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Arctic Environmental Humanities

About the project

The Arctic Environmental Humanities Workshop brings together scholars working across the humanities and humanistic social sciences, and those in polar sciences who are keen to join in conversations with them. As the Arctic gains greater visibility among academics and diverse publics, we see an urgent need for humanities scholars to help shape the current debates and research priorities too often limited to the sciences and social sciences. This rise in awareness of Arctic issues coincides with widespread academic initiatives in the emerging interdisciplinary field of environmental humanities. These growing interests in the Arctic and in the environmental humanities are in turn both catalyzed by the climate crisis; the urgency of this crisis is central to, but not exhaustive of, our collective commitment to Arctic environmental humanities.

The Arctic world is dominated by ice, serving as a challenging interface between land and water, a highway connecting the travels and stories of Indigenous communities, a storehouse of the planet's deep environmental memory, and a central component of planetary life, the cryosphere. Geologically and ecologically the Arctic includes some of the oldest rocks and traces of life on the planet, as well as some of the youngest and most fragile ecosystems. Human civilizations in the Arctic stretch back millennia and include the most astonishing migrations we have ever accomplished as a species, establishing global trade routes across the northernmost habitable lands on Earth many thousands of years ago. Though often imagined by outsiders as a timeless, uninhabited, and sublime wasteland, the Arctic is a dynamic, heterogeneous world which millions of diverse occupants call home: from industrial cities, to small hamlets, to remote wildernesses, the northern world is connected by human and nonhuman activities unfolding over deep time. Today the unique pressures Indigenous Arctic peoples face due to the climate disruption, pollution, and cultural trauma generated by distant cities and nations are unprecedented. The crises faced by Indigenous peoples of circumpolar world, converging around an ocean surrounded by three continents and vast archipelagoes, invite us to rethink geopolitical and regional paradigms such as East/West and North/South (indeed, the Arctic has sometimes been called the South of the North).

This richness in human and environmental histories is nevertheless often reduced in public discourses to the narrow significance of the Arctic as sentinel of climate crisis and a resource frontier, similar to the reduction of the Arctic world to just an environment (consider, for example, where most news stories about the Arctic are filed under). The humanities need to play a crucial role in highlighting the longer histories of the Arctic world as a deliberate challenge to the present focus on the Arctic as solely an indicator of future climate doom or resource boom, an often reductive approach made possible through the quantitative metrics of monetization. Within the emergent environmental humanities field, this workshop can offer unique insights and focus onto the central role the cryosphere plays, along with the biosphere and lithosphere, in shaping life on earth. Social science and humanities scholars have recently begun articulating emergent critiques under the rubrics of cryopolitics, cryo-history, Arctic humanities, and "icy humanities," foregrounding the significance of the Arctic world, its people, narratives, and more-than-human agents and forces, in shaping planetary life and geopolitics. Our knowledge of the planetary power of the cryosphere is also drawn from environmental sciences, and from Traditional Environmental Knowledge (and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) developed over centuries by Inuit and other Indigenous peoples. We see AEH as collaborating with and learning from the unique expertise grounded in the sciences and in Indigenous forms of knowledge.

We envision this workshop as a collaborative enterprise that is robustly interdisciplinary and brings together diverse expertise of humanistic scholars, artists, and researchers drawn from international circles. Presentations and conversations will take place in varied formats, all online and freely accessible to all those interested. The perspectives and participation of northern communities and people will be particularly valuable and encouraged.