Opinion

Introducing the HfE Observatories Blog Series

The HfE blog series will feature news about the researchers and projects of the Humanities for the Environment international network of Observatories (HfE). 

'Spiderweb in the morning' - Marika Eglite, Sourced: Shutterstock, ID- 1902553

Five years ago, the Humanities for the Environment (HfE) network of Observatories was launched with seed-funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes.  The term “Observatory” was chosen to encourage humanists to think outside the limitations of traditional humanities research protocols, such as the single-authored monograph.  New Observatories would work to pilot collaborative, interdisciplinary public-facing projects and publications.

The first three observatories were established in Australia Pacific (Sydney Environment Institute), Europe (Trinity College, Ireland) and North America (Arizona State University).  By 2015, the Observatory system added four new Observatories in Africa (University of Pretoria), East Asia (National Taiwan University), Latin America (Universidad de Amazonia), and Asia Pacific (National Sun Yat-Sen University, Taiwan).  This year, the HfE welcomed the Circumpolar Observatory (Stefansson Arctic Institute, Iceland).  Researchers affiliated with this Observatory are bringing their connections to IHOPE – Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, NIES – The Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, NABO -The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization, GHEA – The Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance, and Future Earth, the United Nation’s international scientific platform, into the network to strengthen interdisciplinary research potential even more.

Six “Common Threads” found on the HfE website connect regionally distinct Observatory projects and collaborations.  These include 1) recognizing the role that humans have played in transforming Earth’s atmosphere, land surfaces and oceans; 2) re-envisioning concepts of intergenerational justice to promote multispecies flourishing and planetary health; 3) honoring the long history of arts and humanities disciplines in discussions of environmental risks and opportunities; 4) recognizing various ways of knowing, including place-based and indigenous knowledges; 5) tackling complex social and environmental challenges with humanities methodologies and content; and 6) considering diverse environmental literacies and knowledges as key to the broader objectives of Humanities for the Environment initiatives.

Also, “Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action” further articulates the agenda of HfE.  Drawing people from academic, policy, business, and community sectors into conversations about how humanists might contribute to interdisciplinary collaborations, HfE seeks to spur public imagination about how we might build social, technological, and ecological systems agile enough to adapt to changing future conditions.

Recent publications are illustrating the emerging richness and potential of this work.  A collection edited by Joni Adamson and Michael Davis, Humanities for the Environment: Integrating Knowledge, Forging New Constellations of Practice (Routledge 2017) explores the ways that HfE researchers are conducting research that ranges across cultures, religions, literatures, geographies, ecosystems, climates and weather regimes, as they move from icy, melting Arctic landscapes in the Circumpolar North to burning landscapes in Australia to draw insights on how to meet the challenges of accelerating environmental change.

Poul Holm and Ruth Brennan have also edited a collection of essays that follows up on the Manifesto and serves as HfE’s 2018 report.  In “Humanities for the Environment 2018 Report—Ways to Here, Ways Forward,” they explain why they chose to publish the collection in two separate journals.  Responding to HfE’s commitment to change perceptions about the contributions of environmental humanists to sustainability discourses, one group of essays is placed in Humanities in order to reach colleagues in the humanities, while another group of essays is placed in Global and Planetary Change to reach earth scientists.  This innovation aims to broaden HfE’s audience by drawing readers back and forth across disciplinary boundaries.

One of the essays found in 2018 Report, Iain McCalman’s “Linking the Local and the Global,” for example, illustrates how HfE are seeking to change perceptions about humanists. McCalman examines a campaign in the 1970s to establish the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park which was successfully led by two humanists. He explores the lessons for today’s environmental humanists as they attempt to replicate the success of their predecessors in helping to save the Great Barrier Reef from even graver and more immediate threats to its survival.

To facilitate communication among its members and showcase these publications and their projects, a newly redesigned website was launched this past March.  In collaboration with Sydney Environment Institute / Australia Pacific Observatory, members of the HfE will also launch a new monthly blog to report on member research, upcoming meetings, collaborations, projects, and publications.

In the coming months, we look forward to blogging on the work of emerging scholars in our network, on instances of inspired leadership, on evolving collaboration, and on emerging constellations of interdisciplinary practice in the environmental humanities being innovated in the HfE network.


Joni Adamson is a Convener of the North American Observatory and Lead Developer for the Humanities for the Environment international website.  She is Professor of English and Environmental Humanities in the Department of English and Director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at Arizona State University. She was 2012 President of the Association for the Study Literature and Environment (ASLE).