Environmental Humanities

I love being part of the Environmental Humanities Program at UNSW, and one of unexpected benefits is that frequently I get asked: what is this subject, and who needs it?

My answers are very straightforward: we bring the expertise of the humanities fields together with the expertise of science fields in order to enhance, critique, and sharpen both. Everybody, including the earth, needs it.

There is also the question of why, and again my answers are straightforward: in this time of massive human impacts on earth systems, including life systems, the expertise of those who specialise in humans and those who specialise in science are both essential.

Newcastle oil spill seabird rescue, Doug Beckers (CC)
Newcastle oil spill seabird rescue, Doug Beckers (CC)

Science helps us understand the effects of what we are doing and how we may do better. The humanities help us understand how varied are the forms of human culture and society, and how some forms promote and even normalise environmental violence. Questions of values have traditionally belonged within the humanities. With a focus on human diversity and humanity’s embeddedness within ecological systems, it is possible to think creatively about how we may live differently.

The gap between Arts and Sciences (humanities and science) is a centuries-old academic practice and structure. These two fields have different educational paths, career tracks, specialised terminologies, and often have different methods and standards of evaluation. At times there is rivalry between them, and at times respect is lacking. The division is now understood to be terribly dysfunctional, because it has become clear that the vast majority of issues the world faces today require the expertise of both the humanities and science.

Fall of Berlin Wall, Gavin Stewart (CC)
Fall of Berlin Wall, Gavin Stewart (CC)

Underlying the academic division there is a deeper cultural divide. This is the great dualism between nature and culture. It is a dual division that is both a structure of thought and a structure of power. This dualism has been analysed by a host of philosophers, among whom Val Plumwood is a key figure. She showed that these western dualisms are oppositional and hierarchical. This means that there is no meaningful overlap between them (they oppose each other), and that one is held to be superior to the other (they are hierarchical).

Her term was ‘hyperseparation’. One side is valued, the other disvalued. Examples are wide-ranging and they reinforce each other: mind-matter; organic-inorganic; culture-nature. Anything that can be brought into a dualism can be brought into a much wider conceptual framework of inclusion or exclusion, regard or disregard. The wider framework is deployed as an instrument of oppressive power, privileging some and deprecating others, while implying that this is the natural order of things. Plumwood used various terms to describe the practice of exclusion and deprecation, one of which, the ‘sado-dispassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’ sums it up well. This culture, she writes, ‘makes of its objects of attention a terra nullius, a prior vacancy, the better to inscribe its own ends.’

The nature-culture dualism works this way exactly: one side contains humans with their culture, their intelligence, their capacity for language, their values, and so on. Nature (environments, ecologies, nonhuman species, earth systems) is on the other side and, by definition, is deemed to be without intelligence, without its own integrity, and so on and on. The humanities/science divide reflects this boundary in one significant way: only in dualistic thought it can seem reasonable to suppose that humans can be understood without reference to nature and that nature can be understood without reference to humans.

There are also significant political dimensions. The dualism implicitly denies connectivities between humans and the world we live in. Given that humans are intelligent, it makes sense within dualistic thinking that they should control nature, and given that humans are deemed to be superior it makes sense that nature should be there for them to use. I have spelled this out in rather crude terms in order to make it highly visible. One big point is that the nature-culture dualism is central to the devastation that is now rolling out across the earth in the form of climate change, toxins, land degradation, water despoliation, pollution, extinctions, and death, death, death. The other big point is that it is false. In truth, humans and environments are entangled in networks of connectivity. And so, bringing science and the humanities together produces more accurate knowledge.

Disconnect, Paul Hocksenar (CC)
Disconnect, Paul Hocksenar (CC)

It is equally important to be clear that within the world of human knowledge there is another relevant dualism. The colonising dualism between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ works in the same fashion as the nature/culture divide. Here civilisation is at the summit of human achievement, and primitives are defined by lack (of clothing, intelligence, long-term planning, adult attitudes and understanding, etc). Within dualistic thinking it makes sense that civilisation should control and transform the primitive. This is exactly the logic that classed Aboriginal people as part of the flora and fauna for such a long time in Australia.

This colonising dualism can be understood roughly as a gap between ‘the west’ and ‘the rest’ with the west placing itself (of course) in the superior position. The implication for knowledge is that western scientific knowledge is held to be more advanced (and thus better) than Indigenous knowledge.

It must be said that starting up conversations across any of these established boundaries is not always an easy task. I think of it as a firestick approach to knowledge. If you rub these oppositional ‘sticks’ together you get a lot of friction, but in the end you also get sparks. New knowledge arises in these places where the hard work of overcoming boundaries leads to diverse and better understandings. I have worked for decades to bring Indigenous knowledge into mainstream academic and public discourse, and often it has been an up-hill battle. More recently I have been carrying out multispecies ethnography, and here, too, one encounters both enthusiasm and resistance.

Ants communicating, Wild Center (CC)
Ants communicating, Wild Center (CC)

Another devastating effect of dualisms has been the promotion of a boundary between humans and other living beings, with humans in the position of intelligence, communication, empathy, discernment, choice, relationships of care and much more. The dualistic structure leaves all other living beings in a position of lack: they are defined as beings without intelligence, communication, empathy, discernment, and so on. Indigenous knowledge is particularly important in this area because as a general rule Indigenous people do not understand other beings in terms of lack, but rather seek in open-minded fashion to understand them on their own terms. Indeed, many Indigenous people focus a great deal of attention on the connections between humans and other animals, and connections amongst animals themselves. A general term for these connectivities is ‘animism’. This set of understandings involves recognising that ‘the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others’. To be a person is to have a view, a subjectivity, to inhabit a world that is in some way meaningful.

Scientific knowledge is also important in relation to this dualism. Increasingly research is demonstrating that other living creatures, from mammals to birds to plants to bacteria are sentient, in many cases conscious, intelligent and communicative, and most certainly alert, discerning, and capable of choice. Both western science and Indigenous knowledge overturn the classic idea of humans as the single, lone species of intelligence, etc. The multispecies ethnography that my colleagues and I do acknowledges the involvement of other nonhuman intelligences, and seeks to open knowledge networks to engagements with the lives of others.

Dingo Research, with thanks to Dingo Simon.
Dingo Research! with thanks to Dingo Simon.

I have sometimes used the metaphor of the network of knowledge. The great divides – between science and humanities, between the west and the rest, between coloniser and Indigenous – all these divides tear apart networks of human knowledge. They break up connectivities and impede flows of ideas, leaving everyone poorer. Work in the environmental humanities aims to invigorate connectivities: to repair networks, to restore conversations that have been broken, to stimulate conversations that have only just begun, and to initiate conversations that are as yet barely imaginable.

The environmental humanities has a huge and ambitious agenda, and it is always in danger of running off in all directions. My work is focussed in an area best known as the ecological humanities and owes a lot to the philosopher Val Plumwood. Val was a friend and colleague during the years when we were bringing these conversation into widespread recognition. She brought clarity and precision to the project by articulating two major tasks before us at this time.

The first is to re-situate humans in ecological terms, and the second is to re-situate non-humans in ethical terms.

To resituate humans in ecological terms is to overcome the idea that humans are outside of nature, and thus is the first step toward overcoming a humanities worldview that defines humanity without reference to the living world and that claims a privileged position for humans. The second task – to resituate non-humans in ethical terms – overcomes the idea that the non-human world is devoid of meaning, values, and ethics. A major focus is on the widespread existence of sentience and agency amongst living beings.

Val Plumwood and Birubi (CC)
Val Plumwood and Birubi (CC)

Each of Plumwood’s two tasks works toward connectivity, and re-imagines creaturely entanglements as constitutive of life on earth.

The environmental humanities is a rapidly growing and evolving project. We live within a rapidly changing biosphere, in the midst of dizzying cultural, political and ecological change, and we work with a growing diversity of participants. A sense of urgency runs through all this change. It seems clear to most thinking people that time is running out for sustainable life on earth (as we know it). Val put it this way:

“If our species does not survive the ecological crisis, it will probably be due to our failure to imagine and work out new ways to live with the earth, to rework ourselves and our high energy, high-consumption, and hyper-instrumental societies adaptively…. We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.”

Just at the moment the human species does not seem in danger of dying out, although that could change suddenly, but thousands of other species are being eradicated every year and human beings are the cause (directly or indirectly).  At the same time, ever greater expanses of earth (land, ocean, fresh water) are becoming barely habitable.

The environmental humanities encompasses many diverse passions. Mine is for these others who are in peril, and for the beauty, stability and integrity of earth.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)


One of the most exciting new resources is the Environmental Humanities online course at UNSW. The course is a MOOC (massive online open course) and is free.

A few years ago Thom van Dooren and I started a new online journal Environmental Humanities; at that time there was no academic journal dedicated precisely to this emerging field of studies. Together with our editorial board we wrote an article in which we explained in detail what this new field of study is and why it matters (download here). Before this venture, Libby Robin, Thom and I initiated and edited an ecological humanities section in the Australian Humanities Review. Both journals are committed to open access, and all articles and other material are freely available.

There is a wealth of online material concerning Indigenous ecological knowledge  in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the USA and elsewhere. A few of my favourite books are: Sacred Ecology: Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management, Do Glaciers Listen?, Climate, Culture, Change, and Country of the Heart. The quote about animism comes from Graham Harvey’s excellent book Animism: Respecting the Living World.

To learn more about multispecies ethnography, visit this excellent site. The information coming out about animal and plant intelligence is widespread and expressed vividly in, for example, the ethological work of Marc Bekoff (in books such as Minding Animals and Wild Justice), and in the philosophical- botanical work of Matt Hall (Plants as Persons).

Val Plumwood’s analysis of western dualisms is presented in her two great books: Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, and Environmental Culture. Freya Mathews is our other leading thinker in this field. She offers a stimulating vision of how humans may restore themselves within the natural world in her book Reinhabiting Reality. Decades ago Aldo Leopold addressed the question of how to discern good action from bad action in relation to the environment. He wrote: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ This was in his book A Sand County Almanac, first published in 1949.

For more on extinction, visit our Extinction Studies webpage.

Liyu Lake, Taiwan
Liyu Lake, Taiwan

2 thoughts on “Environmental Humanities

  1. Hi Deborah,

    UNSW sustained me too, and for many years. As a student, then as a staff member involved in student support and teaching through Nura Gili Indigenous Programs at the Kensington Campus, I can identify with the ‘dance’ of the dualism- engaging, interacting, and acknowledging what are fundamentally differing perspectives. Where these dualisms come into contact and where the friction occurs- as you say- can produce spark, and a regenerative fire 🙂

    The site of an ancient campfire up at the Prince of Wales Hospital site gifted ‘Nura Gili’ its name – translating conceptually to campfire, or ‘place of fire and light’. I drew on this association often, recognising the continuity of that Country as a gathering site, and further as permission to continue to gather, listen, learn and contribute in the way that the Country has facilitated for thousands of years.

    I appreciate your analogy of making fire, friction, flame as a demonstration of the sentience of that Country, and I thank you for expressing it so beautifully. Country is speaking through you.

    Jilda Andrews

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