The Environment as Master Narrative: Discourse and Identity in Environmental Problems

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Although anthropologists have been interested in questions of nature and culture from the discipline's earliest days, contemporary cultural anthropology is witnessing an explosion of interest in the environment and environmental movements. Anthropologists working in the United States have observed rapid changes in cultural concepts of the environment and note that popular beliefs about the environment are closely linked to concepts of social order (Kempton et al. 1995). Anthropologists working in remote communities around the world have observed local groups deploying terms from the international environmentalist lexicon, such as biodiversity and sustainable development, to defend indigenous claims to land, intellectual property rights, and political representation (Brosius 1997; Zerner 1995; Escobar 1996).

The articles assembled here investigate the rise of the environment as a master narrative organizing political practices. Although recent philosophers proclaimed the death of the master narrative of enlightenment (Lyotard 1984), the environment has become a quintessentially global narrative. Throughout the world, people are imagining the environment as an object threatened by human action.

Environmentalism proposes to organize and mobilize human action in order to protect the endangered environment (Milton 1995). Sociologist Klaus Eder (1996) posits that ecology has become a "masterframe," transforming the field of political debate.

In a recent overview of the anthropology of environmentalism Peter Brosius (1999) describes environment movements as a rich site for the study of local-global articulations and political agency. Much of the growing interdisciplinary literature on the role of environmental movements and non-governmental organizations highlights the environmentalism's potential to bring grassroots actors into a globalized civil society, forming transnational networks for public participation (Lipshutz 1996; Peet and Watts 1996). Other scholars warn us to pay close attention to novel forms of global governance fostered by international environmentalism that may occlude local public participation (Jamison 1996).

Anthropologists are now beginning to study the formation...