Global Challenges in Environmental Humanities

By | March 3, 2022

An interview with series editors Steven Hartman, Parker Krieg, Ursula Lang

The series is called Global Challenges in Environmental Humanities. What are these global challenges? 

By global challenges we mean threats to the biosphere occurring at planetary, pan-continental or trans-oceanic scales. These include biodiversity loss, unsustainable economic and social changes in landscape, or the diverse impacts of climate change on cultural memory and socio-environmental futures – these are among the many risks and vulnerabilities implicated in the latest IPCC reports. Such challenges also include gradually unfolding disasters that are less spectacular, such as disease, nutritional deficiencies or other forms of ill health that stretch over individual human life spans or even across generations, owing to many causes – toxic accumulation of waste in environments, structurally reinforced poverty, environmental racism, failed social policy, cultural inertia, corporate malfeasance and neglect. 

Photo: Þorvarður Árnason © 2022

How then might the environmental humanities respond to them? 

We understand the environmental humanities as a multidisciplinary response to the undisciplined nature of contemporary crises. Social-environmental challenges are shaped by diverse geographic, economic, political, historical, and cultural factors that may often be difficult to address satisfactorily within the confines of individual disciplines, which suggests the need for greater collaboration among knowledge communities in our efforts to understand and respond to these crises. Policy, governance and action-relevant study of complex challenges requires engagement from different epistemic communities and traditions, encompassing traditional humanities scholars and both disciplinary and interdisciplinary researchers from other scientific domains, including knowledgeable practitioners from backgrounds often underrepresented – maybe even absent – in the academic world. This means people working across humanistic fields, including qualitative social sciences and the arts, ideally working in tandem with communities or frontline specialists who may be uniquely qualified to help shape our inquiry into these challenges, or to design the responses they demand.

Photo: Þorvarður Árnason © 2022: Hoffellsjökull, August 24th 2021. Hoffellsjökull underwent a catastrophic recession event during the years 2013-2014 and a second such event now seems imminent in the area shown in this photo.

What will a book in this series look like? 

Each volume in the series will focus on a separate challenge, often identifiable with a particular object or concept. Contributors are encouraged to explore different perspectives on – or dimensions within – these specific challenges. Volumes may also combine historical analyses with well-grounded philosophical or scientific approaches to social-environmental futures. Optimally, volume editors and authors will explore novel forms of co-production and collaborative research in partnership with a variety of actors across and beyond the university. In other words, a volume might emerge from a traditional symposium, special sessions at a conference, or workshops that highlight these interstitial areas of research and activism, some of which may be organized in non-academic or para-institutional contexts. This kind of flexibility may open up novel opportunities for new voices and perspectives to emerge. 

We are excited to discuss potential volumes with interested editors and authors, and are currently seeking proposals from those who may be working on any of the following topics: Sea Life, Forests, Fresh Water, Soil/Desertification, Ecological Value, Biocultural Diversity, Critical Resilience, Displacement, War/Diplomacy, Cultural Memory, Environmental Racism, Decolonial Natures, Normalized Extremes, Thawing/Heating, Environmental Futures (and Pasts), Cultures of Extraction, Indigenous Knowledges, Climate Denialism, Care Work, Solarities. 

Photo: Þorvarður Árnason © 2022

What do you hope to accomplish with the series? 

Our ambition is to see the series contribute to the forging and recognition of new connections across fields, especially between practitioners and scholars. To understand the many acknowledged, ongoing and emerging global challenges, transformative and transdisciplinary approaches are necessary. This means really grappling with different ways of knowing the world through conversation and collaboration around concrete challenges or the often very specific contexts in which we recognize them. To acknowledge and help strengthen the convergence of knowledge communities in response to common challenges, we welcome historically underrepresented or marginalized environmental expertise. Our hope is to find new opportunities for connection when there are so many obstacles to interdisciplinary and collaborative research.

Photo: Þorvarður Árnason © 2022: Ice cave in Breiðamerkurjökull, September 5th 2021. The remains of a moulin, shot from below and inside, which once contributed to the creation of a sub-glacial waterway that can be entered and explored when the meltwater dries up during the winter.

And where do you see the series heading as an academic publishing project?

By framing socio-environmental challenges in this capacious and transdisciplinary way, we believe the series can make significant contributions to sustainability education – an area in which humanities and social sciences approaches hold great potential, both in conjunction with and as necessary complements to the established approaches of STEM fields. Our hope is that by critically assembling an array of perspectives around a given challenge, new opportunities may emerge for practitioners and scholars to engage with shared concerns in more genuinely interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary modalities of knowledge co-production. These ambitions are very much in keeping with the kinds of renewal we see happening now internationally in fields like sustainability science, as in UNESCO’s recently launched BRIDGES Coalition, which envision the humanities playing a more central role in knowledge building and assessment, policy-engagement, governance and other contexts in which specialist understanding can be applied to socio-ecological and other environmental challenges. These are areas of engagement, by and large, that have previously been dominated by natural sciences and technical disciplines.

How did the idea for the series come about? 

The three of us met at a two-week summer field school in Iceland at the Svartárkot Culture-Nature Center in Bárðardalur Valley. This researcher training course explored the socio-environmental history of Iceland and the North Atlantic through medieval sagas, archaeology, environmental history, cultural and physical geography and local knowledge. Led by scholars from the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization and the Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, the field school demonstrated the value of integrating diverse theoretical and practical frameworks, drawing on a range of disciplinary approaches to common research questions and challenges. Our shared experience became an important framing principle for how the series has come together. We feel the field of environmental humanities can accomplish much more in the aggregate by opening up new interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary spaces for intellectual exchange. We want to reinforce a vision of environmental humanities that is not just accessible to diverse communities of knowledge and practice but also keen to involve these co-participants in an expanding community of purpose. 

This ambition seems to be reflected in your editorial group and advisory board

Yes, this is precisely why our distinguished advisory board is so diverse. The board draws on outstanding scholars and researchers in the fields of indigenous studies and education for sustainability; cultural geography and anthropology; environmental history and archaeology; environmental justice and sociology; ecocritical literary studies and green cultural studies. Together these fields of knowledge and disciplinary engagement begin to suggest the richness of the environmental humanities as it has developed over the last decade. To have the commitment of so many leading scholars across this range of disciplines is a great start for a series like ours, which we feel is unique in the current publishing landscape in the field. The environmental humanities will continue to develop as a field in the years to come. Three ways of enabling that development are by addressing the major challenges facing our societies head on, making the most of the disciplinary toolkits available to the environmental humanities, and by defining the field through the objects it explores.

Are there any particular reasons why this series has taken shape at Bloomsbury Academic?

Needless to say, we were thrilled to find an editorial and publishing partner in Ben Doyle at Bloomsbury, whose vision for a series combines the focus of particular challenges with the global scope of the environmental humanities. We have developed our aims and ambitions for the series in every sense collaboratively with Ben and the team at Bloomsbury Academic. Together we look forward to publishing volumes that reflect the dynamic work being done to better understand and perhaps even redefine difficult challenges, books that inspire new forms of scholarly and creative practice right out to the edges of culture.

Photo: Þorvarður Árnason © 2022: Moulin in Breiðamerkurjökull, July 26th 2021. A moulin (glacier mill) in Breiðamerkurjökull, drilled by surface meltwater down towards the bedrock underlying the outlet glacier.

Steven Hartman, University of Iceland

Parker Krieg, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Ursula Lang, University of Minnesota

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