Climate change is affecting our lives in every possible way. We are experiencing extreme weather events, degraded air, and water quality, changes in disease patterns, agrarian distress, livelihood effects, impact on food security, and more. You just name any area of life and climate change has touched it adversely.
But apart from such ‘visible‘ effects or areas of life, climate change is also hampering something relatively ‘invisible‘, that is our culture—our way of life.
According to cultural anthropology, as water is to fish, so is culture to humans. It’s that essential. It is ‘culture’ that determines what we believe, what language we speak, what festivals we celebrate, what habits, art, and traditions we follow, what heritage we feel proud of, and how we define our lives symbolically. It’s our culture that distinguishes us from other animals.
I want to pose five questions that must alarm us, not only to the presence of climate change at our doorstep but how it is changing even the ‘cultural elements’ of our lives.
Apart from the fun and celebratory element of festivals, they offer a great connection with our ecology and environment. The Makar Sankranti festival in Maharashtra arrives in the month of January. It is known by different names in different states like Uttarayan, Pongal or Lohari.
Makar Sankranti marks the day of seasonal change from winter to summer. To adjust to this change, rituals in the festival uses multiple symbolic traditions. For example, eating a til (sesame) and gud (jaggery) combination which is supposed to keep the body warm and boost immunity or wearing black clothes which trap heat and protect one’s body as winter comes to an end.
However, a general opinion nowadays that one hears is that nobody knows when summer starts! The 15-day time cycle after Sankranti has gone and we don’t know when or if we will face extreme heat or cold conditions.
This leads one to wonder: Are we losing the symbolic meanings behind our festivals because of climate change?
The following would probably constitute what I think are dialogues between parents and their children in a common Indian household over different years:
Our behavioural patterns form a large chunk of societal culture. They set the norms of what to do and what not to do. These norms are followed by generations after generations. But is the climate crisis changing these norms? In the above example, can one say the culture of outdoor play is affected because of rising heat?
The culture of outdoor play is proportional to health outcomes. For example, not playing outside, due to weather conditions or lack of playgrounds, has been linked to health conditions incliding childhood obesity. Playing in polluted air can cause respiratory illnesses. Not playing outside also means a reduced scope of social contact, and this can affect the social skills and mental well-being of children. Numerous such examples can be located in our daily life where our behaviour patterns are slowly being tweaked.
Is climate changing how we want to behave as a society?
One of the traditional foods in the southern parts of Gujarat is Ponk (Green Sorghum). There are cultural protocols about why ponk is eaten and how one can eat it. The onset of winter makes it a healthy dish. Not just that, this ritual of consuming ponk offers a space for annual family gatherings, traditions of eating together, and spending what the modern world calls, ‘quality time’ together.
However, in the last few years, farming practices have been changing because of irregular rainfall and ponk production is getting affected. Its availability in the market is getting delayed, and so, its cost is rising.
Eating food is not just a physical life process but our food is also ‘culture’. There are norms, traditions, and behavioural patterns surrounding the whys, the hows, and whats of eating food.
Is climate change changing our food production and affecting our ‘food culture’?
Culture often manifests and is presented through symbols and objects. Ajrakh originating from Gujarat and Bagru from Rajasthan are textiles that boast of the heritage of iconic handicraft prints. The patterns on the cloth are printed by hand and natural dyes are used, giving luster to the cloth. However, the rainfall pattern has been changing in this desert region. Rather than consistent rainfall, there is are short-bursts of heavy rainfall.
As water isn’t retained on desert land, craftsmen are experiencing the keen sting of water shortage. It takes around 13 liters of water to print one meter of block printed cloth. These challenges are forcing the traditional craftsmen to move towards other avenues of income. Similar examples can be drawn from different parts of the world.
But, the question looming over us is: Are we losing our rich cultural heritage because of climate change?
Language is a medium through which we communicate our thoughts and ideas. Language plays an important role in the transmission of culture across spaces as well as across generations. But how would it be if language itself becomes extinct?
Language, a vehicle that carries a culture, can actually go extinct. Several reasons contribute to this loss of language. But, languages are specifically under threat because of climate change. Many small communities living around coastal areas are in danger of losing their habitats because of storms, hurricanes, and rising sea levels. Even migration pushed by climate change causes intermingling of multiple languages and the uniqueness of certain language is on the verge of extinction.
Is our way of expressing our cultural ideas in danger?
The questions are ominous, but they are a harsh reality. It’s important to understand that our fight against the climate crisis is not just for preventing the immediate and visible alterations to human society, but also to avoid long-term impacts that work in deeper ways to affect our cultures.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.