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Climate Change From the Anthropological Perspective


The topic of climate change has become a widespread global problem in recent decades since humanity has realized the destructive impact of anthropogenic activities on the environment. Attempts to mitigate these influences are discussed in international meetings and forums, and efforts made by green organizations aim to reduce human impacts on nature, thereby reducing the rate of climate change. At the same time, this is critical to take into account the aspect of adaptation as a feature of human existence, which implies adaptation to the current living conditions, including environmental ones. In anthropology, adaptation is whereby groups of people add new and improved methods to their cultural repertoire to adapt to environmental conditions. Thus, despite the available knowledge about the destructive impact of humans on the environment and climate, humanity tends to adapt to changes more willingly than to look for ways to eliminate the challenges created. This cultural context reflects the characteristics of human existence and emphasizes the adaptive and passive nature of socialization, which overpowers the active one.

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The Cultural Dimension of Anthropology in the Context of Climate Change

The diversity of humans in time and space is made up of the manifestations of numerous traits and signs. Such a sign is, as a rule, a specific expression of any biological property of the human body, which can take on distinctive manifestations in different individuals. In addition, this feature can also be accurately measured or described. However, in relation to the cultural dimension, the corresponding features are often discussed in aggregate, thereby grouping people according to common properties rather than dividing them. De Wit et al. mention the “transmission of collective memory and oral history” as a feature of society, and the topic of climate change is included in the spectrum of such transmissions (3). In general, the cultural context encompasses essential aspects of human life, traditions, and values. According to Spradley, cultural anthropology studies learned behaviors, which, in turn, explain the characteristic habits of people in the same group, such as dressing habits, eating preferences, language norms, and other characteristics (19). As a result, such acquired norms reflect specific behaviors that may differ among peoples but bring specific groups closer together.

From the perspective of climate change, learned behaviors are broadening to include larger groups than individual communities and peoples. Since this issue has a global context, the anthropological characteristics of humanity as a whole are taken into account, and general cultural features are more significant than individual ones. Stryker discusses public interest anthropology as a concept that emphasizes the interests of the masses and highlights appropriate policies to develop and implement to satisfy relevant cultural and legal norms (361). In other words, certain aspects of life in society are common to all people, without exception, and such an anthropological context, as a rule, has a cultural background. Addressing climate change requires involving numerous interested parties, and everyone’s role in protecting the environment is seen as significant today. Over time, humanity has realized how destructive uncontrolled anthropogenic activities can be, and the responsibility for the current problems is collective. Therefore, in the context of climate change, the cultural dimension of anthropology implies a joint search for solutions, methods, and approaches to address the existing gaps and challenges rather than individual measures and pinpoint impacts.

Cultural Relativism in Relation to Climate Change

As an alternative idea, one can consider climate change not from the standpoint of collective responsibility but as a result of the activities of individual cultures. Advanced industrial activities, developed due to rapid technological progress, entail the large-scale operation of factories, plants, and other large enterprises that pollute the environment, thereby affecting the climate. This is noteworthy that certain world regions are dominant in such activities due to their developed economies, stable trade relations, complex infrastructures, and other similar factors. In other words, the formation of capacities to carry out large-scale activities associated with climate impacts is a feature of individual regions. In this regard, one can draw attention to the concept of cultural relativism that Abu-Lughod describes as the idea that individual parties are responsible for specific problems and shortcomings that humanity has faced (789). Small volumes of pollution generated by individual regions should not be on a par with the impacts exerted in individual industrial centers. In the context of several countries’ dominance, this hypothesis may be relevant as the explanation of the differences in the role and influence of various peoples on climate change and its consequences.

In this regard, cultural relativism is inextricably linked with the attendant factors that influence the relationship among people. According to Abu-Lughod, the political-ethical context of social problems determines the responsibilities of different communities and how individual peoples take specific problems and social tasks to fulfill (786). Therefore, this is illogical to assume that all countries, without exception, have an equal obligation to conduct targeted activities to protect the environment and allocate resources to combat climate change. In his work, Lee discusses how knowledge augmented by independence can help create a sustainable cultural environment (225). This means that a particular people or community can promote certain values ​​inherent in an anthropological context and protect personal interests based on ingrained cultural norms and traditions. Available resources, in turn, are tools to implement specific ideas and goals that protect the established values, and responsibility, in this case, correlates directly with ambitions and development outcomes. As a result, a country seeking industrial, commercial, or other domination has to be held accountable commensurate with the environmental impact and mitigate its activities accordingly. Otherwise, injustice arises, which leads to social discord and discontent.

Measures to Solve the Problem

To address the issue of climate change by taking into account the anthropological context and the theory of cultural relativism, targeted impacts are essential. As De Wit et al. argue, a certain lifestyle and specific values ​​explain the distribution of responsibilities that different participants have (17). For instance, a state with a developed economy and conducting active industrial activities should allocate funds to combat climate change commensurate with the damage done to the environment. Countries with fragile economies, where the resources are insufficient to be successful in industrial activities, do not have to commit the same amount of funds to fight climate change. In this regard, special programs need to be created, which can oversee the work of different countries impartially and determine the degree of responsibility for the damage done to the environment. Otherwise, the risks of inequality and disrespect for individual cultures with their values ​​and histories of the formation increase, which, in turn, contradicts the idea of social respect.

Another measure to address the problem under consideration is to call on as many interested parties as possible to contribute to the fight against climate change. At the same time, participants (as a rule, countries, and regions) need to take into account the existing anthropological differences among distinctive communities. Spradley argues that ethnocentrism is an unacceptable phenomenon in terms of collective liability (21). This form of behavior presupposes the comparison of world cultures with an individual one, which is an erroneous judgment and does not allow assessing different issues objectively. Therefore, various interested parties should respect the traditions and ideas of distinctive cultures and work together productively to tackle the current ecological issues. The more equitably resources are allocated, the more likely humanity will slow down the rate of climate change. Thus, creating oversight programs and involving as many participants as possible are potentially effective solutions to address the issue in question and, at the same time, respect the anthropological context of development in different regions.

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The adaptive nature of the anthropological development of humanity largely explains the contemporary global problems, and climate change may be assessed from the perspective of human adaptation. Regarding the ways to address the issue, the collective context of responsibility is often seen as central. At the same time, given such a concept as cultural relativism, the evaluation of different countries’ and regions’ responsibilities in accordance with a single criterion is unreasonable due to distinctive development principles, including anthropological perspectives. As a result, establishing oversight programs and engaging as many interested parties as possible are seen as strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The anthropological context is a significant criterion explaining the characteristic values ​​and norms promoted by people, including attitudes towards the environment.

Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104(3): 783-790.

De Wit, Sara, et al. 2018. “Translating Climate Change: Anthropology and the Travelling Idea of Climate Change” Sociologus 68(1): 1-20.

Lee, Richard B. 1969. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” In, Conformity and Conflict, 221-225.

Spradley, James. 1997. “Culture and Ethnography.” In, Conformity and Conflict, 18-35.

Stryker, Rachel. 2015. “Public Interest Ethnography: Women’s Prisons and Health Care in California.” In, Conformity and Conflict, 359-370.

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