Ursula K Heise, Jon Christensen and Michelle Niemann (eds), The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (Oxford: Routledge 2017) 490pp. £175.00 Hb. ISBN: 1138786748
If we were judging a book by its size, weight or cover, The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities is an intimidating collection on all counts. The collection claims to make a broad overview as well as a decisive impact on the scholarship of environmental humanities. In the introduction, Ursula K Heise navigates the reader through the vast array of essays and justifies its structure (that meticulously compacts forty-five chapters into six parts). One clear aim of this book, then, is the compilation and organising of research within the field of environmental studies. Jennifer Wenzel is indeed correct when she claims that environmental humanities are 'at once exciting and perplexing' (165). But, because of this, the collection could do better in outlining the core contextual thread that connects all the essays, other than by the buzzword ‘Anthropocene’. The book does acknowledge the place of environmental humanities within environmental studies as a whole, but some readers may benefit from some additional background knowledge of environmental humanities as exploring the cultural, historical and social framework that shapes our understanding of the natural world.
Turning to the six sections of the collection, there is a noticeable disparity in the way they are organised. Part I, II, and III and VI are organised thematically: they cover broad ideas that include essays from an array of different ‘humanities’. It foregrounds the notion that these concerns are similar for many researchers, whether they are geographers or historians, anthropologists or sociologists. Part IV and V mark a turn from the thematic to a genre-based structure: Part IV focusing on literary depictions of environmentalism and Part V on the arts, media and technologies. Therefore, these two sections are noticeably easier to follow and have a more logical structure, although there is arguably something to be said about the literature-heavy focus of Part IV. It also bears the question: if these two sections are organised by genre, why does the rest of the book not follow a similar structure, for instance, with history or politics or geography?
After Dale Jamieson’s appropriate overview of the Anthropocene in Part I, 'The Anthropocene and the Domestication of the Earth', Susanna B Hecht, Judith A Carney and Libby Robin provide a comprehensible account of domestication in various regions of the world. Following this, two surprising essays. The first, by Yuki Masami, considers meals in polluted and damaged homes. This is followed by a stomach-churning link to Emma Marris’s case study of the connection between wolves and dogs. The last three essays are a fitting end to the section: from Ronald Sandler’s practical strategy for species conservation, to Bronislaw Szersyznski and Anahid Nersessian’s forward-thinking critique of the current scholarship of the Anthropocene.
Part II, 'Posthumanism and Multispecies Communities' begins with Robert Watson’s unusual combination of Shakespeare and ecology, and from this the section takes us through a rational evaluation of different nonhuman communities exploring the natural world. Chapters Eleven to Sixteen all give distinctive accounts of different multispecies from birds to dolphins (Genese Marie Sodikoff, Deborah Bird Rose and Thom Van Dooren, Jessica R. Cattelino, Dolly Jorgenson, Una Chaudhuri, and Stacy Alaimo). They, as Deborah Bird Rose and Thom Van Dooren state, 'bring the humanities into conversation with the natural sciences' towards 'the cultivation of better futures' (120). In particular, Dolly Jorgenson provides unique insight into the positive interference of humans into the natural world through artefacts like bird boxes and artificial reefs. It is refreshing to find examples of artificial constructions which, although are not natural, are part of nature. She calls us to 'embrace the perspectives of the non-human users of our human-constructed artefacts, realizing that human distinctions between artificial and natural, artefact and habitat, may not hold true from a more-than-human viewpoint' (142).
The theme of human and non-human is one that runs through the book, and thus stands true for Part III, which considers the inequality of such denotations. Jennifer Wenzel teases out the terms 'environmentalism-and-humanism of the poor' in the first chapter of Part III, 'Inequality and Environmental Justice'. Barbara Rose Johnston further pulls apart the so-called 'catchall phrase' ‘environmental justice’ (171). We then travel from India to Indonesia, back in time to North American settlers and Native American novelists, then (oddly, perhaps) back to geographical analysis of the Andes and Amazonia (Akhil Gupta, Helga Leitner, Emma Colven, Eric Sheppard, Kyle Powys White, Joni Adamson, Jorge Marcone). These writers form an interesting cohort and capture the notion that environmental justice demands the recognition of an environmental humanity.
In Part IV, as aforementioned, we find a homage to the literary representations of environmental concerns, with the exception of Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s essay on 'how Caribbean art speaks to the plight of coastal spaces' (279), and Brett Buchanon’s fascinating essay on animal resilience and human resistance. Richard White’s analysis of the life cycle of environmental decline in literature, and Michelle Niemann’s seemingly opposing look at the 'dyad of hubris and humility' in environmentalist thought (247), are followed by literary analysis of narratives by Kathleen D Morrison and Rosanne Kennedy. Similarly, Part V examines the relationship between the environment and the arts, media and technology, and, more importantly, how they present the environment. James Nisbet and Maite Zubiaurre on art, Allison Carruth on tech, Alexa Weik Von Mossner on film, Daniel A. Barber on architecture, Heather Houser, Stefan Sinclair and Stephanie Posthumus on digital humanities. The essays together become one of the most interesting parts of the collection by highlighting how the conversation about the environment is made all the richer with the inclusion of aesthetics.
The last section of the book takes a step back to do two things. The first is to look objectively, as Linda Nash and Greg Garrard do, on the notion, importance and impact of environmental humanities. The second is to broaden the ideas of environmental humanities in order to find out where it fits with other important Anthropocene-related concerns, like the decline in fossil fuels and the eco-crisis in general (Heather I Sullivan, Hannes Bergthaller, Sverker Sorlin, Catriona Sandilands, Jon Christensen and Ursula K Heise). This was for me the most rewarding and convincing part of the book, which did what I had been waiting the collection to do. It is able to recognise, as Stephanie LeMenanger states at the close of the book, that 'what were once pastoral offshoots of major humanities fields – ecocriticism, environmental history – are now in the thick of a broad, international public discussion of biological and cultural survival' (480).
When taking up the book, I was immediately struck by the impressive scope of the essays: they are interdisciplinary, studies from and on different regions of the world, different communities and cultures, different art forms and technologies, different time periods, and, lastly, many different theories. Although this makes for an interesting read, it does not appeal to a reader looking to acquire an overview of the environmental humanities. The collection provides great insight into forty-five very different and nuanced topics, but fails to form the coherent and palatable summary of the environmental humanities that its synopsis claims. If providing a broad overview of environmental humanities was not what the collection claimed to do, it would not come as a disappointment, as, in fact, the collection is very impressive without this claim. Furthermore, the beauty and appeal of this collection is that it does not need to be read (as I initially took it) in order. Rather, the collection is better enjoyed the second time around as a slow read, something to dip in and out of, flip between chapters, and consume randomly.
Overall, The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities is no doubt a key text for anyone studying the rich field of environmental humanities. Whether you are an early researcher or established academic, the book offers unique perspectives which give both overview and insight into the potential avenues that the environmental humanities can cover. Perhaps less advanced than a mere companion, the essays within are rich and varied, which may only be off-putting to someone approaching the text without any background knowledge of environmental humanities. At times overwhelming, overall, the collection is unapologetically ambitious and undoubtedly commendable in its efforts to deliver 'the first of its kind' (1).
Layla Hendow, University of Hull