Environmental humanities: the need to expand our understanding of nature 

By incorporating narratives about the interplay between nature and diverse communities through stories of rivers, landscapes, plants, animals, and the communities’ perspectives and ecological wisdom, conventional notions of nature should be re-evaluated

Published - September 20, 2023 08:30 am IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Aiyadurai, Ambika and Shandilya, Trishita, ‘Environmental Humanities as a Way Forward’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 58, Issue 31, August 5, 2023

The environment, from an academic point of view, has for centuries been understood from the lens of science. Scholars and experts have explored issues related to ecology and the environment through a utilitarian understanding of nature. While studies around the relationship between humans and nature have been more forthcoming in the last few decades, the field of environmental humanities is relatively recent.

The paper discussed here is an introduction to environmental humanities that encompasses the traditional understanding of human and non-human interactions within nature which result in sustainable co-existence.

Bias against ‘soft sciences’

Positioning themselves as scholars working on environmental humanities in a science and technology institute where the discipline of humanities and social sciences is part of their coursework, the authors explain how the mere introduction of humanities as a chapter would not help remove the dichotomy between the sciences and the bias against the “soft sciences”. The authors critique how mainstream debates on the environment in such setups are devoid of any discussion on human nature interactions and issues of social justice with regard to environmental issues. The authors explain that instead of looking at science as the only solace to providing solutions to environmental issues, disciplines of humanities and social sciences must also be taken seriously to understand indigenous epistemologies that broaden our understanding of nature.

While explaining the need to move away from a Western knowledge system and the solutions it provides, the authors also warn us against a unified understanding of the traditional knowledge system of the environment. The nationalist project such as the Indian Knowledge Systems is dangerous as it is a mere replacement for the Western understanding of nature. It lacks the multitude of narratives and perspectives from various social and marginalised groups that discuss the entanglement of human beings with the environment.

The nation and nature

In India, nature has been considered intrinsically connected to society and culture. The nation is seen through the lens of nature, ecology or as a sense of place. There are two dominant understandings of a nation. The first one considers the nation as one place where nature is universal to its citizens as an ecological reality. Ecological nationalism is used to justify the utilisation or restriction of nature. The second understanding goes beyond the unitary sense of nation or nationalism and finds multiple perspectives that define the nation in connection to nature — as the affiliation to a piece of land and to its people who have various cultural identities. It is a sense of belonging, despite diverse notions about the ecology and environment.

In India, there are various narratives that help us rethink the relationship between man and nature. The authors attribute today’s environmental challenges to utilitarian progress models that have extracted natural resources from the environment, disregarding these narratives. In looking at the environment as a physical entity meant to be exploited according to man’s wishes, neo-liberal establishments have separated people’s indigenous experiences and narratives from our understanding of nature.

When emphasising the need to include the concept of the social in understanding the environment, another problem that arises is the conceptualisation of society as a homogenous and unitary entity. This common fallacy results in the exclusion of multiple, rich narratives of the marginalised communities. The dominant understanding of the environment while using gender, caste and tribal experiences as case studies, still largely remains androcentric and Brahminical, according to the authors.

Indigenous narratives on nature

The relationship that Dalits or tribal communities have with the environment is complex and much deeper than dominant narratives. While they have been given limited access to space, land and water due to the exclusionary practices that persist, owing to the caste system, they have a stronger connection with nature as they consider the environment to have agency and influence. Such narratives reject the reductionist attitude towards ecology/ environment that exists among mainstream understandings of the concept. Therefore, it is essential to incorporate the perspectives of different marginalised communities, such as those based on gender, caste, and tribal identities, into discussions within academic and policymaking circles to challenge the monopolistic understanding of the environment.

In urging the need to bring forward the discipline of environmental humanities in the global South, the authors highlight the uniqueness of the interdisciplinary field of study. They explain that the discipline shifts away the central focus from the dominant figure of the ‘human’ and recognises that neither humans nor non-humans take precedence in the discourse, contributing to a better comprehension of the environment as an entity in its own right.

Further, the discipline demands both social and environmental justice by centring and de-centring humans and non-humans as it recognises that environmental issues cannot be separated from social injustices and discriminations faced by marginalised communities.

Environmental humanities is an open-ended discipline that constantly evolves and continually redefines the perception of the environment.

In incorporating narratives about the interplay between nature and diverse communities through stories of rivers, landscapes, plants, animals, and the communities’ perspectives and ecological wisdom, the discipline enriches our understanding of the environment and helps us re-evaluate conventional notions of nature.

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