Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Now you see it, now you don't? Presence and absence of the climate crisis through ethnography
Location Senate House - Bedford Room
Date and Start Time 28 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Steffen Dalsgaard (IT University of Copenhagen) email

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Short Abstract

This panel seeks to explore the ways in climate change is made present, what role(s) ethnographic knowledge can play in that regard, and how can discussions of climate change may further theorizations of presence and absence across anthropology, geography and STS.

Long Abstract

The presence of climate change is undoubtable as a political terrain, but its universality across other social and cultural registers is not always self-evident and often contested. Indeed, climate change's presence across other fields is more precarious than widely discussed, and inquiries into modes of rendering climate change present and absent are key for understanding pathways for action on climate which may originate in, but also tend to overflow, the political. Presence and absence here refers the multiple realities of climate change, including how climate change is rendered tangible through representations of stranded polar bears and rising tides; or via scientific data about temperature, CO2 concentrations and tidal fluctuation; or as markets, commodities and technologies claiming to represent 'fixes' to the climate crisis. Conversely, how is climate change made to 'disappear'? The binary of presence and absence also refers to temporality through imaginaries of unknown futures or idealized pasts, seen through scientific models, scenario planning exercises, or narratives of development or disruption.

This panel invites papers that address the different ways that climate change and its discontents are made present or absent whether in political imaginary, scientific discourse, corporate strategies, or across other modes of knowing, and not the least how to approach climate change ethnographically.

Approaches to the topic might include, but are not limited to, theorization from anthropology, geography and STS such as Marilyn Strathern on the tyranny of transparency, John Law and Annemarie Mol on situating technoscience, Erik Swyngedouw on the post-political, or any number of formulations that refer to inclusion, elision, erasure, representation, or attention.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The Presence of Oil and the Absence of Crisis: Museums, Sponsors and a Social License

Author: Chris Garrard (Art Not Oil )  email

Short Abstract

This paper will examine the disruptive role oil companies play in the perception of climate change through their strategic sponsorship of cultural institutions. It will also consider the value of transparency in scrutinising these sponsorship deals and institutional cognitive dissonance.

Long Abstract

Cultural institutions, from art galleries to museums, provide valuable spaces in which the debates around climate change and climate justice can take place, both as research hubs and visitor attractions. However, major oil companies, such as BP and Shell, play a disruptive role in the presentation and perception of climate change through their sponsorship of elite cultural institutions. This disruption takes place directly, with influence over curatorial decision-making at the Science Museum and the informing of security protocols at the British Museum, and indirectly, through the strategic promotion of brand identities within iconic cultural spaces, allowing the sponsor's "social license to operate" to be enhanced and sustained. This corporate strategy aims at shaping the political imaginary in order to distort the narrative around climate change and curry favour with policy makers.

This paper will outline how the presence of oil sponsors within cultural institutions reflects an absence of a holistic understanding of climate change. Drawing upon direct experience of investigative work, it will assess the value of transparency and accountability for scrutinising sponsorship agreements and the role of Freedom of Information legislation in making visible the motivations behind those partnerships. Several arts-based campaigns against oil sponsorship will also be considered and their capacity to make present within cultural institutions the often "invisible" voices of frontline communities, before asking whether this juxtaposition of climate change realities within a cultural institution exposes a fundamental cognitive dissonance. If so, can this be overcome and climate change made fully present within a cultural institution?

What Role Does Storytelling Potentially Play in Sustainability?

Author: Kirstin James (University of Leicester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores storytelling as a medium for persuasion social transformation using the Yakama Nation story of She Who Watches and the more contemporary story of SpongeBob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water as comparative analogies for the challenges faced at U.N. Climate Summit 2015.

Long Abstract

Sustainability, be it in economy or ecology is not a new model for community development in First Peoples communities of the North Americas. Sustainable practices in First Nations communities traditionally are integral to the pattern of community life. Social interactions are galvanised by language, ceremony, sharing of resources, dance, gatherings, regalia and storytelling practices. This 'galvanisation' of group activity and decision-making processes through shared narratives, is of course not exclusive to Indigenous Nations; Euro-Western mass media is also a form of shared narrative that potentially influences community development and decision-making processes. However, there are certain differences in worldview that are expressed within these respective storytelling traditions. 'Mastery' over nature is one of the primary differences between First Nations cultures and Euro-Western cultures. First Nations cultures traditionally seek to accept, understand and accommodate nature, rather than control it. Using the Yakama Nation story of She Who Watches (the narrative of Chieftess Tsagaglala, origin story for the She-Who-Watches petroglyphs) and the more contemporary story of SpongeBob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out of Water (a popular farcical grotesque of American Consumer Economy, originally created to entertain children and young adults), as comparative analogies for the challenges faced by members of the United Nations Climate Summit 2015—namely, issues of consumption, competition for resources, cooperation and ethical decision-making—this paper explores storytelling as a medium for persuasion and as a potential agency of social transformation in traditional Indigenous societies and in 21st century Euro-Western popular culture.

Climate change humans & climate change action: worlds of possibility in North American science and activism.

Author: Adam Fleischmann (McGill University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how mid-range climate change problem solvers produce worlds of possibility for politics and activism, human being and belonging in an era of a changing global climate—and how these worlds challenge and overflow conventional political, technical and conceptual toolkits.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I examine how mid-range climate change problem solvers produce worlds of possibility. This paper ethnographically approaches the subject of climate change through a reflection on fieldwork among three groups of researchers located in the murky intermediate domain between scientific and managerial knowledge. These researchers are technicians who thrive among the assemblages of people, processes, tools, objects and events through which climate change is made knowable and actionable. Based primarily out of Yale and McGill Universities, their work centers on the realms of ecological economics and governance, climate-economy computer models and climate change communication.

By investigating the practical and conceptual details that make up their engagements with science, technology, policy and the public, I examine how each project produces distinct possibilities for politics and activism, human being and belonging in an era of a changing global climate. Through the conceptions of time, the human, the Earth and human-Earth relations—as well as the material and technical frameworks—that ground their knowledge forms, this paper is a consideration of the assemblages that condition the presence or absence of climate change in North American science and activism.

Following my field collaborators, I ask how their work in boardrooms and classrooms, publications and presentations, calls forth futures premised on new climate change imaginaries. Further, what can the practices of knowledge production from which these imaginaries burst forth reveal about how anthropogenic climate change—and the multiple realities it produces—challenges and overflows conventional political, diplomatic, regulatory, technical and conceptual toolkits? How is climate change remaking political action?

'Invisible Sun:' Sustainability Fields and the Elision of Climate Change

Author: Mark Stevenson (Weber State University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines institutional networks promoting sustainable development in Utah as the creation of new ‘strategic action fields’ in which government, NGO and for-profit actors collaborate to craft solutions to environmental challenges congruent with neoliberal strategies of economic development.

Long Abstract

Drawing on research on the Wasatch Front metropolitan area of Utah, this paper explores the creation of institutional networks promoting sustainable development in the region as the creation of new 'strategic action fields' (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012) in which government, NGO and for-profit actors collaborate to craft solutions to environmental challenges congruent with neoliberal strategies of economic development. Through a critical engagement with field theory, the role of cooperative agency is explored in emergent fields marked by contradictory paradigms of sustainable growth in the region, problematizing their interlinkages and undermining the emergence of a 'post-political' consensus. Shared organizational features of these fields center on the creation of metaphoric sustainability 'communities' in which social entrepreneurship, policy innovation and networked capacity-building shape consensual solutions to challenges posed by a projected population doubling by 2050. By discursively eliding processes of climate change per se, these emergent fields are intended to create ideologically 'neutral' spaces to address environmental challenges such as clean air, water sufficiency and land use through neoliberal strategies of 'stakeholder' engagement and deployment of techniques of governmentality (dissemination of expertise, credentialing, informational mobilization). This paper argues that the purposive linkage of disparate sectors into new strategic action fields hinges on the mobilization of individual actors' 'social skill' (professional habitus, moral-ethical dispositions) to create regimes of affect and coalitional identities which can inadvertently exceed the structural constraints of these fields, leading to their 'failure to thrive,' highlighting competitive rifts and/or generating a politics of contention regarding the meanings of sustainability.

Carbon credits as the commoditization of absence

Author: Steffen Dalsgaard (IT University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

The construction of tradable carbon emissions depends on a distributed set of social and technical actions. However, these actions attain value from the absence of other (non-realized) actions. Consequently this paper argues that carbon markets trade in ‘commoditized absences’.

Long Abstract

The calculation, crediting and trading of carbon emissions has become one of the most acknowledged but also most politicized ways that climate change is made present in environmental policy, in climate markets, and in everyday consumption of western consumers. This presence is nonetheless frequently contested and manipulated because of the multiple ways that carbon can be identified in different social, technical and scientific realities and actions. This paper wants to argue that this presence - even in its quantified and 'factual' form as 'verified' or 'certified' emission reductions - relies on simultaneous absence. This is not a passive absence, but an active addition or negation of alternatives (non-emissions, would-be emissions, 'baselines' or 'business as usual' scenarios of emissions). In this way the paper aims to shed light on the continued ontologically speculative nature of carbon emissions as a measure of climate change, and how carbon markets commoditize and trade in 'absences'.

Presence into Absence: The role of technosceintific expertise and the post-political in shaping the social life of climate change

Author: Cameron Ott (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that climate change made present through the consumption of technoscientific expertise begets its own post-political absence: consensual agreement about the scientific 'fact' of climate change negates alternative ways of talking about it, rendering it absent from social life.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in central Colorado, USA, this paper interrogates the seeming contradiction between the presence of climate change in the community, discernible in informants' knowledge of and concern about climate change when interviewed individually, and the absence of climate-change talk in everyday social life observed through participant observation. This paper posits that climate change slips between presence and absence because of how it is situated within the community as a post-political (Swyngedouw 2010) discourse of technoscientific expertise. Climate change is made to feel present in the lives of residents not through first-hand experiences of climactic changes but through the consumption of technoscientific expertise and findings. When asked to discuss climate change, informants cite 'experts' and adhere to a discourse of technoscientific expertise. Making climate change present in this way renders it absent from the social life of the community. Conversations about climate change are reduced to echoing scientific findings, and convinced and concerned residents, unable to productively talk about climate change amongst themselves, turn to silence. This presence begetting absence is a consequence of technoscientific expertise functioning as a Foucaultian discourse within the post-political, in which consensual agreement about the scientific 'fact' of climate change negates the potential for alternative ways of talking and thus thinking about it, effectively rendering it absent from social life. Attention to how climate change is made absent, although as yet largely absent from the anthropological literature, requires just as serious attention as the ways in which it becomes present.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.