Accepted paper:

Obstructing the era of demerit: ceremonial performance as disaster prevention


Andrea Butcher (University of Exeter)

Paper short abstract:

In August 2010, a cloud burst and subsequent flash flooding devastated settlements and farmland in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, North-West India. The paper explores the critical reflection that followed the flood. Anthropologists are well placed to analyse the impact of climate change in human terms due to the detailed knowledge anthropology generates of those affected. The benefits of this can spread beyond the cataloguing of resource vulnerability, social and material adaption, and the compilation of data for interdisciplinary research. An anthropology of climate change can elucidate the local or moral governance systems that fall outside the normative scientific and bureaucratic mechanisms of international climate change management.

Paper long abstract:

The paper emphasises the persistence of such moral systems through an examination of the vernacular idioms used to describe the causes of the cloud burst, and the local technologies used to formulate a response. The local response highlighted the interpenetration of voices in the singular space of the tragedy: scientific explanations of climate change, local narratives of weather anomalies and supernatural guardians, and the moral discourse of karmic retribution. Locally, the tragedy was understood to be a sign of decline into an era of demerit: the inevitable degeneration in the protective capacity of the Buddhist teachings, an age characterised by increasing climate instability, disease, war and violence. The paper examines the ceremonial strategies and ritual technologies currently being deployed to remove the ritual and material pollution in both a moral and physical sense, to increase merit, restore stability, and prevent further instances of conflict and disaster; strategies whose historical legacy extends back to the time of the Tibetan empire and righteous kingship.

panel P090
Himalayan climate change: conflicts and related effects