Articulating the great environmental challenges

Thanks to the pioneering work of Australian researchers, we now have a greater understanding of how the humanities can tackle urgent environmental issues: from the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef to the bushfires that ravaged our nation. Welcome to the Environmental Humanities.

Photo of forestry activities in Tasmania, Australia, under a cloudy sky

Illuminating challenges, creating solutions

What have art, literature, philosophy and history got to do with rising sea levels, mass species extinctions and over-consumption of natural resources?

Plenty, according to researchers in the environmental humanities, who demonstrate that science and technology alone cannot solve the global challenges threatening the planet’s future. By exploring the human dimensions of those challenges, they believe, humanities scholars can help to illuminate them, and to forge new and creative solutions.

Australian researchers have figured prominently in the development of the field of environmental humanities, which adopts a broad, multi-disciplinary approach to explore the complex relationship between humans and the environment – between culture and nature.

As Australia’s Tom Griffiths, a 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.”

According to another leading environmental historian, Libby Robin, environmental humanities has a number of precursors. In the 1960s, environmental studies were guided by the natural sciences, and in the 1970s they broadened to include policy and the social sciences, with environmental history and environmental philosophy emerging during that same decade. “Eco-criticism” – environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies – had expanded by the early 1990s.

Multidisciplinary expertise for the climate

Researched and taught at universities around the world, the environmental humanities now  involve a wide range of expertise, including anthropology, archaeology, cultural studies, Indigenous studies, political ecology, cultural geography, gender and post-colonial studies, and the GLAM sector (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums).

Deploying diverse approaches and methods, researchers are collaborating with each other and with the natural scientists who have traditionally dominated the environmental domain. As a result, they are enhancing understanding of the social, political, cultural and economic forces which influence humans’ attitude to, interaction with and impact on the environment, as well as responses to environmental problems such as climate change.

The environmental humanities “are not so much a new discipline or method, as a fresh combination of humanistic perspectives and partnerships”, according to Robin.

World-leading Australian research

Griffiths’ work has included research on the history of bushfires in Australia. One of his contemporaries, Iain McCalman, has investigated the Great Barrier Reef as a product of both nature and the human imagination: a duality that must be grasped, he argues, if current threats to the Reef are to be combated.

Other seminal Australian scholars include the anthropologist and philosopher Deborah Bird Rose, who co-edited (with Thom van Dooren and others) the first international journal dedicated to the field, Environmental Humanities, founded in Sydney in 2012, and who carried out pioneering work in multi-species ethnography.

Philosopher Val Plumwood was also committed to nurturing the environmental humanities, aiming to “stimulate and sustain the great humanities project of … working out ‘new ways to live with the earth’”.  Another renowned philosopher, Freya Mathews, has researched ecological metaphysics and panpsychism, the theory that everything in the natural world has consciousness.

More broadly, humanities scholars are contributing their analytical, critical and narrative skills, as well as key humanities concepts such as meaning, value, responsibility and purpose, to help elucidate global environmental challenges and solutions. The field continues to grow with an energetic newer generation of scholars.

Further reading & resources

Discovering Humanities series

This story is part of our Discovering Humanities series.

This series is a celebration of humanities research and discovery. Born out of our 50th anniversary in 2019, it covers just a small fraction of the many advances within the humanities since the Academy was first founded.

>> Explore the series

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.