Trying to Think Holistically While Concentrating on Details

By Cody Kent, Climate and Society ’13

Trying to Think Holistically While Concentrating on Details

This summer I’m interning at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society on a project to identify climate change adaptation techniques for agriculture in developing countries. I’m working with three other Climate and Society students. Two of us are working on the agriculture sector and two are working in the health sector. The project developed from the recognition that climate change adaptation has a tendency to stall in the diagnosis phase before an adaptation measure can be implemented and long before it becomes mainstream and has a measurable effect. The goal of our project is to identify a series of adaptation measures that are low cost and with few drawbacks that can be implemented relatively quickly to jumpstart adaptation. Each sector team identifies combinations of climate hazards and impacts that have the potential for small changes to create significant improvements then identify simple adaptation measures to apply to these problems. This seems pretty straightforward but of course it isn’t.

Any problem worth working on is hard; easy questions have easy answers. This truism was brought home to our agriculture group last week during a conversation with one of our advisors. He pointed out that while it would be easy for us to create an unassailable list of agricultural improvements, the list would be useless in practice. This is a problem that a lot of very smart people have been working on for a very long time. The agricultural improvements exist and are well known by the people who are working on this problem. The problem is, it’s not as simple as telling a farmer to grow drought resistant crops. There has to be market for those crops. There are some preconditions that will have to be met for any idea to take hold, expand and improve people’s lives. What barriers prevent implementing these improvements? He said we need to think holistically about the system and take the next step.

It’s a question I’ve now been pondering all week. A question I should have been thinking about all along. After all, it is the purpose of the project: “How do we get to implementation?” What resources or preconditions need to exist so farmers and local facilitators can make the techniques we identify work? What is the next step? Ironically, this is easier to see for larger interventions. Water wells and irrigation require credit to pay for, and if the farmers grow new cash crops, a way to get those crops to a market. Behavioral changes are more difficult. What is required for a farmer to stop burning his fields after harvest and composting the debris? What are the preconditions for a farmer to dig simple pits that catch and hold the rain to plant his crops in? A farmer needs to know his work will pay off. Demonstration plots in each village could help. How many people would it take, how long to convince farmers the techniques work? We have to balance the time and effort that agriculture inherently takes with the projects’ goal of quick, cheap results. Well, that’s the question I’ve been working on in parallel with my work. I don’t yet have the answers.

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