The scientist, the chronicler, the poet on climate change

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Elspeth Huxley and Lewis S.B. Leakey were both born and raised in what is now Kenya in the early parts of the twentieth century (when the territory was British East Africa).  Both were keen observers, cogent critical thinkers, articulate voices, adventurous travelers and prolific in their works and writings.  They were also both sympathetic to black Africans and adopted balanced perspectives about colonization and its impacts on settlers and natives.

Despite these similarities, they come out on different sides of a question of pressing importance and, in light of my work at the UN Environment Programme, immediacy in my own daily life: environmental degradation.

Kenya currently is suffering a long-running and debilitating drought.  Electricity - much of which is generated by hydropower - has been rationed because the water levels are too low to produce sufficient supply.  Crops are failing, and people in Samburu are dying of starvation in the same horrifying manner (if not numbers) as their forerunners in Biafra and Ethiopia did.

In 2009, with our current knowledge of climate change, Kenya's condition looks like the effects of increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - and maybe it is.  But drought and the attendant sufferings aren't new in Kenya, and people have long cultivated knowledge about water, its sources and the impacts human activity can have on its availability.

Writing in 1963 on the cusp of Kenyan independence, in the context of the the handover from white national forest administrators to their black successors, Huxley writes:

The Masai are no respecter of forests.  Trees, to them, are enemies which rob them of potential grazing, rather than allies which anchor soil and make of it a sponge to absorb rainfall and return it in the form of springs.  The Masai drive their herds up into the glades and start fires which destroy the vegetation.

Across the Rift [Valley], on the south-western slopes of the Mau escarpment, you can count at least a dozen fires every time you fly over the mountains.  You can see blackened patches and clearings hoed for crops (a lot of these Masai have Kikuyu wives who cultivate) and the gloomy spectacle of human predators colonizing and spoiling the forests.  Already springs are dwindling and soon rivers that have always flowed the year through will be turned into seasonal streams that come down in spate in wet seasons, and dry up altogether in between.  Then what will the Masai do for water?  When their streams turn into dry, sandy river-beds they will shrug their shoulders and say shauri ya Mungu: the affair of God.  Perhaps it is, for tolerating so much human stupidity.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 20

The argument that water shortage in Kenya had a human - and specifically "native" - cause was not original in Huxley's day.  Almost thirty years earlier, in 1936 - and about sixty years before the term "climate change" had entered our daily discourse - Lewis Leakey debunked the "blame the natives" theory of water shortage in Kenya:

The soil erosion which is taking place so alarmingly in some parts of the country, and the destruction of so much forest by fires, are both commonly attributed to the natives and their carelessness.  I believe,  however, that the more important factor governing both these troubles is a purely climactic one, although it is probably true that excessive grazing by goats and sheep, and carelessness with fire in forest areas, is hastening the process of nature.

If dessication really goes on for the next two or three hundred years at the rate at which it has been at work in the past few hundred, it will not only be the European community in Kenya that will suffer but also the natives, and as they have less money at their disposal for water boring and for water conservation, the latter will probably suffer the worst.
Lewis S.B. Leakey, Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, p. 169

With the scientist's perspective of drought patterns over hundreds of years, Leakey was able to identify Kenya - as early as 1936 and perhaps earlier - as being in a pattern of "dessication" caused by "climactic" factors.  Leakey understood that the drying up had started centuries earlier; and, moreover, that this latest phase was not the first in a series of swings between lushland and desert that Kenya had experienced over millennia.

Certainly, greenhouse gas emissions may be responsible for a speeding-up of this dessication process; what Leakey thought might happen in two or three hundred years might be occurring in sixty to one hundred.  Still, the comparison between Leakey and Huxley is significant: even the sharpest eye is apt to misconstrue what it sees without the scope of other disciplines and perhaps hundreds of years.

On the other hand, consider the perspective of Stephen Dobyns in his poem, "Where We Are (after Bede)."  Dobyns doesn't have (so far as I'm aware) any exposure to Kenya, let alone opportunities for close analysis of its people, soil layers or climactic patterns.  Nonetheless, from his perch of severe distance (nay, ignorance), he sums up climate change in Kenya (and worldwide) better than either Leakey or Huxley could:

This is where we are in history - to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night - a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.   

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on November 8, 2009 7:37 PM.

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