The Ecological Humanities in Action: An Invitation

by Deborah Bird Rose and Libby Robin

© all rights reserved

The ecological humanities works across the great binaries of western thought. We work in a time of rapid social and environmental change, and are committed to cross-cutting the divides that impede our understanding and action. This commitment has a parallel in our work toward social and ecological justice and the future of life. Those of us settler society scholars have another ethical imperative here: to be responsive to Indigenous people’s knowledges and aspirations for justice. The ecological humanities thus engage with connectivity and commitment in a time of crisis and concern.

Open any newspaper or magazine on any day of the week and you will find stories that discuss some aspect of global environmental crisis. The concept of crisis alerts us to the existence of major changes which are running out of control. Most scholars assert that the driving forces in out of control processes are primarily social and cultural, although it is also true that environmental processes can turn into runaway systems driven by their own internal dynamics. Major ecological change, much of it in crisis, is situated across the nature/culture divide. Our academic division between arts and sciences compounds the problems of that divide, inhibiting the work we need to be doing. So too, does the ranking of knowledge systems that places western science at the top of an epistemological ladder; it impedes our capacity for knowledge sharing within fields of plural and diverse knowledges.

While the divisions are pervasive, the possibilities for convergences took a quantum leap in the twentieth century. Major shifts in thought were achieved on each side of the science – humanities divide; many of these shifts are in intellectual tandem, making the work of cross-cutting these divides more obviously necessary, and at the same time offering grounds for greater interest and comprehension. The   major shift is from atomism to connectivity (Mathews 1993), and thus from a belief in certainty to acknowledgement of and creative work with uncertainty (Prigogine 1996). I will briefly summarise these shifts, starting with the work of Gregory Bateson who, in his enormously influential career went back and forth across the divide of arts and sciences, but who started his academic life in my home discipline of anthropology. The new ecology starts with this fundamental assertion: that the unit of survival is not the individual or the species, but is the organism-and-its-environment. It follows from this that an organism that deteriorates its environment commits suicide (Bateson 1973: 436; Harries-Jones 1995: 66). The further implication is that being is inherently, inescapably, and necessarily relational. An ontology of connectivity entails mutual causality: organism and environment modify each other. Relations between organism and environment are recursive, meaning that ‘events continually enter into, become entangled with, and then re-enter the universe they describe’ (Harries-Jones 1995: 3).

Amongst ecologists, whose training is principally in the fields of science, the shifts in thinking are revolutionary: from concepts of climax and equilibrium to concepts of pervasive disequilibrium; from concepts of objectivity to concepts of intersubjectivity; from visions of deterministic prediction to an awareness of fundamental uncertainties such that predictions must be probabilistic (Ciancio & Nocentini 2000). Inherent in this shift is a decentering of the scientist. Frank Egler is reported to have said that ‘ecosystems may not only be more complex than we think, they may be more complex than we can think’ (quoted in Dietrich 1992; 110). This view represents a fundamental shift: from the proposition that incomplete knowledge is an obstacle to be overcome, to the proposition that incomplete knowledge is a condition of any participant in a living system.

The shift in ecology has its parallels in social sciences and the humanities. Critical social theory, in part under the stimulus of feminist theory, entails shifts from universal knowledge to situated knowledges, from monoglossia to heteroglossia, from centred hierarchies to decentred networks, and from structure to motion. Prigogine’s summation of the shift is equally pertinent right across the spectrum of western knowledge paradigms: the shift is ‘from substance to relation, to communication, to time’ (quoted in Midgley 1992:41). The parallels and convergences show us that across the arts/science divide there exists a common ground of radical change with which we can engage.

Furthermore, the humanities and social sciences are increasingly dedicating a portion of their scholarly agenda to the environment. Linked with disciplines, this enlarged agenda gives us environmental economics, environmental politics, environmental anthropology, environmental philosophy, and environmental history, to name a few. Each of these sub-disciplines is making significant contributions to the full arena of how we understand environments, how we understand society, history, democracy, and the future; how we may understand humanity more fully, and how we may intervene in environmental crisis in order to secure a more stable and habitable future. They ask, in short, how we may avoid committing suicide through failure to enact the worldview shattering knowledge that the unit of survival is the organism in recursive and mutually constitutive relationships with its environment.

A major guiding theme is connectivity. The imperative of learning to think about and with connectivity can be operationalised as an imperative to enlarge the boundaries of thought and to enlarge thinking itself – to enhance our ability to think in dialogue and, perhaps, in empathy with others. In line with Hannah Arendt’s (1961) concept of enlarged thinking as thought that takes place in an intersubjective mode, I suggest that enlarged dialogue opens possibilities for inter-cultural, inter-species and other conversations. Since I cannot explore every possible domain, I will spotlight four that I believe are especially pertinent here in Australia. Each is a domain in which new research shows enormous potential, where more research is urgently required, and where there is broad public interest. Each thus offers the possibility for an increased research effort that will achieve new and increasingly sophisticated results, and for new knowledge that can engage the public and influence the future of society and environment.


One direction of the new ecological histories is exemplified in the work of Caroline Merchant (especially her classic The Death of Nature [1980]); she turns critical analysis towards the historical conditions that gave rise to the epistemological foundations of contemporary crisis. Merchant brings ecology to the humanities, and introduces ‘an ecologically informed method of historical inquiry which links changing imagery and language to material change’ (Eckersley 1998: 185). Eckersley sums up Merchant’s contribution to scholarship as ‘the birth of the ecological humanities’ (ibid: 183).

Another direction is the growth of environmental histories, and an amplification of diversity of scale, questions, methods, and forms of public representation. Griffiths and Robin’s Ecology and Empire (1997), for example, is a large-scale view, while others, such as Bonyhady (2000), hold the focus on the nation and ecology. Another approach to ‘nature and nation’ (Robin’s term) is to analyse the uses to which the nation, or politicians, put nature in the past and in the present (Robin 200?). Place is central to many of these studies, and for some scholars place-centred histories directly   involve local people, and provide insight not only into the past itself, but also into the life of the past in the present (Griffiths 2001). Griffiths’s work with forests is now also available on a website offering world-wide access, and interactive participation ( In a similarly community-responsive fashion, Lewis’s (2002) study of major landscape change in the northern savannas works with issues of global change as well as local dynamics, and is intended in part as a working tool for pastoralists. Yet another direction is Libby Robin’s (1998) work on the history of the environmental movement in Australia, and the growth of a ‘scientific aesthetic’ in the defense of landscapes. Much of this work is now being presented to the public in museums as well as in books and reports. The National Museum of Australia’s ‘Tangled Destinies’ exhibition is an excellent new example of bringing ecology, history, place, and people together in three-dimensional analysis that the public can encounter on a daily basis.

As these studies indicate, environmental histories are largely inseparable from place. They connect across scientific, social science, and humanities paradigms, and they have the potential to connect across Indigenous and Settler-descended peoples. Some of the work in this wide field brings Indigenous and settler knowledges together (for example, Lewis 2002), and other work emphasises the contested quality of histories in place (for example, Crawford & Crawford 2003).

Connection with nature and place

Nature is a problematic term, not least for the reason that the nature / culture divide is part of the problem, not the solution. In its problematic, provocative, and violent history, the term continues to challenge us, and for that reason, especially, I continue to use it.

Any question of connection with nature, of organism in environment, is made further problematic in our so-called ‘new world’ settler societies. Our societies are built on a dual war — a war against nature and a war against the natives. As the old Australian saying has it: ‘If it moves shoot it, if it doesn’t move chop it down’. Each war has been devastating. Social reconciliation is vividly present in Australian public discourse, and undoubtedly also within the   minds and hearts of many Australians, settlers and indigenous alike. The war against nature is less vividly present to us, in part because it is consistent with the cultural imperative of human mastery over nature.

The destruction of Australian biota and ecosystems has been immense; much of it is on-going, and much of it is irreversible (for example, see Beale & Fray 1990). We know, for example, of the exterminations (some intentional, many incidental to the project of colonisation), and we know of the ‘acclimatisation societies’ (see Griffiths 1997 on ‘ecological imperialism’). We also know of the entangled histories of conservation, reclamation, preservation, the emergence of a politically powerful Australian environmental movement (see Robin 1998). Almost daily we encounter in the public media highly contested issues of what is ‘best’ for Australian ecosystems, and whose authority is ‘best’ in making decisions about them.

Alongside the specifically environmental issues there a fine body of literature analysing Settler Australians’ relationships with place. I see three main sides to this issue. One is the actual question of belonging in a place where one’s history is short, and which one occupies as the inheritor of violence (for example, Carter 1996, Gibson 1999). These are issues Peter Read (2000) explores beautifully in Belonging . In his earlier work, Returning to Nothing (1996), Read examined the underside of belonging – the vulnerably to which one is exposed when one comes to love a place, a home, a landscape, or a way of life. The tendency may be to imagine connection with nature as something that happens in the bush, but there is also strong new research examining belonging, and interactions with nature, in the city (for example, Mathews 1999, 2000).

A second dimension concerns globalisation and place. Globalisation appears to devalue the local in favour of the global, and to offer connection either in virtual space, or through consumption (that is, through participation in transnational commodity chains). Ecological connectivity works against the virtual and against the commodity imaginary, as well as working against the transience and fragmentation of modern and post-modern globalising society. In the Australian context, Mathews refers to this connection with the local as a process of nativisation. She asserts that ‘every human being has the ‘right’ to resist or overcome the existential alienation of modernity’. Overcoming alienation depends on the right ‘to preserve or restore her relation of belonging to the world through a particular place’ (Mathews 1999: 265).

A third dimension examines ecological connectivity in its embodied form. Malpas’s philosophical investigation of space and place brings the body into space in the most definitive manner. His concept of ‘subjective space’, not unlike Uexküll’s Umwelt but argued from a very different tradition, embeds perspective in embodied spatiality. If we take embeddedness further, the vulnerabilities go deep. Mathews, for example, in her essay on ‘becoming native’ (1999: 245), reminds us that while being native can simply mean being born in a place, she is exploring a deeper engagement with place: to belong to a place, made of its matter, and steeped in its character. Consider, for example, research with white pastoralists in South Australia, Central Australia and North Australia (Fergie 1998, Gill 1998, Rose 2002) which shows that there is a powerful set of metaphors that link people to place. The country ‘gets under the skin’ or ‘gets into the blood’; people become ‘married to’ their country. This is the language of kinship mingled with a language of embodied nativisation. Such permeability opens persons not only to place, but to the substance and history of the place. The country that gets into people’s blood invariably contains the blood and sweat of Aboriginal people as well as settlers. It may contain convict blood, and the remains of humans and non-humans. Embodied connectivity requires settlers to acknowledge our connections with indigenous people and with nature; to acknowledge that we are co-participants in earthly reciprocities of being, becoming, and dying.

Connectivity ultimately allows no free riding. The concept of the global is deeply significant in providing a context for the understanding that consequences displaced are really just consequences deferred. Robyn Eckersley addresses connectivity mediated by risk in her concept of a community of fate. She envisions new transnational and trans-species forms of the state in which some communities are context-specific and are defined by their shared potential to suffer ecological or biological harm (Eckersley nd: 18).

As Eckersley’s work indicates, more inclusive concepts of justice seek to include non-humans within the domain of those to whom rights are owing. The focus need not be on harm, although risk clearly mobilises action. The extension of the concept of rights to non-humans, debated briskly in environmental philosophy for over two decades now, has led to theorising political representation for non-humans, to theorising an ethics of care or an ethics of solidarity across species boundaries (for example, Plumwood 1999, Warren 2000), and to linking social and ecological justice in the context of reconciliation (Rose in press).

The work of these scholars, and many others, indicates that one’s responsibilities toward life might be most properly understood as responsibilities toward emplaced connections. This analysis lifts issues of justice from the level of the individual to a much more interactive level of place and connection. It follows that connectivity will require an enhanced system of human rights as well as animal and ecosystem rights, one that includes not only individuals but relationships.

Connection as a mode of reason

Steven Muecke (1997: 184-5) offers us the view that connection is a way of reasoning that leads us to commitment. He provokes us to decentre (not abandon) Cartesian rationality in favour of a more inclusive set of logics. Connections are non-linear (as well as linear), and representation thus requires non-linear forms. It may be that narrative is the method through which the reason of connectivity will find its most powerful voice. This method offers the profound possibility of telling stories that communicate, invoke, and invigorate connections.

We often hear that ‘we’ – meaning settlers, or westerners, or cybernetic age people – are in need of new stories. We need stories of our place in the biosphere, stories of the human organism as a living moment in connection with environment. We need stories of justice that enlarge our thinking, stories of relationships to place that enlarge our thinking. In settler societies we need enlarged conversations with Indigenous people, not only because we share our homelands with them, but equally because in many areas they already have more expansive and connective concepts of the relationships between humanity and biosphere.

The point I wish to develop is cautionary. We would compound the Cartesian epistemological error if we were to ignore (or forget) that the world already has its own stories. Scientists approach this issue through theories of communication, proposing, for example, that all living things (cells, plants, bladderworts, etc) are expressive communicators (Hoffmeyer 1993). Similarly, the concept of autopoiesis depends on a theory of the communication required for self-renewal and patterned connectivities (Maturana & Varela 1980). In the social sciences and humanities we are challenged to foster an expressivity that is suited to the connectivities we are exploring and communicating, and that is both vigorous and rigorous. Communicative engagement does not offer a license to make up stories. Rather, we need to expand our capacity to tell what Greg Dening calls true stories. The deep imperative is to expand our epistemological repertoire: to find new forms of reason, and to rethink the research capacities of some older forms of reason: the reason of contiguity and association, or metonymy and phenetics (for example, Zimmerman 1996). A further imperative is the continued critique of reason, as Plumwood (2002) has accomplished in a major new study. The imperative, therefore, is part of the emancipation of oppressed knowledges through dialogical inclusion of marginalised western traditions (Plumwood 1993). It is also part of the decolonising of western knowledge in dialogue with other knowledge traditions (Apffel-Marglin 1996).

Indigenous ecological knowledge

Australia is home to a remarkable diversity of systems of knowledge about the ecology of this unique continent. Indigenous knowledge systems and systems based on western scientific tradition have often been seen as the most distant poles on a continuum that ranges from ‘myth’ to ‘fact’. Recent analysis undermines this dichotomy (Scott 1996), and research in Australia shows that Indigenous ecological knowledge on this continent is detailed, localised, and well grounded in empirical observations. In addition, Indigenous knowledge is embedded within a system of ethics that is oriented toward long-term productivity.

Professor Marcia Langton in her recent book Burning Questions (1998) notes that the High Court’s Mabo decision showed the concept of terra nullius to be a legal fiction, and she says:

I suggest that Aboriginal people and their land management traditions have also been rendered invisible in Australian landscapes, not only by legal but also by ‘science fictions’ that arise from the assumption of superiority of Western knowledge over indigenous knowledge systems, the result of which is, often, a failure to recognise the critical relevance of these latter to sustainable environmental management. (Langton 1998: 9)

The sharing of ecological knowledge is an important response to the crises in which our lives are entangled. The sharing can go both ways, for in contemporary Australia there is knowledge on both sides that can help to recover the capacity of systems to nourish human and other forms of life. Langton offers some examples of co-management, and there are numerous others.

It is also the case that indigenous and western knowledge systems are different pathways of knowledge: they are embedded in different worldviews, they are transmitted differently, they organise human action and human authority differently. Aboriginal people bring a large bundle of issues into their conversations about environments, issues that lie outside western concepts of environment. People insist upon talking about them because they hold them to be law. Put another way, the connections between and among living things are the basis for how ecosystems are understood to work, and thus constitute laws of existence and guidelines for behaviour. These connections build upon large and significant amounts of knowledge, and constitute the basis for the sets of responsibilities that can be labelled ecological ethics. In my work on ethnoecology with Aboriginal people, my teachers have refused to cut up the world the way academic disciplines do. They say that connections are what matter.

The Aboriginal philosopher Mary Graham (1999: 105) writes that indigenous cultures of land and place are based on two axioms: the land is the law; and you are not alone in the world. These two axioms can be heard as an indigenous ethic and practice of connectivity. The second axiom – you are not alone – situates humanity as participant in a larger living system. The first – land is law – requires humanity to recognise and submit to the law of the living world.

I give the last word here to my friend and teacher Daly Pulkara (in Rose 2000: 202). ‘We been listen to [your] story. You, you whitefellow, [you] can listen to story too.’ The story he wanted us to listen to is clear but not simple: ‘I tell you: nothing can forget about that Law’.


Ecosystems have their own integrity, their will to flourish. Living things other than humans have their own reasons, their own sentience, their own will to flourish. Our challenge in engaging in new ways of thinking and doing connectivity is to embed the human in the non-human, and to enlarge human conversations so that we may find ways to engage with, learn from and communicate our embeddedness in the world’s own expressivity and will to flourish.

In order for us to make the most of the diversity within the ecological humanities, a further challenge is to communicate. Connectivity is as important for those of us working in the ecological humanities as it is in the areas I have outlined above. In launching this new space for publication and dialogue, we invite you to share your work in all its diversity. We welcome critical and reflective analysis, essays, book and film reviews, research reports, comments and debate. Join the conversation!

Deborah Bird Rose and Libby Robin are at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at The Australian National University


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