Category Archives: The EHL

What if…? Redefining research impact from an environmental humanities perspective.

The following text has been conceived as an environmental humanities critique to research policy regarding what are considered  “research initiatives of excellence”.

Authors: Irma Allen, Jesse Peterson, Daniele Valisena, Anne Gough,
ENHANCE ITN – PhD Students, KTH – Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment

What if…? Redefining research impact from an environmental humanities perspective.
What if ….? What if….? What if….?

All researchers want their work to have an impact and are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate it. But what does this mean? At present, research impact is largely defined in relation to dominant neoliberal economic frames. The language of excellence, innovation, development, marketability, knowledge economy, and the building of human capital are cornerstones to how funding agencies measure the value of academic outputs. But is this the best way to define impact? Critique of the research impact agenda by now is widespread, and we think that environmental humanities offers insightful ways to rethink what is meant by impact in radically alternative ways that address specifically environmental concerns.

Environmental Humanities (EH) takes as its starting point the idea that humans and nature are radically inseparable and that humanities subjects (literature, history, philosophy, arts, etc.) have the potential to provide key insights into the ways we live, why we do so, and how we can change. Environmental humanities research provides historical perspectives, situates scientific and technological change in cultural context, addresses ethical problems, interprets and provides new narratives, and works with local communities.

Humanities teaches about the power of words to make worlds. Storytelling as a way to generate alternative narratives is therefore at the heart of environmental humanities practice. This collaborative piece by four people undertaking a PhD in EH is a speculative attempt at what it means to redefine research impact through what we have learnt from doing environmental humanities research. Speculating means here supposing, hypothesising, venturing, or simply, imagining – asking ‘what if….’?. We speculate here from an EH perspective about ‘what if’ research impact was thought differently and how? What kinds of impact do we wish to be making? What do environmental humanities teach us about how we might measure research results, outcomes, and processes differently? Together we propose a story about the kind of research worlds we would like to inhabit.

We take four core concepts that are currently central to how research impact is understood – Mobility, Innovation, Employability, and Economic Growth – and rethink these. Instead, we propose that from an emphasis on mobility we shift to support for inhabited movement, that from a focus on innovation we switch to re-valuing innovative teaching that enhances ecological living, that from a concern with employability we highlight the building of ecological ability, and that from an obsession with economic growth we move towards degrowth as central ways that impact is defined. What if this was at the core of how research impact is measured..?

Employability
From employability to ecological-ability

Proposals for research funding illustrate their impact by describing how they will train researchers so that they be employable. Employability as a concept has become normalized, leading to funding opportunities, research projects, university courses and programs that survive only if they can promise to deliver a path to higher earnings. To meet this criteria, research projects train researchers in skills to capacitate them to work in a variety of academic and non-academic positions.

Employability–as a modified model of the linear career path model–is a reductive vision of a more ecologically-sound life path. By disregarding non-instrumentalist values within humanities scholarship, making researchers employable ignores different forms of training possibilities and opportunities. Satisfying employability as an impact criteria molds the researchers into marketable, tradable, commodities whom are personally responsible for their failures in employment and career. Because markets change, jobs increase or decrease, “employable” researchers can only find success in the terms of the market. In other words, universities bear little responsibility for providing researchers with jobs while they rely more heavily upon non-institutional funds. And, as a virtue of their employability, researchers are often uprooted, traded like sports players, and disincentivized to form lasting, meaningful relationships with local communities. Though a broader imagining of employability could take individual factors, personal circumstances, and external factors into account, employability negates the justification for actively cultivating skills and talents that do not serve the growth of the market economy. Employability serves globalized economic or political values over social or environmental ones.

From an EH perspective, researchers need ecological-ability. Rather than attempting to develop employability as a diverse set of skills that a researcher can pull out of his or her pocket like a swiss army knife or smartphone, funding could foment values and skills that extend outside economic logic to fulfill non-universalized ethical and ecological obligations. Impact could be measured by providing researchers with habits that contribute to the flourishing of lives and worlds, with an eye towards human health and well-being (an EU Environmental Policy objective). Training, therefore, ought to be provide researchers with life skills that enable them to improve the quality of life for themselves and other communities, including animals and environments. Qualities like reflexivity, community engagement, supporting alternative cosmologies, ethical action along with practical skills including gardening, holding an activist rally, foraging and hunting, writing a poem become as meaningful as one’s ability to publish an academic paper, plan a conference, or manage project finances.

Mobility
From mobility culture to inhabited movement

Scholars’ mobility is considered to be one of the key factors in defining the quality of a research project. Internationalization of research, network-building, and human capital exchange all contribute to demonstrating the successfulness of an academic project. For example, in 2012 Swedish funding agency Vinnova launched the “Mobility for Growth” program, whose “overall objective is to support career development for individuals through mobility” (p. 2). Horizon 2020’s funding document underlines that in order to improve Europe’s “attractiveness for researchers […] research projects should encourage them to move between countries, sectors and disciplines to enhance their creativity and innovative potential” (p. 984). EU funded research programs also value the enhancing of mobility among academics as a concrete way of shaping European citizenship. But what kind of European citizenship does this produce? Although it is true that mobility of ideas and researchers has long been a fundamental component in the construction of an international scientific community – both for hard sciences as well as for human sciences – engaging with environmental humanities implies questioning the simplistic equation that mobility = good research and, more specifically, that increased mobility (hypermobility) = positive impact. Moving scholars’ bodies across borders and cultures entails moving and mixing cultures, habits, family and relational ties, ways of dwelling and ways of being together with other people, other environments and different ecologies of life.

Our carbon and ecological footprint should be considered when evaluating the impact of research projects. According to KTH’s Travelling Scientist, “researchers who want to contribute to a more sustainable world are on average emitting two tons of CO2-equivalents per year”. Imagine the increases in carbon usage for researchers required to be mobile. It’s counterintuitive for researchers aiming to reduce a local or global carbon footprint by increasing their own. Being hyper-mobile has its impacts; it boosts international connections — but perhaps at the expense of slower forms of engagement more locally, and also often to the detriment or risk to the researcher’s own wellbeing, sense of place, and capacity to build an ecological life. The very action of continuously moving between one country and another — be it to take part in training activities, perform multi-sited fieldwork, build a network, or participate in international conferences — contradicts basic knowledge about environmental harm.Thus, hyper-mobility cannot be part of any environmentalist agenda.

Environmental humanities research studies and supports experiences, livelihoods and research practices that promote a transnational and translocal sense of place without losing sight of the social and ecological relationships in various communities.

We need to be able to have the possibility to inhabit places as much move in and between spaces as scholars engaged in genuine transformative, environmental humanities work. Inhabiting takes time.

Environmental humanities as a research practice can and should contribute to preventing globalization from displacing de-rooted professionals across the globe, as well as criticizing the neo-liberal project (the flexibilization and causalization of academic laborers on the job market) behind the creation of intellectual placeless reservoirs.

Against economic value-producing and placeless citizenship fostered by hyper-mobility, environmental humanities promote community-based research practices, built around slow mobility, place, as well as human and more-than-human relations. As Ursula Heise framed it, environmental humanities helps retracing the sense of place (2008), while the hyper-mobility that informs many research agendas ends up loosening place-based ties. Trans-locality as an open form of dwelling should be a constituent of both research subjects as well as researchers’ lives. All those characteristics shape a form of ecological citizenship and awareness that should be the core mission of any environmental humanities projects.

Innovation
From Innovation towards valuing innovative teaching inclusive of more-than-human worlds

The need to prove impact through innovation is a standard part of many research grant applications. But ‘innovation’ in this context most often means new products, services or technologies. Innovation can also be measured through publication output. But one area that has the biggest potential to create innovative impact within academic work is grossly undervalued or marginalized – that is, teaching. One reason for its low status in academia may be that teaching is a gendered practice – often treated as ‘women’s work’ because of its deployment of emotional labour and care. We propose that the concept of research innovation expands to include teaching, and innovations in teaching, as a central measure of impact on the kinds of students, or citizens, universities and research influences. ‘Students’ in this case should mean both those within the traditional boundaries of the university, but also, and more critically, those beyond.

Environmental humanities seeks to develop more equitable relationships among human and non-human communities. Rather than technology being the one-bullet answer to societal challenges, pedagogy allows for researchers to actively participate in shaping societal values, relations and responses to change, including building human-non-human engagement and the embedding of persons within an ecological world. Teaching is often the space where students can critique and imagine approaches to ways of living, justice, and environmental crisis, and learn to de-centre the human individual. Teaching changes the innovative product model to one where innovation is internalized in active subjects as students.

In particular, EH rests on the requirement that we participate in the world as we find it through learning and practice. It becomes about being ‘an effort to inhabit the difficult space of simultaneous critique and action’ (Rose, et al. 2012). Thus teaching should be understood ‘as action and the classroom as ‘the field’’ (Tripp, Muzzin, 2005; Hutchins 2012). Innovative teaching points towards the development of practice- and field-based learning particularly within the environmental humanities where experiential learning must be a central component if we are to apply our knowledge towards change.

Growth
From growth to degrowth

Research impact is often defined in relation to its contribution to economic growth measured in GDP. Yet the agenda of environmental humanities is at the very least critical of, if not outright oppositional to, economic growth as an overarching societal goal, since unfettered growth lies at the heart of the environmental crisis, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and resource depletion. So should the value of our research be measured in relation to it? Since, as economist Tim Jackson states, ‘Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries’, such a query is often deemed ridiculous. Particularly for researchers who must comply with the economistic boundaries of grant awarding bodies and funding agencies. Yet taking environmental humanities seriously points to the need to articulate this very question. The concept of ‘degrowth’ is emerging as one of the key modes by which environmental humanities is expressing this call for alternative practices (see Emmett and Nye 2017 and Nelson and Schneider 2018). This should apply to ways that research impact is defined too.

The ‘degrowth’ movement calls for relinquishing ambitions for growth, pursuing instead the aims of a steady-state economy. This is motivated both by the material reality of a drastic slowing-down of global economic growth as a contemporary sustained trend, combined with ecological and social limitations, including the fact that economic growth has increasingly failed to deliver on its promises of improving collective wellbeing, apparent in rising mental health issues, growing social inequality, and mounting ecological disaster. The Research and Degrowth community in Barcelona defines sustainable degrowth as a ‘downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet’. What if research impact was measured in relation to contributing to such a downscaling of growth, producing happier, healthier, more productive and connected people and communities in the process? How would this redefine our research questions, practices and outputs? One of the main outcomes would be a refocus on a more expansive conception of wellbeing as intrinsic to the values of a degrowth economy, and therefore a central measure of our research impact.

The notion of human (and more-than-human) wellbeing is a cornerstone principle of degrowth economics. This is perhaps unsurprising since the degrowth movement has grown in traction alongside ideas of alternative measurements to economic growth, such as the ‘Gross National Happiness Index’, adopted also by the UN’s World Happiness Report. In June 2016, the OECD committed itself ‘to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts’. At least rhetorically, wellbeing seems to be all the rage. This is also the case within the Higher Education sector. In August 2018, the UK Minister for Education, Sam Gymiah, said that the role of the University is no longer simply the ‘training of the mind’ but that promoting and ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of its students should be at the heart of its mission. Despite this focus on wellbeing as core to societal progress, research impact frameworks are yet to catch up. How might we think about research impact to focus on the wellbeing that it generates – from the wellbeing of the researcher themselves to the wellbeing of the organizations, communities, and societies that the researcher is part of – as part of a degrowth agenda? What cascade effects might this have on questions of precarity and the flexibilization of academic labour? Environmental humanities, that places questions of value, relationality, cultural ethos, and quality of life at the centre of its agenda, points urgently towards replacing growth with degrowth as an explicit research impact assessment framework to propel new practices to these ends.

Towards environmental humanities impact…

Our exercise in speculative engagement with the notion of research impact leaves us feeling hopeful and also alert to how things stand today. We recognise that currently we have to work within the boundaries of possibility which we inhabit. But as environmental humanities teaches us – imagination, wondering, posing the ‘what if…?’ question is the beginning of narrating new worlds into being. We look forward to a time where inhabited movement, ecological ability, innovative teaching, and degrowth – with their combined attention to wellbeing, care, relationality, and ethics – are core aspects of how we think about and measure the impacts researchers make on the world.

How Forests Think: Toward a Beyond-the-Human Anthropology, Eduardo Kohn

In other words, the flux of living thoughts is the ongoing signifying ecology that is life.

This review is written by Daniele Valisena

Do dogs dream? What do those dreams tell about us? Why should it matter to us? And who is “us”? Those are but some of the questions that Eduardo Koch learnt to address from the Runa Puma people in Avila, on East Ecuador Amazonia. “How Forests Think” is a book about finding back the common ground; a common ground which is both material and spiritual, human and animal; a common ground that belongs to the ones who are still alive as well as to the ones who are now dead. The book, which is the result of the many years spent by the South American anthropologist together with the Runa people, can be ascribed as an environmental humanities work, though the author does not state it. Nonetheless, in the introduction the author writes that one of his goals is “neither to do away with the human nor to re-inscribe it, but to open it”. What does he mean with opening “the human”? And how does that relate with dogs’ dreams? The point he wants to stress is that both humans and dogs are in a relationship, as all the living beings do. To criticize the Cartesian divide and the human exceptionalism which spurs from it means to change western scholars point of view and to start seeing as a runa puma – a were-jaguar – which is both human and non-human, dead and alive, corporeal and transcorporeal. All Living beings are signs – according to Koch, which gets this from the American philosopher Charles Pierce, the founder of semiotics –, which means that they are all ongoing relational process of signification. From this ontologically egalitarian standpoint, Koch elaborates a phenomenology of life that is built upon the infinite relationships and encounters that unite human with all other living beings. Those are all selves in that they interpret and react to any socio-environmental interaction they participate to and co-produce. The co-production of signifying relations of which Koch talks about can be framed as well as an ecological network that is the result of the bodily and affective trajectories of all the living beings. Those trajectories are in Ingoldian terms the “waypoints” of the semiotic process that is life.

Although the manuscript is the result of a “human and more-than-human ethnography”, and thus easier to approach for anthropologists, the book’s theoretical grounding is heavily informed by Charles Pierce philosophy and semiotic theory. Some readers might find this semiotic structure a bit heavy, especially since it is mostly enunciated in the first chapter. But with some patience the reader will find her reward in the next five chapters.

For Runas, dogs’ dreams can be interpreted and dogs partake the same spirit that inhabits humans. Hence dogs’ dreams matter to Runa Puma and to all humans because, differently from language driven epistemology, those dreams are part of the relational signification process that is life. Life is then the ensemble of all the threads of living beings and their thoughts. In other words, the flux of living thoughts is the ongoing signifying ecology that is life. Very much alike Donna Haraway’s “being together with”, the “ecology of selves” that Koch illustrates offers to environmental humanities scholar an ethnographical account and some theoretical tools to investigate more-than-human ecologies and their disruption, and to walk together in the common living ground of the anthropocene. Quoting the author, “being alive – being in the flow of life – involves aligning ourselves with an ever-increasing array of emerging habits. But being alive is more than being in habit [… and it can also be] a product of disruption and shock”. In relation to the anthropocenic totality which annihilates responsibility and magnify in geological term humanity, the ecology of selves that Koch interpret and give voice to can hence offer a different form of enchantment, which opens to more responsible and partaken ways of inhabiting life.

 

Be sure to check out the ENTITLE blog – a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

Entitle blog is a collaborative writing effort that looks at the world through the lens of political ecology. For us, Political Ecology is a perspective that seeks to understand who is involved in, and who benefits or loses from, how our environment is produced and reproduced.

It was founded in 2014 by fellows of the European Network of Political Ecology (ENTITLE) as an outlet to share, reflect on and discuss research and activist experiences, observations, methodologies, news, events, publications, art, music and other themes and objects related to political ecology.

Toxic Bios is a project at the EHL, lead by Marco Armiero and funded by Seed Box. The project page can be visited here!

Maria di Buono, wife of Michele Liguori, the policeman working in the Land of Fires that died of cancer. Photo by Giovanni Mussolini during the story recording session hosted by Women of August 29 social movement in Acerra (Italy). From the blog post: Toxic Bios: A guerrilla narrative project mapping contamination, illness and resistance 

Goodbye Giacomo!

Last day at the Divison! We will miss you Giacomo.

On December 1 we said goodbye to our fellow guest researcher Giacomo Bonan who has been working with the EHL on a C.M Lerici visiting scholarship during the fall. Giacomo’s expertise is the Alps, and together with Stefano Morosini (who is a visitor within the same scholarship) he held the brown bag seminar “Mountains and Mountaineering in the Alpine Space between XIX and XX Century – Two Environmental Humanities Case-Studies” in late November this year.

If you are interested in the research Giacomo is doing you can read his publications and follow his profile on Academia.net

This was Giacomo’s second visit at the Divsion, and even though he got a position back in Italy, we certainly hope that he will be back to visit us soon again. Not just because we got to drink wine on the day that he left, but mostly because he has become a dear colleague to many of us.

Occupy Climate Change (OCC!)! 

instead of studying the resilient subjects, we should “identify the actors and processes that produce the need to build resilience in the first place” (ibid.)

Northwest Washington, Washington, United States
Shot on Pennsylvania Ave near the Capitol. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/cpAKc-G6lPg

We are happy to announce that the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory recently received a positive message from Formas. The project Occupy Climate Change!, proposed by Marco Armiero, is awarded almost 900.000 euros over three years. 

“OCC! explores how urban communities can respond to Loss and Damages by investigating new and insurgent citizenship practices and new types of knowledge. Focusing on the practices and experiments of grassroots organizations across different cases (New York, Rio, Istanbul, Naples, Stockholm), it aims to identify how these diverse, dynamic, self-organised responses to loss undo or embrace damage. This endeavor requires a critical appraisal of the highly contested narratives of societal resilience (Kaika, 2017). As Kaika argues, instead of studying the resilient subjects, we should “identify the actors and processes that produce the need to build resilience in the first place” (ibid.), engaging critically with the material basis reproducing injustice.” Summary taken from the project application, written by Marco Armiero.

To kick off this project a coffee talk together with Doreen Stabinsky is planned for late November this fall. Please visit the lab’s  Facebook page for more news, event updates and interesting articles.