Arguably the most renowned anthropologist of her era, Margaret Mead could be called the mother of the anthropology of climate change. Speaking at the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Mead stressed: “We have to learn to cherish this Earth and cherish it as something that is fragile.” Later, while a Visiting Scholar at the Fogarty International Center, Mead used her acclaimed persuasive skills to pull together a conference titled “The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering,” that was designed to investigate the challenges encountered in maintaining a healthy atmospheric environment. In her conference presentation, Mead emphasized that we need to develop “ways in which farsightedness can become a habit of the citizenry of the diverse peoples on planet.” This point is still critical to the emergent field of the anthropology of climate change.
Unfortunately, conservative political and deep-pocket economic forces press in the opposite direction, toward shortsightedness and a dangerously narrow vision as commonly articulated by leading government figures. All the while, climate change, in dialectical relationship with other human-produced ecocrises, has pushed us into extraordinary times in which conventional business-as-usual rules must be transcended or we will face severe threats to life as we know it on Earth. In ordinary times, even while engaging staggering challenges, radical social solutions of any sort are labeled by dominant voices in society as being imprudent, destabilizing, and unnecessary. Today, however, we live in an increasingly perilous world in which ordinary-time thinking and inability to follow Mead’s advice about farsightedness are leading humanity and our fellow Earthling species step-by-step toward points of climatic no return.
Unfortunately, even the terminology we use is fraught. While generally accepted among climate scientists, “climate change” — something that has been going on throughout Earth’s estimated 4.54 billion year history — fails to capture the grave urgency of our current situation. As indicated in the 2013 IPCC report: “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the northern hemisphere, 1983-2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years” (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/27/ipcc-world-dangerous-climate-change). As a result, we are perched to undergo warming of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) and a resulting arduous shift in the environment of the planet.
Even the alternative term, “global warming,” fails to focus attention on the full scope of the dramatic changes ahead. As award-winning writer Rebecca Solnit noted in Mother Jones in October of 2013, we now face a climate system “…thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles.” And thus, it directly and immediately threatens the lives and livelihoods of the peoples anthropologists seek to know, understand, and explain.
Perhaps a more useful concept for illuminating the conditions we face is “climate turmoil,” in that it can be used to encompass warming temperatures on land and in the seas, weather extremes from droughts to downpours, diverse and seemingly contradictory climate alterations, rising oceans and flooding coastlines, mounting weather erraticism and undependability, and the fallout of such changes from the spread of diseases to the loss of forests. Climate turmoil thinking has its roots in the book Gaia in Turmoil. Gaian theory, introduced by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis over 40 years ago, is rooted in the understanding that Earth’s physical and biological processes are inextricably interlinked and form a self-regulating system that helps sustain the conditions that allow life to flourish on Earth. This resonates well with Mead’s call for us to “cherish this Earth.” a message even more timely today than when she uttered it.
While still a comparatively small arena within the discipline, the anthropology of climate change has been growing over the last two decades. The need to better understand the complex interface of human societies and climate has never been greater. At no prior time in our history have we faced an environmental threat the scale of contemporary climate change, a calamity of our own making. As indicated by Hetherington and Reid in their book The Climate Connection: Climate Change and Modern Human Evolution, “Our growing obsession with, and economic dependency on fossil fuels, combined with our penchant for consumerism, has resulted in humans becoming a climate-change mechanism.” Moreover, those who would dare to point out the fundamental role capitalism plays in driving greenhouse gas and black carbon build up, to say nothing of a alarming list of other sociogenic environmental disruptions, are subject to character attack and physical threat. Below are some samples emails published in Gristmill (http://grist.org/news/here-are-some-of-the-death-threats-sent-to-a-climate-scientist/) that were received by University of East Anglia climate scientist Phil Jones, whose research has been used by the IPCC:
–wanker you wanker you need to be killed
–Someone some where will hunt you down
–you are fucking scumbag, liar and a fraud. I hope someone puts a bullet between your eyes.
No doubt, there is a critical need for social scientific understanding of the factors that drive such intense hatred of climate scientists and the reasons climate science evokes such disordered emotions. Beyond psychosocial analyses, we need as well to consider the impact of our current political economy on climate change and the seeming irrationality of climate change denial. As Naomi Klein reported recently, a strong theme voiced at the 2013 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union was that “global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable in response” (http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt).
Over the course of this year, in this column I will discuss these and related topics, examining especially the efforts of anthropologists working on climate change. Most importantly, my goal is to promote climate change as an ever more vital arena of research, application, and engagement, not just for anthropology, but for anyone concerned about the future of Earth as a livable planet.
Merrill Singer is a cultural and medical anthropologist with a dual appointment as Professor of Anthropology and as Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention at the University of Connecticut. His current research focuses on both drug use and HIV risk and environmental health issues, including a growing focus on the impact of global warming on international health.