Climate Change and Retreatist Anthropology

Laura Nader, in a 2013 interview (De Lauri 2013)—the message of which is no less salient today—stated: “For me anthropology is the freest of scientific endeavors because it potentially does not stop at boundaries that interfere with the capacity of the mind for self-reflection. This is a moment for new syntheses in a world that is both interconnected and disconnected, on a planet where long term survival is at risk. Anthropologists should not shrink from the big questions.” And yet, I argue here, such a shrinking or retreat as I see it, is precisely what we are witnessing as anthropology engages one of the biggest questions of our time: how to slow and mitigate the existential crisis of climate change and related anthropogenic environmental disruptions? I was reminded of this dilemma recently when a colleague and I submitted a book proposal on the anthropology of climate change. The objectives of the book were: first, to apply the critical perspective in anthropology to anthropogenic climate change and the global socioecological crisis (Baer and Singer 2018), and second, to promote a movement toward a socially just, highly democratic, environmentally sustainable, and climatically safe world system. The critical perspective I embrace seeks to go beyond technological adjustments or greenwashed but business as usual responses to the threats of climate change to consider the possibilities for fundamental structural change as the adaptation needed in our time of global peril (Eriksen et al. 2015).

Unmindful of Eric Wolf’s (1990: 558) lament that anthropology often resembles a misguided project in intellectual deforestation, one of the reviewers of the book proposal emphasized that, “Some anthropologists would say that the socioecological perspective is somewhat dated and limited, given the more recent ontological … turn.” While there has been much discussion within and beyond anthropology (e.g., in geography), on the ontological turn, I focus here on the nature of this turn considering current reports on ever-accelerating anthropologic climate change and ever-broadening environment degradation. Drawing on the planetary boundaries framework from Earth system science, Richardson et al. (2023), for example, report that six of the nine planetary boundaries (e.g., biogeochemical flows, ocean acidity, climate) that are critical for maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth system have been transgressed, suggesting that our planet is now well outside of a safe operating space for humanity and many other species. Drawing on 34,000 studies and involving 270 authors from 67 countries, the final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC 2023), has been described as “an atlas of human suffering” by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. The report documents the sharply increasing pattern of the destruction of homes, the loss of livelihoods, the fragmentation of communities, impoverization, inequity, and loss of life.

How should anthropology be viewing this natural science reporting? It comes as no surprise to contemporary anthropologists that our discipline now harbors disruptive doubts about our historically foundational notion of culture and much that goes with it. Abu-Lughod (1991), for example, argued for the development and adoption of strategies for writing against culture. Culture, she maintained, was overburdened with the assumptions inherent in the divide between the knowledgeable scholar and the person whose culture was under study. From a feminist perspective, Abu-Lughod asserted that the “self” is formed by being contrasted with an “other.” This self/other binary lies at the heart of our sense of identity and finds expression in various ways (e.g., man/woman; straight/gay; boss/worker; citizen/alien; ruler/ruled). As these examples suggest, critical to this binary is recognition that it undergirds an asymmetrical or hierarchicalrelationship. Because culture is the primary tool for creating the self/other binary, it must be both seen and resisted as a means of enforcing separations that inevitably carry a sense of inequality. For example, the “relationship between the West and the non-West, at least since the birth of anthropology, has been constituted by Western domination” and the domination of Western culture (Abu-Lughod 1991: 52).

In the years after Abu-Lughod’s initial thrust, anthropologists struggled to find a footing on which to sustain their discipline in a gloomy academic world of cutbacks, vanishing jobs, and departmental closings. At the 2013 AAA meeting, however, there was much buzz about an exciting new turn in the discipline (one of many turns over the years in our restless field) that would be the next big thing, a new direction that in a way could rescue culture by recognizing that differences in cultural phenomena are not merely different interpretations of a shared, natural world, rather, there are alternate realities and other ways of beings that exist in parallel with and are of equal value with our own. In short, “reality is historically, culturally and materially located… (And thus r)ealities have become multiple” (Mol 1999:75). Heywood (2017) provides an example. If, during field research, an interlocutor says to an anthropologist that the tree she is pointing to is really a spirit, to record this statement as a cultural belief imposes an anthropological view while violating the individual’s understanding that the object in question is a spirit. The proponents of the ontological rethinking claim that this is a new way of framing cultural difference, one that finally takes statements of our interlocutors seriously. I (Singer 2021) encountered this issue while interviewing a houngan sur pwen (lower-level male Vodun priest) in Jacmel, Haiti. This individual stated that at night he turns into a bicycle and spies on his enemies. To interpret this statement as a cultural belief, when for the speaker it was a statement of fact, is, from the ontological perspective, an imposition of the anthropologist’s understanding onto the interlocutor’s understanding of the world. The turn to ontology, in short, asserts there are “problems with the dominant discourse in prioritizing a particular way of knowing, thus marginalizing (and making absent) other epistemologies and ontologies” (Goldman, Turner and Daly 2017).

Given that for many anthropologists the whole point of our culturalist position historically was an attempt to do justice to other peoples’ ideas, ontology seemed to represent a new foundation for achieving an enduring goal. Moreover, in the shadow of anthropology’s disruptive crisis of representation (Clifford and Marcus 2010, Marcus and Fisher 1986), as addressed by multiple anthropologists in the groundbreaking volume Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation (Harrison 1997), a core theme of contemporary anthropology is the struggle to be a decolonizing discipline. This has entailed recognizing and directly confronting anthropology’s colonial legacies, which have led to the marginalization, exploitation, and erasure of Indigenous peoples, women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the poor and working classes along with their knowledge and understanding of the world (Allen and Jobson 2016, Bolles 2013).

The ongoing (and no doubt endless) engagement of anthropology with its troubled past—a domain that encompasses everything before today—is very engaging, thought provoking, and in some ways a worthy endeavor but if our goal is addressing the existential threat now facing our species and, indeed, all species, there is a problem, a grave problem. Do we limit our work to the study of the unique factual worlds of other people to learn and give equal weight to their understanding of the world or even seemingly changing temperatures and all that goes with it? Do we, as well, treat the world as understood by elite polluting corporations and greenhouse gas producers as fully legitimate and equal in value to grassroots opponents desperately organizing around the world to stop climate change? One apt critique of ontology in this arena was penned by Bessire and Bond (2014: 446): “ontological anthropology is incapable of accounting for those disruptive beings [e.g., mining, petroleum, and logging company executives and their work forces] and things [e.g., industrial toxins, rising seas, infectious diseases] that travel between [the land/sea/atmospheric homes] of different ontologies. Ontological anthropology avoids recognizing such confrontations, in part, by pressing all analysis of materiality ever further into sacred materials.” An interlocutor may know full well that a tree is a spirit, but that will not prevent a logging company from cutting down the tree, splitting it into flitches, and finishing it as boards to be exported to a wealthy country to replace homes damaged by the ravages of climate change. Nor will it mitigate the loss of sequestered carbon on forcing additional climate change.

Extractivism of this sort, involving the expropriation of natural resources for exportation, is an inherently unequal process driven by the organized use of violence, including assassinating Indigenous environmental defenders (Tran and Hanaček 2023). Moreover, as reported by Retka et al. (2023), the multi-billion dollar a year U.S.disaster-restoration industry takes full advantage of the ready availability of low-wage, undocumented migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, people who flee poverty, violence, and “natural” disasters in their homelands. Hired to clear rubble and rebuild in the aftermath of climate-driven hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, their health suffers from jobsite exposure to harmful toxins like mold, asbestos and lead. There is, in short, what Sidanius and Pratto (2012) call a “circle of oppression” that is foundational to the world economic system, a structure that is hard to understand from the vantage of one location.

In the words of Ryan Anderson (2014), with the ontological turn, anthropologists “have sort of painted ourselves into a corner–effectively removing ourselves from the public sphere… We do this–sometimes–by retreating into our own corners and closed, specialized conversations… [M]y skepticism about the ontology-related excitement isn’t so much about whether or not I find ontology personally useful or relevant. It’s more about whether or not the ‘ontological turn’ fever is just another in a series of inward-looking shifts that further entrenches us in our own little worlds” (Anderson 2014) and away from the big questions.

This is the reason I view the ontological turn as a form of retreatism. Retreatism conventionally is described as the tendency at the individual level to withdraw from society and its means of achieving societally supported goals. Here I use the term to reveal the ontological turn as a form of retreatism into the particularist cultural anthropology I first encountered when I entered the discipline over 50 years ago. It was in response to the limitations of that orientation for addressing pressing world problems that in my work I have sought to focus attention on building a critical perspective as part of a holistic approach that brings together the microworlds of individual interlocutors, shared sociocultural elements in a social group, and wider fields of power that cross-cut social domains, regions of the world, and points in time.

A component of this framework is recognition that all ontologies are fraught with their own contradictions and rationalize ingroup social inequalities (Htun and Ossa 2013, Richards 2005). Further, it seeks to avoid essentializing the ontologies of Others by considering, as West (2005) does in her account of the Gimi of Papua New Guinea, by considering them as emergent critiques of dispossession, rather than as the timeless and unchanging cosmologies of all members of any social group. Of note in this regard is the work of Myers (2022) on refocusing the term “ecosocial,” a concept that has been used in somewhat different ways by various scholars over time. Myers, based on research with Maasai women in Tanzania, uses ecosocial to refer to the intimate linkages people maintain with their ecological context, or place in the world, including the land, rocks, plants, animals, and spirits found there. She argues that when the ecological context suffers, one’s sense of well-being suffers as well. Climate-related stress, she found, has direct effects on the relationships between Maasai women, their livestock, and the land and is a key driver of individual emotional well-being. Climate-related stressors cause a cascade of negative consequences for the emotional well-being of Maasai women despite the understandings of their historic cosmologies. Finally, the critical framework acknowledges the fundamental importance of social and cosmological change sparked by local resistance, activism, and coalition building to conserve local and broader natural (if human-impacted) worlds (Bormpoudakis 2019).

In this light, it warrants remembering that in its time, although naive to ways the world of nature and of society were changing, historical particularism in anthropology was an effective counter to forced and undeniably racist unilinear evolutionary conceptions. Boas, father of the perspective, emphasized detailed ethnography-driven studies of distinct cultural systems and their unique developmental histories. This orientation dominated general American anthropology until World War II and retained a presence a bit longer in medical anthropology until it gave way to an environmentally rooted variant known as medical ecology.  Ultimately a form of particularism re-emerged in the 1980s as anthropologists came to realize that even with global capitalist penetration and intermingled flows of ideas, peoples, media, and structures, historical processes continue to differentiate cultural patterns. While this is a keen insight, it does not eliminate the impact of the multiple cross-cutting forces that tie logged areas of Amazonia to rising seas circling Florida or coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef to deadly heat waves in India. Ecocrises interactions (Singer 2021) occur independent of human understanding although it is only with such understanding that we can hope to usher in a safer world for all people. A retreat into particularism of any sort leaves our discipline ill equipped to play a role in what may be the last-ditch struggles facing a beleaguered but divided humanity (Singer 2019). Instead, as Bessire and Bond (2020, unpublished, by permission of the authors), maintain: “Our planetary crises do not require less critical ethnography; they demand more. As people across the globe grapple with the uninhabitable remnants of self-devouring systems, ecological tipping points and the widening chasm between luxury and deprivation, anthropological insights matter now more than ever.” To matter in the present, we should always be reflexive but find a path forward, not backward.


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