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Environmental Humanities

by Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
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Environmental Humanities

The term “environmental humanities” is both descriptive and aspirational: it has emerged over the last five years to capture already existing conjunctions across environmental philosophy, environmental history, Eco criticism, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, and political ecology, but it also seeks to integrate debates so far largely shaped by different disciplinary contexts. Awareness of ecological crisis made its way into individual humanistic disciplines at different moments, depending on the compatibility of environmental thought with prevailing theoretical frameworks. Environmental philosophy (particularly ethics) developed robustly from the 1970s onward, environmental history emerged in the 1980s as a distinct sub discipline, and Eco criticism (that is, environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies) established itself institutionally from the early 1990s onward.
While the environmental humanities are too diverse in terms of method, subject, and geographical focus to make broad generalizations that hold true across all of them, environmentally focused subfields within different humanities disciplines have been shaped by some similar intellectual turns since the 1970s. Chief among these is a shift from championing and explaining environmentalist thought to challenging environmentalists to reflect more carefully on their concepts of nature and on the relationship between nature and culture. A similar shift can also be traced in Eco criticism, from sympathetic analyses of Romantic representations of nature in British and American poetry and nonfiction nature writing in the early years, to a more recent turn toward issues of environmental justice, other world literatures and global environmental contexts, urban natures, and texts that are not obviously environmental.
Like environmentalist writing more broadly speaking, the environmental humanities occupy a fertile edge zone between academic and popular discourses. Classic environmental thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson played a mediating role, communicating insights from natural history and the environmental sciences to a popular audience, but also explaining popular concerns and experiences to a scholarly audience. In a similar way, scholars in the environmental humanities both respond to and influence popular representations and accounts of our current ecological predicaments. The immense popularity of writers who often translate insights from the environmental humanities for a general audience—think of Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, and Barbara Kingsolver, just to name a few—only begins to indicate the extent to which academic conversations are enriched by exchange with popular discourses and practices.
The development of the environmental humanities as an interdisciplinary formation is a response to an ecological and planetary crisis. But the scale and accelerating pace of that crisis present a significant challenge for researchers in the field. Good scholarship takes time, and the humanities have traditionally been more concerned with offering critique than with devising solutions. How, then, are humanities researchers to face up to the urgency of the situation, as exemplified in the widely-reported claim in autumn 2018 that we had “12 years to save our planet”? One answer is that we should do what we have always done, by analysing, nuancing, and challenging totalising narratives. “Deadline-ism”, with its apocalyptic overtones, has been convincingly unpicked as scientifically, psychologically, politically, and morally unhelpful. Even the idea of “urgency” should be questioned, as Kyle Whyte has suggested, because it potentially occludes environmental injustices already experienced by indigenous peoples and threatens to worsen them through the top–down implementation of “solutions”. This latter term is common in technocratic approaches to climate change that view it as an urgent problem or a set of problems that can be solved by expertise. One role for the humanities is to ask difficult, perhaps unpopular questions, such as “what is a solution?” or “solutions for whom?” or “are solutions always desirable?” or even “is the idea that humans can “solve” climate change symptomatic of the kind of thinking that got us into this mess?” As Jeroen Oomen’s article in this Special Issue shows, apparent solutions such as geo-engineering are often proposed in ways that are inattentive to ethical and political complexity.
It is suggested that, more overtly than weather, “climate and climate change are inevitably mediated and remediated through cultural forms: particular narratives, vocabularies, images, objects, and symbols”. To put it another way, the key debates and framings of climate change are as much cultural as they are scientific. (This is not to suggest that science is not part of culture, or to downplay the vital work of climate scientists, of course.) We noted this as an opportunity for humanities scholars, but also as posing significant questions: How can we be attentive to climate change as story without supporting the idea that it is a mere fiction? How can we move from understanding climate change as politically and culturally produced to imagining ways in which it might be mitigated? How does an understanding of climate change’s mediations remain alert to the brute facticity of environmental forces?
Understanding, communicating, and responding to climate change involves challenges of scale, both spatial and temporal. Climate change is massively distributed in both these dimensions, yet also intimately local and present. Because our conceptions and perceptions of both time and space are bound up with our imaginations, memories, and the intellectual paradigms available to us, the humanities are uniquely able to analyse our capacities and incapacities for understanding climate change as a spatial and temporal phenomenon.
(Writer can be reached at:[email protected])

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