Culture as Climate


For ecologists, the meaning should be very clear. The forces of humanity are now akin to those of climate geophysics or biology and therefore as fundamental to understanding the processes that shape life on Earth as the sciences of climate, soils, or biology. To engage in scientific study of ecological pattern, process, and change as it exists today and for the foreseeable future demands a firm grasp of the human sciences and their deep integration into ecological theory and practice. It is no longer adequate merely to study the consequences of human transformation of ecological pattern and process: Ecology must become a science of their ultimate causes. (Ellis p. 320)

Ellis’ basic thesis – that it is not possible to have a thorough understanding of ecology without taking into account human sociocultural niche construction – is persuasive. The demand for “a firm grasp of the human sciences and their deep integration into ecological theory and practice” suggests that the anthroecology project has an important role for social sciences like psychology, sociology, and anthropology. These social sciences that appeal to the meanings that humans make of their behavior are also likely places to look for advice if we hope to realize the possibility that “intentional efforts by societies to intervene in the dynamics of human systems at global scales can … ultimately generate more beneficial and less detrimental ecological inheritance for both human societies and nonhuman species.” (p. 321).

It is surprising, given the foregoing, that Ellis is reluctant to really dive into what the traditional, meaning-oriented, social sciences have to say about the inner workings of human culture. Several members of our group (e.g., Zev Trachtenberg in his March 14 post, Asa Randall in his March 31 post, and me in my March 17 post) have suggested that Ellis consider how internal, mental-content aspects of culture might influence his analysis. We have each suggested that certain internal cultural dynamics are relatively independent of, or resistant to, selection pressure, but Ellis seems skeptical that such dynamics are important for anthroecology. Instead, he seems content with a cultural evolution story that focuses on whether cultural products (behavior, institutions, technology, etc.) are adaptive in an (extended) evolutionary sense.

Why is Ellis not interested in making the internal aspects of cultural dynamics part of the sociocultural niche construction story? The issue seems to be a matter of scale: at the level of years or decades, cultural particulars have influence on human behavior and its products; from a longer perspective, however, what matters are the processes that give rise to cultural particulars. Ellis is fond of drawing an analogy with the distinction between climate and weather:

Here the goal is more basic: to explain the emergence and long-term dynamics of the ‘human climate system’ that has been reshaping the terrestrial biosphere for more than 50,000 years and that will likely continue reshaping it into the foreseeable future. This explanation has two parts. The first is to explain how human societies initially gained their unprecedented capacity to transform ecological and evolutionary processes. The second is to explain how this capacity has scaled up and changed as a transformative force on ecology as human societies themselves have changed and diversified over human generational time, from small bands of hunter-gatherers to globalized industrial societies. To gain this understanding, it is necessary to see beyond the short-term local and regional dynamics of the ‘human weather’ to focus on the ‘human climate system’; the long-term processes by which human societies act as a global force transforming Earth’s ecology.” (p. 290; emphasis added)

What we should be interested in, on this view, is less what happened and more on the dynamics that generated the history. Cultural particulars come and go, but what matters are processes and the trends they create.

There is much to be said here, but let me dive into (what I see as) the main point: the climate vs weather distinction doesn’t really track the internal-aspect-of-culture vs external-aspect-of-culture distinction. None of the participants in our group is trying to isolate a ‘human weather’ event (some particular, historic cultural artifact) as a crucial part of the anthroecology story. Rather, each of us is trying to explain how certain cultural processes – religious, ideological, deliberative – can be isolated to some degree from the sort of evolutionary story Ellis tells. This is a matter of ‘human climate’, not ‘human weather’. The idea is that there are cultural mechanisms in addition to those Ellis discusses and that an appropriate model of sociocultural niche construction should include them. A model of culture that doesn’t take into account internal aspects is like a climate model that averages over El Nino and La Nina events – it takes a real pattern to be mere noise in the data.

One thought on “Culture as Climate

  1. Erle Ellis’ differentiation between “human weather” and “human climate” evoke Marshall Sahlins (1960) differentiation between “specific” and “general” cultural evolution. Sahlins likened his specific evolution to adaptive radiation in biological communities, a sort of stochastic tendency toward diverse cultural strategies for dealing with environment. General evolution, on the other hand, represented a unilineal march of progress toward some developmental ideal. This was in many ways a revival of nineteenth century views on cultural evolution, with an attempt to reconcile them with twentieth century biological evolution, albeit by way of a somewhat flimsy analogy.

    What Sahlins failed to recognize in the 1960s, and what I think Erle Eliss might be overlooking now, is that this kind of evolutionism is more cultural narrative than objective science, with very specific historical roots in the justification of colonialism, class oppression, and scientific racism. While I am by no means accusing Ellis, or Sahlins for that matter, of explicitly supporting these constructs, I think we need to be extremely careful when invoking their derivatives in scientific models. It is very easy for the noble goal of environmental sustainability to become enmeshed with justifications of colonial oppression, not only in the past but in the present.

    Marshall D. Sahlins and Elman R. Service. 1960. Evolution and Culture. University of Michigan Press.

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