Research rationale

This Network comes at a time when there is a wealth of natural scientific material and ever-growing number of social science accounts on the facts of environmental change within precise geo-political contexts (e.g. Berkhout et al 2001). The most recent anthropological perspectives include the regional/ecosystem level (Krupnik & Jolly 2002); define climate change as a problem for national and international security (Barnett 2003); and attempt to integrate ecology and symbolic anthropology to examine human perceptions and responses to meteorological phenomena (Strauss & Orlove 2003, Aveni 2002); examine the cultural space between weather and climate (change) as reframed to remind actors of global responsibility (Sherratt et al 2005); interrogate the equity and justice implications of climate change (Thomas & Twyman 2005, Adger et al 2005, Watt-Cloutier 2004, Rohr 2006, Wisner et al 2007, Aguilar 2008); explore representations of climate change in the media (Carvalho 2007, Lahsen 2008); the politics of climate change (Giddens 2009); as well as the politics of how climate knowledge is represented (Nadasdy 1999, Usher 2000); communication and social action in climate change (Moser & Dilling 2007); and understanding what role anthropologists have in relation to climate change (Milton, ed. 2008, Crate & Nuttall 2009).

Nonetheless, the study of environmental change remains impoverished by the lack of substantial comparative anthropology, which provide observational accounts of environmental change over the short, mid and long-term, and which also reflects the perceptions and accounts of local actors (Fienup-Riordan 1999, Krupnik et al 2004; Nazarea 2006). Cronon (1992) and Cruikshank (2001) argue for oral narrative as a powerful research tool in uncovering environmental knowledge over time. Cruikshank (1998) shows how fruitfully oral and written historical records may inform our understanding of historical processes. Kearney (1994) argues strongly for the cognitive importance of stories for apprehending environmental information. Indeed specific and rich studies of the American Northwest have emerged through the work of Orlove et al (2008) and Cruikshank (2005) concerning the relationship between local and scientific interpretations of glaciers undergoing rapid environmental change. Nevertheless, these analyses are primarily being realised in isolation.

The development of multi-disciplinary collaboration is important if we are to evaluate the impacts of climate change within the broader context of social and cultural change. Anthropologists are particularly well placed to undertake research of this type, since they are generally in an engaged relationship with the people they work with and need to be aware of the multiple forms of communication – and miscommunication – that emerge when different ways of perceiving the environment and its processes intersect (Watson-Verran 1994; Povinelli 1995; Wynne 1996; Nuttall & Nilsson 2008; Crate & Nuttall 2009; Bodenhorn in press). Our Network sets out prompt reflection on the connection between the humanities and the development of a critique of climate change models, scientific scenarios and storylines for the future (Nuttall 2001).

Our Network, whose members between them, work in most of the ecological ‘hotspots’ of the globe, is committed to the documentation of local understandings of environmental processes and to examining the intersection of such understanding with local, national and international bodies that have a stake in policy formation.  It is for that reason that we have coupled our focus on climate histories, with a simultaneous emphasis on communication. It is our intention to contribute to discussions of evidence and of process in a clear and precise way, to show how humanities-based approaches can complement the natural sciences (Redclift & Benton 1994, Rayner & Malone 1998). The Network appeals to audiences within the humanities and social sciences, practitioners of local/natural history who generate their own climate histories and natural scientists seeking to incorporate the humanities into their research.