What should the Environmental Humanities being doing to have an ‘impact’ and how?

“Houston– we have a problem” – a brief note on elite power and the environmental crisis.  June 14 2016

This is just a brief note as I have been thinking about this. A lot of debate in the environmental humanities focuses on questions of interdisciplinary, ‘our’ relationship(s) with Science and the sciences. And they are all big questions for sure. But this thought has been bothering me:

At present most/all? advanced societies are on deeply unsustainable trajectories in terms of the way the economy works and the politics and cultures that underpin that. (Globalised consumer capitalism.) There is very little evidence that the radical changes needed are coming from ‘within the system’. Why is this? In part, it has to be because the elites have deeply vested interests in the ‘status quo’. They have power, wealth etc., certain visions of the world, and they seek to preserve and extend these.

And this has always been so – with some shifts. Elites have created and perpetuated social injustice ever since most societies become organised to any great extent. Of course sometimes some elites have faded, to be replaced by others, or been overthrown violently, and the form of power has shifted. But it has always been thus, and social justice in any meaningful way has been very hard to achieve; the ongoing, sad, saga of human history.

But it is now clear that elite power is not only the creator and perpetrator of social injustice, but also an existential threat. It is keeping us locked into modes of economy, politics and culture that are unpicking the biosphere as a liveable environment (for us and others). Thus we need something that has rarely been achieved: the dismantlement of elitist powers and their hierarchies without creating new forms of the same.

Science can often be in league with elitist power (as can the arts of course). But the big question is: how can the environmental humanities challenge /transform elitist power?

One question that elites have long been concerned with is legacy and the imagined perpetuation of power and wealth into the future (as exemplified by the whole notion of (male) hereditary power). Where does the environmental crisis leave current elites’ notions of legacy for their families, classes, ideologies?

(Note added 17 06 2016)

“As long as hierarchy persists, as long as domination organises humanity around a system of elites, the project of dominating nature will continue to exist and inevitably lead our planet to ecological extinction.” – Murray Bookchin

Thanks to Antony Lyons for that


Home is makeshift. Everything we build, everything we name, everything we hold dear and would not have taken from us is temporary and in constant need of re-imagining.[  ].  The makeshift stares at us in the face at every turn. [ ] Nothing is permanent, merely rigid. No hierarchy is just, however you spin it; and hierarchy limits the imagination and withholds essential knowledge. [But] it would be a mistake to think that [ ] images of the makeshift are all laments [ ]. On the contrary, what we find [ ] is mostly, if guarded, celebration. To recognize the new values that emerge from the makeshift is to discover the earliest traces of a new direction, the steps in a spontaneous remaking of ourselves, the hazy outline of a democratizing order of the imagination finds in the unlikeliest places (Burnside 2012: 160).

Opening statement for this section (2015)

This will include a central focus on the Romantic (UK/Europe) and Transcendentalist (North America) transformations of attitudes towards nature, landscape and environment. This extraordinary period of aesthetic, moral, cultural and political transformation in the late 18th century still shapes many of our attitudes and policies towards nature (e.g., National Parks), as well as senses of individual self/worth, education, childhood, etc. This shows that the arts and humanities (in conjunction with science) can have ‘deep impact’ in the direction of travel in society which matches that of the natural sciences.


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