Adaptation, Vulnerability, and Resilience

Contested concepts in the anthropology of climate change

Authored by: Anthony Oliver-Smith

Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138782877
eBook ISBN: 9781315768946
Adobe ISBN: 9781317667964


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Understanding the effects that climate change has on human communities depends on developing appropriate conceptual tools that can adequately frame the socio-cultural construction of risks and effects and the impacts of those effects. Adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience are concepts that have been deployed to understand the effects of climate change and to inform the development of strategies and practices to reduce both the risks and impacts of climate change (Fiske et al. 2014). Originally developed in biology, adaptation plays a central role in natural selection and evolution. In cultural anthropology, adaptation has been used to understand how cultures use their natural resources for social reproduction and long-term survival in their total environment. Vulnerability and resilience, emerging from disaster research and ecology respectively, are framed as conditions that in some sense serve as indices of the success or failure of adaptive strategies. Employing the three concepts engages multiple socio-cultural variables in articulation with the uncertainties in evolving climate change scenarios. Moreover, as social processes, adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience evolve in the relational and emergent nature of socio-ecological systems (Murphy et al. 2016). In that sense, the frequent deployment of these concepts as apolitical and technocratic tools for neutral interventions for the protection of society may actually undermine local efforts to adjust to climate change effects (Smucker et al. 2015).

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