Humanities researchers working at the intersection of social challenges and the environment

Clockwise from left to right: Ingrid Waldron, HOPE Chair in Peace & Health; Michael Egan, Associate Professor, History; Susie O'Brien, Professor, English & Cultural Studies; Chris Myhr, Associate Professor, Communication Studies & Multimedia; Nancy Doubleday, Associate Professor, Philosophy.

It’s tempting to think of environmental research in terms of science: measurements of global temperatures and parts-per-million of carbon in the atmosphere, chemical pollutants in water, or number of species at risk.

But there are other ways to understand the environment – and one is to bring a cultural, historical, philosophical, or other humanistic perspective to the complex ideas and issues surrounding the environment and humanity’s place within it.

We chatted with five Faculty of Humanities researchers across a range of disciplines about their work, how humanities research can contribute to our understanding of the environment, and what they’d like people to be thinking about this Earth Day.

Can you describe your research and how it relates to the environment?

A headshot of Michael Egan.

I’ve just signed a contract for a new book on the history of fear of environmental pollution in the American 1980s. This new work investigates pollution and fear in a neoliberal environment, drawing on cultural and political histories to make sense of how chemicals and pollutions registered in the 1980s landscape, from Three Mile Island and Love Canal to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fear has become such a prevalent feature of mainstream media and popular discourse, I wanted to consider how fear resonated before 9/11 and COVID. I also wanted to think about the relationship between environmental history, the history of emotions, and histories of mental health. Fear of pollution in the 1980s—that terror at discovering latent harms in air, soil, and water—has been a fascinating vehicle for that inquiry.

As a whole, I think this new fear project highlights that scientific expertise and policymakers let down the American public. Neighbourhoods and communities around the United States expressed concerns about chemicals in their environment—where they lived, worked, and played—and many of these worries were dismissed and ignored. What transpired, however, was that many of those fears were justified.

Michael Egan, Associate Professor, History

A photo of Chris Myhr working at his desk.

My research and studio practice seek intersections between art, science, and ecology.

For the past decade I’ve been developing an extensive body of work that investigates our complex interrelationships with water. I am particularly interested in the paradoxical tension between water as life, vitality and industry, as well as a source of immense and unpredictable destructive power.

Chris Myhr, Associate Professor, Communication Studies & Multimedia 

A headshot of Ingrid Waldron.

My research focuses on the social, health and mental health impacts of structural racism and other forms of discrimination in Black and other racialized communities.

One form of structural racism I focus on is environmental racism and climate change inequities in Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities. Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate siting of toxic facilities in racialized communities. These communities are also more vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Structural racism and other structural inequalities resulting from the legacy of colonialism are at the root of the unequal burdens these communities face around toxic waste and climate change impacts.

Ingrid Waldron, HOPE Chair in Peace and Health

What role do the humanities play in broadening our understanding of the environment and/or environmentalism?

A headshot of Nancy Doubleday.

Taking Sea Change as an example, we see the power of social learning in the context of ocean sustainability – we have learned to acknowledge the many ways of knowing available to us as humans, and science, (including social science), has evolved methodologies beyond the usual quantitative approaches, to consider qualitative data, including oral histories, and other forms of local knowledge, rooted in our diversity of ways of being.

This is a time and place for humanities to step out of the shadows and to shine, in my view.

Just as we are learning to appreciate the expressions of truth available through other knowledge systems, for example, those of Indigenous Peoples in this continent, we are also tuning into the knowledge accessible to us from transdisciplinary multi-media studies, and from direct contact with aesthetic experience with nature – experience that is increasingly recognized as a source of health and a power for healing – something that is freely available – but coming from a well-spring that continually needs tending.

Nancy Doubleday, Associate Professor, Philosophy

I am currently collaborating with climate scientists and using the medium of photography to draw attention to their important research into the bioaccumulation of mercury, plastics, and hydrocarbon contamination in aquatic ecosystems undergoing change.

Art and cultural production can offer alternative and evocative interpretations of scientific findings that can engage public interest, and widen consciousness of these very complex issues. More importantly, artists can leverage human emotion, wonder and the imagination in ways that can make the urgency of ecological challenges felt by the audience. I believe that action is often more effectively driven by affect than data and statistics.

Chris Myhr, Associate Professor, Communication Studies & Multimedia 

A portrait of Susie O'Brien

The humanities help to highlight the historical conditions that shape the present, including not just our material circumstances but the values, feeling, and knowledges by which we make sense of those circumstances.

Literary and cultural studies, for example, help us to recognize and unravel stereotypical constructions that support harmful environmental practices (like the culture/nature hierarchy). They also work to identify and activate currents of struggle and resistance in art and other creative productions.

Susie O’Brien, Professor, English & Cultural Studies

What would you like people to think about or be aware of this Earth Day?

We are all capable of contributing to Earth stewardship, to tending the “wells of resilience”, both real and metaphorical, and where we start should be in the place where it matters to us most. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter where we start. Peace, justice, health and sustainability are all intertwined. The important thing, as Goethe said, is “to begin.”

On Earth Day, my wish is to celebrate the life flowing in around and through us, to make space for other living creatures and their needs, and leave more for future generations. Practically, let the birds use what shelter they can find under our eaves – they won’t be there forever. Know that the opossum in our garden is eating the ticks that might give us Lyme disease.

Give the gift of time – for others, for nature’s work, and for ourselves to experience the beauty and wonder and peace available wherever we are – now. Then find a way to share.

Nancy Doubleday, Associate Professor, Philosophy

Many members of the McMaster community have just finished observing Ramadan and Lent. Both practice a reflective and spiritual commitment to faith through deliberate deprivation to concentrate mind and body.

What if Earth Day was the start of a month-long commitment to reducing our ecological footprint? That might involve cutting back on waste or energy use or reducing the amount of meat one eats. Earth Day could also inspire individuals to try to fit more walking, cycling, and public transit instead of driving into their weekly routines.

At the same time, pointing the finger at individual responsibilities is meaningless if we don’t demand the same from wasteful and polluting industries—and if they’ve demonstrated over and over a reluctance to make the wholesale changes to their practices that the environment and climate desperately needs, then we need to pressure our policymakers to impose and enforce those changes. That is an individual responsibility, and it requires everyone’s vigilance. Maybe those are the discussions that a month-long commitment starting with Earth Day could instigate.

Michael Egan, Associate Professor, History

This Earth Day, I think we should be looking at environmental issues through a climate justice lens, which means not only working to protect the environment but also to mobilize against the violence of war, colonial occupation and other forms of displacement. 

Susie O’Brien, Professor, English & Cultural Studies

It is important that people are aware of the large numbers of climate refugees that have been migrating to Canada for some time. They are experiencing multiple and intersecting challenges related to climate change, including income insecurity and poverty homelessness, food insecurity, and mental health challenges.

The climate refugee crisis not only highlights how climate change connects us all, but it also speaks to the importance of developing climate policy that responds to the specific lived experiences and priorities of diverse communities. Climate policy should not be a one size fits all exercise.

Ingrid Waldron, HOPE Chair in Peace and Health

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