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What Can the Humanities Bring to Environmental Challenges?

Dr Stewart Mottram, a Reader in English Literature who specialises in environmental approaches to literature, reflects on what the Environmental Humanities can tell us about humanity’s past relationship with the environment and present need to rethink this relationship for the future. 

Dr Stewart Mottram
Dr Stewart Mottram

I am sitting in the stylish surroundings of the Anatomiegebouw on the outskirts of Utrecht, listening to a series of talks about the Environmental Humanities. I’m here to represent the University of Hull’s Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships Centre for Water Cultures at a European network meeting for Environmental Humanities research. Here are researchers from centres in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK, together representing a range of Humanities disciplines, from Anthropology and English Literature, to History and Human Geography.

Anatomiegebouw, Utrecht

What unites us is a common interest in using the Humanities to address urgent questions about how our relationship with the environment has changed across time, and how that same relationship now needs to change fundamentally for the future.

What can the Humanities bring to environmental challenges that are so often seen as the terrain of the Sciences and Engineering? In short, we know today’s climate and ecological crises are human-centred problems, so it is natural that we look to human-led solutions to problems that human actions and attitudes have caused. At the core of the Humanities is the study of human cultures and civilisations. Behind all cultures and civilisations is a history of human relations with, and exploitation of, the non-human world. Trees are felled in order to make the paper on which Shakespeare’s plays are printed and the boards on which Shakespeare’s actors walk, and Shakespeare’s plays themselves reflect the rise of capitalism, colonialism, and other schemes to mine, maim, and manipulate the world for human gain.

as well as shining a light on our past relations with the non-human world, the Environmental Humanities can also help us change these relations and find new ways to live well with the world in future

Dr Stewart Mottram

School of Humanities

Behind some of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements lurk dark histories of environmental exploitation and neglect. One of the central tenets of the Environmental Humanities is that there is no ‘natural’ world beyond human cities and society: everything on earth has in some way been shaped by human hands. As the US writer Rachel Carson wrote of the post-war world in her environmentalist classic, Silent Spring (1962), ‘Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world’. Carson was writing on the precipice of a planet all too familiar to us today, a carbon-fuelled world of plastics, pesticides, and nuclear power. But Shakespeare and other historical writers can show the deep roots of attitudes and actions that were catapulting Carson’s generation into the age of the Anthropocene, our very human-centred earth.

The Environmental Humanities can, therefore, help us understand how humanity arrived here, in the age of the Anthropocene. But as well as shining a light on our past relations with the non-human world, the Environmental Humanities can also help us change these relations and find new ways to live well with the world in future. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has called the climate and sustainability crisis ‘the biggest story in the world’ – one that ‘must be spoken as far and wide as our voices can carry, and much further still. … Everywhere. All the time’ (The Climate Book 2022). But what is the ‘story’ we need to tell? The climate science that is the basis for predicted temperature and sea level rises must surely be part of the story, but climate scientists now recognise that ‘this is no longer purely an issue of science’ (Gauld 2020), and that we need to turn to other, more creative means of telling the ‘story’, in fiction, art, and film.

In a world where telling the right story is so crucial to the future survival of ourselves and our planet, the arts and humanities have something crucial to contribute to the collective effort we all now need to make.

Tree of knowledge

Just as our Environment is a complex and multi-faceted whole, so different researchers in the Environmental Humanities study different aspects of humanity’s relations with the world. At Hull’s Centre for Water Cultures our specialism is humanity’s relationship with water, and our focus the ‘water cultures’ that have grown up in the green-blue regions – coastlines, estuaries, deltas – between land and sea. How has living with water, we ask, affected the literatures, histories, and cultures of these regions? And how, in turn, has human civilisation shaped the watery landscapes of wetlands, foreshores, and salt water marshes? Our research is also shaping societal attitudes towards how we live well with water, now and in future – not least through our vibrant postgraduate community of PhD researchers, whose work on humanity’s relationship with water is helping put the Environmental Humanities front and centre of debates around how we meet today’s environmental challenges to make a better world for tomorrow.


Stewart Mottram is Deputy Director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships Centre for Water Cultures and principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project, ‘From Noah to Now: A Cultural History of Flooding in English Coastal and Estuary Communities’ (AH/Y004779/1).

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