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 ecology of narratives we live by, their span and reach and their form.
Here is a very rough effort to depict this visually
(pre ) 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 to address the environmental crisis currently engulfing us – its antecedents, current forms and future trajectories and possible responses to it.
Below I offer a few examples of other people’s definitions and make some 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 shape 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 in doing so for a number of reasons (which will be expanded upon in this blog) . 25 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 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 have a centre of gravity far from where it is now (updated