Anthropologies #21: Why do we need to teach climate change in anthropology?

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Our next installment in the climate change series comes from Katherine J. Johnson, who is currently a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Maryland. –R.A.

College students have acquired a lot of useful information, but a limited ability to utilize that knowledge–and sometimes a surprising lack of perspective on real world problems. Many of the students I have taught in Anthropology and Climate Change courses seem to have little factual and context-specific understanding of climate change, despite growing up in an era of public contestation around this issue. Anthropology has a lot of strengths stemming from core theoretical tenants such as holism, reflexivity, and concern for marginalized populations. We can easily leverage these strengths to aid students in better understanding of climate change issues within relevant contexts, and to build on their weak knowledge of accepted science.

Lisa Bennett makes several important points in her Grist article: “10 things you want to know about human nature if you’re fighting climate change.” A key point (and I think all of them are relevant) is #2: “We can be blasé about the most important issues in the world because the global perspective is way beyond ordinary human scale”. She argues that we need “human-sized” stories to teach lessons around climate change. This is something at which anthropologists excel. Many ostensibly well-educated students have no sense of the scope of human history on Earth, our interrelationship with our environment through time, and the dramatic effect we have had on our planet. There are a lot of ways that climate change intersects with real life and our understanding of our human past and present. Making sure that we are developing these lessons into cogent and easily understandable stories (ahem, case studies) will provide students with information they can latch onto and remember.

Anthropology is only one tool among many that allows for substantive exploration of key human issues. Perspectives from the sciences, social sciences, as well as policy and practitioner arenas, can inform students about the diversity of information and possibilities for engagement that exist. But anthropology has made significant strides recently to be more relevant. See the Global Task Force on Climate Change’s report, “Changing the Atmosphere” for an excellent review and starting point for case study references. Our insights on evolution, human migration, differences in cultural beliefs, local knowledge, human rights, human-environment interaction, human health, societal collapse, risk and disaster and questions of resilience and adaptation (among others) are all relevant to the topic of climate change. Any of these is useful fodder for informing students and requiring that they responsibly engage with issues of climate change and its implications, rather than learning facts for exams.

This is a day-one course reading response from a student that helps to exemplify some of the complexities of teaching climate change in anthropology:

One of the specialization areas of my major is materials for energy, a topic that is closely related to reduction of carbon emissions and preventing climate change which I hope to learn more about through this class. The reading helped my understanding of the feedback effects that contribute to climate change. I was aware that a feedback cycle existed but this document helped me understand the roles that clouds and sea ice played in climate change. This information could help convince the public to reduce carbon emissions because the feedback system is amplifying the climate change we are causing.

This student is clearly intelligent and has translated understanding from the reading to real-world problems and his chosen career path (somewhat rare among students). He hits a home run with his big picture understanding, and his idea about convincing the public with additional education about albedo feedbacks. He demonstrates advanced critical thinking, but there are two very problematic understandings underlying his response that we must take responsibility for.

First, we need to make climate change real for students, not some abstract phenomenon that they deal with only in theory. A typical student response to combatting climate change often goes like this: “we need more science, and we can give scientists’ discoveries to the government to implement.” This used to be a perfectly reasonable argument, but we have demonstrated that this is not a viable solution in real life (otherwise, we would have done significantly more to mitigate our risk by now) and we also need to let them know why that’s not an acceptable answer in the classroom either. The interactions between our physical environment, our governmental policies, social structures, and consumer choices are too complex for single solutions.

We, as anthropologists, can undoubtedly guide them in understanding and meaningfully contextualizing problems and situations related to climate change in ways they can connect with. Whether majors or non-majors, exploring changes to Inuit livelihood strategies as well as student led fossil-fuel divestment activism can build relational understanding. It is this diversity of knowledge, and the long-term learning promoted through case study analysis that will help them navigate academically disparate topics and translate knowledge into action.

The second important issue is that we have clearly done a disservice to our nation’s youth if they can make it to college believing that climate change can be prevented. How could this happen? Perhaps because the news media focuses on controversy and drama rather than science and facts, while other media largely ignores climate change. Teachers may try their best to teach information within the bounds of what they know and what they are able to; often limited by curriculum and delayed updates. I, for example, didn’t learn about any post WWII history or social studies going through public schools in the 1990s.

High school and college students are in the process of creating, exploring, and breaking the intellectual boundaries that will and have surrounded them for a lifetime. What they need is honesty and that is precisely what we don’t give them. Instead, our young adults get a fragmented picture about what is going on in the world around them, and worse, no messages about how they should interpret or value that information.

Most of this problem is due to the fact that we have been reluctant, as a society, to deal with issues of ethical, moral, or religious belief. But anthropology has dealt with this long ago and cultural relativism is an appropriate lesson. What we cannot do is avoid any discussion of the topic because of fear of controversy, hurting someone’s feelings, or being unwilling to burden our young with the negative facts of life. In an interview related to climate change, one parent had this to say:

It would almost be cruel to, like, share all of — you know, too much [about climate change], because they’re already anxious enough about the future, just in their own world about what are they going to do, are they going to get a job and will they find somebody, you know, I mean, whatever. So to throw in climate change is kind of cruel.

I wonder how many other parents feel similarly? What are the investments we have made that are preventing us from facing the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be? We have an ethical responsibility to teach students about reality, and our reality demands that we prepare them for civilized ethical debate. Avoiding the issue will help no one.

If we haven’t communicated that climate change is important by the time they graduate college, and more importantly why and how they can choose to engage, what hope do we have? We haven’t been able to solve or mitigate the problem that our parents and grandparents created, then isn’t the next best thing that we could do is equip our children to try? Climate change isn’t like Santa Claus. It’s complicated–way more complicated than the next presidential election or subsidized healthcare or gay marriage. Students need significant interaction on this topic from multiple perspectives to gain two things: factual knowledge about the realities of climate change, and, diverse perspectives surrounding how people deal with the realities of climate change. These are what will inform them in making the choices appropriate to the future they will both create and endure.

Series Navigation<< Anthropologies #21: ‘Patabea se bariu’–Rethinking environmental changeAnthropologies #21: The Challenge of Motivated Reasoning: Science, Education, and Changing Climates >>

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “Anthropologies #21: Why do we need to teach climate change in anthropology?

  1. Lisa Bennett makes several important points in her Grist article: “10 things you want to know about human nature if you’re fighting climate change.” A key point (and I think all of them are relevant) is #2: “We can be blasé about the most important issues in the world because the global perspective is way beyond ordinary human scale”. She argues that we need “human-sized” stories to teach lessons around climate change. This is something at which anthropologists excel. Many ostensibly well-educated students have no sense of the scope of human history on Earth, our interrelationship with our environment through time, and the dramatic effect we have had on our planet. There are a lot of ways that climate change intersects with real life and our understanding of our human past and present. Making sure that we are developing these lessons into cogent and easily understandable stories (ahem, case studies) will provide students with information they can latch onto and remember.

    Yes, yes, yes! And the full article is well worth reading.

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