Pondering the “Bull of Winter” — in Flight*

Reporting from the small plane flying from Boston to Chicago, first leg of the journey to Fairbanks, Alaska: I’ve nearly finished reading a paper called “Gone the Bull of Winter?” by anthropologist Susan Crate (Current Anthropology, Vol. 49, Number 4, Auguest 2008). How a person with a background in theoretical particle physics ended up reading a paper in anthropology is a whole other story, but perhaps it is an example of how things ought to be. In the current era of the Anthropocene, physicists must rub shoulders, metaphorically speaking, with anthropologists, and with peoples of multiple backgrounds.

Climate change is indeed resulting in multiple conversations among people otherwise unlikely to speak to each other. In my other readings about the Arctic, I have been struck by the increasing prevalence of partnerships between scientists and indigenous peoples. This makes sense of course, because indigenous peoples who still lead lives close to the land are the first to see changes beyond the normal, and their specialized knowledge of their environment enables them to notice details that even scientists might miss. Crate’s work takes her to the Western part of the Sakha province in Northeastern Siberia, where she observes and interacts with ‘research-partners,’ a term (new to me) now used to describe the people she is studying. This term, it seems, represents a departure from the “observed/ observer” or “subject/ object” divide that I noticed in my early (and certainly incomplete) exposure to anthropology via an audited class in graduate school, and some readings therein.

The Viliui Sakha people are herders and pastoralists whose way of life has undergone many changes, from pre-Soviet to Soviet times, and then again to the post-Soviet era. But the changes they are seeing in climate at a local level are at least as dramatic. Crate interviews a number of elders to record their knowledge of weather events and tendencies in the past, and also to ascertain how the rapid change in the landscape is changing the stories that the people have told through their long history.
One such story, which has many versions, refers to the “Bull” of the title. The Bull of winter is a fearsome beast that brings the cold and the snow, as well as deprivation, clearly a manifestation of winter. Spring is heralded by the dropping off of its horns at different times, followed by its head. In a telling of this story, Crate recalls hearing a new ending: “maybe the bull of winter is no more.”

One might think that people living in the cold north would welcome a warmer climate. Susan Crate sets us straight on that. Her interviews reveal that most Sakha people do not want a warmer clime. Not only are the physical changes difficult (although some might be favorable) but when one considers how land and culture are intertwined, the sociological changes might well be profound as well. And in fact they affect each other. So for instance warmer temperatures mean that the permafrost under the ground starts to melt, creating bogs. The Sakha are also seeing more rain, crucially in the haying season, which is not good since hay needs to be dry to stay viable through the rest of the year. Temperature variability means that you might have some snow and very cold days in the winter, and two days later an unexpected warm period. This means that the snow melts and refreezes. Horses are used to digging through the snow to find things to eat, but they can’t dig through ice.

Susan Crate is fabulously articulate. Here’s why she thinks anthropology as a discipline is important to climate change:

I argue that global climate change – its causes, effects and amelioration – is intimately and ultimately about culture. It is caused by the multiple drivers of Western consumer culture, it transforms symbolic and subsistence cultures… and will only be forestalled via a cultural transformation from degenerative to regenerative consumer behavior.

The paper goes on to discuss the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples, noting that human-environment interactions are highly complex and involve feedbacks that might give rise to new effects and innovations. Generally subsistence cultures have a greater adaptation to uncertainty, but at the same time are vulnerable to exploitation by vested interests. However where global climate is having its most adverse effects, many indigenous people are questioning if they can adapt to such profound and sudden changes. Indigenous people from many parts of the world have been advocating for action on climate change, including during UN negotiations. One example of a powerful such group is the Inuit Circumpolar Council that is one of the key players in the geopolitics of the Arctic. (I hope to meet some representatives during my Alaskan adventure).

The paper also notes that indigenous people, particularly in the Arctic , have been a remarkably reliable source of scientific information about the impact of global climate change. Having heard about scientific-indigenous community partnerships through my readings, most notably the densely packed volume “North by 2020,” eds. Eicken and Lovecraft, I am curious to hear more as to how such relationships and information exchanges work.
One of the impacts of climate change is forced human migration, resulting in perhaps millions of climate refugees whose homelands are no longer livable. Particularly for indigenous people, whose culture and identity are informed so deeply and richly by the land they inhabit, migration and resettlement result in profound loss – not just of self-sufficiency and livelihood, but also of culture.

[The author is careful to point out, by the way, the problems with the use of the word ‘culture’ which can connote a monolithic, frozen-in-time set of beliefs, rather than the organically changing, adapting, interacting thing that it is, and she uses it in the latter sense].

The paper goes into technical details of developing cultural models of how indigenous peoples are incorporating climate disruption into their cosmologies and practices. One of the examples resembles a flow-chart or a concept map (I note in passing, having worked on concept maps as learning tools in physics classes for a while now). Including local knowledge coupled with Western scientific knowledge, and effecting communication between various indigenous groups can lead to increased community resilience, a factor crucial to climate change adaptation.

To summarize, then, the paper “suggests an action-oriented approach to anthropological climate change research that begins by developing cultural models of the local effects of global climate change, goes on to fill the gaps with Western scientific knowledge, and ends with the dissemination of that information and its use for the development of adaptive strategies, policy recommendations and advocacy.” Thus the author is not afraid of suggesting that anthropologists use the tools of applied, advocacy-oriented and public anthropology. At least some anthropologists then are unembarrassed to step outside the ivory tower that they might have carried about with them in the field, and practice “pragmatic engagement.” It seems physical scientists have a harder time making this leap, although this appears to be changing in the context of climate.

I finished the last part of the paper on the next leg of my journey, a long plane ride from Chicago to Anchorage. I was sitting in the middle seat, which is generally not fun. But my thoughts about the paper, interspersed with a conversation with the passenger in the aisle seat, made my situation quite enjoyable. The man was a pilot in another airline, and what I learned about planes in those 2-3 hours of conversation was amazing. The pilot had seen most of the planet from above, and his knowledge of geography was therefore quite sophisticated. We talked about climate change, unions, his kids, his Indian origin, the fact that an imperceptible, super-smooth plane landing is called a greaser, among many other things. As the plane descended slowly toward Anchorage, we passed over the Alaska range, resplendent in their rugged, ice-cream beauty, and he pointed.

“Look!” he said. “There’s a glacier!” And indeed it was, a huge tongue of snow lying in the valley between two ranges. I felt a thrill, and my fingers itched to take a picture, but the presence of the hirsute youth in the window seat made that impossible. The young man was apparently anatomically hooked to an ipod, and his black-painted fingernails tapped out a rhythm only he could hear. I felt a friendly regard for him despite his preoccupation with his own world, but his cascading locks of hair did obscure the sight of the glacier.

So why would a physicist read a paper written by an anthropologist? Apart from the very reasonable response: why not? there are plenty of good reasons, to do with the interdisciplinarity of climate change, for one thing. More specifically, for my project, students will ponder many things apart from the purely scientific aspects. I hope they will be moved to think of how science might be a community enterprise, and also to consider how people – indigenous and otherwise – might increase their adaptive capacity in the face of climate change, while working toward mitigation at the same time.

[*Yes, the pun is deliberate].

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