Re: Environmental Symbolism

Patricia Clay (pclay@WHSUN1.WH.WHOI.EDU)
Mon, 25 Apr 1994 15:49:43 -0400

if others are interested, here they are below. I also include some thoughts
I added about these texts in a post to FISHFOLK -- a fisheries social
science listserv I subscribe to.

Crumley, Carole L., ed.
1994 Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing
Landscapes. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Douglas, Mary
1992 Risk & Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. London: Routledge.

Simmons, I.G.
1993 Interpreting Nature: Cultural Constructions of the
Environment. London: Routledge.

I'm not quite halfway through Douglas. It's excellent. She is trying to
reconcile her work in *Purity and Danger* on small-scale, non-industrial
societies and their ideas of taboo, unclean, or "polluted", with ideas of
environmental pollution in societies like our own. So far, the overarching
argument is that all these cases are about the tension between what's good for
individuals and what's good for society. In the small-scale societies taboos
exist to protect society and its institutions from the errant actions of
individuals -- so people get marginalized as witches or excorcised, exiled,
etc. In larger-scale societies the opposite is true. Laws about
environmental pollution are designed to protect individuals from institutions
(corporations, the government). This all fits in well with some discussions
I've been having with my brother John about the nature of society, and the
role of the individual. (you know how you get into those kind of
deep discussions with family late at night...)

I haven't started either of the other two books yet, though I heard
Crumley's paper at the AAA meetings in DC and liked it. The paper in Crumley's
edited volume that I think I'll start with is one by T.H. McGovern (PSC-CUNY)
called "Management for Extinction in Norse Greenland". The title just sounds
so relevant for what's going on in the Northeast fisheries lately... Simmons
is a geographer, but it looks like his book is more of a history of the
philosophy of social science with regard to the concepts of "nature" and

Thought I'd share a quote I just read in *Risk & Blame*:

"I argue that organizations which are most keenly alert to low
probability, high consequence danger are religious sects and communes (which
are notoriously millenialist and apt to prophesy doom) and also political
lobbies, new political movements, and public interest groups. The more
difficulty they have in holding their membership together and getting common
dues paid, the more they are tempted to call in cosmic plot as a low-cost
solution to their organizational problems... (p.77)"

This reminded me of the conspiracy theories one periodically hears
from the fishing industry. Given the internal squabbling of the industry's
various sub-groups, and their recent move into the political forefront, this
certainly fits Douglas' model. Once I finish her book, I want to think about
how she fits in with Ostrom's work, and with Libecap's. It's interesting to see
three people coming at the problem from very different theoretical starting
points (symbolic anthro, political science, economics), yet arriving at
overlapping models.

Libecap, Gary
1989 *Contracting for Property Rights* New York: Cambridge U

Ostrom, Elinor
1990 *Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for
Collective Action* New York: Cambridge U Press.

Trish Clay
Patricia M. Clay NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC
Anthropologist 166 Water Street
National Marine Fisheries Service Woods Hole, MA 02543
Northeast Fisheries Science Center USA voice: 508-548-5123, x 415
fax: 508-548-5124