Shattuck on Haberman, 'Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds'

David L. Haberman
Cybelle Shattuck

David L. Haberman. Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2021. 330 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-05604-7.

Reviewed by Cybelle Shattuck (Western Michigan University) Published on H-Environment (June, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Cybelle Shattuck on David L. Haberman, Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds

Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds is an anthology of ethnographic studies focused on religion as part of the “adaptive and interpretive responses to climate change that emerge from within local communities” in the global South (p. 6). Part 1, “Recombinant Responses,” explores complex relationships between scientific and religious perspectives on climate change in societies where Christianity intermixes with Indigenous traditions. In chapter 1, “Climate Change Never Travels Alone,” Cecilie Rubow presents three stories from the Cook Islands illustrating divergent perceptions of climate change based on science and various permutations of Christianity. Of particular interest is her account of a workshop in which liberal Protestants encourage local pastors to adopt ecotheologies that promote climate action, causing distress to conservative clergy who prefer more literal interpretations of the Bible stressing God’s power over nature. Tensions between scientific and religious interpretations of climate change are also at the center of chapter 3, “Religious Explanations for Coastal Erosion in Narikoso, Fiji,” by Amanda Bertana. Due to coastal erosion and flooding, the government wishes to move the village of Narikoso to higher ground. However, campaigns presenting scientific explanations of climate change have little resonance for villagers whose religious leaders interpret sea level rise as an indication of God’s displeasure with humanity. For them, the solution to a rising ocean is repentance rather than removal. Bertana suggests this religious interpretation provides a sense of hope and possibility for local control over sea level through behavior change, while also interfering with adaptation efforts.

Chapter 2, “Climate Change, Moral Meteorology, and Local Measures at Quyllurit’i,” shows that Christianity is not inherently oppositional to climate adaptation. Guillermo Salas Carreño describes a pilgrimage to an Andean Catholic shrine near the Qulqipunku glacier, where troupes of dancers play a central role in rituals combining Indigenous and Christian practices. Among the Quechua, glaciers and mountains are entities “endowed with power and intentional agency” who affect fertility and food production (p. 49). Changes to pilgrimage practices designed to reduce harm to the glacier were instituted in 2003, and while Carreño finds that these adaptations have not changed the meaning or power of the ritual, disagreements continue about how to interpret the glacier’s recession.

Part 2 emphasizes the role of "Local Knowledge" in shaping experiences of climate change. In chapter 4, “Nature Can Heal Itself,” Georgina Drew examines interpretations of climate change in the Garhwal Himalaya region. She describes rituals through which people interact with deities, thereby making encounters with the divine part of their lived experience. While not discounting human contributions to environmental damage, interviewees were confident deities had ultimate power over nature and would heal it if people returned to traditional ritual practices. Mountain residents explained, “If we are able to turn the tide of physical pollution and the internal states of corruption it signals, then the gods have the ultimate power to take back the reins and restore ecological balance” (p. 114).

Human-ecosystem interdependence is also a theme in the next chapters. In “Maya Cosmology and Contesting Climate Change in Mesoamerica,” C. Mathews Samson describes the intersections of climate change, environmental degradation from megaprojects, shifts in landholding, and inequitable social systems that threaten rural Guatemalan communities. A reforestation project aims to improve water supplies while also sharing Mayan ethics about human obligations to care for nature. In chapter 6, “Anthropogenic Climate Change, Anxiety, and the Sacred,” Karim-Aly Kassam notes that climate change is increasing anxieties related to food insecurity for small landholders and suggests that revival of ecological calendars may be a culturally appropriate solution for places like the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. He describes ecological calendars as highly localized Indigenous knowledge systems, closely tied to ideas of the sacred in the landscape, that were used to adapt food production to weather fluctuations and environmental conditions prior to Soviet rule.

Part 3, “Loss, Anxiety, and Doubt,” explores uncertainties related to cultural and ecological changes that cause Indigenous rituals once used to seek environmental blessings to either disappear or become increasingly ineffective. Karine Gagné (chapter 7, “The Vanishing Father White Glacier”) describes how modern cash economies and work schedules affect religious responses to climate stress in a Himalayan community. The short summer growing season is threatened by changing weather patterns, reduced water availability, and increasingly unpredictable frost dates. In the past, weather specialists led community rituals petitioning local deities to provide water for agriculture, but in 2013, an attempt to organize such a ritual was unsuccessful. Gagné analyzes factors that reduce the capacity to conduct community-wide rituals and the implications of losing traditions that tied villagers to local landscape deities, giving them a sense of control over weather conditions.

The potential for climate change to undermine traditional religion is further explored in Mabel Denzin Gergan’s chapter, “Loss and Recovery in the Himalayas,” which situates climate-related disruption of the Lepcha tribe’s livelihoods and religious worldviews in the larger historical context of colonialism. Under British rule, farmers in Sikkim shifted to monocrop cultivation of cardamom, which brought economic benefits but also meant loss of resilient, biodiverse ecosystems and a decline of shamanic rituals associated with hunting and use of forest resources. Now that climate change threatens cardamom production, Gergan describes how “the growing unpredictability of weather events” has “provoked doubts about the remaining efficacy of shamanic rituals” (p. 220). However, the decline of cardamom farming may also provide an opening for Lepcha youth activism focused on new livelihoods and reclamation of Indigenous religion.

Part 4 explores "Religious Transformations" linked to climate change. In “Angry Gods and Raging Rivers,” David Haberman examines how climate-influenced disasters affect Hindu religious traditions. The Kedarnath pilgrimage site is associated with Ganga, the nurturing river goddess, and the great god Shiva. In 2013, a glacial lake outflow flood washed away every structure at Kedarnath except the Shiva temple and killed thousands of people. Afterwards, pilgrimage rates declined dramatically. Among various explanations for the disaster, many interviewees stated that deities were taking on wrathful forms to punish people and that escalating climate catastrophes might indicate approach of the apocalyptic end of the kaliyug (dark age). Haberman suggests climate change is causing a theological change by transforming “the primary conception of the gods from those who bless to those who punish” (p. 254). In a hypothesis that is applicable to many of the cases in the book, he suggests that “in imminent worldviews, such as Himalayan Hinduism, wherein the gods are closely linked with the environment, climate change becomes more of a religious problem,” which may inspire “a moral imperative and incentive for behavioral change” (p. 255).

Karsten Paerregaard (chapter 10, “Recasting the Sacred”) analyzes transformations to a Peruvian ritual for a glacier deity. He draws parallels between shifting outcomes sought by worshippers, who focus less on giving thanks and more on “paying” the deity for economic benefits, and transitions from subsistence lifestyles to participation in a modern economy. Desire for material wealth is juxtaposed with the material pollution (trash) strewn along the pilgrimage route and, less visibly, emissions from the globalized economy causing the glacier to recede. Many of the pilgrims seek to recover a sense of “balance in life” through connection with the sacred, as embodied in pure nature, only to be confronted with evidence of how badly humans are polluting the world. The author wonders if seeing a sacred glacier harmed by human activities undermines faith in the power of the mountain deity to influence people’s lives.

The authors’ extensive field experience enriches the book. Chapters include vivid accounts of rituals and explicate contextual factors such as regional histories, social changes, and environmental conditions. Chapter bibliographies provide a valuable overview of research on cultural interactions with climate change around the world. Many of these texts explicitly focus on spirituality and religious traditions, but may be unfamiliar to religion-and-ecology scholars because they concern non-Western cultures or are published in anthropology journals.

Juxtaposition of the cases reveals themes such as the idea of morality as a cause and solution to local climate impacts (variations of which appear in all ten cases), the agency of landscape deities, and the spread of Indigenous efforts to restore connections to ancestral lands and lifeways. Hence, this anthology will be valuable for scholars interested in religion, climate communication, and Indigenous cultures. The book, or selected chapters from it, would be appropriate for upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in anthropology, area studies, environmental studies, and religion.

Citation: Cybelle Shattuck. Review of Haberman, David L., Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL:

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