2.1. What Is Happening?
Historical investigations have identified a “Great Acceleration” of human technologies, powers and consumption in the last 70 years that has operated as a key driver of Global Change [3
]. These human advances have come with an alteration of the planet’s carbon and nitrogen cycles, rapidly rising species extinction rates, and the generation of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which in turn are catalysts for adverse weather patterns and increased ocean acidification, the consequences of which will condition life on the planet for centuries to come. At the same time nuclear bombs have enabled us both to destroy human lives and to leave enduring markers on the planet. Scientists are increasingly labeling this period as the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. This neologism, meaning “Age of Man”, or “Age of the Human” was proposed in a short essay by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel-prize winning geologist, and Eugene Stoermer, an atmospheric chemist, to designate a new post-Holocene epoch marked by anthropogenic impacts on the earth system [5
In the decade and a half since the publication of Crutzen and Stoermer’s essay, scholars from across the disciplines have flocked into symposia and conferences to discuss and debate what cultural critic Rob Nixon has called this “epochal idea” [1
]. While the original framework of thought of the Anthropocene was led for the most part by natural scientists, it resonated with what was already by the 1990s emerging as a new field that would eventually be called the “environmental humanities”. Once divided humanities sub-disciplines such as history, philosophy, religious studies, and literature, and social science disciplines focused on humans-in-their-environments, such as anthropology, cultural geography, and political ecology, began flowing together [2
]. Without abandoning the subject-matter strengths and specific tools that are the hallmark of their discipline, humanists began reimagining “the proper questions and approaches” of their fields in light of environmental challenges [10
]. While this reorientation is still ongoing, we believe it is possible to discern some research questions that extend beyond planetary measurements to include surveys and measurements of the drivers of human society.
The Great Acceleration argument, in particular, is premised on the impact of social, economic and cultural developments as much as it is on scientifically registered environmental changes. It is therefore incumbent on historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other humanities disciplines that study change through human time to assess and improve both our measurements and our understandings of the driving forces. While the Great Acceleration may be a global phenomenon, it has taken place at different rates and in very different contexts around the globe. We thus need to refine and adjust the historical interpretation accordingly—and to refine the global picture by taking into account regional and local factors. For example, the humanities can offer unique insights into this acceleration by studying and reflecting on variations in renewable energy use, the willingness and ability of different societies to adopt renewable energy sources, and the political, institutional, cultural, and cognitive factors that shape the implementation and use of different sources of energy.
2.2. What Prevents Us from Pro-Environmental Action?
Environmental science measures and informs us of the scale of change. Science does not necessarily, however, make us or help us to change direction. At the heart of global change in the 21st century lie human choices and actions—questions of human behavior, preference and motivation that are imbedded in individual practices and actions, in institutional and cultural pathways, and in political strategies. Human choices, we know, are hardly ever fully conscious: we often prefer to tread well-known paths rather than explore new possibilities. Prior investments and institutional interests may even bar us from taking a preferred option. Frequently, too, we choose actions, pathways and strategies based on limited perspectives and knowledge, and in circumstances when we may not be cognitively prepared to identify optimal solutions to a challenge.
Unfortunately, intellectual and cultural enlightenment does not necessarily lead to changes in human behavior. Science has discovered, to its despair, that new accretions of information may have no impact and that laying out a set of rational choices may not lead to action. Indeed, scientific understandings of the physical world may be of limited use for understanding the complexity and volatility of human values and motivations. While the sciences may observe and analyze change, they are not organized or structured to create social policy and influence humans to change values and opinions. The human sciences—the mixed bag of academic disciplines in the humanities—are, on the other hand, a fertile and largely untapped resource of insight into human motivation, creativity, and agency.
Human beings use language, narrative, imagination and cognitive models to understand, cope, and take action. We nourish values and ethics to guide our choices. These tools and yardsticks are what the humanities help us to understand and use. Humanities disciplines are repositories of insight into human perception, motivation, creativity, and agency at a variety of levels—individual, institutional and social. For example, Anja Kollmuss and Julian Agyeman [11
] view environmental knowledge, values, and attitudes, together with emotional attachment, as making up a complex called “pro-environmental consciousness.” They argue that concomitant environmental values, beliefs and expectations are expressed in actions, including political activism, technological optimism, or individual retreat, with consequences that ramify from local to the global levels. Humanities insights, therefore, may help us transform our perceptions and imaginations.
We need to define and understand how and why, in the face of non-imminent or non-palpable danger, humans choose to act as we do and what it would take to make us change direction. Our research questions must function at individual, institutional, and social levels: How do individuals respond to calls for change in individual or collective behavior? How can social innovation help redress institutionally ingrained patterns and path dependencies? And how do societies develop resilient responses to threats of crisis and collapse? These questions defy both rational choice theory and behavioral decision theory because human actions operating within such broad frameworks encounter numbers of emotional and mental stumbling blocks to concerted pro-environmental action.
The most immediate challenge is the well-known “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. We would all benefit from collaboration towards the common good, but in an open system with a free market, weak global politics, cultural distrust, and imperfect communications, defectors are likely to get away with cheating. The only solution to overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma is mutual trust, yet polities are rarely able to make this choice. Trust relies on insight into past behavior and cultural preferences, which can be furthered by means of historical investigation, discourse analysis, and philosophical disentanglement. Conflict resolution relies on such insights.
A second stumbling block is the problem of unintended consequences. When societies do take positive action, they often find that their responses are too limited or open up wicked problems—problems, which by their nature defy complete and clear solutions. When we address one or more sides of an issue, other aspects can be aggravated and new aspects that we did not foresee can turn up, generating results that nobody wanted. Wicked problems often include both natural resource issues and human responses to these, such as war and migration. The heterogeneous nature of the challenges confronting us also proliferate a new set of problems that arise when solutions are implemented in haste. This in turn causes unforeseen consequences and additional dilemmas, which must then also be remedied. Human behavior, preference, creativity, and motivation, imbedded in individual action, institutional and cultural pathways and political strategies, stand at the heart of these problems. The humanities, however, can help elucidate and point to ways out of wicked problems.
Thirdly, even when we know the right course, we may not actually take it. Humans struggle to change harmful habits, repetitive actions, or unhealthy preferences (path dependencies) even when they clearly recognize the negative consequences of inaction. The problem of “acrasia” (often defined as weakness of will) has troubled philosophers since ancient times. While Socrates held that no one would knowingly go towards the bad, Aristotle asserted, more realistically, that opinions may or may not reflect the good—and that opinions may be contradicted by bodily appetites. The problem of giving up smoking is an obvious example at the individual level, just as the problem of decarbonization may be at a societal level: institutionalized interest may deter us from choosing what we would otherwise perceive to be in our best interest. Psychologists and philosophers can provide unique insights into such conundrums, and close studies of change behavior and “tipping points” in the past can render useful insights for the future.
Fourthly, time may work against our best interests. Hyperbolic discounting means that our judgments may vary depending on whether we are close to a reward or further from it. Action now may promise high returns in decades to come, but the immediate cost may deter us. Discounting is often perceived as an economic problem, and much ink has been spilt on debating the rate of discount at the decadal to centennial scale. A high rate of discount will tend to minimize future problems and increase incentives to prioritize investment for immediate needs, while a low discount prioritizes the future in favor of the present. Valuation studies are notoriously more precise the closer in time the choice is to be made, and the more the choice is of monetary value. Non-monetary valuation is potentially a big, though presently underdeveloped, field for the humanities. How, for example, might the humanities help develop valuation over and above willingness-to-pay so that rigorous cultural valuation schemes can be put in place? Ethics should be a front-runner in developing such studies, but it needs also to be informed by understandings of time, discounting, technology and nature, and by differences in pro-social behavior in, e.g., common-property resource dilemmas.
Fifthly, linguistic and cultural barriers exacerbate all the problems we have outlined. What one culture considers positive civic behavior may not be accepted by another, and what is understood by correct behavior in one language may not have its equivalent in another. What one culture deems a crucial problem or issue may be nothing of consequence to another culture. Clearly, not all humans have contributed equally to the new conditions in which we live. The authors of this paper believe strongly in the benefits of learning from the diversity of human experiences, knowledge systems, and perceptions. Loss of cultural diversity is a cancerous process very similar to the loss of natural biodiversity. While the loss of one spoken language, or of a particular heritage site, or of an immaterial practice will not ruin the world, systematic disregard for historical and cultural heritage reduces our insight into the diversity of human experience and diminishes our collective intelligence. The humanities thus need to work with the natural sciences to articulate and understand the value of human as well as natural diversity.
Individually the problems identified above are well known, but they are often disregarded in environmental studies and its associated policy outcomes. The humanities can intervene by emphasizing and working on these and other barriers and by engaging in alternative and counterfactual scenario building. Philosophy frames ethical and moral agendas by juxtaposing principles and concepts such as morality (altruism) and prudence (self-interest); cosmopolitanism and diversity; expert and non-expert and top/down and bottom/up considerations. Psychology and other fields, offer increasing evidence that people rely on their imaginations and construct counterfactual situations and alternative possibilities in order to overcome the constraints of limited avenues of action and thought [12
]. There are strikingly familiar and regular fault lines in human cognition that provide logic and coherence to the imagination. People tend to change things within their control—and to focus on the things they can control. By exploring the spectrum of the human imagination—from the mundane, everyday imagination to daydreams and fantasy—counterfactual thinking helps us how to think about the future in hypothetical ways, and can provide a key to addressing human issues of consciousness, perception, and agency.
2.3. What Do We Think of the New Human Condition?
The concept of the Anthropocene is now commonly used by scholars to denote a distinct new geological and biophysical epoch, which can be either violent and extreme or slow, stealthy and subversive and which will last for centuries and possibly millennia. In order to focus on the overarching challenge to humanity from our own preferences and actions, however, we suggest that it might be useful to borrow a fresh concept from the European HfE Observatory, “the New Human Condition”, in order to identify the particular challenges of the 21st century [8
]. This term reflects the humanities’ focus on much shorter time scales and with greater urgencies of perception and action. The New Human Condition refers to the unprecedented crisis of how we as a species will cope with the consequences, not to mention responsibilities, of being the major driver of planetary change. Our human intelligence has given us the power to create as well as to destroy the foundations of our own existence. The idea of the New Human Condition therefore raises pressing questions about Human Intelligence. Are we able to learn and steer our course through global change, or is our future predicated on a pattern of relentless exploitation of nature and of unchecked demographic growth? These are challenges to civic action, as well as to global governance of an entirely new order when compared to previous human epochs. The New Human Condition might indeed be the biggest cognitive challenge to human intelligence in history. Thus, the research question we must confront is how to identify, respond to and cope with the consequences of the New Human Condition.
Public responses to this question range from denial to despair, and from alarmism to instinctual belief in our ability to cope. News of tragedy, disaster and pending doom travels fast in our connected world, while positive action and amelioration seems less likely or more naïve. However, paradoxically, cultures of alarmism and denial go hand in hand. Some cry wolf; others deny the footprint. As the human species becomes ever more technologically powerful, many doubt its fitness to govern the world that it has created. Collapse
is the title of a hugely influential book by the American ecologist and geographer Jared Diamond [13
], who speaks to a world fascinated by doom and an inability to correct a disastrous trajectory. A more optimistic approach, however, is taken by leading proponents of the theory of the Anthropocene, such as Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer [5
], as well as Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich [14
], all of whom declare a belief in human intelligence. Some advise cutting back emissions and extractions to a “safe operating space” [15
] and others detect a long-term rebound of nature by current trends in dematerialization and decarbonization [16
]. While these authors are all scientists, similar debates have emerged among environmental humanists. Many environmental historians for example identify a declensionist trajectory of human interaction with nature that would seem to support the Diamond view. On the other hand, critics of Diamond point out that while empires may collapse, humans do not, and have managed successfully to reorganize themselves in extremely adverse times [17
Research into how we have identified and dealt with challenges in the past may also help to clarify our ability to cope in the present and future. Historians, literary scholars, and philosophers, to name just a few disciplines, are particularly well qualified to take on this question. The Stern report on the Economics of Climate Change [18
] argued, for example, that humanity has the technical knowhow at hand to mitigate climate change. However, nine years after the review was published, the world seems, if anything, more divided, uncertain and incapable of dealing with the issues of the global environment. While a rational choice approach to such a conundrum may lead one to despair, media studies, political science inquiries and comparative studies focused on the long-term run of public inquiries may provide a different, and perhaps more optimistic, interpretation. Another recent historical example also suggests that not all is worsening. Despite overall ocean deterioration, we have seen improvements in the health of major commercial fish species as a result of better management and consumer preference for sustainably sourced food [19
]. Another positive example is the success of combined public communication and policies in combating tobacco use, as well as the AIDS/HIV epidemic—even across cultural divides [20
]. We evidently stand to learn much about human behavior at individual, institutional and societal scales by undertaking closer analysis. These examples also indicate that decisive change can occur within the short timespan of years or decades, an encouragingly swift result for human induced action.
As a species, we are probably hard-wired to believe in our own capacities, and in the interest of one’s own sanity it may be advisable to try to retain hope, even if with some caution. It makes sense, therefore, for us to seek examples of human action at the individual, institutional or societal levels that demonstrate our capacity to change direction on receipt of warning. Can humans change tack in a more proactive way not just when confronted with immediate disaster but also when faced with a long-term threat or a slippery slope? The question is not if, but when and how successfully, we can respond to global challenges. Can we learn from past challenges of resource scarcity and long-term degradation? Some third world countries and indigenous groups are leading strongly on the issue of climate change, not waiting for first world countries to act, and thus they are suggesting something of a higher “human intelligence” than some first world countries, at least on the issue of climate change [21
]. We advance therefore the notion and limitations of Global Human Intelligence as a guiding research question.
2.4. What Can the Humanities Do?
Although good examples of interdisciplinary research exist, most of us are simply not organized to deal with the scale and complexity of global change issues. Collaboration across faculty divides is structurally and culturally difficult, and happens infrequently [22
]. Humanities skills are rarely utilized for strategic change, and humanities academics are also often reluctant to position themselves in this way. Proponents of interdisciplinary research across the science and technology sectors tend to relegate human and social science research to an auxiliary, advisory, and non-essential status.
Critics also often claim that humanists complicate rather than simplify solutions, and there is some truth to this. However, the world is unquestionably a complicated place. While foggy responses do not help anyone, neither do simplistic approaches. Helga Nowotny [23
] notes that the “quest for relevance in the social sciences triumphed during the mid-twentieth century, celebrating planning, social engineering and foresight. Its latest embodiment is the belief in evidence-based policy.” Yet, states Nowotny, “it is often difficult to discern which kind of evidence counts in a given situation, whose evidence is to be used, and for what purpose.” She concludes that shifting from relevant knowledge to socially robust knowledge includes employing multiple, even contradictory, perspectives. This view coincides with the United Nations Development Program Foresight Manual, which observes that goals must be “realised in uncertain and unpredictable environments, in which ‘black swans’ feature prominently, and over which authorities have less, little or no control” [24
The humanities commonly deal with contradictory things, another source of their value in responding to the wicked problems of social and environmental change. Experience suggests that there is initial mistrust when humanities, social science, and scientific analyses are integrated to address wicked problems, however, as the process begins to generate solutions, cross-disciplinary engagements proliferate in numbers and regard. Specifically, environmental humanities scholars and scientists need to work together to understand cultural differences, to overcome stock prejudices, to understand the importance of affect and multiple perspectives—and to instigate actions as well.
Like most other researchers, humanities scholars see their role primarily as analytical rather than prescriptive, and tend to worry that scholarly curiosity and cherished analytical methods may be contaminated by strategic concerns that override open investigation. Indeed, most academics would fear that their academic credentials were potentially compromised by activism. This disconnect between thought and action is a conundrum which must be overcome if the abstract call on the humanities to inform global change is to be turned into practice. A middle ground between contemplative research and positive action would be to see the Global Change agenda as a strategic change process, which requires vision, skills, incentives, resources and a plan [25
]. Each of these factors can benefit from humanities skills. A vision for climate change adaptation that fails to include cultural preferences can only lead to confusion or opposition. Identifying the right incentives, however, is often tricky because market-driven performance indicators are seldom the only drivers of human preference. Frustration or a false start may result when the right resources or a balanced plan are not identified. Therefore, we need to ask:
who and what are the drivers of change
what is happening
what can be done
how to get it done
and what are the means to do it
Analytical questions of this kind are in no way inimical to academic practice, but should be central to the mission of the environmental humanities.
2.5. How to Get It Done
If the humanities are to help make the world a better place, we need to do our research and also to translate it into practical use. We are suffering both from lack of knowledge and from poor knowledge pathways. The humanities have a wonderful record of turning research into accessible books, TV productions and museum displays. However, our record of turning insights into political advice and business propositions is less impressive.
True, the problem of translation of knowledge into empowerment is by no means confined to the humanities, and is certainly shared with the natural sciences. However, this problem needs to be addressed directly, and we in the humanities have both good advice to offer and lessons to learn. The humanities have considerable experience in reaching out to the public through established channels, which are already being put to good use. This is a unique strength, and one that our Observatories should highlight and propagate. Engaging with politics directly is of course much more conflicted. Again, many humanists have engaged in the lobbying and criticism of politicians, but with mixed results. Humanists working in some museums and media have done wonderful work. There is room for improvement here—perhaps by facilitating dialogue between citizens and politicians in the manner practiced by many humanities centers and by our Observatories in the past two years.
We want to emphasize the capacity of the humanities to move beyond models of research that locate the formation of knowledge exclusively within the academy. It seems to us that what we need, and what many humanists are well equipped to do, is to develop collaborative processes of conversation and knowledge engagement that are shared by academics and publics, as well as other stakeholders such as policy bodies etc. We know that human action in relation to information relies on a sense of investment in and ownership over knowledge; the sense that knowledge connects organically with current modes of understanding. This means that we need to think about “people” not just as objects of research but also equally as participants in producing knowledge. We must acknowledge that not all useful knowledge from an environmental perspective is located within the academy. We need not only to know more about how and why humans act, but also new ways of building knowledge. The humanities (academic and public) are well placed to take up this work.
Further, and perhaps most importantly, the humanities need to engage much more broadly with business. Business can bring insights into customer behavior and has the ability to engage and execute actions. Businesses are concerned about public image, as well as ways of feeding back to society, and are often willing to sponsor environmental exhibitions, tours, teach-ins, and activities, not to mention related academic work and publications and broadcasts. More importantly, businesses—not least insurance companies—are concerned with their long-term sustainability and are increasingly taking on board the necessity to plan for and cope in a changing environment. Multinational companies operate on politically sensitive global markets where they have to be at the forefront of both political and technological mega-trends. They are used to being user-centric and to adapt quickly. Additionally, there is a growing tendency for Corporate Social Responsibility to be a fully integrated part of a business model. Potentially, there is a strong synergy in combining humanistic knowledge of human behavior, cultures and religion in a global context with companies that are used to operate quickly and efficiently in hundreds of different market places and turning decisions into action.
Finally, breakthroughs in humanities computing and the uses of Big Data offer new and exciting ways of mapping and understanding human perception and behavior. There is no shortage of data whatsoever. At the same time the technology threshold is being dramatically lowered in every aspect every six months or so, and this trend will just accelerate in the future. The Humanities’ access to new tools and a genuine capability of pulling off advanced scenario-building and text analytics constitutes a great potential for analyzing both hard facts and soft values like behavior and social networks [26