|▲ Noh Go-woon, Assistant Professor, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology
Every species on earth, including the human species, is facing alarming threats, including mass extinction, climate crises caused by global warming, desertification, massive amounts of radioactive waste, and growing plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean. Many scientists have warned that we are on the brink of multiple tipping points—irreversible points in time when the ecosystems of the earth will fail to cope with environmental changes. What are the causes of this devastating reality and what should we do now? I would like to introduce the concept of “multispecies ethnography,” a new theoretical approach in cultural anthropology that is relevant to our current environmental issues.
The latest academic consensus is that human activity has resulted in our present environmental predicament. The International Union of Geological Sciences has unofficially suggested we call our era the Anthropocene. Experts in different fields have proposed various solutions, but they all share an emphasis on the power and capability of human beings, who are the ones responsible for this mess, to solve the problems.
Instead of this anthropocentric view, cultural anthropologists have recently suggested that we scrutinize the relationships among biological species. As the prefix anthropo-, which means humans, indicates, cultural anthropology studies human cultures. However, rather than interpreting culture as people’s independent achievements, multispecies ethnography encourages us to explore how multiple species, through their coordinated networks of living, have shaped and transformed the history and cultures of the earth, with the central thesis that every species has co-evolved with other species, and humans are no exception.
For example, Anna Tsing investigates how pine mushrooms (Tricholoma Matsutake; song-i beoseot in Korean) and pine trees cooperate to thrive in barren soil. Conifers such as pine trees cannot survive in rich soil because they are in competition with broadleaf trees. They migrate to extreme environments with fewer nutrients in the soil where, thanks to the mycorrhizal fungi of the mushroom, which delivers nutrients mobilized from rocks and sand to the tree, pines can thrive. In return, pines release special roots to which the fungi attach and therefore they can also thrive.
This story may not seem to have anything to do with humans, but it can provide us with hope when we realize that one of the first biological species that was revived in Chernobyl, Ukraine, after the nuclear disaster of 1986 was this mushroom. Where the mushroom fungi and pine trees meet, forests will grow. Where a forest forms, people can make a living. People have also been part of this coordinated co-living between the trees and the mushroom fungi. They have been raking out the too-thick humus from the soil, allowing the pine roots and the fungi to expand and preventing broadleaf trees from entering and occupying the area. In return, people can use the humus as fertilizer and eat the various foods that the forest offers, including pine nuts and mushrooms.
The relationship between the trees, the mushroom fungi, and humans, according to Tsing, is not unique but, rather, ubiquitous. Although modern biology seeks to place living things into separate categories, the history of the earth is filled with stories of the companionship among multiple species. Scholars like Donna Haraway propose that humans and nonhumans are kin in the story of co-evolution and co-habitation, that is, they are companion species.
According to S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, multispecies ethnography, therefore, rejects the dichotomy between nonhumans and humans, between nature and culture. It is an “anthropology of life,” interested in the interconnectedness among a multitude of organisms. I hope this new approach provides us with innovative ways to halt our destructive relationship with the environment and to start to revitalize the earth’s ecosystems.
By Noh Go-woon, Assistant Professor,
Department of Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology