Reckoning with the Environmental Humanities

View of downtown St. John's and harbour. Source: Sean Kheraj, 2018.

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Editor’s Note: This is the introduction to a series of posts focused on environmental humanities and public engagement. These posts emerged from a workshop held at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Nexus Centre for Humanities and Social Science Research in May 2018 called, “Environmental Humanities in the Public Realm.” Click here to read the entire series.


Most of us are familiar with recurring discussion about the importance of environmental historians working with ecologists and other environmental sciences. For the most part, historians claim they can add historical depth to contemporary questions in spatial ecology, contributing historical ecological data to conservation issues and critical readings of sources that might be employed to assess baseline environmental conditions in the past.[1]

In the last decade, environmental scholars have attempted to define and articulate a broader and more unified uber-field: the environmental humanities. The goals of the movement are diverse, but generally revolve around the idea that a more coherent approach to environmental scholarship in the humanities will put scholars in a better position to respond to the worsening ecological crisis, act as a possible hedge against cuts to humanities programs labelled as irrelevant, communicate a more cohesive message to the general public, and facilitate a more effective approach to collaboration among scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences. Some pioneers of the environmental humanities have explicitly linked this new approach to scholarly work on the Anthropocene, arguing that the unprecedented reach of human influence on the environment requires a more integrated approach to environmental scholarship.[2] A smattering of formal research institutes and networks have emerged to support the new approach, including (but certainly not limited to) the interdisciplinary Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU Munich, the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, the Humanities for the Environment Network, and the Humanities for the Environment Observatories. It may be true that the concept of the environmental humanities, “remains somewhat more aspirational than real,” as prominent ecocritic Ursula K. Heise argues.[3] But the idea that environmental scholars may have more in common (common interests, common cause) that those within their own disciplines is a compelling call to action.

Shortly after I became director of Memorial University’s new Nexus Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences Research, it occurred to me that the environmental humanities offered fertile ground to foster the interdisciplinary exchange that is the centre’s core mission. It seemed also an opportune time to time to convene a group of mostly Canadian scholars to discuss the prospects for developing the environmental humanities in this country, while also strengthening links to networks and initiatives in other countries.

The environmental humanities workshop exceeded my expectations in terms of its vibrancy, energy, and quality of discussion. We began with a student training day that included brief research overviews from all participants, in addition to training workshops on writing, podcasting, and the practice of feminist science (where we built our own feminist research technologies).

Building feminist technology (Photo by John Sandlos)

The high energy of the student day carried over into the next two days of the main workshop. Anybody looking for a fascinating “how to” guide for digital outreach projects, for example, certainly came to the right place. Jessica DeWitt highlighted her tireless efforts to promote NiCHE and environmental history scholarship more generally via social media, taking the audience to her “command hub” (using the Hootsuite social media management platform), describing tricks of the trade (the importance of hashtags, Twitter lists, etc.), and arguing persuasively that social media offers the opportunity for more reciprocity and equity in scholarship (shining light on marginalized voices, cultivating audiences beyond the traditional academic realm, and engaging in activism). Kim Coulter similarly described her experience developing social media projects for the Rachel Carson Center’s Environment and Society Portal, suggesting that simplicity and cultivating a sense of discovery (i.e., lots of interesting links and pathways to follow) are key to successful digital outreach projects. Although Bipasha Baruah focuses on policy interventions designed to increase women’s participation in the renewable energy sector, she also highlighted the digital video project developed with the production firm KindeaLabs, a series of shorts on key research themes that have been circulated widely in policy making and NGO circles. Above all else, the workshop’s digital outreach specialists emphasized the joys and frustrations of learning through experimentation, but also their conviction that digital tools create a more accessible and equitable approach to scholarly dissemination.

That is not to say that the environmental humanities should abandon older forms of communication such as the venerable paper and pen. Susie O’Brien drew on seemingly disparate texts—a McMaster University report on fossil divestment and a story by Indigenous author Leanne Simpson—to remind the audience that narrative and symbolism are the primary way humans will order a (hopefully greener) world. Poet and literary scholar Emily McGiffin analyzed the connections between environmental poetics and Indigenous narratives of decolonization, drawing on celebrated Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s work on the theme of Indigenous erasure from the landscape. O’Brien and McGiffin provided a useful reminder that meaningful efforts to address environmental issues demand more than “nuts and bolts” policy or technical interventions, but deeper cultural transformation.

Several papers reflected on scholarly participation in the policy realm. Sean Kheraj discussed how open access publishing (on ActiveHistory.ca) of historical pipeline spill data had enabled him to act as a “rapid responder” to contemporary pipeline controversies (because the work is widely accessible and gets into print rapidly), but also how his work producing a commissioned report for the City of Vancouver as part of the National Energy Board hearings demanded an impartial stance that constrained the almost reflexive impulse of the historian toward interpretation. Economist Anthony Heyes presented results of several studies where he had linked increased air pollution to social and medical ills such as cognitive impairment (using vast datasets showing the missed ball and strike calls by baseball umpires correlate strongly with high air pollution days) and urban violence. Paul Foley highlighted his long history of work on fishery issues in Newfoundland, emphasizing how he applies a political ecology perspective (rather than seeing policy processes as purely technocratic) in his “entanglements” with communities, government, NGOs, and unions.

The remaining workshop participants all developed the theme of community-based public engagement in some way. Max Liboiron reminded workshop participants of the complicated ethical terrain upon which community-based research takes place, suggesting the subtle ways community member might indicate non-consent for university research agendas. Deborah McGregor delivered a wide-ranging talk on the connections between Anishinabek environmental knowledge and environmental justice. Dayna Scott highlighted the action her research team has taken working with Cree and Oji-Cree communities who oppose mineral extraction in Ontario’s Ring of Fire Region. Sarah Flicker offered an important reflection of the challenges and opportunities of incorporating community-engaged research into teaching practices, detailing her experience teaching a graduate participatory research course that developed peer walking groups (to improve mental health outcomes through physical activity and contact with green space) in partnership with the organization Building Roads Together and residents of Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. In a somewhat similar vein, Ashlee Cunsolo talked about the prevalence of ecological mourning or grief among Inuit communities in Labrador who already experienced widespread changes to their environments due to climate change.

Obviously scholars from many fields within the environmental humanities have already made huge strides incorporating some kind of public outreach or policy relevant approach in their work. The greatest value of the workshop was undoubtedly gathering such a diverse group to learn from each other’s work, and talk about different ways of moving our work further into the public realm. With this in mind, The Otter is running a series of blogs by workshop participants reflecting on the work they presented and lessons learned about the environmental humanities in the public realm.


[1] Simon Pooley, “Historians Are from Venus, Ecologists Are from Mars.” Conservation Biology 27, 6 (2013): 1481–83; Yolanda Wiersma and John Sandlos, “Once there were so many: Animals as Ecological Baselines,” Environmental History 16, 3 (2011): 400-407.

[2] Poul Holm, Michael Evan Goodsite, Sierd Cloetingh, Mauro Agnoletti, Bedrich Moldan, Daniel J. Lang, Rik Leemans, et al. “Collaboration between the Natural, Social and Human Sciences in Global Change Research.” Environmental Science & Policy 28 (2013): 25–35. Rose, Bird, and Libby Robin, “The Ecological Humanities in Action: An Invitation.” Australian Humanities Review, 31–32 (2004): 1–7; Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Stuart Cooke, Matthew Kearnes, and Emily O’Gorman, “Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.” Environmental Humanities 1, 1 (2012): 1–5; Sverker Sorlin, “Environmental Humanities: Why Shouid Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?” BioScience 62, 9(2012): 788–89.

[3] Ursula K. Heise,  “Comparative Ecocriticism in the Anthropocene.” Komparatistik: Jahrbuch Der Deutschen Gesellschaft Für Allgemeine Und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft (2013): 19–30.

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