The visible environment

Yesterday was Earth Day 2014, but to be honest I hardly noticed. There was very little Earth Day talk on my twitter feed nor the blogs I regularly read. I tweeted one link to some historical pictures from the 1970 Earth Day, but even that was in a National Geographic article from 2009. So I started wondering why it hadn’t been a bigger deal to me, especially as someone who works on environmental issues.

I think that the relatively invisibility of Earth Day to me this year is because the environment has become so visible. We no longer need a special day to bring environmental issues to the fore. Environmental problems are being talked about on news channels constantly. Information on dying species, climate change, and pollution is everywhere. We see the Visible Earth in the Anthropocene in ever-more detailed images. But do we really see? What do we see and what do we miss in the information overload?

Next Monday I am going to be in Tallinn, Estonia, participating in a roundtable on the environmental humanities hosted by the Estonian Centre for Environmental History (KAJAK). In preparation for the event, the organisers have asked the participants to prepare a five minute opening statement about our experiences in cross-disciplinary environmental humanities. I haven’t decided everything I want to say, but I am going to include this: Environmental humanities are about making humans visible in environmental issues.

While other environmental disciplines are good at focusing on changes to physical, chemical, and biological make-up of the Earth, environmental humanities are the experts at understanding how humans fit into those changes. Humanities is about seeing human motivations, desires, ideas, and values put into action by humans. The actions may be in many realms–political, social, religious, economic, etc.–but the thing that ties them together is people. These people need to become visible. Their histories and cultures need to be explored and exposed. That is the only way forward for addressing environmental issues. It is simply not enough to describe what the environmental concern is–we have to understand the relationship of humans to the Earth. This is what environmental humanities can and should do.

That is precisely what I’ve been trying to do with this project about animal reintroduction in Norway and Sweden. I’m not all that interested in the biological success or failure of the animals per se. I’m interested in how and why humans decided to bring those animals to the places where they reintroduced them, and how humans have responded since then. I’m interested in how people react when they realise that animals “are people too”, i.e. that animals act in their own best interests and don’t always do what others want or expect. I’m interested in how people tell stories about these species, stories which explain how people understand their relationship with non-human nature.

In formulating these reflections about Earth Day, it struck me how we adults have to work so hard at seeing those relationships yet children don’t seem to have a problem seeing it all around them. A couple weeks ago my 7-year-old daughter made a little book. She wrote all the text herself (she didn’t even ask for help with spelling) and made the illustrations. I didn’t know she was working on it until showed it to me finished. Here is her little book:

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I think she has made the environment and people visible in her book. She sees the things in the forest and she sees that we have a relationship with it. That relationship is not just about ‘not doing’ things but also about ‘doing’ things. The third page with the little pictures is a checklist. When she made the book, all the boxes were empty. Then she went outside to the little forest next to our house to find and check off all the things. She was very disappointed that she couldn’t find a squirrel that day (but we did see several on Easter, so she can check it off now!). Her little book is about the experienced, fully human and yet fully nature environment.

Environmental relationships are what we need to make visible, on Earth Day and every other day.

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