Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Climate change as 'end of the world': mythological cosmogonies and imaginaries of change
Location Senate House - Court Room
Date and Start Time 27 May, 2016 at 11:30
Sessions 3


  • Rosalyn Bold (University College London) email

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Short Abstract

Mythological narratives of climate change as 'end of the world' furnish viable narratives through which humans can envision situations of dramatic world change and renewal. We welcome local visions of climate change challenging hegemonic cosmological categories and showing ways to worlds otherwise.

Long Abstract

Viveiros de Castro explores the relevance of the mythopoeic register as a vehicle for imagining 'the end of the world'. Actors employ the term climate change to embody and express such scenarios of dramatic change, envisioning it according to cultural context. Anthropology can provide a platform for non-hegemonic local views to challenge existing perceptions of what climate change constitutes and can extend to, thus clarifying responses and strategies to mitigate it. In the contemporary context of collapse and crisis, existing cosmologies are challenged. Assigning agency in climate change can lead to a re-examination of categories of nature/culture, and open the way for non-modern ontologies to show us how we might otherwise construct worlds and actors. Challenging hegemonic narratives of climate change and their epistemological and ontological bases, we create cracks that can open up the way for new worlds to come into being.

This panel will explore how mythologies of climate change as 'end of the world' furnish viable narratives through which humans can envision situations of dramatic world change and renewal. We welcome research on local perceptions of climate change which might for example, incorporate consumption and cultural change, or challenge categories of causality and nature/culture in constructive ways. We welcome relevant attempts to illuminate the everyday meanings of a vast discourse, especially imaginings that lead to communities' means to adapt to and come to terms with collapse and change, and open the way for 'worlds otherwise'.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


"The lightning will burn like petrol": On the redemptive force of the Urarina apocalypse

Author: Harry Walker (London School of Economics and Political Science)  email

Short Abstract

Amazonian Urarina eschatology posits an imminent catastrophic collapse of the climatic system that sustains life, albeit one that can be forestalled through appropriate forms of action. The weather figures here as a kind of common good, continually and collectively produced.

Long Abstract

Amazonian Urarina eschatology posits an imminent catastrophic collapse of the climatic system that sustains life, albeit one that can be forestalled through appropriate forms of individual and collective action. Cold, rain and darkness are closely linked to the decline of forest animals and the spread of illness, leading eventually to the moment when the sky will fall, lightning will rain down, and the undead will roam the earth. In this view, the health of the land and of people also reflect the present state of the wider social and moral order. All these are addressed through Urarina shamanism, which thus places a considerable burden of responsibility on human agency in delaying or mitigating an inexorable process of decline and loss. Helplessness in the face of the inevitable is thus tempered by a strong sense of the need for courage, wisdom and perseverance. Ultimately, the weather itself figures as a kind of common good, continually and collectively produced through sustained human action.

"We are awaiting our deaths, this is the end of days": Q'eqchi' Maya Notions of Climate Change

Author: Stefan Permanto (School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg)  email

Short Abstract

Q’eqchi’ Maya elders in Guatemala fear that cosmic equilibrium is threatened by non-indigenous elements in their society. Signs of this unbalance is seen in climate changes. Therefore, the elders have come together to share with them of their knowlege to restore the balance and to avoid armageddon.

Long Abstract

According to Q'eqchi' cosmology human and other-than-human beings mutually share the responsibility of maintaining cosmic equilibrium. A group of Q'eqchi' Maya elders in Guatemala consider themselves as bearers of inherited cosmological and ritual knowledge. Recently, however, the elders fear that their ancient knowledge may soon be lost since the younger generations of today tend instetad to follow the "ways" of non-indigenous cultures. The cosmic balance is therefore disturbed and should the situation worsen the elders say it would wreak havoc in the world and humanity would in the end face armageddon. The Q'eqchi' elders in Chisec, Guatemala, say moreover that they are already seeing early signs of this dark premonition. Guatemala is one of the world's most vulnerable countres to climate change in the world and today people experience first hand the consequences of mudslides, hurricanes, floodings and drought. With regard to the Q'eqchi' elders they say that the climate has gotten much hotter and that there is less rain and wind in their region. They fear that their homeland will soon become a desert and that all beings will eventually die of starvation. Therefore, the elders have come together in an organized form with the ambition to share with them their knowledge with the hope to restore the cosmic balance. The aim of this paper is thus to account for a Q'eqchi' cosmology as an alternative to modern science that needs to be reckoned with in search for measures for climate change mitigations.

Echoes on a broken world. Nawa narratives and reflections on modernity, spirits, and human actions.

Author: Alessandro Questa (University of Virginia)  email

Short Abstract

For Nawa people, in the highlands of Puebla, Mexico, the world is broken. According to their cosmology, it was originally fragmented when an envious god tore in half. Nowadays however, the world faces new ways of destruction, locally diagnosed as produced by people.

Long Abstract

For Nawa people, in the highlands of Puebla, Mexico, the world is broken. According to Nawa cosmology, it was originally fragmented when an envious god tore in half the pillars which connected the sky and the earth and whose remnants are the mountains in which they live today. Nowadays however, the world faces new ways of destruction—erosion, droughts, and economic poverty— that have been diagnosed by Nawa people as produced by humans. They have forsaken the gods of the land in pursue of economic ambitions and a life away from landscape spirits. Under this new cosmology, even the old gods are now the victims.

Indeed, the accumulative effects of decades of intense urban migration paired to the advent of mining and the progressive abandonment of traditional cultivation are all locally perceived as linked processes that have effectively destroyed the land. The land is, in turn, an intricately inhabited space in which humans and spirits of all kinds jointly intervene on all relevant activities. Currently, even some of the spirits are leaving the mountains bringing by their dissociation only more calamities. State corrupted agencies, urban vices, mining corporations and disastrous changes in weather patterns are all elements of the same cosmic cataclysm. These are all major spiritual grievances caused, ultimately, by collective 'forgetfulness', leading the world to end, again. Nawa people are thus rekindling their relations with said spirits in hopes to change their grim consequences, returning to a renewed mythology of co-dependence.

French and Swiss Environmentalists Facing 'the End of a World': 'Inner transition', Western Esotericism and the Ontology of Analogy

Author: Jean Chamel (University of Lausanne)  email

Short Abstract

Based on 'inner' and 'outer transition', linking all living entities, from bacteria to Gaia through a 'web of life', the 'worldview' of French and Swiss environmentalists, self-defined as 'enlightened catastrophists', can be related to esotericism and the analogism of Descola’s ontological grid.

Long Abstract

Environmentalists showing concern for the future of the planet, worrying about climate change and a potential collapse of our complex societies are often depicted as prophets of doom predicting the end of the world and ridiculed for their apocalyptic views.

The study of the narratives and practices of an informal network of environmentalists living in France and French-speaking Switzerland gives a more complex picture. These highly educated environmentalists who are acting as the intellectuals of French environmentalism (or at least its 'enlightened catastrophist' part), are mainly concerned by the future of the 'thermo-industrial civilisation' and expecting its collapse. But they deny waiting for the end of the world. They rather expect the end of a world, and the start of a new one.

Linked to the Transition Town movement that emerged in Totnes (Devon) ten years ago, they are advocating for a transition toward a sustainable society, a metamorphosis that requires radical political changes, as well as personal transformation. Linking the fate of the 'Earth system' Gaia, somehow viewed as a living entity, to inner transition, they draw correspondences throughout the 'web of life' that can be related to esotericism as Antoine Faivre defines it.

Such form of 'spiritual ecology' is more than a new avatar of the 'New Age'. Rather than an emerging worldview, it can be interpreted as the revival, in the public sphere, of the ontology of analogy, which remained for centuries in the shadow of naturalism, following the ontological grid developed by Philippe Descola.

Climate change and the combined and uneven 'geo-spiritual formation' of the Anthropocene

Author: Bronislaw Szerszynski (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

I sketch a general theory of ‘geo-spiritual formations’. I argue that mythic responses to climate change have to be understood in the context of wider accelerating flows of matter and energy. I suggest that distinct ‘naturecultures’ are being convened into a global multinatural system.

Long Abstract

In this paper I first argue that rather than merely exploring the role that religion and indigenous cultures might play as a normative bulwark against environmental change or as a source of alternative visions for the future, we have first to develop a more general theory of 'geo-spiritual formations', one which includes awareness of the way that forms of the sacred may themselves be helping to propel environmental change. I draw on the Amerindian 'perspectivism' of Vivierios De Castro, the French social theory of Giles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Georges Bataille, to show how the interdisciplinary sciences of the Earth can start to make ontological space for spirit.

Secondly, I argue that ethnographic accounts of religious and mythological responses to climate change have to be understood in the context of the wider set of interlinked changes in the Earth system discussed under the heading of the Anthropocene. Thus spiritual understandings of changes in seasonal weather, the water cycle and local biodiversity have to be understood within the same framework as the spiritual dynamics surrounding the undermining of local subsistence and gift economies, accelerated global flows of matter and energy, and the resulting uneven global distribution of value, order and entropy.

Thirdly, I conclude by suggesting that what were once distinct territorialised 'naturecultures' in which humans engaged in particular situated patterns of interaction with animals, spirits and other beings are increasingly being convened into a global multinatural system, what we might call a 'combined and uneven geo-spiritual formation'.

Revisiting the Rain-Forest: Environmental diplomacy and the Method of Controlled Sedition

Authors: Antonia Walford (University College London)  email
Aníbal Arregui (University of Vienna/ CEFRES/ Charles University)  email

Short Abstract

We address the question of how anthropology can cope with the scale of environmental collapse as a meta-social problem. Inspired by a Yanomami shaman and a Brazilian climatologist, we develop the notion of 'environmental diplomacy' as a form of relational transformation of and at the boundaries.

Long Abstract

For many, climate change is the beginning of the end of the world, an ongoing environmental collapse that is not just natural, but a crisis of our atmospheric "society of societies" (Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2014). This paper addresses the question of how anthropology can cope with the scales of this climatological and meta-social problem. Inspired by the unexpected connections suggested by a Yanomami shaman and a Brazilian climatologist, we develop the notion of what we call 'environmental diplomacy'. Both the shaman and the scientist are deeply concerned with the relation between Amazonian trees and the climate, and publicly warn about the catastrophic consequences of depleting the forest. We argue that at one scale, the shaman and the climatologist are actually talking about the end of two different worlds. However, as they both strive to reach beyond these respective worlds, they also perform diplomatic gestures towards each other, creating differential connections between their respective environments. Their gestures are constituted in part by the necessary "treason" of any tenacious diplomat, as Isabelle Stengers would put it (2006), and therefore involve an ongoing process of relational boundary modification in order to affect and be affected by an Other who may inhabit another sky, but also needs the rain. We end with a discussion of what an anthropological 'environmental diplomacy' would look like.

The myth of Wanamei and the REDD+ Indigena initiative

Author: Chantelle Murtagh (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

Through an analysis of the REDD+ Indigena programme and the myth of Wanamei we are able to see how the Harakmbut come to understand the environment, and how they attempt to influence global discourses on climate change based on an indigenous worldview.

Long Abstract

The Harakmbut peoples of South Eastern Peru have been promoting a novel initiative called REDD+ Indigena which extends the existing REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and the role of Conservation, Sustainable Management of Forests and Enhancement of Forest Carbon Stocks) programme proposed by the UN and adopted by member states to reduce climate change. By including what they call indigenous cosmovision or an indigenous world view to the existing REDD programme, the Harakmbut people are able to influence state agendas while promoting the indigenous agenda of land security. They see their proposal as empowering indigenous people and allowing them to be the drivers in reducing climate change through a holistic understanding of the environment - that is, one that includes not only humans. The Harakmbut myth of Wanamei tells of a time of great climate change including uncontrollable fire and offers us the opportunity to analyse the ways in which the Harakmbut people are able to create important links between human action, environment and climate. By pushing for a climate agenda based on indigenous knowledge the Harakmbut people are able to contribute to the discourse on climate change, write their own history and adapt to a system which is not their own whilst attempting to adapt that very same system. The Wanamei myth adds to their understanding of global climate phenomena and helps to frame their responses.

Of language, land, and people

Author: Candide Simard (School of Oriental an African Studies)  email

Short Abstract

Understanding how Aboriginal people in Timber Creek (NT) perceive (or do not perceive) climate change through an examination of how language encodes their worldview, which is cyclical and permanent - a worldview that is not fixed in time: it was, and is, everywhen.

Long Abstract

It is estimated that Aboriginal people have been living in Australia for 40000 to 60000 years. They often depict themselves as 'custodians' of the land (Leonard et al. 2013). This paper focuses on Communities in the Northern Territory where the geographic distribution of the population and the location of the Indigenous 'estates' make them especially vulnerable to climate change.

undertaken to identify climate risks and the impact of climate change in Australia ( However, the very concept of climate change is somewhat elusive for many Aboriginal people. Better communication would ensure their fuller participation in developing and implementing policies and
programmes. We argue that a significant step in establishing this communication is to understand Aboriginal people's worldview through their language which is the basis of an ontology that posits a direct relationship between land, language and people (Merlan 1981). Going beyond discourse analysis, we will examine how the cyclical worldview of speakers of Jaminjung/Ngaliwurru, spoken around Timber Creek, is expressed in language. We will show how narratives of the Dreaming, still unravelling, are repositories of knowledge; and how the categorisation of plants and animals reflects this interconnected world and encompasses all dimensions of life (Stanner 2011). For people who have seen their way of life radically disrupted since the advent of white settlement, climate change is but another of the manifestations of 'the wild times' (in in their words).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.