Therese Asplund: If you see something that doesn´t look right. Call for the Environmental Humanities

“If you see something that doesn’t look right, call the British Transport Police. We’ll sort it”.

This message was called out during my train journey through the British landscape. I’m looking out of the window, thinking – Yes, I see a lot of things that don’t look right. While the train sweeps through the scenery, I see densely packed houses and overpopulated urban areas with few or no green spaces. I can’t help it but my mind drifts away to my own home, in my not-so-densely-populated rural surroundings. And I can’t help but compare this rough and rusty suburban areas of London with the scenery reminiscent of an industrial area with the semi-wilderness of my own backyard. I keep thinking – How come we (and with “we” I refer to humankind) have organised ourselves in overpopulated urban spaces and underpopulated rural spaces?  And as the quality of being human is closely attached to what the natural environment offers us, I wonder how “we” came to the conclusion that – the further away from the city, the cheaper the acreage. And by the way, British Transport Police, it also puzzles me that the backyards that pass my window are full of garbage when the UK is renowned for its beautiful gardens. It doesn’t look right. Can you sort it, plz?

And while I’m at it. There are more things that don’t look right. Did you know that the tourism industry has spotted that the future luxury for overstimulated millennials spells Silence. As there’s a tremendous scarcity of quiet-time and spaces, we are turning to experiences that disconnect us from technology, and reintroduce us to the outdoors. And people are willing to pay for silent experiences. Nature has become the ultimate luxury. It doesn’t look right. Furthermore, a recent UNEP report on emerging issues of environmental concern such as an increasing antibiotic resistance, unknown effects of nanomaterials, and our unsustainable use of ocean resources resulting in a loss of one half of the world’s coral reefs. Did you hear?  One-half of the world’s coral reefs! In the name of humanity, one can wonder. Furthermore, as we ­– global citizens – keep producing and consuming products and services at unsustainable rates, we are altering the climate in ways of which we had never dreamt. And as a consequence, we will experience an increased frequency of floods, droughts and hurricanes resulting in loss of lives, lands, habitats, cultural values and identities. So yes, I see many things that don’t look right. But don’t worry British Transport Police. Environmental humanities will sort this out.

Encompassing a transnational, transcultural and transdisciplinary community of scholars, artists, and writers, the Environmental Humanities address key problems in relation to environmental matters: alienation from environmental issues; negative or apocalyptic framing of environmental problems; compartmentalization of problems; and prominence of a technocratic approach. In doing so, we often include artistic ventures, such as creative nonfiction, poetry, visual art, film, sound art, digital art, architecture, and much more to bring joyful and meaningful experiences to people. In collaboration, we explore ways in which we can transcend borders and transgress boundaries to feel and be inspired by nature.

And while we are turning to experiences that disconnect us from technology, the arts and humanities look with curiosity on what digital technologies can offer. At a one-day event, organised by Digital Arts Performance Practice – Emerging Research and the Institute of Creative Technologies at DeMontfort University, we explored the practices, challenges and opportunities of creating performance work for/with/in Virtual Reality. The last couple of years have seen the development of a number of new examples of VR performance work but many questions are still unexplored: How can VR enable audiences to engage with performance work in new ways, both collectively and individually? How can VR and performance art enable audiences to engage with nature in new ways? What would storytelling of green futures in immersive virtual environments imply? Can VR reintroduce a broader audience to a virtual, yet, outdoor nature? To what aim? Will it make us strive for an alternative way of living? Or will it make us appreciate what we already have?

The environmental humanities engage in how VR techniques and applications may support a “thinking through” or “thinking with” nature, while simultaneously subjecting the technology to humanistic questioning. Because in my view, the environmental humanities community ought to be a counter-movement, resisting, offering a critical voice that problematizes and scrutinizes “digital nature”. Together, we will critically rethink and creatively act to make ‘’digital nature’’ meaningful to the cultures and values of people’s everyday lives. So, if you see something that doesn’t look right. Call for the environmental humanities.

Therese Asplund is Research Fellow at the Department of Thematic Studies, Environmental Change, at Linköping University, and Seed Money Recipient of 2016 for the project Narratives as a Bridge-Building Practice? Exploring Threshold Dilemmas in Climate Maladaptation”