A Development Expert Relies On the Resilience of Villagers

Geographer Edward Carr has worked extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change and other environmental threats present a growing challenge. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Carr talks about why any outside aid to the developing world must build on the inherent capability of the local residents.

In the late 1990s, Edward Carr began working as an archaeologist in Ghana, piecing together a recent history of the culture, economy, and environment in several rural villages. His experience led him to rethink his own assumptions about poverty, as he recounts in his recently published book, Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline, and the Road to a Sustainable Future: “People in these villages lived on less than two dollars a day but never seemed to go hungry. They lived in houses that were made of earth and roofed with sheets of tin but managed to maintain a high standard of hygiene; chronic illnesses, such as malaria, were exceedingly rare. Few people in the villages had completed elementary school, but they were able to adjust their farms and livelihoods to address the challenges of an unpredictable climate and economy.”

Edward Carr
Edward Carr

Carr set out to understand these seeming contradictions, and became convinced that such villagers worldwide are “repositories of information about how to improve the human condition cheaply and with minimal environmental impact.”

A geography professor at the University of South Carolina, Carr now works at the intersection of development, globalization, and environmental change. He is currently a Science and Technology Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, serving as a climate change coordinator at the United States Agency for International Development. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Keith Kloor, Carr discussed the resiliency of many in the developed world in the face of daunting challenges and cautioned against making facile links between ecological problems and political conflict.

Yale Environment 360: In your book you write that much of what is accepted as “mainstream understanding” of climate change really underestimates the scope of the challenge before us. What do you mean by that?

Edward Carr: What I’m worried about is that when we look at where people think a lot of future climate change is going to come from, many are looking at the global South, the developing world. But they’re thinking about it in terms of economic growth, which increases consumption, which increases energy use, and which they predict will equal increased emissions. I don’t necessarily see it the same way, from my experience working in rural villages. Now that doesn’t speak to urban areas and certainly there will be some emissions growth there. But out in rural areas I don’t think that’s what you’re looking at. I suspect that in rural areas the bigger challenge is actually going to be environmental degradation and the sorts of challenges climate change brings to those folks and the decisions they’ll then have to make.

e360: Do you feel that focusing the debate monolithically on carbon emissions distracts from some of the underlying environmental and sustainability issues in Africa today?

Carr: I think it can. I mean, we know what the cause of anthropogenic climate change is. It’s greenhouse gases. We know that. But I think we then immediately start thinking about emissions, and people dial in on big emitters like industry and things like that, maybe in part because those are the easiest things to manage with policy tools.

But how do you deal with potentially millions of farmers across sub-Saharan Africa making decisions they need to make to maintain their livelihoods, that individually don’t have a major impact but in aggregate do? We don’t have the tools to deal with or even measure that. And I think that to me is one of those lurking issues that we’re going to have to start wrestling with going forward, no matter what decisions we come to on climate agreements.

e360: At the same time, though, in your book you talk about how the community in Ghana you worked in has already been adapting for decades, if not hundreds of years, to environmental change.

“With limited resources, people have managed economic and environmental instability for a long time.”

Carr:Absolutely. To me, one of the most important and fascinating things that comes out of my experience is that people are enormously capable. More remarkably, they’re really capable with access to very limited resources, while managing serious economic and environmental instability, and have been doing so for quite some time. The example I give in the book is their crops. About 80 percent of the crops in a year are not African domesticates. These folks have managed to integrate crops from all other parts of the world slowly but steadily and have been able to work without soil or crop science the way we understand it, and still have functional ecosystems that provide them with food and seem to be somewhat sustainable.

e360: In your book, you write that, “the single greatest misconception shaping contemporary views of development and globalization is the idea that the problems of poverty in the developing world are the result of the absence of development.” Can you explain?

Carr: When we look at the global poor, when we look at people living on a dollar a day, there’s this assumption that development does no harm. That is to say, we couldn’t make things worse for these people so we ought to be trying everything all the time. That’s sort of the Jeffrey Sachs logic, that we have to be doing something and not just sit here. But this fails to grasp the ways in which people are already doing great things to make a living and in fact a nonproductive intervention could undermine those things and do real damage.

e360: Over the summer various commentators talking about the famine in Somalia and the drought in the Horn of Africa were making a connection to global warming. You criticized this as simplistic.

“The problem is that the correlation between weather and famine is actually pretty low historically.”

Carr: What you’re referring to is my argument that drought does not equal famine, and it doesn’t. Famine is a situation of extreme food insecurity, and there’s a very technical definition for it. Drought is a meteorological event: Does it rain or does it not rain? How much under the norm does it not rain? How much water is not available? The problem is that the correlation between weather and famine is actually pretty low, historically. The correlation between markets and things like food prices and famine is actually extraordinarily high.

So the problem is, when we start looking at a situation anywhere in the world where we see famine kicking off, people immediately start pointing to the weather. But that’s one of many things that have to come together to get us to that situation. In almost every case that I’ve ever seen, the weather is a trigger, another stressor on top of a set of stressors. That was my concern there, not to oversimplify a very complex situation.

e360: What about the debate over food riots, climate change and uprisings? This came up earlier in the year, during the Arab Spring, when some folks were making linkages between global warming, rising food prices, and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Carr: I think this a very fascinating area of research right now. I do worry that there are some efforts to grab headlines with much more simplistic studies that look at things like El Niño and conflict, that don’t take into account some really important factors, such as the fact that, one, an El Niño or La Niña year plays out differently in different places. So not all conflicts could possibly be related in the same kind of way, and even in places where we see a drought emerging as a result of that, it happens across a broad area. And it’s a broad area with different livelihoods, different crops, different politics, different economic setups — again, all things absolutely crucial in determining whether we get some form of conflict. So we’re in a very nascent stage of understanding this stuff, and yet sometimes we see people making what sound like really firm statements, and that’s very risky.

e360: It sounds similar to all the talk about water wars.

Carr: The big problem with the water wars argument, in terms of interstate war between countries, is that there’s actually way more negative cases than positive cases. So there’s not any good explanation for why it doesn’t happen in the places where it doesn’t happen. And that has been really the big knock on that. But unfortunately what happens is that a study comes out, people don’t necessarily pick up on that big caveat, and they start talking about how water shortage means war’s going to happen. It’s the same sort of thing happening here, where climate change means war’s going to happen.

e360: As you note, there is this notion building that climate change is going to trigger civil conflict and/or war. It’s not coming from the media, either. Think tanks and university researchers are the ones making this argument.

“Climate change impacts humans through indirect pathways that hit all parts of the environment.”

Carr:I am not a conflict expert, but what I know about conflict is that it has really complex causation, and when we see those studies they’re reducing it. They say they’re controlling for all these other variables but they aren’t really, they just aren’t operating at a fine enough scale to do it. So right now I don’t feel like there’s a really strong literature supporting the connection. That isn’t to say that climate change won’t have some impact on conflict in the future. In fact I think this is something we ought to be paying attention to. This is just me saying, let’s do this really rigorously, let’s be very careful about how we set up these research projects and studies so when the findings come back they’re actually robust, as opposed to headline-grabbing.

e360: Can you clarify the difference “climate security” and “environmental security”? They seem to mean different things: impacts from climate change and impacts from, say, overexploitation of the environment. But they get often get bundled together.

Carr: They are being conflated. Climate change — climate unto itself — barring the heat wave argument that some people make, a few degrees is not a direct biophysical danger to human beings. It’s the radiating impacts of those changes in precipitation and temperature on ecosystems. I don’t tend to focus entirely on climate change, I tend to think of global environmental change because climate change impacts human beings typically through indirect pathways in which it hits all parts of the environment. Which goes back to my point about why I’m worried about these oversimplified and over-generalized studies that are starting to come out on climate change and conflict, because in fact they’re not looking at all the different pathways through which a drought or flooding has to work through to get to human impact.

e360: On the development end, you write that “our misunderstandings and failings are not only causing problems for people who live far away, but also have left everyone on the planet extraordinarily vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks.” What do you mean by that?

Carr: This is for me a really important argument to make: Development done right is in our self-interest here in the developed world. I firmly believe that when we’re not enabling people to make innovative decisions and solve a lot of these problems — and I firmly believe that there a lot of local solutions out there that we need to go find — things like climate change come back to get us.

Development done right is in our self-interest in the developed world.

You have to think about the drivers of climate change right now, which are many and very broad. But the ones that development most clearly addresses are things like land use, agriculture, energy use. That’s the kind of stuff that we need to be focused on that would then have huge benefits back to us over time… I would argue that the climate benefit is a collateral benefit that would come out of a better understanding of what people are already doing on the ground, or could be doing.

e360: Can you give me some examples?

Carr: It’s things that allow people to manage land more sustainably. If the land cover is healthier, it takes up more carbon, and that’s something we [can] help people catalyze across a broad swath of sub-Saharan Africa. And global carbon emissions as a result drop a certain percentage over time. And we’d be doing that not because we’re thinking about the carbon emissions. Rather, we’re actually thinking about people’s agricultural production.

We’re innovative people, we’re smart people — there are a lot of different things we will do. But there will be huge challenges too, and the point is, how many of these challenges can we just not have to deal with? How many can we keep off the table by doing good things in other places?

e360: It almost seems like the equivalent of energy efficiency. Not a splashy thing but the benefits are tremendous.

Carr: Exactly. I mean, it’s really hard to sell the counterfactual. It’s really hard to sell, “This is the bad thing you avoided because the really bad thing never happened.” We’re doing, say, good practices for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. We’re learning from them, we’re doing what works for them. They’re able to better manage their land. As a result, land use-related emissions drop and the rate of climate change decreases. So we don’t end up dealing with some of the problems we might have dealt with. Let’s work on what farmers are already doing and learn from that. And, hey, it’s great that all these other benefits happen.

I think it’s our job to really get out there and start listening to what people know. I guess what I’m in the end begging for is just the need for humility in the face of what we’re doing.