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Environmental Turn in the Human Sciences

Will It Become Decisive Enough?

By Sverker Sörlin Published 2014

What do the humanities have to do with the environment? As they are commonly understood, environmental problems are issues that manifest themselves primarily in the environment itself. Natural scientists research these problems and suggest solutions, aided by technology, economics, and policy. It was scientists who defined the modern usage of the concept of “the environment” after World War II. Ecologist William Vogt famously used it in his 1948 volume The Road to Survival: “We live in one world in an ecological—an environmental—sense.” He and others at the time thought of “the environment” as a composite of issues that had been in the making for some time—most prominently, population growth, which had been much discussed since the World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927, but also soil erosion, desertification (observed by Paul Sears in his famous 1935 book Deserts on the March), pollution, food, poverty, and starvation.

In the public’s mind, environmentalism is still connected with the 1960s, from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) to the foundation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Earth Day in 1970, but in reality, its start was earlier, and humanist thinkers were deeply part of the first phase of the environmental revolution. In France, a cohort of eminent historians started the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale in 1929, which became an outlet for a take on history as an interaction of humans with physical geographies. Aldo Leopold was as much a philosopher as an ecologist when he developed his concept of a “land ethic” in A Sand County Almanac (1949). When the important Princeton conference on “The Earth as transformed by human action” took place in 1955, Lewis Mumford, the planning philosopher and urban historian, was a notable speaker.

However, the humanist presence faded quickly, and for half a century there were few humanists at the top levels of environmental science planning and as policy advisers. Humanists themselves commonly accepted the outsider role.

The widening domain of environmentally relevant knowledge

Now we seem to be in for a change. The background is the current inadequacy of the established scientific, policymaking, and economic approaches. In fact, despite all our efforts, most indicators of our future point in the wrong direction. As some of us, members of a team led by ecologist Johan Rockström, discussed in “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” a since much-cited 2009 article in Nature, human societies are rapidly transgressing a set of planetary boundaries, including rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidity. We face both local and global coupled multiscalar crises of geopolitical instability, resource scarcity, and economic collapse.

Our belief that science alone could deliver us from the planetary quagmire is long dead. While science remains essential for “the power of betterment—that riddled word”––just as J. Robert Oppenheimer reminded us in his 1953 Reith lectures, published as Science and the Common Understanding (1954)––it is far from enough when it comes to dealing with the most major complex challenges that are facing us. Still, strangely, the knowledge base for environmental protection was for a long time built quite one-sidedly on science and to some extent technology, as if the understanding of nature’s workings would almost inevitably spin off sound policy recommendations and, ultimately, betterment in policy and environmental practice. 

True, the domain of environmentally relevant knowledge expanded gradually in the later decades of the twentieth century. After the Rio Conference in 1992, hopes were high for new economic- and incentive-driven public management solutions, but after twenty years of focusing policies on what Maarten A. Hajer in The Politics of Ecological Discourse (1995) termed “ecological modernization,” including efforts for green and clean growth, eco-efficiency, decoupling, and the ever-more-sophisticated management of landscapes and species, the world seems to have come to a point where it must again determine pathways to sustainability.

It seems this time that our hopes are tied to the humanities. In February 2012, the Responses to Environmental and Societal Challenges for Our Unstable Earth (RESCUE) initiative, commissioned by the European Science Foundation and Europe’s intergovernmental Cooperation in Science and Technology program, presented its synthesis report. It gave a high profile to the humanities, arguing that in a world where cultural values, political and religious ideas, and deep-seated human behaviors still rule the way people lead their lives, produce, and consume, the idea of environmentally relevant knowledge must change. We cannot dream of sustainability unless we start to pay more attention to the human agents of the planetary pressure that environmental experts are masters at measuring but seem unable to prevent.

Some of the shift toward the human sciences has to do with the fundamental shift in understanding what is represented by the Anthropocene concept (see article, page 9), coined by Crutzen and Stoermer in 2000 (Global Change Newsletter 41: 17–18). If humanity is the chief cause of the ominous change, it must surely be inevitable that research and policy will be focused on human societies and their basic functions. After half a century of putting nature first, it may be time to put humans first. Some members of the RESCUE team went on to publish articles geared toward “Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene” and “Reconfiguring Environmental Expertise” for a special issue of Environmental Science and Policy (2013).1 

Similar attempts to address the need for change both in the human sciences themselves and in the position the humanities occupy in universities and research policy are seen elsewhere. A major activity, the “Anthropocene Project,” is hosted by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, where a mega-scale Anthropocene conference was organized during a week in January 2013 and where some one hundred (!) graduate students and postdocs from all over the world will assemble for a super teach-in over ten days in November 2014 with leading Anthropocene scholars of all fields, humanities, technology, natural sciences, social sciences, art and design.

Andrea Kane

Sörlin leading a seminar on the School of Social Science’s theme for 2013–14, “Environmental Turn and the Human Sciences”

The environmental humanities

Other initiatives point in the same direction. Considerable energies are going into the emerging concept of environmental humanities. This is a broad multidisciplinary approach that signals a new willingness in the humanities to forego the primary focus on disciplines (as in, e.g., environmental philosophy, environmental history) for a common effort in which the relevance of human action is on par with the environmental aspect. Programs or other initiatives for the environmental humanities have already started to emerge in universities in Europe, Australia, and the United States, including Princeton, Stanford, and UCLA. The Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), assembling more than seventy humanities centers worldwide, has its own Initiative Humanities for the Environment, which “serves as a network and resource for centers to develop (or extend) program ming, research, and dialogue related to contemporary environmental challenges.” Academic initiatives abound and have shown a particular growth trend in the last two or three years. The Transatlantic Environmental Research Network in Environmental Humanities links several universities in the United States and Canada with primarily German counterparts, including the recently established Rachel Carson Center in Munich. The movements are not isolated to the humanities in the narrow sense, they are felt across the human sciences. The Institute’s School of Social Science devoted the year 2013–14 to “The Environmental Turn and the Human Sciences” as their chosen thematic field.

A new journal, Environmental Humanities, was launched in 2012; it is based at the University of New South Wales, where there is also an interdisciplinary environmental humanities program. Another one, The Anthropocene Review, saw its first issue out as late as 2014; a third, Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, has also just published its first issue. Several publishers have established new series in the environmental humanities, and volumes are appearing at a steady stream. After decades of very little interest in funding large-scale environmental work in the humanities, funders have started to invite experts on human values, ideas, history, thinking, religion, and communication to bring their knowledge to bear on critical global issues. Norway has started the “Cultural Conditions Underlying Social Change” program. Among its highest-priority areas of interest are the environment and climate change. In Sweden, the Mistra Foundation for Environmental Research launched in 2013 the largest-ever program for environmental research in the humanities. The major German initiative at the Rachel Carson Center has adopted the topic on its agenda and also formed a European Alliance for Environmental Humanities with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the University of Utrecht, Trinity College, Dublin, and other partners. 

Both challenges and fundamental curiosity

The energies in these fields are certainly derived from the challenge-oriented research agenda that is common around the world and not least in the European Union where the new eighty billion euro (about $100 billion) framework program for research, Horizon 2020, is starting this year and will last for the coming seven years. But equally important are developments within the humanities disciplines themselves. It is quite simply some very engaging and exciting scholarship that draws attention to the environmental humanities, so that when young scholars flock around fields with the “environmental-”prefix or turn in large numbers to Anthropocene events, it is likely a combined effect of intellectual curiosity and an eagerness to get work done that can make a difference, in the positive sense. Some remarkable work on the environment in recent years has already been carried out by humanists. Lawrence Buell at Harvard sparked off the ecocritical movement in literary studies from the 1990s with a string of books, including his Writing for an Endangered World (2001). His colleague Ursula K. Heise at Stanford articulated the emerging idea of a global humanity with a planetary conscience in her book Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008). If this is an emerging idea, the outlook in a few generations may in fact be brighter than we think.

In France, sociologist–philosopher Bruno Latour has been reconfiguring his country’s leading policy school, the Sciences Po, putting his ideas of a major environmental turn of the planetary enterprise at center stage, and has in recent years turned into a major champion of the Anthropocene concept. At the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, Andy Stirling has invited us to consider what he calls directionality as we conceive research policy for economic growth in order to achieve real progress, not just more of the same destructive kind of growth. Literary scholar Rob Nixon at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, argues that a “slow violence” (part of the title of his 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor) plagues the poorest people on Earth, who shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden when the rich outsource their ecological footprint—dumping waste, axing forests, or relocating dangerous workplaces.

Environmental humanists have already begun to challenge established truths. Although ecologists and economists have put considerable hope over the last two decades into the idea that we may be able to defend ecosystem services by translating them into monetary terms, several humanities scholars (in alliance with many skeptical scientists) have presented fundamental criticism of this approach. Uncritically applying the indiscriminately universalizing tool of monetized services risks doing more harm than good to the environment. In particular, it runs the risk of marginalizing social groups—and, therefore, civic values—as they try to articulate value-based agendas for defending nature and urban space. Yet another moment when one is reminded of the wisdom of Einstein’s quote: “Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts.”

The environmental humanities thus also contribute to new developments in the discourse on the relation between knowledge and politics. Already fifteen years ago, Bruno Latour argued for a “new Constitution” where the traditional separation of facts and values should be renegotiated. Work in science and technology studies (STS) over the past decade has provided increasing evidence that the values about society and how it should be governed and where it should be headed is of far greater significance for policy and, not least for a society’s environmental performance, than “facts about nature.” As Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff (Designs on Nature, 2005; Science and the Public Reason, 2012) has noted in a summary of the main findings of STS, “better science advice requires more intelligent engagement with politics,” and not the opposite. 

This is especially important because of the innate tendency in science advice to attach most of the value to “what is already known, than to what is unknown or outside the reach of the advisers’ immediate consciousness.” As Jasanoff reminds us this disfavors the collection of hard-to-gather social and behavioral evidence and favors continued amassing of measurable facts about the natural world, despite the fact that it is no longer the most pressing concern for policy. The climate crisis is a case in point. We could say that we know enough to act, but the overwhelming priorities of knowledge production remain focused on refining the existing climate knowledge rather than massively turning our attention to how we could equip and empower societies, citizens, and businesses to move away from the danger.

Naturally, if this was a simple thing to do, it would have already happened, which is why the environmental humanities would rather insist on the need to do the work comprehensively. To change fundamentally energy and environmental regimes takes comprehensive work and would involve changes in values and perceptions alongside regime shifts in economics and technology––which is precisely the reason why this intellectual undertaking must be conceived over the long term and on a large scale. It may well be that if we imagined a visitor from some other solar system who came to our marvelous planet and tried to figure out how we could go on so recklessly destroying it, that this visitor would ask us why we didn’t reconsider our entire thinking about what is valuable in life and how societies act to pursue these values. And that visitor would probably also be interested in learning why it is that what people cherish most, family, health, religion, good morals, had so little purchase when it came to maintaining the life conditions that uphold our world.

Sverker Sörlin (, Member (2013–14) in the School of Social Science, is Professor of Environmental History in the Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). He is a cofounder of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory and the editor, with Libby Robin and Paul Warde, of The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change (Yale University Press, 2013), which recently won the New England Book Fair Prize for Best Edited Collection.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2014