The Environmental Humanities


Image: Flooding

The matrix of issues which questions of ‘environment’, and ‘ecology’ evoke make it amply clear that the climate change question is not one that can simply, or should only, be analysed along scientific and economic lines of enquiry. Humanities disciplines, globally, are increasingly aware of the disconnect between the way environmental issues are addressed politically - as a problem to be managed - and the socio-cultural manifestations of environmental distress which often present unresolvable contradictions and heightened injustices. In literary and cultural studies the theoretical framework of ecocriticism has traditionally critiqued nature-culture inter-relationships. It has often produced corrective calibrations in the way human and non-human natures are thought of and spoken about. However, to address the multiscalar, multigenerational issues associated with questions of ecology and environment, and also to critically intervene in unique, long-term forms of poverty and dispossession that climate change creates, necessitates a multidisciplinary perspective. The emergence of the Environmental Humanities (EH) reflects these concerns. As an emergent discipline it reflects a growing urgency to engage with environmental issues from within the humanities and social sciences. 

Image: Desert, Drought

As early as 1995, one of the foremost ecocritical voices of the time, Lawrence Buell, had suggested in The Environmental Imagination that ecocriticism studied the relationship between literature and the environment but conducted its research “in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis”. Such latent political energies were not always readily adopted by most ecocritics. Defining “Ecocriticism” in recent times Greg Garrard questions the “territorializing impulse in ecocriticism” which find expression “in pedagogies of outdoor experience and political philosophies of bioregionalism”. These he suggests are “insufficient as a response to planetary environmental crisis” apart from being “absurdly disingenuous for globe-trotting academics”. Despite the misgivings scholars (especially those who take the issue of climate change seriously) have about ecocriticism, its importance lies in the recalibration of critical responses from anthropocentric concerns towards ecocentric ones. The charge of anthropocentrism which ecocriticism often levied again traditional critical practices overlooked the colonial origins of ecological degradation, and the deep-seated, historical scenarios underwriting a spectrum of modern issues: resource depletion, habitat loss, marginalisation of entire societies, among others. Scholars like Elizabeth DeLoughrey and Bob Handley, in their book Postcolonial Ecologies, took significant steps that help us re-think the anthropocentric and ecocentric approaches along postcolonial lines of enquiry. Their book extends the arguments made by Alfred Crosby in Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe and Richard Grove in Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism.

In the last five or six years, however, the necessity for a broader canvas to address environmental  issues has been increasingly felt. Scholars working in the areas of environmental history, geography, anthropology, literary studies and others began to identify their scholarship under the banner of “Environmental Humanities’. The origin of the term is not clearly demarcated but it can be broadly understood as a multidisciplinary approach that seeks to address the multiple scales  through which local and planetary environmental issues arise. The introductory issue of the journal Environmental Humanities further clarifies: “While historically both fields [the humanities and the social sciences] have focused on ‘the human’ in a way that has often excluded or backgrounded the non-human world, since the 1960s, interest in environmental issues has gradually gained pace within disciplines, giving us, for example, strong research agendas in environmental history, environmental philosophy, environmental anthropology and sociology, political ecology, posthuman geographies and ecocriticism (among others). Indeed, in many of these fields, what have traditionally been termed ‘environmental issues’ have been shown to be inescapably entangled with human ways of being in the world, and broader questions of politics and social justice.”