Navigating Global Waters

The “wicked problems” of the 21st century need more than just science.

Astrida Neimanis – New staff profile
Department of Gender and Cultural Studies


Environmental Humanities is quite a new field of research.
Can you define “Environmental Humanities? 

This name “Environmental Humanities” is new, but the take-up of environmental questions by disciplines like art, philosophy, and history has been around a long time — think of poet Walt Whitman, or famous philosopher of environmental biology Jakob von Uxkuell.

I think the fact that this field has finally been given its own name reflects the growing understanding –within scientific, policy-  making, and academic communities —that the “wicked problems” of the 21st century need more than just science. The humanities (including creative arts) engage in crucial research about values, worldviews, ethics, and imaginative alternatives to some of the environmentally dangerous paths we’re currently on. If we take climate change as an example, it is pretty hard to engage regular people with talk of carbon emissions, cap-and-trade, or scenario-modeling for times and places that seem to have little to do with their everyday lives. We need stories, art, ideas and research at a palpable human level to figure out our place in all this and what we might do better. While scientific research is irreplaceable, the environmental humanities are able to map the vital connections between how we understand and imagine nature and how we treat it.

We also have to remember that the human “we” in this equation is hardly uniform; vulnerability to and responsibility for things like pollution, biodiversity loss, toxic exposure and drought vary tremendously across geographical location, but also gender, age, class and race. Fields like gender and cultural studies — which is my own entry point to the environmental humanities — have given us amazing methods and tools for understanding and responding to environmental challenges in specific ways that still account for social justice.

In short, the environmental humanities’ job is to remind us that “nature” and “culture” have never been separate. In today’s context, seriously grappling with this is really about planetary survival.

Your work on water is cross-disciplinary. Can give us a sense of what that involves? 

If there is anything really “new” about environmental humanities today it’s the embrace of really radically cross-disciplinary work.

This week I’m off to northern Europe (thanks to an Australian Academy of Humanities travelling grant) to work with a cultural studies professor, an archaeologist, a wildlife pathologist, an environmental biologist, a biochemist, an indigenous cultural researcher, and a digital media studies professor to look at a host of questions pertaining to the ecologies of the Baltic Sea.

The ostensible focus of our research is the thousands of tons of chemical weapons that were dumped in the sea after World War II because no one could think of anything else to do with them. But the project is also asking much larger questions about human relationships to water. The important questions here are not only about “real” chemical and biological consequences of toxic contamination; we also need to think about how we collectively imagine aquatic environments — too often a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon — that leads to treating them in corresponding ways.

Here in Australia I’ve recently made contact with a leading scientist at the Museum of Western Australian to begin some research on groundwater ecologies; Australia is home to some of the “oldest” water in the world (often contained in underground cave environments), which itself is home to various threatened animal species called stygofauna. These little critters have exceptional value not only for their own sake, but for the important environmental services they provide in a bigger hydrogeological picture. But how do you get anybody to care about animals that you can’t even see, because they live underground and are barely perceptible to the human eye anyways (not to mention that they’re really quite ugly)? Add mining licenses and indigenous land justice into the picture, as well as constant pressure on freshwater sources in this dry land, and it’s a heady jumble of problems — environmental, yes, but also social, economic and cultural. With inspiration from our scientist collaborator, I will be working with a Western Australian artist to explore these entanglements. Again, this is a perfect example of how the science itself is not enough; environmental humanities can raise these questions with different methods, for different publics. Sciences and humanities need each other, now more than ever.

Water-related issues vary tremendously across the world.
How do you approach water with a global perspective?

Water itself teaches me a lot! I think in many ways I’ve modelled my research path after water’s movements — as something both extremely localised, but also totally global (water travels everywhere!). My work has led me into many exciting research collaborations, not only across disciplines, but internationally as well. I grew up in Canada, but I’ve spent a lot of time working in Europe, and in Sweden particularly. I am part of a major international consortium on Environmental Humanities based at Linkoping University (Sweden) that links a number of universities worldwide, including, now, the University of Sydney.

Canada and Sweden have very different waterscapes than Australia — so it has been an interesting challenge for me to ground my research in a place that’s hot and dry, rather than cold and wet! But I feel exceptionally lucky to be here — Australia is a world-leading hub for cutting-edge research in the environmental humanities and this uni and my department are gaining an impressive reputation for gender and cultural studies expertise in this area. Where else would I want to be?

This article was originally published in the SOPHI Magazine_issue_1

Cape Arkona, Putgarten (Germany) on the Baltic Sea