SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropology and Climate Change

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

Students will engage with the central theoretical and ethical debates relating to anthropologies of climate change, and consider how these have developed in relation to key social movements and moments from the 1960s onwards. Questions of temporality, political economy, development, justice, the concept of harm, emotion, activism and feminist ecologies of care are explored in the context of the anthropocene, with students encouraged to consider how they might approach crafting their own anthropologies of climate change. Whilst attention is given to historical antecedents and the development of climate as an object of concern, both within and outside the academy, the course looks at contemporary developments and encourages students to think about how they might engage with and shape emergent anthropologies of the anthropocene. In this, the intersection between anthropology and activism is explored, as we ask not only how we can write anthropologies of a warming planet, but also how anthropologies of the anthropocene can help us collectively navigate uncertain planetary futures.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The aim of this course is to develop upon previous theoretical teaching within the programme, providing a contemporary and practical application of the skills students need to critically engage with ethnography. It provides a framework for critical engagement on contemporary global issues and for making sense of a range of materials from within and outside the discipline.

On successful completion of the course, a student will:

  1. The successful student will have a good understanding of the various theoretical, methodological and ethical issues arising from emergent anthropologies of climate change, and be able to explore how these intersect.
  2. They will be able to assess and evaluate a range of material, from within and outside the discipline, exploring sensitively how particular theories, methods and ethical considerations give shape to ethnographies of the anthropocene.
  3. Be able to confidently articulate and respond critically to the relationships between engaged anthropologies of climate change and various social movements and forms of activism.
  4. They will be aware of the particular methodological challenges of writing ethnographies of climate change, and be able to articulate strategies for making sense of emergent, future-oriented worlds and phenomena (such as climate) which may not be readily amenable to standard methods.

Scope and syllabus

Climate change’s historical antecedents: the emergence of ecological consciousness, the counterculture and the concept of “urgency” in anthropology

Before climate change came the emergence of ecological consciousness and the political and social dynamics of 1960s counterculture. The advent of nuclear weapons, and the attendant prospect of apocalypse, that emerged at the end of World War II and during the Cold War reconfigured relations between ideas of science, nature and industry. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ highlighted the links between environmental degradation and industrial pesticides, becoming a founding text of the emerging Green movement. Highlighting the recent advent of humanity’s capacity to fundamentally alter our world, Carson painted a picture of rapid change in the balance of power between human actors and fragile nature. The imaginative dimensions of these shifts were explored in Susan Sontag’s essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, where Science Fiction was a means of apprehending the spectre of the ultimate destruction of nuclear apocalypse. In 1967, anthropologist Edmund Leach gave the BBC Reith Lectures. In six lectures entitled ‘A Runaway World?’, Leach explored the changing relationship between people, science, and the natural world in a time of accelerating social change. All three writers pointed to the emergence of “urgency” as a salient temporal category governing contemporary social life.

Key questions:

  • What kind of relationships inhere between nuclear power, nature and ideas of the future?
  • What kinds of anthropology emerge if we focus on “urgency” in our theory, methods and fieldwork?

Anthropologies of the future and climate change as a temporal problem

Anthropology has approached climate change and humans’ violent and rapid insertion into the geological record through the Anthropocene, as a temporal question of how particular pasts and presents relates to planetary and shared futures. Johannes Fabian’s 1983 book ‘Time and the Other’ introduced anthropology to the question of time, with the provocation that the discipline performs a series of spatial and temporal dislocation that relegate its ‘others’ (i.e. our interlocutors and those we do fieldwork with) to the past. More recent work on anthropology’s relation to the future asks how, in the time of climate change, a discipline based on fieldwork and a preoccupation with how the past relates to the present, can make sense of the world altering challenges of a future defined by climate change.

Key questions:

  • What methods would we need to create an anthropology of the future? What kinds of fieldwork would help us write an anthropology of the future?
  • How might anthropologies of the future and the Anthropocene relate to climate activism, applied anthropology and the political and ethical projects of shaping the future to come?

Questioning the Anthropocene and “the age of man”: The Capitalocene and a political economy of climate change

In August 2016, geologists gathered in Cape Town to declare the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch characterised by humans’ profound impact on our planetary environment and future geological trajectories. The notion of the Anthropocene has been enthusiastically adopted by social scientists and has proven extraordinarily popular with anthropologists. There are, however, critical voices who are questioning the conceptual apparatus of the Anthropocene. They argue that in designating the profound changes wrought by climate change as part of the Anthropocene, the political economies of capitalism have been let off the hook, so to speak. From this perspective, the Anthropocene holds humanity at large held culpable for climate destruction, when it fact it is, and has been a select few inheritors of capital who have benefitted from fossil-fuelled economies. In tying climate change to capitalism, this work turns to historical readings of Marx and the emergence of capitalism, as well as unpicking the toxic relationship between neoliberalism and climate change.

Key questions:

  • How can politically end economically grounded readings of climate change complicate our understanding of the Anthropocene?
  • If the Anthropocene is a reading of climate change stripped of a critical understanding of power and globalised inequalities, why has it proven so alluring to anthropologists?

'Marginal peoples', climate justice and our planetary commonwealth: locating harm in the time of climate change

The climate emergency is commonly framed in terms of environmental degradation. The challenges of the Anthropocene, however, are faced very much by humans. Importantly, they are also unevenly distributed challenges; rising sea levels, desertification, and the collapse of ecosystems are having a disproportionately negative impact on those who already face considerable structural inequalities resulting from post-colonial exploitation and other forms of historically situated violence and oppression. Developing on the political economy of climate change explores last week, this week will critically engage with work which explores the human dimensions of climate change, looking at how the harms of the Anthropocene are unevenly distributed. Bruno Latour’s ‘Down to Earth’ provides an opening for how we might conceptualise our new climatic regime in ways which foreground our urgent shared responsibility for our planetary future, and we ask whether there is any such thing as ‘marginal peoples’ in the time of climate change.

Key questions:

  • In what ways does a reading of climate change which foregrounds the role of capitalism shape how we might think about climate justice?
  • What are the social, economic and political factors which lead to the uneven distribution of climate harm?
  • Taking into account the fact that climate violence is unevenly distributed, is it useful to talk about ‘marginal peoples’ during the time of climate emergency?

Climate justice and the right to development in the Anthropocene

Over the previous two weeks we have developed a view of climate change which has explored the uneven distribution of climate harms and how these are tied to the unequal workings of capital. This week we go a step further and turn to questions of development, looking at how discourses of climate justice relate to ideas about the right to development. Enshrined in a declaration made by the United Nations over thirty years ago, the human right to development is often seen to be accompanied by the right to pollute in search of development. How, then, might the right to development relate to ideas of climate justice and how can development, and with it inclusion within global orders of value and esteem, be made sustainable for everyone? We will critically engage with the idea that climate justice and the right to development are necessarily at odds with one another and think about the thorny question of whether enabling equitable development on a global scale may entail working towards de-growth for the most privileged: is this viable and what might anthropology’s role be in exploring these possibilities?

Key questions:

  • Are climate justice and the right to development opposed to one another?
  • What would a critical anthropology of sustainability look like, and who would benefit from it?

Living with non-human others through the Anthropocene

Climate change and the Anthropocene has made it impossible to ignore the complex entanglements between humans and our environments. The modern, enlightenment notion that science and nature occupied distinct realms has unravelled as human actions have inserted themselves into the geological record and we have come to live in increasingly intimate contact with, and rely upon, an array of diverse technologies (making ourselves ‘cyborgs’ as Donna Haraway argues). Feminist readings of ecologies of care and the messy affinities which have emerged in the Anthropocene, as well as work at the interface of anthropology and science and technology studies, challenges us to think beyond the human, to how we are living together through climate change as part of a whole range of multi-species assemblages.

Key questions:

  • How does our view of the Anthropocene change when we think beyond the human?
  • What kinds of theoretical and methodological tools do we need to create anthropologies of the non-human? What would fieldwork exploring climate change with non-human others look and feel like?

Emotions, ‘facts’ and the challenge of climate change

Climate change discourse is often framed in terms of climate science, with consensus from the scientific community pointing irrefutably to the impact humans are having on our planet. However, faced with the steady accretion of the ‘facts’ of climate change, much of our behaviour has gone unchanged and the political, social and economic systems which underpin our attachment to fossil fuels remain almost totally unchallenged. Our lived understanding of climate change is, then, often immune to ‘facts’ and this week we look instead at how emotions and belief underpin how we think, feel and make sense of our changing planetary environment. We will explore the relationship between climate change, emotions, belief and the emergence of ideas of a ‘post-truth’ society.

Key questions:

  • What kinds of methods might we employ when trying to craft anthropologies of climate change which explore the role of emotion and belief?
  • Which other disciplines and sub-fields of anthropology might we draw on when seeking to understand how emotions and belief relate to emerging anthropologies of climate change?

Imagination at the end of the world: the relationship between creativity and climate change

Climate change is fundamentally reordering life on earth, giving shape to planetary futures which will be unlike anything humans and their non-human companions have experienced before. Such a radical shift would seem to call for considerable imagination and creativity, both in terms of envisaging our unfolding future on a warming planet and crafting new ways of living together with and through climate change. Climate change has, however, seemingly stalled our capacity to imagine the future differently, with it becoming easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a world free from fossil fuels. This week we turn to the anthropology of imagination, and writing on imagination in the time of climate change, to try to understand this collective failure of imagination and to ask whether we can make sense of our planetary future without imagination.

Key questions:

  • How useful is imagination for making sense of the future in the time of climate change? What other ways might there be of comprehending our collective futures?
  • Is imagination an unevenly distributed social capacity, and if so, what does this mean in the time of climate change?
  • What kind of social relations give shape to failures of imagination, and are these failures experienced and thought about in the context of climate change?

Activism and anthropology: relationships and disjunctures

Awareness of climate issues emerged from environmental activism, and social movements- most recently the climate strike and Extinction Rebellion- continue to catalyse thinking around climate change. This week we think about the relationship between activism and anthropology on a warming planet. We explore the myth of impartiality and ask whether anthropology is a set of engaged practices, which far from merely documenting, is leveraging the power of subjectivity to give shape to new ways of looking at, and being in, the world. We ask, if an ethnographer is also an activist, what is distinctive about ethnography as an academic endeavour? We look at how knowledge is produced in the academy and engage with debates around decolonising the discipline. This discussion will draw on readings from previous weeks, exploring how feminism, and debates around development and climate justice relate to an engaged anthropology of climate change.

Key questions:

  • What is the current role and historical responsibility of the academy in the Anthropocene?
  • Is it possible to produce impartial anthropologies of climate change, and what are the ethical implications of trying to maintain impartiality on a warming planet?
  • What’s the role of engaged anthropologies of climate change in relation to climate activism?

Up-close with climate change: doing anthropologies of the anthropocene

Drawing together what we have learnt over the past ten weeks, we will finish with a workshop session where we will explore collectively what it means to do anthropologies of climate change.

Thinking theoretically, methodologically and ethically, we will ask:

  • What kinds of tools and modes of thought might be needed to craft anthropologies of the Anthropocene?
  • How can we grasp climate change? What kinds of sensory or other methods might help us make sense of life on a warming planet?
  • What are the research sites of a global phenomenon? Is multi-sited ethnography the answer or does it dilute ethnographic depth?
  • What are the ethical implications of creating anthropologies of climate change? What kinds of ethics emerges from an engaged anthropology of climate change?


Method of assessment

  • 20% 500 word essay outline/plan
  • 70% 2500 word essay
  • 10% class presentation

Suggested reading

  • Leach, Edmund (1968). A Runaway World? The Reith Lectures 1967. London: British Broadcasting Corporation Books.
  • Salazar, Juan Francisco, Sarah Pink, Andrew Irving and Johannes Sjöberg (eds.). (2017). Anthropologies and Futures: Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds. London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Malm, Andreas. (2016) ‘Who Lit This Fire? Approaching the History of the Fossil Economy’, Critical Historical Studies, 3 (2): 215-248.
  • Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Dubash, Navroz K. (ed.) (2012). Handbook of Climate Change and India: Development, Politics and Governance. Abingdon: Earthscan.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton; Princeton University Press.
  • Norgaard, Kari Marie. (2011). Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotion, and Everyday Life. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Ghosh, Amitav (2016). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Harrison, Faye V. (1997) Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Arlington Va.: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules