Reflections on highlands and lowlands, with a reading list (winter 2010-11)

Sometimes I wonder whether the world needs more words. I would like to write profound thoughts but no longer know what to say. I would like to update an essay I wrote in 2004 on violence, adding new insights gained from observing the stream of disasters and struggles in 2010 (from Afghanistan, to Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti…) and from reading recent reflections on the political economy and climatology of this doomed century.[1] But my views are too gloomy…

Alternatively I could adopt an optimistic outlook, noting that despite the financial collapse, unemployment and the pains caused by European welfare cutbacks (austerity…), the darker forces of repression haven’t yet taken over! I’m even lucky enough to get away from the narrow-minded bigotry of populists ascendant in Europe and explore broader horizons from time to time. In 2010 I had several opportunities to look at the world from other perspectives: on August days walking in the Alps; through some involvement in promoting better forest management in the Amazon lowlands; and by reviewing how best to harness the energy generated by streams and rivers flowing down from the Himalayas. So I’ll focus on the highlands and the lowlands, adding a few thoughts inspired by reading and by watching the changes in the weather (they’re “bound to be extreme”…).

At the beginning of 2010 the temperature in Scandinavia stayed below zero for almost three months. Every year as the days get longer there is keen anticipation of green reappearing in the landscape. Bleak winters are the norm, but 2009-10 was tougher than usual, as the snow lay deep and icy winds persisted well into March. Martin built a large snowman in the garden in December and the last piece of the body melted three months later.

My incessant mobility was disrupted in January when an evening Airbus from Zürich was diverted away from Copenhagen airport due to treacherous landing conditions caused by heavy snow and high winds. We touched down at Billund airport in Jutland instead. Even autopilots and “fly-by-wire” systems have not yet found a way to completely extricate planes from nature’s grip![2] Unperturbed, a few days later I was off again, suffering from the strange compulsion to travel as described by Ryszard Kapuscinski (2007):

A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed there exists something like a contagion of travel and the disease is essentially incurable.

In February I went to Bolivia for the tenth time. En route the plane (a Boeing…) flew across the Amazon basin between the Atlantic coast of Guyana and the Peruvian Andes. For long stretches of the flight there were few clouds below, so there was an unobstructed view of the forest from 10,000 meters. For almost 4 hours I peered out of the window, keen to get an impression of the scale of the “earth’s lungs.”

After a transit stopover in Lima, the exhilaration of arriving in La Paz and touching the earth at over 4000 meters is a powerful kick. Suddenly the importance of oxygen is apparent! The road from the airport winds down a hillside towards the city sprawling upwards from a rocky valley. The air is thin and chilly; people wear heavy jackets and thick shawls for protection against the bitter cold of the Altiplano.

During my ten day stay in Bolivia I went for a trip to Santa Cruz, capital of the lowlands, for a series of meetings with people involved in forestry: from the national forest service (ABT), an environmental movement (FAN) and the indigenous people’s organization (CIDOB). There are myriad ways and means of tackling deforestation as the Brazilians “next door” have shown; later in the year attending forestry meetings in Washington, it was exciting to hear representatives from Brazilian organizations explaining how the Amazon can be taken care of… Finally, at the 2010 Cancún conference a “REDD+” text was approved by the parties to the UNFCCC (the climate change convention).[3] Combining the interests of protecting la madre tierra and the planet’s atmosphere is a tricky business, when the short term gains from alternative land uses are greater than the money that may be earned (in poor communities) from not cutting down the trees… But progress is being made, so perhaps the destruction of the world’s forests can be halted.

In August we flew off for holidays in the region around Lac Leman and Mont Blanc: quelques jours de repos, quelques promenades et des repas pas trop chers aux restos… We saw the terraced vineyards on the shores of the lake between Lausanne and Montreux, the mountains looking like the painted images in the background of famous portraits, the roads and railways snaking up the steep sides of the valleys, swinging across delicate bridges and curving into impossible tunnels. We avoided the highest passes, content to admire the panoramas from picturesque villages where the summer tourist swarms are milder than the winter sports crowds, but still impressive.

In the Alps it is easy to understand references to the industry of tourism. Both in the valleys and on the higher slopes reached by cable cars and rack railways, the infrastructure of mass entertainment has taken over. It seems as if every house is for rent and every chalet is a hotel. In winter there are draglifts for the skiers and in summer there are spectacular routes carved through steep forests for the mountain bikers. Simply walking seems like an aberration; failing to take advantage of the many offers to experience how nature has been transformed into a playground. Nonetheless, drifting upwards on a cable car ride is a magical mystery tour! I love the sensation of hanging above villages and trees; the views are much better than from aircraft windows and there is silence…

Providing cheap and clean energy is also an important part of the development story and efforts to mitigate climate change. During a walk near the border between Switzerland and France we admired views of a hydro-electric scheme, with a giant dam built high above the Alpine valley. Then in December in Nepal I joined a team reviewing an “energy sector assistance programme”; money provided by Denmark, Norway and Germany for the purpose of investing in producing energy from renewable sources in poor communities. Some of the money is used to help households purchase solar panels, some of the money goes to technical assistance for installing biogas systems and improved cooking stoves in remote villages and some is for subsidised construction of micro-hydro power installations for communities which are too inaccessible to be linked to the electricity grid.

The review was about assessing how well the money is being spent and coming up with proposals for ways to improve the program; e.g. trying to target the poorest households, to find ways of ensuring that the most marginalized (“untouchable”) lower caste women, also get access to energy for domestic purposes. In general it seems that the people are happy to get a little power in their houses, to provide light for the kids to study in the evenings and to charge their mobile ‘phones. There are also possibilities to establish small enterprises (bakeries, mills, fruit processing facilities, etc.) when electricity comes to town!

The Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas are testing environments. Life is hard on the Altiplano, at the top of Alpine passes and in the remote valleys rising towards the Tibetan plateau. The rough faces of Bolivian miners and Himalayan farmers and herders bear witness to the harsh conditions at high altitudes. People are generally much younger than their worn appearance suggests (respect..!) It’s not surprising that many leave the mountains in search of riches in the towns and cities of the lowlands. But the flatlands, rice paddies and foggy rivers are pale landscapes in comparison with the mountain ranges.

After several days bumping around in a Land Cruiser reviewing the rural energy investments, we flew from Pokhara to Kathmandu with Buddha Airways and were able to survey the jagged, icy vastness of the Himalayas receding towards Tibet. Humbled by the power of these landscapes, it is easy to appreciate the importance of contemplation, meditation and spiritual reflection in these regions. However, there is plenty of violence too; in Bolivia and Nepal (as well as Tibet) the poor and oppressed are seeking justice.[4]

One of the reasons that forest conservation (REDD+) is such a huge challenge is that people need to cut timber and fuel wood to survive and alternative sources of income are not easy to find. Much effort is expended analyzing the “drivers of deforestation.” The upshot is that justice must also encompass nature, by valuing “ecosystem services” (as they are called) such as carbon sequestration and reduced emissions.

Living in the Northern European lowlands, I need little persuasion to head for the hills. My thoughts buzz with ups and downs, my spirits waver; pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will… I wish there were more straightforward answers in the words I read, but I know that the path to wisdom is rocky and uneven!

[1] For example, studies of utopian beliefs and of climate change controversies by John Gray (2007) and by Mike Hulme (2009).

[2] In May I read the essay by William Langewiesche (2009) about the plane that glided into the Hudson River in New York after colliding with a flock of geese and losing all power in both engines just a couple of minutes from takeoff on a cold January day. His description of how the “miracle” occurred adds a new dimension to flying in Airbuses…

[3] Nicolas Stern (2007) argued the case for “mitigation measures” slowing the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere quickly and cheaply by supporting efforts to “reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation” (REDD) in tropical countries. But the complexities of devising and agreeing on an international REDD+ mechanism (including a “plus” for the “enhancement of carbon stocks”) have subsequently become apparent.

[4] Travel around the “sub-continent” unveils a rich tapestry of human diversity, as the “nine lives” beautifully described by William Dalrymple (2009) illustrate. Amartya Sen (2009) also grapples with diversity in his extended and erudite essay on justice; not a transcendental ideal, but a manifestation of people’s lives and choices…

The Argentière glacier from les Grands Montets (around 3600 metres)


Kathrine and I fooling around at the snout of the Argentière glacier


The books I read in 2010 – a magnificent seven!

Dalrymple, William (2009): Nine lives – in search of the sacred in modern India. Bloomsbury.

Gray, John (2007): Black mass – apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia. Penguin.

Hulme, Mike (2009): Why we disagree about climate change. CUP.

Kapuscinki, Ryszard (2007): Travels with Herodotus. Penguin.

Langewiesche, William (2009): Fly by wire – the geese, the glide and the “miracle” on the Hudson. Penguin.

Sen, Amartya (2009): The idea of justice. Allen Lane.

Stern, Nicolas (2007): The economics of climate change. CUP.

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