Opinion

Climate change and our sense of place

Yak at Namtso Lake, Tibet. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 770974369.

In the lead up to the recent ‘Tibet: Life on the Frontlines of Climate Change’ Sydney Ideas talk, I was struck by the fact that the term ‘nomad’ is not adequately reflected in our English language. This places a limitation on us when we talk about people as nomads, and how we view the climate challenges they face.

As a veterinarian, born into a farming family, I have no qualifications to talk about the impacts of climate change on Tibetan nomads, but I am troubled by it. In hearing from the experiences and work of Tsechu Dolma, Founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, we learnt that Tibetan nomads flourished sustainably for millennia, and that climate change is affecting the fresh water supply and food security of Tibetan nomads, making them vulnerable to climate change.

Without a word to define nomads in the context of our understanding, we hear the familiar rhetoric of ‘what does it matter if we move them on?’ This is cause for trouble. The English Oxford online dictionary defines nomads as: “a member of a people that travels from place to place to find fresh pasture for its animals and has no permanent home”.  How does such a definition frame how we understand issues that affect nomadic people?  At the ripe old age of thirty-something, I learnt Portuguese and I learnt how different their world is and how you see things differently through different languages.

If we were to ask Tibetan nomads or pastoralists in Africa or Central Asia, “what term do you have for yourself?” it would not be something that equates to the English definition of ‘nomad’, because they are people that have a sense of place. They absolutely belong, they absolutely are ‘one’ with that place. So much are they one with that place, that they don’t see themselves as central. As they start to impact and notice a change, they will move, and they live ‘lightly’ in a much wider area. They move according to how the landscape can support them and they see themselves as one with it. This is something that we would be wise to reflect on.

If we think about what has caused climate change – the idea that we can continue to expand, to exploit – it’s really something we need to stop and think about. It may have worked when it seemed like our world had unlimited resources, but clearly, we are finding out that it’s not the case. What we can learn from people who we call ‘nomads’ but who have lived in these places for thousands of years – and from Indigenous Australians who have lived on this old dry continent, even though they had made some change by the time my “boat people” rocked up – is how they were living largely in harmony with the environment because of what they’d learnt over millennia.

I’ve come to understand that the study of history and philosophy is central to finding our way forward. As a species, we’ve spent around 96% of our time living as hunter-gatherers, living lightly and moving. What we see and what we feel as normal now, is very recent, and we are capable of change – I want to be able to give us that hope. As I’ve started reading philosophy, one of the things that really struck me was the move from a hunter-gatherer society to a more sedentary culture really set in train the society that we see today. If you live in small groups your survival depends on each other, and because you need to move, what you value is your cohesion, your ability to work together. You don’t value a big house, you don’t value things you can’t move, because they are a burden to you. As we became settled, we became more stratified as a society, our values started to change. So, perhaps it’s not just about climate change but also about what we value as a society. As I’m sure someone has said before me, one of the great things about responding to climate change is that we might just end up being happier anyway.


Robyn Alders is a Senior Technical Advisor with the Centre for Global Health Security within Chatham House and a Director of the Kyeema Foundation.  For over 25 years, she has worked closely with family farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, SE Asia and Australia and as a veterinarian, researcher and colleague, with an emphasis on the development of sustainable infectious disease control in animals in rural areas in support of food and nutrition security. Robyn’s current research and development interests include domestic and global food and nutrition security/systems, One Health/Ecohealth/Planetary Health, gender equity and Science Communication.