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’.