Can we change the academic climate?

A recent article published in the journal Nature Climate Change both responds to and helps to further define the mission of the Sydney Environment Institute.

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In February this year the SEI hosted a key conference on ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’. The main focus was to examine the role of the environmental humanities and social sciences in understanding how we live in the changed and changing world.

At SEI, we believe that bringing a broader understanding of environmental change to the table is important as we find ways to come to terms and respond to this new geological era, an era in which humans impact many of the forces that shape the planet.

During the conference we examined the relationship between the natural and technological sciences and the humanities, the social and cultural consequences of the anthropocene era and the role of artists and writers in the interpretation of scientific themes. We also hoped to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges that we face politically in a post-holocene world, from the loss of cultural icons and even sounds, to broad questions of environmental and ecological justice.

Noel Castree, a leading British geographer, sat in on parts of the conference and later reflected on the importance of its contributions. Over the following months, he worked with a range of environmental humanities and social science scholars, including many of the attendees of the SEI conference (and members of the Humanities for the Environment group) to co-author an article for Nature Climate Change.

We believe this article, titled ‘Changing the Intellectual Climate’, is an important statement. It calls on earth systems scientists to pay attention to a broad range of social sciences and humanities. Castree et al argue that a broader, more integrated, way of looking at global environmental change would make scientific knowledge more useful to humanity as a whole, as we try to confront the consequences of our own actions.

To us at SEI, one of the most important concepts to take away from the paper is the crucial nature of the human dimension of environmental change. The authors ask us all to consider how we can take the human dimension of environmental and climate change seriously if we ignore the social sciences and humanities.

This is not at all meant to be an anti-science stance. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that certain types of knowledge have consistently been valued more highly than other types of knowledge. Castree et al point out that governments have become used to information being handed to them by authoritative sources (even if they then ignore them), and that they have also developed norms around what disciplines these sources come from.

When reading some environmental science texts on climate change, it can seem as though the inhabitants of the Earth are only ‘variables’ or ‘drivers’. Perhaps, by acknowledging and appreciating the human dimension alongside the biophysical knowledge of environmental change, we will be better positioned to understand the real complexity of the big issues we face, such as our vulnerability to the environmental changes some human practices and systems have brought upon the planet.

The article points out that this call for a more broad-based knowledge of global environmental change demands three new approaches to tackling climate change in the intellectual sphere. First, we must acknowledge that science is not reaching the decision-makers it needs to in a way that meaningfully impacts them, and the purely science-based model has not been particularly successful in creating policy. Second, a multi-disciplinary approach is needed if we are to understand anthropocenic climate change and find the breadth of knowledge to help us live in the changed world. Finally, given our current predicament, there is a real and urgent need to make more interdisciplinary and broad-based humanities and social science research more relevant to decision-makers and the general public.

This third call is perhaps the most pressing, and it is key to both the argument of the article and to the mission of SEI. The only way to tackle the problems of climate change and the anthropocene is through expanding our knowledge and range of responses.

There may be a fear amongst scientists, academics or researchers that these ideas threaten “politicising” knowledge that should be presented in a way that is value-free and uninfluenced. However, Castree et al make the assertion that global environmental change science itself is already inherently political. You only have to look to the organised attacks on science by industrial climate ‘skeptics’ in the USA and Australia to see that knowledge in this arena has already been politicised.

If we hope to create a deeper understanding of how we can all live in the changed and changing world then we will need to embrace the broad human dimensions of our knowledge. The people who might offer these knowledges range from ecological economists to environmental historians, from museum curators to environmental politics researchers. They span virtually every social science and humanities discipline.

They all ask the biggest questions: What are the impacts of environmental change? How can we live in a world we have changed? What is a good and environmentally aware society?

This new role for the environmental humanities and social sciences pushes us to question our values and goals. It requires us to rethink practices around land use, water, cities, and the nonhuman realm generally and to redesign social, cultural, and political engagement attuned to environmental change.

This is clearly a difficult task, as the authors of this key article sum up “old intellectual habits die hard”. But despite the challenge of old habits, we all need to keep to striving for wider and deeper engagement as we hope to place the human dimensions of living with a newly constructed environment in the foreground.

If you would like to read the article, ‘Changing the Intellectual Climate’ from the 27 August edition of Nature Climate Change please try the link above, or email sei.info@sydney.edu.au and we will send you a PDF copy.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. His work focuses on contemporary environmental and environmental justice movements, environment and everyday life, and climate adaptation planning and policy. He is the author of Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford, 2007); co-author of Climate-Challenged Society (Oxford, 2013); and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford 2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford 2016). His current book project is on sustainable materialism, or the environmentalism of everyday life.