The Medical Environmental Humanities and Public Health

By | August 31, 2022

We’re celebrating the publication of the Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities with this adapted excerpt from the introduction, which explains why we need to bring the medical and environmental humanities into conversation with each other now more than ever.

Readers of the Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities may ask, “Why now? Given that there is already a substantial history of looking at the human mind and body in relation to the environment, why choose this moment to explicitly seek to bring the medical and environmental humanities into concert as a common framework for understanding human experience?” The answer may be both autobiographical and historical. To be brazenly self-revelatory, as aging scholars with aging family members, our sensitivity to our own physical conditions (from aching muscles to weakening eyes) and how these affect our engagement with the world have awakened us to the profound relevance of medicine to environmental thought and experience. We began discussing this project in 2019, prior to our awareness of what would become the most significant public health crisis of our lifetimes: the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of our work on this book has taken place during lockdown conditions in India, and while fastidiously wearing a mask and practicing social distancing in the United States. This introduction was drafted in Ürgüp, Turkey, during a national lockdown, while monitoring the rise and fall of new cases of infection and numbers of new deaths. At the time of this writing, more than 580,000 people have died from Covid in the United States, 270,000 in India.

In other words, we are now more acutely aware of the precarity of our own health and the mental strains of prolonged anxiety and social isolation than ever before in our lives. Our experience of the pandemic has driven home the inseparability of human health and environmental health, attaching a resounding exclamation mark to the importance of this project. During the early months of the pandemic, in 2020, Steven Hartman, Joni Adamson, Greta Gaard, and Serpil Oppermann coordinated a special cluster of articles offering environmental humanities responses to this unique public health crisis for the website Bifrostonline. In their introduction titled “Through the Portal of COVID-19: Visioning the Environmental Humanities as a Community of Purpose,” they cite David Quammen’s eloquent statement from his prescient book, Spillover (2011), on zoonotic disease: “In fact, there is no ‘natural world,’ it’s a bad and artificial phrase. There is only the world” (2020: 518).

We are now more acutely aware of the precarity of our own health and the mental strains of prolonged anxiety and social isolation than ever before in our lives.

In fact, our experience of this dramatic and traumatic pandemic has driven home to us that there is no “human health” and “environmental health.” There is only health—and the absence of health. There is only precarity, experienced admittedly in variable degrees according to just and unjust social and economic systems, but an overarching and fundamental precarity that encompasses all of us, regardless of nationality and ethnicity and species. Obviously, we did not welcome the onset of the Covid pandemic as we worked on this book, but we quickly recognized that this public health crisis reinforced the urgency of yoking together scholarly traditions—the medical humanities and the environmental humanities—that had previously existed mostly in parallel but largely independent spaces. We anticipate that this will no longer be the case.


Cover image of the Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities
Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities

Scott Slovic is University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Idaho, USA, where has been teaching since 2012. He is founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and since 1995 has edited ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment for ASLE and Oxford University Press.

Swarnalatha Rangarajan is Professor of English at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, India and founding editor of The Indian Journal of Ecocriticism. Previously, she was a Fulbright Pre-Doctoral Fellow at Harvard University and a Charles Wallace Fellow at Cambridge University.

Vidya Sarveswaran is Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur, India. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Nevada, Reno and a Rachel Carson Fellow at the University of Munich. She is also a documentary filmmaker.

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