Reflections on an Interdisciplinary Environmental Humanities Summit

We united around a shared investment in thinking through issues of pressing environmental concern.

The Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ) and the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) joined forces in 2016 to showcase interdisciplinary Environmental Humanities research at a conference operating under the expansive theme “Global Ecologies/Local Impacts”. Convened by Linda Williams and Grace Moore from ASLEC-ANZ and Iain McCalman and David Schlosberg from SEI, the aim of the 3-day event was to showcase the spectrum of research occurring in the burgeoning field and to build alliances with the Social Sciences.* Postgraduate research was featured in a “slam” session whereby more emerging scholars were able to attend and present by way of short and summative 5-minute presentations. Artists also converged in two roundtable sessions designed to highlight the importance of creative practice both as a form of research and public engagement in this field.

While most of the presenters identify as working in the Environmental Humanities, a range of disciplinary backgrounds were represented with scholars trained in literature, indigenous studies, gender and cultural studies, human geography, history, philosophy, political economy, visual art, anthropology, environmental management, earth and environment, media and communications, design and sociology. This range of expertise was in the room alongside academic-practioners bridging between the university and political organisations, lobby groups, museums, environmental activist networks, citizen humanities projects or professional creative industries. The convergence produced a welcoming and generous environment wherein public facing activist scholarship was touching base with rigorous theoretical debates from within the aforementioned fields, and the more strictly theoretically inclined were pushed to consider the broader applications of their research.

Despite the broad remit of both the conference theme and the variety of disciplines and professions represented, we united around a shared investment in thinking through issues of pressing environmental concern buoyed by the understanding that fields within humanities and social sciences are essential for this task. As with any conference of this scale and scope, however, a distinct set of ideas naturally came to the fore. With the limited space of this blog post, I here identify four ideas that the keynotes might be said to have highlighted as important for the field today:

Dr Alice Te Punga Sommerville’s keynote ended with the question “who is in your ecology?” Another way of asking this question in a strictly academic context is “who is in your bibliography?” She invited us to consider the ways in which, despite the broadness and seeming universality of environmental questions, our knowledge is always already shaped and delimited by ideological biases and citational practices. The question “who is in your ecology?” thus invited scholars to consider how their referencing shapes their work and informs the stories they choose to tell. In particular, she argued that a lot of Environmental Humanities work feels quite colonial and explored the idea of “colonial epistemicide” or the ways in which different bodies of knowledge about the world are routinely figured as subordinate to others—Maori ontologies are broadly understood as secondary or quaint in comparison to Western scientific ones, for instance. What would it mean and what would it take to engage with indigenous knowledge differently, not merely as a theory or metaphor, but as a way of being, a science, an ideological frame and a politics on equal footing to or privileged over western secularism? What would it take to include such knowledge in our global ecology?

Professor Deborah Bird Rose was invited by ASLEC-ANZ to deliver the Inaugural Judith Wright lecture. Drawing on the work of Levinas, Rose’s talk opened the conference by questioning the limits of secularism in the Environmental Humanities. She asked whether or not secular ideas can actually hold the whole of the biosphere in a singular matrix or do we need something more. Drawing on learning from her Aboriginal colleagues, Rose ended by playing a song about this continent: “Ancient ground who’ll look after you?” was both title and refrain. The inference here was that the privileging of the secular that shapes Western ontologies does not include enough concern for the land itself, and that indeed secular ideology is insufficient to grapple with the complexity and scale of the environmental crisis. Rose’s argument echoed Te Punga Sommerville’s invitation to really include diverse worldviews in our framing of ecological thought and action.

Invited by SEI, Professors Petra Tschackert and Joni Adamson both delivered news from the frontline of where humanities research is interfacing with big institutional politics. Tschackert has worked with the UN trying to incorporate environmental justice questions into international agreements to limit global warming, while Adamson founded the Humanities for the Environment (of which SEI is part)—a global network of observatories aimed at getting humanists at the table when policies about the earth’s future are being debated and decided. Both speakers stressed the importance of humanities for challenging problematic assumptions about the world that are being folded into policy that is actively shaping our future as we speak.

Finally, given this was a conference part-convened by ASLEC-ANZ—an organization that started life primarily as an association for the study of literature and environment—many of the keynotes (ecocritic Professor Elizabeth de Loughrey, nature writer Richard Kerridge, novelist James Bradley and artist John Wolseley) explored varying ways in which visual art and fiction writing intersect with and materially engage environmental questions. What emerged were neither stories of successful science combination, nor tales of how artists can contribute to the task of reporting climate change data, but rather how art offers up new ways of thinking and knowing the world, new ways of framing our perception that has the capacity to challenge assumptions about how the world is and generate ideas about how we would like the world to be.

Contained largely within the Holme building at the University of Sydney, over the few days of the conference new collaborations were spawned and existing collegial relations solidified. Overall the conference produced a snapshot of the state of Environmental Humanities research in Australia today, and the result was an exciting and increasingly diverse, theoretically rigorous albeit nonetheless real-world oriented picture.

* ASLEC-ANZ would like to thank SEI for their on-the-ground work to make this wonderful event possible.

Jennifer Mae Hamilton is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, funded by the Seed Box: A Mistra+Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory at Linköping University, Sweden. With Astrida Neimanis she co-convenes the research group Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities. She also teaches ecocriticism at New York University, Sydney and her first monograph, This Contentious Storm: An Ecocritical and Performance History of King Lear is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic in 2017.

Wild Cries Wild Wings of Wetland and Swamp by John Wolseley