Free to Access: Symposium on Climate Transformations

Issue 39(1) of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review features a symposium on Climate Transformations. Organized by Jerome Whitington, it includes three new peer-reviewed articles, each offering distinct contributions to broader questions around climate change.

The full symposium includes the following pieces:

Taken together, the papers, according to Whitington, orient around the following questions:

Taken as a tenuous and shifting terrain of exploration, what does climate change demand of anthropology? In other words, is anthropology put at risk in our apprehension of climatic transformation?

In the editorial introduction, Whitington elaborates:

With the signing of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, there is finally some movement on the remarkably complex problem of climate change. There are now at least four major global legal agreements addressing climate change: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1988); the Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992); the Kyoto Protocol (1997); and now this. Predictably, pundits have hailed it either as a fundamental step forward or a spectacle that presages a long, slow onslaught of disasters in the making. Anthropologists—some of whom have participated in the process—are equally likely to be of two or more minds, for there is a fundamental gap between what scientists say is needed and what politicians are able to deliver. Few observers have claimed the Paris Agreement alone is sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem: the course of nearly twenty-five years of United Nations climate negotiations, global carbon emissions have grown even faster than the worst-case projections. This past year, 2015, was probably the last year, for the indefinite future, that atmospheric carbon dioxide will be less than 400 parts-per-million (Keeling 2015).

Indeed—in contrast to the apocalyptic tenor of much public discourse—the “indefinite future” might capture the temporality of the predicament. If global institutions are being transformed in the face of such a historically unprecedented, planetary event as climate change, anthropology can also expect to do a little soul searching when its object, the human, is being held responsible for such far-reaching effects. Human activity, although with vastly differing degrees of responsibility, has changed the basic dynamics of the climate system. Anthropologists can also recognize that dramatically reducing global carbon emissions is a strikingly ambitious historical possibility, and at the center of the Paris Agreement is an attempt to manage the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Climate change has thrust “the human” onto center stage as an object of public debate and international policy precisely because it remains unclear what future awaits.

The three articles collected in this symposium engage directly with the distinctive historical conjuncture of climate change to pose questions about the expansive potential of an ecological process that is just getting started. The question raised by these articles might be put as follows: Taken as a tenuous and shifting terrain of exploration, what does climate change demand of anthropology? In other words, is anthropology put at risk by climatic transformations? This approach proposes that “climate change” designates a problem domain rather than a set of authoritative facts (Rabinow 2003), and stipulates that research must remain open to ontological difference. Anthropologists may find themselves in new terrain, asking how to do an ethnography of planetary pollutants, cryospheric landscapes, or subterranean geological sequestration, even while these anthropogenic domains increasingly take the form of terra incognita for the natural scientists, engineers, and accountants with whom we collaborate. Rather than enforcing a division of academic labor in which we are primarily responsible for contextual knowledge, cultural meaning, or the practicalities of policy, anthropologists participate in exploring the actual make-up of nonhuman worlds through ethnographic collaboration, experimentation and critical inquiry.

These articles, therefore, pursue a strategy of ontological pluralism, for they are concerned with the possibility of different worlds.

The vulnerability of a discipline that puts itself at risk is amply demonstrated by perhaps one of the most challenging recent ethnographies of climate change, Julie Cruikshank’s (2010) Do Glaciers Listen? She juxtaposes contemporary ecological change for the Tlingit along the Gulf of Alaska, below the surging glaciers of the Saint Elias Mountain Divide, against oral tradition and memories of the Little Ice Age. Cruikshank asks her readers to think about the status of memory and narrative in light of the agentive dynamism of living glaciers and changing climates. In her words, and in the stories of the Tlingit, “glaciers take action and respond to their surroundings. They are sensitive to smells and they listen. They make moral judgments and they punish infractions” (3).

Her question does not mainly concern a simple anthropomorphism of the cryosphere, which might serve to discount what is at stake. Rather, attentive to the long-term historicity of language and cultural experience, her analysis demonstrates that a relational ontology of ice is essential to understanding what she calls the social imagination through which glaciers are lived.2 “We now find it difficult to believe that rocks, mountains, and other landscape features like glaciers might listen, when the very conditions of the Western material and cultural world are underpinned by language that rejects that possibility” (Cruikshank 2010, 4). Posing the ontological question, “What is ice?,” she challenges anthropologists and climate scientists alike to consider the obligation of letting glaciers listen.

There are perhaps a number of different theoretical inspirations of the formulation I have presented, but one way to approach the demands placed on knowledge by anthropogenic climate change is through the philosophy of science of Isabelle Stengers (1997, 2010). Stengers emphasizes the tenuous achievements of scientific endeavor, the speculative and pragmatic basis of formulating genuine scientific questions, and the complex obligations that experimentation places on scientists and others who take its conclusions seriously. For Stengers, therefore, the achievements of climate change science are delicately dependent on the many different facets of scientific practice and the experimental apparatuses through which it is composed. The facts simply cannot be taken for granted. Equally important are fundamental questions that drive a global endeavor to grapple with climate transformations. These questions are experimental and speculative. Just as the present has become uncanny, these questions postulate and explore a future of unknown worlds and pose a preeminently anthropological dilemma concerning humans’ collective status on Earth qua home. For underlying even the popular discourse surrounding the Paris Agreement is the question: Will this planet be habitable in the centuries to come?

The significance of climate change stems from its provocative questions—not from the incontrovertible authority of its truth. For Stengers, this is due to historical and cultural factors through which scientific research places obligations on those who accept its experimental results. Viewed in this light, an emerging generation of scholars has embarked on exploring what I will call the anthropological significance of climate change.

More symposia will be free to access in the coming months. Follow PoLAR for regular updates!

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