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Applying the Environmental Humanities: Ten steps for action and implementation

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nvironmental crises today confront hu-
manity with complex challenges that
involve all aspects of society, from capital-
ism and finance, law and justice, poverty
and exclusion,to forced migration,globali -
zation, and artificial intelligence. For many
decades a rich scholarly literature has pro-
posed solutions to environmental problems.
While the “environmental sciences” are
rooted in the natural sciences, adding hu-
manities and social sciences perspectives
broadens the field into “environmental stud-
ies”. Under the umbrella of the “environ-
mental humanities” (EH), environmental
studies have recently gained new momen-
tum by strengthening the role of the hu-
manities and by developing new collabo-
ra tions among arts and design, indige -
nous peoples, social activists, and natural
EH is a growing international move-
ment that has led to the establishment of
numerous new institutions, research ini-
tiatives, funding schemes, journals, and
teaching programs (Heise et al. 2017, Forêt
et al. 2014). Institutionalization, interna-
tional coordination, and the growth of hu-
manities-based environmental research
has led to a key question: what do applica -
tion and policy-orientation mean for the
humanities? We respond by introducing an
EH-based understanding of the science-
society nexus, and by reviewing initiatives
that deploy EH perspectives in academia,
at the science-society interface, and in so-
ciety. The article builds on a recent report
of the saguf Working Group of Environmen-
tal Humanities funded by the Swiss Acad-
emy of Humanities and Social Sciences
(Kueffer et al. 2017). The report reflects
saguf’s vision of the role of the humani-
ties in moving beyond disseminating sci-
entists’ achievements and studying how
non-scientists perceive and sometimes re-
sist scientific findings (Wäger et al. 2014,
Stauffacher et al. 2013).
Rethinking the Science-Society Nexus
EH tests the compatibility of action- and
policy-oriented objectives with epistemol-
ogy and methodology in the humanities.
The fine arts, humanities, and social scienc -
es value pluralism and reflexivity, and use
context, rhetoric and diverse forms of evi -
dence as key notions that facilitate and cel-
ebrate multiple perspectives. This may re-
quire that we highlight rather than simpli -
fy the complexity of our relationship with
nature. We may question the priority that
the environmental sciences have granted
to overarching syntheses and universal so-
lutions. Rather than searching for the short-
est path to the best solution to problems that
have already been identified, problem-solv-
ing may involve open, exploratory, and ex-
perimental processes. EH scholars empha-
size that we must learn to better appreci-
ate a problem’s intractability. As a conse-
quence, EH scholars may value a Socrat-
ic dialogue that promotes questions as well
as answers. This attitude does not easily
align with definitions of “applied science
that the environmental sciences use to
solve specific problems and reach pre-de-
©2018 C.Kueffer et al.; licensee oekom verlag.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Environmental issues require answers from
science, society, and culture. How can we apply
the humanities and arts to these issues while
cultivating methodologies that value context-dependence,
multiperspectivity,relativism, and subjectivity?
Applying the Environmental Humanities |GAIA 27/2(2018): 254 –256
Keywords: arts and sciences, environmental problem-solving, environmental studies, humanities, interdisciplinary studies, transdisciplinarity
Contact authors: Prof.Dr.Christoph Kueffer |
HSR Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil |
Oberseestr. 10 |8640 Rapperswil |Switzerland |
Prof. Dr. Philippe Forêt |Ludwig-Maximilians-Uni ver-
sität München |Rachel Carson Center |Society of
Fellows |Munich |Germany |
PD Dr.Marcus Hall |University of Zurich |
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and
Environ mental Studies |Zurich |Switzerland |
Prof. Dr.Caroline Wiedmer |Franklin University
Switzerland |Department of Literature and Cul-
ture |Lugano |Switzerland |
Contact saguf: saguf office |Dr.Manuela Di Giulio |
ETH Zentrum CHN |8092 Zurich|Switzerland | |
Christoph Kueffer, Philippe Forêt,
Marcus Hall, Caroline Wiedmer
Applying the
Environmental Humanities
schweizerische akademische
gesellschaft für
umwelt forschung und ökologie
societé académique suisse pour la recherche
sur l’environ nement et l’écologie
swiss academic society for
environmental research and ecology
254_256_saguf 16.07.18 16:27 Seite 254
GAIA 27/2(2018): 254– 256
established a network of “open living labs”;4
Humanities for the Environment (HfE) has
launched a network of observatories called
Archive of Hope and Cautionary Tales; 5and
World of Matters is an open access archive
on the global ecologies of resource exploi -
tation and circulation.6
A Transdisciplinary Laboratory Where
Alternative Perspectives and Media
The undisciplined knowledge7of EH trans-
gresses simplistic dichotomies and racial
boundaries, often embracing relativism,
marginal sciences, and subjective practices
such as empathy, experiential knowledge,
and experimental creativity. Such episte -
mol ogies require novel forums for knowl-
edge co-production between science and
society. A few recent examples help us
make our point.
The Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)
in Berlin has run a successful Anthropo -
cene Curriculum project for several years.8
Recently several hundred scholars and stu-
dents from various fields and professions
interacted for nine days at two large-scale
Anthropocene Campuses. The Artists in
Labs program of Zurich has facilitated art -
ists’ residences in scientific teams,9and we
can imagine scientists spending time at art -
ists’ ateliers. These interactions may lead to
public events such as the Zurich Laser se-
ries in which artists and scientists discuss
a topic in public.10
Artistic and cultural environments, such
as museums, theatres or films,11 approach
an issue through slow, deep, and nuanced
analysis. The Anthropocene Slam of Madi-
son12 and Bruno Latour’s theatre plays on
climate change policies (Gaia Global Cir-
cus and Cosmocoloss: A Global Climate Trag-
ic Comedy13) illustrate this approach. We
also see an increase in the use of graphic
novels and animations to depict complex
societal issues.14 A skillful story excels at
empowering listeners and involving a va-
riety of audiences. An example is Climate
Garden 2085,15 a public experiment de-
signed in Zurich in 2016 to share with the
public stories about climate change; this
future-garden installation included talks
by scientists, art performances, and the-
atre for children. >
fined objectives. Environmental human-
ists acknowledge and embrace uncertain-
ty, subjectivity and relational knowledge.
In challenging the ways in which environ-
mental knowledge is produced and con-
sumed, EH solicits the participation of in-
digenous communities, affected peoples,
and marginalized peoples including some
scientists while promoting participatory,
transdisciplinary, real-word lab and action
research. In order to succeed, EH scholars
pay attention to the semiotics of knowl-
edge and its social, cultural, psychological,
emotional, and aesthetic dimensions. En-
vironmental humanists also appreciate
and utilize multiple media, ranging from
film, visual and performance art, writing
and song, to exhibitions, stories, design,
and social events.
To enrich deliberations at the science-
society nexus, the EH employ several strat -
egies, which we present below: 1. Chal-
lenge existing institutions and paradigms.
2. Contribute to transdisciplinary forums
that enable the co-production of knowledge
between science and society. 3. Engage so-
ciety in more egalitarian and nuanced ways.
4. Promote academic education at the in-
tersections of the humanities, arts, and
environmental sciences.
Integrating EH Perspectives into the
Existing Academic System
Critical perspectives from EH can help re-
view, develop or replace existing science-
policy bodies (Turnhout et al. 2012). For
this to happen, humanists and artists
must sit on steering committees, research
councils, and expert panels, such as those
that advise the IPCC, IPBES, Future Earth,
or WBGU.1They must join groups of ex-
perts at the national and local levels who
examine issues that transcend the natural
sciences, such as biodiversity loss, climate
change, energy transition, water manage-
ment, food security, soil protection, urban
and spatial planning, green economy, and
EH builds on long-established critical
perspectives within the humanities to chal-
lenge many paradigms in environmental
research, such as dualistic thinking, anthro-
pocentrism and human exceptionalism,
generalized systems analysis, and unidi-
mensional problem-framings. Acknowl -
edg ing diversity of understandings in such
fields as invasion biology or Anthropocene
studies has led to innovations and discov-
eries (e.g., Kull et al. 2018, Lorimer 2017).
Novel and useful outcomes can emerge, as
demonstrated by the project Justainability
of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in
Stockholm, that has employed the notion
of environmental justice and the involve-
ment of grassroots initiatives to reframe
In the sustainability sciences, and for in-
tergovernmental organizations and social
movements, the international networking
of local case studies has been a dominant
strategy to bridge local and global scales.3
EH can enrich such multi-scalar network-
ing with its own experiences: European Net-
work of Living Labs (ENoLL) has for example,,,
3 See, e.g.,,IUCN’s World Environmental Hubs,,,
11 1, p. 256),
254_256_saguf 16.07.18 16:27 Seite 255
GAIA 27/2(2018): 254– 256
Engaging Society
Environmental humanists are aware that
the line between objectivity and engage-
ment (or non-engagement), and between
facts and values is blurry or non-existent
and can be negotiated in different ways.
They have broadened their options and
ideas by including communities or coun-
tries whose voices have been silenced, and
by assuming leading roles in advocacy and
activism. They have complemented inves-
tigative journalism, uncovered the strate-
gies of climate change deniers, and exposed
the interest groups that attempt to weaken
evidence and promote fake or alternative
truths. Various scholars have led direct ac-
tions, while others have contributed to a
better understanding of effective forms of
activism. Communities have tapped re-
searchers’ expertise and have become in-
volved in university projects, such as the
policy briefs and handbooks of the ENTI-
TLE Network,16 or the Ecological Economics
from the Ground Up handbook and online
courses of EJOLT (Environmental Justice Or-
ganisations, Liabilities and Trade).17 Curated
blogs are another tool to engage a public
audience.18 Examples of activist research
can be seen in the Militant Research pro-
gram at New York University19 or in art ist
Aviva Rahmani’s Blue Trees Symphony.20 Art -
ists’ and filmmakers’ work have accompa-
nied the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle.21
Educational activities offer great potential
for applying EH. At many universities, stu-
dents in the humanities, fine arts and so-
cial sciences do not have access to training
in environmental issues. In return, EH per-
spectives could be added to core curricula
and made mandatory in the natural scienc -
es and engineering. Through their reflex-
ive tools, the EH are superbly positioned to
develop interdisciplinary courses (Eigen-
brode et al. 2007). A critical humanist and
an ecologist have recently attracted stu-
dents from both architecture and the envi -
ronmental sciences to a class they co-taught
at ETH Zurich (Scott and Kueffer 2018).
To reflect on urban ecology and planning,
they used theory in the humanities, arts,
and ecology, while exploring with their stu-
dents new approaches to science, design,
and public policy. There is also a need to
prepare the next generation for social and
environmental entrepreneurship.22 By em-
bracing challenges that define the 21st cen-
tury, humanists are in a crucial position to
contribute to teaching programs on such
themes as social justice and sustainabili-
Responses to environmental problems are
primarily social and cultural issues. In the
coming decades, and much faster than we
believe, we will need to fundamentally
change our ways of thinking, belief sys-
tems, social interactions, and economic
structures. Our cultural norms have until
now been rooted in false assumptions of
endless resources and accepted interna-
tional inequalities. We must design new
conventions to build a fair and global soci -
ety that reckons with a finite planet while
negotiating multiple crises. This extraordi-
nary transition demands that we question
the current framing of expert knowledge
in order to develop forms of knowledge
production, representation, and use that
are more inclusive, diverse, and action-
driven. EH aims to utilize methodologies,
epistemologies and values from across the
range of human experience to understand
and address our environmental problems.
In a time of fake news and environmental
inaction, it is high time to enlarge our set
of skills to take full advantage of our talents
and creativities.
Eigenbrode, S.D. et al. 2007. Employing
philsophical dialogue in collaborative science.
Bioscience 57/1: 55– 64.
Forêt, P., M. Hall, C. Kueffer. 2014. Developing the
environmental humanities: A Swiss
perspective. GAIA 23/1: 67– 69.
Heise, U.K., J. Christensen, M. Niemann (Eds.).
2017. The Routledge companion to the environ-
mental humanities. London: Routledge.
Kueffer, C., K. Thelen Lässer, M. Hall. 2017.
Applying the environmental humanities: Ten steps
for action and implementation. Bern: Swiss
Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Kull, C.A. et al. 2018. Using the “regime shift”
concept in addressing social-ecological
change. Geographical Research 56/1: 26 – 41.
Lorimer, J.2017. The Anthropo-scene: A guide for the
perplexed. Social Studies of Science 47/1:117 – 142.
Scott, E.E., C. Kueffer. 2018. Concrete jungles:
Urban ecology and its design. Syllabus. History
of Art and Architecture Lecture. Department
of Architecture, ETH Zurich.
Turnhout, E., B. Bloomfield, M. Hulme, J. Vogel,
B. Wynne. 2012. Listen to the voices of
experience. Nature 488: 454 – 455.
Stauffacher, M. et al. 2013. Engagement für inter-
und transdisziplinäre Forschung zur nach -
haltigen Entwicklung. GAIA 22/2: 142– 144.
Wäger, P., O. Ejderyan, F. Schmid, M. Stauffacher,
C. Zingerli. 2014. The roles of social sciences
and humanities in integrative research on
natural resources. GAIA 23/2: 142– 144.
FIGURE 1: Global Eco
Film Festival in Zurich:
film can be a medium
that facilitates delibera-
tions about environ-
mental issues among
scientists, students,
artists, humanists,
and the public.
21 See, e. g.,
22 See, e. g.,,
23 See, e. g.,
© Samer Angelone
254_256_saguf 16.07.18 16:27 Seite 256
... We argue in this essay that the three knowledge forms -and their strong metaphors -partly enshrine old paradigms of science-based societal problem-solving that need to be critically reflected, revised or broad ened to be able to effectively tackle today's wicked sustainability challenges. While a strong belief in systems analysis, measurable targets and a managerial transformation of socioeconomic institutions (within the existing economic system) underlies some influential contemporary sustainability science (e. g., Sachs et al. 2019), it does not reflect how many other environmental and sustainability scholars think (Fa zey et al. 2018, Kueffer et al. 2017. It is meanwhile widely acknowledged that environmental and sustainability problems cannot be solved by first analysing their causal roots, then forming a consensus on specific targets, and finally devising solutions that build on specific technical, institutional or (solely rationally and ethically motivated) behavioural changes, but that sustainability-oriented endeavours require iterative and recursive approaches (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008). ...
... This implies that as experts and knowledge brokers we might rather want to promote capabilities (Nussbaum 2011) to on the one hand radically rethink a society that is based on endless growth, consumerism, and inequality, and to on the other hand experiment with manifold locally-rooted potential solutions. In this context, artistic work and culturally embedded forms of knowing might often be better vehicles for such ambitions than reports, data-based analysis or formal participatory deliberations (Kueffer et al. 2017). ...
... Widespread ignorance, incommensurable worldviews, and unprecedented urgency to act forces us to rethink what it means to produce knowledge about what is, what should be, and how we come from where we are to where we should be. Growing work in fields such as the environmental humanities (Kueffer et al. 2017)that bring forward the complementary expertise of the humanities, critical perspectives such as eco-feminism and post-colonialism, indigenous knowledge and the sensibilities of artists -have helped us to propose in this article a more inclusive understanding of the role of sciences for sustainability by shifting the focus from producing a body of knowledge to nurturing robust, responsible, evidence-based, and diverse sociocultural processes of producing knowledge, deliberating values, and taking action. ...
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... Amongst others, we need to study alternative narratives of progress, such as cultures of repair and recycling, and re-assess un derlying values of unsustainable consumption. COMMUNICATIONS the concepts of the anthropocene 14 and transdisciplinarity 15 , among others, demonstrate how to develop such AHSS-rooted teaching programs with relevance to the SDGs (Bornemann et al. 2020, O'Gorman et al. 2019, Kueffer et al. 2017). Existing programs often engage with problems specific to the cultural context and history of a place. ...
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Human preferences, practices and actions are the main drivers of global environmental change in the 21st century. It is crucial, therefore, to promote pro-environmental behavior. In order to accomplish this, we need to move beyond rational choice and behavioral decision theories, which do not capture the full range of commitments, assumptions, imaginaries, and belief systems that drive those preferences and actions. Humanities disciplines, such as philosophy, history, religious studies, gender studies, language and literary studies, psychology, and pedagogics do offer deep insights into human motivations, values, and choices. We believe that the expertise of such fields for transforming human preferences, practices and actions is ignored at society’s peril. We propose an agenda that focuses global humanities research on stepping up to the challenges of planetary environmental change. We have established Environmental Humanities Observatories through which to observe, explore and enact the crucial ways humanistic disciplines may help us understand and engage with global ecological problems by providing insight into human action, perceptions, and motivation. We present this Manifesto as an invitation for others to join the “Humanities for the Environment” open global consortium of humanities observatories as we continue to develop a shared research agenda.
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Mahalo (thank you) for reading our paper. What you will find is an attempt to synthesize and compare the strengths and weaknesses of Indigenous and Western perspectives on sustainability and a proposed path leading to the integration of these two perspectives into a sustainability framework that considers resources as much more than commodities. We enter into this discussion with 50 years of experience between us, both of us products of our experimentation with the integration that we are advocating. From this experimentation, we have concluded that sacred relationship must be the foundation of any successful sustainability effort, with success achieved only when resource management practices and policies engage the spirit and are aligned with equitable and respectful interactions among human and non-human. By sacred, we refer to those sentiments, actions, and commitments that emerge from spirit-based relationships that are founded on love, respect, care, intimate familiarity, and reciprocal exchange. By spirit, we refer to that which gives life to the material body, the enigma that is our collective conscious, subconscious, and unconscious beings. In formulating this paper, we made three assumptions: (1) the need to shift our spiritual selves, and our collective weight and resulting ecological footprints, is fully evidenced by the failure of purely Western approaches to sustain the social and biophysical world around us; (2) each and every citizen of our planet contributes to both sustainability’s advancement and its demise; and (3) by engaging the spirit and reclaiming sacredness in all our relationships, we can help move the Earth community towards her fullest potential of wellbeing. Our hope here is that we are able to grow the connections among a nascent but rapidly evolving transformational vision for sustainability, the enlightened thinking of contemporaries, and inspired ancestral knowledge. To facilitate the continued emergence of this transformative vision, we marry Western sustainability concepts to an Indigenous sacredness framework.
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The Environmental Humanities draw from insights of the human and natural sciences for proposing new concepts and solutions to society’s pressing environmental problems.
Regime shift' has emerged as a key concept in the environmental sciences. The concept has roots in complexity science and its ecological applications, and is increasingly applied to intertwined social and ecological phenomena. Yet what exactly is a regime shift? We explore this question at three nested levels. First, we propose a broad, contingent, multi-perspective epistemological basis for the concept, seeking to build bridges between its complexity theory origins and critiques from science studies, political ecology, and environmental history. Second, we define the concept in a way that is consistent with this epistemology, building on previous work on speed, scale, stickiness, and interrelationships, but also emphasising human perceptions and rhetorical uses of the notion. Third, we propose a novel typology of the ways in which the regime shift concept is used in analysing social-environmental phenomena in geography and beyond. These uses are categorised along two axes. On the one side, we distinguish between description of past or present changes and normative prescriptions for the future. On the other side, we distinguish between whether the focus is on material shifts (social and ecological) or conceptual shifts (discourses and ideas). We illustrate the typology with reference to social-environmental changes in landscapes around the world that are dominated by plantations or the widespread naturalisation of Australian Acacia species. We conclude that the regime shift concept is a boundary object with value as both an analytical and communicative tool in addressing social-environmental challenges.
An international coalition of museums could play a critical role in coordinating more effective public communication on and engagement with climate change.
The scientific proposal that the Earth has entered a new epoch as a result of human activities – the Anthropocene – has catalysed a flurry of intellectual activity. I introduce and review the rich, inchoate and multi-disciplinary diversity of this Anthropo-scene. I identify five ways in which the concept of the Anthropocene has been mobilized: scientific question, intellectual zeitgeist, ideological provocation, new ontologies and science fiction. This typology offers an analytical framework for parsing this diversity, for understanding the interactions between different ways of thinking in the Anthropo-scene, and thus for comprehending elements of its particular and peculiar sociabilities. Here I deploy this framework to situate Earth Systems Science within the Anthropo-scene, exploring both the status afforded science in discussions of this new epoch, and the various ways in which the other means of engaging with the concept come to shape the conduct, content and politics of this scientific enquiry. In conclusion the paper reflects on the potential of the Anthropocene for new modes of academic praxis.
This paper considers three ‘galleries’ that explore the Anthropocene in cultural ways, and the implications of the Anthropocene idea for cultural institutions and heritage. The first gallery is the 2014–2016 exhibition Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, [Willkommen im Anthropozän: Unsere Verantwortung für die Zukunft der Erde] at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The second ‘gallery’ of Anthropocene Posters sponsored by the Art Museum, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), placed the Anthropocene in a ‘museum without walls’ in the streets of Berlin in 2013. The third ‘gallery of the Anthropocene’, was not a museum, but rather a landscape gallery (or ‘spectacle’) of in situ industrial heritage in Svalbard. Pyramiden, a town established to mine coal well north of the Arctic Circle in the early 20th century, has been recently transformed as an attraction for climate change science and heritage tourism. Here the hybridized local landscape creates a snapshot of the Anthropocene, bringing together industrial coal-mining heritage buildings, polar tourism and science forged in the geopolitics of the changing Arctic environment.
Authors' note: Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay, we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future. The occasion is the tercentenary of the end of Western culture (1540-2073); the dilemma being addressed is how we-the children of the Enlightenment-failed to act on robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold. Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on "free" markets, disabled the world's powerful nations in the face of tragedy. Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind-even those involving imminent threats. Here, our future historian, living in the Second People's Republic of China, recounts the events of the Period of the Penumbra (1988-2073) that led to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2074).