Anthropology, Weather and Climate Change conference report

Organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute in collaboration with the British Museum’s Department of Oceania, Africa and Asia, this three-day interdisciplinary conference was on a truly grand scale: 52 panels offering multiple sessions, each comprising a host of papers, with additionally, film screenings featuring indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ strategies and methods to tackle climate change and hold on to their lands. Notably, Maasai filmmaker Jemimah Kerenge showed the enormous potential of using participatory video to build resilient communities, such as those pastoralists striving to resist land grabbing by the government in Loliondo, Tanzania, in the interests of the tourist industry. The only drawback with this sheer abundance was that it was only possible to attend a limited number of sessions each day, so that one had to forego much fascinating current research on weather and peoples in different parts of the world mainly by anthropologists, but also by geographers, historians, and archaeologists.

Panels sought to shed light on an impressive array of current climatic concerns including, how individuals and communities make sense of climate change, its causes and effects over multiple temporalities, connections with the workings of global capitalism, unequal impact on North and South and on rich and poor. There was a welcome focus on everyday weather and its potential to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of how people in different cultural contexts experience themselves and the worlds they live in. Weather, as Heid Jerstad (Edinburgh) put it, ‘is experienced and known as it washes over a place and people’s lives’. Here, Dan Rosengren (Gothenburg) reminded us that even though we may think of ‘weather’ as an obvious phenomenon of the physical world, this is not a category that is universally shared. For the Matsigenka people of the Peruvian Amazon, for instance, weather as a collective category that includes various atmospheric phenomena does not exist, although they are familiar with most of the meteorological occurrences that we would include in the category of weather such as rain, wind, and sunshine. In the animist world of the Matsigenka, these phenomena are caused by forces that are not recognised by scientific meteorology, which signifies that they relate to these phenomena in ways that are radically different from how they are experienced in the modern West. In her presentation on the Gaddi agro-pastoral community in the Bharmour region of Himachal Pradesh, north India, Maura Bulgheroni (Université Libre de Bruxelles) added that linear western concepts of climate ‘change’ and ‘adaptation’ were not particularly meaningful to such communities, as weather and climate tended to be perceived in religious cosmological terms as a continuum in a cycle of temporality linking past and present. 

Cultural geographer Mike Hulme took up this theme in his keynote address on ‘the cultural functions of climate’, observing that the idea of climate has always been necessary for humans to live and act in the world, as it offers a sense of stability and regularity that is characteristic of the human search for pattern and meaning. Indeed, various cultures have evolved mythological stories to explain the vicissitudes of climate. Whereas western scientific thinking tends to reduce climate to a ‘thing’ that can be statistically measured and quantified over time, in everyday life people apprehend climate more intuitively as meaningful patterns that can be predicted and trusted, enabling them to live culturally with the often restless and unsettling temporalities of weather. There are also, he remarked, ‘ideologies’ of climate: in the colonial imagination, for instance, tropical climates were often perceived as unhealthy and morally degrading, responsible for ‘lazy’ and ‘backward’ populations. Such a construction of climate variability served as a means of ranking societies hierarchically, justifying colonial rule and post-colonial ‘development’ orthodoxies. Now, in the early twenty-first century, ‘anthropocenic’ climate change, referring to the growing influence of human actions on physical processes operating on a global scale, has emerged as a seemingly new ‘idea’ of weather going irreversibly wrong, conveying a sense of chaotic disruption and signalling an existential threat to human existence itself. However, it also draws on a long history of dire climate prophecies based on a conservative view of history as degeneration, to which contemporary climate scientists are arguably true heirs.

As a means of livelihood deeply affected by changes in weather, agriculture is central to the debate about climate change, and it was not surprising that rural communities’ encounter with climatic forces across the world featured extensively in many panel presentations.  While it was recognised that rapid, recurring weather changes and events now pose a serious challenge to the age old efforts of farmers to ‘make the weather work’ for them, the papers tended to concentrate, positively, on practices and strategies aimed at strengthening local resilience. In her presentation on monsoon changeability and coffee growers in the coffee plantation belt of the Western Ghats in southern India, Anshu Ogra (Jawaharlal Nehru University) stressed that climate ‘adaptation’ strategies advocated by policy-oriented professionals such as climatologists and meteorologists needed to make space for the more local livelihood perspectives of the coffee farmers. In a previous article, Ogra had observed that the farmers did not simply rely on ‘impressionistic’ or even cosmological views of weather patterns; instead, owing to the coffee plants’ sensitivity to even minor changes in rainfall and to the effects of precipitation, they maintained their own ‘scientific’ rainfall records through the use of a calibrated rain gauge. This increased their resilience capabilities, enabling them to switch to a different variety of coffee (from Arabica to Robusta, which is conducive to artificial irrigation) in the light of predicted rainfall loss.

Other attempts to establish new thresholds of resilience in the face of changing monsoon patterns involved community-led revival and conservation of traditional crops. Tsvetilena Bandakova (Edinburgh) discussed the revival and cultivation of locally adapted varieties of jowar (millet) in the ‘tribal’ areas of Maharashtra as a response to climate change and the loss of agro-biodiversity. She emphasised the importance of the establishment of seed banks which enabled local farmers to share seeds and participate in plant breeding experiments with NGO scientists. In her presentation on sustainable farming practices in Nagaland, north-east India, Illiyana Angelova (Oxford) stressed the significance of intergenerational knowledge exchanges in enabling the strengthening of local resilience. As local rice farmers faced up to the challenges of deforestation, landslides from heavy monsoon rains and soil erosion, educated young people were returning to the fields with the conscious aim of promoting environmentally sustainable practices through community work. This involved plant knowledge exchange with elders and new initiatives such as the establishment of women-led small farms.

The intergenerational passing of traditional knowledge includes the crucial dimension of genetic diversity. The Tagbanua communities in the Palavan province of the Philippines continue to practise shifting cultivation or ‘swidden agriculture’ centred on rice, with seeds and associated environmental knowledges passed down from one generation to the next. In their presentation, Sophia Maria Cuevas and Imelda Olvida (Philippine Rice Research Institute) emphasised how the preservation of traditional rice cultivars enabled farmers to identify those varieties that had the potential of performing well in different weather conditions. Their nomadic lifestyle, moreover, enabled them to relocate to safer agrarian environments in the face of extreme weather events such as floods or droughts. Maintained over a longue dureé temporality, genetic diversity greatly reinforced farming communities’ resilience options. Using a historical ecology approach, Roy Ellen (Kent) showed the persistence over several centuries (1500-1950) of long distance trade networks in the Moluccan archipelago of eastern Indonesia. The resilience of local farming systems was maintained through social exchange based on cultivating a wide variety of the cassava crop, capable of accommodating the specific consequences of climatic perturbations.

Finally, Cris Simonetti’s (Catholic University of Chile) critique of geoscientific methods and validating procedures was particularly interesting in view of the recent (August 2016) official recommendation by the scientists on the Working Group on the Anthropocene to pronounce the mid-twentieth century as marking the new ‘age of the Anthropocene’. In particular, the reliance on ‘signals’ that have to occur globally as fossilized deposits (e.g. plastic pollution, concrete particles, chicken bones) as the main determining factor suggests, he observed, a ‘petrified understanding of time’ and a ‘fossilized view of becoming’. Here the only relevant temporality is one that is marked by the punctuated accumulation of solid surfaces, making this past accessible only to a selective group of (western) experts who are at the same time empowered to pronounce planetary-scale technocratic fixes. This flattens the broad diversity of human historical temporalities, separates humans from the rest of nature while also reducing the Anthropocene-humanity to a single collective subject. The result is to eclipse the history of power relations within the human species and to occlude the specific political economies that degrade the planet. We are not quite all in this together...