What Do Africa and Alaska Have in Common? At First Thought, Nothing. But “A”

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
11 October 2006

pen5The following thoughts were prompted by an Arctic Science Conference session held in Fairbanks , Alaska from 2-4 October 2006. The topic of the session was called “Africa and Alaska : Similarities and Differences in Human Dimensions” and included 3 speakers from Africa (Kenya, Nigeria and the Sudan).

What does Africa have in common with Alaska? To many people, a first response would be that both places begin and end with the letter “A”. Full stop. Nothing else could possibly be similar. Alaska is a state in the United State,s and it is so far to the north that it stretches i to the Arctic Circle. Much of Sub-Saharan Africa is centered on the equator.

When people think of Alaska, they might think of permanent ice, glaciers, and snow. They might also think of polar bears and seals. In some places, the sun shines sometimes for 24 hours a day and at other times the sun does not appear at all. Alaska has lots in common with other countries that straddle the Arctic Circle.

African Springbok

For its part, sub-Saharan Africa is not familiar with snow. It does have a few glaciers with perennial ice and snow (at least until recent years; global warming is melting them around the globe), but it brings to mind pictures of hot and wet, or hot and dry. Fields are covered with various types of vegetation, from jungle to desert landscapes. The African animal populations are considered pretty unique as well, when one thinks of African giraffes, hippos, rhinos, camels, and gorillas.

Obviously, it is easy to find difference between the Tropics and Arctic regions. But, hidden from view and hardly ever compared are their similarities. So, I would like to suggest a few of them for you to consider. The purpose is to say that, even though these societies are so different in culture and in ecological setting, there are levels at which human activities and environmental settings can be compared. Therefore, cross-cultural studies can yield insights that studies of one culture or country alone might not be able to see.

1. perceptions of what is a harsh climate

To those of us living in the mid-latitudes of Europe, Asia, and North and South America, the climates of the Tropics and the Arctic regions are likely to be considered “harsh” climates in which to live. Yet, inhabitants of these regions like the climates under which they live, or at the least, have learned to adjust to the climate conditions in their respective eco-zones. They are tolerant of the climate, water, and weather-related conditions under which they and their ancestors have lived. Most likely Africans would consider Alaskan Natives to be living in a harsh climate, while accepting their own as being less harsh. The same might be said about Native Alaskans’ views about those living in Tropical Africa. It would be interesting to compare the views of these people about how they view their climate settings as to whether they see theirs as being a good or a bad climate.

Over 40 years ago, a geographer wrote about the few locations on Earth he referred to as the Earth’s problem climates. Today, it has become quite obvious that all the inhabited locations on earth can be considered to have problem climates, or problems directly or indirectly linked to prevailing climate conditions. Climate can be viewed as either a resource, a hazard or as a constraint to human activities, to ecosystems and to animals. Inhabitants in these disparate regions have accepted the climate conditions under which they live and have adjusted their lifestyles accordingly so as to mesh with the prevailing extremes of cold, hot, wet, humid or dry climate and weather, extremes that would most likely make people from other regions shudder just to think about them.

2. societal responses to climate constraints

Over centuries societies, and the individuals that make them up, have devised ways to cope with harsh climate-related conditions. They have devised technological ways to overcome constraints as well as techniques or ways of doing things. Examples are plentiful and vary from place to place although some of those ways are common to different places: refrigeration, air conditioning, irrigation, heat, clothing, shelters, and even concepts such as ëcomparative advantage’ where regions can trade with other regions products they can produce for things they can’t produce, oranges, coffee, tea for example.

Comparing these methods to cope with a varying, changing and harsh climate (whether hot or cold, wet or dry) can be enlightening and identify new ways to deal with climate, water and weather extremes.

3. coping with creeping changes in the environment and in society

Most changes to the environment in which people are involved are of the creeping kind (slow onset, increments but accumulating). Creeping changes, many of which are adverse to human interests accumulate until they turn into an environmental crisis at some time in the future. This is a valid statement for all eco-regions from hot to cold and from wet to dry. Traditional societies have been coping for centuries if not millennia with incremental natural changes to the environment. Today those traditional societies are impinged upon by national government regulations as well as by human induced relatively rapid changes to their local environments. Comparing how traditional cultures have perceived and responded to creeping environmental changes to their environments, whether natural or human induced, can yield interesting and potentially useful insights, regardless of the eco-zones in which they live.

4. changing seasonality and changes in climate comfort zones

Global warming has occurred throughout most decades of the 20th century and has apparently accelerated in the past couple of decades. As a result, the natural flow and characteristics of the seasons (that is, seasonality) have been changing. Traditional societies in sub-Saharan Africa and in Alaska have been forced to cope with those changes, because such creeping seasonal changes can affect directly their livelihoods and ways of living. They have had to cope with those changes on their own for the most part often with little help or understanding from their national governments. How societies have coped (or not coped) with seasonal changes can be instructive in identifying the importance of seasonality to traditional societies that depend for their well-being on the seasonal availability of flora and fauna that their local climate provides.

Concluding thought

Many examples can be drawn from sub-Saharan Africa and from Alaska that merit useful comparison. For example, it would not be difficult to argue that traditional societies are in a subordinate colonial relationship with their national governments. Other examples of comparisons could be centered on climate-related factors that can affect traditional societies in many negative ways: their ability to hunt, fish, gather or grow food, to find jobs and to survival strategies and tactics in economies that are wholly subsistent or that are a mix of subsistent, welfare-dependent and cash economies.

In other words, societies can identify analogous situations in other countries and cultures, such as responses to extreme climate, water and weather related events, and can then learn from each other about how others deal with analogous if not similar risks that result from environmental changes.

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