Centre for Environmental Humanities – Who we are and what we do

By Dr Adrian Howkins and Dr Paul Merchant

The stories we tell about the environment and the images we make of it end up shaping the environment itself, for better and for worse. This is one of the key principles of the environmental humanities, an interdisciplinary field that brings together historians, literary critics, philosophers, scholars of visual culture, cultural geographers, and more.  

As the COP27 climate change summit gets underway in Egypt this week, it is striking to note how little coverage the summit has had in the media, especially when compared with the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year. It seems that expectations of meaningful progress are low, despite stark warnings from the UN that drastic action is needed. The environmental humanities can help us understand how we have arrived at this point, and reflect on how culture can play a role in building a more hopeful future.  

The Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol, established in 2017, has rapidly built a reputation as one of the leading centres in the field. Our community spans all of the disciplines in the Faculty of Arts, and our members include postgraduate researchers, professors, and all career stages in between.  

We support our academic members in developing their research ideas, by providing seed funding, and supporting applications for external grants – recent funded research from Centre members includes Andy Flack’s ‘Dark Pasts’ project and Paul Merchant’s ‘Reimagining the Pacific’ project, both funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We are particularly proud of our vibrant postgraduate community, whose members organise reading groups, workshops and the Literary and Visual Landscapes seminar series (you can watch a recording of their most recent seminar).  

The River Avon at low tide, with the Clifton Suspension Bridge above. It is dark and the lights from nearby buildings are reflected in the water
The River Avon at low tide. Credit: Kristoffer Trolle, CC-BY 2.0

It’s really great being part of the Centre for Environmental Humanities here at Bristol. Being involved in a community of researchers from many different disciplines—from History, English, Geography, and many others—is incredibly stimulating. It’s a genuinely creative melting pot centred around a brilliant programme of events, seminars, reading groups, and field trips.” 

Milo Newman, PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences 

In the 2022-23 academic year, we are exploring the future of the environmental humanities – where does the field need to go next? Where are the gaps in current research? How can our interdisciplinary community of scholars and students at Bristol shape new developments? With these questions in mind, we will be holding a special workshop in February 2023, with internal and external participants.  

Over the next few years, we are also looking to expand our network of international partners. This year, we established a formal partnership with the Greenhouse Center for Environmental Humanities at the University of Stavanger in Norway and the Environmental Humanities Center at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Partnerships provide opportunities for visiting fellowships, networking, and collaborative grant applications to our members. We are also developing a series of co-hosted online seminars on environmental humanities in Latin America with the Center for Environmental Studies at Rice University (USA). Professor Gisela Heffes from Rice will be visiting as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor in May and June 2023.  

Collaboration both within the University and with community partners, including Bristol’s Black & Green Ambassadors and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, is fundamental to our work, and the Centre is at the forefront of interdisciplinary innovation. One recent initiative, ‘Keywords in Environmental Research and Engagement’, worked with a range of community organisations across the city and academics from different disciplines to explore how to generate a common understanding of key terms like ‘resilience’ and ‘transitions’. 

We’ve also been promoting a place-based approach to collaborative scholarship, where we use field trips to provide a focal point for interdisciplinary conversations. Recent field trips have included visits to the Island of Lundy (see our co-authored article), Exmoor, and the Brecon Beacons.  We’re planning to continue these field trips this coming academic year with visits to the See Monster in Weston-super-Mare and to the Somerset Levels.   

We are very excited to be developing a new MA in Environmental Humanities, which is due to start in September 2023. You can find out more and apply on our website. 

Dr Adrian Howkins and Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Directors, Centre for Environmental Humanities 

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