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The anthropologists are weighing in on global warming

Or at least one of them is. There’s an important piece up at Counterpunch, titled “Why Climate Matters,” by Shirley J. Fiske. What it is, essentially, is a letter to the moneyed Presidential contenders, asking both to “re-consider the metric of climate change and get it back on the policy table.” Largely, this letter appeals to the basic humanity of its recipients and the government in its role as a guarantor of basic infrastructure such as roads and of the necessities of existence in light of the threat of climate change.

(Also posted at that wonderful place, Voices on the Square.)

Sign at volunteer center: Food & Clothes

An Occupy Sandy volunteer location on Staten Island.

We could, each of us, write letters like this, to the political “representatives” of our choice. Each of us will see a worsening planetary situation due to global warming. Sea levels will rise, and snowcaps atop mountaintops will melt, significantly reducing the availability of water in many areas (California, the Southwest, Texas, and so on). Heatwaves will make life impossible for people in many already-hot areas. The intensity of hurricanes and tornadoes will rise. At some point crop failures will induce famines.

The definitive solution to global warming, as I have pointed out in a number of diaries over at, involves a phasing-out of the capitalist system. The primary quandary is this. Mitigating global warming involves giving up fossil fuel burning. The owners of fossil fuels consider their reserves as an asset, and we hope to deprive this asset of all of its value so that it can be left in the ground. To make this a real possibility, the capitalist framework which obliges world-society to consume 85 million barrels (about 3.5 billion gallons) of oil each day (to the increase of 2.3 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide each year) must be left behind.

Of course, if we want to reach this conclusion, we must first open up the conversation, in the political pubic sphere, about carbon dioxide. Fiske’s letter attempts to do that. Its conclusion voices the perspective of social scientists as they hope to continue to do work in the public interest:

We can help work with communities to strengthen their resilience in the face of adverse change by improving adaptive capacity. And, we can help work with governments to shape policy that reflects the cultural guideposts that are central to actually achieving intended results. But it is far harder to do our work if climate policy becomes a policy of neglect, if no one is listening to the plights of real people, and our leaders aren’t talking about either climate change or infrastructure.

It seems so unfortunate in this regard that letters like this will probably go nowhere. An economy of decreasing growth and the double standard in policy oft-cited by Chomsky (socialism for the rich, laissez-faire for the rest of us) dominates thinking among our so-called leaders. They don’t ask themselves if they should care about the poorest and least fortunate — they imagine that the problem was solved in the Sixties, with a little amendment in the Welfare Bill signed by Clinton, and that the least fortunate don’t pay for their campaign expenses or their imagined post-election careers or retirement packages.

Among the political class, the obsession with money and property also explains, as Matt Stoller points out, the reason why the big issues are missing from the 2012 race. Stoller:

…most US politicians by and large would like to win elections, but they aren’t going to jeopardize a future revenue stream or even their membership in the club of the global elite to do so. This is true for all parts of the political ecosystem, from politicians to staffers to campaign operatives to pollsters to consultants. While losing a race isn’t fun, if you rock the boat and lose, you’re done.

So if the political elite decides that it wants austerity planning for everyone, or legislation that insures corporate domination in perpetuity, then everyone in the political class can be paid to echo those desires whether they win elections by coming off as a suave community organizer like Barack Obama, or lose them as a result of appearing to be the sort of elitist pig that Mitt Romney appears to be.

I would hope that at some point anthropologists such as Shirley J. Fiske would recognize the cultural reality of the political class as such, and start to write appeals to those “third party” aspirants to political office that hail from outside the political class altogether. I would hope that anthropological observers of the political “scene” might find a culture of dependency upon money (and the strategic application of that money) throughout the political class, coalescing into groups which place no priority upon global warming and the disasters it amplifies — e.g. Superstorm Sandy. I would hope that other social scientists would observe how American mass political behavior is based largely upon a “bandwagon effect” that gives us the dominance of corporate parties, the obsession with “lesser of two evils voting,” and so on. I think that, once social scientists recognize the pernicious consequences of the bandwagon effect in American politics, they will work against it. Recognizing the existence of “third party” candidates, a gesture Fiske does not make, would be a start in this regard.

And I would hope that the other scientists would continue to keep the world “filled in” as regards the damaging effects of our combustion of Earth’s 300-million-year-old underground carbon endowment, while the activists decide to rethink their decision to aim for a world in which we “do something” about global warming while leaving the capitalist system untouched.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984