For The Australian Journal of Anthropology 19(1): 62-65. Apr 2008.
'Soapbox forum' with papers from Kay Milton, Hans Baer, Simon Batterbury, PeterDwyer/Monica Minnegal, Megan Jennaway, Debbie Bird Rose.
Anthropology and global warming: the need for environmental engagement
Dept.of Resource Management and Geography
Simonpjb “at” unimelb.edu.au And - James Martin Fellow, University of Oxford, 2007-8
[Last draft needs a few things – draft archived on http://www.simonbatterbury.net/pubs
Over decades, a relatively small group of anthropologists have contributed to understanding of how societies deal with environmental change and climate variability. Those contributions aside, the discipline is not strongly positioned in public debate about - or research and action on - anthropogenic global warming.
This lack of professional engagement is surprising. Climate variability and weather patterns are a permanent backdrop, and often a central force, in social life. Climate changes, the longer-term shifts that take place in a climate regime, are central to the fate of cultures, ecosystems and regions. Although a humorous article in The Age pegged global warming as the ‘world’s most boring topic of conversation’ (17 July 2007), it is hard to avoid. Anthropogenic global warming results from accumulated human actions that have burned carbon and reduced its sequestration, particularly since the Industrial Revolution. It is thus a result of the ‘…basic material processes of modern human life’ as anthropologist Paul Richards notes, and ‘…dealing with the problem apparently implies the most ambitious plan to reshape human values and existence ever mounted’ (Richards 1999: 497). The culprits are hard to isolate, and include ourselves. Urgent emissions reductions to avoid more than 2ºC warming, deemed a notional threshold beyond which significant sea level rise and major extinctions will occur, are proving elusive. Inadequate response has potentially world-changing, but still uncertain consequences (IPCC 2007).
These consequences are of sufficient magnitude to re-position societal
notions of risk, effectively pitching once-marginal environmentalist discourses
straight into mainstream public debate with discussion of sea level rise,
storms, regional temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and alarming tipping
points affecting ocean circulation and melting of polar ice (Hansen et al,
2007). But in fragile environments like the
In Europe, far more than in
The publication of the Stern (2006) and fourth IPCC reports (2007) have
increased visibility and urgency. Levels of engagement by academics as a whole
are for the first time, impressive. In research, climate specialists, including
social scientists, are in demand. For example the
Some anthropologists I have talked to are uncomfortable with the tenor of the public debate and the financial backers of this concern, or more happy deconstructing the representations of nature that are driving these academic preoccupations and this new civic and corporate environmentalism (which may be questionable, in Tesco’s case!). But they might consider more engagement with the large international research and policy effort. Back in 1989, Steve Rayner – one of the first anthropologists to address social impacts of anthropogenic climate change directly – accused his colleagues of ‘fiddling while the globe warms’ (1989). He did note that Margaret Mead and William Kellogg had convened a workshop on the issue in 1976 (they apparently suggested a ‘law of the air’ for emissions), and certainly by the late 1990s there was talk of ‘climate anthropology’ emerging as a field (Brown 1999). The publication of Rayner and Malone’s major collection (1998) was the most sustained intervention by social scientists to date, attempting to balance out the work of atmospheric scientists, physicists and geologists. Rayner, re-surveying the field five years ago, was able to note a ‘resurgence of anthropological interest in weather and climate’ (2003: 277). But so far this has been driven by only a few individuals, conference sessions, and scant publications (Baer 2007). Given that Bruce Kapferer, surveying the discipline in his AAS address published in this journal a year ago, terms anthropology a ‘threatened discipline’, and talks of it ‘…losing sight of its direction’ as a ‘…rigorous knowledge practice’ (Kapferer 2007), this appears to me to have been a missed opportunity. I am not sure by what metrics ‘losing direction’ has been measured, but surely, the
‘…specific tendency in anthropology to explore the particularities of human action, practice and value within the embracing complexities of
their specific and wider contexts’ (p79)
must include the actions, practices, and values developed around anthropogenic climate change, as well as much deeper attention to the ‘specific and wider contexts’ of physical environments and social structures that constitute the milieu for ever-more visible signs of atmospheric warming.
To do so is honest work for a discipline that has in the past
represented Indigenous and local climate and environmental knowledge and,
implicitly at least, has tended to support the rights of those holding it
(Dove, 2001). Environmental anthropology, and cultural studies of climate variability,
already offer key directions for future research and advocacy, as does some
biological and evolutionary research (could add refs eg
‘revealed substantial differences between the assessments made by scientific experts and those held by local people who draw their livelihoods from those environments’ (West et al, in press, 2).
Perhaps the most important outcome of this research is to document Indigenous and local perspectives and bring them in to a debate about climate and environmental change that is coarse in scale and science-dominated (Dove, 2001, see also Leach and Fairhead, 1996).
Local fieldwork allows such perspectives to be critically assessed (Roncoli, 2006). For example several studies have been conducted on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso in the Sahel of West Africa, where the Mossi practice rain-fed cropping, and are dependent on a single rainy season. An entire region anticipates rain, although modernity and development now provide some buffers to food shortage if it is too variable or nonexistent. There are local methods of predicting seasonal rainfall (West et al in press, Roncoli et al 2001) and my own direct comparisons of rainfall histories elicited from ethnography, focus groups and rainguage data also show accurate institutional memory of rainfall events (Batterbury 1997). Responses to drought include shifts in soil types and cultivars where possible, and livelihood diversification to buffer crop failure. But since the multi-decadal droughts of the last 35 years, the situation has changed and resilience has been lost. Development project support, mainly from European agencies like Oxfam and GTZ has assisted the construction of stone contour bunds on fields in over 2000 villages, now so widespread that their effects are visible from satellites. Social science research was essential in the design of these structures, and they were developed through extensive dialogue and technical experimentation (Batterbury 1997). Although the bunds also have symbolic value as displays to other NGOs offering assistance in other sectors like health and education and are themselves laden with meaning (Batterbury 1996, Falk Moore 2001), research and development aid in this domain has added to, rather than detracted from, community resilience in an area that remains exposed to climate variability and many other risks.
Efforts to provide climate forecasts to rural households more effectively have also been made, a field in which anthropologist Carla Roncoli and others have worked. Understanding the ‘human dimensions of inter-annual climate variability’ and local responses is a central theme in ‘climate anthropology’ (Vásquez-León et al 2003, Finan and Nelson 2001, Magistro and Roncoli 2001, Roncoli et al 2001, Roncoli 2006, Strauss and Orlove 2003). Climate knowledge is transmitted inter-generationally and across social networks, but new weather patterns render it uncertain. Scientific forecasting can now assist farmers and herders in remote regions by providing event probabilities, but understanding how this is interpreted and understood is an ethnographic task (Brown 1999). Ben Orlove (a prominent anthropologist in his own right), and his colleagues have demonstrated ethnoclimatological knowledge among Andean farmers, who, use the visibility of the Pleiades constellation in June from mountaintops as an indicator of planting times for potatoes. They discovered these indigenous methods have around 65% forecasting accuracy, and may exist elsewhere (Orlove et al 2002). In a region strongly affected by El Niño, Orlove and his team gave additional credibility to the practice by finding high cirrus clouds at this time correlated to El Nino events. Thus,
‘Atmospheric scientists may benefit from having their attention directed to the phenomena that indigenous people observe….much as indigenous
farmers could consider attributes of the atmosphere other than the ones that they already note’ Orlove et al, 2002, p434.
A climate anthropology operates in multiple knowledge communities.
Bridging these was the goal behind a meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders and climate scientists in
In addition to these tasks, anthropologists have had some role as participant-observers of climate change science and policymaking and have conducted at least one broad survey of values. Myanna Lahsen has examined the ‘climate business’ from inside for many years, demonstrating through ethnographic work just how ideas and models are formed and are transmitted in social networks of scientists (Lahsen 2007). Kempton et.al.'s survey of American environmental values in the mid 1990s shows that the public and many policymakers shared concern for global warming, among other issues, making the consistent national resistance to lowering emissions even more puzzling (Kempton et al, 1995). [much to add here]
There is also the important study of risks from combinations of changing climate and land use changes. Research here is too voluminous to list, for it involves an interdisciplinary effort in which individual contributions are blurred. Environmental anthropologists like Emilio Moran are combining remotely sensed data with field investigation in areas of Amazonian settlement and forest loss (2000) and contribute to the IPCC process. Anthropologists of disasters are working on sudden onset events like the Central American hurricanes and storm surges (Hewitt 1983, Hoffman and Oliver Smith 2002).
As Orlove’s work illustrates, understanding
climate knowledge requires scientific as well as cultural understandings (Orlove et al 2002, 2008). A critical realist philosophical
position asserts that there are ‘facts’ to anthropogenic climate change,
although we have not yet appraised all of them and people see them differently.
Since globally the interpretation of facts about warming follows lines of power
and patterns of belief, mutual comprehension is often frustrated and is elided
with other issues (Leach and Fairhead 1996). But this is part and parcel of
‘late-modern science’ that admits to uncertainty (Dove 2001, 91). Critical
realism appeals to anthropologists who do voice concern for global warming
issues, which is repeatedly expressed on the environmental anthropology
My view as an outsider with good knowledge of the discipline is that that anthropology has far more to offer the study of global warming, even if the mainstream policy debate will always occur elsewhere. In view of the urgency of the issues, a general acceptance of the sentiments and the practice of an engaged (applied) anthropology is also overdue. This will be pivotal to the public profile and the work of the discipline (Batterbury and Horowitz fc). This means shedding much of the exceptionalist thinking that infests anthropological debate, and embracing rather than resisting the ‘realities of other disciplines’ (Kapferer 2007: 81). This will permit more effective research groupings and knowledge coalitions that are already attacking the big issues from a Big Tent (inside and outside the university sector). It means forging, and participating in collaborations, cataloguing opportunities for adaptive strategies and mitigation worldwide (while of course being mindful of the terminology, which has an interesting genealogy), and finding new audiences for anthropological research and advocacy with, and on behalf of, ‘others’.
For me, anthropology without a sense of urgency about global warming is unthinkable.
To Raj Puri, Peter Dwyer, Colin West.
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