Environmental Humanities Initiative Receives Grant

1 March 2011

17 scholars with diverse research backgrounds within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will join forces to work on the important emerging field of 'environmental humanities'.

The initiative is one of seven recipients of grants under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Collaborative Research Scheme (FACRS).

Like all FACRS grants, this initiative aims to sew a thread - in this case, environmental research - through distinct fields of study.

It will bring to bear the expertise of cultural and urban historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and scholars in the fields of politics, English literature, cultural studies and gender and women's studies.

Research into the environmental dimensions of all these fields is something which has until now been "rich but diffuse", according to Professor Iain McCalman, who heads the research team, and has high hopes for its ability make a stamp on environmental policy.

He suggests some environmental policy makers routinely neglect certain issues because they are not strictly part of the science. Recently the Federal Government's water buyback scheme saw the environmental interests of the Murray-Darling river system clash with the cultural and economic interests of rural irrigators, farmers, and communities.

"Human culture and nature have been, and remain, deeply entangled and interdependent," McCalman says. Modern environmental policies that are unaware or unwilling to accept this are "doomed to fail".

Even supposedly value-free contemporary ecological and scientific research, he says, can be seen to implicitly house ideological differences over whether mankind should be exploiting, sustaining, or conserving natural resources.

Getting environmental policy right, he says, involves not just science but also understanding the cultures of rural workers and communities; and of industrial, technological and urban environments.

"Our collaboration aims to build an enduring cohort of University staff and postgraduate students to shape and disseminate a new national research agenda."

The origins of the environmental humanities field lie in the United States. Iain McCalman was part of an international review that evaluated the pioneering research initiatives at the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California at Irvine.

The product of those collaborative initiatives over a decade ago was a book with contributions from leading humanities scholars all over the world, which has been described as "intellectually path-breaking" and has since set the agenda for environmental studies curricula internationally.

McCalman says inter-disciplinary collaboration has perhaps been the missing element in similar Australian research. He says, "environmental and ecological interests ramify right through the various disciplines of Sydney University", and hopes the combined expertise of the participant scholars will cause policy makers to take a more holistic approach.

"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, ocean acidification, coral degradation, water scarcity and chemical pollution and much else, our absence from this intellectual dialogue is both a tragedy and a waste."

From early in semester one, workshops will begin at which papers and ideas will be presented. A distinguished international scholar will be asked to lead workshops in August and September 2011.

McCalman has also flagged an international conference and scholarly book as on the agenda after the workshops.

The pool of collaborators, he hopes, will then extend beyond the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, to related environmental and sustainability fields among the Schools and departments of Law, Sciences, Engineering and IT.

Eventually, the group hopes to build alliances with international hubs for environmental humanities - among them the ten campuses of the University of California, and the Universities of Duke, Chicago, and Harvard.

Contact: James Mackay

Phone: 02 9351 2208