Culture, behaviour, #climate change; an anthropologist speaks… #Manchester #mcrclimateplan

Dr Hannah Knox (see Sept 2012 interview here), very kindly answered the curliest questions we could think of on the subject of a “low carbon culture.” Engaging people in the creation such a culture is the second goal of the Manchester Climate Change Action Plan. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Manchester City Council barely ever talks about this goal, preferring to stick to goal one (41% reduction by 2020…)


1) If a fellow anthropologist arrived from their home world of Mars, and asked you to define a low-carbon culture, what would you say to him/her/it?

I would say that low carbon culture is an aspiration rather than a description of an existing reality. Since the Industrial Revolution, the development of modern society has depended on the use of carbon-based fossil fuels. These are so fundamental to the political and economic structure of modern society that even the most ecologically-minded communities cannot entirely divorce themselves from products and services that have been made possible by the use of carbon-based energy sources.

In the 1980s however, public awareness of the environmental implications of burning fossil fuels began to grow and people began to experiment with the idea of a society that was no longer based on fossil fuels. Over the years this has moved from a concern voiced primarily by environmental pressure groups to a much more mainstream concern involving technologists, economists, scientists and politicians. Low carbon culture might best be described then, as a powerful science ‘fiction’, through which more and more people are working to imagine and design a future for themselves and for future generations that might operate without fossil-fuel based technologies.

2) What’s the difference between a “culture” and the sum of “people’s behaviours”?
The term behaviour allows us to talk in the abstract about what people do. It allows us to make generalisations about activities and their effects across different settings and across time. Defining a ‘behaviour’ involves putting boundaries around what counts as a particular activity (e.g. turning down a thermostat, turning off a light) in order to make that activity measurable and comparable (hence the ‘sum’ of behaviours). Culture is a contested term, but I think it still remains a useful heuristic [“rule of thumb”] for the way in which it reintroduces the importance of thinking about the context of any behaviour. Culture is generally understood by anthropologists to be that set of norms, assumptions, expectations, material constraints and social taboos that naturalises one way of doing things, and makes another seem strange. Culture helps explain behaviours, by locating any action in the specific web of relations and associations within which it comes about. If behaviour is a useful simplification, the value of the idea of culture lies in its capacity to describe and uncover complexity. I think that this is why behaviour change is so much more appealing as a managed institutional response to an issue like climate change than culture change.

3) Culture changes – women have the vote, there are formal protections for homosexuals, anti-racism laws etc. As Noam Chomsky says, the West is infinitely more civilised than it was 50 or 60 years ago.  What are first year anthropology students taught about the why and how and who of cultural change?
The Anthropology 101 view of culture change teaches students about a tension that has long existed in anthropology between a) culture as something that is inherently conservative and traditional, and b) culture as necessarily creative and transformative. Culture as tradition is sustained by all sorts of ceremonies and rituals through which passions and fears are managed, physical and spiritual forces are harnessed and tamed and the reproduction of society is ensured. Culture as creativity on the other hand helps us think about how and when ideas and practices change. It provides a way of thinking, for example, about why contact between cultures in an age of rapid and widespread globalisation has not led to homogeneity but rather to persistently varied ways of approaching life and its challenges.

4) So when does culture change very suddenly?  Is it only after an invasion or a plague?
Catastrophic events can, of course, result in rapid cultural change, although it’s important to remember that they can also be subsumed into and rationalised within existing cultural schemas. For me, technological invention is a key frontier of cultural change as it establishes new possibilities for making social worlds, and has the capacity to render current social practice strange in a way that makes change appear necessary. We should be wary, therefore, of assuming that technological solutions and cultural solutions to climate change are separate from one another – I see them as entirely entangled.

5) What texts – introductory and also more advanced – would you recommend for climate activists who wanted to get their heads around culture and cultural change?
Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Small Places, Large Issues [whole book as pdf!] is a good introductory anthropology book. A classic study of the relationship between cultural practices and sustainable living is Roy Rappaport’s 1968 book ‘Pigs for the Ancestors‘. And for a diagnosis of the current impasse in attempts to bring natural processes to bear on politics I would read Bruno Latour’s ‘The Politics of Nature‘.

6) Are you aware of any advanced Western countries that have made any sort large-scale transition away from high-consumption/consumerism, besides niche “downshifters”?
I am not aware of any particular country that has made this move for ecological reasons, but there are of course many examples of economies which have seen a transition away from high-consumption due to past and current financial crises, with knock on effects for their carbon emissions. The problem, in carbon reduction terms, is that recession tends to be seen as an unwanted setback to a broader project of increasing wealth and development. Any inadvertent carbon reduction gains made in one place during a recession are either countered by greater economic activity elsewhere or erased when consumption ramps up again during recovery.

7) Anything else you’d add?
We need many more anthropological voices from around the world to join this discussion about what culture change might mean in relation to climate change. Orchestrated cultural change is rarely without its losers and I think we need to be careful about launching enthusiastically into a program of cultural transformation without remaining attentive to all those unforeseen consequences it will bring in its wake.

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
This entry was posted in #mcrclimateplan, academia, inspire, Interview and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Culture, behaviour, #climate change; an anthropologist speaks… #Manchester #mcrclimateplan

  1. Pingback: What IS a low carbon culture? Your thoughts wanted! | Environmental Scrutiny

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