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Roundtable discussion

This roundtable features Susie Pratt, Stephen Muecke and Mattew Kearnes discussing key ideas about environmental humanities
SUSIE PRATT: The Environmental Humanities offers new narratives for how the environment and humans relate to one another. Join me in this roundtable discussion to explore notions of storytelling and future directions for the field. My name’s Susie Pratt. And I’d like to introduce you to leading experts within the Environmental Humanities at UNSW in this roundtable discussion. I’d like to welcome Professor Stephen Muecke and Associate Professor Matt Kearnes. So I’d like to start by thinking about ways in which storytelling has emerged as a key Environmental Humanities issue. I was wondering, Stephen, if you could talk to that.
STEPHEN MUECKE: Well, as it happens, I’ve got a background in the study of storytelling in Indigenous communities. There was a community in the northwest of Western Australia that I visited a number of years ago. And they’re using storytelling as a way of articulating the problems arising with colonisation– the clash of two laws, the emergence of strange new substances, like alcohol, that was very disruptive to their society. So that’s what their stories are tackling. And in that sense, stories continue to do the same thing. They’re ways of organising our action, tracking our desires, making us think about the ways in which things can flow through social life. So I think we keep using them like that.
It doesn’t matter what community you’re in.
MATT KEARNES: I’m really attracted to the idea that– Stephen, did you say that stories are ways of organising the world?
STEPHEN: Yeah, that’s right. Sure, you can have a policy document coming out of an institute, telling you how you should act. But people are really going to follow stories that are told by their peers, which map their future desires. Should we go this way? Should we keep going like this or take a different direction?
MATT: So I work in the area of the sociology of science. And I guess one of the things that I’m interested in is how stories populate our understanding of scientific knowledge and developments. So we often think of stories as a domain of the arts and the humanities. But when you look at what’s happening in laboratories and what’s happening in research institutes, there are an incredible array of stories about the future of human life, the future of environmental degradation, even the expansion of humans into space– are fuelled by these amazing narratives and stories. And for me, the Environmental Humanities enables us to interact and explore and analyse these stores, as they populate scientific ways of understanding the world.
STEPHEN: So this is where our expertise comes in in the Environmental Humanities.
MATT: Yeah.
STEPHEN: We’re crafting new stories that are not universal but specifically tailored to different localities. And we can work with scientists on that too. Because scientists aren’t always universal either in their aspirations. They know how to be very precise, very detailed in their field studies, their case studies. And so, we’re sort of humanities in the field, in that respect too– or the lab.
MATT: Yes. So it seems to me like one of the questions that we keep circling around is not whether or not there are stories, but, in a sense, what constitutes a good story? What constitutes a kind of a plot line that’s, in a sense, fulfilling?
STEPHEN: How do you check if it’s good or bad? What are we testing it with?
MATT: Well, we could test it with a whole range of things, can’t we? We could test it against literary conventions, as to–
STEPHEN: Oh, right.
MATT: —what constitutes a fulfilling plot-line?
STEPHEN: Yes, because they are political stories. If you do think you’ve got a good course of action mapped out and you want people to follow it, well, the story has to be compelling–
MATT: Yeah.
STEPHEN: —and mobilise their desires to do so.
SUSIE: What, for me, is really interesting about this kind of investment in stories and what stories can potentially do is that it’s not just a textual discourse-orientated notion of story — that story goes beyond that kind of social constructivism understanding that we had, traditionally, about stories. And for me, as an artist, how do we engage materially? And what materials speak? And how can they speak and tell stories as well?
MATT: Well, Susie, tell us. Tell us how do you do that?
SUSIE: Well, I think there is, again, that situated way of investigating different scenarios. So I’ve recently investigated the impacts of open-cut coal-mining in the Hunter Valley and the resonances of infrasound and how infrasound tells its story in the material bodies of people, and translating that in a physical art environment. So that experience and ways that the sound manipulates people’s bodies and translates into a physical space was what I explored.
STEPHEN: So you had to go there and experience it, get in the field and work closely.
SUSIE: Yeah.
STEPHEN: So that kind of storytelling is very embedded, very intimate with its materials, unlike perhaps some of those older modernist stories where you could have told the story of coal over there, from a different place, as if everything would work all right from a distance.
SUSIE: The God’s-eye-view story.
STEPHEN: Yeah, exactly. This is the one I don’t like.
MATT: Because one of things, what I’d be interested to hear both of you talk about was, we tend to think, OK, so there are different ways of apprehending the world, the different values at play in disputes. And we’ve tended to think that, well if we just bring everybody together, we can deliberate an outcome, which is a kind of compromised, worked through outcome, but that everyone will kind of agree with the outcome. And it seems– in both of your cases, at least, and some of my research too– that when those processes happen, the outcomes are always fought over.
And that we never really resolve the co-presence of contending ways of apprehending the world, the notion that there are different ways of approaching the world. Do you have a sense of how that plays out in your case-studies?
SUSIE: Well, I was wondering if Donna Haraway’s notion of “staying with the trouble” comes at that. And I know that, through my own work, it was for me this anxiety about being implicated within the use of coal-mining and wanting to witness that and go to these sites to stay with that trouble, to understand it for myself, and translate that.
STEPHEN: Yeah, well, obviously there’s huge problems in the Northwest, where you’ve got Indigenous people, on the one hand, living there for thousands of years, and the mining company and the state coming in, and a clash between the two. And they’re not even inhabiting the same worlds. The mining company wants gas out of the ground. And they’re calling it nature. The indigenous people have something they call the “dreaming.” And so, on every front, there are these conflicts. And maybe the one place they could meet and resolve things is in a court of law. But even then, maybe not.
MATT: So, say, in the area that I work in, we face similar kinds of problems, which is the co-existence of different ways of thinking of what’s at stake in an issue, what someone like Bruno Latour might call “matters of concern.”
MATT: Now, we tend to think about the resolution of those issues as a matter of procedure, as a matter of democratic participation or of legislation or even legal process. But of course, in practise, it’s always more complicated. It’s always the case that those resolutions are always partial. They’re always contingent. They’re always, in a sense, constructed. So it seems to me that one of the things that Environmental Humanities might leave us with is a sense that, in order to think about environmental politics, we need to get real. When need to get situated. We need to get material.
We need to always base our accounts of environmental politics in situated experiences of the world and to explore in detail the construction of worlds and alternative worlds in that process.
SUSIE: Thanks, Matt. That’s a really good point to end, I think, on this discussion. And I’d like to thank you, Stephen–
STEPHEN: Thanks.
SUSIE: —and you, Matt, for participating in this roundtable. And I’d also like to leave it with you, the viewer, to reflect on some of the key ideas that we’ve raised in this discussion and to think about ways that you personally can stay with the trouble within your own research and concerns.
In this roundtable discussion, Matthew Kearnes, Susie Pratt and Stephen Muecke discuss the power of storytelling and opportunities for storytelling within the Environmental Humanities.
Drawing from examples in their own research, the group addresses the following questions:
  • What makes storytelling such a powerful research tool for engaging in environmental issues?
  • What makes for a compelling or fulfilling story?
  • How can stories be told both materially and discursively?
  • As the Environmental Humanities field develops, what are some of the challenges and opportunities it faces?
  • What role does “re-storying” play in current and future Environmental Humanities research?
They arrive at the idea that the way we understand different environmental issues is always shifting, that “we never really resolve the co-presence of contending ways of apprehending the world”. They invoke Donna Haraway’s concept of “staying with the trouble” [1] to suggest that researchers working in the Environmental Humanities must not avoid the unsettling feelings of contention, but must endeavour to remain in the middle of troubling situations.
They conclude that it is only by staying with the trouble, and by developing situated knowledges and understandings of situations, that we can remake ideas about the world:
…one of the things that Environmental Humanities might leave us with is a sense that… we need to get real. We need to get situated. We need to get material. We need to always base our accounts… in situated experiences of the world and to explore in detail the construction of worlds and alternative worlds in that process.


  1. Donna Haraway, “Staying with the Trouble: Xenoecologies of Home for Companions in the Contested Zones,” Cultural Anthropology Online, July 27 (2010).
  2. Stephen Muecke, Still colonising Aboriginal land, Overland August 4 (2010).
  3. Stephen Muecke, Paddy Roe and Krim Benterrak, Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology (Melbourne: re-press: 2014)
  4. Jason Chilvers and Matthew Kearnes, eds., Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics (London: Routledge, 2015).
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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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