Could you tell us about your research in climate change, sustainability and conservation?
I’m interested in the different ways that development and climate are defined beyond the normative. Development is a bastion of contemporary global governance, and climate change is one of the biggest global challenges of our times. However, how people conceptualise development and climate differs cross-culturally, and this has implications for how projects and management strategies behave. It is therefore essential that we understand these diverse conceptualisations and behaviours, that we take into account the choices that ‘beneficiaries’ make, and are thus better able to develop workable solutions.
Take my own field research. Ladakh, North-West India, is a former Buddhist Kingdom. The majority of the population follow Tibetan Buddhism, although only marginally so (Ladakh has a sizeable Muslim population as well). A narrative has been constructed of the region as the quintessential sustainable society due to the Buddhist followers’ beliefs and practices, and for which it receives much financial aid and technical expertise. However, normative understandings of sustainability don’t take into account the wider cosmology, and ceremonial role of Tibetan Buddhist governance in mediating this cosmology. What intrigued me was how the successes of social life are managed with the participation of enlightened rulers, transcendental protector deities, sacred technology, and supernatural beings inhabiting the landscape. Development now forms part of this social life.
Whilst I was doing fieldwork, Ladakh experienced a series of cloudbursts and flash flooding that devastated much of the region, which is where climate change came in. Hearing how people accounted for the disaster, its causes, and the strategies to prevent future disasters helped me understand how there is more than one conceptualisation of weather and nature going on here. There are other things to consider beyond the scientific explanations, for example karmic explanations and the participation of supernatural local guardians. All three contribute to and direct responses and adaptation to a changing climate.
What sort of development programmes have been taking place in India? How have they changed social and religious practices for Tibetan Buddhists?
It’s probably best to think about how development and religion encounter and transform each other. Becoming part of the Indian Union and the world’s largest liberal democracy radically changed the local economy. For example, prior to economic liberalisation, the Buddhist households were legally required to offer patronage to the monasteries to which they were attached. In return, households would receive land to work, and ritual services from the monks. It was definitely not the idyllic system portrayed in popular positive representations of Tibetan Buddhism. However, to describe it as feudal in the European sense doesn’t do justice to the nuances. The legal requirement to support monasteries no longer exists; nevertheless a good deal of household wealth is diverted to the monasteries to sponsor religious rites aimed at protecting the wealth and wellbeing of their households, and to generate the merit required for peace and happiness in the domain. In some cases, the successes and failures of development are dependent on how far the development ‘beneficiaries’ can exploit its fruits for ceremonial purposes. Modern education, opportunities to travel, the influence of a more rationalised and modern Buddhist practice, and normative ideologies of development and sustainability have transformed the way people ‘do’ religion, but the need to generate the merit required for a peaceful, stable domain remains. It’s when development and ceremony meet each other that things get interesting.
To give you an indication of actual development initiatives, national development programmes implemented in Ladakh are delivered through Hill Development Councils. These include rural development programmes, health and education programmes, five-year micro-level planning and NREGA, or the National Rural Employment Generation Act. There is also a network of NGOs that assist the Hill Development Councils. They also have smaller-scale projects that they deliver independently. Due to the region’s proximity to the disputed borders with Pakistan and China, there is a sizable military presence, and both the Hill Development Council and the army deliver transport and communication programmes in the region.
What impact do you think climate change will have on traditional religious communities in the future?
This is a tricky — perhaps impossible — question to answer. There are so many variables that are transforming the way people do religion that you can’t really consider climate change on its own. If one considers how changing climates will impact upon societies with strong material and vital ties to the land, then I’d say these societies are likely to experience increased levels of anxiety and disturbance as the ecosystems services that they rely on to feel protected come under threat. If they can successfully transfer some of these systems elsewhere, then we will notice some interesting new social and cosmological assemblages!
What five books would you recommend to undergraduates interested in your area, and why?
I’ll start with two that focus on the Himalaya:
Himalayan Dialogue by Stan Royal Mumford (1987, the University of Wisconsin Press) is a really good one for introducing people to the various social and ritual dynamics of Himalayan societies. He concentrates on a Nepali valley, and the dialogue between one village governed by the presence of a lama and Buddhist temples, and one governed by an older shamanic priesthood. The ethnography is extremely rich, and his use of three temporal cultural layers in which to situate various levels of discourse and experience is really useful.
Mapping Shangrila, edited by Emily Yey and Chris Coggins (2014, University of Washington Press) is an excellent reader. Its four sections examine how Zhongdian prefecture (renamed Shangrila in 2001) in Eastern Tibet’s Kham region (China’s Yunnan Province) is brought into contemporary being through state projects, tourism, and nature conservation. It is a useful anthology for thinking through some of the new social assemblages and religious transformation that I observed in my own research. Mountain deities are a ubiquitous presence throughout, and one begins to understand how they emerge as contemporary political actors.
Do Glaciers Listen by Julie Cruikshank (2005, University of British Columbia Press) is another really nice ethnography. Set in Alaska, Cruikshank is concerned with how colonial histories, scientific categories, travel accounts, and native concepts construct the contemporary ‘identity’ of Alaska’s glaciers. It is an excellent introduction into the idea of sentient ecology. She also demonstrates the dynamism of social narrative, and you can read about possible qualitative methodologies that a potential student of this kind of research may find useful.
Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005, Princeton University Press) is a great read for those interested the diverse impacts of modern institutions and governance systems in non-western settings. As with Mapping Shangrila, Friction examines the diverse situations and interactions that illustrate the capitalist encounter in the Indonesian rainforest. Tsing’s aim is to highlight the messy and unpredictable positives as well as the negatives that are produced within this encounter: imperfect and unstable but opportunities for creative engagement nonetheless. Tsing manages to convey complex ideas in a straight-forward manner that students will find accessible. She also provides ‘a portfolio of methods’ with which to study global connections that potential ethnographers will find useful.
If you have the stamina, try Politics of Nature, by Bruno Latour (2004, Harvard University Press). I confess that I am currently making my way through this book. Here Latour elaborates on some of his older contemplations of the separate and purified realms of nature (what can be explained using scientific mechanisms) and politics (what is available for public discussion and debate). In this book, Latour assembles a new political order that allows for collectives: ‘a community incorporating humans and non-human’ that brings them into communication. Latour’s argument is complex, quite dense, and not without fault. What he does manage, however, is to create a space where it is possible to imagine bringing the supernatural into the political sphere as actors ── crucial for my work.
Finally, what advice would you give to anthropology undergraduate students looking to enter postgrad?
I don’t need to tell you that academia is going through a profound transformation right now, and that the potential postgrad is likely to be feeling pretty anxious about the uncertainties, higher costs and shrinking funds. The thing to do in this situation is to adopt Anna Tsing’s conceptualisation of ‘friction’ and the movements and actions it produces. Funding is increasingly coming from public engagement and impact ventures. Academics are expected to team with interdisciplinary or non-academic partners, and this is creating new ways of doing research that are highly rewarding. If you have an idea you want to research then think about potential collaborations. Think synergies. What type of organisation will benefit from your research? How can you sell it to them? Look at the research council websites to see what partnership schemes are on offer. The good news for potential anthropologists is that project managers are increasingly looking for researchers with qualitative skills to help them better interpret quantitative data or unexpected project outcomes. It does require a good deal of energy, hard work, and dedication (more than ever), but the experience that you get from collaborating will be well worth it.