Over a decade ago a group of international scholars gathered at the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California to comment on what they regarded as an especially significant new publication arising out of one their collaborative research initiatives. This was the Norton book, Uncommon Ground. Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon, with contributions from leading humanities scholars all over the world. This cross-disciplinary group of historians, literary scholars, urban studies, cultural studies, and history of science philosophers had worked together for six months to define and demonstrate the distinctive contribution that the humanities could make to the burgeoning field of environmental studies. As we expected, the product of this collaboration has since become a canonical text on environmental studies curricula throughout the United States.
Australian humanities scholars have certainly not been backward in generating comparably significant research capable of shaping the agendas of modern environmental and ecological experts, yet it is true that our work has generally stayed cloistered within separate disciplinary enclaves. While scholars from the natural and social sciences are routinely consulted on environmental problems by governments and communities, we tend to be overlooked. Given the political and social urgency of such issues as climate change, global warming, sustainable energy, ocean acidification, coral degradation, water scarcity and pollution, our absence from this dialogue is a tragedy and a waste.
More than a decade on, our collaboration of humanities scholars intends to illuminate many of the fields and issues routinely neglected or misunderstood by contemporary environmental thinkers and policy makers in Australia and abroad. These include underscoring the powerful relevance of including within the scope of environmental studies such subjects as the cultures of industrial, technological and built environments, of rural workers and communities, and of oceans, rivers and coastlines. We intend also to draw attention to the reification of myths of ‘virgin wilderness’ and the failure of many environmental scholars to recognize the ways that indigenous peoples have shaped and managed ‘natural’ environments. We will also explore how the concept of ‘nature’ has been infused with literary and artistic narratives, gendered tropes, moral fables and political, legal, sociological and historical inflections.
Above all, our collaboration of humanities scholars intends to show that modern environmental approaches that treat nature with naïve realism or mobilize it as a moral absolute, unaware or unwilling to accept that it is informed by specific cultural and temporal values, are doomed to fail. Humans and nature have been, and remain, deeply entangled and interdependent. Our cross-disciplinary collaboration, like that of the UC Humanities Research Institute, encompasses scholars working in the fields of cultural history, urban studies, literary studies, anthropology, archaeology, politics, sociology, and cultural and gender studies. Our programs of faculty and postgraduate workshops and conferences aim to begin the process of unifying and mobilizing our intellectual insights and methods with a view, ultimately, to producing a community of scholars and a major body of research with a comparable impact to Uncommon Ground.