#FLremaking: environmental humanities, nature and anthropocentrism

Remaking nature (#flremaking), FutureLearn’s Environmental Humanities MOOC from UNSW Australia, started 11 January for six weeks. Around 6.5K enrolled, with a great intro vid.

Learn how the new Environmental Humanities (EH) field is shaping how we understand environmental issues. You’ll get a broad overview of an emerging area of interdisciplinary research that reframes contemporary environmental challenges using approaches from philosophy, literature, language, history, anthropology, cultural studies and the arts.

EH places scientific knowledge in dialogue with the key concerns of the humanities: how people think, feel, protest, vote and create. Our main aim in this course is to consider and create new narratives about how humans and the environment relate to one another.

We’ll begin this course by identifying historical ways of thinking about the environment. Through a range of examples, we’ll illustrate how ‘nature’ is a human invention. We’ll then look at how the role of humans has been conceptualised in opposition to notions of nature, and assert that we were never at the centre, nor in control of the environment.

Having questioned these common ‘modernist’ conceptions about nature, we’ll examine some of the ways in which the natural world is being ‘remade’, both discursively (in the way we write, speak and think about it) and materially (for instance, in the alteration of DNA and the wholesale transformation of ecosystems).

Finally, we’ll ask you to join us in creating new narratives about nature that demonstrate greater care and concern.

EH at UNSW (Facebook | Twitter) has four main strands:

  • environment, technology and the politics of knowledge
  • multispecies studies and politics of life
  • social change, participatory politics and community engagement
  • rethinking the humanities through the environment

Of the eight course guides the work of Susie Pratt (artist and researcher, does sound walks; not traced), Paul Munro (Twitter; background in political ecology and historical geography) and Judy Motion (public discourses and engagement, inc #some but not self; investigating urban spaces) are of the most interest. Plus Matthew Kearnes, who doesn’t appear on the vid but blogstweets and is a co-editor of Environmental Humanities (@EnvHumanities).

What is environmental humanities?

The entanglement between facts and values, science and humanities, is at the heart of the emerging EH field. An activity in the first week asked participants to critique a newspaper article looking at the stakeholders, the kinds of knowledge being drawn upon (eg scientific, legal, aesthetic, cultural) and how scientific facts and human value systems interacted therein. This “generated some great conversations about clashes of value systems, the interaction between facts and values, and the rights of different human and non-human stakeholders”.

Next, an article by Stephen Muecke, drawing on the work of philosopher Bruno Latour, explained the shift from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ as an important step in taking action to counter ecological crises:

EH investigates the relation of facts to values – no fact is born without a set of values attached, and the separation of facts from values is an artificial separation. There was something quite artificial in the way that modern Europeans separated nature off from human society and made it the domain of science. The new story we tell about nature is not about its pure scientific facts, as if they are ‘just there’, but that facts come into being for reasons like curiosity, need, concern and necessity: human emotions and needs! ‘Matters of fact’ are also ‘matters of concern’ – we can’t necessarily prioritise the one over the other. What one can do is rank matters of concern in order of importance.

Examples of EH research:

  • Eben Kirksey on Living with parasites
  • speed bumps and other traffic calming devices as anti-modernist, a technology that enforces a morality and illustrates the embeddedness of scientific facts, technology and human value systems (and the ethics of pedestrian crossings, which can be extended to shared space and related)
  • remaking nature – the humanities can help us better understand and respond to contemporary environmental challenges, and the more-than-human world offers us a new lens for rethinking some of our core understandings about humanity; creative projects such as multi-species imaginings and an awareness of the liveliness of things  (eg built environment) can remake our understanding of ‘nature’ and our place within it.

A poll then asked “how do you understand nature”? A subset of response choices hinted towards humans as having a ‘stewardship’ or even Godlike relationship towards nature, with morals and duties. Looking forward to this being addressed in week 3.

Summary of key ideas in the EH field:

  • facts are interwoven with values
  • environmental challenges are wrapped up in ‘matters of concern’
  • the humanities can aid in remaking our ideas about environmental concerns
  • ‘reinstituting the collective’ is an ongoing process for EH researchers
  • the more-than-human environment can aid in remaking our ideas about humanity and ‘nature’
  • humans are interwoven with environments

Further reading:

The invention of nature

This week, we will explore ‘nature’ as a conceptual category, introducing the idea that nature as we understand it in the West does not actually exist — it is, in fact, a European invention. We then go on to discuss some of the implications of a nature-culture division in historical and contemporary situations.

First, a “fun activity that takes you on a walk outdoors” introduced by Susie Pratt, aka Padlet time. Not a fan – this kind of stuff creating doesn’t do much for this type of learner, who prefers to take notes. We were asked to go for a walk and search for and collect (or photograph) six small objects, then sort them into two piles: natural objects and cultural ones, or place them on a continuum. “What complexities occurred when you started to divide your objects into a nature/culture binary? Dividing these items into a nature-culture binary may actually contribute to some of the complex environmental crises that we currently have today.”

On to nature as a conceptual category. Raymond Williams famously said that ‘nature’ may be the most complex term in the English language, but there are two main ways in which the term is typically used:

  • nature as essence – the fundamental or inner character, or proper functioning, of anything and everything, the essential or proper features of a thing, eg human nature, the ‘nature’ of modern architecture.
  • nature as nonhuman –  the collection of nonhuman entities in the world, eg wilderness as the purest form of nature (see William Cronon, then Dan Allosso)

Moving on to:

  • confused natures – eg  if someone says that genetically modified foods are ‘unnatural’, what do they mean? to call something ‘unnatural’ implies that it is not proper, not how it ought to be
  • the nature/culture dualism – in Western thought nature has tended to be understood as dualistically opposed to culture or humanity, those parts or places that are (relatively) unaffected by people, positioning humans as fundamentally outside nature: “the foundational delusion of the West…a dangerous doctrine, strongly implicated in the environmental crisis…the love-child of the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality mated with the much younger circumstance of human experience of commodification in the global city” (Val Plumwood)

Next, a vid summed up the position that rather than a dualism there is a continuum, summing up neatly (again!) what as a vegetarian I have always perceived, plus touching on speciesism. But if nature never existed in a dualised way, how far can we go with J Baird Callicott: “We are animals ourselves, large omnivorous primates…We are therefore a part of nature, not set apart from it. Hence, human works are no less natural than those of termites or elephants. Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef.”

I’m pretty much with JBC – climate change is hence natural, stop flapping.

Other dualisms relate to eg gender, sexuality and race, include male / female, mind / body, master / slave, civilised / primitive, human / animal. Obv.

Next, four implications of the invention of nature and the nature/culture dualism:

  • mastery over nature – different examples of forms of mastery of environmental and climatic systems, from grand visions such as the construction of the Hoover Dam, to everyday mundane forms of mastery — for example, the use of air conditioners to control temperature
  • nature and power – colonisation inc British appropriation of Australian lands, justified on the basis of terra nullius (no one’s land) and the racist conception that Indigenous people did not manage and occupy the land and therefore did not have rights over it
  • nature as wilderness – a protected, romanticised area separate from and excluded from human activities, exploring how notions of wilderness are bound up in the emergence of national parks, and the problems that occur when protected ‘natural areas’ are created
  • environmental determinism – the problematic claim that environmental conditions determine the character and attributes of (geographically distinct) cultural and ethnic groups, “a thin veil for a virulent form of Euro-centric racism” – overcooked for me, usual HE discourse

The end of ‘nature’ as a conceptual category might just be the beginning of a more sustainable and ethical engagement with our nonhuman, or more-than-human, world. OTOH, has the case really been made for the damage it does? See ‘Pristine’ landscapes haven’t existed for thousands of years.

So far the course as a whole is of a way higher level than most ‘baby steps’ style FutureLearn courses, but perhaps too much philosophy and rather trad academic in style – the four implications felt like each instructor’s pet peeve. Where’s the hums? Plus too little activity or ‘stories’ to maintain interest as a MOOC. And who would ever have thought I would have said that…

Beyond anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism characterises a position which accepts human beings as being the most significant species on the planet. Implicitly, humans are considered to have a moral status or value higher than that of other animals due to their level of sentience, their presence of a human soul, and notions of human dignity.

Such anthropocentric perspectives are deeply embedded in many modern human cultural and conscious acts, with human considerations being at the centre of environmental concerns. Nature, seen as an external environment, is generally viewed as having instrumental values. And thus, its preservation or conservation is premised on its value for human needs, such as its use as a resource or the ecosystem services that it provides.

Anthropocentrism is often contrasted with ecocentric perspectives, a term for a wide variety of beliefs that see humans as a part of, rather than as separate from, nature. In this conception, nature is understood as having an intrinsic value, value irrespective of its use to humans, and therefore human decisions must take this into account

There are, of course, shades of grey between these perspectives. For example, a custodian approach, where humans are seen as having some obligation to protect nature for its intrinsic value, yet human concerns still remain central. A form of human exceptionalism still exists. Perspectives can also vary in terms of subjects of study and across time.

In the Environmental Humanities, we seek to unsettle strong antropocentric perspectives, challenging the assumption that humans and society are somehow being distinct and separate from nature. We explore new stories and understandings of the world and the ways in which we can start to imagine different social and environmental futures.

Summed up in this handy framework:

  • Ecocentric – nature-centred. People with an ecocentric viewpoint tend to see nature as having its own intrinsic value, with a right to exist for its own sake.
  • Custodian – being responsible for the maintenance of something. People with a custodian or stewardship approach to environment tend to feel that humans have a moral obligation to protect nature, both in the present and future.
  • Anthropocentric – human-centred. People with an anthropocentric viewpoint tend to see nature based on its value as a resource to be exploited by humans for human benefit.

Now, is this a continuum, ie do the ecocentric perceive themselves as morally superior, even to the custodians? the poll found a trend of people tending to cluster around either custodian or ecocentric perspectives. Some see humans as having a moral obligation to protect nature; others want to see humans more part of nature. If it’s the moral aspect I have trouble with, Dan A suggests splitting the middle ground into Custodians, who believe humans have a moral obligation to protect nature for its own sake, and Stewards, who want to insure nature’s continued ability to meet our needs.

Next, An ecomodernist manifesto (32pp), as an example of anthropocentrism through a contemporary example of a nature-culture dualism. The manifesto supports “nuclear power, intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops — together with the suggestion that ‘positive decoupling trends offer hope for a ‘good Anthropocene'”.’ Its central claim is that humans need to de-couple from nature:

Humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature…Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts…Decoupling raises the possibility that societies might achieve peak human impact without intruding much further on relatively untouched areas. Nature unused is nature spared.

It’s a modernist concept of nature: the intensification of human activities will enable humans to extricate themselves from relations with nature.

  • can ecomodernism decouple itself from environmentalism?
  • can humanity decouple itself from nature?

See responses and Dan A (one | two | three | four): “an example of contemporary perspectives that continue to advocate a human-focused understanding of the world, perpetuating nature-culture divisions”. Piqued my interest, but sadly tl:dr.

Then a video on the Anthropocene, addressing some of the problems of this grand-planetary-scale narrative, inc what non-human agencies are also implicated in Earth futures. The concept of the Anthropocene is used as a means of raising environmental consciousness and highlighting the scale of human impact on environments, but if we wish to move beyond anthropocentric frames of inquiry is it wise to name a geological epoch after ourselves?

Next, pick a topical issue and link to an interesting news article, video or online commentary that engages with it. Do you see evidence of the nature/culture dualism and anthropocentrism at play in your issue? Two examples from the instructors, multispecies communities and liveliness (or agency) of things, are presented to offer a means of understanding or responding to your issue. There’s a dog owning thread (can’t find!) and nice accompanying article, (plus another on shared space), but you really need to engage straight away before things (and you) move on.

My issue of choice could have been Denmark’s public dissections, but couldn’t face it, particularly this week. (Plus would be going through the motions – know already how it would play out in this arena. Exhibit A: Pels-avisen.) Never mind anthropocentric, here it’s danocentric (see ethnocentrism, the belief that ‘our way is the right way’).

Generally, still pretty heavy on the theory, but from week 4 things got a bit more practical – see second post.


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