Humanities for the Environment Report 2018: Some Reflections

by Cormac Walsh

In late 2017 / early 2018 two Special Issues of international journals (Global and Planetary Change and Humanities) were published which together constitute the Humanities for the Environment Report 2018 (HfE 2018). The HfE 2018 Report provides key examples of how “humanities research reveals and influences human capacity to perceive and cope with environmental change” and seeks to change perceptions of the Environmental Humanities (Holm & Brennan 2018, p. 1). Both Special Issues emanated from the European Observatory of the broader worldwide Humanities for the Environment initiative. In this context, the term humanities is defined very broadly to include the social sciences. The editors and authors focus very deliberately on the actual and potential role of the humanities and social sciences in relation to contemporary environmental challenges. The first Special Issue, edited by Poul Holm and Charles Travis, seeks to engage with the earth science readership of Global and Planetary Change. In what follows, I focus, quite selectively, on key insights from the Humanities Special Issue and in particular the introductory text (Holm & Brennan 2018) and the article of Billing et al (2017) on sectoral, policy and academic visions for the marine environment. Specifically, I focus on two insights concerning societal adaptation to change and the concept of ‘world-views’.

In setting out their case for a strong role for the humanities (and social sciences) with respect to global environmental change, the editors (Poul Holm and Ruth Brennan, p. 2) argue that the natural sciences can measure the scale and extent of environmental change but cannot “make us change direction”. They argue, that, in contrast, the humanities are well placed to inform how we as a humans interpret and stimulate change. Humanities research helps our understanding of values, motivations, worldviews and choices and can explain why human individuals, communities and societies often resist change. At the same time, the humanities and social sciences can provide insights from examples of progressive change which have occurred in the past. Historical experience demonstrates the capacity to adapt to change and for transformative change to occur, often within the space of a generation. The examples cited include changing societal perceptions in relation to smoking, safe sexual behaviour and road safety.

These insights resonate with my own research interest in dynamics of path-dependent and path-shaping change in different institutional contexts. More concretely, my research at the Wadden Sea coast has led to the conclusion that adaptation to future environmental change needs to be placed within its historical context of past patterns of adaptation and associated shifts in perception. Contemporary concerns to protect the Wadden Sea ecosystem as a space for nature have emerged very recently in comparison to the long-established need to protect coastal communities from the wild nature of the North Sea. Future patterns of adaptive change may similar require a re-evaluation of the current perceptions of society-environment relations and their underlying values and rationalities.

The concept of world-views features centrally in the paper of Billing et al. They seek to understand the world-views of different actors arguing that “an understanding of the mental constructs underlying these world-views can help marine governance through integrating different ways of knowing” (2017, p. 1). The concept of world-views thus relates to that of epistemologies and the different perspectives that actors in society have on an issue or their environment based on their perception of the world. One of the case study ‘stories’ related in the paper concerns the world-views of local community actors on the Island of Barra. Their way of knowing the environment contrasts with that of the government agencies seeking to designate areas of marine protection. The concept of world-views comprises elements of place and positionality as well as epistemology and neatly encapsulates how knowledges and values are situated and embedded in local and at times, trans-local or global contexts. The notion of world-views thus perhaps provides an accessible umbrella term incorporating a range of issues each of which may be worthy of analysis in their own right such as perceptions, values, rationalities, socio-spatial or socio-technical imaginaries. My own engagement with the concept of world-views came from a very different source: the travel writing of Dervla Murphy, which I first read during my undergraduate studies in geography. Murphy is a critical-thinking Irishwoman of strong opinions who has travelled to many parts of the world combing travel writing and social critique, often on the cusp of or in the aftermath of periods of societal and political transformation and unrest, such as South Africa in the early 1990s, and the western Balkans before and after the violent conflicts of the same decade. Through her conversations with local people of all political persuasions and socio-cultural backgrounds she revealed in a very immediate manner how different groups within the same or neighbouring regions experienced their worlds in very different ways.

In the context of the HfE Report, the concept of world-views serves to highlight the capacity for the humanities and social sciences to reveal the diverse pluralities of situated ways of knowing the environment and the need to acknowledge and integrate such diverse perspectives in the governance and management of environmental change. For me, the concept also provides a reminder of the contingent embeddedness of our own knowledge, values and perceptions as academics and inhabitants of the global North. The HfE Report can help to frame our coastal and marine research, placing it within a broader multidisciplinary context and adopting a coherent normative frame in relation to issues of global environmental change. It also challenges us to be more forthright in claiming space for the humanities and social sciences in relation to wider debates on the Anthropocene and global environmental change.


%d bloggers like this: