ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Pertinent Issue, Flawed Methods

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Farmer vulnerability in developing nations is an important agenda item for science and policy. A recent paper by Tamma A Carleton titled “Crop-damaging Temperatures Increase Suicide Rates in India” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 24 January 2017) cautions policymakers to invest in adaptation to the impacts of climate change. If not, Carleton suggests, global warming will be accompanied by increasing impacts of the harshest kind: suicides. She concludes that each 1°C increase in summer temperature causes approximately 70 farmer suicides. While we applaud her effort to highlight farmers’ struggles to a global audience, her assumptions, methods, and conclusions are untenable. We caution policymakers against basing their decisions on this problematic research.

Contrary to Carleton’s claims, suicide is an extensively studied phenomenon. We are surprised at how casually the author dismisses insights gained from qualitative studies when saying they “are anecdotal or qualitative, and none attempt to identify and synthesize quantitative relationships between climate, crops, and suicides.” It is more astonishing that while the paper privileges quantitative methods as somehow superior, it also supports its findings with the classic sociological work by Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1951), which, on the contrary, uses qualitative analytics to show that suicide is a factor of erosion of rootedness in society and individualisation within the broader socio-economic system, and not, as the paper declares, caused by temperature. Durkheim argues: “the physical environment does not stimulate [suicide] directly; above all it has no effect on the progression of suicide. The latter depends on social conditions.” He would indeed have focused on values, social ties, cropping patterns, experiences, and obligations described by farmers. The variables in the study, although measurable and available, describe only a part of the causal picture. It is the underlying pre-existing social conditions of vulnerability that enable climate (or any other) stress to push farmers over the edge.

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