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Anthropology and the environment: introduction

by Lye Tuck-Po

27/9/23


"Anthropology, including cultural ecology, differs from other fields in that it studies all humans, everywhere, from the earliest times (millions of years ago) to today and from the Arctic to the Antarctic" (Sutton and Anderson 2010:1)

The new semester is about to start. I'm teaching "anthropology and the environment" again.
The first questions, of course, are: what is anthropology? what is environment? How do we bring them together? That is, how do we connect anthropology (the study of life) and the environment?
What is environment? Everything outside the body? But consider this:
I'm writing in my room. One glass door separates me from the verandah. I hear the crashing of waves, birds, traffic. The waves are strong today. The traffic can't match the noise volume from the sea.
The view from my verandah, Batu Feringgi, Penang
The view from my verandah, Batu Feringgi, Penang

I could go on, with what I see, smell, hear, touch... What we sense becomes a part of us. What knowledge we gain becomes part of us.
The point is: the connection between anthropology (the study of life and us) already includes the study of environment. What is different from society to society is the degree to which culture (that which we learn, whether from parents, schooling, friends, mass media, or personal experience) shapes how we deal with environment.
Anthropologist exploring the nearby woods with Batek friend
Anthropologist exploring the nearby woods with Batek friend

As a child, I loved to play in the garden and turn up snails to see what was on the underside. (the poor snails) But I never carried them away, never brought wildlife into the house. I've met people who did. For example, Japanese anthropologists / zoologists who (as children) would bring wildlife into their homes and carefully classified them with labels and containers. Sometimes I played with dragonflies and grasshoppers, but that was about the extent of my involvement with the environment.
Batek, the people I work with, are hands-on. I've never heard Batek parents scolding their children for dealing with wildlife in the ground. The only exceptions are when the wildlife is poisonous or clearly dangerous in some way (and the children wouldn't go near them anyway).
A childhood full of trees. Batek boy, 2014
A childhood full of trees. Batek boy, 2014

What I think we can learn from people like the Batek is how their environments are part of their culture. I'm having trouble with this sentence because it's not that they reach "out" to the environment, or they "bring" the environment into their culture. It's just that, as forest people, their environment is so much a part of their culture. You can hear it in their music, stories, anecdotes, etc.
So in this course we're going to examine cultural interactions with the environment, by focusing on: human-animal relations, indigenous knowledge, and climate change. Along the way, we'll study how anthropologists have approached the topic of environment, their frameworks and concepts, and their methods. The goal is to introduce students to the wide array of environments and peoples, from tropical forests to tundras to savannahs and so on, and the diversity of lives found therein.
Reference
Sutton, Mark Q., and E. N. Anderson. 2010. Introduction to cultural ecology. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press.

A couple of overviews of environmental anthropology:
Kopnina, Helen, and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet, eds. 2017. Routledge handbook of environmental anthropology. Oxford and New York: Routledge.
Townsend, Patricia. 2018. Environmental anthropology: from pigs to policies. Third ed. Prospect Heights, Il: Waveland Press.

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