Environmental activists demanding action to stop climate change. Credit: Demotix/Birmal Sharma.
Humans celebrate natural landscapes in numerous cultural forms, from poetry and storytelling, to painting, photography and film. We cherish the green rolling hills of the British countryside, the restless Atlantic Ocean tossing boats or lapping at our rocky shores, the snowy peaks letting the last rays of sun pass between them.
How is it that we can have such strong emotional attachments when looking at nature, claim to love and appreciate it, yet be so indifferent to the destructive impact our way of living has on it?
Those who come after us will wonder at how we were so blinkered, at why we took so long to change. They will debate our motives and puzzle at our choices, trying to understand what we thought we were doing in the face of so much evidence.
Our current civilization is both cause and likely victim of human-made climate change. As we struggle to be ‘successful’ in the 21st Century we hasten the demise of the very ground on which such success can be enjoyed – hastening a race to the bottom. This is a crucial moment.
Anthropology is well placed to deal with the questions raised by the global ecological crisis. These questions are both scientific and cultural. The ‘hard’ facts of climate change raise questions to which the ‘soft’ approaches of anthropology can be applied. What answers do other societies' ways of life offer to questions of identity, politics, habit, economy? Can their ways of relating to the landscape and to nonhuman species offer us lessons or inspiration? Or is the all too easy distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ part of the problem?
Comparative anthropology shows that many of the things that humans do are more or less universal. Human groups, the people with whom we interact directly on a regular basis, and with whom we have emotional ties, tend to be limited to around 150 people. We tend to be motivated by relatively short-term concerns.
More broadly, our brains have hardly evolved since before the dawn of agriculture, indeed they are currently shrinking in size relative to our body weight. Given that we evolved as hunter-gatherers living in small egalitarian groups with a focus on the immediate rather than the long term, we seem to be struggling to appreciate our status as planetary citizens. We may be members of a 7.3 billion community with a huge impact on planetary systems, but we struggle to know it.
This may partly explain why we are so slow to accept what is happening. When the problem at hand is as colossal as ecological collapse on a planetary scale, but which will take place not in our own generation, but in the next one or one after, it is hard to change our ways.
It is climate change's global scale and pace that makes it still feel alien to everyday experience. No wonder public opinion is not sending stronger signals to politicians that more urgent action is required.
But perhaps, then, it is worth focusing once more on more manageable scales, on the everyday, on human experience. People do engage emotionally with environmental problems on this scale.
Pollution, or even the prospect of local pollution, for example, often mobilises people to protest against industrial practices. Catastrophic events such as hurricanes or floods lead people at least to debate the causes of such events, even if they do not necessarily take seriously the question of climate change as a direct consequence.
Local actions take on new significance in relation to discourses about global problems and vice versa. For example, traditional agricultural, hunting and gathering practices that favour biodiversity (such as certain forms of agro-forestry), which were once dismissed as unscientific, are now being directly promoted by national and international policies, and even mimicked by agro-industry corporations. Here, human cultural diversity plays a direct role in preserving and sometimes even increasing biodiversity.
Scientific knowledge is usually presented as though it were factual, or objective. And so we are shocked when it is revealed that scientists, like the rest of us, argue, debate the possible interpretations of data, using bits and pieces of theory to support different relative weights for different interpretations of the evidence. The ‘climategate’ saga of 2009 concerning the emails sent between scientists on the intergovernmental panel on climate change is a case in point.
Scientists are generally the most trusted of professionals. They are publicly perceived to be working in the pursuit of knowledge, and to be less corrupted by political biases or pecuniary temptations. Yet if scientific knowledge about nature (which is what the natural sciences seek to produce) relies so heavily on producing facts which have been purified of their social, political, cultural and historical baggage, then when this baggage suddenly becomes visible, it causes anxiety and disbelief.
One solution may be to have ordinary people engage more directly with the processes of producing scientific knowledge. Citizen science does this to an extent – but the kinds of citizens it currently involves tend to be Western, urban, male and already have some level of expertise in the discipline concerned.
But with wider access, this kind of approach could help people to engage with climate change. Perhaps, if such approaches begin to be adopted more generally in the practice of climate science, on a mass scale, we may find more effective ways for people to engage emotionally with scientific knowledge, by being a part of the messy process of its production, and so begin reflecting on how they, at their local level, can adapt and respond in sensible and meaningful ways.