Review by Todd Schenk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Societies are, in part, products of their changing climate

The Anthropology of Climate Change: An Historical Reader, by Michael R. Dove, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014

From Hippocrates to Hurricane Katrina, this collection provides a wide perspective. While anthropogenic climate change may be a relatively recent phenomenon, scholars have been reflecting on the relationship between climate and society for millennia. Now more than ever, it is important that we learn all we can about these relationships. Yale University Professor Michael Dove has assembled a collection that demonstrates how anthropology can enhance our understanding of the relationship between climate and society.

Dove has organized his book around eleven themes including: Climate Theory; Climate Change and Societal Collapse; Climatic Events as Social Crucibles; Climatic Disasters and Social Marginalization; and Co-Production of Knowledge in Climatic and Social Histories. Each theme features two papers, although some threads weave throughout the collection. For example, the question of environmental determinism, or ‘climate theory’ – the notion that social development is driven and bounded by environmental conditions – emerges repeatedly.

Hippocrates (Ch. 1), Ibn Khaldûn (Ch. 3), and the Vedic texts (Zimmermann, Ch. 4) argue that societies are products of their environment. Montesquieu (Ch. 2) makes the related assertion that laws should reflect climatic differences. Ratzel (Ch. 7), Meggers (Ch. 8), McGovern (Ch. 9) and Weiss and Bradley (Ch. 10) make more modern arguments for environmental determinism, including that ‘civilized’ societies are more likely to be found in temperate climates than in the tropics. McGovern offers the collapse of Norse settlements during the ‘Little Ice Age’ as an illustration of how societies can be impacted by climate change. Weiss and Bradley draw on palaeoclimatic data to explain the social consequences of climatic change. There are also more subtle explorations. Soloway (Ch. 12) explores how drought in Botswana’s Kalahari provided a window for profound social change, while Scheper-Hughes (Ch. 15) explains how the dramatic impact of Hurricane Katrina was more a product of long-standing inequality and racism than a ‘natural disaster’. Taken as a whole, one might conclude that societies are in part products of their (changing) climates, but that one must acknowledge the myriad of other factors at play, including power and competing interests.

The collection is strengthened by Dove’s excellent introduction, in which he outlines key themes and situates each work. It is too bad we don’t hear more from him. Beyond the 30-page introduction and overview, Dove lets the mostly unabridged readings speak for themselves. His introduction gives us a taste of his astute interpretations, but  we are left wanting more of his analysis of what we can learn about climate and society from the canon of anthropology.



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