Environmental Humanities

Agricultural Landscapes: Perspectives from the Environmental Humanities

Earlier this week I chaired and introduced a panel at the 2015 Forum of the Council of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) in Melbourne. The panel was put together by my colleague Matthew Kearnes and I and focused on environmental humanities approaches to agricultural landscapes. We had three fabulous speakers: Lauren Rickards (RMIT University), Cameron Muir (ANU) and Aidan Davison (UTas).

The text from my introduction to the panel is below. It focuses on what the environmental humanities are and what is distinctive about them.

It’s a pleasure to be here today to introduce and chair this exciting panel on: Agricultural Landscapes: Perspectives from the Environmental Humanities.

My colleague Matthew Kearnes and I were invited to put together this panel with a focus on the environmental humanities, but also to say a few words, by way of introduction, about this emerging field of scholarship.

The presence of this invited panel at this forum is, I think, an important marker of a vibrant developing field. Over roughly the past five years a broad range of new research centres, undergraduate teaching programs, journals and book series dedicated to the environmental humanities have been springing up all over the world.

In some ways the environmental humanities is simply a new name for something that has been going on for many decades in the form of diverse subfields within various disciplines, like environmental history and philosophy. From this perspective, the environmental humanities might simply be understood as an umbrella – facilitating expanded dialogue and collaboration, and fostering new opportunities for institutional formation, from research centres to journals and teaching programs.

But the environmental humanities is also more than this. It is also an interdisciplinary project; or more accurately, a constellation of emerging forms of interdisciplinarity, rooted in humanities approaches to the environment but expanding out from there to draw in, or connect with, research in the natural and social sciences, as well as the work and lives of a diverse range of publics beyond the academy.[i]

I should note, as others have, that the notion of ‘the humanities’ at work here is a very broad and ‘impure’ one.[ii] Methods, literatures and scholars working in disciplines like anthropology, geography and political ecology are very much at the heart of this emerging field.

What holds all of this diversity together is a fundamental commitment to the notion that humanity and the environment cannot be understood in isolation from each other. Both are tangled up in each other, shaped by each other, at stake in each other.

This is a simple idea, but one with far reaching and profound consequences. From it flow what I take to be the two fundamental propositions of the environmental humanities.

The first is that the humanities have a great deal to offer, in fact they are essential, in developing better understandings of and approaches to pressing contemporary environmental challenges.[iii] In fact, from this perspective environmental issues are always already cultural, political and ethical challenges.

In this context, the humanities offer an invaluable set of resources for exploring the deep cultural histories and assumptions, the systems of value and meaning making, that are contributing to the emergence of environmental problems, but that are also vital to any meaningful and long term solutions.

Taking cultural and historical diversity seriously is key here. There is no “human” position or experience in the amorphous way that this term is often used.[iv] This means that simplistic, totalising explanations – like that of humans as self-interest maximising machines – cannot account for the diversity of what it might mean to be a human; and so they cannot explain why and how we act. Human as embodied, affective beings are, each in their own way, far more than ‘rational’ in this narrow sense of the term,[v] while simultaneously being embedded is technical and environmental systems, and “suspended in the webs of significance”[vi] that are culture, in ways that profoundly shape our behaviours and opportunities to act and to be.

All of this messy “context” needs to be taken seriously, needs to be part of our accounts of how the world works if we’re to have any hope of responding to environmental issues in ways that are not only sustainable, but that are also democratic, creative, meaningful and just.[vii]

This is necessarily work that brings us into close dialogue with diverse communities. Again, there are a range of existing approaches and resources within the humanities that can be put to work here: from public philosophy and history, to detailed ethnographic work and digital storytelling. Applied to the environment, each offers new ways to collaborate with individuals and communities to reimagine what is possible, to educate and build coalitions, and ultimately to effect change for the better.

The second key proposition at the heart of the environmental humanities is really about traffic in the opposite direction: namely, the idea that taking the environment, the more-than-human world, seriously, might enrich the humanities themselves as fields of inquiry.

From this perspective, fundamental questions of the humanities – concerning meaning, value and purpose – cannot be answered inside an anthropocentric bubble. If we accept, as we must, that humanity in all of its varied forms, is woven into a larger more-than-human world, then what we thought we knew about ourselves, our place in the world and our often cherished values like freedom and justice must be rethought in important ways.[viii]

Taking this proposition seriously has pushed scholars within the environmental humanities into a range of different engagements and collaborations with natural scientists, indigenous peoples, farmers, and others with specialised knowledge about the landscapes we inhabit, to develop new methods and approaches.[ix]

The papers that we have put together in this panel offer a diverse set of examples of some of the ways that the environmental humanities are developing important resources for better understanding and responding to the challenges of our time, in this case with a particular focus on agricultural landscapes.

Together they offer a rich engagement that pays serious attention to the complex histories, the cultural practices and assumptions, the modes of seeing, of ignoring, of valuing and imagining, that structure agricultural possibilities in Australian and beyond.

The result, I think, is both sobering and strangely hopeful. We are faced with a great many challenges; but we also possess a range of tools for creative, collaborative and ethically grounded response.

[i] In 2013 when I gave a lecture on this emerging field (text available here) I noted that it was an umbrella for the coming together of discrete disciplinary approaches but that it might also be more than this. A great deal has happened in the intervening two years and I think it fair to say now that this latter possibility has been thoroughly nourished through diverse conferences, publications, undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programs, all of them focused on contributing to the shaping of thoroughly interdisciplinary environmental humanities methods and approaches.

[ii] Neimanis, Åsberg, and Hedrén, “Four Problems, Four Directions For Environmental Humanities: Toward Critical Posthumanities For the Anthropocene.”

[iii] On this point see, for example, Ibid. Rose et al., “Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.” Sörlin, “Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?”

[iv] Including, sadly, often by our own disciplines.

[v] For a discussion of diverse forms of rationality and reason see Plumwood, Environmental Culture.

[vi] Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” 5.

[vii] Perhaps more provocatively, we might insist – as some have – that ‘sustainability’ itself needs to be rethought to incorporate social justice concerns, as well as a range of priorities and visions of the “good life”.

[viii] For example, see the discussion of freedom in Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History.”

[ix] On de-colonizing knowledge and expertise Apffel-Marglin and Marglin, Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue. On what counts as environmental expertise see Sörlin, “Reconfiguring Environmental Expertise.”

Photo by Tim J Keegan, “Lake Hume in drought_6523”