1. Societies in Stress

Part one of a two part series examining the work of Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center, and Dyan Mazurana, the Center’s research director for gender, youth, and community, on the intersections of global warming, natural disasters, and armed conflict in developing nations.

Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center.“If you can evolve fast enough to deal with stresses, you survive,” said Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center, member of the Tisch College faculty, and professor at the Fletcher School.  “If not, you don’t.  We’ve known for a long time that’s true for species, and now we’ve discovered it’s true for societies as well.”

An initiative of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the Center develops and promotes operational and policy responses to support crisis-affected and marginalized communities.

As Director, Walker leads the Center’s efforts to professionalize the humanitarian aid community, bring academic rigor to humanitarian practice, and improve the evidence base for humanitarian action.  He spent nearly two decades working on famine and disaster relief for aid organizations like Oxfam and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies before coming to Tufts in 2002.  But his initial training was in environmental and soil science, and it was that work that led to his first brush with the unhappy effects of rapid climate change on human civilization.

“In 1980 I worked for Colonel Gaddafi, training environmental technicians who were going to green the desert,” said Walker.  “We went out into the Libyan dessert to do a site survey, and came across this big rock sticking up in the middle of basically nowhere, and it had these incredible carvings of animals and hunters.Rock carving of hunters pursuing a quadruped. Turns out, about 5500-7000 years ago it was savannah land. There had been a nice lake there and a fairly sizeable population of hunter-gatherers.  But then, around 5000 years ago, the climate changed – less rapidly than it is today – there was a drop in rainfall, and it became practically uninhabitable.”

“As a result, people settled in fixed locations,” he continued.  “Urbanization was a defense strategy; populations had to shift to the oases where there was still water.  We became agricultural because there was no other choice.  To adapt rapidly, society became controlling: there was more structure, more violence, people had to work harder, life expectancy dropped, and there was poorer health overall.”

Walker can point to numerous other examples from across history and around the world when he talks to agencies about how they need to shift to deal with global warming.  One of his favorites is to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel.

“We know Hansel and Gretel from the fairy-tale published by the Grimm brothers in the early 19th century,” he said.  “But the story really originates much earlier, in the great famine of the early 1300s.  This was climate change in miniature, five years of cold summers and heavy, heavy rains.  Crop yields fell, between 10-25% of the urban population of northern Europe died, and people started telling a story about parents who couldn’t feed their children, and so abandoned them in the woods.  In the woods these children met a clever old lady, who didn’t have any other way of getting food for herself, and tried to trick them into her oven.”

According to Walker, the story contains all the mechanisms for coping with famine in a northern climate.  That includes eating whatever food you can find wherever you find it, killing off the unproductive, both young and old, and, when necessary, combining the two into cannibalism.

“Periods of extreme climate stress lead to societal breakdown,” said Walker.

Today, the on-going processes of globalization are adding ever-increasing complexity.

“I was in Ethiopia in 2008,” said Walker.  “We were watching grain prices in the local market quite literally going up, day by day, right along with the international prices.  And we were trying to work out why this was happening, because there’s actually little trading connection between the bags of teff, the local cereal in the market, and international trading prices.

“There had been a run of bad harvests in Australia.  Russia as well was having a hard time.  In the United States there was a hefty switch from growing feed corn to using corn for ethanol.  At the same time, in China, people are eating more meat – and it takes a lot of grain to raise a kilogram of meat.

“On top of that, you had people watching the grain markets and speculating on them.  That caused a huge rise in prices, and a major drop in food security around the world.  When you put it all together, we think the number of people undernourished in the world went up by about 160 million, about half the population of the United States, in a two year period.  Not because there was actually less food, but because the way the system tripped out, prices went up and people were unable to acquire it.

“So it’s climate change and globalization both, and they interact with each other in ways that are really hard to anticipate.”

Historical real price trend of major agricultural commodities in 2005 US$.  Source: Mark W. Rosegrant, Simla Tokgoz, Prapti Bhandary, 2012.
Figures are in 2005 US$. Source: Mark W. Rosegrant, Simla Tokgoz, Prapti Bhandary, 2012.

Walker and the Feinstein International Center are partnering with humanitarian agencies around the world to develop their capacities to deal with these changes.  He has been collaborating with Dyan Mazurana, the Center’s research director for gender, youth, and community, helping aid organizations use sex and age information to improve their responses to crises.  They have produced a major report, Sex and Age Matter, which has been widely cited.  Mazurana’s work on responding to armed conflicts will be profiled in part two of this series.

“When big complex systems are under stress, crisis becomes normal,” said Walker.  “And they will all collapse at some point, that’s just what systems do when they’re too complicated.  So the message to agencies is: crisis response has to be part of your normal business.  For global organizations like Shell and Barclays bank, crisis response is part of normal plans, not an add-on funded at the last minute.  The agencies we work with need to understand that they have to move from anecdote to evidence to drive those processes, and we’re helping them do that.”

These demands have created a need for new kinds of approaches.

“If crisis is normal, the present interventionist model doesn’t cut it.  You can’t expect to swoop in and swoop out – it’s about building capacity in country.  That means empowering the people who live there, and changing the law so disaster response is a sovereign responsibility rather than a last minute extra.  You have to ensure that you have a structure that allows you to respond.”

“We need organizations that are more agile,” said Walker.  “Big things are like rogue elephants – great at charging.  We need dancing elephants, Jumbos who can pirouette and move.  It’s agility we’ve got to build into future organizations, not just size.”

“But we also need stories,” he continued.  “We have to be guided by data, but there has to be something for people to latch onto, that gets at them deeply.  That’s why I like Hansel and Gretel.  It’s something everyone knows from when they were kids, and it gets the message across in a visceral way.”

Walker has led the Feinstein Center for ten years, and helped to make it a leader in the field.  He values Tufts approach to wide engagement with the community and the world.

“I think active citizenship has to be at the core of what a university is and does,” said Walker.  “Think back over the history of the university and of science, someone like Francis Bacon say, who did as much as anyone to establish the scientific method.  There was the quest for knowledge, yes, but it was explicitly in order to create a better society.  Tufts creates leaders.  It’s an institution that turns out skills and knowledge, and I think that brings with it an intrinsic responsibility.”

“It’s not about zealotry,” he continued.  “But it is making automatic an awareness of the lives of the people around you and that we are nested in the world.  I don’t think you have to be extroverted, but you do have to be able to work cooperatively pulling in expertise from many disciplines.  And that’s a huge strength of Tufts, here we really are at the intersections of both the problems and the disciplines – all the big problems of today are going to need multi-disciplinary solutions.”