Monday, August 03, 2009

The Ways In Which Climate Change Is Already Affecting Cultures As Well As the Environment

This article on the Kamayurá people in the Amazon offers just one more reminder of the tragic effects climate change is having not just on flora and fauna, but on people and cultures, too:

Deforestation and, some scientists contend, global climate change are making the Amazon region drier and hotter, decimating fish stocks in this area and imperiling the Kamayurá’s very existence. Like other small indigenous cultures around the world with little money or capacity to move, they are struggling to adapt to the changes.

[...] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that up to 30 percent of animals and plants face an increased risk of extinction if global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in coming decades. But anthropologists also fear a wave of cultural extinction for dozens of small indigenous groups — the loss of their traditions, their arts, their languages.

“In some places, people will have to move to preserve their culture,” said Gonzalo Oviedo, a senior adviser on social policy at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland. “But some of those that are small and marginal will assimilate and disappear.”

This is absolutely right. In our concern over climate change, there seems (at least to me) to be a disconnect between the damage the environment is and will sustain (often illustrated in images of rising waters, receding glaciers, or increasingly arid locations) and the real effects these changes are already having on people. In part, at least in the U.S. and Europe, this is a matter of luxury - the populations are relatively well-off enough that issues like declining food availability and the threat of cultural extinction seem far-off or even non-existant (does anybody stop to consider the death of American cultures, or even sub-cultures?). Yet there are other parts of the world that are already dealing with these possibilities, not just in terms of declining food availability or changing landscapes, but of real threats to the survival of their cultures and beliefs. Nor, as the article points out, is it limited to Brazil - cultures in the U.S. are already facing danger:
"Eskimo settlements like Kivalina and Shishmaref in Alaska are “literally being washed away,” said Thomas Thornton, an anthropologist who studies the region, because the sea ice that long protected their shores is melting and the seas around are rising. Without that hard ice, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hunt for seals, a mainstay of the traditional diet.
All this serves as just a stark reminder that climate change isn't just a threat that could radically transform the world for the worst if we don't do something about it now. It's already begun to take its toll on many peoples, and to ignore that fact is to ignore the fact that climate change isn't a future threat: it's a clear and present danger.

[Also, as an aside, I'm more than a little bothered that the second word (and first non-article descriptor) in the article is "naked." Could we appeal to exoticizing stereotypes, please? Were they naked? Probably. But factuality isn't the issue. What exactly does their state of clothing have to do with the rest of the article? Nothing. It's just appealing to basic, stereotypical images that portray indigenous people as exotic beings who don't wear clothes, without providing anything of substance to the main point of environmental change in the report.]