Globe vs Sphere Environmentalism

In Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment we read “Globes and spheres: the topology of environmentalism” and discussed Globe vs Sphere Environmentalism:

The lecture is from my 2022 History of Anthropological Thought course. The material was also part of Cultural Ecology 2020 and combined with Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces (92-115). For a perspective on Indigenous cosmologies, see this 2024 class on Indigenous Environmental Justice.

Globe vs Sphere Environmentalism

In considering globe vs sphere environmentalism, Tim Ingold’s observation that the earth “has been–and continues to be–racked by geological forces acting on such a scale as to make the most impressive feats of human engineering seem puny by comparison” (215) provides a sobering perspective. While human-induced climate change is significant, a billion years of tectonic plate movement reminds us of the earth’s immense geological timescale, challenging our global environmental perspectives.

Two Perspectives: Globe & Sphere in Environmental Thought

Ingold’s framework of globe vs sphere environmentalism presents two contrasting views of the world. The globe perspective, typically encountered through maps and formal education, often divorces environmental knowledge from personal experience. The globe perspective in environmentalism often presents a colonial world view. As Ingold notes, “it presents us with the idea of a preformed surface waiting to be occupied, to be colonized first by living things and later by human (usually meaning Western) civilization” (214).

In contrast, the sphere perspective in environmentalism is understood through lived experience, emphasizing our embeddedness in the world. This view challenges the global environmental management approach, suggesting a more intimate engagement with our surroundings.

Rethinking Environmental Narratives: From Globe to Sphere

The tension between globe and sphere environmentalism is exemplified by the 1990 series The Race to Save the Planet. This series epitomized the “earth from space” perspective that birthed modern global environmentalism, presenting our planet as a globe to be managed.

In my earlier teaching days, I used to show this series to illustrate Ingold’s critique. The 10-hour epic, narrated by Meryl Streep, dramatically presented our planet as a globe to be managed, complete with ominous music signaling the advent of agriculture and dire warnings about a 10-year window to save the world. I admit I used to mock this series, pointing out how we’d survived past its predicted doomsday. Now, I’m not so sure my mockery was justified. Perhaps we really didn’t win the race to save the planet, and now we’re just living with the consequences. While some environmental issues like acid rain and the ozone hole have improved, others, particularly climate change, remain critical concerns.

I also used the South Park episode “Rainforest Schmainforest” to illustrate the flip-flop nature of technological fixes in global environmental thinking. It depicts a teacher swinging from wanting to save the rainforest to advocating for its bulldozing in less than a day. This rapid shift exemplifies how easily we can jump from one extreme solution to another when we view the environment solely as a technical problem to be solved globally. (I can no longer recommend the South Park episode for classroom use, as the language straddles the line of homophobia and racism.)

Ingold argues that while the globe perspective is currently ascendant in Western environmental thought, the sphere perspective persists as a muted undercurrent:

For any society, at any period of its history, we may expect one perspective to be ascendant, and the other to be associated with its more or less muted undercurrent. And my sense of the contemporary discourse on the environment in the West is that it continues to be dominated by global imagery associated with the triumph of modern science and technology, but that it is under increasing threat from those–including many anthropologists–who would turn to local or Indigenous cosmologies of engagement for sources of insight into our current predicament. (216-217)

The Dome: Bridging Globe and Sphere in Environmental Thought

Ingold introduces the dome as a unifying concept in globe vs sphere environmentalism: “A sphere on the inside, a globe on the outside, this form has a cosmic resonance of near-universal appeal” (216). This image bridges the internal, spherical perspective with the external, global view of the environment.

When discussing Ingold’s claim about domes’ “near-universal appeal” in class, students responded with a lukewarm “domes are okay.” This understated reaction humorously contrasts with Ingold’s grand assertion, reminding us that even supposedly universal concepts can elicit varied responses.

Critique of Modern Global Environmentalism: Introducing Anthropocircumferentialism

Ingold challenges the notion that global environmentalism was born from seeing Earth from space. He argues this perspective, while shifting focus from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism, still maintains a separation between humans and the environment: “The notion of the global environment . . . signals the culmination of a process of separation” (208).

To describe this shift in environmental thinking, Ingold introduces the term “anthropocircumferentialism.” He acknowledges the term’s complexity but insists on its necessity:

It is an attitude that might be more accurately described as “anthropocircumferentialism.” The term may be an impossibly cumbersome one; nevertheless I believe we need it, if only to distinguish the discursive construction of the environment characteristic of modern western thought and science from the many pre-modern and non-western cosmologies that are anthropocentric in the strict sense of placing the human being at the hub of a dwelt-in world. (218)

This concept describes an attitude where humans are placed at the periphery rather than the center of the world, critiquing both global and narrowly local approaches to environmentalism. It represents a shift from seeing humans at the center of the world (anthropocentrism) to viewing them as outside observers of a global environment, withdrawing “the human presence from the center to the periphery” (218).

In class, students noted that you can’t find the term anthropocircumferentialism on Google searches. This observation highlights how academic concepts, even those crucial for understanding our environmental perspectives, can remain isolated from popular discourse. It underscores the need for bridging the gap between academic environmental theory and public understanding. As I quipped in the lecture, maybe Ingold should “spend more time on the internet.”

Still, the concept of anthropocircumferentialism challenges us to reconsider our position in relation to the environment. Are we central actors in a lived-in world, or peripheral managers of a global system? This tension lies at the heart of the globe vs sphere environmentalism debate and has profound implications for how we approach ecological challenges.

Technology & Environmental Management: The Globe Perspective

The globe perspective in environmentalism often leads to a technocentric approach to environmental issues. This view, exemplified by productions like The Race to Save the Planet, presents technological solutions as the primary answer to environmental crises, reinforcing the idea of the world as an object to be managed globally. “That it is ours to manage, however, remains more or less unquestioned” (214).

Conclusion: Towards an Engaged Globe-Sphere Environmentalism

Ingold’s analysis of globe vs sphere environmentalism suggests a need for a more nuanced, engaged approach to environmental issues. Rather than seeing the world solely as a globe to be managed or as an environment separate from human existence, we might consider “cosmologies of engagement” (217) that recognize our embeddedness in the world.

This perspective encourages us to draw insights from various cultural traditions, including Indigenous knowledge systems, bridging global and local environmental understandings. It calls for a reevaluation of our place in the world—not as managers or outsiders, but as active participants in an ongoing process of environmental change and adaptation.

The challenge lies in finding a balance between globe and sphere perspectives in environmentalism. By tempering global management strategies with grounded, spherical experiences of our environment, we may develop more effective environmental practices that recognize both our global impact and our local, lived experiences of the world.

Recap: Globe vs Sphere Environmentalism

In Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment we read “Globes and spheres: the topology of environmentalism” and discussed Globe vs Sphere Environmentalism:

The lecture is from my 2022 History of Anthropological Thought course. The material was also part of Cultural Ecology 2020 and combined with Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces (92-115). For a perspective on Indigenous cosmologies, see this 2024 class on Indigenous Environmental Justice.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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