ND-ECI Seminar: Catherine Bolten


Location: Zoom

Catherine Bolten

Please join the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative for a virtual seminar presented by Catherine Bolten, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.

The title of her talk is "Unknowing the World: Humans, Chimpanzees, and Climate Change in Sierra Leone".


Abstract: How do people live, work, and imagine a future in a place their families have resided for generations, which they can now no longer grasp as their home? What happens when environmental changes that unfolded slowly in the past—rendering them manageable through learning—begin accelerating at a pace that renders it difficult to see a future, because one can no longer innovate? In rural Sierra Leone, predictable rains and historically abundant and fertile farmland once nurtured, supported, and sustained generations of families, the forest and its wild animals, the growth of new villages, and the expansion of old ones. The current landscape is instead defined by struggles without solutions: rains are unpredictable—sometimes sparse and sometimes inundating, sometimes early and sometimes late—the soil produces small yields from hours of toil, and the once-abundant wild foods that sustained people through lean times are scarce, as the forest retreats and people compete with chimpanzees and other wildlife for access to them. Every view from the village reminds people of what they are losing, as instead of seeing forests, fields, and farms, they are surrounded by a vast desert of elephant grass. The grass is invasive; it destroys the land’s productivity and grows so tall and dense that it obliterates the landmarks, and thus the histories and the generational knowledge, of the people who can neither use nor restore that land. This small corner of West Africa is a microcosm of the experiences of environmental devastation due to climate change that are unfolding around the world, and I argue that this place, its people, and its animals reveal that we must imagine climate change as a multi-species experience of constant bewilderment; an experience of “unknowing” one’s home and thus oneself. 

Bio: Catherine Bolten is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute. She has written two books and over a dozen articles on post-war development in urban and rural Sierra Leone, where she has conducted research since 2003.

Originally published at environmentalchange.nd.edu.