live on the farther side of the Himalaya, as well as with Native Americans, Blacks, and many other fellow citizens. America's minorities have long understood the loneliness and vulnerability of not being in command, of having to struggle against a hostile and disordered world. Now, the fractured American majority is getting a taste of how that feels. For want of cohesion and agreement, the United States is failing to address the biggest and most complex problems that confront it. Given how we've used our military since World War II, that reduced capability may not be an entirely bad thing. But where climate change is concerned, it's tragic.
Climate change requires comprehensive, systematic, and immediate action. Again and again at the national level, we've shown that we don't have what it takes. Diagnosis: inadequate agency. Responding to the climate crisis has become a race against time and our government still dawdles at the starting line.
Gratitude, Resilience, and Hope
At 13,000 feet on the farther side of the Himalaya, the world becomes lunar. The tallest vegetation can't hide a golf ball. Nothing is screened from view. What's there is there, as naked as sunlit boulders, as clear as mountain streams. As our expedition meandered from village to village, traversing passes higher than 17,000 feet, we wondered how so stark and spartan an environment might shape the people dwelling in it. In our clinics, we got a partial answer.
The gratitude and resilience of our Dolpo patients impressed us all deeply. One doctor spoke for many of us when he said,
"They come in with joint pain, a blown-out knee, GI distress, a horrible rash, whatever, and maybe we can't help them. 'Sorry,' we say. 'Wish we could do something for you.' And they get up and smile. They say, 'That's fine. Thanks anyway.' And off they go, as cheerfully as they came in. Patients back in my clinic [in the U.S.] are so different. Whatever hurts them becomes so much bigger a thing. And we give them meds for blood pressure or pain, but they really seem to want us to fix something bigger than that, something we don't have meds for. They want us to fix the pain that is in their minds or in their souls. My Nepali patients have lots of problems, but not that one."
The cheerful stoicism of our hosts inspired us. I had joined the expedition carrying much anger at my country's refusal to face its environmental responsibilities and frustration at witnessing the worsening results of its fecklessness. The long walk helped quite a bit. My fellow travelers, the patients we treated, and the spectacular land through which we traveled imparted many lessons. Perhaps the most important involved a rekindling of hope.
Hope is different from optimism and also different from the simple desire for things to turn out well. True hope demands faith in "not-knowing," in trusting the uncertainty of the future. The people of Dolpo seemed to possess that faith. In realms more familiar to westerners, such culture heroes as Czech dissident and later president Vaclav Havel and South African liberator Nelson Mandela also possessed it. Neither Havel nor Mandela knew if the Soviet Union or apartheid would be dismantled in their lifetime.
Nevertheless, through long periods of darkness, each of them cultivated a resilient hope that had two vital components. The first was a commitment to the intrinsic value of right action, irrespective of whether it resulted in the desired outcome. In Havel's words, they did what "makes sense," no matter whether their efforts might ultimately fail. Many philosophies distinguish between "instrumental good," which is realized when an action achieves its goal, and "intrinsic good," which is realized irrespective of result. Havel and Mandela pursued intrinsic good.
Second, they believed in surprise — that sometimes big, consequential things happen with virtually no warning. An earthquake, the fall of the Soviet Union, or a coronavirus epidemic are all good examples. There is no guarantee that the consequences of surprise will be beneficial. That's where true hopefulness and doing what "makes sense" come in — they sustain you through the long wait for surprise. In Czechoslovakia and South Africa when the long-desired surprises arrived, both Havel and Mandela seized their moment and made them as beneficial as possible. The essence of their preparation was that they never lost hope. Neither should we.
Copyright 2021 William deBuys
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William deBuys is the author of 10 books, including A Great Aridness and The Last Unicorn, which compose a trilogy that culminates with The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss, just published.