“Key Debates in Environmental Anthropology”—A Report on the Inaugural Conference of the Environmental Anthropology Working Group

by Oliver Liebig

On 26th and 27th September 2016, the Environmental Anthropology Working Group (a subgroup of the German Anthropological Association) met at the Rachel Carson Center for their inaugural conference. The meeting was convened to discuss the key debates and standpoints in environmental anthropology, as well as its diverse engagements with current environmental problems, such as climate change, species extinction, deforestation, industrial pollution, the food crisis, industrial agriculture, and water management.

The organizers—Rebecca Hofmann (PH Freiburg), Ursula Münster (RCC), and Carsten Wergin (University of Heidelberg)—conceptualized the meeting as a space for open discussions about the field of environmental anthropology, rather than for longer presentations about participants’ research. The meeting therefore started with all participants introducing themselves and giving brief statements on their research interests and motivations.

Brainstorming at the environmental anthropology workshop. Photo by Laura Kuen.

Tom Griffiths (Australian National University) gave the keynote talk on bushfire in Australia. He illustrated the role fire has had for Aboriginal people since precolonial times. He showed how fire was and is at the heart of Aboriginal cultivation, through the use of firesticks to strategically burn areas of land to allow particular plants and wildlife to thrive, and how they also used fire to provide space for hunting. After the 2009 tragedy of a bushfire in southeast Australia, non-Aboriginal communities who lived in the forest were seriously harmed. These communities now experience themselves as communities in crisis. Their first question was: “How did the fire know we lived here?” This question then brought up several related ones: “What happened on that day? What does it mean in the long term? How can we renew for the future? How can we better include local histories and knowledges into fire management?” The keynote thus introduced some of the core topics of environmental anthropology: how can anthropologists better understand entanglements between environmental phenomena, social and power relations, and ontologies?

Looking into the Steels Creek valley near Melbourne in May 2009, three months after the Black Saturday firestorm. Photo by Tom Griffiths.


In the first panel, “TechnoNatureCultures,” Daniel Münster gave an introductory presentation on the social life of things—that is, the idea that things or phenomena have a social existence and are in social relationships with human beings as well as with other things. Plants, for example, are able to absorb bacteria into themselves through rhizomes , or in permaculture you find a cycle of living substance. From the perspective of environmental anthropology it is possible to speak of co-evolving relations between humans, plants, animals, and microbes. Yet this raises many controversies: The question came up, with reference to Donna Haraway and her writings on human-animal and human-machine relations: who has the right to speak for matter then?

This was followed by thoughts on the social life of (environmental) phenomena like rivers, the wind, or trees. Such phenomena not only play important roles in everyday energy politics, but are related to and part of broader social complexities. Therefore, seeing trees as more than timber (and hence nature as more than a resource), as exemplified in The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge, affects people and their habits. For environmental anthropology it could be fruitful to shed light on these linkages.

Early spring in the Steels Creek valley and some green returns to the blackened forests, August 2009. Photo by Tom Griffiths.

The second panel, “Political Ecologies,” was introduced by Sandra Calkins, who outlined a main critique of the concept of political ecology: because the political has been more and more emphasized, in the end there is no ecology left. This recalled Bruno Latour’s demand in his book Politics of Nature, that political ecology has to be rethought in order to overcome the anthropocentrism that has taken over. The participants agreed that it would be necessary to put the ecology back into political ecology.

Arno Pascht opened the third panel, “Environmental Ontologies,” with a discussion of Marilyn Strathern, whose work contributed to shifting anthropological questions of knowledge and epistemology to ontology. The “ontological turn” in anthropology has opened up the possibility that plural worlds and multiple natures exist and has raised questions about how to explore these different kinds of worlds. The group then discussed different approaches, like that of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and recursive ethnography. In Viveiros de Castro’s description of the environmental relations of several indigenous groups in the Amazon, he shows how the environment can become a subject and actually plays subject-like roles. The environment appears not as passive, but as an actor. This actor is, according to Tim Ingold (amongst many others), neither just nature nor culture. Following on from this, the group agreed that science and the humanities should embrace this view, instead of separating humans from their environments. The debate also raised ethical concerns: how can one describe a mountain or fungus in a way that gives it a status like that of a non-human being? Or, put another way, why should it not be considered to be more than just a part of the landscape or just a plant or excrescence? The question would be then, where does the human stop and who would decide this? These ideas have political implications. The group found it important to tell counterstories (e.g., Marxist counterstories) to neoliberalism, but also to listen to non-human voices in human stories, concluding with the question: what gives us the right to tell nature’s story from a human perspective?

Discussing environmental ontologies. Photo by Laura Kuen.

The meeting ended with a discussion on future perspectives in environmental anthropology. The organizers identified three main approaches from the theoretical debates, that varied within the working group: first, that of critical realism (“there is actually a real world out there”); second, a standpoint that speaks more from perceptions (following e.g., Tim Ingold), ontology/ies, worlds and worldviews/Weltanschauungen (following e.g. Philippe Descola), or difference and (radical) alterity (e.g. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro); and last, a flattening or not so flattening science and technology studies (STS) perspective. This final summary, like the meeting in general, was a helpful cartography of useful approaches that are applied in current environmental anthropology research. Of course, many open questions remained, e.g., what a working definition of environmental anthropology could be, and what a good methodology in environmental anthropological research would look like. But it showed possibilities and the strength of the environmental anthropological perspective, and also did not hold back with critiques of the differing approaches.



Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ursula Münster, Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer, and the RCC editing team for their comments on the text.

One Comment on ““Key Debates in Environmental Anthropology”—A Report on the Inaugural Conference of the Environmental Anthropology Working Group

  1. Pingback: “Key Debates in Environmental Anthropology”—A Report on the Inaugural Conference of the Environmental Anthropology Working Group 08. Dezember 2016. – Umweltethnologie

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