The Social Life of Blame in the Anthropocene

Author: Peter Rudiak-Gould
Volume 6, Number 1 (2015)

Seven of the 1,225 Marshall Islands (© Peter Rudiak-Gould). Despite having a population of only 60,000 and per capita emissions less than a tenth that of Americans, and despite being aware of their country’s small size compared to “the big countries” of the world, Marshallese civil society tends to espouse a Proposition 1-like “universal blame” for climate change, with a special emphasis on their own complicity, and to favor local mitigation over protest of other countries’ emissions.


The Anthropocene can be understood as a crisis of blame: it is not only a geological era but also a political zeitgeist in which the marks of human agency and culpability can be perceived nearly everywhere. Treating global climate change as a metonym for this predicament, I show how life in the Anthropocene reconfigures blame in four ways: it invites ubiquitous blame, ubiquitous blamelessness, selective blame, and partial blame. I review case studies from around the world, investigating which climate change blame narratives actors select, why, and with what consequences. Climate change blame can lead to scapegoating and buck-passing but also to their opposites. Given that the same ethical stance may lead to radically different consequences in different situations, the nobleness or ignobleness of an Anthropocene blame narrative is not a property of the narrative itself, but of the way in which actors deploy it in particular times and places.

PETER RUDIAK-GOULD is Assistant Professor Status-Only in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at McGill Univeristy. An environmental anthropologist and Oceanist, he has conducted long-term fieldwork on the human dimensions of climate change in the Marshall Islands. He is the author of Climate Change and Tradition in a Small Island State: The Rising Tide (Routledge, 2013) and coeditor of a forthcoming volume on the reception of climate science in Pacific Island societies.

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