Ten steps to strengthen the environmental humanities

Community member post by Christoph Kueffer and Marcus Hall

Christoph Kueffer (biography)

How might the environmental humanities complement insights offered by the environmental sciences, while also remaining faithful to their goal of addressing complexity in analysis and searching for solutions that are context-dependent and pluralistic?

There is a long and rich tradition of scholarship in the humanities addressing environmental problems. Included under the term ‘environmental studies’ until recently, fields such as the arts, design, history, literary studies, and philosophy are now gathering under the new umbrella of the ‘environmental humanities’.

Marcus Hall (biography)

Environmental problems are seen by environmental humanists as inherently human problems. The environmental humanities cultivate methodologies and epistemologies that value context-dependence, multiperspectivity, relativism, and subjectivity. Thus different research themes are relevant, for instance, in questions of environmental justice that require us to focus on multiple meanings and values. Such insights complement the environmental sciences that are often rooted in the natural sciences and the scientific method.

Here we list ten ways to make the voice of the environmental humanities stronger, based on a report of a survey we distributed to environmental humanists working worldwide about how their field can add crucial tools to problem-oriented environmental research.

1. Resetting the agenda in science policy to emphasize human needs
Alternative themes and ways of doing research provided by the environmental humanities must be moved to the top of scientific and science policy agendas at national and international levels. For example, humanists and artists must sit on steering committees and expert panels, such as those that advise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), or Future Earth. They must join expert groups at national and local levels which examine issues that transcend the natural sciences, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, energy transition, urban and spatial planning, and the green economy.

2. Challenging dominant scientific paradigms and science-policy institutions
Changing the academic agenda can also mean that certain dominant scientific approaches or institutions at the science-policy nexus are challenged. This can involve criticizing particular aspects of existing research paradigms, such as anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism, a simplistic systems analysis approach, or biased problem framings (eg., in invasion biology, or of the Anthropocene concept). It can also mean making unheard voices heard (eg., those of indigenous people). Further, it can involve critically analysing existing science-policy bodies (eg., IPCC or IPBES).

3. Strengthening the voice of the environmental humanities
The environmental humanities have developed a rich body of conceptual ideas, and build on an even richer tradition of environmental studies ranging from political ecology and post-colonial studies, to critiques of capitalism, and feminist perspectives on eco-criticism. However, in comparison to the very influential theoretical paradigms from the environmental sciences or economics, a more visible integration of pluralistic environmental humanities perspectives remains to be developed and appreciated. A promising strategy might be that environmental humanists ask themselves how their perspectives might alter, complement, or replace existing and emerging bodies of environmental theory, for instance in visions of sustainability or in societal transformation.

4. Experimenting with new epistemologies and methodologies
Many scholars in the environmental humanities are experimenting with new epistemologies and methodologies, or with integrating existing ones in new ways. Environmental humanists emphasize aspects such as contextualization of knowledge and studies, relational and situated knowledge, connecting themes that are conceptually disparate, providing qualitative data, or including participation of indigenous and affected peoples, marginalized scientific views, or else non-human living beings and non-living actors. The environmental humanities are an opportunity for the confluence of multiple epistemologies and methodologies ranging from the arts to the natural sciences.

5. Up-scaling local case studies to regional and global scales
Scholarship in the environmental humanities often focuses on case studies to ensure that research leads to thick descriptions and holistic integration of multiple themes, perspectives and ways of representation. A growing number of programs endeavour to connect local case studies at regional and global scales. This up-scales local research enabling international exchange of knowledge and strengthening multiples voices; often through virtual platforms.

6. New forums for knowledge exchange
It is essential to have diverse conversations within the humanities, across the humanities-science cultural divide, and between academics and people of all walks of life. There is a need for forums that are open to experimentation, free from the pressure of producing immediate results, and that occupy respectful and neutral ground, while allowing sufficient time and energy for intensive engagement. Examples are workshops embedded in real-world cases, longer-term internships of artists in scientific laboratories, public events bringing together artists and scientists, and interactive formats employed by museums.

7. New research teams and institutional structures
There is a need for both long-term interdisciplinary research teams and institutions, as well as short-term multi-talented teams oriented toward offering immediate recommendations. Indeed, there are now many environmental humanities centres worldwide that are experimenting with different institutional forms for facilitating teamwork across a diversity of thinkers, styles, and attitudes.

8. New forms of engaging with the public and the world of practice
Environmental humanists emphasize that engaging with the public and with practitioners must be done in a critical and reflective way. This can mean employing ‘Socratic dialogues’ between academia and the public to focus on questions more than answers. Humanists and artists can use (and experiment with) a wide array of tools and expertise. They specialize in representing and communicating ideas, experiences, knowledge, meaning, and relationships through different media and in different settings; and they can profit from their expertise in reflecting on the semiotics and social, cultural, psychological, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions of communication. They can also draw from multiple media, ranging from film, visual art, performance art, prose, song, exhibitions, stories, design, and social interventions.

9. Consultancy, advocacy and activism
There are many good examples of successful direct application of environmental humanities insights and expertise that can be built upon. For instance, there is a need for specific expertise on environmental law and regulation, environmental ethics and the valuation of environmental goods, governance, communication and eco-media. There is also value in simplifying insights for those immediately affected, such as grassroots activists – in the form of manuals, guidelines, and toolboxes. At a more generic level, there are many examples of books and films that appeal to a general audience and provide lasting success and influence. Some environmental humanists go one step further, putting themselves forward as public intellectuals as well as advocates and activists.

10. Teaching
Humanists like all academics are also teachers, and sometimes their longest-lasting influence is through their students. There is ongoing potential for quality teaching. At many universities, students in the humanities, arts and sciences do not yet have access to coursework in environmental sciences, much less in environmental arts and humanities. Teaching can build on different formats such as films, storytelling, and theatre that is situated in social learning and activism.


What has been your experience working with humanists focused on the environment? Can you share an instance in which insights or methodologies from the humanities (and/or the arts and humanities-oriented social sciences) provided concrete and lasting relief to an environmental dilemmas? What are the lessons for repeating this on other problems? Does environmental humanities offer a way to justify dedicating more resources to the non-sciences?

To find out more:
Kueffer, C., Thelen Lässer, K. and Hall, M. (2017). Applying the environmental humanities: Ten steps for action and implementation. Report, Swiss Academic Society for Environmental Research and Ecology; and, Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bern: Switzerland. Online (open access): https://naturalsciences.ch/service/publications/97610

Biography: Christoph Kueffer is Professor of Urban Ecology at the Department of Landscape Architecture at HSR Rapperswil (University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil) and senior lecturer at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in Switzerland. He has long experience in collaborating with social scientists, scholars from the humanities and artists; amongst others as a co-chair of Environmental Humanities Switzerland. Christoph’s research focuses on urban ecology, biodiversity conservation in novel and human-dominated ecosystems, and global change impacts on island and mountain ecosystems.

Biography: Marcus Hall teaches environmental humanities courses in a science-based environmental studies program at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is a historian of science and the environment, recently serving as Vice-President for the European Society for Environmental History. His research focuses on restoration, biological invasion, and disease ecology.

7 thoughts on “Ten steps to strengthen the environmental humanities

  1. Very interesting text, thanks for this systematic account of potential ways in which (environmental) humanities scholars can contribute to, strengthen, environmental sciences research. I am wondering whether it would make sense to mention as a separate step (or option/mode) how humanities scholars can help towards making environmental studies more transdisciplinary: their humanities expertise can help to facilitate the integral participation of extra-academic stakeholders (citizens, farmers, NGO’s, etc.) in such projects, assisting in mutual understanding and reflection, enhancing cultural sensitivity, creating novel outcome targets, and so on. Sure enough, this partly overlaps with some elements of the ten steps (or modes), yet is still different from just agenda setting, or consultancy, or activism. Indeed, I think that by engaging in this way, humanities scholars’ involvement would potentially imply restructuring the research process as a whole. Perhaps not always a feasible option, though…

    • Dear Machiel,

      thank you for this comment! We do indeed discuss the potentials of the environmental humanities for helping to reshape participatory research and more generally the relationships between science and society in the report on which this blog is based. We did not emphasize this more in the blog partly because the (environmental) humanities and social sciences are often (only) given the role of communicating with the public in environmental research, and we wanted to make the point that the humanities (and arts) should be at the center of environmental research where research problems are framed and research processes defined.

      Best wishes,

      • Thanks for your helpful clarification, Cristoph. I understand that your argument addresses mainly the ’emancipation’ of the humanities from its ancillary role to scientific projects, which I can only agree with. Yet if we would consider making environmental research more a transdisciplinary endeavour, than the humanities would still be at the center of framing and defining research problems/processes. However, they would then do so while facilitating a more comprehensive group of stakeholders. In a way, this would imply a ‘modest emancipation’ as it would ’emancipate’ them in relation to the environmental sciences, yet in a ‘modest’ way as they would do so while indeed facilitating transdisciplinary, participatory research instead of taking centre stage themselves.
        Kind regards, Machiel

        • Dear Machiel,

          we fully agree.

          And I think this discussion shows how fruitful collaborations between the transdisciplinarity community and the environmental humanities could become. Transdisciplinarity has in some ways become a discipline, which implies both strengths and weaknesses. Environmental humanities brings new ideas to transdisciplinarity but could profit from the experiences of the TD community of the last decades. This was in fact the original motivation behind the report “Applying the Environmental Humanities”: how can the environmental humanities become more relevant for application, and transdisciplinarity in return be inspired by fresh ideas about science, expertise, societal problem-solving that emerge e.g. from the arts or post-humanism? We’d need to find a place to bring these academic communities together.

          Best wishes,

  2. Thank you for your list and insights. I have worked in agriculture sustainability issues for the last 2-3 decades but recently focused more on social governance issues, in general. I held my first session this week; Silos to Collaborations – Creating Governance Frameworks that Work. One of the comments I found the most interesting was that the presentation “made governance human”. I see it as having components related to #8 and #9 where practitioners must become more engaged when solutions are distributed among many people.

  3. Dear all,

    An important post, I think very much in the spirit of my/our own work here in Melbourne and Australia more generally. You can find a presentation held recently and arguing for similar purposes at https://1drv.ms/f/s!Ass8p-SJmH1ojxym5zLt9qDmabwK – see the presentation titled: “Restorative and Regenerative Relational (‘social’) Practice in Communities must include the Non-human”

    Jacques Boulet

    • Dear Jacques,

      thank you for this comment. For me as an ecologist and natural conservationist bridges between ecology (and concerns for non-human beings) and social work are extremely important, and a reason why I put great hopes in work at the border between natural sciences and social issues. Conservationists have been hiding for too long in fenced off nature reserves.

      Best regards,

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