For the last 18 months I have been working with nomadic herding communities on the Tibetan plateau. It has been a great opportunity as I’ve seen the joys and difficulties of this way of life, which is drastically different from anything I have ever experienced. Weather, isolation, high altitude, and lacking the benefits of urbanization are a few of the difficulties. But there is something admirable and freeing about nomadism. It is not constrained by many of the distractions and problems of our urban landscapes which include environmental problems related to industrialization, loss of the community feel in large cities, marginalization of family farms, and so on. I don’t want to romanticize it too much, as I recognize there are benefits to how society has developed. I’m not ready to trade in my queen size bed and computer for a tent and a herd of yak. However, I feel compelled to support the preservation of this way of life for those who find it so important to their culture and identity.
Nomadism is a part of our human history that predates agriculture and has adopted a fluid perspective to nature and the ever-changing environment. It requires nomads to move according to the seasons, changing weather patterns and the availability of resources. In contrast, the agricultural age was a time of dominance for man, one in which we used our knowledge to adapt the natural world to create an abundance of food, thus minimizing our need for long distance movement. Hunting and gathering were the precursors of such nomadic movements, but eventually the domestication of animals provided more stability. Nomads, and pastoralists being a subset of this group, depend on the health of the environment for their sustenance. They need proper grazing lands for their herds, access to clean water, foodstuff provided by the landscape, etc. So it is in the nomad’s best interest to keep the land in a state that it is able to regenerate and ‘bounce back’ from human use. Thus, movement occurs to facilitate the natural regenerative processes and to stay within the carrying capacity of a particular ecosystem.
In this sense, nomadism is very much a sustainable livelihood that should be encouraged in indigenous people groups. However, it may require adaptation to survive in ever changing ecosystems impacted by urban sprawl, government policy and climate change. This is the difficulty facing nomads across the globe today. The way they used to live becomes more difficult as challenges never before faced are now having critical impacts. How will longer dry seasons as a result of climate change effect the movements of the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania? How will the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau be impacted by government policy restricting nomad movement? But also, how can policy protect resources from overuse (for which even the nomad is not immune from being a part of)?
The need for adaptation is critical, but equally important is the realization that there is something special about these cultures that should be preserved. Not for the sake of some cultural museum or tourism attraction, but to recognize that their way of life has gone on for thousands of years in a way that has adapted to nature. And we have much to gain from this perspective as we continue to rely on the Enlightenment and the conquest of science, which adapts nature to our needs. And as we have seen in this age of environmentalism, we are beginning to pay a high price for this mindset. We have a lot to learn from a nomad.
See more from nomadic communities of China at Zhiduo Revisited.