Episode 5

full
Published on:

5th Mar 2021

Why We Need the Environmental Humanities

Humanities scholars are at the forefront of the response to climate change. In this show Amanda Anderson talks with two influential and innovative scholars in the field of the environmental humanities: Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian who studies the arctic North, and Macarena Gomez-Barris, a cultural critic whose work focuses on the Global South. Topics include the environmental justice movement, extractivism, ecotourism, and the nature-culture divide.

Transcript

Transcript
Amanda Anderson:

From the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, this is Meeting Street. I’m Amanda Anderson, the show’s host and Director of the Institute.

Amanda Anderson:

Since the turn of the 21st-century something that goes by the name of the Environmental Humanities has emerged in many institutions of higher learning, spawning new initiatives, academic centers, journals, and curricular programs. In today’s show, I talk with two scholars about the significance and shape of this new multidisciplinary field.

Amanda Anderson:

We also discuss their own individual and distinctive commitments to environmental work within and beyond the academy. I will first talk with Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian here at Brown University whose research has centered on the arctic North; my second guest will be Macarena Gómez-Barris, a cultural critic and Director of the Global South Center at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

Amanda Anderson:

We hope our conversations with these two scholars will provide an orientation toward the many forms of environmental thinking and practice that exceed the parameters of environmental science, or any traditional conception of environmental studies. It is the premise of this show that we need the environmental humanities if we are to understand and confront the challenges of our changing climate.

Amanda Anderson:

Let me now welcome my first guest. Bathsheba Demuth teaches in the Department of History and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. She also participates in an initiative at Brown in the Environmental Humanities. Her 2019 book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, traces the interwoven cultural, political, and natural history of a complex Arctic ecosystem.

Amanda Anderson:

It is an innovative, hybrid, multiple-award winning book that the novelist Amitav Ghosh has called “a historian’s Moby Dick.” Bathsheba’s work has also appeared in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the Boston Globe, among other venues. Bathsheba, welcome to Meeting Street.

Bathsheba Demuth:

Thank you, Amanda. It’s great to be here.

Amanda Anderson:

So tell us a little bit about Floating Coast, which the subtitle describes as an environmental history. In what ways do you think the form or conception of this book is distinctive?

Bathsheba Demuth:

That’s a great question. So it’s a history of the part of the world that geographers call Beringia, which if you think about a map is where the very far northeastern part of Russia almost meets the very far northwestern part of Alaska. So there’s just about 50 miles separating the two continents there. And it’s a place where the ecology and geology on both sides is very similar. Culturally, there are long connections and indeed common indigenous languages and much back and forth between these two parts of the world. And it’s really not until the 20th century that they’re split between American style capitalism in the United States and Soviet style socialism on the Russian side of the Bering Strait.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And what interested me in this book and in this part of the world where you have this ecological and cultural and geographical continuity through space is to think about how these two modernist ideologies come to try to make it home or really to try to make these northern extremes part of their projects in the 20th century.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And in the process of getting into telling that story and doing your archival work, it ends up being a story that’s actually told, not just through this particular place, but through the particular biomes and ecologies that become particularly focal points for European colonization. So the marine spaces where whales are the beginning of the story, and then moving on to coastal animals and then out onto tundra species that really collect the interest of both Russian and American attempts to turn these places into part of their imperial projects.

Amanda Anderson:

That’s fascinating, listening to you describe it. What disciplinary methods does the book employ? Is it fully within the domain of academic history or even environmental history, or does it draw on other disciplines or practices or genres?

Bathsheba Demuth:

So there’s a quote from Gertrude Stein on the side of Brown’s English department that says “then there is using everything,” which is really how I feel about both the methods and those sources for this particular book. It draws on a lot of different traditions. It’s certainly written very much within history. I wrote it as a doctoral student in history, so its primary methods come from the ways in which historians tend to try to make narratives about the past, which is looking to archives and to oral histories and to other kinds of sources.

Bathsheba Demuth:

But I think as an environmental historian, that “other kinds of sources” category can be very broad. In my case, it included thinking about the ecology of the region as Western ecologists understand it, as marine biologists understand the behavior of animals like bowhead whales, but also the ways in which Indigenous knowledge traditions understand the places where they live and have originated and come to understand the world and particularly in relationship to some of these key animal species.

Bathsheba Demuth:

So both of those knowledge traditions are very important — both the scientific and the Indigenous — to the way that the book is framed. And then on top of that, it’s a book that draws from my own experience, living in the far North for a long time and visiting many of the places that are in the book, which I think is probably not unusual for environmental historians to feel like because they are writing about places they need to at least have seen them or have some sense of what they smell like and feel like, but in my case also came from a desire to write a book that could communicate to an audience beyond the academy.

Bathsheba Demuth:

So this is certainly a book that’s doing work for academic historians and hopefully for other people in the environmental humanities in an academic sense, but also looks to audiences that might not regularly deal in words like entanglement or some of the more theoretical terms that I hope to show rather than tell.

Amanda Anderson:

Let's turn to the larger question of how your work might represent or fit into this larger rubric of the environmental humanities. During the last decades of the 20th century, discrete humanistic fields, such as environmental ethics, environmental history, and ecocriticism began to emerge, each of these linked to specific disciplines: environmental ethics arose in philosophy, environmental history within history, and ecocriticism across literature departments. More recently, as I mentioned in the show’s introduction, the more encompassing rubric of the environmental humanities has developed. How would you define or describe the environmental humanities and how would you account for its rise?

Bathsheba Demuth:

So defining the environmental humanities is something that a class that I co-taught with another professor here, Lukas Rieppel, our graduate seminar, spent the entire semester trying to come up with a definition for. So it’s not an easy task, but generally speaking, to me it’s a term that has come to encompass people who are not trained in the natural sciences, but are deeply invested in thinking about the relationship between human beings and the greater-than-human world that we inhabit.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And it’s true, both of social sciences and people in the traditional humanities disciplines, that somewhere between the past 50 to 30 years and I think with increasing kind of acuteness in the last two decades, those questions — of how we should relate to the world that we inhabit, and how do we think about ethics that goes beyond the human, and how do we think about ways of artistic or aesthetic representation that are able to encompass other than human things in ways that aren’t just romantic, or how do we tell histories that are more complete by including the forces and events that are not necessarily defined in human terms — all of those have really bubbled to the fore.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And I think they have done so for a couple of reasons, the most obvious of which is that I think we’re all thinking about the environment more. If you read a newspaper, even somewhat regularly, the increasing urgency of climate change is pretty hard to avoid. It’s gone from being something that seemed theoretical and distant to something that’s actually changing people’s lives in real time.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And I think that in addition to climate change, some other issues that are related to it, but not entirely subsumed by it like the rate of extinction, issues to do with how we treat marine spaces, all of these have become more available for people to think with. And therefore, at least for me, but I think it's true of many colleagues also, there’s a set of questions that humanists and social sciences are really set up to ask about, you know:

Bathsheba Demuth:

Where did we get ideas about what nature is? How do we think about what a good life is? What are the ways in which these ideas have changed? How do market forces influence those things? What are other kinds of economic systems that have existed in the past? And these are, of course, questions that intersect with scientific understandings of climate change, but are also trying to think about these sort of big humanist questions about what it is to be a person and do that well.

Amanda Anderson:

That's extraordinarily helpful. Do you think there are any problems with the term environmental humanities? Does it have any sort of disadvantages or limitations or distortions built into it?

Bathsheba Demuth:

I think there are a couple of ways in which it might feel limiting, although as with all of these terminological debates, it really depends on how you’re defining your terms. But I think for one thing, many people in the environmental humanities are actively interested in trying to displace human beings as the center of the stories that we narrate in our various fields. And so, therefore to have humanists in the title can undo some of the intellectual work.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And I think there’s also a way in which the history of studying what is human has often been an exclusionary practice not just of other species — right, because it certainly comes out of a hierarchical tradition of understanding human beings as the culmination of something, be it divine or evolutionary, and very particular as a result — but also one in which not all homo sapiens have been considered human in a full form, certainly not as political actors.

Bathsheba Demuth:

Right, you know, the long history of people being excluded because of their gender or their race or some other marker, I think, dogs the term a little bit and in ways that humanists are fully aware of and discuss with great eloquence at length, but I think it is arguable that perhaps the environmental — you know, whatever you put after “environmental” could be more capacious.

Amanda Anderson:

I think that’s a hugely important point that you’re making, and you often see in characterizations of the environmental humanities or essays that seek to introduce the term, you see this double move: on the one hand, an emphasis on — it’s very self-conscious, but — an emphasis on the importance of the human experience of climate change, the importance of understanding the cultural and political, and variably cultural and political, dimensions of environmental conditions and challenges — on the one hand; on the other hand, there’s a strong commitment to de-centering the human and to breaking down the nature-culture divide.

Amanda Anderson:

And I think those two things really have to be held together. That connects up with another question I wanted to ask you, which is about the term “environmental justice.” That term has been an important element in academic discussions about environmental curricula and environmental research. Has the concept of environmental justice deepened or strengthened the study of environmentalism more generally, and if so, how?

Bathsheba Demuth:

That’s a really great question and it’s one that I have come to really appreciate more fully actually in teaching undergrads here... the ways in which in the past, I think, there have been two parallel and often not productively intersecting conversations about what we might call environmentalism, right, a desire to, at the most basic, think about the inclusion of nonhuman spaces and species and beings in our decision-making.

Bathsheba Demuth:

One strand of environmentalism, and the one that I think is actually really formative to early ecopoetics and certainly to early environmental history, is one that’s really heir to the American tradition of thinking about conservation. And if you think about organizations like the Sierra Club, the writings of really seminal figures like John Muir, these are projects that think about the wilderness as spaces that are best when they have no human beings in them, and when human beings interact with them, it’s usually a white male explorer type, who goes into them to get some sort of spiritual fulfillment. It's a very narrow post-frontier US understanding of how we should conserve some spaces from economic exploitation essentially.

Bathsheba Demuth:

Which is very different than the environmental justice tradition, which has a couple of different roots in the United States, and certainly it has many different roots globally — I’ll probably stick to the United States just for brevity — one of which moves very much out of the civil rights movement and in the late 60s and the 70s, when sociologists — and I think particularly important here would be scholars like Robert Bullard — start identifying the ways in which kinds of environmental harm or lack of access to green spaces or parks or other environmental goods are coded racially. And a lot of this has to do with studies of pollution and where the worst byproducts of modern industrial capitalism are dumped or are produced and which communities bear those harms. And in the United States, those harms very much follow a color line.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And so the environmental justice movement is one that’s focused on mitigating those harms and correcting the ways in which the history of capitalist production in the United States has scarred certain communities more than others. And in that sense, it looks really different than the desire to keep national parks full of bison. They’re discussions that aren't necessarily on parallel.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And if you think about the ways in which Indigenous nations in the United States have been arguing for sovereignty and protection of their lands, those are often in direct conflict or pushing back on that lone white male gazing upon nature vision of the early Sierra Club — and the Sierra Club has come a long way on this — but that wilderness model has really been troubled by people who want to be able to live in those landscapes and do so responsibly rather than simply stay outside them.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And I think that the emphasis on environmental justice, which includes things like dealing with the petrochemical plants in Louisiana, or dealing with the water crisis in Flint, and simultaneous with Indigenous struggles to maintain sovereignty and to have that sovereignty actually mean control over what the environment will look like, bring a lot to the discussion of environmentalism as just something you do on the weekends in your hiking boots and polar fleece.

Bathsheba Demuth:

They are movements that are about: “these are the places that we live in and how do we live in them in ways that are not harmful to human beings and are not harmful to those environments? And how do we make sure that in creating a society with lots of modern industrial wealth, the burdens of the byproducts don't fall inequitably?”

Amanda Anderson:

That's a fascinating history and I hadn’t really understood the way in which it contrasted with the conservation movement. So that’s really helpful to hear. Switching topics here and moving to sort of our current conditions, the condition of the COVID-19 pandemic. Does an adequate response to the pandemic require the environmental humanities, and if so, how?

Bathsheba Demuth:

That’s a great question, and I think, certainly it includes or should include the medical humanities. And I think that we’re very much poised at the moment where that becomes so very clear as the vaccine possibilities become real and for the good of the collective, we need people to believe in the capacity for this vaccine to actually be effective and to not make you ill.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And that of course is a question that is partly one of the vaccine itself and its developers having done what appears to be a really good job, but it’s also a question of: how do you communicate that to people effectively? And I think folks who work in public health and in the history of medicine are very aware that those are human questions and they are very engaged with particular communities' histories of medical intervention and public health interventions.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And they have to do with particular communities’ experience of recent politics — and I think that particular sub field, or splinter field, or related field to the environmental humanities, to think about the history of medicine and anthropologies of medicine.

Bathsheba Demuth:

I also think though that the COVID-19 crisis makes clear the ways in which human environmental activity is pushing into ecologies that are going to make the rise of these pandemics more likely and that is a place where the environmental humanities is, along with the natural sciences, very important in terms of thinking about how do we create societies where the pressure to live on the edges of forests that might contain the species that contain the COVID-2024, whatever the next thing that’s going to cross over between species, is going to come from.

Bathsheba Demuth:

And those are partly questions of politics and equity in the sense that it’s often people who don’t have a lot of other choices who end up doing that movement into environments that have species that could make this jump.

Amanda Anderson:

So as a last question, I want to ask you what you're working on now. I mean, Floating Coast has been a huge success and clearly many years of work went into it. I’m curious to know, where you're turning your attention right now, as a scholar and as an environmentalist?

Bathsheba Demuth:

So I am very slowly, partly because of COVID and partly just because historical scholarship moves slowly, turning eastward from the Bering Strait and going inland along the Yukon River watershed, and the next project that I’m just starting to work on and starting to work with some collaborators in Alaska and Yukon is about the ways in which different indigenous and then Russian and British Imperial, and now American and Canadian nation-state/political formations have understood their relationship with non-human spaces and species and other entities of various kinds politically.

Bathsheba Demuth:

So how do you incorporate caribou, or moose, or fish, or watersheds in their entirety in your political decision-making? And can you do it through the language of rights, the rights for nature, or animal rights, rights to land and sovereignty discussions, or do you do it through other sorts of mechanisms and cosmologies that recognize the importance and the reciprocal relationships between humans and the environments that they live in?

Bathsheba Demuth:

And if that sounds like a view from 30,000 feet, that’s because I am still at the view from 30,000 feet. COVID-19 pulled me back from doing some archival and field work up North this past March. And so I have been picking away at what can be done remotely, but I’m really looking forward to that vaccine kicking in.

Amanda Anderson:

Well, thank you so much. I mean, the work that you’re describing is so rich and so important, and it’s just been a pleasure having you on the show and hearing you reflect also on these larger questions that have to do with the work we do as scholars, both individually and collaboratively. Thank you so much.

Bathsheba Demuth:

Thank you, Amanda.

Amanda Anderson:

We now turn to our second guest, Macarena Gómez-Barris, and to the geographical and environmental complexities of the southern hemisphere, particularly within the Americas. Macarena chairs the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where she is also the founder and director of the Global South Center.

Amanda Anderson:

Originally trained in sociology, Macarena is a cultural critic whose work engages environmentalism, race, queer and decolonial theory, and broad questions addressing politics and art. She has written several books, including her widely read 2017 book, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Macarena, welcome to Meeting Street.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

Thank you so much, Amanda, for having me today.

Amanda Anderson:

So it's a pleasure to have you here, and I'm excited to talk about the work that you've done that goes into the area of environmental humanities. But first, I'd love to hear you just tell us a little bit about the mission of the Global South Center.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

Yes, well, the Global South Center is a center I founded and co-direct currently with a fabulous group of artists, activists, and scholars, and we’re upon Lenape territory here in Brooklyn, New York, and also within the private art school called Pratt Institute along the East River. And I think it’s very important to specify where we’re at and localize what it is that we’re doing.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

But our mission really is to center the experiences and practices of those from the Global South, of migrants, of Afro-descendant and Indigenous peoples and communities of color within the Global North, suggesting that actually the answers to our current crises are all there within that wealth of those communities. And more specifically, we connect artists, activists, thinkers, makers, and designers into dialogues and activities to build the world that we want to inhabit and thrive in and think together and be together beyond the colonial divide.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And the way we do this is through study, through collaborative research projects, through events, and through training. For instance, last year, our social media lab hosted a conference that supported activist scholars and their research, training each other on new media technologies. And this was all very much in relational connection, to think about both social impact and visibility.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

We’re working on a new project on ocean plastics in the Global South, and that’s concerned with designs and approaches to address toxicity and plasticity in waterways. And really, since our founding in 2017, we’ve hosted over a 100 artists, scholars, and activists, and work centering questions of climate justice, abolition, decolonization, and conversations that imagine routes out of extinction. So, that’s the work of the Global South Center.

Amanda Anderson:

That’s an amazing description of an extraordinary mission. They’re just so many dimensions involved in it. It sounds also inspiringly collaborative. Your book, The Extractive Zone, is particularly important in its bringing together of environmental scholarship and work on the legacies of colonialism. So what exactly is extractivism and why is this an important concept for environmental thought?

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

I do think it’s very important and I would define extractivism very simply as — maybe not so simply — as the colonial theft of non-renewable resources from racialized communities and geographies that have a kind of biodiversity to them. And historically, we often have thought of non-renewables as timber or below-the-ground oil reserves or gold, silver, tin, minerals, et cetera, as spaces where there’s this paradox of plenty or these geographies that are sometimes called as being both blessed, right, but as also the resource curse.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And in terms of quantifiable measures of resource richness, these areas tend to also overlap with geographies that have the highest poverty indices as well as low health outcomes for human communities. But these are also problematic ideas since it tends to reproduce indigenous and black majority spaces as extractable locations.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So all of this is linked in my work, and I think at the most basic level, extractivism is primitive accumulation in a relationship to dispossession, and it takes place in the Global South as well as in marginalized communities in the Global North.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And I think in my own work what I've done is to discuss this in terms of resources, certainly, but also to incorporate how Indigenous and Afro-descendant knowledges and bodies are also sites of primitive accumulation, of extraction, such as black somatic labor, right, the black somatic labor it took to power the sugar and cotton plantations in the Deep South of the United States and the Caribbean.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So I think extractivism, for me and in America, certainly, is a term that does a lot of heavy lifting to help us understand this latest form of capitalism and how it’s linked back to colonial capitalism, and what the terms are upon which one can begin as a collective to claim one’s own labor in relationship to that which has been extracted.

Amanda Anderson:

Thank you. That’s a very powerful analytic concept. In general, I think that much of the work that you do is accomplished through what I would call distinctive, rigorous concepts or methods, ones that push beyond established ideas, knowledge conventions, or disciplinary boundaries.

Amanda Anderson:

For example, and this is in your subtitle, but you very deliberately use the term social ecologies, and it becomes clear that this is not simply a metaphor. What work does this term do? And what does it allow you to capture or insist upon?

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

Well, thank you for picking up on that term, Amanda, and thinking with me about this term, because I think it’s actually the antidote term, if you will, for extractivism. So if you have extractivism as this rapacious form of primitive accumulation and dispossession that’s deadened by colonial capitalism, then there’s also this alternative source of power — and the source of power that is communitarian maybe.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So social ecologies is a term that's already doing some work, that's pushing us to a kind of creativity to make social and political connections between seemingly disparate communities and to see how, actually, it’s the earth’s resources that tether us.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So really here, how to think and act in a world of profound interconnectedness, perhaps it's even a kind of ethical principle or a mixed space for that. And for me, there’s a strong illustration of this in the work that artists, scholars, activists can do tethering together. Carolina Caycedo, who I feature and talk quite a bit about in The Extractive Zone is an artist, but she also happens to be from communities along the Cauca region, along the Magdalena River in southwestern Colombia.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And she brings into the space of the gallery the artisanal fishing net and asks participants to see themselves — you know, around this net and pulling the net tight — as connected, say, to the space of extraction where the hydroelectric company is setting up to power the urban space. So this kind of interconnections at multiple levels, alternative imaginaries of power, social power, I think, is what I'm really trying to get out with this term “social ecologies.”

Amanda Anderson:

You know, another effect of the term, which is a little more basic, but I think kind of important, is that it’s participating in the general insistence on breaking down the nature-culture divide in work on environmentalism. I mean, it’s doing a lot more than that. It’s really focused as you so carefully say on multiple forms of interrelation. But I think it disallows an attempt to separate nature and culture as well.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And I think that’s an important point because this long and deep research process that was The Extractive Zone really taught me that communities themselves that are living alongside the river do not see themselves, for instance, as separate from the river. So there are many sayings about, “we are not just living from the river, we are the river.” That kind of idea.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And what I'd like to suggest with my work alongside these communities is that human and non-human or inhuman communities have always lived in these deep interdependent relationships, so, cultivating each other in many ways, yes.

Amanda Anderson:

That's lovely. What kind of methodology do you believe is best suited to both capture, but also respond to the complexities of the current ecological situation?

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

Well, I think the question of methodologies is one we could talk about for an entire podcast, but for me, there’s not a unitary methodology that I’ve worked with. I really start with questions about colonial afterlives first and try to also form deep and abiding relationships within spaces or communities of study to be accountable to those I’ve had the privilege to study, learn from, to advocate on behalf of, as comrades.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

To me, it's about a kind of working alongside, being embedded within, listening carefully to, paying close attention to, talking for long hours into the night. And I think there’s ways in which our pedagogies and critical humanities and the critical social sciences can respond better to our times by being open to play, to innovation, to experimentation, to bleeding boundaries, and really asking the questions first and then finding a method or methodologies that respond and that are in relationship to communities of struggle. That to me seems to be the real impetus.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And I think it’s very important to think about art, aesthetic practices, modes of social choreographies I talk a lot about as social movements — how we move otherwise, how we live otherwise — as part of this environmental humanities. And certainly, my latest work... I’m now working on oceans and sea edges pretty deeply… and that work is really teaching me that we have to raise this question of the colonial Anthropocene over and over again, that is, not to create a new terminology to the Anthropocene, but to modify the Anthropocene so that we understand that there’s a long arc of war against the earth that began during colonialism.

Amanda Anderson:

So one of the aspects of your book that I found fascinating were the discussions of ecotourism and spiritual tourism. Could you talk a little bit about whether you think these practices are generative for advancing intercultural and geopolitical knowledge and understanding, or whether they pose problems?

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So thank you for asking that question. I think it gets at some of the roots of my work and my research. And one of the ways I address spiritual tourism in The Extractive Zone is to suggest that, in fact, it is a huge problem that is actually predicated upon Indigenous peoples and territories in ways that have produced gentrification, that have dispossessed indigenous communities, and that has romanticized the figure of the indigenous person or the native by playing Indian to use Deloria’s term there.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And I also talk very extensively about ecotourism, and the way I think I'm thinking about both of these practices now is it's completely dependent on what's happening in each site. For instance, in Eastern Ecuador, in the Yasuni territory, Yasuni Park, which is a conservation site, a very important conservation site, ecotourism is run by indigenous socialist principles.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And those who are asking for people to come into their communities are in charge of the means of production and also of distribution. And so generations of indigenous people there are both conserving territory, but also figuring out ways to have meaningful exchange and deepen knowledge practices.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

But surrounding those ecotourist businesses are also very extractive industries that are about just showcasing the Amazon in ways that make money for European landowners, say, and there’s no commitment or activist dimension there to the oil companies that surround them. So it's quite specific is my point.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And I think the kind of careful attention is a methodology of intention that I try to carry out in my work, and I hope I can do it in subsequent books, but of course, The Extractive Zone took almost a decade to research and write precisely because I wanted to be very careful about the kinds of conclusions that I drew about these kinds of extractive practices.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So you might not be surprised to hear that my answer to your question, Amanda, is: it depends, it depends on location, it depends on the communities, it depends on the kinds of collective principles at work in those kinds of industries.

Amanda Anderson:

Thank you. So as a last question, I’d like to ask you: how have the forms of understanding that you have encountered in your work with indigenous and local populations challenged or changed your own scholarly practice? Whether you have something general that you want to say, or whether you have a story about an experience, it would be really fascinating, I think, for our listeners to hear about how your own experiences have affected your scholarly practice.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

Well, I think to do this kind of work and imagine that one is lifting up submerged perspectives as I call it in a couple of my books... and now I'm continuing to think about that work and that concept in “At the Sea’s Edge”... to lift up submerged perspectives or to lift up those that have been marginalized and those living within some of the most violent spaces on planet earth does take a particular kind of intention.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So it was important for me to go back to the communities that I researched and studied, and to present the work and then present my findings, to share stories from other locations, to make those connections, and then to hear back from those communities, whether or not I had hit the mark as it were or whether I was completely off.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And so I learned a lot about humility. I learned a lot about the importance of not transferring certain kinds of North American US-centric concepts that I carry from the academy into spaces where decolonial activities are very present, where people are actively in the process of decolonizing their territories, of using and thinking with local vernacular knowledges, of trying to understand biodiversity as part of the way in which we function as thinkers and makers as well, and that the experimentation is not a monocultural practice, it’s a practice of biodiversity.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

So all of that enlivened for me how to write up this research, how to think about the kind of future of something like environmental histories or global environmental studies. And it allowed me to really break through and innovate at the level of field work and at the level of language and writing.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

And I think what I really learned is not to be afraid to call myself a writer and that I love language, that language is meaningful, that not to be reductive in our analytics or a language, and that actually helps and furthers the project of lifting submerged perspectives, but also of a kind of biodiverse earth and its features. So, thank you.

Amanda Anderson:

Thank you so much, Macarena, for sharing your ideas, your projects, and your commitments with us today.

Macarena Gómez-Barris:

Thank you, Amanda. It's been really wonderful to talk with you today. Thank you for your interest.

Amanda Anderson:

We hope these two extraordinary scholars have given you some sense of the richness and complexity of the environmental humanities. As our guests have shown this new area of engaged research bridges boundaries between the humanities and the sciences, between practice and theory, and between scholars and communities.

Amanda Anderson:

You can find a transcript of this show, and of our previous shows, on our podcast page. Special thanks to Jake Sokolov-Gonzalez for his assistance with sound editing. We hope you will join us for the next episode of Meeting Street.

Show artwork for Meeting Street

About the Podcast

Meeting Street
Conversations in the Humanities
Host Amanda Anderson explores topics of vital societal interest through conversations with scholars and writers whose voices have helped define issues and shape debates. Special focus on the forms of knowledge that characterize the humanities. Produced by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University.
Support the Cogut Institute

About your host

Profile picture for Amanda Anderson

Amanda Anderson

Amanda Anderson is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English and Director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University. She has written a number of books on modern literature and culture as well as contemporary debates in the humanities. Her most recent books include Psyche and Ethos: Moral Life after Psychology (Oxford, 2018), Bleak Liberalism (Chicago, 2016), and The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory. She is currently leading an initiative at Brown that promotes collaborative teaching and research across and beyond the humanities disciplines.