Hope in a Time of Crisis: Environmental Humanities and Histories of Emotions

From left to right: Tom Bristow, Cameron Muir, and Thom van Dooren at The University of Melbourne, 17 October 2015. Photo credit: Lilian Pearce.
From left to right: Tom Bristow, Cameron Muir, and Thom van Dooren
at The University of Melbourne, 17 October 2015. Photo credit: Lilian Pearce.

by Tom Bristow, Thom van Dooren and Cameron Muir.

One evening in the driest grasses in the world, a child who was no stranger to her people, asked if anyone could find Hope. The people of parable and prophecy pondered what was hopeless and finally declared they no longer know what Hope was. The clocks, tick-a-ty tock, looked as though they might run out of time. Luckily, the ghosts in the memories of the old folk were listening, and said anyone can find Hope in the stories, the big stories and the little ones in between. So …

                         —From ‘Carpentaria’ by Alexis Wright, 2006, p 12.

In August Tom Bristow posted some thoughts on whether emotions and space are related which developed a number of ideas that emotional geographies and spatial affect theory are contending with. The consequences of reading emotions as integral to all human action (within social and cultural realms) can lead us towards questions about the environment, or a bounded space; in turn, this can lead us to think about our agency and identity, and thus our emotions, in terms of human–environment interdependencies. But, to begin with the emotions rather than a methodology: how might a new sense of hope, and loss, emerge in a discipline where ideas of the more-than-human world and multi-species communities are central, as with the environmental humanities (EH)? Moreover, how might the articulation of hope through ethnographic and historical studies inform emotions theory? At the launch of a new EH research hub at the University of Melbourne, Thom van Dooren and Cameron Muir connected their research findings to ideas of hope, loss and questions of identity to help us take some tentative steps towards answering these broad questions. This blog contextualises and records that discussion.

Tom: Interdisciplinary approaches to ‘hope’

We began by exploring what is meant by ‘environmental humanities’. EH is considerably more than science communication; a lot more than facilitating interfaces between humanities and botany and zoology; and it is more than a novel framing of humanistic inquiries along scientific lines. By interrogating questions about the environment through different humanities disciplines we extend our capacity to think about human culture: we reframe our understanding of life, social and cultural practices, our values and our resources in terms of a more-than-human world, and we rethink our relationships with other species in terms of justice, the legacies and extensions of colonialism and as consequences of cultural exchange. Here, the discipline of history, for example, turns into a multi-species textual discipline; philosophy is an implicitly ethical model of thinking for bringing into relief arbitrary boundaries and humanist standpoints that come up short in terms of emergence, entanglements and intercultural dialogue. Literature turns toward the analysis of life-worlds as both a hermeneutics (a theory of understanding) and a poetics (a theory of expression) that is prepared to accompany the scientific study of the changing Earth system alongside a humanist study of rapid social change.[1]

In EH, we discover shifting subjectivities in the anthropogenically altered biosphere; we expand an impoverished sense of being human as we enter into shifting panoramas of the mutability of life over geological time. We expose the connections between colonialism and the destruction of environmental diversity, the slow violence of global capitalism, the survival and death of biological species and their implications for humanity. Rather than reducing and categorising, we begin to write out thick descriptions (extending and narrating) non-linear emergence, feedback loops, the interdependency between mental ecology and physical ecology. EH takes us into new planes of thinking where questions of indigeneity and the environment, and health and justice issues, are on this side of the critical horizon – one delimited by rapid social and environmental change. Perhaps applied EH, like the work of Thom van Dooren and Cameron Muir, is ushering in an affective account of a new geological age, the Anthropocene, where humans are the main determinant of the environment and the planet, and new historical emotions are unfolding in this space?

Hope is an emotion that suggests the world does not have to be this way. At times, hope can be mobilised to imagine new futures, or to cast a veil on reality in its desire for an alternative state. We might side with Karl Marx in thinking that human beings make history in conditions not of their own making, or with Michel Foucault in thinking that history is made despite whatever our intentions are. So what does it mean to write of hope in an affective state heightened by loss?

We decided to reframe this question from the vantage point of a new discipline. The following questions came into view: can the Environmental Humanities help to create the conditions of possibility for reconstituting hope? Might we track and synchronise morale to accumulate a new environmental hope? Does hope in our ecologically dark times speak to the idea of affect as something saturated by forms of power that are grounded in practice, or that works from below? Is hope, by definition optimistic, a desire combined with anticipation disclosing a politics of promise, or does it temporise an experience of the loss?

In our discussion, Cameron, Thom and I hook onto that last question, particularly with respect to the ways that the environmental humanities clarifies an interdisciplinary space for speaking about our multi-species community (as clarified by Thom) and how it marks the site for and memory of our cultural practices (as understood by Cameron). Ultimately, we consider whether hope looks backwards or forwards in time, and what role memory and history play in this exciting and difficult theoretical and ethical space.

Thom: Hope, care and critique

I’m particularly drawn to Tom’s comment that hope ‘suggests that the world does not have to be this way’. I think that this is exactly right, and it is here that I want to link hope to care and critique. Critique too is the assertion that things might have been, and so still might be, otherwise. This is critique in the sense that Foucault described: a kind of genealogical exploration of contingency, an ‘historical ontology of the present’,[2] that refuses to take for granted assumed categories and frameworks and in so doing opens up new possibilities.[3]

The kind of hope that I am advocating for is a careful one, a practice of ‘care for the future’. Rather than a blindly optimistic groping for something else, it is a grounded and practical work. In this way, my recent thinking on hope has drawn on my past work on care, which itself engages with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s assertion that care is simultaneously an affective state, an ethical obligation and a practical labour.

In this particular piece of work I am interested in the hopes that are generated and nurtured in a small ‘snail ark’ in Hawai’i that is trying to hold onto some of the most endangered snails on Earth. Ultimately, I worry that – despite all the good that these kinds of biodiversity banking initiatives are doing – they may also be utilised by individuals looking to continue business as usual, keen to foster the impression that we have a ‘reliable backup’ of biodiversity so can continue as planned and ‘put things back later’.

The Last Snail (Achatinella apexfulva) Photo Thom van Dooren.
The Last Snail (Achatinella apexfulva) Photo Thom van Dooren.

More broadly, I’m also interested in the odd role that biodiversity banks might play in undermining our moral and imaginative capacity to perceive the pressing crisis of extinction by keeping species that are, for all intents and purposes, ‘extinct’ off the official listings. This situation was driven home for me on encountering what is thought to be the last remaining member of the species Achatinella apexfulva. Despite years of searching, scientists have been unable to find any more. In what sense is this species not already extinct? What moral and emotional difference does it make that we are not required to reckon with this extinction, fully, just yet – that it is being somehow spoon fed to us, incrementally?

These, I think, are some of the dangers of hope that have outlived their usefulness. In dark times, hope can too readily become a form of denial or distraction. There is much more going on here, and I really don’t want to diminish the wonderful work that people are doing in this particular facility and many others like it. Instead, I’m just trying to tune into some of the possible problems raised in these places and ask how we might bank, and hope, in what I take to be better ways.[4]

Cameron: To see that things might be otherwise

It’s encouraging to see Tom and Thom’s reflections on diverse understandings of hope. I gave a 10-minute talk once and at the end an audience member said, “After hearing you speak, I feel that I can’t carry on.” It was an admonishment once I had begun to despair at the hegemony of hope – at the PR-inspired calls for all narratives to end with a certain kind of TED-style feel-good hope; the kind of passive abdication that says everything is okay, our consciences are assuaged, there’s no need to think about responsibility, someone else has it covered; the kind that infantilises adults and says humans have no capacity for strength or resilience, that says when confronted with the reality of ecological destruction and the prospect of tough times ahead, people simply give-up. I don’t think that’s the case. There’s a fine line between the optimism that wills people on in times of adversity and one that eschews reality, one that becomes self-censorship, one that serves the status quo. Hope starts to seem like an emotion designed to comfort the helpless.

The best work in the humanities, even if it is about grim or uncomfortable subjects, inspires people to change their thinking, to want to learn more, to want to avoid faults of the past, to address the legacy of injustice, to talk and organise and act.

Thom was drawn to Tom’s comment about hope and wrote that critique is a form of hope – it ‘is the assertion that things might have been, and so still might be, otherwise’. This resonated with me as a historian. Showing what might have been, and where things come from, is at the core of our discipline. History reveals the foundations of taken-for-granted thinking and the weakness of moral sloganeering that attempts to shut down debate. Greg Dening said, “if my history by story and reflection disturbs the moral lethargy of the living to change in their present the consequences of their past, then it fulfils a need.” History makes it easier to imagine different futures.

Healthy marshes. Photo credit: Cameron Muir
Healthy marshes. Photo credit: Cameron Muir

In a recent talk about the Macquarie Marshes and Australian agriculture I historicised some of the myths about the idea of ‘knowledge deficit’, natural resource management institutions as saviours, and the idea of ‘feeding the world’.

Many of us in the humanities and social sciences, and especially the environmental humanities, have started to ask ‘how do we feed and clothe ourselves without destroying the planet’? I arrived at this question after asking some smaller questions about the place where I was raised, the western plains of New South Wales. This is where the river was too contaminated for us to swim in some summers; where neighbouring townsfolk feared the cotton industry’s chemicals were poisoning them; where graziers refused to speak to irrigators upstream; where droughts sent growers bust, and old men and women mourned their farmer sons lost to the black dog. I thought environmental history might explain something about how these circumstances arose.

Saltbush plains became this. Grasses became extinct. Photo credit: Cameron Muir
Saltbush plains became this. Grasses became extinct. Photo credit: Cameron Muir.

There’s a version of history that is told in natural resource management circles that says after every drought the government built a dam, people only wanted to exploit the rivers, they didn’t know how much damage it would cause, but we know better now, we’re ecologically enlightened – we are the saviours and we’ll fix it. Inga Clendinnen called this type of history a ‘nursery’ version. It is stripped of awkwardness and messiness, and is deployed to support the institution or group that’s telling the story. Clendinnen argued that to maintain functioning civil societies we need true histories with all their lumpiness.

Example of the depth of erosion as a consequence of overstocking. Photo credit: Cameron Muir
Example of the depth of erosion as a consequence of overstocking. Photo credit: Cameron Muir

In William McKell’s story at the Macquarie Marshes, we are confronted with a serving of lumpy history. McKell’s dam-building agenda in 1941 was not about greening the desert. He wanted his reforms to prevent dust storms coming from the plains and soil washing down the slopes and mountains, to diversify agricultural production away from its risky dependence on one or two commodities, to modernise rural Australia and improve living standards in the bush, to encourage farmers to ‘adopt improved practices’, to secure natural resources for long-term development, and to protect unique ecosystems for their aesthetic, recreational and intrinsic values. The silence at the Marshes speaks of the failure of protection versus production, the idea you can fence off the special places you want to keep and sacrifice the rest, and the failure of the idea of balancing economics versus environment in a false zero-sum game.

Scald near the Marra. Photo credit: Cameron Muir
Scald near the Marra. Photo credit: Cameron Muir.

The way we farm has been the primary cause of species loss and, according to the world’s top biological scientists working for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, continues to be ‘perhaps the single greatest threat to biodiversity’. Agriculture has played a significant role in plunging the earth into another mass extinction event, the sixth in its history.

Here are the Marshes as I have seen them.

Macquarie Marshes eroded. Photo credit: Cameron Muir.
Macquarie Marshes eroded. Photo credit: Cameron Muir.

What happened at the Marshes is part of the legacy of natural resource management. Histories that restore the complexity and turmoil of the past ask us to pause for self-reflection; history cautions against the hubris of thinking our solutions are infallible.

‘A cruel death’. Wood engraving by J. Macfarlane. ‘A Cruel Death. Recent Drought in New South Wales’. Published in The Illustrated Australian News (January 12, 1889).
‘A cruel death’. Wood engraving by J. Macfarlane. ‘A Cruel Death. Recent Drought in New South Wales’. Published in The Illustrated Australian News (January 12, 1889).

There is a power in shedding light on the shadow places and dramatising the slow violence of grinding ecological damage. If there wasn’t there wouldn’t be ‘ag gag’ laws; the Big Food lobby in Australia wouldn’t be pushing to make it illegal to film slaughterhouses and any other livestock operations. When we smooth out the wrinkles, when we leave people feeling comfortable, when we strive for the transcendental, we lose something. In an essay for Griffith Review, Maria Tumarkin cautioned, ‘Narrative, when fetishized, can become an evolved and brilliantly disguised way of shutting our ears to what hurts and scares us the most’. How can we get a grasp on what it will really take if we prefer to turn away from the dark?

Tom Bristow is a CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne, and member of the Mellon Humanities for the Environment Observatory at the University of Sydney. His CHE research on contemporary Australian literature explores the bonds between emotional and literary practices. Tom’s interests in personal, felt experience and communities of feeling inform his reading of pastoral’s socio-political coordinates of subjectivity. Taking an expansive sense of self to the question of geography, this research oversteps mind–body dualisms to listen to affective landscapes that qualify and thicken our sense of the habitus.

Thom van Dooren is a Senior Lecturer in the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). An environmental philosopher and anthropologist, Thom helps us to locate an EH critique of human exceptionalism, and to find cogent methodological approaches to multispecies communities, with a particular focus on exploring and re-imagining what, where and how extinction is, and why that matters.

Cameron Muir is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University (ANU) and the National Museum of Australia. His work combines a number of research areas, including but not limited to: world history and transboundary environmental justice, aboriginal history and the history of environment and health. Most centrally, it finds provocative ways to present difficult histories of Australian communities and the environment.

Further Reading

Anderson, Ben. ‘Modulating the Excess of Affect: Morale in a State of “Total War”’, in Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (eds), The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 161–85.

Bristow, Tom. ‘Memory’ in the Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities 5 (2014): 307-311.

van Dooren, Thom. ‘Care’ in the Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities 5 (2014): 291-294.

van Dooren, Thom. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.

Hamilton, Jennifer. ‘Labour’ in the Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 183-186.

Muir, Cameron. ‘Broken’ in the Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities 5 (2014): 287-290.

Muir, Cameron. The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress (London: Routledge, 2014).

Smith, Nigel. on ‘Milton and Hope: The Structure of Feeling in the English Revolution’ at University of Melbourne, August 2014. Watch video here.

Snyder, C. R. ‘The Past and Possible Futures of Hope’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19.1 (2000): 11-28.

Full details of ‘Affective Habitus’ including a recording of Tom Griffiths’ keynote lecture ‘Earthing History’ are available here.

Fiona Probyn-Rapsey reviews Thom’s 2014 publication, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.

Barbara Holloway reviews Cameron’s 2014 publication, The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress.

Frank Oldfield reviews Tom’s 2015 publication, The Anthropocene Lyric: An Affective Geography of Poetry Person Place.


[1] See Tobias Boes, ‘Beyond Whole Earth: Planetary Mediation and the Anthropocene’ Environmental Humanities 5 (2014): 155-170.

[2] Paul Patton, ‘After Critique: Experimentation, Creation, Construction’, in Challenging (the) Humanities, Melbourne, ed. Tony Bennett (Melbourne: Australian Academy of the Humanities in association with Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013), 151.

[3] Michel Foucault, ‘What Is Critique?’, in The Politics of Truth (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997).

[4] This work on ‘the last snail’ has now been published and interested readers can download a copy from Thom’s website.

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