Research in Environmental Humanities

What is it?

Environmental Humanities at UNSW Sydney is a recognized leader in interdisciplinary research that addresses contemporary environmental challenges in ways that are historically, philosophically and culturally informed. Our research provides unique insights into the ways that environmental issues are tied up with social and cultural practices and fundamental questions of politics, knowledge, meaning, value and ethics.

We are deeply committed to advancing issues of contemporary social relevance such as international environmental justice, biodiversity loss, community engagement, climate change, and environmental change. Our shared belief is that the humanities are crucial to understanding and navigating the most serious environmental issues of our times.

As leading thinkers in the environmental space we lead award-winning grants, publish widely acclaimed critical monographs and articles, and open up scholarly and political conversations about environmental issues.

Research focus

Within our research we develop a critical ‘politics of nature’ that explores the ‘enactment’ of the natural world, both discursively and materially. Our scholarship focuses particularly on the alteration of historical and cultural understandings of nature, and the direct modification of the natural world’s intimate materiality: from the alteration of genetic sequences to the damming of rivers and wholesale transformation of ecosystems.

More broadly, our research contributes to an experimental re-thinking of the humanities and begins from the proposition that ‘thinking through environment’ necessitates creative and innovative approaches to traditional humanities questions: what it means to be human, what it means to be just and what constitutes a good and flourishing life. Thinking through contemporary ecological crises helps us to develop new methods and approaches to the humanities themselves.

Staff strengths and accomplishments

Stephen Healy, Matthew Kearnes, Eben Kirksey, Vanessa Lemm, Judy Motion, Stephen Muecke, Paul Munro, Nicolas Rasmussen, Deborah Bird Rose, and Thom van Dooren

Our group launched the first journal dedicated to this emerging field: Environmental Humanities . Environmental Humanities work is also advanced through our work as co-conveners of the Australian Environmental Humanities Hub, a central site for research news and events. We hold a significant number of ARC, Australian government and internationally funded research grants that investigate such diverse issues as environmental and technological change, participatory politics, the philosophical and ethical dimensions of species extinctions, wildlife management and multispecies ethnography. We have extensive collaborations with researchers in both the natural and physical sciences in addition to civil society and policy-making institutions.

Our key research strengths:

Environment, technology and the politics of knowledge

Focuses on issues concerned with contemporary techno-scientific culture, exploring historically situated modes of generating authoritative environmental knowledge and expertise and the ‘politics of knowledge’ across a range of environmental issues. Research is also focused on issues concerned with the interplay between technology, environment, risk and cultural innovation and has developed a number of unique interventions into contemporary environmental concerns.

Multispecies studies and politics of life

Focuses on the diverse ways in which living bodies – from cells and their DNA to individual organisms, species and whole ecosystems – are constituted through their entanglements in systems of meaning, exchange and profit making. This research contributes to ongoing research efforts in areas such as post-humanism, biopolitics and animal studies. We have a particular strength in multispecies studies that draw ethnographic research into conversation with biology, philosophy and art to explore the ways in which different communities understand and live with diverse plants and animals. Much of this work focuses on disappearing species and damaged ecologies, exploring how and why they come to matter.

Social change, participatory politics and community engagement

A critical orientation to social change and the democratic role of civil society in environmental controversies informs our research. Specific empirical projects examine issues relating to climate science, extinction, water scarcity, landscape and memory and the cultural and political practices that surround the innovation of new technologies. These research programs reshape international research agendas in environmental history, sustainability and politics while also developing innovative methods for public and community engagement.

Rethinking the humanities through the environment

As a group, we focus on the conceptual and methodological questions raised for the humanities when taking the more-than-human world seriously, particularly given the current ecological crisis. Research in this area is contributing to ongoing work on narrative, performance, ethics and responsibility and multispecies ethnography building on a creative tension between traditional humanities scholarship and a range of contemporary environmental concerns.