What is the environmental humanities?

The term “environmental humanities” is both descriptive and aspirational: it has emerged over the last five years to capture already existing conjunctions across environmental philosophy, environmental history, ecocriticism, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, and political ecology, but it also seeks to integrate debates so far largely shaped by different disciplinary contexts. This Sawyer seminar at UCLA aims to explore the potential of this concept for organizing humanistic research, for opening up new forms of interdisciplinarity both within the humanities and in collaboration with the social and natural sciences, and for shaping public debate and policies on environmental issues.


Awareness of ecological crisis made its way into individual humanistic disciplines at different moments, depending on the compatibility of environmental thought with prevailing theoretical frameworks. Environmental philosophy (particularly ethics) developed robustly from the 1970s onward, environmental history emerged in the 1980s as a distinct subdiscipline, and ecocriticism (that is, environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies) established itself institutionally from the early 1990s onward.

While the environmental humanities are too diverse in terms of method, subject, and geographical focus to make broad generalizations that hold true across all of them, environmentally focused subfields within different humanities disciplines have been shaped by some similar intellectual turns since the 1970s. Chief among these is a shift from championing and explaining environmentalist thought to challenging environmentalists to reflect more carefully on their concepts of nature and on the relationship between nature and culture.

For example, in Nature’s Economy (1977), one of the books that helped establish the field of environmental history, Donald Worster grants a holistic vision of nature a privileged place in the history of ecology, thereby endorsing a popular environmentalist view of the science of ecology. But by 1995, William Cronon was challenging mainstream environmentalist definitions of nature in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” where he argued that the focus on wilderness preservation leads us to neglect of the everyday places in which we live.

A similar shift can also be traced in ecocriticism, from sympathetic analyses of Romantic representations of nature in British and American poetry and nonfiction nature writing in the early years, to a more recent turn toward issues of environmental justice, other world literatures and global environmental contexts, urban natures, and texts that are not obviously environmental.

Institutional coalescence

While literary scholars and historians in the United States and environmental philosophers and literary critics in Australia have cultivated contact and collaboration with each other’s communities since the 1990s, the idea that environmentally oriented humanistic research should be integrated in a more sustained fashion has only taken hold in universities around the world over the last decade.

Recently established research centers such as the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm, and the Eco-Humanities Hub at Mid Sweden University are bringing scholars from the associated fields together. Undergraduate and graduate programs in environmental humanities have emerged at universities in the United States, Australia, England, Germany, Sweden, and Taiwan.

Networks such as Humanities for the Environment, the Transatlantic Environmental Research Network in Environmental Humanities, the Australian Environmental Humanities Hub, the Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES), and the European Environmental Humanities Alliance, in addition, help to connect researchers in the environmental humanities regionally across institutions and disciplines.

One new journal, Environmental Humanities, based at the University of New South Wales in Australia, began publishing in November 2012; another, Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, from University of Nebraska Press, published its first issue in January 2014.

Audiences and resources

Like environmentalist writing more broadly speaking, the environmental humanities occupy a fertile edge zone between academic and popular discourses. Classic environmental thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson played a mediating role, communicating insights from natural history and the environmental sciences to a popular audience, but also explaining popular concerns and experiences to a scholarly audience.

In a similar way, scholars in the environmental humanities both respond to and influence popular representations and accounts of our current ecological predicaments. The immense popularity of writers who often translate insights from the environmental humanities for a general audience—think of Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, and Barbara Kingsolver, just to name a few—only begins to indicate the extent to which academic conversations are enriched by exchange with popular discourses and practices.

A seismic shift in environmental thought

While the emergence of the environmental humanities has been shaped by debates within a variety of disciplinary contexts, by growing frustration within the environmental movement at the slow pace of political responses to climate change, and by pressures on the humanities to prove their social usefulness, a seismic shift in environmentalist thought currently underway both outside and inside the academy is likely to crucially shape research in the environmental humanities.

Environmentalism up until the turn of the millennium tended to envision the ideal kind of nature as the one least altered by humans. But climate change as well as historical inquiry regarding indigenous people’s manipulation of landscapes have made this ideal once and for all unattainable. Not only had many of the environments that especially European settlers considered “wild” or “pristine” already been fundamentally transformed by indigenous peoples for millennia before Europeans’ arrival, but the pervasive impact of global warming also makes return to the ecosystems of the past difficult or impossible.

Under such varied headings as “domesticated nature,” “intervention ecology,” and, perhaps most famously, the idea of the “Anthropocene,” an era in which humans’ impact on the planet has attained geological magnitude, environmentalists are re-envisioning nature as pervasively and enduringly shaped by humans. These new concepts are beginning to put pressure on the key concept of “sustainability,” which has organized a good deal of environmentalist thought for the last two decades.

This fundamental conceptual shift in environmentalism is likely to give the environmental humanities many of its crucial impulses in the immediate future, since nature itself, more than before, will come to be considered as part of social and cultural realms.

Two other intellectual turns are relevant here. One is posthumanism, a move to de-center the liberal human subject in relation to other species, machines, objects, and systems. The other is a growing dissatisfaction with declension narratives—doubt about the accuracy and public appeal of stories of nature’s decline under the impact of modern societies.

These trends challenge not only environmental scholarship but deep humanistic traditions as well. Taken together, they also offer a difficult but potentially rewarding path forward for the humanities.

A few other recent definitions of the environmental humanities

Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Stuart Cooke, Matthew Kearnes, and Emily O’Gorman. “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.” Environmental Humanities 1.1 (2012): 1-5.

Sverker Sörlin. “Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?” BioScience 62.9 (2012): 788-789.

Vilnius Declaration: the European Environmental Humanities Alliance. September 20, 2013.

A few classic texts in chronological order

Leo Marx. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, 2000.

Alfred Crosby. “New World Foods and Old World Demography” from The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. 1972. 30th Anniversary Edition. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. 165-207.

Raymond Williams. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Sherry Ortner. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” In Woman, Culture, and Society. Ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974.

Ramachandra Guha. “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique.” Environmental Ethics 11.1 (1989): 71-83. Reprinted in Technology and Values: Essential Readings. Ed. Craig Hanks. Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Bruno Latour. “Crisis” from We Have Never Been Modern. 1991. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. 1-12.

William Cronon. “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. William Cronon. New York: Norton, 1995. 69-90.

Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martínez-Alier. “The Environmentalism of the Poor” from Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. Oxon, UK: Earthscan, 1997. 3-21.

Donna Haraway. “Modest­_Witness@Second_Millennium,” from Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.Female Man©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997. 23-48.

Lawrence Buell. “Toxic Discourse.” Critical Inquiry 24.3 (1998): 639-665 .

Val Plumwood. “The Politics of Ecological Rationality,” from Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York: Routledge, 2002. 62-80.