Thoughts of a marine ecologist on the first global Environmental Humanities summit

This past June, I was invited to an international Environmental Humanities summit as a board member of the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities (TCEH). I stepped in for the Centre’s director and founder Professor Poul Holm who is also Convener of the European Observatory of the Humanities for Environment (HfE) international network. Hosted by the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society (RCC) at Schloss Hohenkammer near Munich, on 29 June – 1 July 2018 the summit was the first get-together of directors, founders and Co-founders of humanities centres from 22 countries and 5 continents. Five HfE Observatories were also represented (Africa, Asia-Pacific, Australia-Pacific, Europe and North America) at the meeting. Organiser Christof Mauch (Director of RCC) was delighted that everyone had taken this opportunity to mingle and to meet new and familiar faces with a high level of reflection, in a tranquil environment.

Two full days of intense workshops and active involvement from 48 academics focused on the future of the environmental humanities. Discussion got heated at times, but always resulted in consensus in the end. Questions like “What Drives Us?” and “What Brings Us Here?” were answered with “Curiosity, To Be Useful, Humility and Openness, Passion and Hope, Environmental Justice, Fun and Irony, Fresh Air” and many more. Small breakout groups enabled us to get to know each other professionally, and to a degree, personally.

Resulting word cloud of the opening session ‘what drives us’ at the EH summit June 2018, Munich. Photo by Cordula Scherer.

We were joined by twelve highly motivated, inspired and inspiring ENHANCE PhD candidates. They introduced us to their PhD topics during a “speed dating carrousel”. Each PhD student had five minutes to present their work. The students were delighted to receive our feedback on their engaging topics such as “Breathing in Silesia: Living with coal and air pollution in Poland’s mining heartland” (Irma Allen, KTH), “Dynamic Climates of Memory: Environmental Learning, Risk Perception, Remembering and Forgetting Disasters” (Vikas Lakhani, RCC Munich) as well as “The Story of Mud: Community Resilience in Cinque Terre” (Sarah Yoho, UL) and “Blooming Dead: In the Wastes of Algal Waters” (Jesse Peterson, KTH).

Two important topics discussed during our workshop were engagement with Non-Academic Partners and the careers and professional opportunities that the EH should foster. This fuelled lively debate that concluded that engagement with public institutions and schools should be a prime obligation.

We also talked about how the environmental sciences and humanities might coalesce to offer advice on policy for well-informed recommendations. There were strongly voiced debates on the distinction between sciences and humanities and whether or not rigid borders should be overcome in an act of “undisciplining” the disciplines.

I offered the example of my work on TCEH’s multidisciplinary ERC advanced grant NorFish project as an example of how teams can successfully overcome disciplinary boundaries. The premise of the project is that a 16th century shift in marine fish pricing and supply in conjunction with the Little Ice Age and decreasing sea temperatures not only gave rise to the North Atlantic Fish Revolution but also forms one of the first documented examples of the disrupting effects of globalisation and climate change. The project examines the role of the Fish Revolution on a range of inter-related aspects of North Atlantic history, with an interdisciplinary team drawing on archaeology, history, cartography, geography, ecology and digital humanities. We are developing interpretative frameworks that synthesise a broad spectrum of source data to assess the overall objective of the project and how this information can potentially help us meet the challenges of current global environmental changes.

EH summit participants asked why I chose to work on an interdisciplinary team in the TCEH given my background as a marine ecologist who specialises in the dynamics of phytoplankton communities. I answered that I always wanted to work across disciplines, learning from and with humanities colleagues in order to understand their different viewpoints. TCEH’s vision enables me to do this on the multidisciplinary team Poul Holm has put together for the NorFish project.

Cordula Scherer presenting at the EH summit in June 2018, Munich. Image by Anna Antonova.

However, for an interdisciplinary team to succeed, mutual respect is essential. There must be openness and readiness to learning and sharing terminologies used by other disciplines. Successful multidisciplinary projects also require a solid financial platform and a strong leading PI who facilitates frequent meetings and knowledge exchange between team members. The willingness and curiosity to learn and embrace new methodologies and to learn from one another is key to identifying and bridging gaps and producing outputs that are greater than the component disciplines could create individually.

Simulating and inspiring discussion in touch with nature. Image by Cordula Scherer.

During the 2018 EH summit, I realised that the NorFish project is a prestigious and well-funded opportunity that presents a great showcase of how projects can and should be performed now and in the future. The Summit was stimulating, inspiring and motivating. It gave me hope that the sciences and humanities will successfully enable researchers to take on global challenges with joined forces and improved insights to preserve our wonderful, magical planet.

Cordula Scherer is a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Environmental Humanities, Department of History, Trinity College Dublin funded by the NorFish project. An applied marine ecologist by training, her current interest is the North Atlantic ecosystem during the late medieval/early modern period. She researches ocean productivity and investigates the natural dynamics and food supply of the so-called Fish Revolution.