“Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas” by Karine Gagné


Most urban populations in the world are far removed from the unfolding and the consequences of global warming. Therefore, their reflections on global warming tend to revolve around corporate greed, economic policies and the nature of expectations people have from development. In her book, Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas, Karine Gagné turns to the community of elderly farmers and herders in Ladakh to understand how they make sense of the melting of the glaciers, a phenomenon directly visible to the people living there. She finds that their responses to questions about the melting of the glaciers invariably involve the words “One day the Pakistanis came …”.

Ladakh is part of one of the most sensitive border issues in South Asia. It has always been a crucial zone when it comes to border conflicts between India, Pakistan and China. When Ladakhis talk about the retreating glaciers, writes Gagné, they speak of two things: the serious geopolitical situation and its consequences on morality.

Historically, the Ladakhis suffered at the hands of the Kings of Kashmir. After independence, they felt they had no choice but to support India. Had they refused to cooperate with the Indian army, Pakistan’s victory would have had serious consequences for Buddhist-Muslim coexistence in the region.


Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas , Karine Gagné (University of Washington Press, February 2019)
Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas, Karine Gagné (University of Washington Press, February 2019)

Since “the Pakistanis came” as part of the post-independence Indo-Pakistan military conflicts, Gagné notes:


Ladakhis have come over the years to internalize their role in the military production of the state. The presence of the army calls on collective sentiments of sacrifice and infiltrates the intimacy of family; yet it is necessitated by the omnipresent threat of border incursions by Pakistan or China, and so has become by and large an accepted force in the region.


As one of the men tells Gagné, previously, during the war, the Indian army couldn’t have enough of Ladakhi men. Now that the men want to join the army (partly because there is nothing much to do otherwise), their applications get rejected. This apathy towards the Ladakhis aside, the hegemonic presence of the Indian state in the area has other consequences too.

Elderly Ladakhis claim that while they have benefited from poverty reduction schemes by the Indian state, this so-called development has also caused their children to turn to other, non-traditional sources of livelihood. The young men and women have left the villages in search of better opportunities outside. The Ladakhi youth also say that they haven’t seen as much of development as the rest of India has, and so are forced to shift to cities because Ladakh remains remote and doesn’t have access to good transport and communication infrastructure.

But the young and the old seem differ in their generational memories and perspectives. The elderly feel that while their lives under the pre-Independence Kashmiri hegemony were awful, those were happier times. One tells Gagné:


Look at what people are doing today, always running after money and not taking care of things. People don’t have the time to go to the mountains with the animals these days, so they don’t care about the glaciers. To care for the glacier, you have to see the glacier, you have to know the glacier, like you know a friend. People have become careless, unmindful and that is why there is no more snow.


Gagné’s fieldwork is a reminder that changes in climate are entangled with changes in family structures, occupational activities, and collective rituals. Just as the elderly in Ladakh feel lonely, the glaciers feel lonely too, and are therefore retreating. Harmony in nature depends on reciprocity of care between humans and the non-human life. Gagné notes:


In the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, nature is more than its physical material manifestations. For many Ladakhis, explanations for environmental change must also include intangible, existential root causes and these are often framed in the language of morality.


The narrative of climate change thus includes political change and changes in values, conduct and morality. The villagers complain that everybody is running behind money these days, and therefore, as one of them puts it to Gagné, “It is really good times for the children these days, but for the old people it is very miserable and sad, because they are all alone”. The narrative of climate change is thus also a narrative about loneliness.


Gagné’s report on the community’s thoughts on the ethics of care vis-à-vis the glaciers and the older generation does not (because it need not) accommodate questions about the act of remembering. However, readers will feel compelled to think about this framing of climate change in terms of earlier happier times versus awful contemporary times, or virtuous older generation versus careless younger generation. While the harmful, serious consequences brought about by the onset of politics of development are worth noting, the act of pinning them down on the younger generation is questionable. After all, isn’t the younger generation on the receiving end of the consequences of climate change?

Gagné’s book is, perhaps unintentionally, a warning about the dangers of mixing history with other domains of understanding time: like those of memory and generational time.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.