In order to talk about the anthropological stakes of climate change, a decision might be made between reviewing on-going anthropological work, or specifying a number of conceptual preferences. The former would be akin to taking heed of the inheritance afforded by practicing anthropologists, while the latter would be more like setting up logical possibilities based on evaluative choices. The question is where to begin?

A Google search for Anthropology Climate Change gives a number of interesting hits, including a blog bibliography at Grassroots Science, and a new book edited by Susan Crate and Mark Nutall. Both look compelling and worthwhile. (Who knew that Raymond Firth was writing about climate change in 1959?)

But that brings me to my point: to begin with the existing inheritance feels a bit too much like what we mechanics used to call the shotgun approach. If you had a car with a problem and you couldn’t figure out what exactly was wrong, you could replace the two or three components most likely to be the cause. That’s the shotgun approach. And if the problem still wasn’t fixed, the other mechanics could say things like ‘hey, can’t hit the side of a barn with a shotgun, can you?’

(For those of you who don’t know, shotguns don’t have bullets but shells containing lots of tiny lead pellets. When fired they release a cloud of pellets instead of a single slug. Good for birds. Or maiming people.)

Climate change is too vast for this. It’s especially true when anthropology is taken up as the study of something like culture or local knowledge, which is to be accessed with ethnography. Hey, that’s nearly everything. Where to begin? More importantly, where do we end? How do we know when we’ve learned something?

So let me make a case for conceptual specificity at the outset. 1) This does not mean starting from first principles, but rather assessing possible starting points for their logical coherence. We know a lot; let’s take time to think about it. 2) Starting points are provisional, but experience suggests that revisions are difficult and partial. Decisions enable future practices which build on each other; one doesn’t start over but retrofit when necessary. 3) There are lots of empirical details. There are no geographic limiting factors for climate change – certainly not localism. Conceptual specificity enables a work ethic by offering a degree of purposiveness. Without it, one Google search added 700 pages to my reading list.

Somehow I still hope anthropology can link research with claims of relevant scope. One more book I just found: The Cultural Logic of Computation by David Golumbia. I’ll probably read it at some point. He’s a programmer and a professor of English. I marvel at these books sometimes – rather like Baudrillard’s Simulations – for their ability to assert radical conjecture as virtual statement of fact. The thing is, I still read these books because their breadth is exciting. Hart and Negri’s Empire was obnoxious but the scope of their work was somehow absolutely relevant. Anthropologists need to step up. Enough with the empiricism! Specificity allows risky ideas to be brought in line with research.

So I take the above as a case for not beginning by reading the existing literature. This doesn’t mean don’t read it – it means don’t begin by reading it. Climate change demands what to me seems like an exceptional degree of conceptual focus. The risk to be guarded against is the arrogance that comes with feeling one has started anew, or thinking no one else has had a thought before, or simply being ignorant.

But there’s one more point to be made. Lots of really new things are happening – or so it seems to me. There’s dozens of things going on that I know nothing about and that I don’t think any anthropologist has studied. If we take up Paul Rabinow’s perspective to ask what difference does today make with respect to yesterday, then we have a way to think about emergence. This is incompatible with an anthropology that does not constantly re-pose the question of what it’s doing.