Frida Hastrup, post.doc, Department of Anthropology,
University of Copenhagen
Given the current tides in the political as well as the scientific world it seems difficult for researchers of any discipline to entirely avoid considering climate. Within anthropology, a range of studies have recently appeared, exploring the impact of global climate change on local communities around the globe as observed during ethnographic fieldwork. Often these studies focus explicitly on local communities’ experiences of environmental change and on their attendant practices of adaptation, and a common feature is an appeal that science ought to pay heed to these local understandings, which usually go by the name of ‘local knowledge’ or ‘indigenous knowledge’. Such local environmental knowledge can contribute to science quite simply because the locals in each their set of physical surroundings often have an intimate insight into their environment, enabling them to report any changes to outsiders. As anthropologist Susan Crate, co-editor of the book Anthropology and Climate Change. From Encounters to Actions (2009), writes in her chapter on perceptions of climate change among the Sakha in Siberia:
“We asked a simple set of questions about what elders observed, how their lives were affected, what the causes were, and what they thought their future would bring. The elders impressed upon us that they possess ecological knowledge about how the climate was and how it has changed. In lieu of availability of comprehensive local climatic data, village elders’ knowledge is vital” (Crate 2009:140).
While I certainly appreciate the recording of environmental knowledge of any kind, including that of non-specialists, and support the implicit acceptance of a diversity of forms of knowledge, there is still reason to be cautious of the conceptualization of local knowledge, which is expressed in the quote above. Sympathetic as the approach is, by seeing local knowledge as mere observations that can be tapped into as a contribution to “comprehensive climatic data”, I think we run the risk of reducing local knowledge to being a kind of 1:1 photographical representation of the surroundings. Local knowledge, when seen as sheer observations, remains quite literally a down-to-earth kind of knowledge without any potential theoretical content. Such a concept of local knowledge contradicts what I have come across during fieldwork in a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, South India. The main focus of my research was analyzing the ways in which people recovered after the blow of the Asian tsunami that hit coastal regions all around the Indian Ocean in December 2004. What struck me during my fieldworks was that the local villagers kept communicating views of their environment, which combined a range of features into an implicit theory about the world. Thus, the fishermen repeatedly made statements that connected the experience of shifting weather conditions and recurring seasonal patterns with global climate change, which again was connected with the unique tsunami disaster that had engulfed most of the village. “After the tsunami, the climate is different. We catch less fish”, Soresh would say, and Raj would add that the rough season – the local term for the recurring monsoon season at the end of the year – could now appear at unexpected times, leaving the fishermen with limited ability to plan ahead.
In these and numerous other statements, the villagers pooled whatever occurrences and conditions nature threw at them into a composite whole; a compound set of surroundings, which they tried to navigate in practically and relate to analytically. For the villagers whose houses were threatened by erosion, it was a matter of moving to safer grounds. Among tsunami survivors, who had already been relocated by the authorities, there was talk of establishing a small port for the fishing boats at the mouth of the nearby river for future protection of the boats. For yet others, what was at stake was to seek new opportunities outside of the increasingly unpredictable fishing trade, either as industrial workers in Singapore or Malaysia, or by way of formal education, all with the aim of improving future possibilities in a long-term perspective. In other words, tsunamis, untimely monsoon rains, depletion of fish in the ocean, waves encroaching on people’s living space, and global climate change – often communicated through mass media – made up the compound reality, to which the local villagers reacted.
As I see it, these reactions have at least two features in common. First of all, it is clear that the villagers act in accordance with an inbuilt view to their future; they react to a distressing future scenario, which they attempt to replace with a less distressing one. This implies that the local practices extend beyond the time, at which they are enacted. Secondly, people’s actions also point beyond their specific locality; the villagers have a clear idea of being part of larger world, which for better or worse, directly or indirectly, splash their local setting. Accordingly, in both temporal and spatial terms, what the villagers do locally and the ideas that they have about their world transcend the near at hand and what is immediately ascertainable. The villagers’ practices are entangled in a wider world, which, of course, as any world, is seen from a particular point of view, but which is built on ideas and knowledge that clearly explode the category of the empirically local.
In other words, what the fishermen articulated was not just a down-to-earth kind of knowledge. While they might have based their statements on observations of the surroundings, they inscribed these observations in an implicit theory about their world, for instance a theory about the connection between climate change, the tsunami and lesser catches of fish. These remarks are not mere observations, which science can pick and choose from; they form part of a whole world-building process, which is locally based, as all world-buildings are, but which clearly extends beyond the empirically immediate.
To conclude: If we do in fact mean it seriously that we want to incorporate local knowledge in our studies of climate change and see it as a valuable contribution to science, we need to acknowledge its theoretical character. By theoretical character I simply mean to imply that even if local knowledge builds on spatially specific experiences and ideas, it is not restricted to represent these in a simple referential relation as a 1:1 model of nature. To the contrary, like all other theories, local knowledge proposes a way of understanding connections in the world; in other words, theorization is not opposed to the local, and it is not an exclusive property of scientists. Knowledge production, whether that of scientists or of locals, always takes place somewhere; in this light, we all produce local knowledge.
More generally, I think this has a bearing on the way in which we understand the relation between the local, the regional and the global. Very often, we tend to think of these in terms of proportions; the local is seen as a smaller perspective than the regional, which again is seen as an excerpt of the global. Analytically, I think we must discard such proportional thinking; surely words like local, regional and global can say something about the empirical scale of our field of interest (as in this blog’s focus on Asia), but they do not tell us anything the potential theoretical scope pertaining to each, and they are not to be seen as descriptive of a hierarchy of knowledge forms. In any event, and in whatever way we construe our field analytically, we need to acknowledge people’s capacity to imagine and think beyond their local setting – which, I should add, is not any less local for it. However insurmountable the challenges of climate change seem to be, from an anthropological perspective, we need to see p
eople everywhere – scientists included – as “locals” who from each their position engage in a world-building process, and whose environmental knowledge is at once experiential and spatially situated and theoretical and abstracted from a specific context.
Vikings vs the new economic superpower: the Tibet issue in Sino-Danish relations by Clemens Stubbe Østergaard, Aarhus Univ.Posted: December 14, 2009
Danes love to have their cake and eat it. Or as the Danish expression goes: to blow air and yet keep flour in your mouth. In the past, before globalization, we could say one thing at home, and do something else abroad. Or we could rely on being so insignificant that others did not bother to react to contradictory policies on our part. Being a small country, though, has never prevented us from imagining ourselves a great power – perhaps remembering Viking times. A number of times we accordingly collided with reality, got into wars above our head, and lost parts of our former territory to neighbouring countries.
Today we exercise this great power mentality a little more carefully: we usually side with the strong, and feel a boundless moral superiority towards the rest.
Our policy around the Tibet-issue has mirrored both principles. When the United States, with its 1-China policy, did not meet the Dalai Lama, we did not either, when they started to meet him in the 1990s, we did too. As late as 2003 this still went well. As for moral superiority, we rightly criticized Beijing’s policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but unfortunately based on such caricatures of China and of Chinese and Tibetan history that already for this reason our words carry little weight with the Chinese side.
Maybe it is the caricature that has prevented us from seeing that things were changing in the world. Just as the US needed China in the Cold War, and thus did not step on Chinese core interests, we today find that we need China to solve not only the problems of the global economy, but also most of the other global problems we are faced with. New ‘wars’ have replaced the Cold War, and the fact that China is now the world’s second largest economy, and a very strong actor in international organisations, means that once again we have to respect what they regard as core interests – in the case of Tibet, the question of sovereignty.
This has been clear to the smarter part of Danish officialdom, but not to the country’s politicians. There were many warning signs: Gordon Brown in mid-2008 felt China’s pressure and made sure that he met the Dalai Lama at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, clearly calling him a religious leader; Sarkozy in late 2008 did not take this precaution, and ended up having to make a declaration quite similar to the one Denmark just made; the Dutch cabinet decided that Prime Minister Balkenende in June would not meet with the Dalai Lama ‘because it would risk harming relations with China’; the New Zealand PM John Key read the signals from China and just declared: “I do not meet with every religious leader that comes to town”, nor would his other ministers. Obama of course has so far postponed any meeting.
Denmark was caught out. A new prime minister was faced with the daunting prospect of a motion in parliament forcing him, in case he followed the advice of his officials and declined to meet the DL. And here we are at the root of the problem. No politician has dared to, or been able to, explain the situation to his colleagues, the media and public opinion. In the vacuum, the international and national Tibet Lobby’s story has reigned supreme. Distorting history by calling Tibet an independent country, when no country in the world ever formally or diplomatically recognized it as such. Comparing the Chinese reclaiming Tibet in 1950 to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait, when anyone can look at the many world maps showing Tibet as part of China, even in the period between the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1911, and the return to a unified China in 1949. Autonomy under Chinese suzerainty was the name of the game.
But at the same time, a large part of the Danish public and media has been ‘in denial’ in the face of Chinese economic and political development. We prefer to think of it as still fairly insignificant economically, and as not having moved an inch on human rights since Tiananmen. In a way it is Mao’s China we still imagine, and how cosy that is. But as was evident from Obama’s recent visit to China, the United States is in a very different place: it looks China straight in the eye as an equal and realizes the need to have it as an ally in world affairs. With the aim of stabilizing the global economy, the global ecosystem, and global security. It will be very costly if Tibet and the Dalai Lama distract the EU and China from working together.
No politician, and no media outlet (with a few shining journalistic exceptions), is ready take on itself the task of educating the public. And as long as China still has lots of human rights problems, as most developing countries do, it is possible to use this as an excuse. The same goes for China’s failed minority policies toward tibetans and uighurs. (though in all honesty not many countries can say they have completely successfully handled their minorities). There is certainly a lot to criticize and the verbal note to China in no way prevents us from doing that.
In fact we have now -after six months of icy relations – returned to a situation where dialogue can be resumed, and where we can begin again to work for the political goals of Danish foreign policy, not only as regards China, but globally. We are no longer “outside the traffic”. However, the uncertainty created meant that existing policy had to be restated more emphatically than we would have liked. We had to accept ‘oppose Tibetan independence’, while the French in April (i.e. before the Danish visit) were let off with: “France refuses to support any form of “Tibet independence” “. It has been very difficult for Danes to stomach the new reality: that we have to listen to what China identifies as its core interests, if we want the relationship to prosper. There is still a need for politicians to show courage and also update their often dismally low knowledge of China. Our criticism will have more effect if it is based on knowledge and cooperation.
We can no longer have our Chinese cake and eat it. Or to put it another way: if diplomatic relations are like a marriage, official meetings with the leader of a government in exile is flirting heavily. A few times may be tolerated, but if it goes on the marriage may break up.
Clemens Stubbe Østergaard
Department of Political Science
University of Aarhus