Meteorological Knowledge and Environmental Ideas in Traditional and Modern Societies: The Case of Tibet

Article excerpt


Over the last twenty-five years various non-Western peoples have claimed that they have always lived in harmony with nature. Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australian Aboriginals, Indian Hindus and Arab Muslims, for example, have emphasized their traditional world views and value systems as the basis for an environmentally friendly life-style. These claims are often phrased in the modern scientific language of ecology and environmentalism, invoking terms such as sustainable development, ecosystem and environmental protection.(1)

In this article we examine some recent Tibetan claims to such traditional, ecological wisdom. We argue that these claims are anachronistic in that they are projections of ideas of nature which belong to a modern knowledge tradition unknown to the ancient Tibetans. We do so by comparing the general characteristics of modern environmental, 'ecological' knowledge with salient features of traditional' Tibetan environmental knowledge. For practical reasons we shall limit ourselves to one aspect of the natural environment, and focus specifically on knowledge about the weather.

Before we proceed, we shall first clarify a few points. Although we are interested in ideas about the physical environment, we wish to avoid using the concept of 'nature'. It is so closely linked to Western traditions of knowledge that it is difficult to employ in cross-cultural research, and even within the Western tradition itself the term 'nature' is highly ambiguous and has a range of meanings which would take us beyond our more modest concern with the environment (Ellen 1996; Williams 1983). Moreover, the concept of nature, when used to refer to the environment, often suggests too unified, consistent and clearly bounded an object, and so obscures the complexity of people's actual relationship to the natural environment. People experience their environment in a variety of different contexts and rely pragmatically on different sets of ideas which need not be consistent. For that reason we should not separate people's ideas about the natural world from the way these ideas are used in interactions with the environment (Croll & Parkin 1992a: 16; Ellen 1996: 14; Norgaard 1987: 118). Instead of a 'concept of nature', we prefer the less abstract notion of 'knowledge about the environment'. We use 'knowledge' in the open-ended sense suggested by Barth, to refer to 'what people employ to interpret and act on the world: feelings as well as thoughts, embodied skills as well as taxonomies and other verbal models' (Barth 1995: 66). We feel that this usage conveys people's real relationship to the world more accurately than the concept of nature. For stylistic reasons, we cannot dispense with the term nature altogether, but we only use it in the 'neutral' sense of the physical environment.

By 'modernity' we refer to various social forms which appeared in post-Renaissance Europe and, in the following centuries, became influential on a global scale. Industrialism, extended commodity production, nation-states and an increasing application of science are important features of modernity. The movement from pre-modernity to modernity should not be understood in terms of evolutionary stages but as the uneven historical transformation of the world over the last several centuries. There are, thus, no clear boundaries between traditional and modern societies. We contrast modern and traditional knowledge about the environment by saying that the first is predominantly quantitative whereas the latter is not. This negative definition of traditional knowledge is sufficient for our present purpose. We focus on pre-modern Tibet in order to exemplify the absence of quantitative environmental knowledge, but we do not let Tibet stand for all traditional societies and their relationships to the physical environment. We employ an opposition between traditional and modern, but we do not mean to deny the great variation within each of these two categories. …