The Cultural Crisis of Climate Change: Q&A With Dr. April Beisaw

Dr. April Beisaw teaches the archaeology of animals, landscape and disasters as assistant professor of anthropology at Vassar College and has lectured numerous times on the subject of historical ecology, a discipline that focuses on the interactions between humans and their environment over large spans of time. She will join the discussion “Planning Ahead in the Anthropocene” on June 18 at 7:00 PM at Beacon Institute’s Center for Environmental Innovation and Education, Denning’s Point, Beacon. This interview appeared in the June 13 Poughkeepsie Journal.

From the historical ecology perspective, what wisdom might you impart to environmental scientists and directors who represent organizations that stand to be impacted by climate change?

The climate change we speak of in the 2000s is a tipping point where climate is beginning to impact (threaten) culture in ways that have been forewarned, but relatively unheeded. If we acknowledge that the climate has always been changing, and look at how past cultures have negotiated those changes, we can forestall climate-change deniers, for it naturalizes the crisis. Our climate change is a cultural crisis because we have built cities in deserts and below sea level, and we do not want to abandon them. Past climate changes have created the ruins of civilizations on which we build mythologies of disappearance. These past cultures changed when the climate did. We are trying to resist those changes. That is the crisis.

For directors of nature organizations and ecosystem scientists — I encourage you to ensure that the people in your stories are not depicted as villains or enemies that break nature, but to take a longer view of how humans and nature work together to shape the places you wish to protect. Teach people how the glaciers were once in New York and how their receding brought about the human habitation of this area, and they can see how receding polar ice caps are something that has cultural consequences. Teach people how species arise and disappear all the time and it makes the need for habitat maintenance more pressing, but also something that humans have a hand in. We define species and we decide which ones are worthy of our protection.

In summary, by taking a long view of how climate change shaped what nature we have now, historical ecology can help people see how our decisions impact what nature we will have in the future. That shifts the debate from whether climate change exists to how we are going to work with the climate for the future.

With the unpredictable nature of climate change, the impact on ecosystems by invasive species, increasing human population and density etc., what makes sense as far as how we should approach habitat restoration projects?

We need to let go of the idea of restoring places to some mythical original state and make decisions as to what is lacking, what is needed or desired, and where that may best be done. If there is a species of plant or animal we decide should be here, then we need to find and make a place for it. But we always have to see this as a decision that will impact both nature (as in plants and animals, and soils and water) and culture (as in how humans interact with each other and this new nature), and therefore would eventually lead to something other than what we planned. Therefore, constant maintenance of nature is needed to get what we want out of it. Unpredictability is not a problem, it is the default state.

If we were to ‘let nature take its course’ how, if at all, would that change our overall quality of life? What kinds of social responses would you anticipate?

Nothing in the Hudson Valley is natural in the sense that it is free from cultural influence. Letting “nature take its course” is in itself a cultural choice. Society will always respond and those responses will again alter the areas we declare to be natural. We cannot foresee what the future is for our natural and cultural areas, but we can acknowledge that they always influence and CHANGE each other in ways that are unpredictable and never ending. Social responses happen when nature changes in a way that is beyond the tolerance level for the culture. Don’t expect social response before there is a real social pressure.