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EHS at a glance

The organisation

  • Environmental Humanities South (EHS) is a research unit located at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • The focus of our work is to understand the relations between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural productions, i.e. the social processes involved in the generation and circulation of cultural forms, practices, values, and shared understandings (as per OxfordReference definition of "cultural production") with emphasis on the "Global South", i.e. in the context of globalization describing the economic division between rich(er) and poor(er) countries (as per Global South: Predicament and Promise by Arif Dirlik, Global South Studies Centre Cologne, 2007)
  • The aim of our work is to facilitate interdisciplinary academic collaboration in order to broaden intellectual models, research methods and resources provided to environmental decision-makers

Why environmental humanities?

The environmental humanities is the term for a dynamic and growing field in universities across the world, one promoting interdisciplinary scholarship that explores how we understand the relations between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. Ranging from scientific modelling to government policy, from social justice movements to the creative arts, it examines questions of sustainability, human wellbeing and the environment in their broadest sense. In a 21st-century context of increasing pressure on the biosphere, the environmental humanities provide a vital intellectual space that enables researchers, students, artists, writers, scientists, policy-makers and practitioners to reflect critically on the concepts that underlie contemporary environmentalism, as well as broader social imaginings of ‘the natural’. 
What do we mean when we speak of ‘the environment’? Whose environment, and who gets to speak? What propositions about ‘the natural’ and ‘the human’ undergird scientific advice on governance and management of the commons? ‘Sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘conservation’ – these are all terms that we hear daily, yet they are often used uncritically, or in specific, contested ways. What different ‘cultures of nature’ can we discern in a postcolonial setting like Cape Town, a place that opens onto highly contested terrains, both physical and intellectual? ‘Indigenous’ biodiversity set against botanical ‘invaders’ on the slopes of the Table Mountain National Park; constitutional rights to water and its complex social circuits through the ‘human settlements’ of greater Cape Town; predator ‘management’ in the farming districts of the Boland; debates over fracking in the Karoo thirstland; the state policing of Cape fisheries – these flashpoints call for new ways of imagining the relations between state, science, ecologies and publics. 

Positioned in this distinctive, dynamic and contested environment, we envision a graduate programme at the University of Cape Town that will gather people from across the campus and allow them to begin conversations they would not otherwise have. At a time when larger debates often remain stuck in a polemical opposition between ‘development’ and ‘the environment’, this programme will offer a space in which to reimagine and reconfigure the terms of such exchanges. By bringing different methodologies and disciplines into dialogue, it will facilitate the emergence of richer conceptual tools, and allow the University of Cape Town to intervene in public deliberations about the environment with the requisite sensitivity and subtlety .

Why now?

As UCT moves towards establishing interdisciplinary research as an institutional priority alongside its interest in climate change, it is vitally important for the Faculty of Humanities to support the emergence of a hub of researchers and thinkers who can provide the critical mass needed to broaden the intellectual models, research methods and resources provided to environmental decision-makers.  Establishing the emerging field of the environmental humanities in South Africa will strengthen the voice and the presence of humanities scholarship in scientific collaborations, in environmental decision-making, activism and governance.
The environmental humanities is distinctive in its attempt to explore the encounter between science and the critical humanities – indeed it is a space where these different intellectual projects must come into intimate, critical but also respectful dialogue. This is crucial in a South African context in which government has wielded simplistic social critiques of scientific enquiry to devastating effect – in fields as diverse as HIV/AIDS policy and (more recently) the setting of catch limits in marine management. 

There is an urgent need for a scholarly response that frames the research field more broadly, that considers the interaction of states, sciences, publics, earth systems and species. So too, we need to devote particular attention to the polarisation and racialisation of the current national debate, where the choices are between ‘development’ and ‘the environment’, or ‘people’ versus ‘nature’. By framing the project in the environmental humanities, the national and regional conversation can be focused not only on the generation of scientific advice, but also the response to it by government, activists and publics.  
As such, we imagine a programme which could welcome both professionals who would like the space to reflect on their practice, as well as those from a humanities background who would like to engage with science, its models and its assumptions, in a way that is critical and questioning, but also careful and informed. We hope provide a hospitable space, one that would go beyond glib caricatures of ‘science’ or ‘the humanities’ from either direction. At the same time, the programme would go beyond the call for ‘a social science to match the science’.  With the involvement of artists, film-makers, historians, philosophers, creative writers, as well as scholars of literature, religion and spirituality, it would speak to the deep symbolic and psychic dimensions embedded in social imaginings of ‘the human’ and ‘the natural’.

Why UCT?

What will distinguish the Cape Town environmental humanities initiative is its investment in dialogues in the South, and its creative, critical and collegial engagement with leading researchers at UCT: in climate change, marine management, urban planning, environmental law, water engineering, and public health. The programme will include training in scientific data and modelling and decision-support tools, alongside a programme of guests; a seminar series dedicated to discussing new work in this field, and a reading programme on the wider issues in the environmental humanities that bear on the research project itself.
The goal would be to create a hub of scholars in the environmental humanities which, via a combination of a rich reading programme; deep ethnographic research; dialogue with UCT environmental scientists who work with publics, and its broad international networks, can grow into an internationally recognised strength of the Humanities Faculty at UCT, with close ties to emerging interdisciplinary work at UCT on climate change.