This blog aims to discuss the relationship between Southeast Asian societies and the natural environment using an anthropological approach and considering contemporary socio-political challenges.
Using a holistic and comparative approach, this seminar hopes to intertwine academic knowledge with environmental risk management.
In light of Philippe Descola’s inspiring work Beyond Nature and Culture , the seminar’s first approach would be to ask ourselves how each of the various societies of Southeast Asia articulates or manipulates the concepts of “nature” and “culture” developed by the West. What are their vernacular equivalents? How are these concepts locally re-appropriated and politically invested within modern nation-states? And, finally, how may we understand the diversity of modes of interaction between humans and non-humans — gods, plants, animals, spirits — in the context of Southeast Asia?
The second approach, which complements the first, would consist of examining how the relationships between society and the environment are reformulated and reshaped under the impact of development practices and policies of adaptation to contemporary environmental challenges — global warming, deforestation, ecosystem preservation, and energy resource and environmental risk management.
Our proposal consists of articulating these approaches through the study of three complementary areas of research:
1. Buddhism and Environment
The deeply embedded “holistic” view of “nature” in the Hindu-Buddhist societies of Southeast Asia emphasises the relationship between all the beings that inhabit the cosmos. This concept of a “chain of beings” — all of whom are different, interdependent, and hierarchically ordered — calls into questions the methods implemented to ensure harmony between very diverse entities and to constantly readjust the relationships between territorialised social microcosms and the more encompassing macrocosmic order. Our proposal is to explore the forms that connect the social to the cosmic order through practices as diverse as astrology, possession, shamanism, agricultural and royal rituals, architecture, etc.
2. The Politics of Nature
Another area that would need to be explored is the relationship between nature and politics. This issue would be studied through the review of economic and environmental projects that are the subjects of local controversy, the “haze” and other forms of pollution, “national parks”, real estate law, dams construction, in order to better understand how the environment issue invites itself and unfolds in the political arena. This line of research would also seek to explore various forms of technical and social innovations designed to change behaviour in production, consumption and trade. It would also look at how development practices and research innovations can mobilise, confront or hybridise different knowledge systems and actions on nature: hard science, traditional knowledge, digital technology, etc.
3. Climate Risk Management
Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most exposed regions in terms of climate change — decreased river flow of large basins, increased flooding from rivers or the sea — and natural disasters — typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. This line of research would aim to explore local reactions and responses to these natural changes, as well as the various policies and projects put in place to prevent environmental risk or to deal with the consequences thereof (displacement, seismic construction).