Researchers and scholars must engage in long-term, laborious inter- and trans- disciplinary attempts to articulate the genuine environmental problems that fail to politely conform to disciplinary boundaries. Both the “humanities” and environmental studies will be strengthened through the challenges arising from interactions between them, and through forging new connections to current issues of enormous importance facing today’s world.
The current proliferation of approaches falling under the heading of EH provides a host of opportunities for engagement. Considering environmental problems from plural perspectives defamiliarizes the assumptions from one’s discipline, creating new occasions for collaboration between disciplines. At the same time, some guiding principles should be kept in place to help us avoid potential pitfalls. What follows is not exhaustive, but is meant to further reflection and debate on the nature of environmental humanities.
First, we have to be aware that the term “environmental humanities” simply reproduces in an academic register the dualistic juxtaposition of human and nature in the western tradition, and runs the risk of perpetuating it. Humanities approaches are often viewed as a mere accretion or supplement to existing scientific approaches, like the icing on the cake or the rhetorical emotional flourish added to the dry scientific description, and this simply leaves the existing dualism between human-centered humanities and nature-centered sciences in place. We should not cripple the transformative potential of environmental humanities by opposing humanistic inquiry to scientific inquiry, but should respond to the problems themselves in a multifaceted way while remaining aware of this history. Because environmental problems do not wait for academics to properly and narrowly characterize them from their specific disciplinary perspective before imperiously imposing themselves, environmentalists have to be capable of transcending disciplinary blinkers in order to address and define the problems themselves in all of their unruly complexity. In hopes that it will promote debate and advance the field, we take a strong stance on the nature of environmental humanities rather than allow contingent disciplinary and institutional concerns to frame the debate.
Avoiding merely nominal definition of the field is a second important guideline. Environmental humanities has been loosely and contingently conceived as inquiry into environmental issues employing the methodological resources of the existing humanistic disciplines, such as history, literary criticism, philosophy, etc. However, defining the field relative to disciplinary conventions already takes for granted static, codified, and institutional distinctions that arose in a period when environmental concern was nonexistent, and transposes them into an era of pervasive environmental concern with problems that do not respect disciplinary boundaries. Therefore, rather than imagine disciplines turning their already existing toolboxes to highly complex problems that they only touch in a glancing way, environmental humanities as understood here will take a stance that rejects this merely nominal definition of EH and proposes a substantive definition.
EH is both “critical” and “imaginative,” bearing on analytical and creative aspects of humanities work. “Critical” is any method or approach that reveals and questions the conditions under which knowledge and practice bearing on human/nonhuman nature relations is produced, whether these conditions are institutional, historical, technological, cultural, ideological, social, symbolic, economic, or conceptual. The plurality of critical approaches within the humanities can provide constructive contrasts that reveal assumptions not available to those operating with the methods of a single isolated discipline. Secondly, the imaginative storytelling, narrative, and sensory experiences the arts can provide generate powerful ways of reckoning with the madness of our current situation, stitching together pathways through it, and imagining alternative futures in human and nonhuman collectives to come.
Thus, in addition to being “a collective questioning of basic assumptions about human relations to nonhuman nature through a culturally, socially, scientifically, and historically informed understanding of human interrelations with the environment,” environmental humanities will also entail a proactive stance. It is a transdisciplinary field that acknowledges the asymmetrical dependence of human life on the ontological agency of nonhumans, dehomogenizes the “we” of traditional or science-driven environmentalism, and reimagines individual and social priorities and ways of social being within a future human and nonhuman collective. This is not the work of some elite vanguard. Only by means of collectives of cooperative experts, students, citizens, and even nonhumans in conversation is there any hope of creating communities of human and nonhuman liberation and solidarity in our natural-cultural places all over the globe.