Literary perspective on ecological crisis
Interview Kristine Steenbergh Associate professor English Literature VU Amsterdam
Until recently, ecological problems have mainly been analysed from the perspective of scientific disciplines. However, you cannot ignore the influence of humans on ecosystems, according to humanities scientist Kristine Steenbergh. It is for that reason that she and her colleagues are starting a new interdisciplinary research master's track.
In the research master track Environmental Humanities, students will analyse ecological issues in their full historical and cultural complexity. The goal is to understand the interconnectedness of man with life on earth and to learn how to inhabit the world responsibly.
Understanding human behaviour
“Students themselves asked for more in-depth knowledge in this field," says Steenbergh, associate professor of English Literature. "Short specialisation tracks have already been offered, but they want to work more thoroughly on the ecological crisis: look for tools and concepts to actively work on it. The natural sciences focus on the question of what exactly happens in ecosystems. But you can't look at that without considering the intertwining of nature and culture. Man has a major role in today's problems: we consider nature to be an inexhaustible source of human prosperity. In doing so, we put man above nature." She says there are even calls for the current geological epoch to no longer be called Holocene, but Anthropocene – because of that human influence.
"Literature has a great deal of influence on our thinking and how we perceive nature."
Talking to each other
The Environmental Humanities Center Amsterdam was the first in the Netherlands (2016) and the new master track is unique in the Netherlands. There is increasing awareness of the complexity of the world's problems. "A wicked problem," says Steenbergh, "that cannot be solved by a single factor. So you have to look wider." That is why humanities studies the ecological crisis in an interdisciplinary way: from history, archaeology, literature, philosophy, art and culture. This goes beyond multidisciplinarity, she explains, "because you don't look at the problem next to each other, but with each other." Environmental Humanities also collaborates with other faculties, such as the Faculty of Science and Law, and with parties outside science, such as NGOs and activist groups.
The role of literary imagination
It is only logical, Steenbergh finds, that she should be involved in this with her field of English Literature. "Literature has a great deal of influence on our thinking and how we perceive nature. For example, I recently read a poem with my students that was written from the perspective of a whale. This makes them think in a different way." She also teaches a course on renaissance literature from the 16th and 17th centuries from an ecocritical perspective. "Students discover that in plays from that time, you already find reflections on our Western way of dealing with nature, as you see it in today's consumer society."
"Students themselves asked for more in-depth knowledge in this field."
She finds this new master's programme adventurous in that students can help determine what the track will look like. "They can indicate which topics they want to cover. For example, the future of food." People who previously specialised in this field now work as literary programme makers, PhDs and assistant curators at the Rijksmuseum. There is also more and more room in the business world for critical thinkers who can take sustainability to a higher level.
Research master track Environmental Humanities
In the new track within the research master’s in Humanities, students will be able to analyse ecological issues from September 2023. They will examine the influence of man on those issues from various perspectives: history, archaeology, literature, art and culture and other disciplines. You can register until July 15th.
Internships wanted In the second year of the master's programme, students can do an internship. Are you an alumnus and do you have an internship to offer or input for this new master track? Contact Kristine Steenbergh via firstname.lastname@example.org.
magazine for humanities alumni june 2023