Some issues with an anthropology of climate change (Imponderabilia)

By Heid Jerstad
Spring ’10 – Issue 2

Introduction: Climate change is something everyone comes across in their personal and day-to-day lives. This article explores some of the possible reasons why anthropology has been slow in taking up this issue and analogies are drawn with the postcolonial and feminist critiques of anthropology.

Some issues with an anthropology of climate change

Is there a stigma in anthropology about climate issues? Do you see this title and think ‘well, I switch off my lights, but this has no place in academia?’ I would like to reflect a little on why this might be so. As students we learn about the ‘personal as political’ in gender theory. I think the issue of climate change (and the related, but not identical, issue of peak oil) may be a fairly close parallel to the attention given to gender issues in anthropology during the 1980s. Both feminism and the climate change movement are political movements in society, wanting to change the way people live their lives. So why is climate change only present on the margins of anthropological research?

Several scholars have issued calls to action, arguing that this area needs further research (Rayner 1989, Battersbury 2008, Crate and Nuttall 2009). So far, however, it has been hard for anthropologists to directly engage with the issue of climate change. I propose in the following to discuss and examine several reasons for this.

Firstly, anthropology has in the past few decades focused on subjectivities of difference (Moore 2009). That is to say on minorities, colonial power imbalances and sexualities, to give a few examples. The theory developed to deal with these identity and power issues is then perhaps badly suited to address phenomena that are affecting the entire globe. All human societies seem to be experiencing some impact, regardless of which categories of difference they might fall into. In some cases, the social, economic and ecological impact of other, non-climatic changes – for instance the effect of mining and tubewells on the groundwater in Rajasthan (Jerstad 2009) – combines with climatic effects to ‘exacerbate . . . existing problems’ (Crate and Nuttall 2009:11). To comprehend this interaction, socially oriented analysis is required. The ethnographic focus of the anthropologist, sharpened as it has been by highlighting issues of difference, can contribute to more complete understandings of the complex agricultural, linguistic, ritual, local-global, differentiated forces and effects operating on various scales and infrastructures. Such research – on the societal effects of climate change – can benefit from the theory base of anthropology, and subjectivities of difference would certainly have their place in such an analysis.

Secondly, the issue of climate change forces contact between academic anthropology and the ‘hard’ sciences and ‘development.’ Each of these points of contact proves problematic in its own way.

‘Science’ has been set aside by mainstream anthropology to the degree that there is a set of ‘replacement’ parallels within the discipline – such as medical anthropology and ethnobiology. But it is within western science that the majority of the research on climate change has been done. Here scientists have become activists and found their scientific material to have ethical relevance. What they lack is an understanding of how climatic effects will impact human societies around the world existing under very different ecological and social conditions.

‘Development’ – though sometimes the site of fruitful collaboration with anthropology – operates under very different assumptions from anthropology (Mosse 2006). The tendency in development is to use climate change as an excuse to deal with existing problems such as drought or extreme weather events. Yet here there is a risk that climate change will be sidelined by governments and other internal social institutions as ‘just another issue’ for the development agencies to deal with.

Thirdly, a reluctance to engage politically, which is not new in the discipline, seems to contribute to anthropologists’ reluctance to tackle climate change as an issue. Could doing fieldwork today while ignoring ecological issues be seen as equivalent to doing fieldwork in the 1930s while ignoring the colonial presence? Both situations are political, placing anthropologists between the countries that fund them and those that provide the data for their work – countries that are themselves caught up in global power relationships. In the colonial instance, the anthropologist was often from the country colonising their area of study. Today issues of power relations are far more complex, but this is all the more reason not to ignore them. I am suggesting not only to place climate change in the ethics or methodology section of a monograph with reference to political relationships and logistical issues, but also to reflect on cultural relationships with the ‘weather,’ how it is changing and how these relationships in turn may be affected. In Crates’ work with the Sakha people of Siberia (2008), she introduces her call for anthropologists to become advocates with a story of the ‘bull of winter’ losing its horns and hence its strength, signalling spring. This meteorological model no longer meshes with experienced reality for the Sakha, highlighting the cultural implications of climatic change beyond ‘mere’ agricultural or economic effects (Vedwan and Rhoades 2001).

Another analogy, touched on in the introduction, is with gender. Problematising the gendered dimension of societies is a political act, but a necessary one in order to avoid the passive politics of unquestioningly reinforcing the status quo. An anthropological study of Indian weddings without mention of the hijras – cross-dressing dancers (Nanda 1990) – for instance, might leave the reader with the general impression that gender/sexuality in India is uniformly dualistic. In the same way, leaving energy relations to economists and political scientists is itself a political act. The impacts of climate change on humans, though mediated by wind and weather, are as social as gender relations, and are products of a particular set of power relations (Hornborg 2008). By ignoring them, anthropologists risk becoming passive supporters of this system.

An anthropology of climate change is emerging (Grodzins Gold 1998, Rudiak-Gould 2009), and anthropologists must reflect on and orient themselves in relation to this. Villagers and other informants are affected by drought, floods, storms and more subtle meteorological changes that are hard to pinpoint as climate-change caused but can be assumed to be climate-change exacerbated. Would anthropological work in these areas and on these issues primarily benefit aid organisations? I don’t think so. Giving academic credibility to problems people are facing can allow governments, corporations and other bodies to act and change policy in a world where the word of a villager tends to carry very little weight.


Battersbury, Simon. 2008. Anthropology and Global Warming: The Need for Environmental Engagement. Australian Journal of Anthropology 19 (1)

Crate, S. A. and Nuttall, 2009. Anthropology and Climate Change: From encounters to actions. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Crate, S. A. 2008. “Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change.” Current Anthropology, 49 (4), 569.

Gold, Ann Grodzins. 1998. “Sin and Rain: Moral Ecology in Rural North India.” In Lance E. Nelson ed. Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York Press, 165-195.

Hornberg, A. 2008. Machine fetishism and the consumer’s burden. Anthropology Today, 24 (5).

Jerstad, H. 2009. Climate Change in the Jaisamand Catchment Area: Vulnerability and Adaptation. Unpublished report for SPWD.

Mosse, D. 2006. Anti-social anthropology? Objectivity, objection and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.). 12 (4), 935-956.

Moore, Henrietta 20th Oct 2009 SOAS departmental seminar.

Nanda, S. 1990. Neither man nor woman: the hijras of India. Wadsworth: Open University Press.

Rayner, S. 1989. Fiddling While the Globe Warms? Anthropology Today 5 (6)

Rudiak-Gould, P. 2009. The Fallen Palm: Climate Change and Culture Change in the Marshall Islands. VDM Verlag.

Vedwan and Rhoades, 2001 Climate change in the western Himalayas of India: a study of local perception and response. Climate research, 19, 109-117.

Heid Jerstad is a Norwegian-English MA Res student at SOAS. After completing a BA in arch and anth at Oxford, she went to India and worked on the impacts of climate change in southern Rajasthan. She is now attempting to pursue related issues in her dissertation. In her spare time she volunteers in a Red Cross shop, hosts dinner parties and fights with her sword.