Climate Change and Anthropos: Planet, People and Places

Prof Connor shares her key findings from her latest publication on the Anthropocene

Professor Linda Connor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney and SNCCS Key Researcher has recently published her book Climate Change and Anthropos: Planet, People and Place which analyses the nexus of place and perceptions, political economy and social organisation in situations where environmental changes are radically transforming collective worlds. Prof Connor shares a blog post with the Sydney Environment Institute about her latest publication.

When anthropologists write about climate change, we focus on human worlds – their kinship ties and social groups, rituals and myths, values, rules and material culture. In short, we are interested in humans’ extraordinary capacity to create and respond to environmental changes large and small. The concept of Anthropos speaks to this broad scope of anthropology as a field of study. It refers to the biological reality of homo sapiens as a species and what ‘the human condition’ might mean in experiences of the lifecycle and social attachment, suffering and freedom, imagination and intellect – and, global climate change.

This book sets out to study the Hunter Valley in New South Wales as a climate change hotspot, and to compare it to other regions around the world. The Hunter has suffered the extremes of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation weather patterns for thousands of years, now made worse by the effects of rising greenhouse gases. Residents endure extremes of drought, wildfire, floods, storm inundation and sea level rise that will increase in the future. Their region contributes disproportionately to Australia’s high per capita greenhouse gas emissions through coal mining, and is home to the world’s largest coal exporting port. While environmental damage stems from many human activities, the Hunter’s resource extractive economy is a major causes of the irreparable damage to soil, water, air and biodiversity on which residents depend. Recent reports state that spent open cut mines will leave dozens of huge voids in the landscape, filled with saline water and seeping toxic chemicals.

Major findings of the book

Today, human inventiveness is changing the earth system, and we are experiencing the Anthropocene, a new epoch of planetary climate change. The book is divided into 6 chapters, exploring some of the ways in which humans are confronting the limiting conditions of our existence as agents of planetary change and as one species among millions of species on earth. Here are the key findings from each chapter.

Chapter 1: What people know, want to know, or believe about climate change varies greatly. In places where Indigenous people depend on the land and waters for their livelihoods, such as the Pacific Islands and the Circumpolar North, global warming may be seen as a Western story. Poverty, loss of traditional lands, and environmental damage caused by exploitative economic development are more immediate challenges.

Local experiences of climate change are often discounted in large scale climate model predictions. People are sensitive to environmental changes but cannot relate them to the public messages about global warming and their voices are not well heeded in the arena of international conferences and agreements.

Chapter 2: The Aboriginal people of the Hunter Valley had dynamic and resilient societies that endured through extremes of the earth’s post-glacial inundation and harsh El Niño cycles over many millennia. The British invasion of their land caused unprecedented disruption to Aboriginal lives and the take-over of their country, a cataclysm to rival future climate disaster.

The thriving colony exploited the rich ancient coal deposits of the Sydney Basin and quickly became and remained a coal dependent economy. But coal is now a contested resource and like climate change, it is politically controversial, as open-cut mines have overtaken much of the fertile land of the Upper Hunter Valley and societal concern about greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased.

Chapters 3 and 4: Scientists, environmental planners and activists apart, most people talk about ‘the weather’ more than climate change. Popular ideas about the weather’s ‘natural cycles’ situate humans in a cosmos too powerful to be affected by humans, thus rejecting climate science theories of human causation or the Anthropocene. These ideas also find currency in Australia’s polarised political debates.

Residents of the Hunter region become opponents of coal mining developments for reasons other than climate change. In farming communities, mines dominate the landscape and destroy local ecosystems. While coal brings jobs and prosperity to mine workers and local towns, the foundations of affected rural communities are threatened: health, land productivity, water supply, population sustainability, infrastructure, heritage, sacred sites, security and well-being. These adverse changes galvanise grass roots opposition.

Chapter 5: In the Hunter Valley, climate change is a shifting reality. The idea of climate change creates connections and conflicts among people and institutions but also erasures, absences and zones of disengagement.

Householders express values of collective responsibility and fairness in dealing with threats to their ways of life, which for some people include climate change.

Climate change negativity in its various forms – denial, scepticism, suppression and apathy – is an unstable terrain where feelings, practices and beliefs are often out of kilter. You can be sad or angry about pollution damage and biodiversity loss in familiar places, an opponent of council sea level rise policies, a supporter of the coal industry, a passionate recycler, an agnostic or sceptic on the topic of climate change, and confident that a solution will be found.

These realities seem to be inconsistent from an environmentalist or scientific perspective, but they may not be contradictory from the standpoint of the people who hold them and in the contexts in which they are expressed. Their full complexity often stays below the radar in public debates about climate change.

Local government planners, now highly sensitised to climate change impacts and the need for risk management in vulnerable zones, struggle with weak state government policies, the interests of elected council members, and property owners’ expectations.

Climate action groups are a focus of climate activism for only a small minority of residents. In recent years, local activists have aligned themselves more with the ‘upstream’ issues of coal mine and port expansion in the Hunter: threats to communities, human health and biodiversity from coal mine and port expansion. These campaigns engage a wider public while promoting environmentalist and social justice ideals.

Chapter 6: The concluding chapter of this book looks at the fear-provoking prospect of planetary collapse from human-caused climate change. Practices, ideas and emotions linked to climate change express imagined future worlds that are always uncertain. The prospect of no human future is denied by those who pin their hopes on immortality myths of unending economic growth, technological progress, and consumerism.

Most religion and spirituality believers interviewed for the study have hopeful feelings, along with melancholy, in the face of global warming. They take a moderate and humanistic approach to strategies of amelioration and prevention.

Government policy, supported by mainstream climate science, envisages a positive future of ‘ecological modernisation’ where capitalist economic growth including the Hunter coal industry can be sustained while greenhouse gas emissions are safely reduced through technical solutions and international agreements. Heroic values of science generate new immortality myths: such as relocation to habitable exoplanets; planetary geoengineering; and a new bioeconomy of hyperefficient microorganisms that support unending levels of economic growth.

All these imagined futures have their place in the social worlds examined in this study. In the familiar sphere of daily life, most people’s talk is about the near future – what is happening next week, next month, next year. But the problem of continuity in the face of human-caused ecological collapse is expressed most eloquently in conversations about the hopes and fears of the adult generation for their children and grandchildren.

People are motivated to protect valued places for their descendants, and there was a common thread of motivated concern when residents talked about the fate of future generations of humans and other species in scenarios of planetary decline. These deeply felt hopes for intergenerational continuity are part of constructive visions that can be harnessed by societies and governments to solve the urgent problems of a precarious future.






Image: Supplied