Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the UNSW Sydney's online course, Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds SUSIE PRATT: So, what it would be great to talk to you about is the way that Environmental Humanities intersects with democracy, politics, and different types of knowledges.

Skip to 0 minutes and 22 seconds MATT KEARNES: One of the resounding features of most environmental issues and controversies is the way in which those issues tend to be based on a contestation of whose knowledge really matters in the resolution of environmental issues. So what we see in a range of environmental problems is the way in which the environment is in a sense projected and understood through the lens of particular forms of scientific knowledge, a set of institutional responses to environmental issues around environmental planning, environmental policy, and governance.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds And what happens in environmental issues is those forms of expertise, those forms of scientific knowledge become the focal point for a range of concerns around whose voices, whose knowledges, whose concerns are being taken seriously in the framing and in the response to a range of environmental concerns.

Skip to 1 minute and 19 seconds SUSIE: So what does this actually mean in practice?

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds MATT: I think it means two things in practise. I think the most obvious effect is the way in which we’ve tended to think about environmental issues through the prism of technological innovation– that achieving environmentally beneficial outcomes is simply a matter of innovating new technical solutions. So in the area of climate change, that it’s simply a matter of transitioning from one energy system to another– from coal-based energy systems to renewables. And that’s given a particular flavour to the way in which we have thought about environment problems. The other key effect of the scientisation of environmental issues is the way in which we’ve tended to separate out facts from values.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 seconds We’ve tended to assume that scientific expertise dwells in the realm of facts, of propositional knowledge of the physical world, and that public concerns dwell in the realm of values. And what we’ve done there is we’ve tended to value one over the other. We’ve tended to value facts, which we assume are objective, over values, which we assume are sort of subjective or sort of irrational. And what we’ve see over a range of environmental issues and concerns is that this distinction between facts and values has never really been as clear cut as we might think.

Skip to 2 minutes and 38 seconds SUSIE: That’s really interesting. So can you give me an example of how this has played out?

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 seconds MATT: OK, yeah. I think what we saw over the latter half of the 20th century was a change in the focus of environmental activism. So environmentalism sort of began with a concern for the preservation of natural heritage, with its links to forestry and land management. And around the latter half of the 20th century, environmental activism began to be very much more focused on issues around science and technology. So you might think of some of the landmark environmental controversies over that period– issues around industrial pollution, issues to do with acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, climate change, civil nuclear power, and the commercialisation of genetically modified crops.

Skip to 3 minutes and 27 seconds These were the kind of– these became the touchstone environmental issues of our age. And in these controversies, what happened was that the supposed distinction between facts and values– the idea that science speaks from a position of rationality and that publics speak from a position of subjective irrationality– was really questioned, and fundamentally blurred.

Skip to 3 minutes and 50 seconds SUSIE: OK, so how have governments or expert institutions responded to these issues?

Skip to 3 minutes and 55 seconds MATT: So I think what’s happened is that government institutions and a range of expert bodies have realised that the public acceptance of environmental policy-making is not as assured as it, perhaps, once was. So what they’ve done is that they’ve now engaged in a really interesting sort of way, in a range of communication and engagement processes that are designed to generate public acceptance and public legitimacy for environmental decision-making and policy-making.

Skip to 4 minutes and 25 seconds SUSIE: So how have these issues manifested themselves in your own research?

Skip to 4 minutes and 29 seconds MATT: So one example is a project that I’ve just finished with professor Judy Motion. In this project, we looked at the whole issue of the use of recycled water for drinking, an issue which is really on the political horizon, the policy horizon, in a place like Sydney, where we are now, on the eastern seaboard of Australia, but also in places like southern California where the combination of climate change, changing weather patterns, changing rainfall patterns, and demographic concentration in major urban settings is creating a range of concerns around the future sustainability of drinking water supplies.

Skip to 5 minutes and 6 seconds And in that context, many policymakers, environmental thinkers, are suggesting that we need to invest in alternative water-source technologies– so desalination, for example, or the use of recycled waste water as a complement to our drinking supplies. Now, these issues have tended to be thought about in very particular kinds of ways. On the one hand, there’s a commitment to building new infrastructure, building new technologies– you know, water treatment technologies. On the other hand, there’s a commitment to driving public acceptance of those innovations through the communication of those policy decisions. What we wanted to do in this project was to, was to rethink how the issue had been conceptualised.

Skip to 5 minutes and 47 seconds What policymakers had tended to do is they’d tended to think that the problem was simply a matter of public acceptance of recycled water, the idea that publics were somehow kind of fearful of the use of recycled water in drinking. And so they’ve invested a lot of energy in communicating the safety of recycled water to the general public. What we wanted to do in our project was to rethink this and think, well, what are the sort of social, cultural values that are part of the way that members of the public make sense of the proposition? Make sense of– you know, should we use recycled water in our drinking?

Skip to 6 minutes and 24 seconds And we ran a whole range of research initiatives all around Australia with a diverse group of the general public. And what we found was that there were a set of really consistent themes, consistent values that members of the public felt hadn’t really been taken seriously in the way that the whole issue had been sort of conceptualised and presented to them– issues around equity, issues around fairness, but also issues around whose knowledge really should count in the construction of environmental policy and outcomes.

Skip to 6 minutes and 54 seconds SUSIE: OK, so what does this tell us, more broadly, about Environmental Humanities and democracy?

Skip to 6 minutes and 59 seconds MATT: OK, I think this tells us three things. First, it tells us that the assumption that we can do environmental policy making in a sort of secluded space of expert knowledge and then communicate those results to the public really needs to be questioned. Publics are interacting and participating and contesting and arguing about environmental policy in a whole range of ways. And we need to really kind of understand that process. We need to be able to deal with that in the ways in which we think about environmental issues. The second thing I think that it tells us is it underscores the importance of stories and that environmental issues are inextricably interwoven with social and cultural values.

Skip to 7 minutes and 38 seconds In a sense, we can’t think of environmental issues simply through the lens of expert scientific knowledge, but we need to engage much more systematically with social and cultural values that are always part of the resolution of environmental issues. The third and last thing that this research tells us is that we need much more plural and diverse forms of democratic participation — forms of decision-making that extend well beyond the formal processes of democratic representation and that seek to actively include and engage with diverse forms of knowledge, and diverse forms of making sense of issues– and that actually seek to include those knowledges in processes of decision making.

Public participation in science & technology

In this video, Matthew Kearnes and Susie Pratt draw on questions and frameworks from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and public engagement practices to explore questions that arise in Environmental Humanities:

Key questions raised in this conversation are:

  • Whose knowledge counts when dealing with environmental issues?
  • What counts as facts and what counts as values?
  • What are the social and cultural values that are used to make sense of environmental propositions?
  • What forms of knowledge and means of sense-making are used within democratic participation to ensure equity and fairness?

Matthew and Susie question existing public engagement approaches that concentrate on public acceptance of pre-determined, technology-driven responses to environmental problems. Their discussion focuses on a case study of recycled water for drinking, to engage with complex issues around who has access to framing environmental problems and driving change.

Matthew concludes:

…we need much more plural and diverse forms of democratic participation, forms of decision-making that will extend well beyond the formal processes of democratic representation and that seek to actively include and engage with diverse forms of knowledge, diverse forms of making sense of issues.

We will examine the relationships between facts and values more closely in Week 3.


  1. Jason Chilvers and Matthew Kearnes, “Public Participation in Science and Technology: Why the Failure to Launch?,” The Guardian (17 December, 2015).

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: