Can a Tough Winter Make for a Better Neighbor?

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Looking at environmental determinism through the climate change lens.

By Michael Erard


Men shovel the sidewalk the morning after a snowstorm on January 27, 2015, in New York City. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Since moving back to New England eight years ago, I’ve wondered about the origins of the Yankee predisposition to work in groups: planting gardens, building hockey rinks in the neighborhood, stacking wood, and scores of other tasks. It’s not that New Englanders don’t also work alone; it’s that there’s more openness to others when they offer help. In Texas (where I’d lived for 15 years), people seemed to mistrust others’ motives, and because of that they tended to take care of more things by themselves. In New England, you can say, “Come over and help me with my shed and I’ll give you pizza,” and people will come help and eat the pizza and leave. It’s an understanding of — a belief in — the terms of the collaboration. In Texas, someone who wants to help is seen as having some other agenda. After long pondering this disparity, a possible answer surfaced last winter: Credit the snow for all the togetherness.

I stumbled onto this connection between snow and New England culture one February morning, right after the first big storm of the year. The city plows had pushed a massive bank of snow in front of my driveway, as they always do. Sometimes these barriers are as icy and multi-layered as small glaciers, climbable with crampons and Sherpas. This particular storm’s consistently low temperature had kept the snow powdery, but the formidable wall was a nearly sleddable height. I came into the street to ponder lines of attack and what gear to pack for the exertion as a neighbor walked by.

“Do you have any tips?” I called out.

A voice came out of the parka’s hood. “No.”

He stopped, and we contemplated the icy blockade together for a moment. “Do you have an extra shovel?” he asked. “I’ll help you.”

My five-year-old son joined me outside later in the morning. Since he could walk, his dream job has been a snowplow driver, and as I’ve watched him clear snowy steps with a toy bulldozer or excitedly point at the snowplow rumbling down the street, I’ve wondered when — and if — I’ll have to tell him that the job may not exist when he grows up; that there’s no future in snow. That leads me to wonder about the future of New Englanders’ habit of working cooperatively. Undoubtedly, it’s a cultural trait that will be an asset in times of stress and upheaval. But what if that trait is linked to snow and cold? If snow goes, how long might it take for that value to also vanish?

Not long after beginning to wonder about such questions, I promptly ran into a warning from anthropologists and geographers: Beware of environmental determinism.

Environmental determinism is the claim that some environmental factor (such as altitude, latitude, temperature, precipitation, soil composition, or the length of seasons) has directly created in denizens of that locale some physical, linguistic, or cultural attribute. The classic examples come from yesteryear, like the 18th-century French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu’s argument that temperatures act directly on human bodies, creating peoples of northern climes who are mentally and physically superior, and, by contrast, peoples of the tropics who are immoral, weak, and indolent. But even contemporary arguments can seem deterministic, such as Colin Kelley’s 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, which argued that water shortages in Syria played a role in the rise of ISIS, or linguist Caleb Everett’s analysis in PLoS showing that languages found in higher altitudes are more likely to have a certain type of phoneme.

“One of my biggest fears, especially looking at youth, is that the deterministic narrative is very disempowering.”

One objection to environmental determinism is that it leaves no room for humans to act differently. In the face of some environmental factor, people can only be passive — but humans being humans, that hasn’t historically been the case. Take climate change: Certainly scientists are comfortable with the evidence that rising atmospheric CO2 is irrevocably altering the climate, and that increasing temperatures is causing ocean levels to rise. But the idea that humans are doomed results from a deterministic view. In fact, humans could be able to minimize the impact of rising seas by re-siting populations or investing in bulwarks. How humans behave in response is going to prove or disprove the apocalyptic view that many people already possess about the consequences of all that CO2.

“One of my biggest fears, especially looking at youth, is that the deterministic narrative is very disempowering,” says Karen O’Brien, a geographer who teaches at the University of Oslo. “You’re going to get despondency. You’re going to get people shrugging and going, there’s nothing I can do about this.” In other words, making the climate change story simple makes it easier for people to understand. But leaving human agency out of the equation has its costs too.

Another objection to environmental determinism is that other hypotheses could plausibly create the same outcome. Perhaps it’s not the weather. Perhaps tropical peoples move slowly as a form of cultural resistance against colonial power. Perhaps those phonemes got into those languages because they were borrowed from elsewhere. I asked Todd Crane, an environmental anthropologist who works in Kenya for the International Livestock Research Institute, if an attitude of cooperation could be a knock-on effect of an environment where every year there are multiple extreme weather events like snowstorms. He agreed that, indeed, environmental phenomena might structure the way people interact with each other. A-ha! I thought, so there might be a connection between snowfall and cooperation. But, Crane added, the snow-shoveling hypothesis needs much more complexity. How do I know that people are exceptionally cooperative outside my cozy suburb? Was my neighbor even a New Englander?

Even in the case of climate change, where dramatic changes are visible in less than a generation, explanations of cultural effects have to acknowledge other factors. In the Canadian Arctic, the impact of temperature rise is undeniable, affecting the ability of Inuit hunters to move safely on the ice. But James Ford, a geographer at McGill University who studies the Inuit, hesitates to say that the subsistence lifestyles are being affected only by climate change. Yes, the sea ice is less stable in warmer seas, making it more dangerous for hunters, but traditional knowledge has been passed down inadequately to young hunters, who now lack the skills to go over the ice safely. “What’s happening to the Inuit is a combination of social change, cultural change, and climate change all coming together to create these vulnerabilities,” Ford says. “In many cases, climate change is just a trigger on underlying issues.”

Some social scientists devote themselves to eradicating even the whiff of determinism with the same energy that others devote to rooting out bedbugs. Yet it turns out that objections to environmental determinism are neither so uniform nor absolute that some connection between climate and culture can’t be drawn. This holds out some hope for my snow shoveling hypothesis. I wanted to be able to say that the surety of heavy snowfall and cold temperatures had contributed something to Yankee mentalities about collective work. The winter wreaks many changes, and it does so inevitably every year, from frost heaves to snow drifts, and the job of resetting the world to some workable state has to be done in groups, because it’s otherwise too daunting.

I brought the idea to William Meyer, a geographic historian, who admitted that he hadn’t heard it before. More common, he said, is the stereotype that the south is more traditional and conservative because of the heat, while the north is more progressive because it’s colder. However, he says that these stereotyped contrasts do actually have something to do with climate. “They are merely related to it by another and far more tortuous pathway,” he writes in his book, Americans and Their Weather.

As Meyer explains in those pages, the climates of each region attracted groups with different goals and resources. Fortune-seeking aristocrats flocked to the south, which was more amenable to plantation-style agricultural development, while the north was populated by tight-knit religious refugees who had to work rocky, forbidding land. It might be possible that snowy winters in New England and the Yankee collectivist ethic are connected to each other in a similarly unforeseen way. Maybe the famous thriftiness of Yankees meant that they purchased fewer machines and had to rely on human labor. Perhaps a deep cultural layer of Puritan dictates against idleness sought ways to keep people employed.

At the same time as experts have demanded more complexity in the climate story, climate change has allowed environmental determinisms back into scholarly discourse (which is itself a rather deterministic claim, I realize). Take, for example, one of the first papers to explore the cultural impacts of climate change in Siberia, “Gone the Bull of Winter,” a paper published in 2008 by George Mason anthropologist Susan Crate in Current Anthropology. Apparentlynow highly regarded as something of a classic, Crate’s paper describes the impacts of shorter, cooler winters on a group of horse and cattle breeders who live in northeastern Siberia, known as the Sakha. The Sakha personify winter in the form of a white bull with blue markings, huge horns, and frosty breath, which traditionally descends during the months of December and January. But as Sakha elders told Crate, the bull symbol is losing its power in Sakha culture as the winter’s power wanes. They’re not saying that the symbol is transmuting or evolving; they’re saying that the climate changes are directly endangering this central symbol.

It’s not just Sakha symbols, either; it’s their livelihood too. Shorter, warmer winters bring more snow, so animals have difficulty finding forage on the ground, while the summers are longer but cooler and more humid, which impedes the drying of hay. Without hay, a culture based on breeding and herding is seriously endangered. Throughout, Crate ties climate tightly to culture in a way that steps around the usual objections to environmental determinism. Replace “Sakha” with “Yankee” and “the bull of winter” with “helping each other out,” and the snow shoveling hypothesis no longer seems so deterministic, and environmental determinism no longer seems so categorically easy to vilify.

Twenty minutes after my neighbor and I dug in with our shovels, we had knocked down the snow mountain, lifting the monotony by cheerily sharing notes about our neighborhood, an older suburb of homes built 90 years ago. We’d never met before, and afterwards I wondered if we had recapitulated some essence of New England life over the last 350 years: You can’t make it through the winter without working together, a lesson you carry into other seasons. Collective efforts aren’t reserved for snow removal. In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Fence,” he calls his neighbor in the spring to set a day to walk the stone wall between their properties together and re-set the fallen stones.

The rest of the winter presented other opportunities for me to tackle piles and drifts with an aluminum coal shovel (my tool of choice), and I have to admit that I did all that shoveling alone. After one storm, I did spy a gang of people swarming down a residential street with shovels slung over their arms. I imagined they were a hipster shoveling co-op, roving from one member’s driveway to another, or a gang of friends jacked up on coffee and testosterone who would shovel out a stranger if it meant they didn’t have to quit and go inside.

The social scientist in me scoped out the difficulty of mapping the traffic between the tangibilities of the physical environment and the intangibles of values, ideas, and cultural models. But the poet in me wanted to dream that the workings of a culture are vulnerable to the presence of snow, and to perhaps its absence as well.