Environmental Humanities in Antarctica

In this blog post, Dr Adrian Howkins, programme director of the new MA Environmental Humanities, discusses how his research on Antarctica brings crucial humanities perspectives to Antarctic research, and how this approach is embedded in the new MA programme.

Field camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Field camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica by Eli Duke CC-SA 2.0

Since the late-1950s the McMurdo Dry Valleys have become a major centre for Antarctic science. As an environmental historian, I have been able to contribute novel forms of ‘data’ to the scientific understanding of the region, such as using Captain Scott’s diaries to understand environmental change over the past 120 years.  As a historian, I am also well-placed to ask questions related to themes such as political power, social relations, ideas about conservation, and connections to global themes.

I am currently working with a geographer and a glaciologist to write a co-authored book on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  Some of our major findings support the fact that a human and historical dimension to conservation is vital.  These include:

  • The science taking place in the McMurdo Dry Valleys is used by national programmes to support their political interests in Antarctica. The US flag, for example, flies proudly from the Lake Hoare scientific field camp, offering a powerful refutation of New Zealand sovereignty claims to the region.  This means that successful conservation needs to take into account the geopolitical implications of environmental management.
  • The past 30-years have seen an increase in gender equality among scientists working in the McMurdo Dry Valley. Female scientists who may previously have been put off research in the region by its highly masculine culture, now make major contributions to the scientific work. The number of scientific publications on the region has increased significantly during the recent period, suggesting that greater gender equality may help to promote a productive scientific culture.
  • Traditional approaches to environmental management don’t always take humanities-focused values into account. For example, the value of ‘wilderness’ is often taken for granted, while our work shows that some countries working in the region (e.g. Japan) do not always share these values.  By raising questions about the goals of conservation and the cultural values behind them, our work calls for more focus on the human dimensions of Antarctic conservation.
  • Our work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys exemplify many of the themes and trends associated with the proposed new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. Work in the region is made possible by carbon intensive technologies such as helicopters and ATVs, while at the same time, scientific work in the region highlights the consequences of anthropogenic climate heating.  Lake levels in the region, for example, have risen by over 16m since the time of Captain Scott as a consequence of more meltwater flowing from the alpine glaciers during the relatively warm summer months.
  • Through our historical research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, we not only hope to make a contribution to the scientific understanding, but also to make the region a model for interdisciplinary research involving the environmental humanities in other parts of the world.

Our work suggests that many of the challenges facing the McMurdo Dry Valleys – and the Antarctic continent more generally, and even the rest of the world – cannot be successfully addressed without taking into account perspectives traditionally studied by humanities scholarship.  Such work requires a willingness to take a collaborative approach and be open to different approaches and practical skills.  As authors, we hope to model this ‘radical interdisciplinarity’ not only in our book on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, but also in our teaching.  The new MA in environmental humanities at the University of Bristol, for example, has a strong element of collaborative and interdisciplinary training and is underpinned by activities in Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Find out more about MA Environmental Humanities at Bristol

Dr Adrian Howkins is Reader in Environmental History at the University of Bristol.

Studying the Environmental Humanities: Animal Planet

This is a post in our series highlighting the units that comprise the MA Environmental Humanities, taught by members of the Centre. This post introduces Animal Planet, taught by Dr Michael Malay.

‘How did different societies think about animals?’, ‘What is it like to be bat?’, ‘And how might we live more skilfully alongside our animal neighbours?’ These are some of the questions we have been thinking about this year, as part of the English department’s Animal Planet module. Established in 2016, the unit is taught by lecturers from across the department, and our specialisms cover a range of interests and periods – from medieval bestiaries and allegorical texts, to Romantic and Victorian representations of animal life. The unit thus considers a broad sweep of human history, a perspective that allows us to explore major developments regarding human relations with animals. At the same time, it also explores how animals have moved and inspired – and sometimes terrified and bewildered – writers from particular periods, by offering close readings of their work and the work of their contemporaries.

Our current relations with animals, it probably goes without saying, are often deeply exploitive and highly instrumentalised. Part of the aim of this course, then, is to develop a critical perspective of human-animal relations, by way of giving students a better understanding of the assumptions and underlying ideas that have marked animals off as ‘other’ or ‘lesser’. In one of our seminars, for example, we read J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, a novella which powerfully challenges the historical exclusion of animals from circles of care and compassion; and, in another seminar, we read essays by Mary Midgley and Cora Diamond, in order to think about the particular cultural and philosophical ideas that have induced us to see animals in a particular way. During the year, we also read other classic texts in the field of ‘animal studies’, including Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick, and try to answer some fundamental questions such as: ‘what would a truly ethical relationship with animals look like?’ and ‘is it possible to represent them in a way that doesn’t distort the singularity of their lives?’

Animal Planet is now part of the MA Environmental Humanities, and we are looking forward to welcoming new students to the course.

A painting of a bison from the Altamira cave

A bison from the Altamira cave / janeb13 on Pixabay

We spoke to the unit convenor, Dr Michael Malay about what he is looking forward to when teaching Animal Planet next year:

What excites you most about this unit?

The breadth of this course is a little dizzying – students start with medieval bestiaries and end with recent work in British nature writing. And yet what stops this course from being a general (and perhaps even bland) survey, is the fact that our tutors are specialists in their field, which means that students go into real depth with each seminar. In one seminar, for example, students are asked to imaginatively enter the lives of other animals – and are guided in this task by the writer Dr Mimi Thebo, whose fascinating novel, Dreaming the Bear, is one of our set texts. Or, in another seminar on ‘Victorian representations of animals’, students are taught by someone who is writing a book about the appearance of bees in Victorian novels and poems. So, in addition to breadth, the unit does a good job of engaging with particularity – and I think it’s this combination of historical comprehensiveness and aesthetic depth that makes this course so distinctive.

Dr Michael Malay

How does this unit speak to your research?

I’ve recently completed a book called Late Light, which is about the lives of ‘unloved’ animals that are also endangered. In the course of writing this book, I was also regularly teaching on Animal Planet, and there were moments when, after a seminar with students, I would have a new idea about the book – or a different sense of how I might approach the writing. For instance, there’s a fascinating passage from The Lives of Animals, in which J. M Coetzee’s protagonist says that poets return the ‘living, electric being’ to language, and that’s always fascinated me, as well as spurred me on in terms of my research. How can scholars who write about animals make their language come alive – so that their ‘subjects’ are released rather than trapped in language – and how might this consideration enhance or enrich the kind of scholarship that we produce?

If you were recommending one thing to read, watch, listen to or do ahead of studying this course, what would it be?

J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. Hands down one of the best things I’ve read about literature, philosophy and animal life.

Animal Planet is an optional course on our new MA in Environmental Humanities. You can find out more about the programme here.

Studying the Environmental Humanities: Historians and the Boundaries of the Body

This is a post in our series highlighting the units that comprise the MA Environmental Humanities, taught by members of the Centre.

Historians and the Boundaries of the Body is an optional course on our MA Environmental Humanities and provides environmental humanities students with an opportunity to think critically about bodies that have been historically situated as apart from and a part of different natures.

‘Normal people’ with their ‘normal bodies’ seem to be everywhere. But notions of what is ‘normal’ and what is not have always been in flux. In truth, ‘normal’ is a category, an idea, a fantasy about human identity that has a complex history that runs parallel to the idea of abnormality. Indeed shifting categories and classifications of the body have sat at the core of many of the major historiographical developments of the past half century or so. Not least, medical and feminist historians have devoted significant attention to issues around gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, environmental historians have had to engage with this scholarship to better understand the relations between bodies and environments that have emerged across time and place.

The Body in History, Culture and the Arts is one of the texts we study on this unit

In this unit, we explore these developments across a range of key contexts in which identities have been created, imposed, tested, and resisted, and where lives have often been at stake. We consider categories of natural and unnatural, human, nonhuman, and not-quite-human, as well as abled, disabled, freak and monster. We engage with racialised categories and classifications, and interrogate the unstable and contested lines between male and female bodies, as well as the politically loaded, culturally contingent distinctions that have been drawn between supposedly normal and abnormal sexualities. The unit ranges widely across these bodily contexts, exploring how historians have worked with and challenged the boundaries of the body.

The unit aims to help students identify and analyse recent historiographical debates and longer-term developments in historians’ treatment of the human body, and judge the extent to which this field has been influenced by shifting sociopolitical contexts, other disciplines, and other historical specialisms. Through seminars discussing key texts we assess how new methodologies, sources, and concepts have transformed the writing of histories of the human body and its relations with the wider world

We spoke to the unit convenor, Dr Andy Flack about what he is looking forward to when teaching Historians and the Boundaries of the Body:

Dr Andy Flack teaches on Historians and the Boundaries of the Body

What excites you most about this unit?

This unit is not your typical environmental humanities unit. Taking a wide perspective it encourages students to consider the complex relationships between diverse bodies, environments and historical and geographical contexts. At its heart, the premise is that historians need to understand the histories of bodies themselves if they are to make sense of the past. The way the unit ranges so broadly across contexts  – from witchcraft to enslavement and from disease to disability – offers students an exciting means of deepening their appreciation of the human construct at the heart of the environmental humanities.

How does this unit speak to your research?

The unit stems directly from several strands of my research. Not least, my scholarship to-date has in large part engaged with changing ways of imagining what it means and has meant to be ‘human’, especially in relation to nonhuman animals. My work on the histories of human-animal relations was has often been concerned with the muddy and confusing borderlands separating ‘human’ from ‘animal’. In addition, my recent research is interested in non-normative bodies, the construction of monstrosity, and the history of an idea of normalcy across human and more-than-human contexts. My teaching on the unit reflects this in its focus on notions of ability, histories of evolutionary thinking and the rise and consequences of eugenicist ideologies.

If you were recommending one thing to read, watch, listen to or do ahead of studying this course, what would it be?

Discourses about what a body is supposed to be and do are everywhere we look. Most of what you pick up to read, or choose to watch, will reflect those cultural constructs. Instead of reading or watching anything, I encourage you to go for a walk. Anywhere will do. Reflect on the ways in which your body fits – or doesn’t – with the world and think about what that tells you about the material realities of the relationships between body and wider world, and the ways in which culture impacts on how we understand our own – and others’ – bodies and experiences.

Historians and the Boundaries of the Body is a core course on our new MA in Environmental Humanities. You can find out more about the programme here.

Studying the Environmental Humanities: Environment and History

This is a post in our series highlighting the units that comprise the MA in Environmental Humanities, taught by members of the Centre.

Environment and History is one of the optional units on the MA Environmental Humanities, and it explores how historians have engaged with environments when telling stories about the past. It asks big, foundational questions like: what is environmental history? When and why did the field emerge? How has it changed over time? In what ways is it practiced differently in different parts of the world and by historians of different time periods?

This is a survey unit designed to introduce students to the historiography of environmental history. It’s a perfect introduction to the thriving field for those keen to explore how environment and history connect, and allows students who may have encountered EH ideas or texts to explore in more depth. We cover key debates that have driven the field forward; identify major trends and concepts; and think critically about where the scholarship might go next. The unit encourages students to connect issues encountered here with other areas of interest, in the degree and beyond. It’s a seminar-based unit, so we meet weekly to talk it all over and share ideas. For their assessment, students write an essay making a persuasive historiographical argument using evidence from secondary sources.

Bristol hosted the European Society for Environmental History conference in 2022. Image: @esehtweets on twitter 18 Oct 2022.

We spoke to the unit convenor, Dr Marianna Dudley about what she is looking forward to when teaching Environment and History:

Dr Marianna Dudley is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Humanities

What excites you most about this unit?

Every year this unit reminds me of why I’m an environmental historian! The range of ideas, approaches and writing that environmental historians have produced never fails to get me excited about the field all over again. It also really useful to do a historiographical unit like this to lay solid intellectual foundations that students can build on, and many go on to take other environmental history units that we offer to deepen their knowledge and apply it to their own research. I love being a part of that journey.

How does this unit speak to your research?

I am currently writing a history of renewable energy in Britain, and I get to explore this topic with students in weeks where we look at Energy and Technology, and Water, as areas of really interesting scholarship. For example, energy history doesn’t have to be written with through an environmental lens, and lots isn’t. But when we factor in the current climate context, we start to explore what an environmental history approach can open up, in terms of research questions, narratives, and audience engagement.

If you were recommending one thing to read, watch, listen to or do ahead of studying this course, what would it be?

Just one?! I would read Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, which explores how George Orwell drew solace and inspiration from his garden.

Environment and History is an optional course on our new MA in Environmental Humanities. You can find out more about the programme here.

Studying the Environmental Humanities: Introduction to Environmental Humanities

This is the first post in our series highlighting the units that comprise the MA in Environmental Humanities, taught by members of the Centre.

Introduction to Environmental Humanities is a core unit on our MA in Environmental Humanities, and it provides a way into the discipline by posing key questions that motivate research and scholarship at its cutting edge. It asks how humanities disciplines can help us to understand the complex environmental challenges that the world is facing. How has the study of literature, history, thought, and visual arts, among other areas, engaged with the environment over time? What does it mean to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to the environmental humanities?

This introductory unit addresses these questions and traces the emergence of the field of environmental humanities. It pays particular attention to perspectives from the Global South and postcolonial contexts, and explores the significance of collaborative practices, both across disciplines and with non-academic partners. The unit provides space for students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to work together to establish a shared understanding of the shape of the field, and covers a number of important approaches including ecocriticism, environmental history, and ecofeminism.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is a key text on Introduction to Environmental Humanities

The unit aims to help students explain how the field of environmental humanities has developed in dialogue with a range of disciplines, and employ their knowledge to critically analyse recent developments in the field. Constructing arguments, verbally and in writing, is at the core of the unit, particularly arguments that assess the relative importance of factors shaping the past, present and the future of the environmental humanities. Students will also work collaboratively and individually to evaluate the ability of environmental humanities scholarship and methods to contribute to real-world initiatives tackling environmental challenges.

Dr Paul Merchant is Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture

We spoke to the unit convenor, Dr Paul Merchant, about what he is looking forward to when teaching Introduction to Environmental Humanities:

What excites you most about this unit?

I’m really looking forward to exploring ideas, texts and artworks from a wide range of cultural contexts and academic disciplines. The environmental humanities allow (and in fact encourage) us to try out new approaches and to think creatively, and our seminars will be a space for doing just that. It’s exciting to be working in an area that is growing and changing at such pace, and we’ll be thinking not just about the history of the environmental humanities, but also about where they might go next.

How does this unit speak to your research?

My research explores how writers and artists in Chile and Peru create work that responds to socio-environmental challenges in the Pacific Ocean and coastal areas. In many of these works, indigenous perspectives are brought into contact with a scientific understanding of ecology, and with complex local histories. An interdisciplinary environmental humanities approach, of the kind we’ll explore in this unit, therefore helps me appreciate how contemporary art and literature can generate new forms of environmental knowledge and public engagement.

If you were recommending one thing to read, watch, listen to or do ahead of studying this course, what would it be?

Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable argues that human culture and thought have to a large extent failed to grasp the scale of the climate crisis. It’s a provocative argument, and a great starting place for discussion. And there’s a sequel, The Nutmeg’s Curse

Introduction to Environmental Humanities is a core course on our new MA in Environmental Humanities. You can find out more about the programme here.

Studying the Environmental Humanities

The Centre for Environmental Humanities is launching a new MA Environmental Humanities this year.

We’re excited to share the work of the centre with a new cohort of postgraduate students here in Bristol. The MA programme is drawn from the research strengths of the centre, covering a broad spectrum of disciplinary approaches from within and across the humanities. By bringing together arts and humanities approaches with historical and contemporary environmental concerns, the MA provides space for students to study how human cultures and societies have related to the environment, and to explore how culture can help us respond to ecological crises.

The units that comprise the MA are taught by Centre members who are working at the cutting edge of environmental arts and humanities research. Alongside bespoke environmental humanities units, we draw together expertise from history, English, history of art, archaeology, modern languages, philosophy and innovation to consider environmental humanities in the round. You can find all the units available on the MA here.

Greta Thunberg in Bristol

The MA programme is taught in Bristol – Europe’s first ever Green Capital, and a city famous for its environmental consciousness. The university is home to us, the Centre for Environmental Humanities, and the interdisciplinary Cabot Institute for the Environment.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be speaking to colleagues in the Centre about the units they are teaching on the MA in the coming year, and what they are most excited about. So, watch this space!



New MA in Environmental Humanities

The Faculty of Arts has just launched a new MA in Environmental Humanities.

We are excited to be at the heart of this new postgraduate programme. Members of the CEH are integral to the programme, and will be teaching and sharing our research with the first cohort of students due to arrive in September 2023.

More information about the new MA programme can be found on the Faculty of Arts website, including information about how to apply.

See you in September?!