Opinion

The Humanities in a Time of Environmental Crisis

Introducing HumanNature: The Sydney Environmental Humanities Lecture Series

Janet Laurence "Deep Breathing"

Amongst the many environmental issues that rose to prominence in the awareness of the Australian public in 2017, the massive proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin was perhaps the most contentious. Vocally opposed by many and strongly supported by others, the issue quickly took on the kind of complexity and uncertainty that now characterises so many of our environmental disputes. Would it lead to significant jobs growth? Would it be a boon for the Australian economy, or just for investors? What impact would it have on the water table, on local communities, on Indigenous native title claims? What would this massive project mean in an era of escalating climate change? Should a nation that is already one of the world’s largest per-capita C02 emitters really be home to, let alone providing government loans for, this kind of global irresponsibility writ large?

Amongst the many other lessons that examples like this one bring to the fore is the fact that environmental crises are always also inherently social and cultural. From sea level rise to species extinction, the future of the environment is inescapably bound up with the ways in which diverse people make sense, make a living, make relationships, with one another and a wider world. In order to better understand and address these pressing environmental challenges, we need humanities perspectives more than ever. What do we value? What do we want? What are we prepared to change, and where do we draw the line?

Firmly committed to this understanding, scholars in the environmental humanities are cultivating interdisciplinary approaches that bring history, philosophy, anthropology, literature, cultural studies, geography, art, and more, into dialogue with the natural sciences, as well as with the many ways of knowing and advocating for the world that have long grounded anti-colonial, Indigenous, environmental justice, feminist, and other practices.

In Australia, and in Sydney specifically, we are fortunate to be at the vanguard of this emerging field. Some of the environmental humanities’ most cited and respected scholars—such as Val Plumwood and Deborah Bird Rose—have emerged from our intellectual milieus, while our universities were amongst the first to offer degree programs in this area: the undergraduate majors at UNSW and Macquarie University. Meanwhile, institutions like the Sydney Environment Institute offer world-renowned models for transdisciplinary research collaboration on environmental questions, and WSU’s Institute for Culture and Society has a now long-established tradition of leading environmental scholarship, centred on rethinking economy, urbanism, globalisation, heritage, and much more. Sydney academics also continue to spearhead new approaches and specialisations in the field—from multispecies and extinction studies to community economies and feminist environmental humanities. Environmental Humanities, the field’s first and most prestigious dedicated peer-reviewed journal, now into its 7th year of production, was also founded here in Sydney (now published by Duke University Press). Moreover, by developing strong relationships with museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions, Sydney environmental humanities scholars commit to making sure that our research travels to audiences beyond academia.

In celebration of these relationships and achievements, in 2018 environmental humanities researchers at the University of Sydney are teaming up with our colleagues from Macquarie University (Emily O’Gorman), Western Sydney University (Juan Francisco Salazar), the University of New South Wales (Judy Motion), and the Australian Museum to launch HumanNature, the inaugural Sydney Environmental Humanities Lecture Series. From February to November, this new public lecture series will brings together nine distinguished scholars from Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, the USA, the UK, and Canada to discuss both longstanding questions and new directions in our field.

What might we learn from contemporary indigenous scholars’ and writers’ efforts to rethink and re-story some of the taken for granted ideas in circulation about their relationships with nature, with agriculture, with a wider more-than-human world? What new understandings and possibilities might be opened up by approaching the climate as a cultural phenomenon, by asking how various cultures have known, lived with, blamed, feared, represented, and even changed (more or less successfully, and more or less deliberately) this thing we call ‘the climate’? These are some of the pressing questions that HumanNature will address. We hope you will join the conversation!

 

Lecture Schedule

15 February 2018 – Tom Griffiths: “Radical histories for uncanny times”

8 March 2018 – Deborah Bird Rose: “Gifts of Life in the Shadow of Death”

23 April 2018 – Mike Hulme: “Cultures of Climate”

24 May 2018 – Oron Catts: “Living Biological Objects on the Pedestal”

14 June 2018 – Alice Te Punga Somerville: “Taupata, taro, roots, earth: the (Indigenous) politics of gardening”

12 July 2018 – Catriona Sandilands: “Feminist Botany for the Age of Man”

23 August 2018 – Kim TallBear: “American Dreaming is Indigenous Elimination”

18 October 2018 – Bruce Pascoe: “Dark Emu”

1 November 2018 – Rob Nixon: “Environmental Martyrdom and the Fate of the Forests”

 

For further information and to book tickets, please visit the series website.

Please note that tickets are available to staff and students at the four partner universities at the discounted rate of $8. These tickets must be booked in advance using the discount code: ENVHUM18.


Thom van Dooren is an Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2017-2021) in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, and founding co-editor of the journal Environmental Humanities (Duke University Press). His most recent book is Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (Columbia University Press, 2014). www.thomvandooren.org

Astrida Neimanis is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. Drawing on feminist, queer and decolonial perspectives, her work primarily considers our human relationship to water and weather. Her recent book is Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (Bloomsbury 2017).