Natural Environmental Disasters and Social Resilience in Anthropological Perspective

Research project funded by the European Research Council

The present times are haunted by a sense of vulnerability in the face of major environmental disasters and global climate change. Whatever course and speed the current changes may accrue, their effects on the human world are already manifest. People suffer from a loss of habitual natural resources, from fear of an increasingly unpredictable nature, and from social disruptions as natural habitats are destroyed.

Water is the most vital natural resource; it is the sine qua non of human life. Yet, excess or shortage of water may threaten that very life, and the current destabilisation of the balance between too much and too little water poses new and significant challenges to the social and human sciences, wanting to understand and mitigate the disastrous effects of global climate change as experienced.

The ambition of the project is to study local, social responses to environmental disasters related to water, as spurred by the melting of ice in the Arctic and in other glacier areas, the rising of seas that flood islands and coastal communities, and the drying of lands accelerating desertification in large parts of Africa and elsewhere. The aim is to contribute to a renewed theory of social resilience that builds on the actualities of social life in distinct localities, and pays heed to human agency as the basis for people's quest for certainty in exposed environments.

The project has a double empirical and theoretical ambition. Empirically it contributes a substantial ethnographic supplement to the sweeping diagnoses of the global malaises captured in notions like 'global warming'. Theoretically, the project will allow for a new, general understanding of the effects of environmental disaster on social life and organisation, and of the responsibility that people take locally to ensure the survival of their community. New concepts will also be developed that may facilitate interdisciplinary research across differentiated scales of understanding.