Questions of human survival

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
A sculpture of a fish built from plastic waste

The world faces complex challenges for which there is never a purely scientific answer.

 By Stuart Taberner, University of Leeds, UK

At last year’s COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, governments recognised for the first time the critical link between cultural heritage and climate change. In a series of groundbreaking decisions, participants acknowledged the massive loss of tangible and intangible heritage occurring as a result of rising temperatures, as well as the fundamental importance of culture – how we make sense of ourselves and the world we inhabit – to efforts to mitigate and adapt to a changing environment.

At the same time, national and international bodies have signed on to an initiative led by the British Council, urging greater consideration of culture as the ‘missing pillar’ of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In broad terms, the argument is that culture can effectively contribute to the achievement of all 17 SDGs, by mobilising human creativity to rethink our relationship with our environment, make sense of the challenges of climate change within local contexts and traditions, draw on the past to shape new solutions in the present, and to imagine a different future. UNESCO has long championed a similar approach, with a particular focus on culture as a potential asset in reducing inequality, exclusion, and poverty.

But what is the role of university research in mobilising culture for the SDGs? How can reflecting on culture, and about culture, contribute to, say, tackling climate change or enabling better nutrition, clean water, or improved health? These are key questions that are now being asked of scholars in arts and humanities disciplines who have not always thought of themselves as being so directly concerned with questions of human survival.

Content and approaches

In part, the answer relates to the content of arts and humanities study. Researchers investigating traditional oral narratives among indigenous populations in the Amazon rainforest, for example, have discovered important clues about how to interpret past changes in the environment, as well as how to make sense of recent Earth observation data revealing new areas of deforestation. Or – a second example – arts and humanities researchers working in the Philippines have explored the ways in which vernacular buildings may be better able to recover from earthquakes than the modern structures that have largely replaced them.

In fact, arts and humanities researchers are involved in projects on food, water, health, the environment, and many other SDGs, using their specialist understanding of local contexts, histories, languages, and human behaviour to develop solutions to complex issues for which there is never a purely scientific answer or simple technological fix.

It is also about the approaches that arts and humanities research brings to bear. Across its disciplines, certain key methods are indispensable: ‘thick description’ (a layered and multifaceted understanding of the complexities of social relations); careful attention to ‘voice’ and ‘positionality’ (who is speaking, and where are they ‘speaking from’, including the observer); close reading (paying close attention to the ‘texture’ of an artefact or a text); comparison and differentiation; and mobilising a deep knowledge of language, history, politics, and culture in order to understand attitudes and behaviours. These methodologies are most obviously deployed when a peace agreement is being forged to end a bloody civil war, for example. Here, arts and humanities methods fuse – as so often – with social science approaches to grasp the history of grievance, conflicting agendas, and the emotional, moral, and legal complexities of justice, reparation, and reconciliation.

However, arts and humanities methods are just as essential for research on antimicrobial resistance, a global challenge that the World Health Organisation has identified as one of the top threats facing humanity. The development of new drugs to overcome pathogens that have become resistant to current antimicrobial treatments is vital, of course. But arts and humanities research is also required to understand why doctors overprescribe antibiotics, why patients fail to complete their treatments (thus allowing pathogens to develop resistance), who is responsible in the family for buying and distributing drugs (gender relations…), how antibiotics end up in animal feed and in rivers in vast quantities, the reasons public health campaigns fail to connect to communities, and so on. These are questions concerning human behaviours, knowledge systems, and communication.

Colourful petri dishes

Power and agency

Arts and humanities research is fundamentally concerned with power and agency. Who speaks, who is permitted to speak, and who can act? If we don’t address these issues, then we cannot hope to find practicable, sustainable, and equitable solutions to the global challenges we confront.

A key issue for how we address these global challenges – and therefore for the SDGs – is how we can decolonise global, regional, and local relationships that still, almost always, privilege the global north over the global south. Going back to the beginning of this piece, then, we need to understand better how climate change impacts differently in historically colonised regions of the world, with more devastating consequences, and what is needed to ensure that the voices of people in those regions are heeded.

Likewise, if culture is the missing pillar of the SDGs, we need to better understand how it can contribute to economic growth and social development that does not simply replicate the global north’s exploitation of the people of the global south, through unregulated tourism, appropriation of cultural assets, and destruction of habitats.

Arts and humanities research can contribute to this decolonisation – even as it too has been heavily complicit, historically, in shaping and perpetuating imperialist mindsets and practices. This, in fact, might be its biggest contribution to the SDGs. Academic work on culture – how we make sense of the world and how we engage with others – can help us to fundamentally rethink the unequal power relationships that currently inhibit the realisation of human potential everywhere.

Professor Stuart Taberner is Director of the Horizons Institute, a pan-university platform for interdisciplinary research, at the University of Leeds, UK.

Images (from top): Fish from ‘Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea’, a series of sculptures created from waste found on beaches. Photograph © Adam Mason, courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Flickr, and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image of petri dishes from the Invisible Worlds exhibition © M J Richardson and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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