The AAA Global Climate Change Task Force (GCCTF) is pleased to announce the launch of our own listserv, climate-change-anth, which can be accessed at: https://archives.binhost.com/lists/listinfo/climate-change-anth.
So far, we have 54 subscribers…please check it out and pass the word! In other announcements, the GCCTF will have a large presence at the AAA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, sponsoring both a scientific panel and a policy session, with two other climate change panels emerging from the original call for papers last spring. We are looking forward to several days of stimulating discussion, so mark your calendars now (see http://aaa.confex.com/aaa/2012/webprogrampreliminary/start.html for the preliminary program; search on “climate change” and select “sessions” and you will find ten climate change events, three of which are sponsored by the GCCTF.
This month, we traverse the Americas, looking at ways that climate change impacts food and health systems in addition to other environmental effects. Task Force member Richard Wilk (Provost Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University), has worked in Belize since it was British Honduras, and in the United States, on topics ranging from subsistence farming to energy consumption, all of which are strongly linked to climate change. Lissie (Elizabeth) Wahl (Research Fellow in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School) has been working in locations across South America, witnessing the direct impacts of deforestation and climate change on the health of indigenous populations, primarily in the Amazon basin.
Richard Wilk: Food, Energy, and Sustainability in Belize and the United States
Rick Wilk has been concerned with environmental issues since his student radical days in the late 60s/early 70s. Working with community groups who sought to stop the demolition of their neighborhoods for highways (what was then called “urban renewal”), he remembers thinking that the culture of the automobile just could not last, that fossil fuels would have to run out one day, and cars would have to go the way of the dinosaurs. When he got to college at NYU, that urge to find out why a civilization would do something so stupid as to cause its own extinction led Wilk to classes in prehistoric archaeology, where he was lucky to be exposed to teachers like Charles Redman and Howard Winters. In the first flush of the “New Archaeology,” they were optimistic about using knowledge of the past to understand contemporary social and ecological problems.
Archaeology took Wilk to Belize (then British Honduras); in graduate school, he switched to ethnographic work with contemporary Q’eqchi’ Maya farming villages, trying to understand what was driving them out of sustainable subsistence farming, into plantation wage labor and intensive cash-crop production. Wilk comments that, “rather than population pressure or coercion, this movement grew from increasing needs for things that could only be bought with cash, everything from cold Cokes and motorcycles to medical care and high school fees.” But he also realized that classical anthropology had almost nothing to say about how and why so many people around the world were attracted by the allure of consumer goods. “This started me doing research on consumer culture as both a very local and a highly global phenomenon, and through the 80s and 90s, I looked at the role of television, education, migration and tourism in the growth of consumerism, working with other ethnic groups and among urban Belizeans.” Wilk soon began to see how abstractions like “economic growth” and “development” only became concrete and meaningful to people in the form of housing, health care, food and clothing, electricity and comforts like rice cookers, fans, and TV sets.
In the early 1980′s, Wilk found himself in California (at UCSC) at the tail end of the first big ‘energy crisis,’ and began to do ethnographic research on energy use and conservation, which turned out to be terra incognita for anthropology. “We (Hal Wilhite was my main partner) did hundreds of interviews, and found out that while many people wanted to change and conserve energy, waste and inefficiency were built into the entire housing and appliance system, into regulations, city planning, and rate structure. We also found that people liked big, dramatic forms of conservation like solar hot water on the roof, while ignoring small things like weather-stripping, which made a lot more economic sense. Along with a few other social scientists, I think we managed to convince some of the economists and engineers in the energy community that people’s behavior and culture does make a difference, and conservation is not just a technical problem.”
The energy-studies community in California was among the first group of scientists to take global climate change seriously as socio-technic issue. When Wilk returned to Berkeley as a visitor in 1999-2000, he found that many faculty and students in the Energy and Resources group were interested in understanding the relationship between consumption and greenhouse gas releases into the atmosphere. He notes that “it is easy to focus on the proximate causes; cows, factories, forests and glaciers. Some people are willing to go further to question the role of an economy where all the measures of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ are also measures of waste, construction, expansion, production. But very few are willing to go further, to think about how deeply ideas about comfort and convenience, improvement and wealth, are embedded in many different and distinct cultures around the world. As diverse as they are, many people around the planet are passionately interested in acquiring bundles of consumer goods. And as denizens of the highest-consuming country in the world, we have no moral ground from which to stand and tell these people that they would be wiser and happier if they stopped short of the levels of extravagance we take for granted. As the idea of a ‘global footprint’ demonstrates, there is just no room on the planet for all nine billion people to own cars, have modern electric kitchens, eat meat at every meal, and live in detached multiple-bedroom homes with lawn and garden. In that sense, the promise of ‘development’ is just a lie. And the enjoyment of vast luxury at the expense of the majority is a kind of crime.”
Over the last twenty years, Wilk has been trying to push discussions of climate change and sustainability towards a broader rethinking of ideas about wealth, poverty, and cultural diversity. His work demonstrates that the problem with thinking about climate change at this level is that the root causes are so widely dispersed–billions of individuals, households and communities enmeshed in complex webs of laws and political structures. The desire for goods is deeply embedded in culture and social organization, rooted in the past but also in striving for an imagined future. Wilk believes that anthropologists are truly the only social scientists who are up to the task of making all these connections. It requires deep local expertise and experience matched with perceptions of scale and global interconnections, and all of our intellectual and theoretical tools. “Furthermore,” he remarks, “as engaged scholars with a stake in the planet’s future, I don’t think we can afford the luxury of just studying consumer culture — we need to think about how to change it.”
Lissie Wahl: Dams, Deforestation, and Disease in the Amazon Basin
Lissie Wahl’s interest in global climate change developed in the Amazon as she became aware of indigenous peoples’ multi-layered resistance to the rape of their territory. She notes that “the ‘environment’ was considered a condition for–and product of–life itself in all its forms: material, relational, spiritual, collective and territorial. Elders had a conviction that something deep and seemingly irreversible was at work concerning climate change, alluding to signs invisible to most. The consequences of this for indigenous peoples’ health and well-being were repeatedly brought to our attention.” The training she received from Eric Wolf and Sydel Silverman resonated frequently, as interconnections, history, and power consistently came into play.
Among indigenous peoples, survival depends upon territory and its governance. In Amazonia, Alaska, India, or anywhere that indigenous peoples live, the dispossession of forests and territories is largely connected to a strong “wave of primitive accumulation” underway, which underlies hydroelectric dam building as well as mining, hydrocarbon, and timber extraction. These activities and associated consumption patterns are linked with global warming. They impact ocean currents, air oscillation, and extreme weather conditions through varying loops of feedback at local and global levels. Forests, when disturbed, alter significantly wild fauna distribution and ecosystemic controls upon bacteria, parasites, zoonotic and vector-borne disease. In the Peruvian Amazon alone, the mortality rate of indigenous peoples in the past five years has been more than double the rate nationwide; the mortality rate for infants was more than double that of the national Peruvian average and close to eight times that of the U.S. The great majority of such deaths result from zoonotic infection; climate change, from this perspective, has now become the 21stcentury’s major health threat to humanity.
The severity of this problem leads Wahl to the conclusion that anthropologists need to focus on three central issues through both study and action. These include visibility, intercultural agency, and conceptual politics/governance. With regard to visibility, Wahl points out that “indigenous peoples are extremely vulnerable to global climate change,” yet this fact comes to light often only after very large-scale disaster events and minimally even then. Also rendered invisible is what indigenous peoples know, do, and may contribute to discussion and action on climate change. Both beg study. Wahl suggests that “anthropologists should illuminate what indigenous peoples are experiencing and expressing. Future studies should examine the ways through which natural resources, human health, and local culture are getting factored back (or not) into climate change equations and should also focus on the political economy of climate change discourse.”
With regard to intercultural agency, Wahl suggests that “action on climate change calls for deep policy modification and effective coordination among various actors across vast geographical areas. Disregarding the agency of indigenous peoples in decision-making, project design, implementation, and monitoring criteria and processes threatens the very call for effective global action. The development of partnerships claiming to observe indigenous peoples’ rights look good on paper but rarely, if ever, contain the necessary means to translate their principles into effective action.” Wahl hopes that the multiple issues brought forth by various actors during the Rio +20 World Conference on Sustainable Development, held on June 2012 (and see the July Changing the Atmosphere column for an anthropologist’s-eye view of that event), could provide important leads into the subject, as might the documentation and development with indigenous peoples of criteria for defining and monitoring climate change.
Finally, in terms of conceptual politics and governance, Wahl points out that indigenous peoples are moving forward with proposals and complex alliances on the global arena of climate change. But the dynamic construction of concepts, processes and options they bring to the negotiation table are rarely compatible with the short-termed (and short-sighted) market and financial incentives often put forward by state, global and private institutions. Indigenous peoples are repeatedly relegated to subsidiary roles. “One might want to analyze why the environmental governance of indigenous peoples, which keeps track of what forest, land, and water are still intact worldwide, is rejected by world and state-level institutions now laying claim to sole sovereignty over the subject. The policies and acts meant to protect forests, in practice, dispossess indigenous peoples from their territory at multiple levels. A comparison of indigenous peoples’ proposals – founded upon territorial and collective rights – and current market-based approaches to climate change could produce interesting information and leads.” Wahl is now working on documenting the challenges indigenous peoples face in world discourse on climate change. In the future, she plans to study the consequences of climate change on indigenous peoples’ health and well-being using an intercultural and transnational approach.