Environmental Humanities

Environmental Humanities at the University of Augsburg

This website documents the Environmental Humanities as a major research focus of the University of Augsburg. The Environmental Humanities are institutionally associated with the Environmental Science Center (Wissenschaftszentrum Umwelt). In their membership and research agendas, the major disciplines of the humanities and social sciences at the university are represented. Besides, other schools and disciplines such as environmental sciences (especially geography), law, economics, computer sciences are also cooperating. The Environmental Humanities provide a platform of transdisciplinary research which brings together the manifold activities conducted at the University of Augsburg in the domain of environmental knowledge and research, emphasizing the special contribution that the humanities and social sciences can make to that transdisciplinary ecological knowledge.


1. The Environmental Humanities

 The Environmental Humanities have emerged in the twenty-first century as a new interdisciplinary framework which has turned into one of the most important and innovative paradigms of the contemporary humanities. They are being institutionalized around the world as places of environmental research and teaching that bring together disciplines that were formerly more or less strictly separated both within the humanities themselves and in the dialogue with the natural sciences. Research centers and teaching programs in Environmental Humanities have been or are being established at universities worldwide, such as at Princeton or UCLA in the US, at Monash University, Australia, at Bath, UK, KTH Laboratory Stockholm, Sweden, Turin, Italy, or Rachel Carson Center Munich, Germany, as well as in a growing number of other places on a global scale. This new umbrella term designates an interdisciplinary project that addresses a broad spectrum of ecological and environmentally oriented issues related to the challenge of sustainable thinking and living in a „world risk society “(Ulrich Beck) and whose scientific analysis in this view is a genuine task not only of the natural and technological sciences but of the humanities and social sciences as well. Therefore, the new research platform of the Environmental Humanities specifically emphasizes the epistemic, social, cultural, and political relevance of the humanities as an indispensable part of the knowledge production of contemporary universities.

 Some of the issues, thematic areas, and research perspectives on which the Environmental Humanities are focusing and which are also part of research and teaching at the University of Augsburg, are the following:

- the interaction between culture and nature as a fundamental condition of both the natural and the human sciences; the cultural and narrative dimensions of environmental science; the representation of nature and the culture-nature relationship in texts, media, and art forms;

- urgently needed ways to promote a scientifically informed but also value-oriented environmental awareness, which includes perspectives of environmental justice, diversity, postcoloniality, and gender issues and is mediated in various forms in literature, philosophy, art, pedagogics, ethnology, history, linguistics, ethics, or theology; 

- climate change, its manifestations and interpretations in science and the larger culture, but also in imaginative texts and other narrative forms and media;

- the Anthropocene as a geological age dominated by human civilization; its consequences for everyday life and for the planet, for environmental policy, for options of agency on local, regional, national, and global scales;

- environmental pressures (pollution of air, water, land; loss of biodiversity; hypertrophic waste; toxic discourse; public and private health issues) and their political, social, psychosomatic, medical, and ethical implications and artistic transformations;

- the question of securing environmentally sound energy resources for the future; renewable energy strategies; cultural implications of resource policy; the significance of energy in cultural processes and forms of artistic creativity;

- normative questions of the relationship of human and nonhuman nature, of anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric value systems in both diachronic and synchronic view;

- the emergence of ecological communication as a novel type of discourse in texts and (new) media, including digital media as in the digital humanities;

- the contribution of the social and cultural sciences to the overarching topic of sustainability, which again contains not only economic or technoscientific but social, cultural, ethical, and aesthetic-artistic dimensions.

- Critique of the current science-based environmental discourse from novel standpoints, that include historical analysis of the evolution of predominant issues within the modern environmental discourse  


2.  The Environmental Humanities at the University of Augsburg

In the past few decades, Augsburg has become a center of environmental competence both at the university and in cooperation with non-university institutions such as the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA), the Bavarian Environmental Agency (LfU), the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT), and the Helmholtz Center Munich (HMGU). Cooperation includes also international partners in Europe and both North and South America. Disciplinary research on environmental topics has been conducted in Augsburg for several decades not only in the natural sciences but in the humanities as well, notably in American studies, environmental law, philosophy of nature, and environmental history. What is new in the Environmental Humanities is that research within this framework is oriented from the outset at transdisciplinary paradigms, some of which have been specifically developed at the University of Augsburg. Among them are the following:


Stoffgeschichten (Material Histories) is a long-standing and highly productive Augsburg research project which focuses on narrating culture-nature interaction with a special emphasis on material history and the cultural relevance and agency of material substances.


The recent ‚material turn‘ in ecocritical theory and in the Environmental Humanities has already been practiced and anticipated in the Stoffgeschichten project. In a series of volumes on substances such as coffee, wood, aluminum, carbon dioxide, dirt, salt, coffee, dust, cocoa, milk, and nitrogen, the project analyzes narrations about these substances as material resources, but also their cultural biography and “social life” in a transdisciplinary combination of chemical, geographic, historical, cultural, and sociopolitical factors. These cultural-material historical studies are the humanities counterpart to the technoscientific Life Cycle Assessments. Political and social conflicts, but also cultural dimensions connected with the production, synthesis, and the use and dissipation of these substances, are put into focus. The book series Stoffgeschichten, which has been edited since 2004 by the Environmental Science Center of the University of Augsburg, has found increasing scholarly attention and is part of lecture and teaching programs.



Literature as Cultural Ecology is a concept that has been noted internationally and has become a widely discussed reference paradigm of research projects in the field of cultural and literary studies. The approach raises the question of how the ecological crisis is perceived and imagined in literature and other forms of art and cultural creativity. Literature is considered not as mere decorative luxury but as an ecological force in culture, a vital sensorium of critical diagnosis and creative renewal that contributes a specifically complex, sustainable form of ecological knowledge and is indispensable for the continued evolution and creative self-transformation of culture. (http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/literature-as-cultural-ecology-9781474274654/) Within this framework, initiatives like the DFG Network Environmental Crisis and the Transnational Imagination (PD Dr. Timo Müller, American Literature) help enhance the visibility of the Augsburg Cultural Ecology Research Group, which has produced a number of influential international publications in the field.


Discourse Analysis at the interface of environmental studies and sociology likewise integrates narrations and literary texts into the methodologies of the social and historical sciences. The University of Augsburg is one of the most important European centers of sociological discourse analysis, which is applied especially to ecological narratives, for example about climate change. The chair of sociology co-edits the Journal for Discourse Studies / Zeitschrift für Diskursforschung, which frequently addresses environmental topics.


Environmental History is practiced not only at the Environmental Science Center but in a transdisciplinary array of disciplines ranging from geography to history, from physics to political science. The Lech river as both physical-material and socio-cultural space has been the subject of a lecture series and a corresponding book publication.


For more information please see the pages of „Lehrstuhl für Europäische Regionalgeschichte sowie Bay. und Schwäbische Landesgeschichte“.


The cooperation with the Rachel Carson Center in Munich will significantly strengthen this branch of Environmental Humanities research.

Climate Change Research has been conducted at the University of Augsburg in cooperation between physics, geography, cultural studies, and media studies (Virtual Alpine Observatory; Climate and Atmospheric Research at the Schneefernerhaus). Cultural aspects of climate change have also been the subject of empirical and media-analytical studies about climate science and climate scepticism (Soentgen/Bilanczic).


For more information, please see the pages of oekom.


Environmental Ethics is another transdisciplinary research focus. The University of Augsburg offers the only master’s graduate program in Environmental Ethics in Germany, which is embedded in a well-established, cross-disciplinary network of experienced faculty members.


For more information, please see the pages of „Katholisch-Theologische Fakultät Universität Augsburg“.


The Environmental Health Sciences as a research focus of the new Medical School will furthermore initiate another innovative field of environmental research, in which medical-clinical, environmental science and cultural-humanist research are intersecting. Diseases like asthma, atopic dermatitis, but also malaria cannot be analyzed only on a scientific basis. To understand them, we have to bring together perspectives from epidemiology, history, geography, sociology, medicine and physiology. The emerging fields of global public health and environmental health sciences stress the importance of combining various research methodologies.

These material, geographical, literary-cultural, discourse-analytical, historical, ethical, and health-related dimensions of environmental and ecocultural knowledge demonstrate the broad spectrum of rich and lively research activities at the interface of the natural and cultural sciences at the University of Augsburg, which are brought together in new and promising ways under the umbrella of the Environmental Humanities.  


3. Cooperations

3. 1. Cooperation within the University

In this cross-disciplinary research, the Environmental Humanities are cooperating with other central institutions at the University of Augsburg which have been established to encourage transdisciplinary work at the interface of the sciences and the humanities, notably


3.2. National and International Cooperation with other Universities:

Memorial University, Canada (Prof. Sean McGrath et al., Environmental Philosophy), University of Turin, Italy (Prof. Serenella Iovino, Literary Studies and Material Ecocriticism), University of Bern, Switzerland (Prof. Gabriele Rippl, Cultural Sustainability), Bath Spa University, UK (Prof. Kate Rigby, Literature and Climate Change Discourse). Rachel Carson Center in Munich (Environmental History), Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre (Prof. Klaus Hilbert, Archeology, traditional indigenous knowledge, Environmental History)


3.3. Cooperation with Non-University Institutions:

Landesamt für Umwelt (Bavarian  Environment Agency),

Helmholtz Zentrum München German Research Center for Environmental Health

KIT, Campus Alpine; Institute of Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research Atmospheric Environmental Research (IMK-IFU), Campus Alpin, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

WEC, World Environment Center


4. Future Perspectives

In line with the university’s overall concept of a network university, this transdisciplinary form of shared research and teaching will be substantively strengthened and intensified with the establishment of the Environmental Humanities. Our initiative is based on the conviction that the role of the humanities in the environmental crisis does not merely consist in adding selected cultural aspects to problems defined by the natural sciences. Instead it is our assumption that the Environmental Humanities are providing equally fundamental contributions to our understanding of the ongoing transformations of the biosphere and will decisively help deepen our knowledge of

the dramatic sociocultural changes that we are witnessing.


5. Possible Transdisciplinary Research Projects

Environmental Crisis and the Transnational Imagination

The Environmental Humanities: Material and Cultural Ecologies

Nature and Narrative


6. For a first orientation on the emergent field of the environmental humanities, see e.g.:


7. Recent Publications in the Environmental Humanities at the University of Augsburg:

  • Bilandzic, Helena und Jens Soentgen: „Die Struktur klimaskeptischer Argumente. Verschwörungstheorie als Wissenschaftskritik.“ In: Gaia – Ökologische Perspektiven für Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft, Bd. 23, 1/2014, S. 40-47. Ausgezeichnet mit dem Gaia Best Paper Award 2014.
  • Böschen, Stefan, Armin Reller und Jens Soentgen: „Stoffgeschichten – eine neue Perspektive für eine transdisziplinäre Umweltforschung.“ In:  GAIA 13, 2004, no. 1, S. 19-25
  • Dürbeck, Gabriele, Urte Stobbe, Hubert Zapf und Evi Zemanek, eds. Ecological Thought in German Literature and Culture. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2016    (mit einem Kapitel von Jens Soentgen über Stoffgeschichte)
  • Hahn, Hans-Peter, Karlheinz Cless und Jens Soentgen:  People at the well. Kinds, usages and meanings of water in a global perspective. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag 2012.
  • Krauss, Marita, Stefan Lindl und Jens Soentgen: Der gezähmte Lech. Fluss der Extreme. Volk Verlag München 2014.
  • Müller, Timo und Michael Sauter, eds. Literature, Ecology, Ethics. New Trends in European Ecocriticism. . Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012.
  • Reller, A., ; Dießenbacher J. (2015): Are There Enough Resources for Our Lifestyle?  How  Resource Strategy Leads From Wasting Materials to Using Them In: Stebbing P., Tischner U. Changing Paradigms: Designing for a Sustainable Future.   Verdana Arts  156-166.
  • Rauch, T., Schmidt, M. & D. Segebart (2014): New rural dynamics and challenges in the Global South. Geographica Helvetica 69 (4): 225-226.
  • Schliephake, Christopher: Urban Ecologies – City Space, Material Agency, and Environmental Politics in Contemporary Culture (Environmental Theory and Practice). Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2014.
  • Seefried, Elke: Rethinking Progress.  On the Origin oft he Modern Sustanability Discourse, 1970-2000, in:  Journal of Modern European History,  Vol. 13,  2015/3, p. 377-399.
  • Soentgen, Jens: Hot air: The science and politics of CO2. In: Global Environment, Bd. 7, März 2014, S. 134-171.
  • Wehling,Peter/Viehöver, Willy/Keller, Reiner (2005): Wo endet die Natur, wo beginnt die Gesellschaft? Doping Genfood, Klimawandel und Lebensbeginn: die Entstehung kosmopolitischer Hybride. In: Soziale Welt Heft 2/3, 56 Jg. S.137-158.
  • Wehling, Peter/Viehöver, Willy/Keller, Reiner/Lau, Christoph (2007): Zwischen Biologisierung des Sozialen und neuer Biosozialität: Dynamiken der biopolitischen Grenzüberschreitung. In: Berliner Journal für Soziologie 17, S. 547-567.
  • Viehöver, Willy (2010): Governing the Planetary Greenhouse in Spite of Scientific Uncertainty. In: Science, Technology & Innovation Studies Vol. 6, No. 2, 127-154.
  • Zapf, Hubert, ed. Kulturökologie und Literatur. Ein transdisziplinäres Paradigma der Literaturwissenschaft. Heidelberg: Winter, 2008.
  • Zapf, Hubert. Literature as Cultural Ecology: Sustainable Texts. London etc.: Bloomsbury, April 2016
  • Zapf, Hubert, ed. Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology. Berlin: De Gruyter, April 2016.