I experience climate change mostly from a Norwegian perspective, a small and mountainous country with a population of just above five million, where the majority enjoy a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with abundant natural resources, a functioning welfare state, and close to a hundred years of absence of war and unrest. This is very much unlike the vantage point of my friends in urban and rural North India, where I have spent time doing short and long empirical fieldwork since 2007. Thus, to align Norway’s approach to the climate crisis with the Indian and suggest we have something in common is, perhaps, as akin to comparing apples and pears because they are both fruits. Somehow, in both countries everything is now about the climate, yet nothing is, and the divide across where we need to cooperate for solutions seems to be widening, not closing. Despite all the differences, both countries seem to face climate change the same way: facing backward. What is going on? Below, I draw upon insights from my work on climate change perceptions in India as a Norwegian scholar to argue that in considering the current situation, we should revive the old anthropologist cliché to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar”. By reducing the differences between us, we might find common experiences, common structures, and common challenges. Perhaps just only by comparing apples and pears, can we engage in respectful dialogue on how to proceed through this crisis. I begin with a short introduction to Norwegian environmentalism. Bear with me.
Like many Indians, many Norwegians have been concerned about the deterioration of their local environment. In the 1960s, industrialization had taken its toll on the local flora and fauna, on which most Norwegians depended before becoming an oil nation. The 1970s thus saw Norwegian idealistic environmental groups overbid each other on talking on behalf of the affected local communities relying on natural resources for farming, foresting, and fishing. Whilst many voices were ignored, others were heard, largely due to their ability to garner support by science, which by the 70s had stronger evidence for the causes for environmental distress. The environmental movement in Norway was, however, as they were in US and Europe, quickly politicized by the political socialist left parties, aligning the environmental movement with ideals and agendas of anti-pollution, anti-capitalism, anti-nuclear, anti-war. Still, Norway’s government responded to the issues by the tools available at the time; employing stricter regulations of the use of nature enforced by strong states, fences-and-fines conservation methods, and the implementations of environmental laws. After the ‘greenhouse summer’ in the United States in 1988, many Norwegians were concerned about how chlorofluorocarbon gases could damage the ozone layer and that others could trap heat in our atmosphere and heat the globe. The same socialist left environmentalist groups would yet again rally, pointing to of the increased level of consumption by the quickly expanding middle class. However, this time around their voices were ridiculed by the majority for being passé and regressive. The solution now lay in new technology that could span the political spectrum and a-politicize the issue with technological innovation, offering solutions comprehensible to market logic. In the early 1990s, market liberalization and stock market optimism fuelled the technological revolution, and in Norway, where natural resources were still firmly in the hands of the state, the market appeared to work seamlessly in tandem with regulative measures. As environmental issues could be decoded and the loss calculated, the environmental crisis was manageable by a government-guided market, so that by replacing refrigerators and cans of hairspray, the households could actively contribute to saving the global ozone layer.
Contemporary Norwegians seem quite satisfied with the current state of affairs. The local environment appears robust and plentiful, and the ‘Nordic model’ of hand-held capitalism by an oiled fuelled state economy continued to increase living standards until Norwegians, except a marginal few, live optimized and conditioned lives: educated, comfortable, and shielded from nature’s rough edges. In an Arun Agarwalian sense, Norwegians have achieved a highly culturally appropriate kind of ‘environmentality’, so embedded in our narrative about the cultural identity that we Norwegians have trusted only ourselves in the governance of nature.
Enter climate change
The science is unequivocal. We now know that the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) draw a complex and frightening image of a world in disruption, where areas of the globe might end up as inhabitable should we proceed with business as usual. We know that those species, organisms, groups, or societies that are unable to adapt, must move or die. This will exacerbate the pressure on those areas with more moderate consequences of climate change.\ Between now and then is a path paved with money, technology, and good intentions, inextricably connected to how we decide to structure our society now.
Around the globe, people outside the halls of science also increasingly acknowledge that the erratic instability of local weather is caused by a change in the global climate. Even in Norway, a country that for seventy years has had the privilege to wrap every uncomfortable aspect of society and life in fluffy white wadding, people experience unexpected hailstorms, summer drought, decreasing glaciers, and marine species invading or vanishing from our shores. The majority now point to climate change, and I observe a reconfiguration going on, towards “climatementality”. I saw it happening in India, I see it happening in Norway too. As state and market align, they reinforce the need for civil society in both countries to be made “aware”, here; ‘nudging’ humanity towards sustainability with the responsibility placed firmly on the conscious consumer. This is an effective, cheap, and socially engineered form of self-governance, and this is my apples and pears. The traditional environmentalist left groups yet again call for ‘degrowth’ and embrace a less comfortable and more sober past, and they look to various indigenous groups and romanticize all that is local. Equally concerned capitalist-minded entrepreneurs from the political right are overbidding themselves in pricing nature right, trusting eco-system services and the markets to protect its assets. Somewhat shamefully preaching a ‘green transition’ for society from a throne built of oil and gas, both socialists and capitalists seem dumbfounded by the capacities of carbon capture combined with social engineering. ‘Nudging’ the population appears a convenient silver bullet for a shrinking state treasury without admitting to moralism, all the while the vast majority of Norwegian society patiently waits for the market-state to redo the magic from the past. Our patience is strengthened, perhaps, by perceiving ourselves to be the most environmentally conscious people on the planet (perhaps surpassed only by the indigenous populations of the world).
However unison in our “awareness”, acknowledging the process of climate change and carbon misery, there appears to be little consensus on who or what is to blame, nor what and when to do about it.
Face towards, not against
One answer to this collective passivity I believe lies in how nations have experienced solving (or not solving) environmental crises of the past. Another lies of course in the complexity of the crisis itself. But yet another lies in how we culturally and individually perceive the causality of climate change. This variation exists not only between cultures far removed but also within the societies themselves. Between young and old, religious or atheist, socialist or neoliberalist, 4CHAN ‘incels’ or Instagram celebrity housewives — perceptions of the causes of climate change and how we are connected vary widely.
This is why both societies also seem to be looking at the past for solutions towards an uncertain future; both countries seem to grasp for the magic with which the western civilization was built. Both countries add ‘green’ in the prefix, hoping for sustainability in the postfix. Input data: green industries. Green economies. Green technologies. Green governance. Output product: sustainable livelihoods. Sustainable communities. Sustainable economies. Sustainable governments. Both countries are also rife with various political, cultural, and social groups that aspire for the right to define the causal relationship of the current crisis. Glancing over to my unruly garden, I am however reminded that what is sustainable to one population, is often the death of another. The fuzziness of universalist claims to sustainable development become hard-felt realities at the locations where the idea is supposed to stand up and walk, or increasingly necessary – run.
What we have here is not a carbon crisis. This is a human-induced, humanly sustained, and humanly experienced crisis. Climate change is not about the ‘environment’. It is about us. This concerns me, because history shows that our tools only sharpen when we deal with crisis manifest. How can we now proceed?
I argue that the scientifically informed and western crafted version of “climate change awareness” will never be enough to meet the escalation of the crisis. It might even be part of the reason why, as a society, we will be too fragmented and fragile to handle it. Nature is neither benevolent nor malevolent in itself. It is a complexity of which our lives mercilessly depend, of which our society is inextricably entangled with, and which also goes about its business completely indifferent to our existence. To live with nature is to live with ourselves. I had to go to India, to live for a year in a tiny village of the Shivalik hills, where the rough edges of nature occasionally were razor-sharp and cutting their livelihoods to the marrow of their bones, to realize that.
The people with whom I lived for the best part of a year, pragmatically negotiated nature’s indifference by appealing to the appropriate authorities to solve their numerous challenges with erratic monsoons, drought, hailstorms, flooding, crop failures, falling market-prices for yield, or encroaching wildlife according to scale and complexity. The local village council (panchayat), the state development board, the local court, the pandit, the landowners and — in cases perceived too complex to be solved by humans, technological, or scientific measures — divine intervention. As I have described in my 2021 book, the invoking of Shiva neither appeared as blame-shifting or fatalistic acceptance of demise. On the contrary, the notion of environmental retribution from a sanctified deity (be it the Abrahamic God, Bhagwan, or Gaia) for whatever ‘sin’ society collectively commits, is a widely shared cultural reminder of how thin our skins are beneath our appearance, and that we live and let live by the generosity of nature that is just that: indifferent to us and going about its own business.
This kind of “awareness” had also made most villagers painfully aware that authorities, far removed from the everyday business of being poor, are fickle allies. Having no illusion of the power of fate, state, or market singularly being able to assist them in the face of global warming, state mismanagement, market-dependency, and environmental deterioration, they took those facets of the crisis unravelling before them upon themselves. Sometimes at the expense of others, other times for a common benefit, villagers actively pursued different solutions, explanations, advice and engaged in cross-cultural, cross-faith, cross-ontological dialogues. With a German soil-scientist, the local pandit, an Indian environmentalist, a Sikh Dehradun Guru, the local principal, the watershed management experts, their bits of advice were considered, discussed, weighed then adapted, rejected, or implemented. Not unaware but awake. Not voiceless subalterns, but creative and crafty individuals accomplishing more with less. Even despite local inequalities between castes, gender, and lineages, and the rigid unwillingness to the co-inhabitation of space, there was generous and confident ease with the co-inhabitation of ideas, world views, and practical solutions. It is of this I believe there is much to learn.
Decades of anthropologists have repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding and enabling communication across or between cultures, and I know it seems like a cliché to repeat it again here. But it is time to rekindle that spirit. Only by accepting our differences can we face toward, and not against, each other, and that might imply to agree to disagree, both on the causality of climate change, as well as the lucid dream of sustainability for all. To supersede the current trajectory of careless consumption and polarization, we need to realize that on issues of this magnitude, there are no quick fixes, and we might have to learn the hard way how to compromise in order to reach our individual ‘nirvana’ of sustainability. The co-inhabitation of both the physical and the cognitive spaces will require some of us to unlearn our privilege, while also drawing insight from what our privileges have provided: the chance to devour extensive amounts of abstract knowledge, which, if configured right, can generate wisdom, insight, and inspiration. Others, as my Shiwalik hills friends, will need to unlearn the stigma of their marginalization and let their wisdom and insight inspire us with the ability to make a living on the border of what is humanly possible. Because nature — which human life is part and parcel — is rough around the edges. And the only way to cushion our fall by ignoring this simple observation is by daring to turn towards, not against the ‘other’.
Image: Gloria Ip Tung / Internet