Daniels – Where is Anthropology? / Where is Anthropology When You Need It?

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Daniels – Where is Anthropology? /

Where is Anthropology When You Need It?

  1. Real World Problems and Reflexivity

  1. Robert Daniels

  2. Department of Anthropology

  3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Nothing human is alien to anthropology. Indeed, of the many disciplines that study our species, Homo sapiens, only anthropology seeks to understand the whole panorama--in geographic space and evolutionary time--of human existence.

American Anthropology Association webpage http://www.aaanet.org/anthbroc.htm

  1. Motivation

      1. It is now being widely recognized that the human species is on the brink of massive changes as great as those resulting from the rise of industrialization, and perhaps even as great as the changes brought about by the development of food production. The interlocked problems of non-renewable resource depletion, accumulating industrial waste, biosphere degradation, and climate change lead both expert and lay observers to postulate drastic predictions about the foreseeable future. The events being predicted for the coming decades and next couple centuries are, by almost all current standards, extremely negative: e.g. the replacement of democratic civil society by authoritarian police states, the permanent collapse of electric power grids resulting in the loss of all digitally encoded information, the collapse of industrialized food production and a "die off" of human population, etc.

      2. Five times over the past several years I have offered a seminar course entitled "Anthropological Perspectives on the Energy Crisis." Anthropology (using the term in its inclusive American sense that seeks to combine human evolution, bioanthropology, archaeology, culture history, linguistics, and much more with social anthropology) is the social science that most fundamentally takes a global view, looks at the human species over the long (indeed evolutionary) scale, and has investigated the collapse of past civilizations with a comparative, multidisciplinary, cultural-ecological approach. The seminar examined the validity of the dire predictions of an energy shortage and climatic crisis. We also looked at various studies of the trajectories of past civilizations. And we searched for analyses in the social sciences, and particularly in anthropology, that might help us understand current processes and help us anticipate and prepare for the future. Surely, we asked, anthropological theory and research has something to contribute to these debates. In short, of what use is anthropology?

      3. To date the results of this quest have been slight. Rather than being centrally concerned with these issues, academic anthropology is largely silent, and seems about to be overwhelmed by the truly global transformations occurring among its own subjects, and to be rendered irrelevant. This paper is my attempt to explain why I think the discipline is not dealing with the real world (and a plea to colleagues to save me from my ignorance if there are anthropologists who are addressing the crisis).

  2. Some Real World Problems

      1. In this section I mention facts and references which have influenced my thinking on these topics. I make no attempt to present complete summaries; I assume readers are familiar with the basic issues discussed here.

  3. Oil

Learning the facts of peak oil has a tendency to refocus the mind on the fundamental question of human use of resources; abstract ideas about society seem less important. But if history teaches us anything, it is that ideas have consequences. As one of the greatest changes in the human story is now afoot, it would seem foolish in the extreme to leave intellectual rigor to the physical scientists while allowing sloppy armchair anthropologists and historians [to] frame the relevant cultural questions (Polycarpou 2005).

      1. On a human time scale, the amount of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), both known and as yet undiscovered, is finite. Meanwhile worldwide demand is accelerating rapidly. Over the past several years a number of independent oil geologists have pushed awareness of the problems of fossil fuel depletion. The first article addressed to the general American public (or at least the general intelligentsia of America) appeared many years ago: "The End of Cheap Oil" by Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrère, in Scientific American, (March 1998). Six years later the same title was used in a lead article in National Geographic (Appenzeller 2004).

      2. Campbell, a retired British petroleum geologist, went on to found ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (http://www.peakoil.net/). 'Peak Oil' 1 has become a major scientific focus, and propagation of public awareness about it has become a major social movement among a certain set of concerned scientists and citizens in many countries as well as spawning countless local “power down” organizations seeking practical applications for low energy lifestyles. (A Google search on "peak oil" will produce over 4½ million hits.) The problem is not that sooner or later we will run out of fossil fuels. The problem comes when we run short of oil. Global oil production cannot expand indefinitely and at some point production will peak. The term draws our attention to the fact that the critical transition will not be when oil reserves near exhaustion, but when worldwide production peaks and less and less oil can be produced no matter what effort or expense is made. At that point whatever the level of demand may be, the level of consumption worldwide will start to decline.2 Further, it is misleading to focus on the amount of oil remaining in the ground. We cannot recover all of the oil from any field, and we will never recover all of the 'recoverable' oil in the world since industrial society will have ground to a halt long before the last 100, or 1,000 or 10,000 barrels are pumped from the earth.

      3. The title of Campbell and Laherrère's paper, "The End of Cheap Oil," also draws our attention to the fact while "the first half of the age of oil" has involved extraction of roughly half of the ultimately recoverable oil, the second half is qualitatively different, for the oil already extracted has been from the most accessible and highest grade resources, that is those with the highest energy return on energy investment (EROEI). The cost of recovery, and in many cases the ecological destruction necessary, can only increase.3

      4. The central message of these "pessimists" or "Cassandras" is that the “peak oil” transition is not in the distant future but here now. A few years ago many people considered "peak oil" simply wrong-headed and refused the basic premise of the analysis. But as Colin Campbell is fond of saying, this is something every beer drinker knows: "the glass starts full and ends empty, and the quicker you drink it, the sooner it is gone." In 1998 Campbell and Laherrère suggested 2010 as the rollover date. Others have moved this prediction forward or back a few years.4

      5. In the past decade many others have considered these predictions wildly wrong, but recent events are producing new believers every day:

At just under 86 million barrels per day, global oil production has, essentially, stagnated since 2005, despite soaring demand, suggesting that production has already reached its geological limits, or "peak oil".

Pessimists believe that production has passed its peak. Optimists say it may be 20 years or so away - which would give us some time to prepare - but [they] are now muted. Last week [March 2008] the hitherto optimistic International Energy Agency admitted that it may have overestimated future capacity. Chris Skrebowski, editor of 'Petroleum Review' and once an optimist himself, believes that the world is now in "the foothills of peak oil". Prices may ease a bit over the next few years, but then the real crunch will come. The price then? "Pick a number!" (David Strahan, quoted in Lean 2008).

      1. And this from the oil tycoon T. Boone Pickins:

"Let me tell you some facts the way I see it. Global oil (production) is 84 million barrels (a day). I don't believe you can get it any more than 84 million barrels. I don't care what (Saudi Crown Prince) Abdullah, (Russian Premier Vladimir) Putin or anybody else says about oil reserves or production. I think they are on decline in the biggest oil fields in the world today and I know what's it like once you turn the corner and start declining, it's a tread mill that you just can't keep up with (EV World 2005).

The data do suggest that global production has reached a plateau:

igure 1

Source: http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/6477#more

[The data are from two sources: the International Energy Agency and the Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy.]

The problem of shortage arises, of course, from both diminishing reserves and increasing demands worldwide. Increasing, following the pattern of the United States, oil producing countries are also becoming major consumers. In some cases, as the following chart shows for Indonesia, they are already transitioning from exporters to importers:

Figure 2

Source: http://mazamascience.com/OilExport/

    1. Directory: ~rdaniels

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