Anthropogenic climate change constitutes an alarming threat to the safety and health of humankind. According to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some of its consequences will include heat waves, loss of biodiversity, food and water insecurity, an increase in water- and vector-borne diseases, frequent and extreme storms and floods, and intense droughts (Parry et. al., 2007:18).
Climate change presents a unique set of challenges because its effects are widely dispersed (both spatially and temporally), and it is the result of ongoing, seemingly inconsequential activities, such as driving a car or switching on a light. Scientists, ethicists, economists and politicians have all taken part in discussions about climate change, but in general, anthropologists have been slow to add their input.
This paper analyzes the following anthropological dimensions of past and present climate change: the relationship of indigenous cultures to nature, the beginning of climate change with the advent of agriculture, ancient strategies for coping with climate change, and modern mindsets that may hinder our ability to act in the face of climate change. Peering into the past allows us to gain a new perspective on our role in the natural world, and highlights the urgency of the current climate situation.
One human dimension of climate change is how we perceive our relationship to nature. When nature is seen as a collection of resources for humans to exploit, ecological damage is practically guaranteed. Many people look nostalgically to indigenous cultures and ancient societies for examples of man respecting nature. Indigenous peoples such as Native Americans and Polynesians are often perceived as being in harmony with the natural world. It is often proposed that if modern industrial societies could only adopt the conservationist viewpoint that their indigenous ancestors had, then widespread environmental exploitation would cease.
Two well-documented indigenous cultures cited as having exemplary conservationist attitudes are the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari desert and the Mundurucu of the Tapajos Valley in Brazil. According to anthropologist George Silberbauer, the hunter "does not attempt to manipulate their habitat" (Silberbauer, 1981:291) and "their conservation intent is demonstrated by their refusal to use locally scarce specimens" (Silberbauer, 1981:78).
[...] Due to its far-reaching nature, climate change is often assumed to be the result of modern lifestyles and sophisticated technology. Surprisingly, however, while it is true that advanced technological inventions like cars, airplanes and coal-fired power plants have been the main drivers of anthropogenic climate change since the Industrial Revolution, according to paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman, pre-industrial societies have been causing climate change for centuries. Ruddiman's daring hypothesis is that humans started warming the planet when they began to practice agriculture 11,000 years ago. [...]
[...] Modern American society looks nothing like the ancient civilizations, such as the Maya, the Akkadian empire, and the Norse, that were undermined by climate change in the past. Unfortunately, lessons from ancient civilizations reveal that in some ways we are actually less equipped to cope with climactic and environmental crises than our ancestors were. Hunter-gatherers, for example, adjusted easily to climate change for thousands of years. They adapted to droughts, floods, varying temperatures, and sea level rise by changing location or finding new food sources, and they only increased their vulnerability to climate shifts when they made the switch to living in permanent villages (Fagan, 2004:57). [...]
[...] Unfortunately, one significant difference in perspectives between past civilizations and modern society that might hinder our ability to solve climate change is that modern people expect scientists and politicians to solve climate change for them, whereas members of past civilizations had to actively cooperate in order to adapt to climate shifts. Our mindset is the result of “specialization,” which means that “virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another—our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician” (Pollan, 2008:4). [...]
[...] JSTOR. Lone Star Coll.-Kingwood Lib., Kingwood. May < http://www.jstor.org/stable/3824451> Dickens, Peter. Society and Nature. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press Fagan, Brian. The Long Summer. New York: Basic Books Fagan, Brian. The Great Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press Hock, Roger B. Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth [...]
[...] Although indigenous traditions may be semi-representative of deep ecology, we must re-examine the assumption that the indigenous relationship to nature is the ideal. Although it may be tempting to assume that all indigenous societies were respectful of nature, many of them severely and irreparably exploited their habitats. Largely from over-hunting and deforestation, “pre-industrial societies have been undermining their own existence for thousands of years” and “some of the best-documented examples involve Polynesians and American Indians, the very peoples most often cited as exemplars of environmentalism” (Diamond, 2008:39). [...]
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