Emotional Ecologies: An Introduction

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As smoke from Canada’s latest wildfire season blanketed New York City and other communities up and down the eastern United States this past week, affected residents expressed feeling sadness, frustration, and dread. Indeed, talk of eco-grief, solastalgia, and climate anxiety has seemed to grow exponentially alongside the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss in recent years. It is in this atmosphere of disquietude that environmental history and humanities scholars have recently turned more towards affect theory and begun to better define an emotional ecology.

This increased adoption of affective thought in regards to environmental scholarship, has necessitated that environmental historians and humanities scholars grapple with how systems of colonization, imperialism, and capitalism are undergirded by, as well as give birth to, specific sets of emotions and relational structures. Further, an increased awareness of the interconnection between these systems and emotions has also illuminated ways that we must be cognizant of Western, as well as anthropocentric, biases. 

The intersection of affect theory and more-than-human theory provides a particularly promising avenue for the exploration of inter-species relational entanglements and their affective texture. In her speculative exploration of the significance of care for thinking, knowing, and living in more-than-human worlds, María Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) argues for “an ethical reorganization of human-nonhuman relations” that factors in “caring obligations that enact nonexploitative forms of togetherness” that are adaptive to evolving needs and material realities. Puig de la Bellacasa warns of the risks of fetishization and appropriation when thinking and acting on behalf of nonhumans and proposes reframing human and more-than-human care as an affective force that enables a multiplicity of agencies and materials through responsiveness and attentiveness.    

As we contemplate our emotional connection to more-than-human beings and the environment-at-large, it is important to note that these relationships are not defined solely by negative emotions, but are also sources of great joy and comfort. Our emotional connection to the environment, as Isaias Hernandez shows in the below “Climate Emotion Scale” graphic, is fluid and ever-shifting. “Emotions and ecology are intimately interconnected in complex, unpredictable ways that defy simplistic and deterministic assumptions,” Marzia Varutti has noted. Additionally, though the climate and biodiversity crisis may have brought attention to our emotional connection to the environment in specific ways that feel particularly “of the moment,” we must acknowledge that humanity’s emotional connection to the environment and more-than-human world is as old as we are. 

It is with these ideas in mind that we–a duo made up of an emotions historian and affect scholar (Sarah) and an environmental historian (Jessica)–decided to organize this Emotional Ecologies series. We envisioned a series that would explore and showcase the latest in historical and environmental emotions scholarship. We invited potential contributors to engage with four main prompts:

  • In what ways do emotions and environments intersect and how are they entangled? How has emotion mobilized to shape or respond to environments and environmental change? Can emotion be understood as an environmental force?
  • How have human feelings about environments and animals changed or continued over time? What do place-based, migratory, and/or comparative approaches to emotional ecologies reveal?
  • How can more-than-human beings’ feelings be centered or, at the very least, included in explorations of emotional ecologies? What does ecocriticism, environmental history, and the history of emotion offer when exploring more-than-human’s feelings and experiences? 
  • What do environmental history and the history of emotion offer when exploring emotional ecologies and futurity? How do we imagine the more-than-human world and the living planet will feel in the future? How do we cultivate sustainable and thriving emotional ecologies?

Response to our call for submissions was overwhelming, and, over the next seven weeks, we are thrilled to be able to share twelve unique pieces that grapple with a wide variety of topics related to emotions and the environment.

Feature Image: “I visited this Orchid six times waiting for it to bloom. I’m feeling pretty sad, and I’m thinking about giving up hiking and botanizing, because I know what the future holds in terms of the local ecology, and I seem unable to observe these things with a healthy emotional distance.” – Fritz Flohr Reynolds. “Goodyera pubescens in bud, before it was destroyed.” by FritzFlohrReynolds is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
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Sarah York-Bertram (she/they) is a historian, a qualitative researcher, and a PhD candidate at York University. Their doctoral research is a history of emotions examining the affective basis of judgments and narratives surrounding sexual commerce during Canada’s westward expansion in the nineteenth century and western Canadian colonial worldmaking in the twentieth century. Sarah has fifteen years' experience in intersectional, transnational, and community-based feminist research and eleven years' experience in queer and feminist digital methods. She is a member of York University’s Centre for Feminist Research’s Feminist Digital Methods Research Cluster. Sarah was born and raised in Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan and currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. | Jessica DeWitt (she/her) is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, and digital strategist. She is co-editor-in-chief and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment. She is also a member of York University’s Centre for Feminist Research’s Feminist Digital Methods Research Cluster.

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