Posted on 2015/11/25 by

Environmental Humanities: Engaging Critics in an Interdisciplinary Space

Studies of the environment have a history of being characterized by a deep division between scientific research and humanities scholarship. In the same way, literary ecocriticism has been engrained within a critical lineage associated with an American wilderness ethic and Jeffersonian logic of “culture” in opposition to “the environment.” In conversation with anti-making discourses, that Debbie Chachra uses in her article for The AtlanticWhy I Am Not a Maker,” this probe will consider the interdisciplinary space set up in environmental studies—where the “real” is never far from “theories”—to discuss an academic journal that has privileged an integration of humanities research methods in environment studies that is decentering, destabilizing and enriching the field.

In the most recent issue of Environmental Humanities, a journal that publishes interdisciplinary research on the environment, scholars from across the disciplines were invited to respond to An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), a recently published article that argues for “decoupling human development from environmental impacts” (7). Characterized by the journal’s editors as “one of the more concrete and explicit statements to have emerged out of a broader effort to reconfigure what counts as environmentalism in the early decades of the 21st century,” the Manifesto generated a variety of responses from humanities scholars. Among them, figured Bruno Latour, who, in “Fifty Shades of Green,” compares the manifesto’s message to the invention of the electronic cigarette to say that the Manifesto might have found a way to “be modern and ecological without either of the two” (220). Far from a non sequitur, Latour uses the association to discuss “ecomodernism” as a concept, to challenge the manifesto’s claims within a sociological framework.

Everyone of you here who knows anything about controversies regarding human and non-human entities entangled together are fully aware that there is not one single case where it is useful to make the distinction between what is “natural” and what “is not natural.” [. . .] “Nature” isolated from its twin sister “culture” is a phantom of Western anthropology. What we are dealing with instead are distributions of agencies in which we are all entangled in ways which are highly controversial and the reactions to which are almost always highly counterintuitive. Or to put it in my language, the world is not made of “matters of fact” but rather “matters of concern.” “Nature is but a name for excess.” (Latour 221)

Latour’s integration of actor-network theory into a discussion of environmentalism to challenge “matters of fact” cuts to the heart of the project of Environmental Humanities: to provide a discursive space that “draws humanities disciplines into conversation with each other, and with the natural and social sciences” and allow discussion to move beyond the entrenched dualism of science and humanities research that has pervaded environment studies (Rose et al. 2). In the introduction to the journal’s inaugural issue, “Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities,” the editors describe the publication as a project with two aspects:

[. . .], on the one hand, the common focus of the humanities on critique and an ‘unsettling’ of dominant narratives, and on the other, the dire need for all peoples to be constructively involved in helping to shape better possibilities in these dark times. The environmental humanities is necessarily, therefore, an effort to inhabit a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action. (Rose et al. 3)

This articulation of Environmental Humanities, as a “space of simultaneous critique and action,” interpellates discourses of critical making. In his discussion of critical making as a conceptual and material process, Matt Ratto describes a practice that bridges “a deeper disconnect between conceptual understandings of technology and our material experiences with them” (253).

The use of the term critical making to describe our work signals a desire to theoretically and pragmatically connect two modes of engagement with the world that are often held separate—critical thinking, typically understood as conceptually and linguistically based, and physical “making,” goal-based material work. (Ratto 253)

In the same way, the contributors of Environmental Humanities reconcile a disciplinary disconnect between science and the humanities through an impetus to be relevant to contemporary environmental concerns. Like the collaborative space that Ratto describes, the journal’s emphasis on publishing scholarship intended for an interdisciplinary audience (written outside of established sub-fields of Environmental Humanities like environmental history or environmental philosophy) provides a space that “encourages the development of a collective frame while allowing disciplinary and epistemic differences to be both highlighted and hopefully overcome” (Ratto 253). However, the comparison between critical making and environmental humanities relies on equating the work of humanities scholars with that of the developers and designers from which Ratto derives his ideas. Which begs the question—

What do the humanists—as educators, critics and theorists—bring to the table?

The three pillars of the Sustainability, Science and Society program at McGill University.

The three pillars of the Sustainability, Science and Society program at McGill University.

This graph, taken from the McGill University’s Sustainability, Science and Society program page—an interdisciplinary and interfaculty degree program that allows students to work in both science and the humanities—demonstrates they articulate as the three pillars of an interdisciplinary approach to studying the environment: science and technology; economics, policy and governance; and ethics, equity and justice. In a program designed to educate students in both current scientific research and critical discourse so they can affect environmental policy, this degree program seems to perform the “active” aspect of Environmental Humanities’ project: “to be constructively involved in helping to shape better possibilities in these dark times” (Rose et al. 3). Or, be relevant.

But if relevancy were the only driving force of research in the Humanities, Literature departments would be much smaller and devote their funding towards teaching Language and Composition, rather than give classes on old media, theories of happiness and a handful of postcolonial novelists that (almost) no one has ever heard of.

The primacy of relevancy in our society that privileges “making” and “producing” objects is a mind-set that characterizes the humanities, and their work in environment studies, “as a ‘non-science’, with the primary role of mediating between the natural sciences and ‘the public’. [. . .] at the core of these approaches is an impoverished and narrow conceptualisation of human agency, social and cultural formation, social change and the entangled relations between human and non-human worlds” (Rose et al. 2). However, the scholarship that the journal promotes is not based on interdisciplinary studies as an amalgamation of disciplines. In the same way that Latour challenges An Ecomodernist Manifesto’s understanding of “modern” and “environment,” interdisciplinary publications like Environmental Humanities challenge our understanding of the “humanities” by providing a space for scholars to circumvent the limitations of disciplinary approaches and perceived notions of the environment. Beyond an amalgamation of various disciplinary practices, interdisciplinarity in this case enriches critical thinking on the environment:

The humanities have traditionally worked with questions of meaning, value, ethics, justice and the politics of knowledge production. In bringing these questions into environmental domains, we are able to articulate a ‘thicker’ notion of humanity, one that rejects reductionist accounts of self-contained, rational, decision making subjects. Rather, the environmental humanities positions us as participants in lively ecologies of meaning and value, entangled within rich patterns of cultural and historical diversity that shape who we are and the ways in which we are able to ‘become with’ others. At the core of this approach is a focus on the underlying cultural and philosophical frameworks that are entangled with the ways in which diverse human cultures have made themselves at home in a more than human world. (Rose et al. 2)

The value in this type of thinking is that it isn’t entrenched in a single field or publication. Certain areas of study are emerging within established fields, like postcolonial ecocriticism in literary studies, that challenge our understanding of the interactions between humans and the non-human world. In the case of postcolonial ecocriticism, postcolonial theory is being used to revitalize and diversify ecocriticism’s traditionally American literary canon through the study of the treatment of the environment in texts written in the Global South, to give “environmental literary studies an international dimension” (Nixon 239). Decentering the study of environmental themes in literature allows postcolonial theorists to call into question “the perception that environmentalism is chiefly a politics that protects urban social privilege” (DeLoughrey 26).

One of the key themes of postcolonial ecocriticism is the use of imagination to articulate alternate relationships to the non-human world. In her essay on Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide, Laura White discusses Ghosh’s use of the novel form to develop “a rhythmic pattern of organization that reflects nonvisual ways of knowing the Sunderbans and that positions the novel as an alternative way of knowing which disrupts colonial and neocolonial visions of the Sunderbans by narrating interactions between geohistorically located and embodied knowers” (514-15). For Ghosh, only the broad form of the novel can “create ways of imagining human-nature relations and new ways of making environmental decisions” (517). In “The Greater Common Good,” a political essay published in 1999 on the human cost of monumental water development projects in India, novelist Arundhati Roy questions the “narrative of national development” that portrays infrastructure development as central to the nation’s interest, even as development creates developmental refugees that are “unimagined” from the nation’s “imagined community” (Nixon “Unimagined Communities” 150). In these texts, “imagination” (narrative, representation and subjectivity) is used to constitute place-based engagements with the non-human world, and “complicate” dominant ways of knowing and understanding the environment.

This approach to thinking about the border between the human and the non-human, through postcolonial literature’s engagement with environment, is only made possible in a space where literary scholars are in conversation with sociologists, anthropologists, environmental scientists and all the other actors involved in ecocriticism. In the same way that critical making, as a mode of exploration and articulation, allowed students at the Umea Institute of Design to develop ideas (Ratto 254), the interplay and exchange of ideas and critical perspectives between theorists of different disciplines studying the environment has allowed for alternate configurations of the border between human and non-human, cultures and environments, to be articulated. In the case of Environmental Humanities, this exchange was made possible within an interdisciplinary space that understood the critical value of Humanities research in its own right.

Cover Image: Taken from the cover of Environmental Humanities 7, which is available for you to read here. Image by Glendon Rolston “Spiderwebs Everwhere”.

Works Cited

Asafu-Adjaye, John et al. An Ecomodernist Manifesto., April 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Chachra, Debbie. “Why I Am Not a Maker.” The Atlantic. Web. Accessed 24. Nov 2015.

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth and George B. Handley. “Introduction: Towards an Aesthetics of the Earth.” Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. London: Oxford UP, 2011.

Latour, Bruno. “Fifty Shades of Green.” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015): pp. 219-225.

McGill University. “What Knowledge and Skills Are Needed for Solving Sustainability Challenges?” <> Web. Accessed 25. Nov 2015.

Nixon, Rob. “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism.” Postcolonial Studies and Beyond. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2005.

Nixon, Rob. “Unimagined Communities: Megadams, Monumental Modernity and Developmental Refugees.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Boston: Harvard UP, 2011.

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society: An International Journal 27.4 (2011): pp. 252-260.

Rose, Deborah Bird et al. “Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.” Environmental Humanities 1 (2012): pp. 1-5.

Roy, Arundhati. “The Greater Common Good.” The Cost of Living. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1999.

White, Laura. “Novel Visions: Seeing the Sunderbans through Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 20 (2013): pp. 513-531.


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