What Ethnology Can Tell Us about the Consequences of Climate Change

Climate scientists predict that accelerated global warming will increase the impacts of extreme weather events such as droughts, typhoons and floods. Such events are likely to have serious social consequences, including famine, displacement, and increased violent conflicts. While these climate events may be becoming more extreme, such events resulting in disasters is not new. It is important to try to understand how human societies with varying livelihoods and vulnerabilities have responded to and invented solutions to such conditions, both in the past and the present. Over the past ten years, the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) has been involved in two multidisciplinary research projects on climate and culture. One of our operating assumptions is that most societies that have survived for long periods of time have developed resilient practices, particularly when hazards were recurrent. 

The ethnographic record and ethnology show the importance of the environment, especially resource stress, on social institutions, customs and culture change; and what we might expect in these times of the Anthropocene when more extreme weather makes its impact felt.

Our first project looked at climate in relation to violent conflict in East Africa. Collaborating with political scientists and agent-based modelers at George Mason University, our principal role was supporting the computer modelers with basic ethnographic data on the cultural and behavioral logic of pastoral and agro-pastoral communities. We also did our own research on the social and ecological dimensions of inter-ethnic violence in East Africa with particular focus on nomadic and semi-nomadic communities living along the frontier districts of northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and northeastern Uganda. We examined how the occurrence and intensity of inter-ethnic violence varied with rainfall patterns. Looking at a ten-year period, we found the frequency and severity of violent conflicts were greater in dryer months, dryer years, and when the availability of pasture and water was even more unreliable than expected. In another paper using data from five ethnic groups, we showed that different ethnic groups had different scarce seasons and mobility patterns depending on their subsistence pattern, whether predominantly pastoral or pastoral mixed with agriculture and therefore react differently to unpredictable weather conditions. A third paper looked at not just timing of violent conflicts but their geographical location. Pastoral groups were most vulnerable to attack when in transition, moving from one location to another, or in dangerous border zones, which are reserves of last resort. In a more focused paper, we discussed the collapse of the traditional Turkana generational system that undermined institutions of authority—including the affective flows between generations—that had managed conflict.

In our study of violence and political participation we tested the “democratic peace theory” for 46 societies in eastern Africa: whether societies that allow for broader political participation in decision-making processes would tend not to fight each other. Interestingly, the model did not replicate in eastern Africa. However, analysis with additional variables (degree of formal leadership, presence of state-level organization, and threat of natural disasters that destroy food supplies) suggested that greater local political participation does predict less internal warfare. We also found that more participatory polities were less likely to commit atrocities in the course of internal warfare.

Presently, HRAF is finishing its second multidisciplinary research project, a National Science Foundation Interdisciplinary Behavioral Social Science grant, “Natural Hazards and Cultural Transformations.” The principal investigators on this project are a climatologist, cultural psychologist, archaeologist, and three anthropologists, from five different institutions. The anthropologists examined the effects of resources stress—measured separately as the frequency of natural hazards,  famines, and chronic scarcity—on a variety of behaviors and institutions, including property rights, customary food and labor sharing, forms of political leadership, diet, and subsistence. We also used ethnographic data to test the work of psychologist Michele Gelfand, who has written on cultural tightness (based on the original theories of anthropologist Pertti Pelto) as a response to natural and socially-induced hazards.

One behavior we looked at specifically was customary food and labor sharing, and we asked whether it was predicted by resource stress. In this study, we show that although some sharing is ubiquitous—such as hospitality and life-cycle rites—societies vary widely in the types and frequency of customary sharing practices. Resource stress appears to be an important predictor of sharing: societies that are subject to more resource stress (including chronic scarcity or climatic events, such as floods or droughts, that seriously destroy food supplies) have more seasonal food and labor sharing. We argue that sharing is an adaptive practice in unpredictable environments because it minimizes risk for individual households. These findings underscore the importance of the effects of climate on cooperative behavior, which might have implications for climate change on future human behavior.

We also examined the possible effects of resource stress on beliefs that gods can influence weather and found support for the idea that resource stress predicts belief that gods can help or hurt food supply with weather. Since resource stress also predicts sharing, we asked whether there is merit to the moral god hypothesis that supernatural beliefs might be an important mechanism to increase cooperation. Using path analysis, we did not find much support for the moral god hypothesis. Instead our findings support the idea that resource stress both leads to beliefs that gods can help or hurt people with weather, and increases the likelihood of sharing.

Examining property relations, we found a more complicated relationship to natural hazards than we initially expected. Although a particular type of hazard—drought—does predict more communal property, the relationship to hazards tends to be curvilinear. More specifically, moderate levels of resource problems are associated with more robust individual rights; such rights decrease when famine is present. We suspect that moderate problems increase the need to innovate and that individual property rights allow for such flexibility.

In our first study of cultural tightness and looseness, we tested three specific measures of tightness, as well as overall tightness. As compared to “looser” societies, “tighter” societies have many strong norms, harsh and consistent punishment for deviation, and high constraint on individual variation. Our specific measures of tightness included the degree of standardization of clothing, standardization of adornment, and how much mealtime behavior is governed by rules and etiquette. According to our co-investigator, Michele Gelfand, ecological threats increase the need for strong norms and punishment of deviant behavior, and cultural tightness may be adaptive when considerable cooperation is needed. Our results so far generally support this connection between hazards, famine, and “tightness.” In a second study, we find that societies that are generally “tight” in one domain tend to be “tight” in others and that stress of all kinds (resource stress, warfare, and disease stress) all predict more “tightness.”

The ethnographic record and ethnology show the importance of the environment, especially resource stress, on social institutions, customs and culture change; and what we might expect in these times of the Anthropocene when more extreme weather makes its impact felt.

Further Reading

Ember, Carol C., Ian Skoggard, Erik Ringen and Megan Farrer. 2018. Our Better Nature: Does Resource Stress Predict Beyond Household Sharing? Evolution Human Behavior 39(4):180-191.

Ember, Carol C., Ian Skoggard, Teferi Abate Adem, A.J. Fass. 2015. Rains and Raids Revisited: Disaggregating Ethnic Group Livestock Raiding in the Ethiopian-Kenyan Border Region. Civil Wars 16(3):300-327.

Ember, Carol R., Teferi Abate Adem, and Ian Skoggard. 2013. Risk, Uncertainty, and Violence in Eastern Africa: A Regional Comparison. Human Nature 24(1): 33-58.

Adem, Teferi A., Carol Ember, Eric C. Jones, Ian Skoggard and A. J. Faas. 2012. Dangerous Geography: Spatial Distribution of Livestock Raiding in Northwestern Kenya. Ethnology 51(1):1-30.

Ember, Carol R., Teferi Abate Adem, Ian Skoggard, and Eric C. Jones. 2012. Livestock Raiding and Rainfall Variability in Northwestern Kenya. Civil Wars 14(2):159-181.

Acknowledgments: I thank Tahlisa Brougham, Teferi Abate Adem and Carol Ember for their help on this article.

Ian Skoggard has a PhD from the Doctorate Program in Anthropology, City University of New York and a MDiv from Yale University. He is a research anthropologist at the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University and has published on Taiwan economic development and new religions, violent conflict in East Africa, agent based modeling, anthropology of affect, resource stress and cooperation, and American medical missionaries in China.

Please send your comments and ideas for additional Anthropology News columns to SAS contributing editors Anthony Tricarico ([email protected]) and Robert Boroch ([email protected])

Cite as: Skoggard, Ian. 2019. “What Ethnology Can Tell Us about the Consequences of Climate Change.” Anthropology News website, March 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1117

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