Anthropological analyses of the environment may seem overly theoretical and abstract, far removed from actual practices and the work of learning to live with and within our environment. Anthropologists may be seen as hidden in ivory towers of academia, disconnected from real world issues and problems. However, applied and activist anthropology offer avenues for anthropologists to tackle problems on the ground and make a direct difference. Applied anthropologists often work with conservation and development organizations to implement projects that depend on an accurate understanding of local cultures and practices to succeed.
Anthropologist Gerald Murray’s doctoral dissertation examined land tenure among small-holders in Haiti. After finishing his dissertation work, Murray delivered a presentation to USAID on a Haitian reforestation project. He joked that if they gave him “a jeep and carte blanche access to a $50,000 checking account” he could prove his “anthropological assertions about peasant economic behavior and produce more trees on the ground than their multi-million-dollar Ministry of Agriculture charade.”34 USAID program officers accepted his challenge, inviting him to head a $4 million project to reforest Haiti. Using his understanding of Haitian small-holders, he drastically changed the USAID’s approach. Instead of trying to convince small-holders that trees were valuable for their environmental services, he emphasized fast-growing species that could be sold for firewood, charcoal, and lumber. By giving the trees to the small-holders and allowing them to harvest and sell them whenever they wanted, he motivated them to plant and care for the seedlings like any other valuable cash crop. In prior projects, tree-cutting was prohibited and the trees belonged to the government. Consequently, no one took care of the trees and they were eventually destroyed by livestock or neglect and rarely reached maturity. Treating the trees as a cash crop motivated farmers to plant trees on their own land, thus meeting USAID’s goals of stabilizing the soil and reducing illegal tree cutting (since farmers had access to stands of their own) and providing a direct economic benefit from selling wood. The project was a stunning success—20 million trees were planted in the first four years. By understanding local farmers’ perspectives, Murray was able to work with Haitian small-holders instead of seeing them as an impediment to reforestation efforts.
A number of anthropologists are working with conservation and development organizations to assist them in understanding local cultures and implementing conservation and develop projects. This work is often done in teams in which anthropologists join with foresters, conservation biologists, agronomists, and others to implement projects. Because they often speak the local language, understand the peoples’ perspectives, and are interested in close, on-the-ground observations, anthropologists make valuable contributions in support of conservation and economic development.
In 2014, the American Anthropological Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force submitted a report on climate change that summarized anthropology’s engagement with the issue. Currently, climate change is perhaps the single most important environmental issue worldwide, and our responses to it will shape the future of our species on the planet. The report identified the human causes and contributions to climate change and emphasized that climate change is already having an impact as rising sea levels are forcing residents of places such as Kiribati to flee their island homes and melting ice shelves threaten the subsistence practices and the lifestyle of Inuit groups in Alaska. These examples illustrate how the impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect groups who have contributed the least to the accumulation of greenhouses gases, highlighting the social inequality of impacts of climate change around the world.
The report analyzed drivers of climate change, focusing on consumption, land use, energy, and population growth. An anthropological analysis of consumption reminds us that the categories of “necessities” and “luxuries” are cultural constructs. For example, Western societies now accept cell phones as necessities despite the fact that humans survived perfectly well for thousands of years without them. As the global middle class expands and places new demands on ecosystems, a cultural understanding of social classes and related consumption practices will be increasingly important to analyses the causes of climate change and potential solutions.
The report also criticized much of the language of climate change and its focus on concepts of adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience that elided the differential impacts of climate change on different groups of people. The task force noted that proposed global solutions focused on top-down management strategies that did not take existing social issues of “poverty, marginalization, lack of education and information, and loss of control over resources” that structure vulnerability of different populations to the impacts of a warming planet into account. 35 The report also illustrates the power of language to shape certain debates and potential solutions to problems, an important piece of anthropological analysis.
At the end of the report, the task force recommended actions anthropologists could take to contribute to efforts to address global climate change, including reducing the carbon footprint of anthropological meetings, working with interdisciplinary research teams to continue research, and maintaining a research agenda that stresses the importance of anthropological contributions to discussions of climate change. Perhaps most interesting is their conclusion that many of the most innovative and creative approaches to addressing and mitigating the effects of climate change were occurring at local and regional levels, recognizing communities’ innovative efforts to bypass national and international gridlock and develop approaches that reflect local realities and address local problems. The anthropological focus on local communities is a welcome change of perspective when, by definition, the scale of global climate change seems to preclude local involvement and solutions.
Anthropologists at Work in Conservation Organizations
Anthropologists work for international conservation organizations like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund and with government agencies like the National Park Service, the Peace Corps, and USAID. They also work for smaller conservation organizations, urban planning initiatives, environmental education groups, environmental activist networks, and other initiatives aimed at reducing our negative impact on the planet.
Cultural Resources Management
Management of cultural resources is a growing field of anthropology that catalogs and preserves archaeological sites and historic places threatened by development, bringing together various principles developed in anthropology over the years. First, it recognizes the need to preserve both “natural” ecosystems and ecosystems shaped by past human activities. By connecting natural and human diversity, anthropologists recognize humans’ interdependence with the environment over time. Second, cultural resource managers recognize the need for continuing involvement of indigenous communities with archaeological sites and seek their input to inform management plans and practices. As cultural resource management has become standard operating procedure, archaeologists have begun to meet with members of the local community and others who have a stake in their research. These interactions improve archaeological research and create the kind of cross-cultural bridges that strengthen the discipline. Finally, destruction of historical places and archaeological sites is a form of environmental destruction that, like climate change and species extinctions, requires us to critically examine the cultural values underlying that destruction.