Sacred Glaciers

In a world where mountain glaciers are set to disappear, our focus on the physical aspects of climate change often blinds us to its cultural and societal causes and impacts. These ice giants are more than just a barometer of global warming—they are sacred symbols for many indigenous communities, and their loss signifies a profound cultural transformation. In this essay, I delve into the complexities of political ecology, scrutinizing the intersections of environmental change, culture, identity, and power dynamics. The environmental crisis we are in is about justice and the essential question of whose knowledge matters in shaping our understanding of global issues and charting our path forward.

A quarter of mountain glaciers worldwide are expected to disappear by the middle of this century even if humanity meets the most optimistic of the global climate targets (Aðalgeirsdóttir/James, 2023; Rounce et al., 2023). One arcane problem associated with the mass loss of ice: glaciers house the gods and carry material value beyond the physical for many indigenous communities from the Himalayas to the Andes (Allison, 2015).

Climate policy to avert global warming and adjust societies to changing realities—justified by hard science and guided by technofixes—is blind to local knowledge and culture (Hulme, 2007; Adger et al., 2011; Rojas et al., 2021). A political ecology lens is needed to explain relations of power in environmental change and the marginalization and politization of identities and realities.

What is political ecology? How does it differ from an apolitical ecology? What has been its conceptual and practical relevance to understanding and changing a reality of the global South? In this essay, I answer these questions and turn to the phenomenon of ‘sacred glaciers’ to illustrate my answers. This is important because environmental change is merely a physical issue, affecting identity, society, and culture in unjust ways. Retrieving traditional ecological knowledge, such as that of mountain peoples, can help to reconstruct discourses and aid our relations with the environment.

First, I define political ecology and its relation to allegedly apolitical ecologies. Then, I lay out its conceptual and practical relevance in respect to environmental change and sacred glaciers. Finally, I show how this helps to understand and change a reality in the global South.

Political Ecology

Political ecology can be seen as a school of thought, field of inquiry, and body of knowledge to “address the condition and change of social/environmental systems, with explicit consideration of relations of power” including those of class, race, gender, and colonialism (Robbins, 2020). It is characterized by critical social theory, underpinned by political economic principles, and driven by multiple empirical methods (Peet/Watts 1996; Bridge et al., 2015). It concerns the human and non-human nature of environments (Heynen et al., 2006). It serves to understand the powers in political economic contexts that create environments to offer livelihood scenarios for communities (Bassett/Zimmerer, 2003; Epure, 2015).

Political ecologists have a normative goal of improving human-environment relations. For them, environments as well as one’s understanding of them, including epistemic gaps, are shaped by political economic factors (Robbins, 2020). By disentangling social-environmental tensions and explicating power/knowledge imbalances, political ecology aims to strengthen movements and political change for social and environmental justice.

Explicating Power: Implicitly Political Ecologies

Political ecology explicitly examines and challenges power structure that shape social-environmental relationships. This contrasts with the dominating discourses that obscure political issues and solidify power.

Ecoscarcity, for example, postulates that population growth on a finite planet is doomed to end in mayhem—human deprivation, and natural degradation. Some apply this line of thinking to developments and environments in the global South. However, it overshadows that population growth rarely determines environmental crises; that resources are often unevenly distributed, while scarcity is constructed and politically produced.

Modernity arguments furthermore proclaim that technology and markets ensure the environment’s efficient use and economic/development gains. This line of thinking requires to globalize predominantly Northern innovation, marketize natural goods, introduce property rights, and prize ecosystem services. This, however, has proven time and again to result in uneven outcomes in societies across the global South (Robbins, 2020).

The falsehood of these claims is evident, to name but one example, in the neoliberal forms of managing nature under the disguise of conservation, which privileges a few elites and disempowers many peasants and dwellers (McAfee, 1999; Zimmerer, 2006; Nelson, 2014). For Robbins (2020), these seemingly “apolitical” discourses are implicitly political because of the profoundly political propositions that manifest the unjust distribution of environmental gains and harms. By presupposing the superiority of Northern knowledge, such discourses further reaffirm colonialist structures and discredit traditional ecological knowledge.

Conceptual Relevance: Constructivism

Constructivist approaches, adopted in political ecology, help to recognise the power of the framing of environmental discourses that affect the global South. According to constructivist thought, ideas of the environment, however common sense, are socially constructed—a belief collectively accepted as true. Discursive concepts (e.g., Anthropocene) reinforce elitist powers/knowledge. Truths defined by means of environmental sciences and politics serve specific interests (Latour, 2013).

Influenced by the philosophers Kant (ideas make objects) and Foucault (ideas are true because of power), constructivism for political ecologists means that conflicts over the environment are power struggles over ideas of the environment. A light version holds that there is at least an objective environment. There are concepts of this reality which are real. These are influenced by the social systems dominant at a time and can be biased and incomplete. Different knowledges distilled through science, can provide a more sophisticated interpretation of the environment. This, however, can improve falsehoods, not scientific truths (Robbins, 2020).

The global North, being over-represented in the policy and science communities of the UN frameworks, exercises its epistemological power by shaping the scientific inquiry and policymaking about environmental change (McAfee, 1999; Allison, 2015). Current policy/science discourses construct environmental change mainly as an economic and physical challenge, ignoring cultural aspects (Hulme, 2007; Adger et al., 2011). They enforce a pecking order of knowledges with the hard sciences at the top, and traditional knowledge at the bottom (Agrawal, 1995; Castree et al., 2014). They undervalue the effects on culture, identity, and beliefs (Allison, 2015). Futures are reduced to climatic scenarios (Hulme, 2011). Consequently, there are few avenues for indigenous peoples and knowledge in such discourses. Quite the contrary, they reinforce those in power (McAfee, 1999).

Practical Relevance: Culture and Climate

Cultures—i.e., a certain type—cause current global warming, and climate change affects cultures. Political ecology exposes distant relationships between materialist and indigenous societies.

Concerned about the social world of humans in relation to nature, early (political) ecologists attributed the ecological crisis of the West to free market capitalism. They further posit that environments do not determine civilization in mundane ways, they rather shape cultural life of a higher order, including moral and myth, and suggest that such cultural patterns, including spiritual, may as well play a role in moderating social-environmental interaction to preserve ecological stability. To this end, they have repeatedly evidenced that indigenous peoples have advanced, adaptive ways to treat their environments with care (Robbins, 2020; cf. Zimmerer, 2007).

Culture and climate are intrinsically linked. It is lifestyle—an excessively materialist, hydrocarbon intensive one—in a few societies that drives global warming (Wiedmann et al., 2020; Creutzig et al., 2022). This intensifies environmental changes and increasingly frequent hazards that disproportionately affect other societies in existential ways (Birkmann et al., 2022). For those whose mountains house their gods, melting glaciers mean changes in culture and identity (Allison, 2015).

This is not apparent in global discourses that construct climate change as a physical process and are thus blind to cultures (Hulme, 2007; Adger et al., 2011). A political ecology perspective helps to account for complex political economic dynamics to link effects, such as shifts in indigenous culture, with the distant causes, i.e., consumerism (Robbins, 2020). As mountain glaciers recede, a causal relationship emerges between lifestyles in the North—enabled by markets, authorized by states—and livelihoods in the South—often undermined by markets, ignored by states; between the victory of the SUV on the one side, and the wrath of deities on the other; between luxury, and subsistence; choice, and faith.

Understanding of a Reality in the Global South: Deglaciation and Cultural Change

Caused by faraway polluters, the retreat and disappearance of glaciers hold powerful meanings to mountain peoples that have meta-physical relationships with their environments. Communities at the base of Kilimanjaro and in Bhutan, for example, see their mountains as homes of their gods (Allison, 2015). As mountain glaciers, however, are more sensitive to global warming than the bigger, thicker—also endangered—polar ice sheets, they melt faster (Schoolmeester et al., 2018; Hock et al., 2019). Mountain villagers thus feel threatened or disoriented by observable changes in glaciers. Receding glaciers have crucial implications on communities that have historically based their social structures, values, cultural life, identity, or raison d’etre, in symbiotic ways on their surroundings. Anthropogenic climate change disrupts this existence in relation to the environment/sacred, causing eco-psychological distress (Allison, 2015; Rojas et al., 2021).

Villagers honour their mountain deities as, for them, glaciers create life and death. They feed the rivers, so crops and livestock can flourish. They collapse and create outburst floods, causing devastation. In the eyes of Andean dwellers, when their glacier disappears, the world will come to an end. Already, villagers nearby a receding glacier in the Andes interpret it with the parting of their god. They adapted their habits to conserve the sacred. They refrain from collecting ice, use less meltwater, stopped their close-by rituals, and use smaller prayer candles (Allison, 2015; Rojas et al., 2021).

Alien lifestyles trigger the decay of sacred glaciers across the global South, turning identities upside down. Foreigners—once colonizers, now polluters—dismantle cultural and belief systems. Former pilgrims become the guards of their gods (cf. Allison, 2015). In this vein, glaciers become a political object as they affect human Being and so gain a new role and weight; formerly disparate mountain peoples become (new kinds of) environmental subjects as new circumstances make them adapt and assert in arduous ways their identity (cf. Robbins, 2020). The mainstream materialist interpretation of climate change does not do them justice. To reflect this kind of reality in the global discourses, too, some suggest deliberately creating avenues for traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Changing of a Reality in the Global South: Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Because climate change has non-materialist roots and impacts, scholars argue for reframing it by considering cultural aspects and especially traditional ecological knowledge, to deepen its meaning, political processes, and lived experience (Hulme, 2007; Adger et al., 2011; Castree et al., 2014; Allison, 2015). Traditional ecological knowledge stands for the experiences, practice, and beliefs in ecologies rooted in often indigenous culture (Berkes et al., 2000; Berkes, 2018).

Because the predominant materialist framing of global warming discounts cultural aspects, in a constructivist sense it marginalizes peoples from the frontlines of climate change. That occurs systematically as discourses lack the frameworks to interpret non-materialist/non-market values and impacts. In this vein, mainstream science and policy filter out indigenous knowledge (Allison, 2015).

Traditional knowledge, proponents claim, can avail global discourses by re-constructing meanings and enhancing processes: indigenous wisdom could enrich the ethical conception and human subjective perception of climate change as a cultural task to motivate wider action; local experience in adaptation can sensitize policy and science for better ways in responding to climate change (Hulme, 2007; Bailey, 2008; Allison, 2015; Rojas et al., 2021).

Millenia-old knowledge of the people living in sensible, adaptive ways in high mountain areas is therefore a field to be urgently explored to aid climate science and policy discourses, although there may be political economic challenges in achieving a more humanistic approach (Adger et al., 2011; Castree et al., 2014).


Political ecology is the critical study of power/knowledge structures that shape human-environment relationships at the nexus of economic, political, natural, and social systems. Therefore, it differs from ecologies that either obscure implicit political factors (allegedly apolitical) or describe/explain ecological systems (natural science).

Power/knowledge constructs our world around us. What are masses of ice to some, are sacred glaciers to others. They are predominantly the former in global climate discourses. Perhaps because these discourses are decoupled from the ecological realities rooted in traditional cultures, modernist lifestyles impinge on climate and, in return, on faraway glacier deities.

A consideration of traditional experiences in global climate policy could embolden mountain peoples in asserting their reality and identity. By turning the climate crisis into a value-based, collective, lived experience—not to say a moral crisis—perhaps faraway polluters can start to appreciate that glaciers are more sacred than they are masses of ice.


(Featured image: Glaciers in the Andes—Masses of Ice, or Deities? Photo: Moens, 2020)

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