What Are the Environmental Humanities? And history of the term?

(most recent edit 21 01 2017)

26 01 2016

What the environmental humanities need to be seeking to do.

We need to transform the ecology of narratives by which we understand and practice ourselves, our communities, our cultures and politics. At present this ecology is fatally biased to the modern human individual, and human separated from, and “above” in political and ethical terms, nature. This means shifting the centre of gravity of the ecologies of narratives we live by, their span and their reach and their form.

Here is a very rough effort to depict this visually

From this an ecology of narratives overwhelmingly centred on the separated-out-human realm

Modern Ecology 2

To this – an ecology of narratives which dissolves  the nature-culture divide

new ecology 2

(Pre 26 01 2016)

People keep asking me what the environmental humanities are – my one sentence (just about) reply has evolved to this current form:

The environmental humanities are the traditional humanities – such as philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history, language studies, cultural geography – conjoined in new interdisciplinary formations (inc with the natural and social sciences*) to address the environmental crisis currently engulfing us – its antecedents, current forms and future trajectories and possible responses to it.

*The relationship between the environmental humanities and modernist social and natural science is a big question and discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Below I offer a few examples of other people’s definitions and make brief comments on them.

This is from TORCH,  The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities:

“The Environmental Humanities are a diverse and emergent field of cross-disciplinary research that seeks to analyze and investigate the complex interrelationships between human activity (cultural, economic, and political) and the environment, understood in its broadest sense. Global environmental questions are increasing at the heart of academic and political debate. Analyzing and addressing environmental issues requires an understanding of the reciprocal relationship between nature and culture, between sciences, social sciences, and humanities. This is important not only in order to insert environmental issues more centrally into the humanities, as a fascinating and urgent intellectual enterprise.   It is equally important for scientists to be cognizant of the way in which human culture shapes environmental impacts, environmental debates and regulation of all kinds.” (source)

That seems pretty sound to me, except for one big thing. I don’t think “Global environmental questions…” are increasingly at the heart of academic and political debate. That is one of the key challenges we all face. Conventional political culture has just about completely failed to face up to the challenges of “ecocide”. I think it is incapable of doing so for a number of reasons (which will be expanded upon in this blog). Twenty-five years ago, Felix Guattari wrote:

“Political groupings and executive authorities appear to be totally incapable of understanding the full implications of these issues. Despite having recently initiated a partial realization of the most obvious dangers that threaten the natural environment of our societies, they are generally content to simply tackle industrial pollution and then from a purely technocratic perspective, whereas only an ethico-political articulation – which I call ecosophy between the three ecological registers [the environment, social relations and human subjectivity] would be likely to clarify these questions.”

(The Three Ecologies – first published in French in 1989)  free PDF here

This  situation has not improved – rather the reverse.

The humanities (really it should be arts and humanities) have always been committed to the study of nature, place, landscape, nature-society relations. The Environmental Humanities seek to deepen these traditions, combine them,  and explicitly foreground them in interdisciplinary responses to the era of ‘ecocide’ that global life (Gaia) finds itself in.

The move to embrace interdisciplinarity within the environmental humanities reflects – or should reflect – the need to move towards more ecological forms of knowledge production and practice. Traditional disciplinary boundaries are a symptom of  enlightenment/modern knowledge’s drive to divide, rule and exploit the world. This has been a disaster which we are still in the grip of today (as Bruno Latour has famously argued). Ecological forms of knowledge production seek to re-weave how we read the world – not least across the nature-culture, art and science divides.

Particularly, we need to find new forms of ecological narratives through which we understand ourselves, each other, our place in the world and those of others in interdependent ways. We need new ‘strange’ narratives which challenge human exceptionalism and a whole host of other blockages in productive thought (as Mary Midgley put it). We need new narratives, and a new weave of narrative which has a centre of gravity far from where it is now. (Updated 29/11/2015)

Early uses of the term Environmental Humanities (2015)

When a ‘new’ area such as this is emerging internationally it is interesting to find the early uses of the term.

I found these


A Graduate programme of Environmental Humanities was set up in Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic in 1998. It is still going. See here.


“Imaginative thinkers such as Merchant and Shepard are, on my reading, underscoring, indeed insisting on, a fundamental role for the Environmental Humanities in the challenge of ecosocial challenge.” (p. 71. emphasis as original.) from

Herron, John P., and Andrew G. Kirk, eds. Human/Nature: Biology, Culture, and Environmental History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. This collection of essays was born at the New Mexico Environmental Symposium held in Albuquerque in April 1996. Source here

The Australian Factor

Since Professor Kate Rigby has arrived at Bath Spa University from Monash University to set up the new Environmental Humanities Research Centre and MA  I have learned about the development of the Environmental/Ecological Humanities there.

This Manifesto for the Ecological Humanities was published at The Australian National University in 2001

It is still on-line here

Env Humanities Manifesto

This is a report on the Emergence of the Environmental Humanities commissioned by MISTRA: The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research

David E. Nye (Chair) University of Southern Denmark, Denmark
Linda Rugg, University of California, Berkeley, USA
James Fleming, Colby College, USA
Robert Emmett, Rachel Carson Center, University of Munich, Germany

Mistra Environmental Humanities May 2013 PDF

(added 21 01 2017) The bottom line is…

The World Wide Fund for Nature Living  Planet Report 2016 carries this summary:

“Global biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, putting the survival of other species and our own future at risk. The latest edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report brings home the enormity of the situation – and how we can start to put it right. The Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. We could witness a two-thirds decline in the half-century from 1970 to 2020 – unless we act now to reform our food and energy systems and meet global commitments on addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development.”

The planet, as a  set of living systems in the current form of Gaia (our home) is dying around us folks. The bulk of ‘main stream’ political, cultural, theologic and economic discourses are floating free from this situation. They are causing it and cannot address it in any meaningful way. This is the challenge that the Environmental Humanities has to face up to. Its not easy. As the Turkish poet and journalist Ece Temelkuran said – hope might not an appropriate concept at the moment – but determination (to keep going) is.



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