The Digital Humanities Climate Coalition

After some wonderfully galvanising encounters in late 2021, Digital Humanities Climate Coalition is now officially a thing. It’s a collaborative and cross-institutional initiative focused on what DH researchers (broadly construed) can do in times of climate crisis and climate transition, especially understanding and improving the environmental impact of DH research. Participants are based at HE institutions and DH Centres across the UK, Ireland, and Northern Europe. There are three working groups doing things over the course of 2022, plus a reading group. If you’d like to find out more or get involved, you can do so here.

Greening the Digital Humanities

We had, I think, a very good workshop.

To coincide with COP26, the Greening the Digital Humanities workshop was held by the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society, the University of Southampton Digital Humanities, the Sussex Humanities Lab, and the Humanities & Data Science Turing interest group. It was a chance for Digital Humanities groups across the UK and Northern Europe to come together to consider what DH communities should do to rise to the urgent challenges of a changing climate and a just climate transition.

It was a summit of unprecedented scope and determination, and probably long overdue. Before the day itself, we had a couple months’ worth of drumroll. So we were able to start by sharing insights from these various scattered dialogues and surveys. Video here and slides here.

Building on this early engagement, four-ish main action themes emerged during the workshop:

  • Compiling a toolkit for DH researchers to do what we do more sustainably — finding out what’s already out there and signposting it, finding out what isn’t and inventing it.
  • Improving our knowledge, especially about how to measure our own impacts. This could definitely inform that toolkit, but it came up so much it deserves its own theme.
  • Nurturing a community of interest around just transitions — climate action is about decolonisation, about feminism, about anti-racism, about diversity and democracy. Many of us felt we wanted to deepen our understandings of climate justice, to share in one another’s research, and to reach out to colleagues and fellow travellers outside of DH.
  • Lobbying, influencing, and offering support and expertise — especially within our universities, and in our relationships with major funders. There was also some interest in other stakeholder groups (key suppliers, green investor coalitions, people responsible for league tables and excellence frameworks, etc.).

My own breakout rooms focused mostly on that final theme. We spent quite a lot of the conversation on funders (representatives from whom were in attendance). We all acknowledged the need for a collaborative and joined-up approach, feeding our perspectives into the work funders are already doing.

At the same time, there is also a fairly clear short-term ask here: we want prominent assurances that bids are not going to be disadvantaged for devoting some of their precious word counts to environmental impacts, and that budget lines related to mitigating environmental impact are legitimate. Everybody’s hunch is that this is already the case, but it’s good to have it said out loud, while the medium-term processes such as updating funder guidelines grind into gear. There is plenty to figure out. But the next few years are crucial from a climate perspective, and bids going in today or tomorrow are impacting what we might be doing in 2022-2025. To keep them aligned with the 1.5 degrees ambitions, some interim incentives will be handy.

As we flowed from our break-out groups into plenary discussion, another theme that emerged was work. We’re long past the point where managing climatic impacts could be seen as a ‘nice to have’ piece of work bolted onto the side of business-as-usual, if there happens to be some extra time and energy to devote there. But at the same time, we need to be sensitive to the diverse levels of capacity. We need to watch out for replicated or otherwise unnecessary work. Where possible activities should be folded into things that already exist. Progress can be made asynchronously to reflect busy calendars. And where we can, we should tune into the ways this work can be collectively nourishing, fascinating, and energising.

So what are the next steps? Broadly, to sort ourselves into teams to try to action things over the next six months or so, and see how we get on with that. Also to continue to reach out to others. These activities probably need to be organised under an umbrella of some kind. How do you like the ring of a Digital Humanities Climate Coalition?

The workshop winds up. One by one they go back to their lives, till I am alone in the Zoom room. A surreptitious glance over my shoulder, then I gleefully get out my gas-guzzling leaf vidaXL Petrol Backpack Leaf Blower and get the Google Jamboard in my gun sights. Post-its dance like confetti. One flies up that escaped my attention earlier.

“The world is burning. It is already too late without massive systematic top-down changes forced on us that no politician will want to do. Let’s all write nihilistic poetry and embrace the end.”

I feel that too. Of course it goes straight into the spreadsheet: WILLING TO LEAD OR CO-LEAD NIHILISTIC POETRY AND END-EMBRACING WORKING GROUP.

But it also drives home for me one last theme: the importance of mid-scale action. When we focus too much on what the individual can do  — buying zippy little electric car, or the Correct Broccoli  — it fails to engage with the scale of the challenge. When we focus too much on the big big shifts  — system change! DegrowthAn end to extractivist ontologies! — the concepts have all the necessary oomph, but the concrete actions prove elusive.

The middle scale, the often distinctly unpoetic activity of organising with a few others to influence an organisation, a sector, a community of practice, a regulation or practice, is often what goes missing. The small scale and the big scale are still important, of course! And climate actions at many different scales feed and reinforce one another. Nihilistic poetry and end-embracing can even be part of that …

But the reason it felt like a very good workshop was that it was satisfyingly in-the-middle. Hope can be a feeling, but hope isn’t exclusively a feeling. Hope is also what you do. And often it’s things you do with a few other people that most manifestly are hope. Interventions with two or three other collaborators, or a dozen, or twenty, exploring what might be accomplished, and multiplying the tales of the attempts.

If you are involved in any way with Digital Humanities and were not at the workshop, please feel free to reach out. Some ways to get involved: email j.w.baker@soton.ac.uk and ask about the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition; sign the Digital Humanities and the Climate Crisis manifesto; contribute to the growing crowdsourced list of resources (and wishlist).

This post mirrored at Southampton and Edinburgh.

SHL Environmental Strategy

How do we reconcile the work (and play) of the digital humanities with the transition to a net zero carbon economy, while also addressing many other urgent and interconnected environmental issues that confront the world today? We don’t have all the answers, but we’re determined to work at the forefront of responsible and imaginative environmental practice in the digital humanities. We know that this means broad sharing of insights, practices, and perspectives. Whoever you are, if you’d like a free copy of the SHL Environmental Strategy 2020, get in touch.

SHL Environmental Strategy launch

Today we are launching the Sussex Humanities Lab Environmental Strategy.

Sussex Hums Lab Enviro Strategy

This document sets out our current thinking on how SHL stands in relation to the global environmental emergency, and to the demanding and necessary target, set by the current UK government, of achieving net zero carbon by 2050.

It affirms our commitment to explore and mitigate the carbon intensity and ecological impact of our core Digital Humanities work, despite the many uncertainties this entails. Our work can contribute to global heating and ecological destruction, and it can contribute to mitigation and resilience.

It also affirms our commitment to continue to advocate for the wider system change necessary across society, and where relevant, to use our specific expertise to support and to scrutinise, to help ensure that the perspectives of the Digital Humanities are included in these complex transitions.

We believe that these ambitions go hand-in-hand with the small everyday actions that prefigure ecological sustainability. Here’s a snippet from one of the appendices, ‘In Praise of Smaller Actions’:

Smaller actions can demonstrate and cultivate a practical willingness to make changes in our everyday lives. Because the bigger changes of net zero will demand many such changes, it is important that we explore what such changes feel like, and the ripple effects they may have. It is important that we cultivate narratives, skills, and ways of thinking around these changes, so we know what to embrace, what to resist, and what to re-imagine. When done creatively and reflectively, those smaller actions can even be a kind of practice-led research into climate sustainability and climate resilience. They can be ‘cognitive’: they are a way of finding things out, and a form of knowledge in themselves.

Get in touch

This document is a reference point for all Sussex Humanities Lab Members and Associates. But we also hope it will be a way of making connections with the wider world.

The Sussex Humanities Lab includes some STEM expertise, and we frequently collaborate with STEM researchers, including environmental scientists. Our members also include researchers in the environmental humanities. However, we are not the experts on environmental science, policy, or emergency. The SHL Environmental Strategy is a living document which gives current estimation of the situation we are facing. We welcome qualifications, criticisms, and suggested revisions.

We also welcome opportunities to build our own capacity, and to explore future research collaboration with academics and non-academic partners. The Sussex Humanities Lab has an extensive portfolio of externally funded projects, which we continually look to expand. We also host visiting researchers to run seminars and workshops, and welcome enquiries from prospective doctoral students and Visiting Fellows. As set out in more detail in the document, we would be especially interested to hear from those who are working on, or who have an interest in, the following:

  • Covid-19, digital technology, and the environment
  • The materiality of the digital, including the perceived ethereality of the digital
  • Climate futures in culture, policy, and science
  • Carbon coloniality
  • Critical resilience
  • The politics and cultures of offsetting
  • The embodiment of academic research and collaboration
  • Negative emissions and other climate technology
  • Agonistic climate action

Here’s one last snippet:

The world has started to burn. There have been some interesting debates about the usefulness about this apocalyptic idiom: does it really help to convert the urgency of our situation into practical action? But setting aside the complex emotional implications of mentioning it, the world has actually started to burn: the effects of global heating are already being felt around the world through heatwaves, wildfires, drought and famine, as well as wildlife extinction, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events such as storms and flooding. Enormous economic damage, human displacement, and deaths attributable to climate change are no longer mere forecasts: they are daily news. These are tragedies, not omens.