Austronesian World:

Human-Animal Entanglements in the Pacific Anthropocene

SSHRC Funded Research Project (Insight Grant) -> 2017-2022
With Scott Simon (PI), Frédéric Laugrand, Atsushi Nobayashi, Yi-tze Lee, Kurtis Pei, Michael Bevacqua, Austin Shelton, Nestor Castro & Maria Celia Malay
In the current era of the "Anthropocene," there is growing awareness of the impact of humans on the environment. This is often described in the media and in academia as an ecological crisis, with important challenges such as climate change, species extinction, destruction of coral reefs, and pollution. Although "Anthropocene" and "anthropology" are based on the same prefix meaning "human," it remains a challenge to address ecological challenges such as climate chage at a global scale through ethnographic methods employed at a local scale. We propose to do so in a project of ecological anthropology in the Austronesian areas of the Western Pacific, a part of the world that has been important to ethnography, and which is also on the forefront of ecological change. This part of the world is faced with depleting fish stocks, extinction of birds and marine life, an increase in the number and intensity of typhoons due to global warming, and even the threat of entire inhabited areas becoming submerged due to the melting  of polar ice caps. We will explore these issues with local people by studying the entangled relationships they have with very specific populations of birds, fish and other marine animals, and other non-humans.
How do the Austronesian peoples of the Western Pacific inhabit lifeworlds of movement through mountains and oceans, with animals of sea, sky and land, amidst clouds, typhoons, and sunshine?
What wisdom have they acquired and shared through multi-species entanglements in often precarious conditions?
What can they teach others about living together well in the "Anthropocene" – our present era of climate change and species extinction?
The Western Pacific, from the majestic peaks of Taiwan and Luzon to the low-laying islands of Micronesia, is an area of great nature-cultural diversity. These islands are linked in human history by migrations of Austronesian peoples. Beginning from Taiwan, still home to over 500,000 Austronesian people, they transported animals and plants as they colonized other islands over the past four millennia. They encountered diverse forms of avian, marine, and plant life in ways that have led to both extinction and new forms of entanglement. This required strong navigational skills, but also experimentation and learning to build social institutions for sustainable use of islands and waters. This region is now on the frontline of global ecological change. Signs are increased frequency and strength of typhoons, collapse of fish stocks, bird and other animal extinctions, and rising seas.
Austronesians have ways of reading such phenomena, long documented as ways of interpreting signs and behaviour of birds, fish, and plants to understand approaching typhoons, the location of land while navigating, or the presence of prey. Relevant information is scattered through early ethnographies; and even “disaster anthropology”, but the challenges of climate change urge us to update the research in the contemporary context and with new ethnographic methods.
Our goal is to look holistically at entanglements between living creatures and the rest of the physical world, including diverse constellations of birds, fish, plants, and humans in the Western Pacific. Some new concepts are emerging as anthropologists dialogue with biology, one being Tim Ingold’s “entanglement,” which looks at the enmeshment of lives rather than at organisms as bounded entities separate from the “environment”. At a time when many anthropologists question the dichotomy nature/culture, we wish to build upon, yet push beyond, studies of “traditional ecological knowledge” and “resource management.” In the words of Bruno Latour, studies of “multinaturalism” done by “diplomats” who can learn from different ways of living in the world are more urgently needed than more aid by external experts. We thus propose to focus on how humans and others co-create entangled lifeworlds in one of the most weather-worn and biologically rich, places on the planet.