Published 04 February 2019
Every year since the 2013 launch of the Humanities for the Environment network, representatives from HfE have met at Observatories all over the world. In October 2018, the meeting was held in Sigtuna, Sweden, hosted by the Circumpolar Observatory, the Stefansson Arctic Institute, the Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies and the Sigtuna Foundation. Representatives came together for three days of presentations and updates about the ongoing work and projects from each HfE Observatory, along with strategic discussions about the development of the network.
The group also wanted to use the meeting to tackle some of the larger issues surrounding communication, knowledge and action that are emerging in all the HfE Observatories. Participants were asked to consider how knowledge from scientists, humanists, artists, indigenous peoples, and partners from civil society could be communicated and mobilised to greater effect in response to sustainability challenges. The assembled group was led in a speed-writing activity (adapted from the Book Sprint concept) by the meeting’s co-organizers, Steven Hartman, Director of the Circumpolar Observatory, and Dr. Lea Rekow. Each attendee was asked to write a short article about one project or issue important to their own Observatory, with the goal of learning strategies for producing effective communication in compressed timeframes. The participants were challenged to produce a feature story for publication by the end of the weekend.
Hartman and Rekow are co-curators of BifrostOnline, an international, open-access channel promoting education for sustainability and climate change awareness through short documentaries, interviews, feature articles, events and public interventions. Dr. Rekow brings a wealth of communications experience to her roles at both BitfrostOnline and the Circumpolar Observatory. She served as the founding director of Green My Favela, an urban restoration project based in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Over the years she has worked extensively in co-production with ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples, and marginalized communities in several contexts around the globe, using media as a foundational component of her broader praxis. She has also drawn on her experience to curate and craft media-rich educational programs for several cultural institutions.
Rekow curates a rich selection of material for BifrostOnline’s media archive. To date these resources number approximately a thousand open access sources relating to climate change, including citizen science projects, podcasts, maps, academic papers, policy reports, personal stories and data visualisations, creating a broad, interdisciplinary resource where researchers, educators, academics and others interested in climate change-related issues can access information and ideas that may inform their practice. The goal is to build not only a science-based databank of information, but also to archive works that elicit emotion-based responses or help in the framing of action plans to meet regional and global socio-environmental challenges.
Rekow has learned from her work in environmental communications that people form their beliefs around worldviews held by their communities, rather than around facts they are presented with. Therefore, communicating information is often not enough to impact the way people think and act. Finding positive and active ways to help people realise their own agency and build resilience within different challenging contexts depends on building trust over time and responding to people’s needs, rather than imposing external or academic ideas upon them.
During the writing sprint activity in Sigtuna, Rekow established a structured environment for participants to produce short articles to be featured on the Bifrost website. Individuals were paired into writing and editing teams who supported each other throughout the weekend. Under Rekow’s helpful prompts and guidance they generated texts by harnessing free-thinking and focused freewriting approaches, laying out concepts and developing stories from them in real time, then working together to organize their ideas into edited texts.
The writing sprint was a unique experience, relying on commitment from all participants to collaborate within the limits of a non-negotiable timeframe and a set production schedule. The sprint provided a way of organizing a kindred knowledge community with diverse bodies of work to reflect the concerns and research practices that currently engaging HfE members. For many it was an energizing experience that encouraged cooperation and knowledge sharing within a challenging and unfamiliar situation. The process wasn’t perfect, but it enabled participants to push past the limitations of how busy researchers typically approach writing in a concentrated time frame. The edited articles from this exercise will be appearing throughout spring and summer on BifrostOnline. Some of those that have already appeared include Sea-ice Stories from Iceland and Labrador and Juliana v. United States: the unresolved case already making a difference.
Rekow’s own sprint-written blog, Greening our Planetary Menu, explores the impact of agriculture and the transformational potential of “bottom up” projects. For example, in Brazil she innovated DIY media kits that hack old webcams and produce microscopes to study plants with functionally literate children, conducted farm-to-table workshops, and created children’s gardens from sites that had to be remediated by clearing of tons of garbage. She offers insights about how these kinds of projects provide increased opportunities for humanists to work “from the bottom-up” as facilitators between formal and informal societal tiers with youth at key vulnerable ages “to help instill knowledge, skills, and a sense of possibility for living healthier, more fulfilling lives.” These projects also provide avenues, she observes, for “community leaders to emerge to recraft environments that are historically marred by conflict, oppression, poverty.”
HfE Observatory members decided that over the course of the next two years the global network will experiment with efforts to scale up projects led by humanists in collaboration with scientists and various societal stakeholders regionally and internationally for greater impact. Above and beyond focusing on their own regional projects, all Observatories will design a food-systems-oriented project and seek to collaborate across the network on the theme of food. The European Observatory has already been awarded a large grant by the Irish Research Council in support the FoodSmart Dublin project and a call for papers for a special journal issue guest edited by HfE members on Food Cultures & Critical Sustainability is expected to be announced in spring 2019.
Joni Adamson is a Secretary General of the HfE and Director of the North American Observatory. She is Professor of English and Environmental Humanities in the Department of English and Director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at Arizona State University.
Humanities for the Environment (HfE) is a global Observatory network of researchers and projects seeking to answer questions about the role of the humanities in a time in which human activity is significantly reshaping the geological future of the planet. HfE seeks not only enrich our understanding of the human past but also help us understand, engage with, and address global environmental challenges. Rather than defining a single research agenda adequate to these inquiries, HfE has established eight research ‘observatories’ in Africa, Asia, Australia, Circumpolar North, Europe, Latin America, and North America.