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Cultural Responses to Natural Changes such as Climate Change

Réponses culturelles aux changements naturels comme le changement climatique
Thomas Heyd
p. 83-88


On dispose d’études sur les réponses humaines au changement climatique aux temps historiques et même préhistoriques. Il y a également des articles qui débattent sur le rôle de la vulnérabilité et l’importance des structures institutionnelles pour améliorer les réponses des citoyens aux défis qui pourrait signifier le changement climatique de nos jours. Mais la question du rôle des facteurs culturels face à la vulnérabilité causée par ces changements reste assez peu abordée. En particulier, il faudrait clarifier comment les croyances, les valeurs, les pratiques et les habitudes sont en interaction avec les comportements des individus et des collectifs qui affrontent les défis posés par les effets du changement climatique. Dans cet article on apporte quelques réflexions sur ces sujets, en prenant pour exemple les perspectives culturelles des croyances des peuples indigènes du Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique du Nord.

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1. Natural changes and vulnerability

1Natural changes of a dramatic sort, brought about by natural processes, may lead responsible decision-makers to take remedial action in terms of prevention, mitigation an adaptation. I spent my adolescent years in the city of Valencia, Spain. The River Turia, which used to flow through the city centre, periodically flooded throughout recorded history. It went over its borders for its (foresee-able) last time in 1957, killing nearly a 100 people and causing costly damage to private and public property. When I walked around Valencia fifteen years after the event, people would still point out, on some of the buildings, the line separating the dank brown from the cleaner upper part, which indicated the level up to where the muddy floodwaters had reached. The city’s reaction was to build a monumental, concrete-encased river diversion in the city’s outskirts, leaving totally dry the original river bed on its trajectory through the urban centre, later to be embellished with trees and garden installations. In the post-dictatorship decades since the late 1970s, the terrible 1957 flood largely has been forgotten, and many of the present Valencians probably perceive the transformation of the river valley into parkland simply as a smart decision in city planning.

  • 1 There is also an issue of ecosystem functioning since the river diversion that also replaces with a (...)

2Not everywhere can the resources be found to address catastrophic events with such maybe convenient but also expensive, engineering solutions1. Nor are most natural events that may have important undesirable effects on human populations, such as large-scale storms, droughts, flooding of low-lying coastal areas, extremely hot summers, earthquakes, or tsunamis, amenable to easy managerial or engineering solutions, either in terms of prevention, mitigation or remediation. This raises the question how one should approach such natural events. Their destructive power is often magnified by human drivers, of course, but, independently of how such processes come to attain their problematic dynamism, we may want to ask what our attitudes should be toward the natural environment in which we live, given the powerful effects that it may have on our lives, livelihoods, and homes.

3If, for example, we turn to drastic events due to the current climate change processes, anthropogenic or not, we quickly have to confront the fact that their causes are global and that mitigation will require concerted action as agreed upon under the Kyoto Protocol. It has been proposed that mitigation be operationalised through limitations on greenhouse gas emissions, increases in fuel and building efficiencies, and carbon sinks, among other things. It is becoming increasingly evident that without a muscled, global strategy to decrease greenhouse gas emissions future generations will have to face very serious and increasingly significant losses in “earth services.” Moreover, in many areas of the planet less well situated, poorer people are going to be (and are already in some places) exposed to a number of additional stresses, such as increased presence of certain disease factors and severely curtailed food supplies. Given this situation, a strong case has been made by various commentators that for reasons of ethics, often described in terms of equity, we need to act quickly to mitigate these environmental changes. [Coward and Hurka, 1993; Coward and Weaver, 2004].

4A number of commentators of global climate change are considering, moreover, adaptation as an important complementary step to take. Research has already shown that, for best overall results, adaptation should go hand in hand with mitigation, now that prevention has become unrealisable. In prosperous countries like Canada, strategies to achieve adaptation may attract wide popular support since people may perceive some direct benefits from strategies such as savings in utility costs as a result of retrofitting houses to make them more energy efficient. But adaptation is (or should be) important to all people, of course, in order to protect lives, livelihoods and ecosystemic functioning. When speaking of adaptation, “vulnerability” is a key term.

5As Smit (2005) among others has noted, vulnerability is the product of two distinct factors: exposure or sensitivity and adaptive capacity or resilience. Adger and Brooks similarly propose that “Vulnerability is not simply a function of exposure, but also of people’s capacity to adapt to change. If the latter remains unchanged, increased exposure will lead to increased vulnerability” [Adger and Brooks, 2003, p. 10]. In other words, given a certain driver of landscape change (such as global warming, earthquakes, tsunamis, increased frequencies of storms, droughts, flooding, etc.), vulnerability is dependent not only on the objective physical characteristics of landscape features or processes subject to the drivers, but on how ready people are to respond to those drivers. Importantly, vulnerability is not homogenous across populations, even within the same geographical areas. Given the diversity of socio-economic and political situations in which people find themselves, vulnerability varies on both individual and collective levels. (On how to think about vulnerability, also see Kelly and Adger, 2000). Researchers on global change processes have been discussing a variety of possible physical adaptations to manage such change processes. In places with low-lying lands close to the sea, such as in the delta region of Bangladesh, building breakwaters and extended embankments in order to prevent flooding is being considered [Ahmed et al., 1999]. Others propose change in land use in such areas, for example, from agriculture to fish farming, even if it remains unclear whether this kind of transformation may realistically be absorbed by sectors of the population that lack the capital resources needed for such innovations. Other ways to absorb change may be best described in economic and social terms. People in the North African Sahel region, for instance, have responded to increased droughts by diversifying the use of land from irrigated cash crops to more enduring subsistence crops, and by out-migration to nearby cities to supplement incomes.

6There are also some who address the need for adaptation in terms of innovations in ideas, skills, and practices, that is, in terms of the cognitive elements of cultural ensembles. Homer-Dixon (2005), for example, has proposed that global climate change primarily demands that we “front-load ingenuity.” Business-as-usual will not do, and so he proposes that, to generate the physical, social and economic transformations required to reduce vulnerability to climate change, we need to further develop the sophisticated problem-solving capacity that characterises our species.

7Here I am less interested in the development of new technological or managerial solutions, which may perpetuate a “fix-it” approach to environmental problems than in the underlying cognitive-practical elements and value orientations that may lead to adaptability to change. I am particularly interested in the diversity of ways of perceiving and relating to the beings and processes in the environment that may contribute to appropriately effective ways of adapting to drastic natural changes. There are a number of ways of investigating the cultural conditions that are correlated with appropriate adaptation strategies. We may, for instance, consider research from sociology and social psychology on how people come to change their attitudes and behaviors (See, e.g., Rayner and Malone, 1998). We may, moreover, take into account the findings of historical ecology, which speak of very different value systems than those common in Western societies today. One reason to pay attention to those findings is that they may give us insight into ways of lowering vulnerability based on a consideration of cultural perspectives held by peoples who, in their particular places, in their respective lands, have undergone drastic natural changes in the past.

2. Cultural response to rapid natural changes

8The notion of culture, and how to understand it insofar as it contributes to our adaptation to the environments in which we live, is itself a contested terrain (See, e.g., Ingold, 2000). I propose that, in the context of this article, we speak of culture as comprising the ways of living involving values, beliefs, practices, and material artefacts that condition the production and reproduction of tangible and intangible goods and services needed for the satisfactions of needs and wants. No neat sectioning of cultures in the human population can be expected given the inter-relationship of human groupings in an increasingly globalizing context. Moreover, the any one set of values, beliefs, or practices common to any human group is mediated by power relations and not just the result of adaptation to objective conditions of the natural environment. Nonetheless, we may ask whether there are cultural patterns that constitute more, rather than less, adaptive ways of responding to drastic events involving non-human natural forces.

9A growing literature is developing with respect to this complex issue. It ranges from environmental history, ecocriticism, and cultural studies to anthropology, sociology and social psychology. I do not attempt to summarize this literature here, but only intend to draw attention to the fact that consideration of ethics and values in relation to the diversity of ways of conceiving and living with impactful natural forces is relatively under-discussed. Even with regard to such a prominent phenomenon as global climate change the discussion in philosophy of ethical responsibilities and appropriate attitudes and values is only beginning [Gardiner, 2004; Jamieson, 2001].

10In this context I propose to introduce just one account of cultural response to landscape to illustrate an alternative pattern to those prevalent in our own contemporary Western societies. From time immemorial people have considered forces, such as the power of storms, of the sea, and of the earth, as endowed with particular self-identities. These perspectives were passed on from generation to generation in the form of sayings of the wise, popular stories, and religious practices. While it cannot be my aim to advocate the adoption of such beliefs and customs by contemporary people, I do think that the consideration of the idea of responsibility in relation to nature inherent in some such notions may be instructive for our present situation.

11The anthropologist Julie Cruikshank writes about cultural responses to landscape change, recounting some of the oral traditions about glacier travel of the coastal Alaska Tlingit and of the Yukon First Nations [Cruikshank, 2001 and 2002]. She retells stories about glaciers that pay attention and respond to human behaviours, such as speaking carelessly, spilling blood, making noise, or cooking with grease in their vicinity (2001, pp. 385, 387, 388). Cruikshank describes Alaska Tlingit and Yukon First Nations’ ways of conceiving the ensemble of human and non-human beings (including glaciers) by the term “sentient landscapes.” To conceive of a stretch of land as a sentient landscape means that its diverse animate and inanimate components are not thought of as mere resources but as active, responsive counterparts to human beings (Also cp. Ingold’s, 2000, notion of “sentient ecology.”).

  • 2 When I write of having roots I do not intend to differentiate between nomadic and sedentary peoples (...)

12To people who have not been raised in the cultural milieux where these stories originate, the notion of landscapes as sentient, and the accounts on which it is based, may seem incredible, but to focus on the divergence of worldviews would be to miss the point. What is relevant in our context is that Cruikshank describes the type of relationship between people and land that is exhibited in these oral traditions as involving “social responsibility” arising from “the social nature of all relations between humans and nonhumans, that is, animals and landscape features, including glaciers.” (2001, p. 382). This is an approach to natural landscape that is common, of course, to many peoples who have deep roots in their lands, including the Inuit and the Indigenous People of the Russian North, as well as the Mapuche and Quechua, who live in South America’s Andes region, and the Aborigines of Australia2.

13What is the import of this type of approach? Cruikshank points out that this kind of “local knowledge embedded in oral traditions” displays “commitment to an active, thoroughly positioned human subject whose behavior is understood to have consequences.” (2001, p. 391). In other words, the type of relationship displayed in these approaches to landscape underscores “the social content of the world and the importance of taking personal and collective responsibility for changes in that world.” (2001, p. 391).

14Applied to our contemporary situation this approach to natural forces has some interesting implications. It has repeatedly been reported that after natural disasters all too often people continue with maladaptive patterns. For example, due to various social, geographical and economic factors (such as economic and social marginalisation of certain sectors, or imposition by authoritarian regimes, or short term profit-driven motivations) people may end up rebuilding in the same places and exposing themselves to the same risks as before (Leroy, 2005). A recent case in point is the rebuilding of towns and villages along shallow seashores after the tsunami in Sumatra. Notably, tourism-oriented towns are rebuilt in places where mangroves, which served as a sort of shield, formerly grew.

15Certainly it is costly to move house (or rivers, as the city of Valencia did), but it is noteworthy all the same that in 2005 Central Europe endured significant hardship as a result of major floods that took place in some of the very same areas where similar floods happened only three years before (in 2002). As before, the hardship was due to by the fact that homes and businesses are located in flood-prone locations (on flood plains and close to shorelines). As noted, the explanation for the lack of adaptation in these cases must be sought in a diversity of factors, social, economic and political, but the failure to deploy more effective adaptation strategies even by individual citizens and communities in the richer countries of this planet also points toward a puzzling cultural inadequacy. It seems that this is a sign either of a failure in the deployment, or in the development, of appropriate cultural resources.

16Technical and engineering fixes, such as the construction of retention dams to hold back the sea or rivers generally only function as short term solutions that often also displace problems elsewhere (e.g., downstream in the case of channelled rivers). The lesson I draw from the cultural patterns on which Cruikshank reports is that it may be valuable to reflect, on the one hand, on the beliefs, values and practices that shape contemporary peoples’ social and material context, and, on the other hand, on how they conceive of those environing natural entities and processes that at times threaten human lives and livelihoods. Given that some of the present problems result from viewing the natural environment as an adversary that necessarily has to be subdued, it may be interesting to consider an alternative giving those entities and forces a space and time for their expression. This is an idea that some environmental managers have already understood, as when they argue for the rehabilitation of deltas and polders as flood retention areas in the case of rivers, or the restoration of mangroves and coastal forests in threatened coastal areas.

3. Conclusion and practical consequences

17Natural events with importantly undesirable consequences for human beings invite us to reflect on vulnerabilities. The ability to adapt to change generally is conditioned by the given cultural patterns. Developing our ingenuity and technical-scientific expertise to come up with appropriate physical or socio-economic modifications to our environment without doubt may be useful, especially in the short term. As Cruikshank notes “our human ability to come to terms with global environmental problems will,” however, “depend as much on human values as on scientific expertise… ” [Cruikshank, 2001, p. 390].

18Due to inequalities between individuals and between groups, people are in diverse positions of risk and opportunity with regard to natural changes. Even so, it seems that some individuals and groups of people are better positioned than others to apply generally adaptive or appropriate responses to drastic natural changes. In other words, they are more resilient. The differences between those groups that are more and those that are less resilient may be described in cultural patterns exemplified in everyday habits and practices. These differences seem to be fundamentally linked to conceptualizations, values and practices concerning non-human nature. For this reason I think that the cultural perspectives of peoples, who have long cultivated the sort of respect that consists in allowing natural entities and processes space and time for their expression, and have developed a corresponding sense of responsibility for their actions in the face of natural forces, may provide valuable models for reflection on our own beliefs, values and practices, and may lead to the development of more appropriate approaches to drastic natural events.

  • 3 I am very grateful for the helpful comments provided Tony Berger. An earlier version appeared in Qu (...)

19It seems that human groups, which have effective cultural resources for dealing with such natural changes, typically perceive themselves as embedded in the natural environment in such a way that non-human nature is treated as more than a mere resource (Also see Heyd, 2004, 2005, and forthcoming). Apparently such groups are guided by beliefs systems and values expressed in material practices and ways of modifying environments that assume that nature and human beings are integrated in a community. I conclude that, in a world of increasingly frequent drastic natural environmental change, it is of great urgency to support research programs aimed to determine the ways in which conceptions of the human-nature relationship, values and practices, respectively, interact, and how adaptive cultural patterns come about3.

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1 There is also an issue of ecosystem functioning since the river diversion that also replaces with a canal the original river, with its riparian life. One may suppose that this ecosystem was already in jeopardy due its encasement in protective walls while flowing through the city, but, nonetheless, it flowed in its original bed, populated with whatever plant and animal species that could flourish in it. The replacement canal offers little in terms of support for such biota.

2 When I write of having roots I do not intend to differentiate between nomadic and sedentary peoples. Also see Brody (2001) on the deep conexion to particular stretches of land that even hunter-gatherers, who standardly are called “nomadic,” have.

3 I am very grateful for the helpful comments provided Tony Berger. An earlier version appeared in Quaternary

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Thomas Heyd, « Cultural Responses to Natural Changes such as Climate Change », Espace populations sociétés, 2008/1 | 2008, 83-88.

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Thomas Heyd, « Cultural Responses to Natural Changes such as Climate Change », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2008/1 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2010, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/eps.2397

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Thomas Heyd

Department of Philosophy,
University of Victoria,
P.O. Box 3045,
Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 3P4, Canada

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