One of the instructors in the UNSW Environmental Humanities course I’m taking online suggested an article from 2014, titled “Mapping Common Ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History, and the Environmental Humanities.” The article, written by an international panel of ten authors, explores the relationship between the academic fields mentioned in the title in the hope that by working together, the three fields will find a way to “finally…attain the critical mass…to break out of customary disciplinary confines and reach a wider public.” Although the article makes some interesting points, I think it was unfortunate there doesn’t appear to be an environmental historian among the panelists. Like several Environmental Humanities articles I’ve read lately, “Mapping Common Ground” seems to minimize environmental history in an attempt to make room for its own claim to be a “new way of organizing and disseminating knowledge.”
By themselves, the article claims, “environmental historians, environmental philosophers, and ecocritics…have failed to reach a wider audience.” Is this true? Is it true for each of these fields to the same degree? For the same reasons? I agree with the authors that the current ecological mess we’re in is “also a crisis of the cultural and social environment,” but I disagree with their suggestion that environmental historians are unaware of culture. Environmental historians, the authors say, “frequently draw on the results of the natural sciences, but they rarely cite ecocritical scholarship or work in environmental philosophy.” I think this is less because environmental historians “need to be jolted out of disciplinary ruts and mindsets,” and possibly more because the discourse in the fields the authors are advocating for has yet to offer much useful material for environmental history.
I know, that’s harsh. But environmental history is already “historicizing” the environment and ideas about the environment, and has been for decades. Although the term “environing” may be new, questioning the “normative dimensions of current environmental practices” really isn’t. The project the authors envision for environmental humanities is largely one that environmental historians have already undertaken. So I think it’s incumbent on the new, enlarged field to identify specifically where environmental history has failed, and how it will correct these failures.
Ecocriticism, as I understand it, might be described as the point of the literary-scholarship wedge in the environmental humanities. Maybe I’m thinking too much like a historian here, “prone to treat texts as documents” rather than focusing on “the uniqueness of how it says what it says,” but I am interested in the way texts “affect[ed] their audiences in the first place.” More to the point, I think in this context the literary scholars may have as much to learn from historians as they have to teach.
But let’s return to the very first claim made in the Abstract of this article, that environmental humanities will solve the problem of “critical mass” and help scholars “break out of customary disciplinary confines and reach a wider public.” While I think no one has completely cracked the code, I also think environmental historians have so far been much more successful creating “usable knowledge” and communicating it to the public.
Actually, I think the article identifies the problem as it seeks solutions. “Disciplined work,” the authors say, “entails…the development of specialized vocabularies that enable scholars to encapsulate entire arguments in a single phrase. This allows for greater generality, precision, and sophistication, qualities essential to good scholarship.” Now we’re talking!
I’m not convinced that serious scholarship requires the creation of impenetrable jargon. I think it’s more likely that success in the academy as it’s now constituted requires barriers to entry, and jargon is a great barrier. But even if we granted that “terminological black boxes” were good things within an academic setting, they’re the kiss of death if you care to communicate with the regular, English-speaking public. And I think the authors are right when they admit that making their insights relevant and compelling to non-specialists “is a task with which the humanities have little experience.”
While I’m convinced that humanists and literary scholars have a lot to offer a broadly defined project of environmental humanities, I think such a field needs to articulate its value add without misrepresenting the work already carried on by the wide variety of people working in environmental history. As the authors admit, “it may not be possible to mint all the gains accrued…into the accepted coin of our disciplinary realms.” And it may not be the most important thing, anyway. In their conclusion, the authors say “It is not enough to assert that history and literature matter and are closely related; it is up to us to make them matter and relate more fluently.” I agree, but I’d add that it’s also up to us to worry a bit less about asserting our value and claiming our space, and a bit more about using our tools to help fix the environmental and social problems we all face.