Is all Environmental Humanities Feminist Environmental Humanities?

Photograph courtesy of Cecilia Åsberg

By Lauren LaFauci and Cecilia Åsberg

In the wake of the righteous movement protesting police violence and the murder of Black people in the United States, environmentalist Leah Thomas (@greengirlleah) posted an image to Instagram of text repeating 16 times, “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter.” In the post, she introduced a concept she calls “intersectional environmentalism,” defining it there as:

an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet. (28 May 2020)

The post was liked by over 44,000 people at the time of this writing, and Thomas subsequently expanded her thoughts for Vogue magazine on 8 June 2020, where presumably even more readers will find it. The employment of a word stemming from US Black feminism—intersectional—and adding it to “environmentalism” is new and fresh, and it makes the concept immediately understandable to Thomas’s thousands of followers.

As feminist environmental humanities scholars, we of course applaud Thomas’s post and her subsequent Vogue article, and we are thrilled that this message has instantly reached the broader public in a way that decades of academic scholarship has not [1]. Because, as readers of this blog likely know, “intersectional environmentalism” as a term might be new and fresh, but instead it describes the work of 60+ years of environmental justice and ecofeminist scholarship and activism. This new, inclusive term will perhaps have a greater hold on the consciousness of a generation—and therefore will also, we hope, have a deep and lasting impact.

Meanwhile, it strikes us that “intersectional environmentalism” is environmental humanities, or at least is environmental humanities as it is now, in the field’s stage of maturity, understood. That the field can be encapsulated so well using a term from US Black feminism supports our provocation in this blog post: that all environmental humanities is in fact feminist environmental humanities.

But to begin, what is environmental humanities today? To answer that question, we need to look toward its origins. And as a field of study, EH has from its origins been concerned with, well, these origins. Perhaps because the stories of its beginning in part act to define what it actually is, these origin stories are more than simply historical or historiographical narratives about the field’s development, its conceptual tools, and its materials or objects of study. Instead, they are claims toward what it is and does now, and they have implications for the field’s long-term persistence, scope, and significance. Even the grammar of the field is affected by which story or stories we attribute: for example, is environmental humanities plural, an umbrella term collecting different disciplines, or singular, a new discipline generating new methods, materials, and theories? [2] Does it contain multitudes (ecocriticism, environmental history, environmental justice), or is it a new entity with which these disciplinary environmentalisms must contend?

The genealogy of environmental humanities as a field is difficult to map precisely because the field resists singular or definitive categorization within a discipline and because it seemingly emerged, at least within academia, in several places roughly around the same time. A hermetic map defining the field becomes thus impossible, or perhaps simply undesirable, since one of the most important aspects of environmental humanities is that there are multitudes of routes and roots [3] into it and co-constituting it. As the field-cartographers Robert S. Emmett and David E. Nye synthesize the field in an entire book [4], not a mere blog post, we will not attempt to do so here. However, a few key touchstones may help.

Both environmental history and environmental literary studies (or “ecocriticism”) may be seen as founding strands leading to the development of environmental humanities, at least in the United States and European contexts. These, in turn, built on interest in environmental issues broadly since the 1960s. Developments in environmental history could be marked by the formation of the Association for Environmental History (ASEH) in 1977, and precursors to its current journal Environmental History existed already in 1976. The companion in literary studies, ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment), was formed in 1992; its journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment began publication in 1993. Notably, these early attempts to break the binary of nature and culture still existed within disciplinary compartmentalizations.

Meanwhile, in Australia, anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose and historian of science and environmental ideas Libby Robin defined a field that would connect the disciplines, calling it the “ecological humanities” in a 2004 article for the Australian Humanities Review. There they explicitly described a field that could, through various forms of connectivity (including across nature and culture and across disciplinary divides), reckon with colonization and the genocide of indigenous peoples and more-than-human creatures.

Eight years later, Rose and others would found the journal Environmental Humanities, explaining there that the field “draw[s] on humanities and social science disciplines that have brought qualitative analysis to bear on environmental issues, [. . .] engag[ing] with fundamental questions of meaning, value, responsibility, and purpose in a time of rapid, and escalating, change.” [5] In 2013, the journal Resilience emerged, and a key paper was commissioned by the Swedish environmental foundation Mistra to outline the burgeoning field’s development. Since this time, a veritable explosion of publications, conferences, and research centers characterize the field’s now mature development.

This condensed medium does not allow for a more nuanced exploration of the origins of the field, and we do not wish here to establish or lay territorial claims to one origin story or another. In fact, we do not believe a singular origin that contains and explains the field even exists. Rather, we wish to show how these manifold origins perhaps indicate a gradual coming-together of viewpoints across domains (including in non-academic spaces), a collection of similar theories and ideas that together build a groundswell. This groundswell could be seen as revolutionarily new, a breaking of dichotomies that have served to separate humanity from the natural word, and as a return, a restoration of a way of being in the world known to our indigenous ancestors, a way that the violence of colonization made dominant. Indeed, the central defining claim of environmental humanities—that of the enmeshment of humans and nature and the self-reflexive study of that enmeshment, dates back hundreds if not thousands of years [6].

With an explosion of publications in recent years, we thought it was high time for a synthesis—filtered, of course, through our own subjectivities and training—of the field and its key defining features. As we set about outlining these features during a short-term fellowship at the Carson Center in the fall semester of 2019, we realized that what united these diverse tales of origination was a commitment to a set of standpoints that aligned with feminist praxis.

We propose that environmental humanities today can be characterized by commitments to five principles. Environmental humanities is work that

1) breaks the damaging dichotomies between nature and culture,
2) argues that no single discipline can provide all the necessary tools for dealing with environmental problems,
3) takes seriously the agency of nonhuman nature,
4) presumes all knowledges to be culturally and historically situated, and
5) operates from an ethical and/or activist imperative for social change.

Because EH works for the societal transformation of people, it attends to ethics, values, and sense-makings around sustainability (asking, for example, for whom and for how long is ______ sustainable?), accountability (how are we being or not being “good ancestors” toward human and more-than-human others?), and justice (how are public policies and embedded systems distributing environmental benefits and burdens?). These goals align it closely with feminist genealogies and, of course, with many indigenous epistemologies. It is far too seldom, however, that such debts are acknowledged. In fact, the origin stories linking it to environmental history and ecocriticism may serve to dampen the more overtly social justice-oriented strands that also were part of its founding.

We ask, then: Can all of environmental humanities be assumed to be feminist? If so, why has this feminist positioning gone mostly unacknowledged? Which forces are tugging at the field now, influencing how will be practiced in the future? Finally, how do we “do” environmental humanities in the overwhelmingly white and Euro-American context of academia? As Leah Thomas’s viral post reached thousands more readers than most environmental humanities journal articles and books—and therefore, its key insights and concepts remain relatively unknown outside of our own conferences and research institutes—how do we communicate with activists and the interested public, and, more importantly, how do we make space for listening?

Environmental humanities, at its best, enlivens ecological imaginations, extends reparative possibilities, and explores alternative futures [7]. But some of the tales of its founding erase or minimize these world-building possibilities [8]. Indeed, a failure to recognize the defiantly feminist—and thus, anti-colonial, queer, and anti-racist—underpinnings of environmental humanities ultimately limits our capacities for defining future just and sustainable worlds for all.


[1] Notably, environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon used the term “intersectional environmentalism” in his 2013 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).

[2] Deborah Bird Rose et al., “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities,” Environmental Humanities 1.1 (2012); Jesse Peterson, “Doing Environmental Humanities: Inter/Transdisciplinary Research through an Underwater 360° Video Poem,” Green Letters 23.1 (2019).

[3] This phrase borrows from Christopher Iannini’s 2012 book Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press).

[4] Robert S. Emmett and David E. Nye, The Environmental Humanities: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017).

[5] Deborah Bird Rose et al., “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities,” Environmental Humanities 1.1 (2012): 1.

[6] Robert S. Emmett and David E. Nye, The Environmental Humanities: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017), 3.

[7] Deborah Bird Rose et al., “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities,” Environmental Humanities 1.1 (2012); Katherine Gibson, Deborah Bird Rose, and Ruth Fincher, eds., Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene (The Hague: Oapen, 2015).

[8] Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis, “Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities,” Environmental Humanities 10.2 (2018).

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