Friday, October 30, 2015

Climate in a Different Voice

On one side, 195 nations, diplomats, ministers, heads of state, and an army of UN functionaries prepare to address the climate crisis in Paris in just a month. On the other, Pierre Rabhi, 77 years old, 'peasant-philosopher,' organic farmer, author of poems, novels, articles, tracts and numerous interviews expounding his conception of 'agro-ecology.' In an interview in yesterday's Le Monde (here, in FrenchRabhi expressed his skepticism that anything very significant will emerge from a 'High Mass' like the COP 21 summit. Perhaps his long life swimming against the stream has disqualified him from appreciating the powerful institutional forces arrayed for Paris. But maybe that long experience is worth considering.

Rabhi is Franco-Algerian. He was born, and lived his early life, in a Saharan oasis village in the south of Algeria. Seeking opportunity for his son, Rabhi's father sent him to France, where he completed high school, returned to Algeria, then went back to France. He studied agronomy, with his wife started a farm in the Ardèche region, and began writing about ecological issues affecting the long-term health of the land. In the early 1980s he was invited to Burkina Faso to help convert the despoiled, over-fertilized commodity agriculture there to a more balanced, sustainable model. At 77 he continues to live, farm, write, and teach from his base in the Ardèche.

"The problem with COP 21," Rabhi says, "is that they want us to believe they can solve the problem without attacking the sources of [ecological] imbalance ... Will they stop industrial fishing or intensive agriculture, and thus stop pillaging the oceans and the earth?" he asks. "Will there be a just redistribution of resources between North and South?" "It's not the planet that is in danger," he insists, "but the human species. The Earth herself has seen others come and go."

There are a thousand practical objections that could be leveled at Rabhi's fundamentalist ecologism. But in his focused and balanced way of life he is living out a paradigm that--unlike the rest of us and our desperately consumptive way of living--is actually sustainable. The promises made in the UNFCCC documents and drafts are far less real than the orchards and fields on Rabhi's farm. The demand for growth at all costs, as he notes, risks to trump the good intentions of all the green-minded advocates who will convene in Paris.

Rabhi is more poet than planner, more prophet than pragmatist, but his vision may be worth more than a thousand pages of programmatic interventions. If we don't understand what he means by 'agro-ecology,' if we don't grasp the equilibrium that defines sustainability, we are likely to wander from one partial, inadequate solution to another without making the fundamental structural changes in our economies, global and local, that are our only real hope.

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