Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Religion, Morality and the Science of Climate Change
Location Senate House - G21A
Date and Start Time 28 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Richard Fraser (Cambridge University) email

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Discussant Hildegard Diemberger

Short Abstract

This panel explores the emerging intersection between religious and scientific engagement with climate change, and assesses the moral, political and cultural dimensions in the context of a broader process of environmental re-enchantment and critique of capitalism.

Long Abstract

In 2015 Pope Francis called for an ethical and economic revolution to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality. In an unprecedented encyclical on the subject, the pontiff argued that humanity's exploitation of the planets resources had crossed the Earths natural boundaries. Soon after, thousands of campaigners and religious leaders marched through Rome backing Pope Francis's message ahead of a Vatican conference on climate change, urging world leaders to take action in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris. This panel explores the intersection between religious and spiritual engagement with climate change and assesses the moral, political and cultural dimensions in the context of a broader process of environmental re-enchantment and critique of capitalism. Across the world anthropologists have noted a growing chorus of voices suggesting that religious and spiritual voices should become more prominent in the climate change debate, particularly in light of international paralysis on the issue. The Pope's recent intervention has been has been echoed by religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama, and a number of important indigenous figures. Here we invite papers to reflect upon the relationship between religion, spirituality, and climate change, and ask:

- what impact is religion having, what barriers is it running into or creating?

- what does religious intervention mean for neoliberal capitalism?

- what are the cultural implications of this environmental-religious message in terms of indigenous knowledge?

- how does religion affect millennial visions and the imagination of climate change?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Cultural, Moral, and Political Dimensions of Lutheran Environmental Theology and Tree-planting Schemes on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Author: Elaine Christian  email

Short Abstract

This paper will discuss how the Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s tree-planting schemes reflect local understandings of domesticity, land, and spiritual heritage; and how these understandings are tied to contemporary environmental theologies and broader political debates on energy use and modernity.

Long Abstract

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, particularly the Northern Diocese, a significant portion of environmental discourse focuses on land: animals, mountains, soil, and especially trees and forests. Tree-planting and reforestation schemes are given particular emphasis by church officials and individual parishioners alike, and this paper will discuss their cultural, moral, and political dimensions.

The diocese is centred around Mt. Kilimanjaro where the Chagga people form the ethnic majority. As many as 70% of Chagga people are Christian, and many of them hear exhortations to "care for the environment" every Sunday in church. Clergy attempt to inculcate a moral duty in parishioners, drawing on environmental and stewardship theologies. At the same time, environmental discourse reflects cultural concepts of domesticity (as "the environment" is also understood to mean the household), and connection to the land - which is itself grounded in contemporary understandings of historical Chagga spirituality.

Environmental discourses also reflect contemporary political issues, including debates on household energy consumption, (particularly the use of firewood and charcoal versus gas and electricity) and the engagement between church officials and government leaders on environmental policies. Debates on energy and the promotion of tree-planting schemes over other options (e.g. reducing carbon emissions) also reflect locally understood ideas of modernity and development.

I demonstrate how environmental discourse and tree-planting schemes reflect cultural understandings of domesticity, land, and spiritual heritage; contemporary political debates; and moral understandings of Chagga spiritual heritage and its application to contemporary environmental theology.

Dangerous Purity: Tensions in Andean Offering Ceremonies at a Time of Climate Change

Author: Karsten Paerregaard (University of Gothenburg)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores how climate change challenges religious practices in Peru’s highlands. It suggests that the growing participation in Andean offering ceremonies and the impact this has on the environment and glacier melt prompt people to reconsider the meaning of the sacred.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic field data from Peru's central highlands the paper explores how Andean people attribute religious importance to mountains in a context of climate change and, in particular, how they make sense of the environmental impact that the offering ceremonies they conduct to the mountain deities are causing. Due to glacier melt and water scarcity Peru is one the most climate vulnerable countries in the world. On this background the paper asks: How does this vulnerability influence religious practices in the Peruvian Andes? How does the growing interest in offering ceremonies in Peru and the anthropogenic effect it has on glacier melt and water scarcity challenge Andean people's ideas of the sacred? In more general terms the paper argues that global warming points to an inherent contradiction in all offerings: the giver's material imprint on the ceremonial site jeopardizes the recipient's wellbeing. The paper concludes that even though glacier melt highlights an intrinsic tension between Andean people's religious belief and offering ceremonies and questions the illusion of the sacred that fuels these practices it also offers them a new perspective on the relation between nature and humans.

From ecumenical alliance to holy dominion: A brief and partial history of organized religion's activist engagement with environmentalism and climate change

Author: Riamsara Kuyakanon Knapp  email

Short Abstract

This paper presents a history of organized religion’s activist engagement with environmentalism and climate change. It is brief in its limited time-span of enquiry (1967-2015), and partial in its focus on the engagement of Christian and Buddhist traditions in international environmental politics.

Long Abstract

This paper presents a brief and two-pronged partial history on organized religion's activist engagement with environmentalism and climate change, and it's study. The paper is brief in its limited time-span of enquiry (1967-2015), and partial in its predominant focus on Christian and Buddhist engagement in international environmental politics. A common starting point for current thinking on religion and ecology or religion and environment is historian Lynn White Jr.'s 1967 article 'The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis', which has been accused of derailing the engagement between religion and environment until the 1980s. This latter period saw rising scholarly engagement in environmental philosophy and academic-activist studies of religious ecology, as well as increased activism between religious institutions and conservation organizations. Nearly half a century after White, the 2015 Papal Encyclical can be seen as a response to his proposition, befittingly by a Pope whose namesake White had proposed as the patron saint of ecology. What developments occurred in the ensuing years to facilitate it? This paper fills this middle ground by shifting focus to Buddhist (in particular the role played by H.H. the Dalai Lama) and to ecumenical activist engagement with environmental concerns from the 1980s to the first decade of the 21st century, as well as to scholarship on this engagement. It suggests that globalization and international environmental politics have played a large role in these processes, and that an understanding of the role of the scholar-activist in this field of study is indispensible.

Ecumenical vision promotes Tibetans' worldviews with endorphins: Exiled voice eco-harmony crisis

Author: Nupur Pathak  email

Short Abstract

Tibetan Tantric Buddhism practiced by the immigrant Tibetans at Dharamsala (India) has been restructured by the tourists that ignites a need for ecumenical potentiality with ‘endorphins’ in environmental re-enchantment to meet local- global challenges that poses concerned perceptions.

Long Abstract

Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, since its historical past, has a tradition of ecumenicalism (i.e. aesthetic hybridization) which generates power through embodied spiritual practices which is needed to resolve eco-spiritual crises.

Present study explores how this legacy responds to adaptive crises related to biological, socio-cultural and political factors challenging the uprooted Tibetans at Dharamsala (India) since 1959.

As per the study, restricted job, limited living space and economic crisis loom large before the Tibetans, posing serious threat on their livelihood, health and security. High incidence of communicable diseases, lengthy apprenticeship in Tibetan arts and crafts challenges their survival and identity crisis. The global unrest is creating more pressing issue for their sustainable future.

Yet Tibetans maintain eco-harmony through rituals, ceremonies, discourses by the Dalai Lama which ignites the need for unbind multicultural cognition leading to overwhelming inflow of tourists (Christian donors, sponsors).

Tourists reorient the Tibetans' ethical paradigm, which is reflected in both personal and community's well-being, through their devotional service with embodied self-sacrifice followed by transnational movement of the religious potentiality (social capital) that denotes 'endorphins'. Thus integrated action and social connectivity fosters a sense of nationalism which can immobilize the local-global issues.

It deserves mentioned that the empowerment of institutions like Tibetan Youth Congress, Tibetan Women's Organisation, NGOs, by the tourists' strengthens ecumenical tradition and supports challenged issues.

Despite, the perception of risk due to Tibetans' migration to the West, apathy to traditional values and the role of the donors' decision in fund setting priorities are voiced from the exile.

Ravens on the Rig: Fracking, climate change and the Druidic moral landscape

Author: Jonathan Woolley (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

An examination of the role Druidic cosmology plays in shaping the engagement of British Druids in anti-fracking activism and climate campaigning.

Long Abstract

In response to Bird-David's questioning of the relationship between western eco-activism and animism (Bird-David 1999), this paper examines the environmentalist activities of one form of Western animism; modern Druidry. Arising from a richly phenomenological and deeply spiritual relationship with particular gods, spirits, and ancestors who are immanent within specific features in the landscape, Druidic morality hinges on a "love of all existences."

Why, though, have some environmental causes - such as the campaign against fracking - attracted far more participation from Druids than other issues, like climate change? Drawing upon recent literature examining the psycho-social impact of fracking on local communities, this paper makes the argument that the phenomenon of "dysplacement" (Jackson 2011) represents an existential threat to the entire experiential practice of Druidry; while the more systemic threat of climate change engenders a more general sense of unease that - although prompting critique and personal efforts to reduce personal impact - elicits scepticism and apathy when it comes to political action in international or national theatres.

Multiple Truths: Understanding Conditions that Facilitate Cultural Shifts in Response to Climate Variability and Natural Hazards

Author: Lisa Schipper (Oxford University Centre for the Environment)  email

Short Abstract

Religion is a sensitive and personal topic, which influences people’s worldviews so strongly that it can encourage behaviour that increases risk of climate variability and natural hazards. What conditions would facilitate a shift in worldview to incorporate a risk reduction?

Long Abstract

Evidence from around the world indicates that belief systems, particularly religion, can be a determinant of people's vulnerability to climate variability and natural hazards because it influences behaviour that leads to exposure and sensitivity to hazards. Most studies have characterised this as a barrier to risk reduction, and few (none) have offered any suggestions for how to move beyond it, because of the ethical dilemma posed by influencing others' beliefs for the purpose of reducing risk. At the same time, other studies have documented people overcoming cultural taboos in the face of climate variability and natural hazards, including abandoning strict social structures, and conforming to parallel and occasionally contradictory belief systems as a way to overcome culturally imposed restrictions on behaviour.

This paper explores questions on how to go beyond this dilemma, asking: what conditions facilitate cultural shifts? How do people justify these shifts or parallel belief systems? Are these conditions that can be mimicked by a project or an outsider, in order to help reduce vulnerability to climate variability and extreme natural hazards? Can we actually enable the conditions that facilitate cultural shifts that enable the reduction of vulnerability to climate variability and extreme natural hazards? Out of necessity, it also explores how we can identify the relative importance of a belief system in vulnerability to climate variability and extreme events.

Help or hindrance? The socio-political landscape of climate adaptation, with reference to religious systems, and the role of distributed leadership in the delivery of successful outcomes

Author: Graham Wilson (Univ of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

Climate adaptation has no option but to navigate the complex storm of secular and spiritual communities, overlain by powerful individual agencies, in which the moral compass furiously spins. We need to adopt new tools, rules, and qualities to engage with this distributed leadership.

Long Abstract

While climate change per se is largely characterised geographically, acceptance, mitigation, and adaptation, span many communities. These may be defined geographically too (the default position particularly among politicians), however other characteristics (such as religious affiliation) do not. Practitioners recognise that the needs, expectations, capacities and capabilities of each community must be embraced for a solution to be effective. Tools of choice generally involve stakeholder identification/mapping. Mistaken assumptions in this methodology undermine problem solving and complex decision making processes. Obvious examples include; homogeneity of the community; the varying significance of adopted, appointed, inherited, elected and divinely-inspired representation; the personal significance of individuals drawing on these sources of authority; personal influence of spokespeople and leaders, shaped by personality and experience; and the relative balance of highly individual cognitive, emotional, and spiritual drivers. Time, too, substantially affects the impact of individuals and communities; and there are plenty of external catalysts (election of a new Pope, for instance) - some predictable and many not.

Not contemplated a decade ago, operating overtly, covertly, intentionally, and unintentionally, and woven among this, are informal, ad hoc, loosely or un-organised, players with tools that effect opinion change, who do not conform to moral, political or cultural stereotypes. Citizen journalism since the nineties provides simple evidence of this.

Collectively, this is distributed leadership, and we must engage it in developing complex solutions to critical, climate-related problems. Drawing on case studies from the UK and India, we explore the tools, rules, and jewels to do so.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.