Late last year, the CSIRO released the 2020 State of the Climate report, described as ‘its most comprehensive set of climate change projections for Australia ever released’. It reported with ‘high to very high confidence’ that hot days will become more frequent and hotter, sea levels will rise, oceans will become more acidic, snow depths will decline, and that extreme rainfall events will become more intense. It is no understatement to say that these events will have a serious, detrimental and permanent impact our nation’s economic, social, and physical health.
To date, governments have mainly looked to the sciences to help address the global warming crisis. The sciences are, of course, essential for understanding and responding to climate change, and technology will play a critical role in developing solutions.
There is also a big role for the humanities to play. As Academy Fellow Tom Griffiths, distinguished environmental historian, has written: “Problems that have often been seen as purely scientific or material or environmental are now more readily understood as fundamentally social and humanist … We often name ecological problems by their chief biophysical symptom – salinity, soil acidity, land degradation, forest loss – yet each problem actually has its origin in human behaviour.”
At the broadest level, our disciplines can interpret human behaviour, literature, and culture to identify the root cause of complex problems and inject ethical principles into policy making. But more specifically to climate change and environmental catastrophe, the humanities allow us to think about ourselves as being embedded in the processes of the earth, something that remains a major challenge for societies that have been dominated by Western modes of thought.
In order to achieve an urgent shift in thinking, it is essential that we turn to and embrace traditional and Indigenous knowledges relating to the environment and to amplify their voices when thinking through solutions. In the face of ever more extreme weather events, including droughts, bushfires and flood due to climate change, adopting more historically-proven practices is increasingly urgent. Australia has much to learn from Indigenous land management practices, building on genuine engagement and reciprocity with those caring for Country, and respect for Indigenous science and knowledges within a modern management system.
We have already seen the valuable contribution the humanities disciplines can make to largescale, environmental problems. Just last year, Australia tapped into our nation’s best brainpower in responding to the devastating bushfires that ravaged so much of our country, and to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is humanities researchers who are analysing the cultural forces driving climate change.
On the eve of this World Environment Day, the Australian Academy of the Humanities calls for stronger collaboration across all disciplines in tackling this urgent crisis and to help us broaden and deepen our contribution to its successful management. Collectively, we must harness whatever resources are at our disposal, including the imaginative power of the humanities and arts, to build a sustainable future for generations to come.
The Academy is convening a series of events this year focussed on the environment and climate change, including the Annual Symposium, Culture, Nature, Climate: humanities and the environmental crisis, 15-19 November 2021.
The Academy’s President, Professor Lesley Head will also convene the inaugural President’s Conversation on Tuesday, June 22 at 1:00pm-2.30pm – ‘Bearing Witness? Humanities Teaching in a time of Environmental Catastrophe’. Professor Head will ask a panel of educators at different career stages how they approach their teaching in the era of climate change, how they empower students, and how they protect their students’ wellbeing in the face of often confronting and difficult subject matter. To register for this event, please visit our website.