Climate change in plain sight: anthropological contribution in the time of climate crisis
In-depth fieldwork methods can reveal invaluable insights of climate change beyond the domain of science and politics. Based on her ethnography of Sicilian farmers amidst agricultural transition, Anna Notsu shows how participant observation may unveil embodied climate change experiences.
For a long time I have been interested in climate change narratives. Upon my search for an ethnographic site on this topic, I came across an article suggesting that global warming had prompted Sicily’s recent trend of tropical fruit cultivation as an innovative climate-adaptation method. Intrigued, a flood of questions rushed through my mind – What did it mean for these farmers to transition? How did tropical fruit cultivation come to be heralded as a climate change adaptation strategy? And is this something to take positively? Yet during the fieldwork, to my surprise I soon learned that ‘climate change’ was mostly absent in the farmers’ narratives. Several of my interlocutors claimed that climate change had nothing to do with their decision to grow tropical fruits like avocado. But despite this discursive negation, what I also came to realise was that they did register changes to the climate – but as embodied experience. Ethnographic methods such as participant observation, I noted, can help recognise the diverse ways in which people live with and make sense of climate change.
One of the most striking things during my research was that my informants’ stories often touched on continuities. As one farmer put it when discussing the turn to growing avocados, ‘’the perfect condition was already there.’’ – What had changed, he surmised, was not the climate but the demand. Many claimed that Sicily had always been beautiful and that the landscape had never changed. One mango farmer stated, ‘’Anything will grow here. If you plant something, it will grow. We are so blessed with our land’’. In their accounts, the historically and culturally aesthetic value of the landscape was ostensibly understood as inherent and unchanging.
During one of my farm visits in Catania, I became acquainted with an avocado producer who had been in avocado production for over 15 years. He explained to me that it was Mount Etna that guaranteed the valuable climate condition for avocado cultivation: – ‘’We have this gorgeous Etna here. The ideal condition has always been here. The clouds, that form around the mountain, always keep the right humidity level and warm temperature throughout the day and night, all year. The idea of avocado fruit cultivation is relatively new, but the trees have been around here for decades.‘’ Such narratives of continuity seem to contrast with discourses of climate change today.
But this emphasis on continuity was by no means to suggest that people did not express any experience of a changing climate. As my research progressed, I recognised that climate experience was manifested in people’s everyday reaction to change. One afternoon in early March, for instance, I saw my host family express surprise seeing the fast-drying bedsheets on the sunny balcony, ‘’It’s like August!’’ – said my host, as she touched them one by one. What I observed then, perhaps, was a sensory response to change. Ethnographic participation in everyday life was necessary to explore climate experience in this way.
As I participated in lemon farming, I was able to see how the farmers experienced temporal trajectories of change, including seasonal change and economic demand, and thereby I came to understand how changes to the climate were registered and expressed as distractions in their work tempo.
One rainy morning I noticed something unusual. While usually, the farmers would start working right away, this time they stayed in the van for a number of hours. They explained to me that they simply waited until the lemons were dry enough to work with, as wet lemons will otherwise rot when stored in a container. This delay was, to them, inopportune as it meant they would have less time to harvest and less opportunity to earn. As with all farming, if unexpected freak weather, such as hailstorms disrupts the usual local weather patterns, the quality of products and the continuity of the farm can be in jeopardy. As in this case with the rain, such situations subsequently require extra labour. If this starts to occur more frequently, and especially in the harvest season, their disturbed tempo and increased labour begin to cause physical afflictions, such as migraine and exhaustion. While I myself underwent severe lower-back pain from constant bending and lifting heavy containers during this period, they suffered from a range of consequences that were sustained, if not exacerbated, over a lifetime.
Embodied climate ethnography
We all experience and express change differently. My participant observation made clear to me the complexity of causality of (climate) change and continuity that my interlocutors expressed in their day-to-day practice. Whereas anthropologist Susan Crate argues for climate ethnography that demands ‘cross-scale and multi-sited approaches’, hereby I would like to highlight the value of in-depth participant observation once again, as it helps us to unfold multi-layered climate change narratives in which continuities and changes intersect. Importantly, we may thereby find that lived experiences of climate change are not only expressed but also embodied.