Phenomenology of climate change and its implications for the relationship between society and nature

Phenomenology of climate change and its implications for the relationship between society and nature

By Walter Chamochumbi

In recent decades, the increase in numerous climatic events worldwide has been notable: floods, storms, hurricanes, hailstorms, frosts, droughts, etc., causing large human, material and economic losses (estimated to be over 70,000 million dollars annually and affecting about 325 million people) and mainly harming the poorest local communities and indigenous populations in the different regions.

Regarding the Copenhagen Conference on the future of the global climate system, to be held in December 2009, it is evident that in recent years world concern about the current and future implications of the climate change phenomenon continues to grow, but unfortunately it is It is no less evident that the mere discourse and official position still prevail rather than the political decision and the concrete and concerted action of the international community to confront it (as is the case with the industrialized countries of the North, which bear the greatest responsibility for this). Even in the debate, the veracity of this phenomenon and its causality are still being questioned -and with no little controversy-, relativizing the underlying diagnosis and thus avoiding, delaying or conveniently preventing greater commitments from being assumed in this regard.

On climate change there is abundant bibliography circulating: from apocalyptic and pragmatic texts and manifestos, the ephemeral and skeptical, but also the most serious and documented that give us an account of its real magnitude. In this regard, we are interested in investigating its phenomenology as such, that is, analyzing its implications as a concrete fact (phenomenon) of reality, within the framework of the society-nature relationship and the multiple cause-effect interactions that we know occur from the origin of humanity, and which in fact involves subtle and profound changes in the environment and in the occurrence of various events, the impacts and effects of which have been, are and will be determinants of the conditions and livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations, especially from the poor countries of the south.

Natural phenomena and their relationship with human activities and climate change

Since the appearance of the first tribal societies, there have been multiple impacts and effects that have had on ecosystems and the biosphere over millennia, along with the greater occurrence of natural phenomena (many with devastating effects on the population and their habitats). That is why, given the evidence of the phenomenon of climate change, today we see what -decades ago- environmental organizations, social movements and the most serious scientific community, warned the world of the serious consequences that could derive from the global expansion of capitalism and its economic rationale for development, if steps were not taken to prevent it.

Thus, the global crisis triggers the accumulation of multiprocesses of economic, social, cultural and environmental transformation that, in the midst of an uncertain scenario due to the greater incidence of natural phenomena, make the study of its current dynamics even more complex. prospective. And it is that in recent decades the increase in numerous climatological events worldwide has been remarkable: floods, storms, hurricanes, hailstorms, frosts, droughts, etc., causing large human, material and economic losses (estimated to be over 70,000 million dollars annually and affecting about 325 million people) and mainly harming the poorest local communities and indigenous populations of the different regions.

It is known that the effects of climate change can be decisive in the current context of development of the most vulnerable local communities and indigenous populations in Latin America and other regions of the world, constituting a new and greater element of concern, in addition to the unresolved historical issues in response to the demands and needs of development and social inclusion of these populations, as well as for their important link and valuable knowledge developed in the management of local ecosystems and natural climate variability. Hence the importance of studying its evolution as a society-nature and knowing its resilience capacity and the different adaptive mechanisms that have been tested for millennia in response to adverse environmental factors.

Natural phenomena express an important part of the historical relationship of coexistence between multiple societies and cultures with their natural environment; however, it is clear that until today it is still not fully understood what is the level of responsibility that we have to assume as a global society in this regard. In fact, there are resistances interested by certain sectors and groups of economic power in the developed countries of the North, to maintain that there is not enough scientific evidence (statistically significant variation) to affirm that it is human activities that are effectively contributing to the occurrence of climatic changes derived from global warming. However, the scientific evidence found by researchers of various academic tendencies mostly coincide in arguing in a reasonable way that human activities are contributing to a greater extent to the occurrence of the global phenomenon of climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) makes a differentiation between climate change attributable to human activities (which alter the composition of the atmosphere) from that attributable to natural causes (to natural climate variability) . Because the UNFCCC, in its Article 1, defines climate change: “as a climate change attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the world's atmosphere and that adds to the natural variability of the climate observed during periods of comparable times… ”(1).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a multinational body in charge of negotiations on global climate change and leading the scientific discussion on global warming, the emission of carbon particles and the greenhouse effect. It is made up of delegates and high-level intergovernmental scientists who, since 1988 to date, have been publishing relevant reports to implement measures within the framework of the UNFCCC (2). Its assessment reports consist of several volumes and provide scientific, technical and socio-economic information on the causes, possible effects and response measures to climate change. To date, the IPCC has issued a fourth assessment report, completed and published in 2007, highlighting in its latest assessment that there is a growing trend in extreme events observed in the last fifty years, considering it likely that high temperatures, heat waves and heavy rainfall will continue to be more frequent in the future and that in later years can be disastrous for humanity (3).

It has been observed that one of the main causes of the problem of warming and climate change is due to the constant emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHG), mainly gases from large industry in the developed countries of the North (4). However, despite the fact that the greenhouse effect occurs naturally, in recent centuries the irrational anthropic action -with the greatest emission of polluting gases into the atmosphere- has been badly contributing to the accelerated occurrence of this phenomenon (in its greater artificialization ). Of all the GHGs studied, the most important is the CO2 that comes from emissions from large industry and from the deforestation of tropical and subtropical forests due to the irrational expansion of agricultural, agro-industrial and forestry activities.

It is known that GHGs are very efficient in trapping the heat wave (long wave radiation) emitted by the earth, the increase in temperature of which is trapped in the troposphere, generating the greenhouse effect. But, when its average range of the earth's temperature increases abnormally, global warming occurs (that is, the greenhouse effect and global warming are not synonymous, as is often believed). Some theories hold that pollution is the cause of the current warming (5). This warming -in turn- leads to climatic changes at different scales and the occurrence of various natural phenomena (rains, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis, glacial thaw, etc.), altering the cycles and regular natural functions of ecosystems and impacting the local resources and livelihoods of the local communities and the most vulnerable indigenous populations of the different regions.

However, it is also known that any type of climate change implies changes in other variables, and, therefore, multiple interactions that can make the problem even more complex. And that the best way to evaluate these changes is through the use of computational models that try to simulate the physics of the atmosphere and the ocean, but as they are probabilistic models they can have limited precision due to the relative knowledge that we still have of the global functioning. of the atmosphere.

Rationality and environmental problems: manifestations of the society-nature relationship

The concept of environmental rationality refers to the forms of life or positive manifestations tested by local communities and indigenous populations in their territories and ecosystems, for example, in the face of natural climate variability, because it refers to a body of values ​​or principles of a society oriented towards the search for a positive environmental purpose. But the imbalances or lags that -in fact- also occur in its evolution, are the result of multiple conditioning factors that are typical of the society-nature interaction system. What -as antithesis- can lead them through the threshold of irrationality, configuring the concept of environmental problems: that is, when the conditioning factors of the interaction system make up a set of elements of imbalance (known as rationality defects) and that today -We said- is very typical of global society.

When studying the environmental implications derived from the society-nature relationship, it is appropriate to approach them from the holistic worldview of certain cultures and their degree of social resilience manifesting itself on a given space-territory. Hence, the cultural aspect will imply recognizing a specific form of rationality or a type of behavior (resilient) that society will manifest to manage the locality in which it is located, for example, the Andean and Amazon region, assuming it is reasonable to provide resources and livelihoods on a permanent basis (despite the difficulties involved).

Although we know that indigenous populations evolved based on multiple adaptive (and maladaptive) processes tested in specific territorial and micro-environmental settings, under multivariate conditions of climates and supply of natural resources, as well as according to the types of socioeconomic organization and rationality that they applied in the management of ecosystems. In any case, we assume that the adaptive processes were subordinated to the development of certain types of resilience (strong or weak) as a response to overcome ongoing difficulties and manage to adapt or otherwise fail and maladjust.

Multiple relationships of human societies with the environment: evolution and adaptive processes

In previous articles we have pointed out that on the study of the multiple relationships of human societies with the environment, the theory of multilinear evolutionism, by Julián Steward, stands out, who proposed that societies and cultures do not follow a single, continuous and ascending line of successive changes in its adaptive process, from simple societies to the most complex ones, but rather - unlike linear evolutionism - its evolution follows multiple courses and discontinuous processes (6).

Steward proposed that multilinear evolution looks for laws that explain the interactions between populations and the environment, insofar as they are relationships that can be repeated between different cultures with similar ecologies, without being universal, because they correspond to populations in particular contexts (“microecological and historical ”) necessary to study and understand in their particularity.

By studying the evolutionary process of communities, Salhins and Service make an interesting contribution by proposing to integrate two phases: first, that evolution creates diversity due to the adaptation mechanism; and second, that evolution occurs from simple to more complex forms, from organisms with less energy control to those with greater control (7). In this sense, local communities and indigenous populations generally follow an ascending evolutionary process over time, but with different directions and discontinuities, and furthermore, conditioned by various factors (objective and subjective, endogenous and exogenous) relative to the occupied territories already their environments, and in whose particular processes their adaptive mechanisms have followed the general tendency to diversify and become more complex (except for extreme cases, which due to other factors have been simplified or even collapsed). Regarding the latter, today it is noted that the phenomenon of climate change can be -in fact- a determining factor that partially or irreversibly alters the evolution of various local societies and cultures.

From ecological theory, one of its basic principles is the concept of adaptation, because it is a process in which time and interaction are fundamental. In this sense, we suppose -for example- that the adaptive process of indigenous populations, under conditions of high local climatic variability, must have been based on an imperfect society-nature relationship: that is, from the perspective that they always tend to escalate to different forms. successful survival. Hence, each adaptive process will involve constant evolutionary change or escalation in successive generations.

On the other hand, following the investigations related to systems theory - from the original use of the ecosystem concept by AG Tansley (1935) and after other researchers - it is widely accepted today that the study of the society-nature relationship should be approached as the study of two interrelated components, because they constitute the compositional parts of a systemic whole.

Indeed, both components (society-nature) are interrelated in a systemic whole, representing a complex of relationships of mutual causality that can be measured with some basic indicators, for example, quality of life to refer to society and environmental quality to refer to to nature (8). Likewise, it is proposed, with Godel's undecidability theorem: “by establishing that each model is explained within a broader and more general model”, that the environmental problems of today's modern society should be analyzed within a reference system in whose center society is located; and that this -in turn- is framed in a much broader context of problems and metaproblems.

The foregoing explains the impossibility of making a complete description of the ecosystem, with no other reference than the ecosystem itself, since this is insufficient per se to explain the different levels and forms of relationship between society and the local environment (its access to natural resources, its quality of life, its economic model, etc.). Therefore, environmental problems must be studied as open systems -in their multiple interactions between society and nature- and according to the complex relationships of mutual causality that they involve.

Artificialization of ecosystems: more harmonies than disharmonies in the worldview and praxis of indigenous populations

Numerous investigations sustain that pre-Columbian indigenous populations established relationships of constant interaction with nature, by developing valuable knowledge about it (in millennia of learning). Hence, strictly speaking, what they did was artificialize it (anthropize it) (9). There is a coincidence in pointing out that during the multiprocesses of occupation-territorial and environmental adaptation of indigenous populations, they developed detailed knowledge of the structure, composition and functioning of ecosystems and climates: they learned about their complex biodiversity and their physical components of spatial distribution (vertical-altitudinal and horizontal-longitudinal), in order to progressively test the necessary modifications and adaptations that will ensure their survival.

It is known that the traditional systems of indigenous knowledge - of gatherers, hunters or farmers - about the physical environment (for example, the climate) or about its folkloric biological taxonomy or about its production practices and its experimental nature, have acquired such importance with the time that they have served for the subsequent development of new fields of knowledge and scientific disciplines, as has happened with the development of agroeocology (10). Other studies, from ethnoecology, ethnobotany and other disciplines, show us the enormous importance and value of the traditional knowledge systems and practices of indigenous populations in countries with exceptional biodiversity in South America, such as the Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia , Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, characterized as megadiverse, and where indigenous populations built life systems and cultures strongly linked to their territories and natural resources, achieving a high degree of knowledge in the conservation of biodiversity and in the local management of ecosystems (eleven). Thus, it is explained that they could face the high variability of climates and microclimates in different natural regions, even under adverse conditions, managing to manage complex agroecosystems to date.

There is therefore abundant bibliography that gives us a reliable account of the enormous importance of the indigenous traditional knowledge production process, based on an efficient management of local ecosystems and micro-climatic factors, above the failed experiences, and that they have been fundamental in their process of learning, adaptation and survival. And furthermore, because such knowledge has been - and continues to be - recreated in their particular cultural and ecogeographic contexts (transmitted orally, ritual and through their daily practices). What has undoubtedly been intrinsic to its endogenous development processes.

Although the artificialization of ecosystems implied managing a high variability of environmental and micro-environmental factors, and therefore a constant tension in the process. With the greater accumulation of successful experiences, the process must have involved relative forms of balance in the dynamics of local ecosystems, as they were the result of a positive interaction as society-nature, given the evident predominance of harmonies over disharmonies (12) .

But later changes originate new imbalances in the structure and function of ecosystems, altering their degree of resilience and stability (13). This occurs due to changes that make disharmonies predominate over harmonies, to the extent that the impacts of anthropogenic activities (from the localized dynamics of indigenous populations, with low population density and low energy consumption), became more technical and sophisticated over time. -and on a larger scale- with the new emerging and super-developed urban societies (with high population density and high energy consumption) to satisfy new needs for economic growth, industrialization and development of the countries (14).

It is currently known that the alteration and imbalance of some ecosystems has been of such magnitude that it is very unlikely that they will be able to recover. For this reason it is affirmed that there are no precedents for alterations produced in ecosystems such as those that have occurred in the last fifty years (between the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st). Thus, the society-nature disharmonies and the damages caused have been of such magnitude that they are much greater than the benefits obtained to satisfy the multiple needs of humanity (15).

Local energy control of ecosystems and environmental factors and institutions

Multiple case studies in Latin America and other regions confirm that when local communities and indigenous populations manage to reduce their degree of uncertainty in the management of natural resources and microenvironmental factors (maximizing their local energy efficiency with the use of innocuous technologies, the use of intensive knowledge and better social organization of the workforce, etc., as well as reducing their “inputs” and increasing their “outputs”), allows them a greater degree of subsistence and autonomy in the local management of their resources and ecosystems. This is undoubtedly a key condition for reducing their socio-economic vulnerability and thus strengthening their resilience capacity and better adaptation to natural climate variability and to what is currently shaping climate change.

However, achieving the above will imply a minimum institutional framework for decentralized planning and ordering of the territory and environment, as well as inclusive public policies and social development programs, etc., in order to reduce risk thresholds as much as possible. facing climate change. However, it will be imperative to overcome the limitations of the international order and those subject to the country's political context and the prevailing economic model, to tend to greater environmental care and respect for cultural diversity and the basic human rights with which populations must live.

Local communities and indigenous populations (even isolated peoples) continue to experience changes that are lately accelerated and influenced (in many cases arbitrarily) by the external environment: the global economy, foreign investment, natural resource operators, policies. and public management, etc.). And that could be factors of synergy for development if the State -in effect- fulfills its protective role regarding the problems and demands of these populations and respects their previous rights over their original territories. Otherwise, they will continue to be disturbing factors that will alter the local reality and the endogenous development processes with which multiple cultures and societies have developed throughout history.

The evidence is more than enough to prioritize due attention at the global, regional and local levels to the problem of poverty and relative development of local communities and indigenous populations in Latin America and other regions (inherent to the sustainability of the use of natural resources and ecosystems in their territories), as well as to continue investigating their valuable experiences and technological knowledge and knowledge that could be crucial around the serious problem of climate change and the future of life on the planet.

(*) Walter Chamochumbi, Mag. Ing. Agrónomo, Consultant in Environmental Management and Development


1. The Convention was approved on May 9, 1992 in New York and was signed by more than 150 countries and the European Economic Community at the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Its ultimate objective is to achieve the “ stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system ”.

2. According to the 2001 IPCC Working Group III Report on Climate Change, it states: “Climate change is a global problem, it lasts a long time (up to several centuries) and includes complex interactions between climatic, environmental, economic, political and institutional processes. , social and technological. This can have considerable international and intergenerational consequences in the context of general societal goals, such as equity and sustainable development… Preparing a response to climate change is characterized by decision-making under conditions of uncertainty and risk, including possibility of non-linear and / or irreversible changes (Sections 1.2.5, 1.3, 10.1.2, 10.1.4, 10.4.5). "

3. In 2007 the IPCC, together with Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to raise awareness about global warming.

4. Among the main GHGs, we list: 1) CO2, Carbon dioxide or Carbon dioxide; 2) CH4, Methane; 3) N20, Nitrous Oxide; 4) PFCs, hydrofluorocarbons; 5) SF6, sulfur hexafluorate, etc.

5. See “Indigenous communities and their evolution in the process of territorial adaptation, resilience and endogenous development: theories and notes of the Latin American context”, by Walter Chamochumbi, 2006, Lima, pp. 4-12.

6. See "Evolution and culture", 1960, in Emilio Morán (1996).

7. Salhins and Service pp.12-13, in Emilio Morán (1996), Ibid., P. 49.

8. Juan Gastó (1994), p. 131 ... "Agroecosystemic Approach", in Module I "Agroecology: Historical and Theoretical Bases", Course on Agroecology, CLADES-CIED, Lima, pp. 123-135.

9. Nicolo Gligo and Jorge Morello (1980) ... "Notes on the ecological history of Latin America", published in International Studies, 13, No. 49, Santiago de Chile, January-March 1980, pp. 112-148.

10. Miguel Altieri (1994)… ”Why study Traditional Agriculture”, in Module I “Agroecology: Historical and Theoretical Bases”, Course on Agroecology, CLADES-CIED, Lima, pp. 71-81.

11. See GTZ / FUNDECO / IE Consortium (2001)… ”Protection, recovery and dissemination of traditional knowledge and practices”, Preliminary document for review by countries, CAN, Regional Biodiversity Strategy, La Paz - Bolivia, 97 p.

12. “… The degrees of artificialization varied according to the cultural group, ranging from simple collectors to highly developed civilizations…”, Op cit de Gligo, N. and Morello J. (1998), p. 57.

13. See “Evolution and development of indigenous communities: a dilemma between myth and misunderstanding”, by Walter Chamochumbi (2006), article in Ecoportal

14. See “Resilience in Sustainable Development: some theoretical considerations in the social and environmental field”, by Walter Chamochumbi (2005), in ECOPORTAL

15. See “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” Synthesis Report, Final Draft prepared by Walter V. Reid, Harold A. Mooney, Angela Cropper, Doris Capistrano, Stephen R. Carpenter, Kanchan Chopra, Robert M. May, et al., 2004, atç

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