Making sense of Mongolia’s environmental issues

I’m slowly getting a handle on the research work I am trying to accomplish while I’m here in Mongolia. Instead of getting course relief to do research, I am doing it on top of teaching four completely new courses and studying Mongolian (which my university requires of all new professors). In principle, the research is supposed to take the place of one course, but my department is in desperate need of instructors, so I ended up teaching a full-time load anyway. Unfortunately, my research has been on the back burner. But I am trying to fire it up, since I have a deliverable due in two weeks, and I want to set up exactly what I hope to accomplish during my two months “off” in January and February, as well as Spring semester.

One thing about Mongolia is that it makes it easy to see the connections between what might seem like vastly different environmental issues. My initial interest was air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, because during the winter months it one of most polluted cities in the world, with particulate levels several times higher than those of the most polluted cities of China and India, and 133 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. The air pollution comes from several sources, but the main one in the winter is the coal stoves people use to heat their homes. I was curious what was being done about air pollution on the national level, and how that was being taken up by grassroots environmental organizations. As I’ve watched winter come on in Ulaanbaatar (see my post from earlier this month), the air pollution issue has personal salience as well.

My investigation of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution has taken me in other directions. One of the main causes of air pollution is a link to other environmental problems that arise far from the capital city: the struggles of Mongolian herders to maintain their way of life in the face of climate change and over-production caused by the shift from a Soviet-style economy to capitalism. For the three million people in Mongolia, there are roughly 70 million livestock. As pastureland degrades and meat and dairy prices fluctuate, herders try to increase their stock, putting more pressure on the declining pasture.

Desertification—the expansion of the Gobi Desert—is a major problem, but so is the increasing frequency of the dzud, Mongolia’s own, little-known unnatural natural disaster. Dzud is the phenomenon of a bitterly cold winter, usually following a very dry summer and fall. Already weakened livestock die by the thousands. Dzud is considered a natural disaster, but like many such phenomena, they are happening with increasing frequency because of human-caused climate change. They used to happen every ten years or more, but now they occur every few years, sometimes a couple of years in a row. Combined with the effects of economic change, dzud can’t be considered a purely “natural” disaster anymore.

One of the reasons Ulaanbaatar has grown so rapidly and now contains over half of the population of the entire country is that herders who can no longer survive on their traditional livelihood move to the city, often settling in the outskirts in what are called the ger districts. (Ger is the Mongolian name for yurt.) The ger districts surround the modern city, and they are not hooked up to the city’s infrastructure. People in the ger districts burn not only coal, but also tires, plastic, and anything else they can find, in their coal stoves to warm themselves in the frigid Mongolian winter. This has led to a tremendous increase in air pollution.

Tackling the problem of air pollution is tied not just to addressing the proximate causes: smoke from home heating stoves, vehicle exhaust, industry, and Ulaanbaatar’s coal power plants. More efficient stoves, less polluting vehicles, and renewable energy will surely help. But the problem is larger than that. It’s tied to the overall well-being of the country’s population. As long as the nomads are struggling and the dzud are happening with increasing frequency, Ulaanbaatar’s population will keep growing, and people will keep doing what they need to do to survive the winters.

As I read more about organizations that are doing environmental work in Mongolia, I see these connections being made. There’s a link between the countryside and the city here that Mongolians are very aware of. It’s part of the life of the people. And yet, many organizations focus on one particular problem or another, without addressing the connections between the two. Without encompassing the whole.

This is the case not just for environmental organizations working in Mongolia. It’s embedded in a particular way of thinking about the relationship between humans and our environment that comes from Western thinking. One that seems to be catching on in other parts of the world, too. In the USA, we have not lost our connection to our natural world—that will always be there, no matter what. But many of us have lost our knowledge of the connection. We’ve lost our understanding that what we do to our environment, we do to ourselves. What we put in the water, in the air, in the soil, we also put in our own bodies. If we kill our environment, we kill ourselves. There’s no separation of humans from nature that allows some people to be relegated to the purely human world of the city, while others live in the natural world of the countryside. It’s all connected. We are part of it all. Until we truly know that, we’ll never be able to solve our environmental problems.

Climate change is the prime example of this. Human activity has fundamentally altered the climate system of the entire planet, which is affecting all life everywhere. Setting aside pieces of “nature” or particular species for preservation is great, but it’s not going to solve the problem because we continue to think of ourselves as separate from nature, and nature as something out there that we can protect from human destructiveness.

Well, it isn’t. We can’t. What we do affects everything, everywhere. And what happens to our environment, which is the whole planet, happens to us. Some people in the world know this. They have known it for a long time. We can learn from them—we need to learn from them, in order to survive. Nomadic peoples know they are part of nature. They live it every day. They understand that what is happening to their environment is destroying their way of life. But they are still caught in the economic system that is destroying their way of life as well. The natural and the social are bound up in each other and can’t be separated. One set of problems can’t be solved without addressing the other. Environmental collapse can’t be prevented without addressing the very serious threats brought by capitalist expansion.

This is evident in the city, as well. In my cross-cultural communication class, we talked about human’s relationship to nature as one of the fundamental questions that all cultures address. Are humans part of nature or separate from it? My students unanimously agreed that Mongolians believe that humans are part of nature; they are intimately connected with it, and humans must respect and care for their environment because of that. Nature has tremendous importance here, they all said.

But urbanization in Mongolia is far from respectful of nature, or humans. And urban life is as well. The air pollution is just one sign of that. Development is not happening according to the needs of the people or their environment. Luxury high rises, mostly financed by the Chinese, go up but stand empty, while the ger districts on the outskirts continue to grow. The transition to capitalism has not been kind in many ways. I am still learning about all of this; I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll keep writing about it as I learn more.

2 thoughts on “Making sense of Mongolia’s environmental issues

  1. Your contrasting photos are powerful. I like the way you discuss the connection to our environment. When the political economy presses the masses into desperate actions rather than heart-embraced choices … we’re in trouble. And that’s more and more the case. I look forward to learning as you research.

    Liked by 1 person

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