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Anthropogenic Climate Change, Anxiety, and the Sacred: The Role of Ecological Calendars in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia

Kassam, Karim-Aly S.; Haberman, David

In mountain environments, biophysical features such as trees, glaciers, streams, and rock formations have clear spiritual and revered significance; as a result, climate change affects the core of ecological and sacred spaces of communities (Allison 2015; Byg and Sallick 2009; Ceruti 2013; Sakakibara 2010; Teye, Yaro, and Bawakyillenuo 2015; Verschuuren, McNeely, and Oviedo 2010). In the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, the sacred is bound to the ecological. Although sacred and ecological spaces are conceptually distinct notions, in these mountain societies, the former is embedded in the latter. Impetus for this chapter arises out of conversations and reflections at the Mountains as Sacred Landscapes Conference held at the New School in New York City in 2017, to which I was invited. Sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and the India China Institute at the New School, the aims were to explore (1) how sacred landscapes are manifested in diverse communities and geographies and (2) how sacred landscapes are being affected by extreme environmental events such as anthropogenic climate change. Arguably, in applied research among indigenous communities in the circumpolar Arctic, boreal forest, and mountain regions, the notion of the sacred is often not discussed because of its loaded connotations within the scientific community. In the communities where we work, however, the nexus of practice and belief are not divorced from each other, which compelled me to engage the notion. In the past thirty-three years of my engagement with indigenous and mountain societies, it has been clear to me that the sacred is fundamental to their food and livelihood systems. The sacred extends into human action, behavior, and even what and how one eats, works, or rests. It is entwined into human activity, linking the sociocultural with the ecological.

This chapter is an exploration of the historical use of ecological calendars as they express the intimate connection between livelihood activities and the sacred through biophysical processes. The relationship is practical, deep, and broadly encompassing. We will be engaging the idea of sacredness as an ecological process imbued with sociocultural dimensions and as a space where human activities take place. The idea of sacredness as both a time-oriented process and a spatially defined feature will be important for understanding its significance in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia.

The aim is to approach the emergent and increasingly urgent question of how the sacred is affecting and is being affected by anthropogenic climate change. Building on applied research with indigenous communities in the circumpolar Arctic, boreal forest, and the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, we will engage human relationship with the sacred as affected by climate change through a discussion of ecological calendars. Ecological calendars, which are found among diverse human societies worldwide (Cochran et al. 2016; Mondragón 2004; Prober, O’Connor, and Walsh 2011), are context specific. I will discuss a particular embodied expression of ecological calendars, the calendar of the human body, found in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia (Kassam, Bulbulshoev, and Ruelle 2011; Kassam et al. 2018). Before describing ecological calendars, particularly the sacred in the calendar of the human body, the issue of anxiety caused by climatic variation will be addressed. Because anthropogenic climate change is an emergent phenomenon riddled with uncertainty, the resultant stress has become a significant factor in addition to the direct impacts of unpredictable weather events. Anthropogenic climate change defies easy singular formulations; because of its complexity, it is difficult to understand. The effects of human-induced climate change are context dependent and highly contingent on other factors, and the discourse is wrought with conflicting perceptions and values (Balint et al. 2011; Latour 2002; Ritchey 2005). Directly engaging anxiety will ground our discussion of the sacred in the current predicament of mountain societies. After that discussion, the characteristics of ecological calendars in the Pamir Mountains will be described. How ecological calendars reflect the sacred will be considered, and the essay will conclude with reasons for hope through the promise of active engagement with one’s habitat that ecological calendars provide.