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New Research by Brad Weiss on Impacts of California Fires

Wineries are being affected by smoke from forest fires in California.

During a period of research leave, Professor Brad Weiss of the Department of Anthropology at William & Mary has been involved in exciting new interdisciplinary research geared towards understanding human engagements with climate change in California. Professor Weiss’s current project investigates impacts of fires on wine vineyards across Napa and Sonoma Valley, as well as how climate is grasped and acted upon by faculty and students at UC Davis studying Viticulture and Enology. This spotlight article delves more deeply into Professor Weiss’s new research project, its aims, and the place of Anthropology within broader interdisciplinary and international collaborations aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

A fascinating aspect of your research is that it looks to be part of a truly global collaboration, with colleagues in Davis (California), Adelaide (Australia), and Stellenbosch (South Africa) working together to address environmental challenges. When developing a social scientific platform and methodology to study the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, where do you see the most overlaps and divergences in approach between these different affected locations?

I think it’s fair that collaborative research is increasingly common, and tremendously challenging.  Socio-cultural anthropologists have typically had a somewhat “heroic” model of the lone field researcher, out among them, directly working with “their people”. Of course, there have always been important exceptions to this, but it’s a paradigm that still prevails. Figuring out how to collaborate- whether it means working in different places on similar themes, or working together in the same locale, asking different questions, or just mixing and matching as you go, seems like a really good idea, but still a challenge to implement. Fortunately, there are already folks working, especially in South Australia on wine and climate change, so I hope both to work with them, and to do a bit of my own independent work in California, that will allow me to offer some comparative material for a larger set of questions.

What theoretical approaches do you have in mind that shape your ethnography of faculty and student engagement with climate change at the Department Viticulture and Enology in Davis? And what have you learned so far from these observations?

I’m not sure I have a specific “approach” to the ethnography that I did in the department. I am interested in the broad array of approaches to climate crises that various actors offer on the topic.  There is an approach known as the “network of perspectives” which considers “perspectives that people in one place might have on people in another place as a result of their being aware of each other’s inclusion in the same translocal network” – in short, an approach that considers far-flung relationships in a reflexive frame (e.g. how do grape growers in one city in Sonoma think about what winemakers in another city, as well as what wine shops in San Jose, and wine drinkers in Los Angeles are up to?), that is more of a methodological practice that I find helpful in any ethnography. So I talked with students about what they thought their professors were most concerned about as emerging questions for the wine industry over the next few decades. You try to appreciate how everyone’s ideas are formed in a dynamic relationship with other peoples’ ideas and how everyone’s ideas are created by their awareness that other people have ideas about them. 

Impacts of forest fires in California.

Notable in your approach is its collaboration with academics from very different scholarly backgrounds to your own, including in genetics, viticulture (the science of grape production) and enology (the science of winemaking). What are some of the most interesting things that you’ve learned from these interdisciplinary engagements, i.e., where do you see areas in other disciplines that more traditional approaches within Cultural Anthropology can benefit from the most?

One thing I found fascinating was working with a range of folks in the “natural” sciences who are addressing the dynamic implications of climate, and realizing that, in fact, there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty in these positions.  There is certainly a nearly universal agreement that human-made climate change is “real”; but how much, and how fast, and to what end, this is subject to a lot of conversation within the natural sciences.  Some of the chemists I spoke with, for example, think fire is inevitable, in part a good thing, and is not about to go away. We don’t have clear standards for understanding its impact on wine, but we can work towards developing strategies and techniques for deciding what to do in the aftermath of fires. Some even think the impact of climate change, while quite clear, won’t affect grape production for many generations. Others are convinced the entire industry has to change, and should look to introduce new varieties of grapes, or even new crops (“let’s grow agave and make tequila in Northern California!”). I wouldn’t say I learned things from geneticists, and chemists, and engineers that have to be incorporated into anthropology- but I found that anthropologists can learn a lot by thinking alongside these conversations.

Within this interdisciplinary framework that you are developing to approach the global effect of climate change, what do you see as the main methodological and theoretical tools and contributions that Cultural Anthropology specifically brings to the table, which perhaps other disciplinary approaches to studying and addressing the impacts of climate change lack?

Ethnographic work, for me, is still centered on the values that people bring to their projects.  Values motivate our actions, shape our consciousness of the conditions we confront, define the import of the things we make and consume. “Climate” is literally irrelevant in the absence of the evaluations that are made of it. That doesn’t mean that climate is by any means only a human problem, but it does mean that human relationships- including more-than-human relationships with other sentient beings, and even with mountains, and valleys, and streams, and rain, and wind – are the matrix in which climate, environment, events, and the like emerge as concerns.

Do you have any final recommendations, suggestions, or advice for anthropologists eager to apply their specific skills to the fight against the climate crisis?

Climate change is an unavoidable concern today. It not only has implications for literally every life on the planet, and in every domain of life from politics, to art, to kinship, to education, but it has already saturated academia. Environmental Humanities is as robust a field as Marine Ecology, or Plant Science. Start reading! It’s impossible to imagine an anthropology of the future that won’t be compelled to confront these matters.