Tipping Point for Planet Earth (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016) by Anthony D. Barnosky and Elizabeth A. Hadly critically explores the Earth looking for ways to save the planet and provide a better future. The authors synthesize all of the environmental crises we face and explain that the combination is why we have to worry about a catastrophic, planetary-scale tipping point. This excerpt comes from chapter 1, “Past or Future?” and examines the effects of dwindling resources on less advanced countries.
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It all happened pretty fast. One minute, I was sitting outside sipping my tea. The next, I was hunkered down in a cold, smoky hut, patching up a Tamang woman’s bloody scalp, which she was lucky to have at all, given the machetes that were swinging around. Like most activities around sundown in that part of the world, it was a race against time, because darkness was coming on fast, and candlelight just wasn’t going to be up to the task.
When I had boarded the plane for Nepal a few days before, that kind of adventure was the last thing on my mind. I had set out with one of my Ph.D students, Katie Solari, to meet up with my Indian colleague, Uma, and her Nepali student, Nishma Dahal, in Kathmandu. Our four-woman crew was then going to head into the Himalayas to figure out which species of pika, a fluffy but short-eared cousin of rabbits, occupied which elevations in the world’s highest mountain range. We wanted that information in order to learn how the pikas are responding to the rampant climatic warming that is now heating up that part of the world, as a kind of bellwether for predicting how global warming will change wildlife in general. Pikas, it turns out, are the perfect natural experiment in that regard, because their physiology prevents them from tolerating warm temperatures. As warming climate causes mountain environments to heat up, the pikas move upslope, taking advantage of the fact that for every hundred meters of rise in elevation, temperature falls by a little less than 1 degree C. Our thought was that by tracking their upslope movement over a series of years, and performing genetic tests on them to see how the animals we trapped were related to each other, we could use the pikas as the proverbial canaries in the coalmine to help forecast Earth’s ecological future.
Since we left Kathmandu, we’d been moving upslope at a much faster rate than the pikas, and we were glad of it. After hiking for two days we were above three thousand meters. The high mountain air felt fresh, if a little thin, after our time in the valley, where brick kilns and fires thickened and darkened the air with a blanket of dense smog. That was far behind and below us now, and we reveled in being in one of the world’s treasured landscapes, ascending through hillsides covered with startlingly vivid arrays of red, pink, white and purple rhododendrons. I scanned the forests for signs of the red panda, since we were in one of the last strongholds of the species. What caught my eye instead, though, was that there was no real forest understorey, and although the trees were straight and tall, all but the highest branches were gone, leaving no cover for birds, much less for red pandas.
So I sipped my tea outside, reflecting on the day, waiting for the daily dinner of dal bhat (Nepali lentils and rice). That’s when the shrieks jerked me out of my reverie.
All of a sudden mothers, fathers, kids, aunts, uncles and who knows who else – all the residents of the two houses – were pouring down the hill. The boy who had been so interested in my field guide had been caught stealing wood from a pile collected by the son of the other family, who had done all the hard work shimmying up the trees, cutting off branches as he climbed. The fight was on. Both boys swung their kukris (curved machetes) at each other. Their entire families – parents and children alike – joined in the fray, beating each other with sticks, pulling at braids, grabbing at clothes, scratching and screaming. All the while, the kukris kept swinging.
At the end, all were bruised, some were bleeding, clothes were ripped and shoes were lost. While another trekker patched up the gash on the head of the matriarch from the other teahouse, the matriarch from ours asked me for medical help. Fist-sized clumps of her hair had been torn out, her face was cut, and large bumps had appeared on her head and brow. As I patched her up, the two families continued to hurl curses at each other.
The violence in this spectacular, top-of-the-world setting was jarring – the wood they were fighting over was for our evening’s cook fire. For me, the pieces fell into place. Every day, young Tamang boys travel from higher, barren elevations down to the upper treeline to collect wood. That’s why we noticed as we climbed higher that all the low branches were gone. The trees were being stripped bare where they stood, leaving no cover for the red pandas, which ironically are a major lure for the trekkers, the profits from whom the Tamang rely on for the few things they have that they don’t take from the land – like mobile phones, and the small solar panels to charge them.
The problem is, the land is starting to let them down. Or maybe it’s vice versa. For the days we worked in the Himalayas, we, through our Tamang hosts’ cooking, depended on the wood collected from those trees that were being stripped bare, the water that was siphoned from the melting glaciers above, the cabbage and potatoes grown in small family gardens, and the rice and lentils carried up the mountain on their backs. I had climbed above five thousand meters, and thought I had escaped the smog and chaos of the ‘modern world’. But what became all too apparent was that there is now no place clear of humanity’s impact. And that the farther you get from our creature comforts, the closer you live to the land, and the more apparent is our dependence on Earth’s natural resources.
Even more of a wake-up call was seeing that where those human impacts get to be too much, you end up in the middle of a machete fight, the result of tensions that boil over as an inevitable byproduct of depleting what you need to stay alive. I was left with an uncomfortable question in my mind. Had I seen civilization’s past in those mountains of Nepal, or had I caught a glimpse of the future?
From Tipping Point for Planet Earth by Anthony Barnosky and Elizabeth Hadly. Copyright © 2016 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.