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I have been surprised at the persistence of doubt about climate change science among anthropologists. There are lots of strains to this doubt but, partly, it is surprising because it re-frames many debates from the old ‘science wars.’ This time, the politically conservative position points again and again to the constructed nature of science, whereas those on the left tend to accept the science as a matter of course. For environmental anthropologists a rift has opened up. Climate concerns have the tendency to trump or swamp other environmental concerns. Those other concerns, often much older, are motivated by a tendency toward libertarianism and organic intellectualism (no pun intended). No matter how you spin it, climate change is not.

As I’m involved in studying climate change as an anthropological topic – what I sometimes refer to as the ‘cultural significance of climate change’ – I am often called upon to take judgement on the veracity of climate change science. This is an extremely tricky topic, but one I think anthropologists need to confront directly. Personally, I feel that statements such as by the National Academy of Sciences are judiciously true, by which I mean it must remain open to revision, while the IPCC is true enough for government work. But that is not the point. To claim the science is true and then ask why people don’t believe it is intellectually & ethically stingy.

Debates on the Environmental Anthropology email list, however, often seem to conflate our responsibilities as scholars, as citizens, and – the point that unites those two – as lovers of truth and freedom.

To be sure, I don’t consider myself an expert on the climate science, and my interest is far more in global attempts to deal with climate change by managing the atmosphere. But I think it is crucial for anthropologists of climate change to find an analytical mode in which doubts about the science can be expressed by groups with diverse commitments. Doubts about climate science are integral to the cultural significance of climate change. All of climate science is organized around a problem of anticipating an uncertain future. Hence it plays into the quasi-apocalyptic fears of American religions, whether of ecological end-times or of political domination by financial Illuminati. But it plays into other things as well – financial strategies, for instance.

There is a long-standing tradition of anthropologists studying rumor and gossip, which aptly recognizes that determining the truth of a rumor is irrelevant from the perspective of the anthropologist. Rumors don’t circulate because they are true, but because the possibility that they might be true is dangerous.

The challenge for citizens is different than that of scholars. As citizens we are called upon to respond to public problems and ecological dangers; we must assess the science (as citizens, not as scientists), come to conclusions and pursue action. Even if the science is 100% certain, the action will always be characterized by uncertainty. Why? Because political action is irreversible, unpredictable and prone to failure. Political practice happens ‘in time’ in a way that is very different from drawing scientific conclusions. There are lots of different ways to put a price on carbon, for instance. All of them have important risks, and if I’m an investor, your risk is my opportunity.

And yet these problems of action must also fit within the anthropological, scholarly framework. We have seen this problem before; it was called reflexivity.

Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers makes an important observation about Creationism which strikes me as relevant here. She argues that normal biological science – Darwinism – is often treated as unproblematic, transparently factual, unconstructed, ‘neutral’ – all of the things STS has called into question. Calling attention to parents’ committees, pressure groups, and other forms of organizing, she writes, “It is as if collectives were needed, capable of providing organized resistance, tenacious and fanatic, to certain types of knowledge, so that the transmission of that knowledge in schools might acknowledge its risky, selective, interesting mode of existence – the very thing that demonstrates its scientific nature” (Cosmopolitics I, 268, n.3).

I am not trying to associate Creationism with any of the comments that have been made by anthropologists. My point is different.

But before I make this point, let me draw one more connection, now between climate skeptic positions and those of political radicals in the far-left ‘climate justice’ camp. There are important parallels. Both tend to take a dire view of the future, neither are particularly subtle about how scientific conclusions are used in debate, both worry a lot about the role of money in science and policy, both are afraid of social-engineering solutions (such as carbon markets) and both tend to exaggerate the political importance of authoritative bodies, especially the UN, whether from an anti-authoritarian or a regulatory view point. Both worry obsessively about American consumer entitlement while referencing US global military dominance – both for good reason.

So it strikes me that the debates we’ve been having on E-Anth are unsurprising from a broader social perspective – they deal with many of the same issues that characterize American debates more generally and they resonate with problems surrounding not individual scientific conclusions per se but the conditions in which that knowledge was produced, the work it is expected to do, and especially the implications of that science for existing human practice.

The solution – it seems to me – to the analytical puzzle is to point out that the experience of climate change is one of threat/opportunity before an uncertain future. This even applies to how climate change became a scientific problem. But as the science has become accepted, an implication is that lots of people take climate change as an opportunity, and this opportunism is threatening. To use Stengers’ words, climate science is risky, selective, interesting – it is real science – because it is risky, selective & interesting sociopolitically. The possibility that climate science might be true is dangerous – not only because of biophysical atmospheric changes – and this danger is what we anthropologists might be discussing, as lovers of truth & freedom.


Here’s an idea for an anthropology of modernity with respect to climate change: Global carbon regulations should be seen as an attempt to force an epochal shift in the material basis of industrial civilization.

The idea comes from China’s attempt to break the energy-economic growth relationship through their energy policies of the 1980s. Apparently – I need to look into this – the relationship is that in all historical cases, energy use increases at a rate of perhaps 5x the rate of growth in GDP. Lisa Margonelli, an energy journalist, has written some about this. She wrote recently in California Magazine, “by 1988 [Deng Xiopeng’s industrialists had] made history, severing the relationship between development and energy. Energy demand had grown at half the speed of GDP.” All that fell apart in the early 2000s, when no-holds-barred growth obliterated those gains.

The relationship is technological, and indeed the whole point of a global carbon accord is not simply to stop the use of energy, which would spell economic collapse, but to change the relation between economic output and energy input. Dan Reicher, Google’s point person on climate change and runner-up to Steven Chu as Obama’s Energy Secretary, recently quoted the chief of Chevron saying that efficiency technologies are the cheapest new source of energy available today. A key analysis of this – and an important part of the story about why green tech has taken off over the past few years – is what’s known as the McKinsey report – a roadmap of how much money is to be made from carbon reductions in the context of a global emissions cap. (But some environmentalists have called this a Frankenstein scenario – more on this latter.)

The role of a global climate accord is to a) make sure climate costs are included in what people pay to use energy, but just as important, b) create both the finance and the initiative to change this historically-necessary relationship. Part of that is the global scope of the accord, which is necessary because an increase in production costs will just shift production, and dirty energy use, elsewhere.

In part, then, a dynamic element is the problematization of the global in this configuration. The other element is the epochal transformation in the energy equation that has defined industrial growth since the rise of English coal.

It doesn’t take much to understand the imaginative possibilities here for green tech entrepreneurs. Thinking on global and world-historical scales might be understood as a hallmark of techies everywhere – essentially as the rejection of socio-historical necessity through math and science – and this has all the makings of a sci-fi attempt to play with a basic material relation which, if transformed, would lead to a different world.

Of course it will be a different world, too, if the relation is not transformed – perhaps a world a bit like Venus, depending on your assumptions. The situation itself demands evaluation and decision about multiple possible human futures (hence its politics) but in the context of these green tech practices I tend to be most interested in the ethical dimension, namely how an evaluative or normative problem enters into the formation of a subject and the work upon the subject in the mutual constitution of subject and object. How do these people formulate personal commitments to environmental or social problems? So this is one aspect of an anthropology of climate change in which atmosphere as a problem might work to configure an ethical futurism of green tech investment.

By the way, in this vein anthropology is no new-comer. The idea of anthropology as modernist discipline was founded on the imagining of different worlds through the exploration of human possibility and necessity. It’s worth reminding people that Ursula K. LeGuin’s middle name is that of her father, Alfred Kroeber.

I think we can expect more from anthropology of the environment. At The New School for Social Research last semester I went to an invited panel discussion – it was an all-afternoon event with panels of noted NY&nearby anthropologists grouped by topic of research. I went to two panels – one on finance, the next on environment. The thing that struck me was how specific the questions were for the anthropology of finance. The panel ended up being a substantive debate about the crucial topics for anthropological research on finance, what topics mattered most and how they might be approached.

The environment panel was less convincing, not for the quality of the work being discussed – the three panelists had lots of interesting things to say, especially about method – but because there was no engagement over the role of anthropology concerning environmental practices. There was no ‘anthropology’ at stake and similarly no ‘environment’ that could be specified as such.

So I think a real engagement on this question in the context of climate change could go a long way to making clear one possible focus for the anthropology of environment.

Anyone tracking climate change issues – especially from a research perspective – will have noted the intense volume of activity that falls within its scope. As anthropologists working among policy scientists, climatologists of different stripes, economists, ecologists and sociologists, we are challenged to specify what forms of knowledge fall within the scope of an anthropological approach. This seems to me a basis for collaborating both with other anthropologists (so that there will be no confusion, even if there will still be disagreement) as well as non-anthropologists (who deserve not to be confused by the vague answers anthropologists usually give when asked what they do). It’s also necessary because, in order to collaborate, we need to know when to rely on the work of others and when to go out and do the work we’re best at. To wed Luhmann to Strathern: functional simplification breeds literalisation (ironic kinship metaphors intended).

To this end, the first challenge is to specify the anthropological significance of climate change, which is to demand a degree of precision about what anthropology is that it would engage with the problem on its own terms. In sum, what is anthropology that it cares about climate change?

The objective, then, is to create a sketch of possible anthropological approaches to the dominant concerns surrounding climate change. What are the different ways in? And how do they cohere with each other?

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.