The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living

By Nora Haenn; Richard R. Wilk | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirty-One
Cultural Theory and Environmentalism

Kay Milton

The prime motivation for this book was the conviction that anthropology can benefit the environmentalist cause; that it can help us to identify our responsibilities for protecting the environment and work towards their fulfilment. Environmentalists have operated largely in ignorance of what anthropology has to offer. In particular, their understanding of the human-environment relationship has not been informed by a knowledge of how culture mediates this relationship, and the absence of this knowledge has seriously undermined the arguments presented in the global environmental debate. It is appropriate to end this exploration by considering how the study of culture can help environmentalists to a better understanding of human ecology and a more informed discourse on the search for sustainable ways of living.


Dispelling the Myths

One of the clearest messages that anthropologists can give to environmentalists is that human beings have no “natural” propensity for living sustainably with their environment. Primitive ecological wisdom is a myth, not only in the anthropological sense, as something whose truth is treated as a dogma, but also in the popular sense, as something that is untrue, a fantasy. The reasons why the myth persists are easy to understand. In some contexts it provides support for political arguments, against industrialism and its associated developments, and in favour of autonomy for indigenous and traditional communities. But perhaps the main reason for its persistence is that it gives environmentalists hope that there is a ready-made solution to environmental problems, albeit one that is very difficult to achieve. The myth implies that if industrial societies could “get back” to a more “natural” existence, by emulating the practices and cultural perspectives of non-industrial peoples, then our difficulties would be solved. The knowledge generated by the comparative analysis of human cultures indicates that this is not so.

Does this mean that the message anthropology brings to environmentalism is essentially pessimistic? Not necessarily, for the message is not that environmentally

From Environmentalism and Cultural Theory: Exploring the Role of Anthropology in Environmental Discourse.
© 1996 by Routledge. Used by permission of Taylor & Francis.

-351-

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