Beyond Global Warming: Interacting Ecocrises and the Critical Anthropology of Health
Singer, Merrill, Anthropological Quarterly
Human health is at growing risk due to the multiple climatic effects of global warming. More importantly, it is becoming evident that individual ecocrises are not independent phenomenon but are entwined with and contribute to the intensification of other environmental predicaments. In light of a range of imagined futures that share a narrative about global warming that posits the existence of global "winners and losers" (regions that will benefit from and those that will suffer from global warming), this paper examines two specific cases-Midwestern flooding during the summer of 2008 and the accelerating degradation of the Sacramento Delta. These examples, expressions of convergent ecocrises, here termed pluralea interactions, suggest that going beyond global warming reveals the folly of "winner and loser" thinking. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of the health impacts of intersecting ecocrises for directions in medical anthropology. [Keywords: global warming, anthropology of health, imagined futures, pluralea]
"Our future...is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail" (James Lovelock, quoted in Goodell 2007).
Not Just Global Warming
Vernon (1993) argues that a country's willingness to participate in global environmental protection agreements is conditioned by the structure of the state and its relationship to what he calls "polluting elites." One sign of how these elites have responded to global warming, which a growing number of climate, health, and social scientists see as one of the gravest contemporary and future threats to human health and safety, observes Begley (2007:1), is that "Individual companies and industry associations- representing petroleum, steel, autos and utilities-[have] formed lobbying groups [to mobilize] greenhouse doubters to 'reposition global warming as theory rather than fact,' and to sow doubt about climate research just as cigarette makers had about smoking research." More recently, some corporations have "gone green" and begun to support limited action on global warming (while nonetheless still promoting expanded production and consumption). These two alternative responses reflect contrastive imaginings of the future. Even with growing awareness of the potential risks of global warming, there has been little support for the development of a broader biosocial environmental focus that recognizes that global warming and the multiple and diverse health risks it entails (Baer and Singer 2009) are only part of a far larger environmental crisis involving a set of convergent and potentially interacting anthropogenic threats to the environment and to human health.
As Spratt and Sutton (2008:xi) stress, global climate change constitutes only the exposed "tip of [a] broader global-sustainability iceberg," that includes a litany of environmental degradations that are now "converging rapidly in a manner not previously experienced." At the same time that climate change is disrupting the planet's geophysical feedback mechanisms that sustain inhabitable environments, Earth is also beset by multiple other ecocrises set in motion by human socioeconomic activities (Smil 2008). Among these are nuclear dumping, acid rain, disappearance of wetlands, pesticide and other chemical pollution, air pollution, soil contamination and salinization, a global potable water crisis, ocean acidification, deforestation, soil depletion, plastic pollution, depletion of edible sea life from the oceans, and a general loss of biodiversity through extinctions. All of these threats are connected to the transformation of the Earth's biomass into an ever growing human population (Speth 2008).
These diverse threats, which Foster et al. (2008) label the "environment problem," have momentous health implications for humans. As, Pimentel et al. (1998) indicate, "Based on the increase in air, water, and soil pollutants worldwide, we estimate that 40% of human deaths each year result from exposure to environmental pollutants and malnutrition. …