Environmental Studies in the Humanities

Environmental research has its beginnings in the Natural Sciences, originally studying the negative effects of human activity on the natural environment. It might be argued that the main emphasis of the discipline was on studying the environmental impact of man in the context of natural phenomena. The traditional approach was largely a diagnostic one: identifying and describing environmental risks and searching for technological remedies.

Environmental Studies changed greatly with the arrival of the Humanities and Social Sciences into the discipline. This new combination of fields has begun to describe and explore the cultural and social causes behind environmental problems, and has also strived to understand man’s culturally bound relationship with nature more deeply. At this point, many have realised that Humanistic Sciences have an important role in solving current environmental problems and in protecting the environment. From a humanistic viewpoint man is an essential part of the environment.

Common topics of environmental research in the Humanities have been subjects such as the concept of nature in different cultures, the values placed on nature, ethical principles, and analyses of different forms of interaction between culture and nature in the past. There have always been environmental problems caused by human activity, and they have even led into the downfall of entire civilizations.

On the other hand, special focus is placed on understanding the reasons behind the modern environmental crisis: what is wrong with the modern Western relationship with nature? A number of interrelated factors have been identified that have brought our relation with nature to a crisis: among others, the modern view of nature as simply a tool or raw materials for economic growth. The humanistic view of nature seeks sensible alternatives to this tradition, which could lead to a more sustainable way of life. This means the search for new, ecologically sustainable values on which to base our actions in everyday life and in the spheres of economics and technology.

Efforts have also been made to combine the needs of protecting cultural heritage and environmental protection. Cultural sustainability is seen as an important part of sustainable development, and, accordingly, preservation of cultural diversity is a central tenet from the viewpoint of sustainable development. In order to create favourable social and cultural conditions for promoting ecological sustainability, it is essential to preserve cultural diversity, cultural heritage, and cultural identity. For these reasons, Environmental Studies in the Humanities forms an important part of the multifaceted training of environmental specialists and researchers.

Understanding environmental problems and addressing them requires a humanistic view of the diversity of the field. Natural phenomena, social customs, economics, technology, cultural concepts and values are all interrelated. For this reason, even at the onset of the studies the aim is strong multidisciplinary expertise and development of critical thinking.

Study guidance is provided by University Lecturer Jari Okkonen, tel. +358 29 448 3321, jari.okkonen@oulu.fi.

Last updated: 10.10.2013