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Environmental Humanities

I had just printed a few posters to announce the launch of an Environmental Humanities Center when a colleague from computational linguistics passed me in the hall. He studied the poster with sincere interest and declared that this was a new and unusual combination to him: Environmental + Humanities. He was not the last person to say this to me in the weeks leading up to the launch. The environment is not a subject commonly associated with the humanities, but with the natural sciences.

But current environmental issues are so complex that they need an interdisciplinary approach: the natural and social sciences and the humanities need to work together to approach problems in all their complexity.  As biologist Sverker Sörlin wrote in the journal Bioscience:

Our belief that science alone could deliver us from the planetary quagmire is long dead. […] It seems this time that our hopes are tied to the humanities. […] In a world where cultural values, political and religious ideas, and deep-seated human behaviors still rule the way people lead their lives, produce, and consume, the idea of environmentally relevant knowledge must change. [source]

Not only do the humanities have knowledge about the way cultural values, political and religious ideas shape our perceptions of the environment; also, a lot of disciplines within the humanities — such as literature, history, art, design, cultural studies, philosophy, archaeology, cultural geography —  use methodologies aimed at synthesis. They seek to connect different kinds of knowledge to grasp a complex system of relations, developments, processes – whether that is a historical period or the experience of living in a city. The current environmental crisis calls for such ‘ecological modes of knowledge production’ across disciplinary boundaries, as Owain Jones puts it:

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. [Source]

Together with Sjoerd Kluiving, I founded an Environmental Humanities Center at my university. We are finding that the center answers a desire for the integration of humanities perspectives on the relations between natures and cultures, between humans and their environment — with students, researchers across academic disciplines, and local institutions. We hope to make this center grow into an inspiring, creative, and open-minded hub for all kinds of collaborations, also with other centers nationally and internationally.


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