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20 February 2015

Mistra and Formas in major Environmental Humanities
research initiative

Mistra and the Swedish Research Council Formas are funding an Environmental Humanities research programme to be led by Linköping University. In one of the largest Swedish humanities initiatives of all time, the researchers will develop platform for investigating environmental problems from the perspectives of the humanities. The programme funding will amount to SEK 50 million altogether, and several Swedish and foreign universities will take part.

Linköping University will host the new programme The Seed Box: An Environmental Humanities Collaboratory, a research hub and interdisciplinary platform. This Environmental Humanities Collaboratory (EHC) will involve some 60 researchers from various disciplines in the humanities.

‘The initiative is a national and international one, although the work is being led from Linköping. We’ve managed to engage the very best people in a range of academic fields, and our ambition to achieve great things together,’ says Programme Manager Cecilia Åsberg, cultural scholar and Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Linköping University.

This research initiative is one of the largest ever in Swedish humanities. Mistra and Formas are contributing SEK 20 million each. Linköping University and its partners are also providing approximately SEK 10 million. For four years, six national and seven international higher education institutions will devote concerted efforts to bringing about broader, more in-depth environmental research, using tools of humanities research to contribute new perspectives and solutions. The research will combine established environmental research with innovative approaches that extend the analytical scope of humanities: ‘posthumanities’. The intention is also to develop a platform for interaction with the community at large – ‘citizen humanities’, as it is called.

‘We’ll hold in-depth discussions on humankind’s role in the natural environment, and what role nature plays in humankind. At the same time, humanities have to become broader and extend beyond the cultural sphere,’ says Cecilia Åsberg.

The aim is to create an international hub for environmental humanities. This research field has roots in the 19th century, in the ideas of thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and is expanding in such countries as the United States and Australia. A background report issued by Mistra shows that there are strong research environments in Sweden but that collaboration among them is lacking. With effective joint action and with international exchange, Sweden can become an early mover in this new research field. The consortium formed to develop the programme includes three Australian universities.

Both Mistra and Formas have identified a need for research in environmental humanities and social sciences. In the past few years, proposals for funding calls have begun to address this need. In 2010, Mistra and Formas jointly published their second joint report, Mobilising Swedish Social Science Research on Sustainability, which has relevance for the new initiative.

Humanity’s impact on the environment has become so intense that we researchers can no longer separate nature and culture. Some even refer to a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the human species is the biggest impact factor on Earth. So knowledge of science and engineering is not enough. What we need now is innovative humanities in which humankind can be studied in our formative context: the natural environment,’ Åsberg says.

She explains that our cultural notions affect how we behave. If we think it is impossible to stop climate change, this steers our behaviour in a particular direction. The same applies if we feel that the burden of climate impact is unfairly distributed, Åsberg argues.

She will lead work in the programme jointly with Johan Hedrén, Associate Professor of Environmental Change at Linköping University, where he has been responsible for environmental humanities research. Both Åsberg and Hedrén work at a university with long experience both of interdisciplinary research and of environmental commitment.

The programme will bring together philosophers, anthropologists, gender scholars, historians and other academic specialists, and also artists with a high international profile.

‘We’ve developed a fine network of international collaborations, and we’re now going to bring them to bear on the programme. It’s often in encounters, unexpected ones, that change takes place,’ Åsberg says.

Linköping University’s Tema Institute (focusing on thematic studies) also has at its disposal powerful technical facilities for distance collaboration, exhibitions and visualisation technology. The latter will also contribute to digital media research on the platform.

‘The programme is starting in the spring, but we’ve already begun unofficially with publications about green utopian thinking, international and Swedish collaborations in environmental posthumanities, and seminars and workshops on the Anthropocene concept,’ says Cecilia Åsberg.

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