A city of nomads

As Mongolia connects to the global economy, its people risk losing a vital connection to their nomadic past. Holding on to nomadic culture is essential for a sustainable future, argues “Mongolia’s Einstein” Togtokhyn Chuluun, perhaps the first Earth-system scientist to oversee a government ministry for economic development.

The nomadic life is etched into Mongolians’ DNA. It flows through their veins and arteries. It defines the national character.

But DNA, itself, is restless. It does not sit still. It mutates. It evolves under external pressures. Sometimes the pace of change has surprised scientists.

Mongolia’s economy is growing at breakneck speed, estimated at 15% for 2012. As Mongolia industrializes and urbanizes a vast canyon is ripping open between the young generation and nomadic culture of yore.

This split from the past spells disaster for long-term economic sustainability says Togtokhyn Chuluun, who has recently been charged with developing the nation’s green growth strategy by the country’s new coalition government. But, can Mongolia’s 2.8 million citizens avoid this fate?

Chuluun togtokh
Togtokhyn Chuluun, Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Mongolian Ministry for the Environment and Green Development, speaking at the UN’s Rio+20 Summit, June 2012 (Science and technology forum, image: International Council for Science)

Chuluun is an academic, an Earth-system scientist with expertise in resilience, sustainability and adaptation. Several years back, he returned to Mongolia after a long exile to head the Dryland Sustainability Institute at the National University of Mongolia in the capital Ulaanbaatar. When the new government came to power in June 2012, it plucked him from the university and appointed him joint head of a new ministry for green development.

As a scientist with a wandering mind Chuluun often felt nomadism was not just in his blood but in his synapses, his neural networks and every electrical impulse in his brain.

He grew up in Mongolia in the 1960s and 70s under the fist of the Soviet Union. The country was desperately poor. Food shortages and long queues were part of everyday life. But this did not hold Chuluun back. He excelled at school, coming top in mathematics in the country. This distinction earned him a place in one of the best universities in the communist regime. He studied first theoretical physics then systems ecology.

His requests to take up academic positions in the United States were blocked by the authorities. They were not about to lose what they described as their “Mongolian Einstein” to the West. With the fall of communism, Chuluun was granted his wish. In 1991, he joined Colorado State University.

But the move was never meant to be permanent. He knew his trail would eventually lead back home to the capital.

40% of Mongolia's 2.8 million inhabitants are herders.
40% of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants are herders.

The nomadic city

Ulaanbaatar has a colourful history. For more than a century, it embodied the character of its people. In a flurry of wooden poles and flapping felt the city sprang from nowhere in 1639. It upped sticks and moved 28 times – Mongolians thought nothing of moving an entire centre of civilization – before settling permanently in a valley on the Tuul river, north-central Mongolia, in 1778. With a continental climate, and sitting at an altitude of 1300 metres, Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city.

Mongolia’s nomads and herders are moving in droves to the capital – the manufacturing heart of the country – which has swollen to more than one million people. Around 400,000 live in gers – traditional felt-lined cylindrical tents. Keeping thin-walled gers warm through long, freezing winters means burning staggering amounts of coal – Mongolia’s most abundant natural resource. It is hardly a surprise in 2011 the World Health Organization declared the city the second most polluted in the world after Ahwaz in Iran. For much of the winter the city is draped in a dank fug.

Chuluun worries for the health of his three young children growing up in the capital.

He still holds a visiting professorship in Colorado. For several years this has allowed him to whisk his family away from the capital’s dreadful pollution before the deep cold sets in, to over-winter in the Rockies.

With his new job come new concerns. Chuluun’s worries stretch beyond his three children. Tens of thousands of children live in smoke-filled gers.

Winter in the world's coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar. Coal fires keep the thin-walled gers warm, but air pollution soars making the city the second worst worldwide according to the World Health Organization.
Winter in the world’s coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar. Coal fires keep thin-walled gers warm, but air pollution soars. Worldwide, Ulaanbaatar has the second worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

The Mongolian government has ambitious plans to change all this and put the country on course for a sustainable future. With Chuluun as Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Ministry for the Environment and Green Development the government seems serious. While in most countries ministries for sustainable development or the environment are marginalized and lack influence, the government – the Civil Will-Green coalition party – has done something radical and placed the ministry on a level with the finance ministry and, importantly, above all other departments. Chuluun is perhaps the first Earth-system scientist heading up a major ministry in any government in the world.

Rich in natural resources

Chuluun has his work cut out for him. Like much of Asia, Mongolia’s economy is exploding, driven by its mining industry. The nation is rich in coal, copper, molybdenum, tungsten, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, fluorspar, gold, silver and iron. According to the Economist one copper-and-gold mine on the border with China – known as Oyu Tolgoi, or “Turquoise Hill” – provides a whopping one third of Mongolia’s GDP.

The government owns 34%, but the mine is controlled by mining giant Rio Tinto, which has injected six billion dollars into the project. Many Mongolians are unhappy with this split in ownership and want the deal renegotiated. There is a niggling secondary issue too: the electricity to run the mine comes from China. These are some of the issues Mongolians must grapple with during this period of extraordinary growth.

Time to stop celebrating polluters

For someone who understands the enormous pressure seven billion people exert on the Earth system, Chuluun is painfully aware that his country’s rapid growth, industrialization and urbanization comes at a cost to long-term sustainability of both planet and country.

In 2011, he published an article in the academic journal Nature arguing that the UN’s iconic and hugely influential Human Development Index (HDI) had serious flaws (Time to stop celebrating the polluters). The HDI rewarded polluters, he said. It promoted a model of human development that was not sustainable. The scientist suggested the HDI should include per capita carbon emissions alongside the three other parameters, GDP, education and health. Only then would the UN be sending the right signal to developing nations like his own.

When carbon entered the calculation the index changed radically. Sweden and Switzerland swung to the top whilst gas guzzlers like the US, Canada and Australia nose dived.

Human Sustainable Development Index. When per capita carbon emissions are included in the Human Development Index nations with a more sustainable economic model rise higher.
Human Sustainable Development Index. When per capita carbon emissions are included in the Human Development Index nations with a more sustainable economic model rise higher.

In October, Chuluun visited Sweden on a fact-finding mission with his president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Scandinavia is often viewed as a utopian ideal. While not a model of sustainability, the Nordic countries are attempting to move swiftly in the right direction. While in Stockholm I invited the academic to dinner in our home. Over the meal we discussed a word held dear by Swedes “lagom” meaning “in moderation” or “not too little, not too much”. Chuluun rolled the word around his mouth, trying it on for size. He liked the concept, and it appeared in a talk he gave the following day in the Prime Minister’s office.

The idea of “lagom” is part of the Swedish national character. It has come to define a nation that rewards restraint and fairness and frowns on excess. It is no coincidence Sweden rides high in Chuluun’s new index.

Similarly Mongolia’s near neighbours Bhutan and South Korea are increasingly building international reputations related to sustainability based loosely on their national characters. Rooted firmly in its Buddhist ideals, Bhutan is the only nation in the world to take stock of the country’s happiness by annually assessing Gross National Happiness.

Meanwhile, green growth is not a sector of the South Korean government but the driving strategy for the nation’s long-term development. If you want to see what a future green economy may look like, take a trip to Seoul.

A green civilization

Chuluun finds these visions inspiring. He is at the start of a journey to articulate a unique vision for Mongolia. He wants the nation to become what he calls “a truly green civilization”, perhaps the first, and sees the crucial link between old traditions and true sustainability.

“The nomad instinct is dying as people swarm to the capital- within a generation or two it may disappear completely. An entire culture may be lost.” Chuluun is adamant  this fate is avoided. And there is still time: 40% of the population are still herders.

As nomads and pastoralists, Mongolians never tolerated waste. Pollution was rare. Richness and wealth were determined by the quality of life of your family, not the amount of money in your bank. Over consumption was unwanted. Warmth and hospitality were hallmarks of a kind people. Sustainability, say Chuluun, “is written into the DNA of the Mongolian people.” Retaining Mongolia’s cultural identity is crucial to becoming a sustainable society once more.

Chuluun’s vision for a green civilization is wrapped up in keeping and celebrating Mongolia’s cultural heritage. Tapping into this rich seam will create natural prosperity for his people. He sees promoting cultural heritage as a spur for green development. But he recognizes it will take more than this to tackle Ulaanbaatar’s appalling pollution. And his biggest dilemma is that resource extraction fuels his country’s phenomenal growth.

“I will be developing this vision in the next year. But it is not just my vision, everyone must own it. We need to go out and talk to people. But the old regime was corrupt. First, we need to rebuild trust. Then we need to ask: What future do you want? And determine how can we achieve it sustainably.”

For a country as poor as Mongolia, the scale of the challenge is daunting. But the capital city is by far the largest urban centre. Chuluun’s first step is to create a plan to transform the capital into a healthy, thriving space celebrating the country’s rich culture. “We need a modern, green transport system and well-insulated homes using cleaner energy. Most of all we need healthy children playing freely.”

If he succeeds in his vision, this will send an important message to other nations. The dominant global narrative pits economic growth against sustainability: no one has found a way to prosper sustainably. This narrative may be false. Sustainability has been an essential feature of all cultures throughout their histories. But we are losing it rapidly. Much of this culture has gone from North America and Europe. Rediscovering it is proving painful.

On the other hand, while Asia and Africa are developing at an astounding pace, their older cultures remain within sight. Chuluun argues, “Investing in the values we shared not so long ago is investing in our future.”


BBC Mongolia profile

World Bank Data Mongolia


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