Developing the Environmental Humanities: A Swiss Perspective

Philippe Forêt
School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS), University of St. Gallen, and Center of Environment and Development Studies (EA 1210, CEDETE), University of Orleans. Email:

Marcus Hall
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich. Email:

Christoph Kueffer
Institute of Integrative Biology, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich. Email:

A new forum for enabling continuous and reciprocal conversations within the humanities and with other sciences in environmental research

Environmental humanities, environmentalism, interdisciplinarity, metadiscipline, research center, science and society, Switzerland

The enormous scope and complexity of today’s environmental problems require knowledge derived from the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities, engaging experts within and beyond universities. While there is general agreement that contributions from the humanities are essential for understanding and mitigating environmental problems, differences remain about the core questions of the humanities in environmental research, the best ways for humanists to work with each other and with scientists, and the next steps for developing environmental research in the humanities. This paper reviews ‘environmental humanities’ as an emerging research field, before suggesting ways for further development in the specific context of Switzerland.

What is environmental humanities?

Environmental humanities (EH, Umwelt-Geisteswissenschaften / Sciences humaines de l’environnement / Scienze umane dell’ambiente) is an emerging field that is attracting significant institutional support around the world. As a metadiscipline that brings into conversation several subfields, environmental humanities seeks to offer new and more synthetic insights on cultural, historical and ethical dimensions of our most intractable environmental problems (Mathae and Birzer 2004, Sörlin 2012, SAGW/ASSH 2012). Anthropologists, human geographers, historians, political and cultural scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, and educators are now provided with a common forum to discuss environmental concerns (Rose et al. 2012, Nye 2013). This forum is also fostering richer dialogues with biologists, engineers, environmental, medical, and social scientists, as well as with politicians and business leaders (Chapman 2007, Sörlin 2013). Such conversations are needed not only because environmental systems are increasingly shaped by humans (holding various beliefs, biases, and traditions), but also because scientific discoveries are interpreted and implemented in political, cultural, and economic contexts, which in turn shape the range and kinds of scientific discoveries (Oreskes and Conway 2010).
No one discipline or approach is hegemonic in its ability to provide definitive information for resolving environmental dilemma, given that these are inextricably connected to the hopes, fears, and creativity of diverse human actors (Radkau 2008). However, by combining the experience of several disciplines, environmental humanities as a metadiscipline can contribute to greater collaborative and integrative inquiry in the humanities, which ensures that the cultural complexities of environmental problems are adequately addressed. Now is also a key moment to reassert that scientists and humanists collaborate at all stages of perceiving, designing, implementing, and interpreting research projects (compare SAGUF contribution in Gaia 2/2014). Humanists are needed to critically reflect on cultural contexts and value-laden assumptions that shape scientific inquiry and policy making, and to develop alternative, holistic, multicultural and historically-sensitive perspectives on environmental problems.

Identifying key topics in environmental humanities

Although various humanistic disciplines witness growing attention to environmental problems, there has been relatively little acknowledgment of the crucial perspectives that the humanities can bring to the understanding and even resolution of these problems. Humanists would be well equipped to deal with such topics as values, emotions, subjectivity, complexity, and failure. EH can recast established environmental problems as cultural issues and so provide fresh ideas to environmental research.

Recasting environmental problems as cultural issues

Environmental problems are often framed by natural scientists as disturbances to natural systems, which may hinder effective societal and cultural responses. However, a society’s history, traditions, beliefs, concepts of justice, responsibility and ethics are key elements for interpreting environmental problems. For instance, natural scientists have introduced terms such as ‘global change’, ‘Anthropocene’, or ‘novel ecosystems’ to address the heightening transformation of the Earth’s abiotic and biotic conditions by humans. Yet, such transformations are promoting not only wholly new physical patterns, they also fundamentally change human-nature relationships, which have deep implications for the effectiveness and predictive ability of environmental sciences (Kueffer 2014). Dominant narratives and worldviews need to be complemented or challenged with alternative perspectives that account for reflexivity, historicity and local complexities of vulnerability, resilience, and risk (Hall 2003, Forêt 2007, Kupper 2012). Indeed, a better understanding of ethical, cultural and historical dimensions of the environment may guide us out of deadlock situations, such as international negotiations on greenhouse gases (Bolin 2007). And good predictions require anticipating simultaneous changes in both physical and cultural factors (Kueffer 2014). Climate change science for instance must strengthen its ability to account for feedbacks between changing climates and evolving human behaviors and worldviews in response to such change (Warren 2011, Forêt 2013b).

Introducing new perspectives to environmental research

We live in a time of overlapping crisis. Environmental humanists can reinterpret the histories of past and contemporary crises, recovering words and images, and creating concepts needed to reclaim our common experience of trauma as well as of hope (Solnit 2009, Hall 2010). This includes studying post-collapse societies to examine long-term cycles in our complicated relationships with nature. All our societies are post-collapse societies in the sense that they have survived natural and human-made disasters, be they floods and fires or warfare and revolution, whether in recent or ancient times (Fagan 2004). This does not mean that we have cultivated a collective memory of restoration and recovery (Hall 2014), or even that we can easily learn from former post-collapse societies or from modern communities now recovering from a major crisis (tsunami, earthquake, oil spill, civil war).

How can humanities and natural sciences fruitfully interact?

In the environmental sciences, uncertainty is pervasive and often irreducible; more science will often not significantly reduce ignorance or clarify conflicts of opinions or interests. When facts are uncertain, metaphors, stories and other rhetorical devices may fuel misinterpretation between scientists and society (Lakoff and Johnson 2003). Thus, a novel field of study is needed to better support deliberation and reflexivity. By building a common understanding of the many contexts of knowledge production, interpretation and use, humanists and scientists can clarify together environmental communication while revealing and appreciating the complexity of our responses to the environment.
More generally, EH can employ a multicultural perspective to design better research and societal transformation processes, such as adaptive management and participatory problem-solving. Research about international cooperation and development, for example, too often focuses on how knowledge can be transferred from a developed North to the South. EH can help to develop more equitable ways of exchanging knowledge through which a developing world can learn from mistakes of the developed world, and vice versa. Reciprocal and culturally-sensitive learning might be improved in both contexts. One such cooperative initiative is the Lithium Project at the Graduate Institute of Geneva that seeks to provide a common framework for energy transition by accounting for the disasters of the fossil fuel age (Forêt 2013a).

Implementing environmental humanities in Switzerland

A wealthy, urban, green and largely mountainous country, Switzerland has a strong potential for researching, teaching and outreaching of EH. Global networks in diplomacy, health, finance, and commodity trade converge in Switzerland. This country hosts major multinational corporations as well as key environmental organizations, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). With their renowned science and technology institutes, Swiss universities can educate global leaders while exposing them to the human and social side of environmental issues.
The SAGUF Working Group for Environmental Humanities has established a Swiss Center for Environmental Humanities (SCEH) to strengthen linkages among humanists and scientists. We aim to co-ordinate activities in EH because Swiss scholars work in relative isolation, are housed in different institutes, and have specialized in sub-fields within a given discipline. SCEH explicitly encourages participation from all of Switzerland’s linguistic regions.

Sample events include:

• Mountains Across Borders: An Environmental History Summer School (August 2013 in Lavin, Engadin) gathered advanced graduate students and faculty members from around the world for discussing the challenges of carrying out a major mountain history project. Topics addressed the diversity of mountain cultures and ecosystems; topography, elevation, and seasonality as dividing (or else uniting) people; dependencies and conflicts between highland and lowland peoples; preservation and restoration of mountain systems; mountains as loci of disaster or as refugia during global warming.
• Scientists as Humanists, Humanists as Scientists (June 2014, Zurich). This combined weeklong graduate seminar and symposium will bring together environmental researchers and non-academic experts. In a series of workshops, ecology graduate students will investigate historical, rhetorical, and artistic aspects of their respective research projects. International experts will participate in roundtables for refining the humanistic role in environmental research and its societal applications while invited leaders in business and politics will suggest vital directions for new research in EH.
• Environmental Humanities Inventory. In 2014, the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) is also funding a first census of research and teaching activities relevant to EH at Swiss academic institutions.


Developing environmental humanities in Switzerland requires a broad vision that questions environmental issues through humanistic methodologies, while demonstrating to university administrators, community leaders, and funding agencies that concrete propositions can be made. Environmental research and policy-making must recognize the profound role of culture in framing the human-nature relationship. There is tremendous need for enabling continuous and reciprocal interactions within the humanities and with other sciences in environmental research. Our ultimate goal must be to articulate a fundamentally new way of living within the earth’s natural limits, rather than sustaining unrealistic lifestyles or outdated worldviews about progress and modernity. 


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