President Alexander Ervin.jpgWhere Does Anthropology Stand on the Threats to Humanity’s Actual Survival? 

Policy and policy alternatives—how are we as applied anthropologists doing on the really big issues such as climate change, environmental destruction, and the economy that bedevil and may even threaten humanity’s survival? Are we registering any influence in the debates about them? Also, what do we have to deal with to make a significant difference? Let me illustrate with some perplexing situations that I have personally become most familiar with in recent years. 

I live in a region, Western Canada, that is noted for high energy production (oil, gas, coal, and uranium) as well as being among the very highest global consumers of energy resources as measured by per capita carbon emissions( (The latter is really about half accountable, though, through major corporate extraction activity as primarily associated with mining and the petroleum industry). This is also the agricultural heartland of Canada, and, like Midwestern American states, we are dominated by industrial, monocrop agribusiness, and thus chemically and GMO dependent food production as well as massive cattle feedlots and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Our provincial government and other infrastructural institutions are largely directed by neoliberal and globalist ideologies.  

I work at a public university that I have to say can be characterized in significant ways as being “corporate” --an observation I imagine many of you might share about your own institutions. My university is corporate in that its internal governance draws from recent business models of administration, its Board of Governors has been heavily corporate in membership, and research partnerships and funding are eagerly sought with major corporations especially resource-based and agribusiness, transnational corporations. To be fair, my university and most colleagues also devote huge amounts of time, teaching, and research in endeavours that are not corporate serving and can be seen as contributing to general, societal well-being. But the corporate impact is steadily growing and gradually being accepted as a norm.  

Several of the concerned transnationals influencing my university are headquartered in my home city—Cameco the global uranium mining giant and Nutrien now the largest fertilizer company in the world. Yet we, especially through our College of Agriculture and School of Public Policy, have had partnerships with other transnationals such as Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta, and links to petroleum industries are found throughout several colleges. It goes without elaboration to say that there is substantial environmental and social impact from the sum of all of this development—much of which, depending on one’s perspective, could be considered negative, but ignored by the dominant neoliberal and neoclassical enthusiasts of unfettered economic growth who seem to skip over considerations of social impact and long-term environmental consequences.  

To sum up my own perspective, I once gave a paper about our uranium industry at the AAA’s with the subtitle “There are Many Hearts to the Monster” implying that in these days regions such as mine that once would have been thought of as being peripheral are contributing to major, global, negative impacts of environmental and social disruption. Further my point being that it is not just cosmopolitan, core centers (Washington, D.C., New York, Moscow, London, Beijing) that are those we might identify as bastions of empire and that we might be tempted to metaphorically label as “the belly of the beast” or “the heart of the monster”.  

Over the last seventeen years, I have shifted my work as an applied anthropologist away from commissioned assignments for particular institutions and have indulged in self-selected participation in social and environmental movements that involve advocacy sometimes of a controversial nature. Personally, the participations have been quite inspiring and enervating--through their participatory, bottom-up, emergent nature, and because of the complete lack of hierarchy and ego-directed, ambition-motivated, leadership styles in these movements as well as the remarkable dedication and talent of fellow members. I am in deep appreciation of the highly democratic and unpaid, voluntary approaches to issues of sustainability and social justice, and the fact nobody takes on the position of being elitist or vanguardist in assuming to lead society. Yet the ethos tends to be “preformative” in that through their internal organizations they operate with the kinds of equitable arrangements, such as with gender, social status, education level, and others that many of us would like to experience in our wider social contexts. 

Sometimes our efforts might all appear rather Sisyphean or quixotic given the enormous power of those with whom we disagree, but at other times we have even been frankly astonished by the extent of our own successes. Seemingly against all odds in 2009, the Coalition for a Clean Green Saskatchewan, through public hearings and other public mobilizations was able to thwart a provincial government, Chamber of Commerce, and industry proposal to build over 3,000 megawatts of nuclear reactor capacity in Saskatchewan and were able to cast serious doubts on the advocacy of siting of Canada’s high level nuclear waste dump in Saskatchewan (Ervin 2012). {It should be noted that at the hearings on these proposals I made use of the excellent policy research of fellow SfAA members and anthropologists Ed Liebow (2007) on the U.S.A.s search for a similar repository and Barbara Johnston’s (2007a) general contributions on these topics}. Several years later, a remarkable First Nations and Northern group of Dene, Cree, and Métis activists, very aptly named “Committee for Future Generations” (a term that could have very much wider relevance) and with which we worked very closely was able to defeat that proposal to house Canada’s (and possibly the U.S.A.’s) high level nuclear waste dump in their traditional territories of Northern Saskatchewan’s Canadian Precambrian Shield. 

On another front—agriculture--I am currently involved with a small group of like-minded professors from a variety of departments who are trying to uncover what we consider our University’s troubling relationships with certain agribusiness firms). We are concerned about the circumstances of professors writing favourable, commissioned articles (“puff”, propaganda pieces if you will) for those agribusiness giants who have provided the authors with explicit directions how to support GMOs and pesticides containing the controversial ingredient glyphosate. In these regards, we are in accord with a national farm organization, headquartered here in Saskatoon, dedicated to small scale, family farming and is a constituent and active member of the international, small farm and peasant agricultural alliance La Via Campesina. Previously, I had also been involved in Hog Watch Saskatchewan and Beyond Factory Farming--movements where, incidentally, the anthropological work of SfAA member Kendall Thu (2010) on this issue was considered highly relevant and well-known without me even bringing it up. Similarly, I had been involved in an alliance of environmentalists who were concerned about the growing dependence upon GMO crops and especially the potential for wheat being thus transformed and another group that had attempted a civic ban on the use of pesticides again inspired by the work of yet another SfAA member, anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette (1998). 

It is clear in all of this there is plenty to criticize—in fact a virtual cornucopia of potential environmental and social impact condemnation if one likes to engage in critical expression. Yet what about generating the alternatives?  

This has particularly come to mind after a recent meeting of groups allied locally to resist uranium and nuclear expansion. While having been briefly victorious 10 years ago, we may now have to confront a double-threat. One of them is a current proposal to develop a fleet (possibly even in the hundreds) of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) 15 Megawatts to 300 Megawatts. Many of these are being proposed to be sited in Canada’s vast Northern regions both in the Arctic and in the huge Boreal regions that dominate Canada’s geography. Besides the Federal Government and the nuclear industry, several units of my university including our School of Public Policy have been actively promoting this idea (see From our perspective, this appears to be a measure intended to bolster a troubled nuclear energy industry that is suffering seriously from the aftermaths of Fukushima and extreme cost overruns and extravagant delays in the building of the previously standard, large 1000 plus megawatt reactors.  Part of the proposal is to situate these SMRs, and a feature that has already directly involved my university’s School of Public Policy, on First Nations Reserves and other Native communities in isolated regions. This is supposedly to encourage development and cheap sources of energy for impoverished Native peoples, but, to our minds and to those of our First Nations allies, it is a matter of sugar-coating and a means of avoiding NIMBY reactions in large Euro-Canadian towns and cities.  Furthermore, the idea is to facilitate through portable energy units an acceleration in the massive extractive potential of Canada’s Arctic and Boreal frontier regions—in the form of lead, zinc, nickel, copper, diamonds, uranium and that which we already know much about—the Athabasca Tar Sands—Canada’s largest contribution to global warming and an enterprise that through its massive strip-mining, forest clearcutting, toxic tailing ponds, and pipelines construction and spills is socially and environmentally disrupting the fragile region of Northern Alberta and beyond.  

At the same meeting, a First Nations woman raised another associated threat: a proposal from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy termed the Northern Transportation Corridor that promotes a massive transportation route and infrastructure running East to West from Labrador and the Atlantic all the way through the Boreal Forest to the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia. It would involve railways, pipelines, and highways sufficient to handle 18-wheeler semi-trailers. The corridor, a roadway to massive development of the regions’ wealth, would be linked with a similar set of transportation facilities linking northwards to the Arctic Ocean (see ). Now with global warming, there is a growing assumption that there will be an eventual all-season ice-free Northwest Passage and Canadian port facilities in the High Arctic facilitating gateways to massive Northern development and trade with Asia.  

What is so wrong with these proposals? Well if one put their mind to it probably many reports could be written anticipating the likely devastation. Briefly, consider just a few points. Begin with the notions of forests as carbon sinks. Two carbon sinks have been identified as essential as the last remaining major ones—Amazonia and the Boreal forests of Eurasia and North America. Amazonia, alas, is now tragically considered as a net emitter of carbon dioxide because of massive developments there. The Boreal Forest covers 14% of the Earth’s surface and Canada’s share is 28% of the total second to Russia whose Taiga is the largest forest in the world. So, with the above proposals, Canada’s Boreal Forest is assuredly going to be under similar or worse environmental devastation and carbon sink loss equivalent or worse than Amazonia, and in this regard, we could also ask what is happening or has been proposed in the Russian Taiga.  

Take as a second consideration the several hundred thousand indigenous Dene, Cree, Innu, Anishinaabe, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Métis, and others in the regions. There might be some advantages for the about 200 communities that are currently without road access. Consumer goods would likely be cheaper and there might be jobs. Yet most anthropologists could easily anticipate worrisome even tragic outcomes as we have seen in other regions most especially the Amazon. While currently the Indigenous people in these huge Canadian hinterlands are in a slight majority, they would soon lose that advantage. Such corridors would encourage the migration of many outsiders—Euro-Canadians and immigrants—possibly in the order of several millions and really accelerating a trend that already exists and damaging sociocultural outcomes of neocolonialism. To some extent, such Indigenous peoples have had more sovereignty and much more access to a more traditional resource and subsistence resource base especially of fish and game compared to their counterparts in heavily settled Southern Canada.  Rapidly, this advantage would cease to exist.  

Finally, what about the many hundreds of unattended nuclear SMRs without people qualified to manage them and the still existing problem of what to do with the waste which will be lethal for over 200,000 years—about the same time as the Homo sapiens has existed. My metaphor for the nature of the nuclear industry is Mickey Mouse’s performance as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Disney’s “Fantasia”.  It keeps getting worse and the “mickey-mouse” attempts to contain the problems seem only to exacerbate them—think of the tragic nature of the bumbling attempts to clean-up Fukushima. Also, to generate perspective, one could point out that, if Julius Caesar had established a nuclear reactor in Rome, we would still be responsible for its waste today.  

Yet talk about thinking big—or even grandiosely. Where do all these frightening proposals come from? Well out of the imaginations of economists and political scientists and like-minded technocrats that is where. In the cases I am citing above, they are from those located at two schools of public policy, one at my own university and the other at the University of Calgary (Canada’s equivalent of the “Chicago School” of neoliberal thinking). Here I am now getting closer to a point I raised in the first paragraph— “what do we have to deal with to make a difference?” 

It is the thinking and proposals of those economists and political scientists and others like them who represent the vast cadres of policy generators that also include practitioners in business, engineering, and agricultural colleges. They all take for granted the hyper-modernist ideologies of development that have been generated after five centuries of the emergence of capitalism and slightly more than two centuries of industrialism. They generate the world views of the huge numbers of university graduates who go into various forms of public administration and private enterprise and continue to perpetuate the mantras of the need for constant ever-increasing development, to apply the principles of industrial intervention to as many aspects of nature as possible, and to find ever-increasing ventures for capital investment. Much more could be enumerated but such principles are the fundamentals of policy generation.  

These are the standard policy formulas, in my opinion, that are guiding us rapidly to the brink of eventual collapses of both human civilizations and many of the other living species upon which we ultimately depend and that should have guaranteed rights of their own as anybody who thinks seriously about these issues should realize. As economist Kenneth Boulding was famously quoted as saying “anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” We have a few anthropologists such as David Graeber (2011) and Richard Robbins (Di Muzio and Robbins 2016, 2017) who critically analyze our hyper-active economies based on debt, digitally invented out of nothing (akin to the creation of credit money as “fairy dust” as Di Muzio and Robbins put it), and demanding of perpetual growth at ultimately exponential rates matching compound interest. That surely has to be considered the ultimate in insanity of matching economies to our only available physical life-support systems but clearly generates the unparalleled global economic inequalities that favor the tiny, transnational, creditor classes.  

The dilemma that the above meeting raised for me is how many metaphorical “fingers” of policy critique can we use to keep plugging holes in metaphorical “dikes” as these dangerous development proposals keep cascading our way. We need significant policy alternatives and find ways of disseminating them. 

The question of some policy alternatives to all of this and anthropology’s contribution which I began with: associated with the kinds of local activities I described above I teach a course on political ecology. I lay the foundations of both political economy and political ecology and then through many anthropological and human geographical examples I document the issues concerning agriculture and energy globally. Over the years in preparing this class, I have discovered some concepts, movements, and existing practices that intriguingly suggest ingredients of solution. What is interesting is that they are quite compatible with discoveries and orientations emanating from anthropology.  

One certainly would be “reclaiming the commons” (Bollier and Helfinch 2013) as a way of allocating natural resources. As much anthropological research has demonstrated the commons was the most frequent way of equitably and sustainably managing resources in the past. Another associated pair would bioregionalism and localization (De Young and Princen 2012) as opposed to globalization, massification, and monocultural systems. I remember as an undergraduate being fascinated by the standard cultural area maps and trait assemblages of different North American Indigenous peoples and how so very well they had made unique cultural and ecological adaptations to their particular environmental zones. In contrast consider we European-derived, North American, Settlers {“Unsettlers” as I call us, borrowing from Wendell Berry’s (1977)The Unsettling of America} we who have not yet by any means become indigenous to where we have collectively been living for over 500 years now. Instead we impose upon it a system that drains and destroys it. (Probably less than 5% of the original, natural habitat where I live now remains because of an extensive, mechanized, monocrop, chemical, annual seed planting, agricultural system that supplies other places in the world at a rate of about at least 90% export). Localization and bioregional stewardship along with other changes could start to mend this. Furthermore, as students of cultural change we know that the way of ensuring pathways to the future is by maximizing or permitting diversity. In trying to encourage more localization we are going to have to debate the standard economist’s gospel of “comparative advantage” which is often really a cover for maintaining positions of economic domination. 

Another significant area of contribution is in the way we raise food an issue shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. The latter endorses the domain of agroecology (Méndez et al 2016) a field that if you examine it you can see that anthropologists, especially in Latin America are making significant contributions. This is so because it draws part of its inspiration upon an understanding of traditional and Indigenous peoples practicing sustainable, polycrop systems in relative environmental harmony of raising food with total human-useful biomass exceeding that of monocrop production while reducing environmental damage. Just think of the Indigenous Mexican milpa system of the “three sisters” --corn, beans, and squash being intercropped as one small but highly useful example. 

Finally, and briefly consider energy. We can thank the now too often overlooked anthropologist Leslie White (1959) for first drawing attention to the relationships of energy in its production and allocation to the shape of society, culture and political control. Clearly decentralized but networked electrical grids of wind, photovoltaic, biomass, run-of-the-river, co-generation, and so forth, can make vital contributions to reducing carbon emissions. Yet there are also social advantages. Large centralized power plants, because of the necessary central and hierarchical management control of expertise and capital required, leads to vast and unequal concentrations of political power. Besides the daunting environmental risks, this would only be exacerbated with the domination of a nuclear power industry. Instead alternative renewable power technologies are within the equitable, management and maintenance capabilities of small communities—plus there obviously would obviously be no worries about toxic solar and wind wastes. Furthermore, they have already shown their worth in the electrification of impoverished communities in Africa and India.  

Now in all of this, I realize that it would be ridiculous for anthropology to presume to be the heroic discipline offering the means for the salvation of humanity. Anything that we might contribute will be embedded along with contributions from many other disciplines. Those will include folks from economics and political science about whom I have criticized above, but who I do recognize as not simply representing a solid phalanx of the blindly devoted to maximum development at all costs. Consider the marvelous insights of political scientists James C. Scott or Elinor Ostrom and economists such as Michael Hudson, Michael Perelman, and Herman Daly. Of course, anthropologists cannot presume to offer a specific “grand plan” for human survival but we can offer some ingredients that could be assembled in contingently appropriate situations.  

Also, I realize that we cannot simply ideologically wish such solutions into existence or expect policy makers to rapidly begin such reforms based on our persuasive arguments. I do suspect, though, that future conditions perhaps generated, alas, out of chaotic change will make them contingently possible. For instance, it is not too hard to imagine climate change, peak and rapidly declining oil, and some future global economic collapse, such as the one we were close to in 2008, leading to the necessity of reverting to diverse localized adaptations and reversing globalization. 

To make our contributions, though, it is important to assert ourselves as a policy science with clear policy alternatives rather than just policy critiques and on a par with others that traditionally make that claim. In my opinion, that might also involve reversing the current trend in anthropology of avoiding making comparisons and generating concepts that might be suspected of the offense of “essentializing”. Above all, we need to find venues to offset the powerful influences of institutions such as schools of public policy that tend to feed normal policy formulation and implementation. Joining them runs the risk of co-optation. Perhaps we need to consider some sort of institutional depository for these policy alternatives. And as usual we have to work very hard to counter our disciplinary image of being esoteric and antiquarian.  

Anthropologically attuned economist Karl Polanyi in his classic The Great Transformation pointed out how the combination of market capitalism and industrialism had led to a complete reversal of in that which had been humanity’s history—the economy had been embedded in society, but now society was embedded in economy and thus the former had to bend its will to the latter. We need to find ways to reverse this trend but any new greater transformation needs to include with it an ecological revolution perhaps surpassing the influence of the industrial one and its turbo-capitalistic drivers (all engines and no brakes) that are leading to these the biggest set of interlinked crises that have ever faced humanity-and as an inescapable totality of extinction unless something starts to happen soon. The transformation would be one that depends on much more knowledge and practice that is based on ecological knowledge of a biological nature. Yet since ecology implies relationship, anthropology could be considered essential especially as we ponder conditions of greater justice and equity that would be necessary to hold it all together. 


Berry, Wendell
1977 The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berkeley, CACounterpoint Press.

Bollier, David and Silke Helfinch (Eds.)
2013    The Wealth of the Commons: A World Behind Market and State. Amherst, MA: Leveler’s Press.

De Young, Raymond and Thomas Princen (Eds.)
2012    The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Boston, MA: The MIT Press.

Di Muzio, Tim and Richard H. Robbins
2017    An Anthropology of Money: A Critical Introduction. New York, NY: Routledge.
2019    Debt as Power. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press. 

Ervin, Alexander M.
2012   A Green Coalition Versus Big Uranium: Rhizomal Networks of Advocacy and Environmental Action. Capitalism, Nature, SocialismVol. 23(3): 52-70.    

Graeber, David
2011    Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House. 

Guilette, Elizabeth, Maria Mercedes Meza, Maria Guadalupe Aquilar, Alma Delia Soto and Idalia Enedina Garcia
1998    An Anthropological Approach to the Evaluation of Preschool Children Exposed to Pesticides in Mexico. Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 106) 347-354.1998. 

Johnston, Barbara Rose
2007   Half-Lives, Half-Truths, and Other Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War. In Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War. Barbara Rose Johnston, Ed. Pp. 1-25. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research.

Liebow, Edward
2007   Hanford, Tribal Risks, and Public Health in an Era of Forced Federalism. In Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War. Barbara Rose Johnston, Ed. Pp. 145-165. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research.

Méndez, V. Ernesto, Christopher M. Bacon, Roseann Cohen, and Stephen R. Gleissman (Eds)
2016    Agroecology: A Transdisciplinary, Participatory and Action-Oriented Approach. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Polanyi, Karl
1957   The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. (originally published 1944) Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Thu, Kendall
2010    CAFOS Are in Everybody’s Backyard: Industrial Agriculture, Democracy and the Future. In   The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. David Imhoff, Ed. Pp210-221. Berkeley: University of California Press.

White, Leslie
1959    The Evolution of Culture. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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