Dr Chris Mabeza
In a seminal article in The Guardian, Jeremy Hance asks the thought-provoking question: “Has hope become the most endangered species?” Nowhere is this evident than the apocalypse fatigue engendered by the climate change doomsday narrative.
The doomsday narrative, also known as “climate porn”, is about the claim that humanity is facing oblivion because of the climate change Armageddon that looms like an iceberg on a foggy Arctic night.
Thus, climate porn is the tendency by some sections of the media and scientific establishment to paint a doomy and gloomy picture of humanity in the face of climate change.
We are bombarded relentlessly with the “end is nigh” narrative from some sections of the crowded and extremely noisy world of climate change reporting.
We read about “climate refugees”, “victims of climate change”, “smallholder farmers face a bleak future”, “whole villages face destruction” — the list is long. In an article in the New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells writes about “The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreck sooner than you think”.
This article paints a gloomy future about humans’ prospects of survival in a changing climatic environment.
Such narratives engender a sense of hopelessness. The consumers of such information end up tired of the doomsday narratives and wallow in hopelessness. Victoria Hermann argues that hopelessness and despair about a situation is cognitively associated with inaction.
Despair is not a motivator.
Where is the potential for human agency in all these narratives?
Like the fish that doesn’t know what water is, we at times get absorbed in certain narratives to an extent of failing to see creative solutions in our midst. We should see beyond the obituaries; for example, the exciting smallholder farmer innovative stories of adaptation to the super wicked problem of climate change.
My experience as a researcher in rural Zimbabwe highlights the great potential of the agency of smallholder farmers in breaking free from the trappings of poverty through creatively innovative ways of reducing vulnerability to climate variability.
Rural Zimbabwe is replete with many of these innovative farmers whose relentless experimentation in response to climate change is astounding.
These are stories about farmers who are boundlessly resourceful, farmers who exploit beneficial opportunities in climate change and farmers who give us hope.
These are stories that dissuade us from subscribing to the doomsday narrative.
To borrow an expression from Nimar Elbagir, these are stories that must be told.
These are stories that must be heard, and these are stories that carry us forward.
Telling stories about successful smallholder farmers living in rainfall marginal areas will inspire other farmers living in similar environs.
Other smallholder farmers view such success stories favourably because they operate in the same realm as them.
These good news stories offer tangible adaptive climate responses.
There are many stories of farmers who are not only surviving but thriving in a changing climatic environment.
Stories of smallholder farmers in the Mazvihwa area of Zvishavane make us appreciate the importance of human agency. At an informal learning environment, appropriately named the “University of Mototi” (because it was based at a place called Mototi in Mazvihwa), smallholder farmers were able to learn from each other about innovative interventions to climate change adaptation.
The “University of Mototi” was replete with “students” and “lecturers” who were extremely knowledgeable and skilled. The “alumni” of the “University of Mototi” have tinkered and innovated creatively in their own right in a bid to adapt to rainfall variability.
Some of the “alumni” engage in run-off water harvesting and this is premised on their realisation that in that part of the country, “rain comes rapidly and leaves rapidly”.
Therefore, rainwater must be harvested the moment it falls before it disappears.
By harvesting water, they extend their agricultural season by engaging in market gardening.
This article accepts that rainwater can only be harvested when it rains. However, harvesting rainwater when it comes helps in building resilience of the smallholder farmers, especially in the wake of increased rainfall variability.
These farmers have managed to increase their sources of income.
They use some of the money to pay fees for their children.
Other creative farmers in the same area view gullies as resources.
They construct a wall across the gully; thereby, creating small dams. They use the water to irrigate their gardens.
Another positive from this creative intervention is to help in the fight against gully erosion. It is these innovative interventions that give us hope.
That the climate change threat is real cannot be debated.
Therefore, this article does not equate the doomsday approach to crying wolf. The doomsday narrative, however, without offering solutions, will not save us from the devastating effects of climate change.
It only succeeds in deflating our hope for survival.
An approach premised on the recognition of the potential for human agency as demonstrated by innovative smallholder farmers gives us hope.
Human agency can rescue hope from its presumed endangered species status. Human agency can help us change the “conservation conversation” about climate porn. Climate porn is reckless and dangerous; it is a bit like an attempt by a sea diver to try to teach a shark about marine etiquette.
Climate porn must be defanged each time it rears its ugly head.
Dr Chris Mabeza holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town and researches on climate change. He writes in his personal capacity. You can contact him on [email protected] for feedback.
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