“Particularly, the humanities and the arts should insist that our fields are not irrelevant to climate change.”
Environmental Humanities Center, Vrije Universiteit
Interview with T.J. Demos on the importance of the Environmental Humanities
Art historian T.J. Demos was at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam to present his most recent book publication Against the Anthropocene (2017) on December 12th 2017. We had the opportunity to interview him on behalf of the Environmental Humanities Center. Just before he started his book presentation we met and we had a chance to ask him some questions about his view on the environmental humanities and the importance of our Environmental Humanities Center.
T.J. Demos is a professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture department of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the United States. He is also the founder and director of the Center for Creative Ecologies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This center aims to develop useful interdisciplinary research tools to examine how cultural practitioners—filmmakers, new media strategists, photojournalists, architects, writers, activists, and interdisciplinary theorists—critically address and creatively negotiate environmental concerns in the local, regional, and global field. Demos is also the author of many publications dealing with contemporary art, visual culture and ecology, such as Decolonizing Nature Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (2016) and the article “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology”, which was published in a special issue of Third Text (no. 120) in 2013.
The Environmental Humanities Center at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam aims to bring together students, scholars, and members of the general public interested in humanities perspectives on the environment to foster an exchange of ideas. Grounded in the realization that today’s environmental crisis calls for an interdisciplinary approach, we wish to stimulate conversations among the humanities and the natural and social sciences.
What should the Environmental Humanities Center do or try to accomplish according to you – as an expert on the topic of environmental humanities?
That’s an enormous question! Environmental humanities is a fairly recent academic formation and there are various institutes and centers popping up all over the place, which makes sense given the enormity of the climate crisis we’re facing. Generally it is meant to put the arts and humanities in relationship to environmental studies, and create bridges between the natural sciences like geology, meteorology, and biology, on the one hand, and art, culture, literary studies, and philosophy, on the other. Multiple questions arise at that intersection, which offer a really important interdisciplinary terrain for thinking these days. For instance: what can the Humanities contribute to scientific thinking, other than simply offering artistic forms for illustrating scientific theories? One crucial political aspect of this intersection is that we are living at a time in which climate change and environmental threats are becoming ever more urgent, and climate governance is generally strongly techno-scientific; such is the dominant approach to climate change. So one thing that the humanities can bring to the conversation is a wider perspective on ethical and political considerations, as well as perceptual and affective aspects, when it comes to representing, defining, and relating to climate transformation, in other words to prevent the techno-scientific paradigm to continue to operate in limited ways and without any input or inclusion from wider stakeholders. Particularly, the humanities and the arts should insist that our fields are not irrelevant to climate change. It is crucial to take on a stakeholder position, because policy makers and government officials are making decisions about the future of the world that affect us all. They do so, sometimes, outside of larger ethical and political deliberations, and without bringing the most vulnerable and the least resourced people into the discussion. The humanities can bring in an important discussion on wider fundamental values about how we determine our future, how we think about science and facts, what environment and climate change mean. Because there is a danger in thinking of the environment and climate change in a very narrow way, as if it is all about greenhouse gasses or carbon emissions. What if it instead represented the intersection of wider fields and forces that include modes of economic inequality, political arrangements, technology, human systems of values, social relations, cosmopolitical and bio-political questions – these provide a really critical framework for rethinking environment from a wider vantage. If we allow for techno-science to take over we run the risk of succumbing to a form of rationality that is largely outside of socio-political and cultural realms. Equally, the second part of the answer, we in the humanities need to become more scientifically literate, so the Environmental Humanities demands continual relearning and reskilling, which is exciting and also daunting.
If environmental studies and climate change science are brought into the humanities, we should follow up with more difficult questions that go to the foundations of the humanities. What does it mean to be human in an era of multispecies being? Is “humanities” the right word? How can we criticize and challenge anthropocentric thinking. How will climate change change the nature of being human, and how can art, music, and literature help us perceive, understand, and value these transformations?
About the idea of the anthropocentric, about humans as rulers of the environment, do you take a stand in this debate?
Yes, I do. In my recent book Against the Anthropocene, part of the ‘against’ has to do with an analysis of certain Anthropocene narratives that perpetuate am anthropocentric position. Anthropos as the fundamental category is no longer meaningful in relationship to advanced scientific research that points out that there is no such thing as a discrete human being, that we depend on all sorts of multispecies systems, even within our bodies and the bacterial and microbial compositions in our guts, that define a mutuality of existence. So yes, that’s one area. But also I challenge the anthropocentricism involved in certain engineering-based technoscientific approaches to climate change that believe for instance that we can engineer our way out of climate catastrophe without fundamentally addressing, rethinking and challenging what it means to be human within the conditions of fossil capitalism. In the book I support the climate justice position of “System change, not climate change,” and show how the Anthropocene is ultimately a dangerous neoliberal gamble that does little to challenge the ruling order that is very much invested in petrocapitalism, which is the ultimate anthropocentric expression.
Most humanities students, art lovers and participants in eco-events are already aware of the human role in climate change, how do you suggest we get the group that thinks that geo-engineering is the solution, or even the denialists involved in our events?
At the Center for Creative Ecologies, we’ve made this part of our objective, to create new ecologies of connectivity between different people, disciplines, and communities. But events organized by the Environmental Humanities often attract audiences and participants who are already sympathetic to the larger goals. So how can we in some way choreograph discussions that bring in more diverse participants and include the critical consideration of disagreements? This is an important challenge. One of the biggest challenges today is how to think about climate solutions within the context of advanced capitalism, discussions that might place the values of personal property, individual freedom, and accumulated wealth in question. Can we accept or can we continue to accept the solutions of green capitalism as the basis for future survival? Questions like these might invite profound disagreement between people coming from the corporate sector, public policy and even mainstream environmentalists. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid having those conversations. On the other hand, green capitalist approaches to climate change are dominant and already receive tons of publicity and visibility, so perhaps it’s equally, even more, important to provide a forum for more experimental and radical approaches to be considered and addressed. That’s what the Center for Creative Ecologies is most interested in—if cosmopolitics means that the most vulnerable to environmental transformation should be included in the conversation about solutions, then the central question is how to provide spaces, especially within the privileged academy, to underrepresented voices so as to engage in discussions of what really matters and to do so by taking into account the perspectives of those disproportionally exposed to climate vulnerability.
You mentioned your Center for Creative Ecologies, how does this center compare to our Environmental Humanities Center or to other ones?
It is inspired by the growth of the environmental humanities and the institutionalization of that project, which I think is very important for the growth of this field and promoting more research and interdisciplinary thinking in the humanities. One thing I found looking at different environmental humanities institutions is that often there is a very minor role for the Arts. And that is not the case at the VU, where the Arts seem to be represented in both the board and the events. In most cases it is history, philosophy, literature and archaeology that dominate the environmental humanities. And even at my university, UC Santa Cruz, there is an institutional division between the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, which often appears arbitrary and counter to meaningful cross-disciplinary connection. At other universities, what I do might be situated in the Humanities. But partly because of these divisions, it’s important to try to construct something that would support the directions of the environmental humanities but more specific to the arts. We try to gather interdisciplinary thinking by bringing practicing artists, activists, theorists, and community members together to talk about environmental concerns. We also try to generate more attention toward the environmental movement, and within the Arts, especially given that many artists and curators are dealing with environment, and have done so for decades, though very few art historians take this seriously, or integrate it into their work, from my point of view. This maybe a generational difference, as students seem to be really motivated to bring the arts and environment together, and therefore your center at the VU is so interesting because the board members are both faculty members and students.
For someone who is new to the environmental humanities, could you give an example of an artwork or art project that illustrates the potency of visual culture in the environmental debate?
There are a lot of examples—a number of which I discuss in my books Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, and Against the Anthropocene. One of the most forceful that comes to mind is the work of the Indian-American photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee, who has developed a long-standing relationship to the Arctic and particularly to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is in Alaska, within the U.S. territories. I mention this because it is also currently a very lively political issue, because the U.S. government, under President Trump, wants to open this protected and fragile territory to oil exploration and drilling. The region is also the home and breeding ground to different animal species like the caribou (large North-American reindeer) and numerous migrating birds, as well as being the home of Indigenous peoples like the Gwich’in. It is a really important and at-risk area, one of the places where you can see the current conflicts petrocapitalist extractivism and its climate-changing activities, on the one hand, and Indigenous human-rights claims and environmental and multispecies justice demands, on the other. Banerjee’s photographs, which show the beauty and stunning expanse of this territory, as well as focus on its human and more-than-human realms, open up questions like: What kind of world do we want to live in? Are we willing to destroy territories like this for economic gain? Is the natural realm a site for infinite human exploitation, or something more, something else? Can we continue with the conditions of advanced modernity within fossil fuel capitalism, or alternately what do First Nations peoples have to say? What is the role of Indigenous practices and resistance to the instrumentalization and financialization of nature? And what does it mean to develop visual practices that give voice and representability to these people, to this environment, to its more-than-human inhabitants, in ways that appeal to the intellect, to conceptual and political issues, as well as to feelings and emotions? What does it mean to experience a perspective shift away from a carbon extractivist subjectivity to one that values flourishing biodiversity and membership in a world of many worlds? Banerjee’s practice opens up these perceptual and philosophical questions in ways that appeal directly to the interdisciplinary discourse of what we’re talking about here.
Another example is Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’ video installation Forest Law, which investigates the oil industry and the destruction of the Ecuadorian Amazon, pitting extraction against Indigenous struggles in the global South, in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It is a great example of how visual art might intervene in and contribute to the environmental debate, in part by pointing to the legal revolution that’s occurring in Latin America and around the world, which is expanding the notion of rights beyond the human. The project investigates how the rights of nature—rights of the forest, of trees, rivers, and nonhuman animals—have been enshrined in Ecuador’s rewritten constitution of 2008, and how such a conception of biocentric legality corresponds with Indigenous views, those of the Sarayaku and Shuar, which are already traditionally and religiously attuned to the reverential being of the forest and the more-than-human realm, impossible to reduce to a mere commodity object or monetary value. Forest Law remarkably opens up the conceptual shift taking place when Indigenous groups join with environmentalists, sharing the ambition of stopping state and corporate extraction ventures even if they don’t have the exact same understanding of nature, and celebrate forest being against climate catastrophe. Examining the intersectionalist solidarities involved in rights of nature legality, the project provides visual and perceptual access to this transformation, opening up environmentalism to the affective register, in ways that are mostly inaccessible to Western science and technology.
Is there still a boundary between environmental activism and art activism?
There may be, but it is also dissolving in many places. The way contemporary art is institutionalised also perpetuates these divisions, which depend on economic factors. So the dominant institutions and conventions of contemporary art—the commercial galleries, biennials, magazines, exhibitions, and journals—are still strongly invested in keeping the visual arts separate from activism, and often even from any kind of political discussion, while activism remains suspicious of the institutionalized and often commodified spaces of the art system, which tend to objectify art and reduce it to something that can be acquired and possessed by wealthy collectors. The policing of the boundaries also exists, which sometimes make it difficult for a writer or researcher to propose articles or get articles published that deal with the intersections of art and activism, including those practices that engage ecology (which the art world in general views from a state of denial—not surprising given its carbon budget). But at the same time there are people operating in exactly those areas that insist on breaking down these boundaries and creating alternative spaces, that operate outside the grid of the dominating commercialized contemporary art system. And those are the most interesting areas for me, where stuff is happening that is really fascinating, amazingly creative, and politically urgent. I get the sense that as we live at a time of ever increasing global wealth and inequality–right to the point where the six wealthiest people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population – that kind of inequality is also operative within the art world. Inequality ends up dividing spaces into what seems im/possible and what is un/thinkable. The privileged order of high art –the commercial galleries, biennials, and magazines – decide what is read and seen, increasingly limited in scope. Part of art activism is to develop alternative spaces that help us think about what really matters. The Environmental Humanities is playing a really important role here by giving these alternative spaces and cultural activities, including experimental art and creative activism, a platform of visibility.