Back from Thailand: reflections on the need for transformational change

I’m back from Thailand and currently dealing with a chest infection. Travelling takes it toll, both on my health and on that of the planet. I live with these inconsistencies. From my arrival late on 19 October through to the morning of 23 October I was based in Bangkok, staying in one of my favourite hotels. By very good fortune it was 10 minutes walk from the United Nations Conference Centre, where the Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum was held.

The forum was an interesting experience, particularly in terms of feedback from my Agri-Nature Foundation friends who were also in attendance. I’ll come to this in a while. The theme of this forum was ‘mainstreaming’ adaptation to climate change. The mainstreaming of adaptation into national policy frameworks, particularly in least developed countries, has gained significant momentum in the last few years. This momentum is a result of the significant, and increasing, amounts of funding for adaptation that are coming available. It is recognition that climate change is happening and there will be inevitable negative impacts on environments and people around the world. I see this increased attention to adaptation as a mixed blessing. On the one hand it reflects the need for positive action to address the effects of climate change, which if done properly could also provide benefits in terms of reduced emissions. But the speed at which things are happening, and the lack of genuine expertise, is a big concern. Funds are coming available almost faster than various agencies can keep up with. And suddenly there are a whole lot of ‘climate change experts’. The one big contradiction that I see is that a lot of people are talking about the need for action, and agreeing that they need to have more meetings to talk about action, but where is the action and who is doing it? And exactly what sort of action are we talking about? Are we talking about incremental changes to what we are currently doing? Or are we talking about transformational changes?

My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change
My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change

I view incremental changes as adjustments we make to partially offset the negative consequences, and potential vulnerabilities, of our on-going economic development focus. In many countries, including New Zealand, this includes continuing with activities such as high input agricultural systems (particularly our dairy industry) but doing things like improving irrigation efficiency or dealing with the consequences of nitrate pollution. We’re not questioning the future vulnerability and costs of sustaining such systems. Evidence from past civilizations gives us some clear lessons. In the words of Brian Fagan, author of ‘The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization’ (It’s also worth reading this Guardian review):

“In our efforts to cushion ourselves against smaller, more frequent climate stresses, we have consistently made ourselves more vulnerable to rarer but larger catastrophes. The whole course of civilization … may be seen as a process of trading up on the scale of vulnerability.”

Whether we see it or not, our present actions are accelerating us towards a collision course. The economic rationalists tell us that we have no alternatives. I guess this makes sense if you understand the causes of tunnel vision. I liken our addiction to fossil fuels and the growth economy to the effects of alcohol and some drugs on vision. We’re in a world of rapid change and we humans are increasingly in need of transformational change. My view is that we either act willingly now, or be forced into change at much greater cost sometime in the future.

Transformational change means we step outside of the square. We shed our strong dependence on fossil fuels and start opening our minds to the world of possibilities that lies beyond what can only be described as addictive, and ultimately destructive, behaviour. The sooner we make this change the better. Yes, it might involve some short-term pain, changes in lifestyle and consumer behaviour. Long-term, the sooner we act the better placed we will be to benefit from a genuinely harmonious and productive relationship with the earth.

It’s taken me a while, but this is where I come to the Agri-Nature Foundation in Thailand. Through the practical application of the Sufficiency Economy philosophy they are actively engaged in transformational change. My friends, Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa, were very frustrated with the adaptation forum. All of this talk about the need for action, and they are acting. Mainstreaming adaptation is a redundant concept for them. Their work isn’t driven by a climate change funding agenda. It was originally driven by a challenge from farmers to show that the King of Thailand’s ideas on the Sufficiency Economy had some practical merit. Their funding has come from people freely offering financial support because of the results they are getting. The Sufficiency Economy is a response to the forces of globalisation and the many environmental and other problems now unfolding in the world. This includes climate change. Practical application of the Sufficiency Economy involves planting a diversity of tree species, protecting precious water resources, living within the limits of your local environment, providing for your basic needs and sharing surplus. It follows fundamental ecological concepts. The foundation is a sustainable and resilient ecology. Through a conscious design process we develop greater stability, and buffering capacity, through well-planned functional diversity. Within this we develop a healthy social environment and then a sustainable economy. I know various people talking about these concepts. I know very few examples of practical application. In this regard the work of the Agri-Nature Foundation needs wider recognition and I’m dedicated to supporting that as well as I can.

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