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Looking Back on Today

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Richard Wilk of the Global Climate Change Task Force. Dr. Wilk is Provost Professor at Indiana University.

Looking Back on Today

By Richard Wilk

How are we going to be remembered in a century, in two hundred or five hundred years?  Not as individuals – even the most famous people will be long forgotten.  But what about our civilization and our way of life?  As a trained archaeologist, I ask whether our time will be called a golden age, an epoch of art, learning and enlightenment, or a dark and troubled era of wastefulness, decline and division.

Archaeologists have tried to purge the more obvious value judgments from their snapshots of past times. They no longer call epochs “decadent” or “formative” though terms like “classic”  and “high civilization” are still  used for the times when a culture hit its peak of power, built its most magnificent cities, made the most beautiful and elaborate arts and crafts, or conquered neighbors and welded them into a vast empire.

And they can also point to genuine examples of decline and failure. The Norse, for example, successfully colonized Greenland in 986 AD, and grew to 16 parishes led by a Catholic bishop in 1350. But when their trade with Europe was cut off by the Black Plague a hundred years later, and colder climate cut down on their pastures, the colonies failed and everyone sailed back to Iceland and Norway (see Stull 1990).  The people of the American Southwest, in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and a series of other cultural centers  settled there for centuries, yet suffered a painful decline and dispersal between 1100 and the 1400 with continual raiding, warfare, migration and ultimately abandonment of sequential regional areas.

So what about our era, the rise of Western capitalism and its diffusion in the form of globalized trade and material aspirations? Pundits and preachers tell us we are at the edge of the cliff, about to fall into oblivion. Others claim just as certainly that we are entering a new period of growth and prosperity, as democracy and freedom spread and we transition into a sustainable economy based on green technology.

For a moment let’s just step back and look at one thing we have built our civilization upon – oil.  The amount we use is so large that the numbers are meaningless to most of us. Artist Chris Jordan uses huge canvases to help us really feel what 28,000 42-gallon barrels–the amount consumed in the USA every two minutes– looks like. As he says, it is “equal to the flow of a medium sized river” running 24 hours a day.

Maybe in 50 years but certainly in a century, free oil from the ground is going to be very scarce and a lot more precious.  There will be expensive substitutes from natural gas, algae, genetically modified palm trees and the like, but the idea that you could once pump oil and sell it for $100 a barrel is going to sound ridiculous. So looking back on today, from the distant future, the idea that people would burn the precious stuff just to drive around ‘sightseeing’ or on holiday, in a private vehicle, for fun, seems somewhat short-sighted.  A lot of the time these cars are not even full.

And why were their towns and cities spread out across the land, so people had to burn oil just to go to work or buy groceries? I have tried to explain this to European visitors several times, with little success. I somehow doubt that people in 100 years are going to have more sympathy. They are just going to think we were crazed, insane, and unbelievably wasteful; and that we were unable to understand what our own scientists were telling us.

At least the ancient Romans had an excuse when they poisoned themselves with lead in their water, food and wine. They had no idea that lead was responsible for their declining intelligence, miscarriages, memory loss and bad digestion. But look at all the poisons we ingest every day in our air, water, food and drink, despite dire warnings. How can we explain that in rational terms?

I just hope that none of our distant descendants ever runs across a catalog from Skymall or Hammacher-Schlemmer.  Like our giant yachts, trophy mansions and vanity museums, these catalogs demonstrate a rococo form of consumerism that has no pretense of being for or about anything, beyond the tiniest quantum of health or comfort. Are you ready to justify spending resources on an “indoor flameless marshmallow roaster”  to your great-great grandchildren, who are living in a world where oceans have risen to inundate most coastal cities, because of the fossil fuels we burned?

If these things were exceptional, my argument would be trivial. But our entire consumer culture has spun into a kind of ‘babes in toyland’ phase, that feels like one last big blow-out party where we try to recapture the innocent joy of a time when we didn’t know that our fun was wrecking the place.  The only difference is that in this case, it is the kids, not the parents, who are going to be asking, “What were you possibly thinking to leave us such a huge mess?”

Bloggers, political pundits, and social scientists have noted that the hallmark of the Anthropocene is that it is the only geological epoch where the active force in creating change (us, that is) consciously know that we are affecting the planet;  the question is whether humans have the interest and political will to do anything about it (Palsson et al 2012).  So far we have not heard any serious proposals to limit or control the wildest and most wasteful kinds of consumerism.

References

Palsson, G., et al., Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environ. Sci. Policy (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004   http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004

Stull, Scott 1990 Colonization in a Marginal Zone: The Norse in Greenland. Crosscurrents 4:1-15. http://www.academia.edu/637940/Colonization_in_a_Marginal_Zone_the_Norse_in_Greenland

Chris Jordan: http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#oil-barrels

Reflecting on Fieldwork: “In the Field: Images of the people and places of IUB Anthropology”

Today’s guest blog post is by Robert Mahaney of Indiana University. The IUB Anthropology Graduate Student Association is including a photography exhibit “In the Field: Images of the people and places of IUB Anthropology” this year during its annual graduate student symposium. The symposium will take place next Friday, February 22. Click here for event details. If you’re in area, check it out!

A wedding in the Indian community in Guyana. Since nearly 30% of Guyana’s population is Hindu, everyone get to join in the holiday celebrations.  Part of the Diwali celebrations in Guyana includes a motorcade where various temples and organizations decorate vehicles in lights and flowers and parade through the streets at night.  The sides of the roads are packed with residents who have come to see the spectacular show.

A wedding in the Indian community in Guyana. Since nearly 30% of Guyana’s population is Hindu, everyone get to join in the holiday celebrations. Part of the Diwali celebrations in Guyana includes a motorcade where various temples and organizations decorate vehicles in lights and flowers and parade through the streets at night. The sides of the roads are packed with residents who have come to see the spectacular show. Photographed by Evanna Singh

Reflecting on Fieldwork: “In the Field: Images of the people and places of IUB Anthropology” by Robert Mahaney, Indiana University

What is ‘the field’?

Kerio, a Massai excavator at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Photographer Robert Mahaney.

Kerio, a Massai excavator at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Photographer Robert Mahaney.

We could answer this question simply. The field is where we work. Its where the people are — or its where they were. But this answer is unreflective. It avoids the subtle and sometime difficult issues involved in knowledge creation. ‘The field’ is a space constituted by the interaction of the observer – ethnographer, linguist, archaeologist, or biocultural researcher – and those she observes. It is structured and bounded by research questions and paradigms, means of analysis and representation, disciplinary tradition and lore, and personal experience and expectation. Of course, this is also is a simplistic and obvious answer. It may be a banal truism. However, there is no field without the fieldworker.

Its this creative act that we, as graduate students, are trying to master. How do we create these spaces? How we build these relationships? And how does this place and experience become knowledge?

Herding sheep in Kazakistan. Although the animals will find good pasture on their own, sometimes the herder (chaban) will direct them.Photographer Tekla Schmaus.

Herding sheep in Kazakistan. Although the animals will find good pasture on their own, sometimes the herder (chaban) will direct them. Photographer Tekla Schmaus.

These are the questions that motivate our exhibition of images from field sites. From February 22-24, a photo exhibit titled “In the Field: Images of the people and places of IUB Anthropology” will be presented during the annual Indiana University Anthropology Graduate Students Association Symposium. This year the symposium will be held at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology in Bloomington, Indiana.

Working at sites in places including Southern Indiana, Wyoming, Greece Kazakistan, Tanzania, and Turkey archaeologists Megan Buchanan, Kaeliegh Herstad, Sheena Ketchum, Robert Mahaney, Rebecca Nathan, Tekla Schmaus, and Liz Watts provide a distinctive group of images with two distinct focuses. First, they seem to highlight the interaction with their collaborators – PIs, specialists, and excavators – which hints at the central role of ‘the crew’ in archaeological research. Second, they often focus on the physiography of the place, reflecting the imaginative aspect of archaeology in which the researcher tries to orient themselves in landscape in the same ways that past people may have.

Harvested kelp drying on a beach in Hokkaido,  Japan. Kelp harvesting is the major fishing activity for most inshore small-scale household fishers. Photographer Shingo Hamada.

Harvested kelp drying on a beach in Hokkaido, Japan. Kelp harvesting is the major fishing activity for most inshore small-scale household fishers. Photographer Shingo Hamada.

Shingo Hamada is an ethnographer studying fisheries in Hokkaido, Japan and Lyra Vega studies food culture in her Belize. They provide pictures of the events and people that inform their work. Interestingly, material culture – in the form of food or animals and plants harvested from the ocean – play an important an important role in their images. of course, this hints at the mediating role of the photographic medium.

It is very interesting to note that the images of biological anthropologists such as Alicia Rich Stout, Caroline Deimel, Evanna Singh, and Lindsey Mattern provided pictures of fieldwork in Guyana, India, and Uganda that bridge the concerns and perspectives of the contributing archaeologists and ethnographers. The biological dimension of human experience is placed in a culture context of people, place, and event. Susan Spencer, a bioarchaeologist, osteologist, and forensic anthropologist provides images from Indiana cemeteries in she highlights the role of grief and practices of commemoration.

Jordan, Dan and Jeremy (from  left) help Michele Greenan of the Indiana State Museum screen fill from her river bank salvage excavations along the Ohio River. Photographer Elizabeth Watts.

Jordan, Dan and Jeremy (from left) help Michele Greenan of the Indiana State Museum screen fill from her river bank salvage excavations along the Ohio River. Photographer Elizabeth Watts.

Together, these images hint at the various ways that students performing fieldwork have constituted the fields in which they work. As hinted briefly already, there are subtle differences between the images presented by archaeologists, ethnographers, and biological anthropologists in this exhibit. But the fields in which we operate as Anthropologists are hardly incommensurable. Though evidence, methods, and theoretical tools may vary amongst the sub-fields, there is a commonality amongst in how we constitute and embody the places in which we work and interact with our collaborators. Ultimately, this may be the most characteristic feature of our shared culture as anthropologists.

Stop Blaming Dharun Ravi: Why We Need to Share Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi

Mary L. Gray, AAA member, is an Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and Associate Professor of Communications and Culture at Indiana University. She recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post on how tragedies, such as Tyler Clementi’s death, of bullying and harassment are particularly difficult in a homophobic society. Below is an excerpt. To view the entire article, click here.

Tyler Clementi’s death on Sept. 22, 2010 was one of several highly publicized youth suicides that fall. In several cases, media coverage and political discourse connected these tragedies to cases of on- and offline harassment saturated in homophobic sentiment. Research among students suggests that these hostilely charged environments are the norm rather than the exception. But rallying to punish Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student standing trial for 15 criminal counts, including tampering with witnesses and evidence, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation of Tyler Clementi, does not do justice to Clementi’s life, nor does it move us one step closer to preventing another young person, like him, from turning to suicide.

Since then, states and school districts have rushed to crack down on bullies. As a result, a record number of anti-bullying policies are now on the books. However, we have no concrete evidence that such top-down policies prevent or counteract bullying, particularly so-called “cyberbullying” — harassment carried out via texting and online social networks. Worse yet, some research suggests that framing the problem as “bullying” actually works against youth reporting violence or identifying themselves as targets of it.

The politics of blame are a dead end. Instead, we need to build out an ethos of shared responsibility that could make a difference, literally, between life and death for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.

Click here to read Gray’s article.

AAA Member honored with Faculty Mentor Award

Congratulations to AAA member, Jason Jackson, a folklore professor at Indiana University (IU). An award given by the IU Graduate and Professional Student Organization is given to one professor each spring. All graduate and professional students are invited to give their support to faculty members that they feel deserve special recognition for exemplary behavior.

“I am, needless to say, very moved and humbled by this honor,” said Jackson, who is also editor of Museum Anthropology Review, a gold open access journal that he and his colleagues founded in early 2007. “I am fortunate to work so closely with so many great students.”

 Read complete article here.

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