What are the Environmental Humanities?

What are the Environmental Humanities? October 26, 2012

Environmental humanities is a new term that we see increasingly used at universities to describe the particularly cultural dimensions of environmental issues and problems. Examples include the Environmental Humanities Masters degree at the University of Utah or the Environmental Humanities Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. It appears that such a center might be in the works at UCLA. At first glance, environmental humanities would appear to be a subfield of the humanities, a kind of thematic set of questions that would organize the various fields of the humanities in a certain kind of way. It might, for example, involve landscape painting but not necessarily the broader field of art, or it might include nature writing and nature poetry but not necessarily novels set in an urban context. It might include religious thought about the creation but not necessarily theologies about human morality more broadly.

But such assumptions would miss the point. If we take seriously the challenge posed to human culture by the question of the natural world, we begin to see that there is little or no room to insist that “nature” and “culture” occupy separate and distinct arenas of our experience. And if this is the case, either all of nature is somehow subsumed by human culture and history or all culture and history is subordinate to and reflective of the character of the natural world. Or to make it even more complicated, such blurring means we actually can’t choose between these two options; it is as if we must accept the possibility that human culture is as ubiquitous as is nature. Culture covers the globe. This is, after all, what many are now calling the Anthropocene—the great age of the human, characterized by climate change, in which all of nature is now shaped by every move and choice made by the most predominant species on the planet, human beings. And yet, this also introduces the possibility that nature is so profoundly interpenetrated by culture that human beings must finally confront and admit their profound interdependence with all life forms. It is the great age of nature.

So environmental humanities is no mere thematic approach to the study of culture, a sort of tree-hugger’s tour of the great works of civilization. It is instead a steady and persistent interrogation of the very meanings and definitions of the earth, of human artistic expression, and of humanity itself in the context of deep time and dynamic biological exchange. It challenges the fundamental assumptions of virtually every field of human expression and human values. If my experience in rethinking my ten years of higher education in response to such questions is any indication, this is no overthrow of culture in the interest of championing the supremacy of nature. This isn’t about simply arguing for the spotted owl over the logger. Instead, when challenged by the deep temporal context of an evolving planet for over 4.5 billion years, our small human moment and our most cherished and profound attempts to make sense of ourselves become all the more significant. This is because, like Job, they emerge chastened by the humility of our own nothingness in the face of myriad life forms. Our human difference is all the more remarkable after it has learned of its own insignificance.

I am known as an environmentalist, an ecocritic, and a nature writer. And yet I never really think of myself as any of these. I announce my intentions, as I have here, to foreground the environment, as if in hope that it might heighten what is known as the environmental awareness of others. And yet ultimately, in my mind this is not done in the interest of nature’s protection per se but rather in the interest of a more careful, deliberate, and chastened sense of life’s strangeness, beauty, and holiness. I suppose I believe that better care for the world will come—naturally of course!—as a result of more contemplative meditations on the facts of our biology. But ultimately I am less interested in a world of, say, more recycling, more clean energy, and more sustainable practices, as appealing and important as those things are. I don’t want others to join me in some specialized interest in the environment or in environmental problems, as just one subset among many philosophies that vie for our attention. I want companionship in astonishment at the bald facts of life. I want a world of less automatism, less objectification, and less predictability. I want more awe, surprise, and wonder. It is a paradox, but what I want in this more careful attention to physical life is a more spiritual existence.

Which is to say that what motivates me is deeply religious in its character. The word “religion” has many connotations, many of them negative in today’s society, but its root meanings include acts that bind all things together, that imagine the world as one, and that revisit and reread for greater understanding. In this sense, it has echoes with the meaning of repentance—a turning around, a turning back, a resetting of things in their proper order. It also has echoes with the word “recreation,” which as I tried to thematize in Home Waters is a remaking of the world, a going back—in body and in mind—to an imagined moment of creation, as if the world could always be new, again and again. In the face of a world that changes with each breeze, each shift in season, each death and each birth, and that grows increasingly warmer, and in light of our life in bodies that exchange matter daily and that transform their cellular makeup many times over in the course of a lifetime, we can scarcely claim to be truly alive if we fail to participate more consciously and reverently in the ongoing creation of the world. That, it seems, is not the fruit of some new specialized form of thinking but of a concerted and generalized practice of rethinking what we thought we knew.

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