Examining Cultural Implications of Climate Change

Posted: June 21, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: June 18, 2010 at 3:03 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Susan Crate. Creative Services photo

For more than 20 years, anthropologist Susan Crate has traveled to northeastern Siberia to work with a group of native horse and cattle breeders.

Crate, an assistant professor of human ecology in Mason’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy, is currently working on a project that focuses on how global climate change affects Siberian natives’ livelihood and culture.

Fluent in Russian and Sakha (the Turkic language of the Sakha people) Crate has facilitated a number of projects with native Viliui Sakha.

Her current research is supported by the National Science Foundation and examines Viliui Sakha’s use of the environment for survival. It also looks at their unique adaptation of horse and cattle husbandry to the extreme subarctic climate.

These communities rely heavily on subsistence production, which is centered on horse and cattle meat and milk. They supplement their diet through a variety of other food sources, such as gardens and greenhouses, hunting, fishing, foraging and raising other domesticates, including pigs and chickens.

In recent years, Crate has noticed changes in the way Viliui Sakha use their stories and legends to explain natural phenomena.

“What first alerted me to the cultural implications of climate change for Viliui Sakha was when I heard a Sakha elder tell the story of Jyl Oghuha (the bull of winter). This story features a mythical bull and is used to explain an annual temperature event of subarctic winters,” says Crate.

According to Crate, the bull of winter refers to “about four months during the winter season when it becomes too cold to snow – the landscape is frozen and everything becomes still.”

The Viliui Sakha are primarily dependent upon horses and cattle for food, but too much water is jeopardizing their way of life. Photo courtesy of Susan Crate

“As the effects of climate change increase, winters are becoming warmer,” she says. “And Sakha say the bull of winter is no longer arriving and the story is now being told to explain how things used to be.”

For centuries, Viliui Sakha have adapted to a specific climate and weather pattern with temperatures reaching -60 degrees Celsius (-75 degrees F) in winter and +40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees F) in summer.

Unfortunately, the community has been observing some changes that are jeopardizing their survival. Such changes include the softening of the climate as winters become warmer, more rain during the haying season, too much snow and the loss of familiar species and the arrival of new species from the south.

Another trend is that water now continues to inundate their villages, making land areas unusable for haying, hunting and foraging – activities on which their survival depends. According to Viliui Sakha, hunting is becoming difficult in winter and summer because the snow is too deep or the land is too muddy.

When asked about the causes of climate change, Viliui Sakha commented that climate change is caused by both natural and human factors. Although inhabiting remote homelands, many Viliui Sakha have been introduced to most varieties of modern technology. Crate also identified two media sources addressing global climate change that have reached the villages. These sources may have influenced Viliui Sakha’s comments about climate change and reinforced their desire to learn more from outside sources.

As the effects of global climate change continue to threaten the survival of Viliui Sakha, they may be forced to relocate and thereby lose the relationship they have with their homeland. In the process of this relocation, their symbolic and subsistence cultures will be transformed.

The Siberian climate is getting warmer and may force the natives to relocate, upsetting their cultural heritage. Photo courtesy of Susan Crate

“The cultural implications of relocation can lead to the disorientation, alienation and loss of meaning in life that happens when any people are removed from their environment of origin,” says Crate.

Crate believes that climate change is ultimately about culture. Therefore, practitioners of anthropology have definitive roles to play in climate change research because anthropology focuses on understanding culture and the human dimension; it also has methods and models appropriate for interpreting and understanding these aspects.

“As anthropologists, we are in a perfect position to act as communicators to indigenous peoples about what information they need to know about climate change and seek out the local, regional and national channels through which we can inform policy makers about the unique situations of different peoples of the world,” Crate says.

In response to her encounter with the Viliui Sakha and the challenges they face, Crate, with Mark Nuttall of the University of Alberta, organized and edited the book “Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions” (Left Coast Press, 2009).

The volume, which includes 11 case studies, explores anthropologists’ encounters across climate-sensitive world areas and builds a research agenda to further investigate the human dimensions of climate change.

“For indigenous people around the world, climate change brings different kinds of risks and challenges, including threatening cultural survival and undermining indigenous human rights,” Crate says.

“Climate change is also above all a moral issue – and as global citizens, it is our responsibility to contribute to a positive change.”

This article appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2010.

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