Reflections on Greening the Digital Humanities, and What Comes Next?

 

Greening the Digital Humanities, a community workshop exploring the environmental impacts and sustainability of Digital Humanities research, was held on 10 November 2021. It was jointly organised by: 

In the following blog post, Jo Lindsay Walton — Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex, poet, and all round joy-fueled creative conservationist — reflects on the workshop and what comes next.

 

 

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 below 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 different 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 accommodate 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! Degrowth! An 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).