Embracing Confusion on the Path toward Sustainability: Reflections from Ladakh

Solar Panels in Ladakh

Solar panels on a rooftop in Yang-Tang, Ladakh. By Taylor Knoop.

By Taylor Knoop, young leader and co-founder of WorldYato.

In my community “sustainability” is a catchphrase, an adjective that describes the progressiveness of a building, idea or concept. As a small, upscale suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, my town values the “green” movement, so long as it seamlessly intertwines its way into daily living. Sustainability is synonymous with positive change, “good” work. Sustainability is hip.

Solar panels are seen as the ultimate effort towards an environmentally friendly existence. LED lights are a necessity and my school’s science wing proudly boasts special, light dimming, electricity saving technology. Toilets are designed to conserve water, as are washing machines and dishwashers.

Yet, I can’t rid my confusion.

Why do we consider these technological advances so sustainable, so forward thinking? Didn’t our ancestors live more sustainably? And what about the people in the world that still live sustainably?

When sustainability is discussed, I freeze. I almost cringe, not really sure how to react as my mind flashes back to last spring. I had the amazing opportunity through Vermont Intercultural Semesters to spend a semester abroad in Ladakh, a region in the Himalayas of India. Completely immersed in the culture and enamored with the people, I learned an incredible amount about our relationship with the Earth. Constantly, I was exposed to a different philosophy of living and unique way of being. It would be an understatement to say my perspective and way of thinking has changed.

Take, for example, my very first home stay in the village of Yang-Tang. Slightly overwhelmed and tired from a full day of trekking at over twelve thousand feet, I stumbled into my hosts’ traditional Ladakhi kitchen. After drinking the customary milk tea, I wandered up to my room. Ladakhi houses have flat roofs, possible because of the lack of rain and useful for storage. Using my last bit of energy to scramble up to the top floor, I discovered a series of solar panels. On the mud roof, next to discarded, hand-made cracked pots, I was sitting next to solar panels! The same technology that was so prized in my society for being incredibly “forward” and “progressive” was here on this roof, of this house, miles from any passable road.

Solar Cookers in Ladakh

Solar cookers at CEMCOL School, where our program was based. By Taylor Knoop.

Not for the first time on the trip, my mind stopped and reflected. What was this progressive sustainability thing again? Throughout my childhood, society taught me that certain actions, ideas and objects were more forward-thinking than others. But on top of that roof in Yang-Tang, surrounded by towering mountains, it clicked.

Ladakh is one representation of the paradigm of sustainability. Out of necessity, its people are required to be aware of all available resources and, drawing on them, have created an incredibly well developed system to thrive. For thousands of years they have been completely dependent on themselves and their own surroundings. Their resourcefulness has led to living with truly sustainable technologies, like composting toilets, rammed earth walls, and dung-fed fires.

Beyond technologies, their culture has also evolved in a manner that is conscious of limited resources – their traditional marriage customs consists of polyandry, in which the woman takes two husbands, so that land will not be divided and over-cultivated, and the hard agricultural workload is shared. After living with a family with such marital arrangements, I am still impressed by the ingenuity and thoughtfulness of such an adaptation.

What makes me confused, nervous, and even a little scared is that this culture has been called “backwards,” “poor,” and “dirty.” I remember reading these words while in Ladakh, completing research for my independent study. Not to be melodramatic, but I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. One time, in particular, I was sitting in the middle of my host family’s living room, having eaten a meal prepared by solar cookers and having relieved myself in the composting toilet. The dung-stove warmed my stiff fingers and my computer was being charged by makeshift solar panels. My frustration with our global community’s limited conception of sustainability, coupled with my fear for our world’s collective future, shook me.

Artificial glacier Ladakh

Science teacher Holly and Ursi community leader Rigzen beginning work on artificial glacier. By Taylor Knoop.

After a few brief words with my host mother, I went for a walk down the dirt road to the Indus River. Standing on the old, rickety bridge, hundreds of prayer flags flapping in the wind, the ice-cold water rushing below me, I realized that this confusion is the key.

Finding the answer to sustainability is not in the power of any one person or even any one society. Collectively, as a united global community, we need to adjust our mental models, our consumption of resources, our vision for the future. There is, however, no one answer, no one technology, no one cultural practice that will work in every context or solve all our problems. But if we work and learn together, there is possibility for success. And the very first step towards true sustainability is to embrace our confusion.

Inspired by her experience in Ladakh, Taylor co-founded WorldYato, an organization raising funds to help the Ladakhi village of Ursi install an artificial glacier to stem the impacts of climate change and ensure water security for the community and crops. Read more here.

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