Fire and Ice in the Academy

The rise of the integrative humanities.

The study of the humanities has fallen victim, again, to media fire. This time over ice. Historian Mark Carey and his co-authors at the University of Oregon published an article offering “a feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” They argued that glaciology had a male and western history with Cold War roots and pointed out that there are many other knowledge traditions involving ice, including indigenous, post-colonial and feminist perspectives. Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, climate change–-denying think tanks and bloggers all had a field day. Wasn’t this evidence of soft, irrational, liberal thinking, proof that climate change is a hoax, and—because Carey acknowledged a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation—yet another example of the waste of tax payers’ money?

It is easy for those of us who are academics in the humanities to smile, or sigh, at such media feeding frenzies and move on. Indeed, in Canada we are accustomed to national newspaper columnists lamenting the “self-indulgent shallowness” of research presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences each year. Instead, we pause to reflect on the kind of work the humanities are doing in our time.

Carey is not the only humanist thinking about glaciers and ice. The University of British Columbia’s Julie Cruikshank published a prize–winning book some years ago with the title Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination. Humanists do this not to challenge scientists on the physics of frozen water, but because there is now a “politics of ice” related to the future of the planet.

To really understand the significance of ice in the world in which we live, and the world we will face if we continue to burn fossil fuels at alarming rates, we need to frame ice in a whole new way. The humanities are increasingly engaged with glaciers—and deserts, oceans and the atmosphere—because such studies are central to our future as human actions transform the physical earth more than ever before.

The humanities—broadly, studies of the human condition through literature, philosophy, art and history—seem to have been in crisis for as long as we can remember. Like the consumptive protagonist in a Victorian novel, observes American professor of English Blaine Greteman, they have been dying for a long, long time. Googling “the crisis in the humanities” today scores more than 100,000 hits. The consensus seems to be that things are bad, they are getting worse and there is little hope of fixing them. At least one scholar has suggested that Canadian historians are a “species at risk.”

In his 1964 book Crisis in the Humanities, the Cambridge historian J.H. Plumb told humanists that they needed to “adapt themselves to the needs of a society dominated by science and technology, or retreat into social triviality.” The thought leaders of the future would need to know things other than Shakespeare and Latin grammar. They would need to understand atomic power, supersonic aircraft, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, personal jet-packs and waterproof living rooms that housewives could clean with a hose.

Science and technology would shape the future, and the social sciences would assist them by fine tuning the machinery of the state, democracy, production and consumption.

In a response that was psychologically understandable but politically inhibiting, the humanities began to cultivate a sense of innocent pity and proud, almost aristocratic, detachment.

Today, university prospectuses tend to laud the “hard” sciences (or the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for preparing students to lead and shape our technological futures; they endorse the social sciences for communicating theories and techniques for the analysis of societal issues; and they acknowledge that the humanities deal in the interesting but somehow less useful ethical, aesthetic and intellectual dimensions of human experience.

Marginalization has had its benefits. Left to their own devices, the humanities reached new levels of intellectual sophistication. Fields co-fertilized and hybridized. Conceptual revolutions and “turns”—spatial, linguistic, cultural, affective—proliferated. Critics have seen these developments as negative, creating or deepening the crisis in the humanities by abandoning the idea of Truth with a capital T and leading students into the swamp of relativism. But there can be no doubt that our sense of our collective selves has been tremendously enriched by these developments.

Post-colonial and feminist turns, the systematic deconstruction of value systems, and the rethinking of human-nature relations lie behind the ongoing redefinition of the geosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere so vital to our times. These new ideas in the humanities continue to contribute to patterns of thought that may change our knowledge landscapes and campuses, and even our politics, forever.

This is nowhere more evident than in the rise of what might be called the integrative humanities.

For some time, university departments and disciplines have been merging into larger units, schools, centres and programs. Just as biochemistry emerged from biology and chemistry in the 19th century and now underpins almost all work in the life sciences, similar thematic cross-cutting developments are occurring in the humanities. Recent years have seen the emergence and growth of the digital and visual humanities, and very decisively, the environmental humanities—whose practitioners think, among other things, about ice. These are broad-tent and truly cross-disciplinary coalitions that are remaking the traditional humanities as they reach out to engage scholars trained in social science and, more occasionally, the hard sciences.

These developments have not been unopposed. Some, for example, see the embrace of technique and the dependence upon high-end computing in the digital humanities as antithetical to critical scholarship and yet another Trojan horse in the neoliberalization of universities.

For all that, scholars engaged with the integrative humanities have a strong sense of the usefulness of their endeavours, for both the university and society at large. These are scholars with a purpose and a sense of immediacy about their mission, grappling with large transformations in societies and environments, associated with sweeping changes in communication brought about by the digital revolution and the internet, the changing (and often shrinking) role of governments in environmental regulation and social welfare provision, the growing interconnectedness of people on the planet, the need to recalibrate human and energy futures in response to atmospheric warming, and the human dimensions of such natural events as droughts, fires, floods and quakes.

Many integrative humanities initiatives have been spearheaded by prominent intellectuals. Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen leads approximately 300 social scientists and humanists in the International Panel for Social Progress, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and scheduled to deliver its first report in 2017. Acclaimed Dutch historian and policy scholar Johan Schot is steering the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex toward a -transformation-driven research agenda. After 50 years devoted to finding the mechanisms behind economic growth (and social progress), the SPRU is now exploring the social implications of scientific and technological improvement to identify what it calls “responsible innovation.”

Environmental humanities hubs are springing up around the world. Pioneering work was done in Australia, where anthropologists, historians, philosophers, ecocritical literary scholars, and others raised the environmental humanities banner about a decade ago.

There were also early adopters in Germany, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom. In the last few years, major efforts have started in the United States, most of which are experimental in form and method.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, literary scholar Ursula Heise and her colleagues have produced the first Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Oregon State University has launched an environmental arts and humanities program. In Europe, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich has taken on the environmental humanities. The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm has transformed its history division by developing a sprawling and experimental Environmental Humanities Laboratory. KTH, UCLA, the University of Sydney and Concordia University publish the journal Environmental Humanities with Duke University Press. Many publishers are starting environmental humanities series, with Wilfrid Laurier University Press at the fore in Canada.

Funding agencies and universities are responding. The Research Council of Norway started a massive new humanities program on “the cultural conditions for social development,” encompassing everything from religious extremism to climate change politics. The German Exzellenzinitiative funds the Rachel Carson Center. The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) launched a nationwide environmental humanities program in 2015, after noting the field’s ability to tackle “lacunae in the humanities, which seldom address science and technology in detail, and lacunae in environmental studies, where analysis typically emphasizes science and social science.”

Even major science journals are helping to carve out new roles for the humanities. The very first issue of Nature Climate Change in 2011, included a seminal article by Mike Hulme, the former head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, titled “Meet the Humanities.” In 2014 the journal also ran a much-cited piece, “Changing the Intellectual Climate.” Both articles argued for and recognized the arrival of a new kind of environmental social science and humanities devoted not simply to moving knowledge forward but also to advancing broader societal transformations that require multiple knowledge bases.

Is this just another fad? There are two good reasons to think not. The first lies in the type (and sheer scale) of climate and environmental change now facing nations and societies, if not humanity, and capitalism. The sciences have provided evidence of these complex changes and identified some of the mechanisms behind them. They have shown that together we face a doomsday-like scenario with little time to react. Changes are needed—but the science we need to articulate the problem is not the same knowledge needed to change the way we live. Innovations in science and technology must be accompanied by social innovation. Taking necessary actions requires engagement with people, with their values, passions, routines, institutions, preferences, politics, culture, beliefs and incentives; with their sense of prestige, care and reason; and, perhaps above all, with their approach to questions of justice—justice between people, social groups, provinces and territories, between nations and states. This is where integrative humanities and environmental social science and humanities  can help in finding solutions.

A second good reason is that after the global financial crisis in 2008 we live in a new era. A brief look at the history of research policy, which emerged in earnest only with World War Two, helps us to understand that the changes we need to make will have long-lasting effects. The Cold War research policy regime was founded on security. It was gradually replaced by a policy regime intended to foster economic growth. Here a linear model prevailed, envisaging science leading to innovation and thus the generation of new products and services to drive the mass market. In the 1980s the logic of competition took over, fuelled by neoliberal thinking; globalization was the buzzword, and the economic playing field was to be levelled, or the world made flat as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times memorably—and mistakenly—-predicted.

After 2008 a new way of looking at research policy surfaced. It already had a name, supercomplexity, coined before the turn of the millennium by Ronald Barnett, of the University of London, to describe the kinds of challenges that universities confront in the face of uncertain futures, and the seemingly endless contestation of their mandates. In 2009 the Lund Declaration of the European Union responded to the new era of supercomplexity by framing a research and innovation agenda called Horizon 2020 focused on the “Grand Challenges of the world” such as climate change, demography and pandemics. Subsequently updated, this agenda points to the kinds of effort needed to meet the tough aspirations defined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris conference on climate change. New knowledge is required to grapple with the most vexing problems of our day. And the integrative humanities are well poised to provide that knowledge.

Consider by way of illustration the work of the Petrocultures Research Group based at the University of Alberta, created to support research on the sociocultural dimensions of oil and energy use. Among its initiatives, a workshop held in August 2015 brought together 35 artists and researchers to ponder the challenges of thinking about a transition from fossil fuels to other forms of energy dependence in a society physical, materially and intellectually permeated by oil.

Making this transition, democratically and effectively, they reported in After Oil published in 2016, was much more complicated than switching from one source of energy to another. It was not simply a technological problem: “since oil shapes our ideas and values as much as it does our infrastructures and economies,” they wrote, “an intentional energy transition will require us to think anew about wealth, beauty, community, success, and a host of other ideas.” We will need, in short, to change how we “think, imagine, see, and hear,” and there is no better set of disciplines than the humanities to help in imagining new possibilities.1

David Budtz Pedersen of Denmark’s Aalborg University, a philosopher by training, heads a team of humanists, economists and data crackers analyzing the “value creation” of the humanities. Their findings challenge the widespread perception that humanists are of little use beyond their departmental walls or the ivory tower. Taken as a whole, no group of faculty members has more external relations than humanists. Their collaborative networks range from industry to politics, to schools, and media.

In Canada, a new initiative among humanists launched at McGill University in 2015 and continuing at Concordia in May 2016, recognizes that talk of crisis in the humanities tends to fuel a downward spiral of self-marginalization—epitomized by the tendency to respond to fewer and fewer new faculty positions by encouraging field-picking and hyper-specialization in doctoral programs. Members of McGill’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas sought an end to this race to the bottom by redefining the humanities PhD as training for society. The Future Humanities initiative insists that the humanities can—and need to—offer a range of generic skills alongside specialized knowledge. Cultivating both requires changes in curricula and programs, a rethinking of roles. But the rewards seem promising: more students, more jobs outside academia, more weight for the humanities as their demographic presence grows.

Our changing world demands new ways of thinking. Humanists have long enabled people to understand changing circumstances. As the Canadian Federation for Humanities and Social Sciences showed in the midst of the European refugee crisis last fall, when dozens of Canadian scholars helped to interpret unfolding events on a daily basis, we cannot properly comprehend such developments without the voices of humanists.

The integrative, and especially the environmental, humanities extend this mandate, from poetry through the politics of ice, to the better understanding of the often human-based causes of scientific and technological change. They are integral to the challenge of grappling with supercomplexity, and have an important role to play in developing the kinds of broad, flexible, integrative and educated imaginations upon which the future of our world will depend. It is as simple as that.

  1. After Oil, published in 2016 by the Petrocultures Research Group based at the University of Alberta, is available at