The Anthropology of Human Survival

Originally (1985) the discussion focussed on Nuclear Winter. But the basics of what it means to be human are relevant to tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes among other tragedies. The late 20th century as in the late 14th century (and in the 20 centuries before then) saw entire communities of people massacred by their neighbors. Such catastrophes continue into the 21st century. Yet we continue. What can we learn?

NucWinter cover


This document records the only exposition of Nuclear Winter that focuses explicitly on humans. We consider our discussions beginnings, not conclusions, to an anthropological assessment of Nuclear Winter. The arguments are based on our existing knowledge of human systems. Thus, the inferences we draw and the degree of impact are not dependent on the outcome of any particular model of Nuclear Winter. The impetus for organizing this panel session came from a resolution against nuclear war that was considered by the 1984 American Anthropological Association annual meetings. My own, very strong reaction was that anthropology should go further—should be actively and effectively involved and should explicate the effects of Nuclear Winters physical reality on human relations. Without participation by anthropologists, the world can realize only a small part of the human costs of nuclear weapons use.

My reaction stemmed from these significant aspects of my studies.

  • Findings from studies of earlier populations must be accessible to and understood by contemporary society. Without such necessary knowledge, we will never have a fundamental understanding of human biology … nor a greater understanding of social change.
  • The people I live and work with at Los Alamos National Laboratory are real people, with the same dreams and fears all humans experience. Among other tasks, the Laboratory has a responsibility mandated by law and by heritage to provide the best scientific and technical advice possible pertaining to nuclear weapons and their effects. Encouragement of diverse basic and applied research, including the anthropology of the long-term consequences of nuclear weapons use, is part of that responsibility.
Proceedings of a session at the 84th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, December 6, 1985, Washington, DC
M. Pamela Bumsted, Organizer

Note to Readers iii
Preface iv
Subject Guide v
Panelists vii
Introduction 1

Jones: Definition of Nuclear Winter 5
Patterns of smoke distribution
Factors considered in predicting temperature changes
Reality of Nuclear Winter as cause of temperature decrease

Dirks: Long-term effects of famine on human societies 11
Reduction of crop yields leading to starvation
Social and cultural effects of scars of hunger
Child-parent relationships
Patterns of and attitudes toward eating
Increased male dominance and male/female distancing

[Audience: What the hell…! Talking about the unthinkable makes it inevitable!]

Armelagos: Biological consequences of Nuclear Winter 23
Absurdity of government plans for survival
Impact of nuclear attack on health patterns
Alteration of immune system Infectious disease increase, radiation effects
Psychological stress and genetic damage
Effect on Southern Hemisphere of incapacities of Northern Hemisphere

[Audience: Anthropological discussion of current issues commended and criticized.]

Bateson: Reasons for discussion and study of Nuclear Winter 31
Need to disseminate information about Nuclear Winter
Obligation of anthropologists to carry such discussion forward
Fantasies and realities of life after nuclear war
Task of anthropologists to provide a modeling of human relations to parallel the climatic model of the physical sciences

[Audience: We should question our political conditioning.]

Nader: Discussion of Nuclear Winter seen as ritual talk 39
Need for anthropologists to examine the consequences of Nuclear Winter in order to counter current fantasies
No model available for life after Nuclear Winter
Recognition that the most important decisions are made by a very few people
Need to de-isolate the experts and specialists

Audience/Panel Discussion 45
Notes 61
Figures 63
References cited and recommended reading 81

References Cited and Recommended Reading

1) Abrams, H. L. and W. E. VonKaenel 1981 Medical Problems of Survivors of Nuclear War. New England Journal of Medicine 305:1226-1332.

2) Armelagos, George J. and Elizabeth Schueler 1985 Biological Consequences of Nuclear Winter. Amherst: University of Massachusetts. [Copies of the complete paper are available from the authors.]

3) Bee, Ronald J., Carl B. Feldbaum, Banning N. Garrett, and Bonnie S. Glaser 1985 Implications of the Nuclear Winter Thesis. Prepared by the Palomar Corporation for the Defense Nuclear Agency Contract #001-84-C-0257 (June 24). [Contains an extensive bibliography of scientific and general news media literature. The Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) is a go-between for Department of Energy and Department of Defense on research aspects of nuclear defense.]

4) Broad, William J. 1985 Star Warriors. NY: Simon and Schuster.

5) Carrier, George F. 1985 The State of the Science: Nuclear Winter. Issues in Science and Technology. Winter: 114-117.

6) Crutzen, P. J. and J. W. Birks 1982 The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon. AMBIO 11 (June): 114-125. [Also in Peterson 1983]

7) Dirks, Robert 1980 Social Responses during Severe Food Shortages and Famine. Current Anthropology 21:21-32.

8 ) Emergency Planning Digest 1985 Nuclear Winter and Associated Effects: The Royal Society Report. Response of the Government of Canada. Emergency Planning Digest (of Emergency Planning Canada, Ottawa, Ontario) 12(3): 2-11.

9) Fried, Morton, Marvin Harris, and Robert Murphy, eds. 1968 War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression. Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press. [Based upon the plenary session, 66th annual meeting, American Anthropological Association, November 30, 1967, Washington, DC.]

10) Harlow, Harry F. 1959 Love in Infant Monkeys. Scientific American 200(6): 68-74.

11) Harwell, Mark A. 1984 Nuclear Winter: The Human and Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War. NY: Springer-Verlag.

12) Harwell, Mark A., Thomas C. Hutchinson, Wendell P. Cropper, Jr., Christine C. Harwell, and Herbert D. Grover 1986 Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War: Vol. II. Ecological, Agricultural, and Human Effects. NY: John Wiley & Sons. [Harwell et al. 1986 and Pittock et al. 1986 are known as the SCOPE Report (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment) of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).]

13) Heizer, Robert F. 1974 The Destruction of the California Indians. Santa Barbara, CA: Pregrine Smith.

14) Heizer, Robert F. n.d. The New Orleans Paper. unpublished ms.

15) Jones, Eric M. and Robert C. Malone 1985 An Overview of Climatic Effects of Nuclear Winter. Los Alamos National Laboratory document LA-UR-85-2686. [Available from the authors.]

16) Kroeber, Theodora 1961 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

17) Laughlin, C. and I. Brady 1978 Extinction and Survival in Human Populations. NY: Columbia University Press.

18) Leaning, J. and L. Keys 1984 The Counterfeit Ark. Cambridge: Ballinger.

19) Malinowski, Bronislaw 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. (1984 Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.)

20) Malone, Robert C., Lawrence H. Auer, Gary A. Glatzmaier, Michael C. Wood, and Owen B. Toon 1985 Influence of Solar Heating and Precipitation Scavenging on the Simulated Lifetime of Post-Nuclear War Smoke. Science 230:317-319.

Malone, Robert C., Lawrence H. Auer, Gary A. Glatzmaier, Michael C. Wood, and Owen B. Toon 1986 Nuclear Winter: Three-Dimensional Simulations Including Interactive Transport, Scavenging, and Solar Heating of Smoke. Journal of Geophysical Research 9(D1): 1039-1053.

21) May, Michael M., Albert Gore, Jr., George W. Rathjens, Ronald H. Siegel, Theodore A. Postol, and Richard L. Wagner, Jr. 1985 Strategic Significance: Commentaries. InNuclear Winter. Issues in Science and Technology. Winter: 118-133.

22) Nader, Laura, et al. 1980 Energy Choices in a Democratic Society. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

23) Naroll, R., G. Michik, and F. Naroll 1976 Worldwide Theory Testing. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files.

24) National Research Council 1985 The Effects on the Atmosphere of a Major Nuclear Exchange. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. [Also known as the Carrier committee report.]

25) Peterson, Jeannie, ed. 1983 The Aftermath: The Human and Ecological Consequences of Nuclear War. NY: Pantheon Books. [Based on a special issue of AMBIO 1982 11(2-3), published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.]

26) Pittock, A. Barrie, Thomas P. Ackerman, Paul J. Crutzen, Michael C. MacCracken, Charles S. Shapiro, and Richard P. Turco 1986 Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War: Vol. I. Physical and Atmospheric Effects. NY: John Wiley & Sons.

27) Powers, Thomas 1984 Nuclear Winter and Nuclear Strategy. Atlantic. November: 53-64.

28) Scheer, Robert 1982 Americans Would Not Be Helpless: U.S. Could Survive War in Administration’s View. Los Angeles Times, January 16. Reprinted in Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Arms Control, Oceans, International Operations and Environment of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Ninety-Seventh Congress, Second Session, March 16 and 31, 1982. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

29) Sparks, Brad 1985 The Scandal of Nuclear Winter. National Review November 15:28ff.

30) Turco, Richard P., Owen B. Toon, Thomas P. Ackerman, James B. Pollack, and Carl Sagan 1983 Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions. Science 222:1283-1292. [Also known as the TTAPS Report.]

31) Turco, Richard P., Owen B. Toon, Thomas P. Ackerman, James B. Pollack, and Carl Sagan 1984 The Climatic Effects of Nuclear War. Scientific American 251(2): 33-43. [Written by TTAPS.]

32) Turnbull, Colin 1972 The Mountain People. NY: Simon and Schuster.

33) Weinberger, Casper W. 1985 The Potential Effects of Nuclear War on the Climate: A Report to the United States Congress. March.

34) Weisner, J. 1984 Introduction. In Leaning and Keys 1984: xiii.

35) Willens, Harold 1984 The Trimtab Factor: How Business Executives Can Help Solve the Nuclear Weapons Crisis. NY: Morrow, William, and Co., Inc.

36) Wolf, Eric A. 1980 They Divide and Subdivide and Call it Anthropology. N.Y. Times Sunday, November 30.

37) Woolsey, R. James 1984 Nuclear Arms: Ethics, Strategy, Politics. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies.

This is session 2-002 of the American Anthropological Associations annual meetings. This session is hosted by the AAA Program Board and by the Biological and General Anthropology Sections. I’m Pamela Bumsted, organizer for a panel-audience discussion of the long-term consequences of nuclear winter on human existence.

Our purpose in today’s discussion is to stimulate anthropology’s contributions to the scientific issues of Nuclear Winter. Over the past 40 years, the immediate and local effects of nuclear weapons have been documented. These effects are simply awful. Recently, the term Nuclear Winter has been coined for the global climatic effects following nuclear weapon exchange. … we will have a synopsis of the latest climate models shortly.

There will, of course, be secondary impacts from a Nuclear Winter that will affect humans. Long-term environmental consequences are under current examination by groups such as the Institute of Medicine, Swedish Academy of Sciences, and SCOPE, or the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment. [see Recommended Reading] The focus of these studies has tended to be on the non-human environment, although consequent trophic level effects such as agricultural sufficiency, fuel, and communication have been mentioned. However, effects have been evaluated for only some segments of human society, such as economics.

There has yet to be a holistic examination of human consequences, one which would account for interactions within the human system. We do not yet have an examination which is broad enough in scope to assess effects on nonindustrialized societies.

Anthropologists have generally not participated in the scientific and technical issues of nuclear war and nuclear peace. We are not usually part of the institutional communities or other sciences which are involved. Additionally, our research results and conclusions tend not to be oriented to other communities or to broader issues.

I believe anthropology can contribute its expertise concerning the cultural and biological adaptability of humans. We can point out the comprehensive nature and evolution of human existence. It is important that the consequences of a nuclear exchange not be underestimated nor made unrealistic. For example, we know that Nuclear Winter, to whatever magnitude, will not mean a return to the Dark Ages, as one economic researcher has said. We cannot just go back to some mythic Rousseauan past and start over. We cannot comfort the survivalists who may think Nuclear Winter is a 5-year camping trip. We know that human existence is more than the minimum daily allowance of food, water, and shelter from the elements (radioactive and otherwise).

Can we today begin to define some of these components of human existence? How will they be affected after a Nuclear Winter? Would a world after Nuclear Winter be like anything in our past 6 million years, or is it entirely new?

….Today’s discussion will not deal with the immediate consequences of Nuclear Winter nor with the effects of nuclear weapons, themselves. The technical issue or the physical models of Nuclear Winter are not the topic of discussion….

The strategic role of Nuclear Winter is more appropriately discussed elsewhere. Although for purposes of discussion we will assume there are survivors of Nuclear Winter, our purpose today is not to predict the outcome of a nuclear exchange. We will not predict the likelihood nor the how-to of surviving a Nuclear Winter.

….I hope the session could summarize some of the components of human existence that should be systematically examined in studies of Nuclear Winter, and secondly, point out where our existing knowledge of human patterns is weak or absent and needs directed research. Finally, I hope an anthropological perspective of the issues can remind ourselves and the rest of the public what is at risk in a nuclear exchange—for human existence is far more colorful, complex, and worthwhile than any two-dimensional crayon drawing can suggest. *

    *The Peace Shield ad, run on Washington, DC, television stations in early November 1985 portrays the complexities of the scientific and policy issues involved in the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) in a 30-second animated child’s drawing. The commercial is summarized in Ellen Goodman’s column (The Crayola Defense, Boston Globe, November 5, 1985), described by Lloyd Grove (The Star Wars Soft Sell, Washington Post, November 4, 1985) and by John J. Fialka (Combative General is a political Godfather of Star Wars Plan,Wall Street Journal, November 12, 1985), and parodied by Herblock (Washington Post, November 8, 1985) and Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury, November 22, 1985)

Published as LA-UR-86-370 Nuclear winter — the anthropology of human survival: proceedings of a session at the 84th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, December 6, 1985 3.6MB

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9 responses to “The Anthropology of Human Survival

  1. Pingback: regional nuclear war climate change? « Biocultural Science & Management

  2. Pingback: Nuclear Winter transmittal letter « Biocultural Science & Management

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  4. Pingback: Nuclear climate change « Grassroots Science

  5. It was just brought to my attention that there was also an earlier discussion about the human effects of global climate change, including anthropology and climate physics. If anyone knows where a copy, preferably digital and on-line, is available, please let me know.

    Kellogg, William W., and Margaret Mead. 1977. The Atmosphere: endangered and endangering. Fogarty International Center proceedings, no. 39. [Bethesda]: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health.

  6. Pingback: Anthropology in a climate of change, war, and internecine environments « Biocultural Science & Management

  7. Pingback: Anthropology in a climate of change, war, and internecine environments 2 « Biocultural Science & Management

  8. Pingback: Bibliography for the anthropology of climate change « Grassroots Science

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