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Reaching Across Disciplinary Boundaries to Consider Ecological Futures

19 August 2021
SEI talks with new member James Dunk about how he came to his research at the intersections of history, health and ecology, and his hopes for future interdisciplinary research.

By Dr James Dunk, Research Fellow in History at the University of Sydney and Anna Sturman, SEI Content Editor

Anna Sturman: Could you give us an overview of your background?

James Dunk: I trained as a historian at the University of Sydney, after growing up in Sydney’s south, in the beautiful and terrible place that is the Sutherland Shire. I explored widely during my undergraduate degree, dipping into chemistry and calculus as well as French, political science and political economy, and English. When I returned to undertake doctoral research I had fixed upon history – Australian history, but also the history of psychology and mental health in Australia. What did forced transportation halfway around the planet do to the minds of men, women and children? How did they set about making homes on the land of others? What psychological structures did they build to protect and strengthen themselves, and how and where did these structures, and the selves within, begin to break?

During these years I spent some time travelling through Europe with my wife, Stephanie. We would walk the snow-strewn paths of the Schwartzwald or the fells and crags of the Lakes District in the mornings talking about the essays on community, forestry and ecology by Wendell Berry I was reading in the evenings. Both of us came home changed. Since then I have been drawn more and more into the environmental humanities. I have been trying to work out how to be a historian in a time of rapidly escalating ecological disruption, how to tell stories that are more than human – even planetary – but still human, still staged in the sense of historical time and of place in which we are steeped.

You work with scholars in psychology, medicine and public health to understand how ideas of health are becoming more ecological – could you tell us a little more about what this involves?

Over the last 150 years evolutionary theory has transformed so much of how we understand life on this planet. Ecology has emerged, unevenly and to varying levels of enthusiasm, as the science of evolutionary relationships between living things. Quite recently – at least in modern history and Western frameworks – humans have begun to see ourselves as part of the web of living creatures, and health and medicine is one of the most interesting intersections of old and new ideas about our selves and our species.

I’m a historian, and as a historian I am interested in understanding and narrating how, over time, health communities have drawn on ecological knowledge to think about the biological and planetary context of human health. I try and trace the paths this knowledge has taken; which individuals, institutions and communities have developed and carried and consolidated it. Since many of these developments have occurred since the late twentieth century – and many only in the last ten or fifteen years – I do this in conversation with doctors, public health experts and psychologists as well as by research in archives and published works. I publish in medical journals, speak at public health conferences, and collaborate with health scholars and psychologist, who are often at least as interested as I am in the genealogy of their theories and approaches.

How might studying the intersection between individual and planetary health help us better understand the barriers that have stopped us from being able to meaningfully address the climate crisis?

One of the health areas I’m particularly interested in – in relation to ecology – is mental health. People everywhere are talking about the mental health effects of bushfire and the generalised anxiety of living in a changing climate. Clinicians spend hours talking about grief and worry associated with the physical environment.

One of my aims is to reveal those who began to think about these problems decades ago, when the signs of ecological collapse were less overt, and to see that for many these psychological symptoms were indicators of a breakdown in human relationships with other species, and suggestive of a fundamental dearth, or distortion, in human psychology. As one Australian professor of psychiatry at the University of California wrote – in 1989 – the prevailing threats to the human species (nuclear war, poverty and hunger, overpopulation and environmental deterioration) were caused by humans and therefore pointed to flaws in human psychology, individual and collective. To see psychological symptoms related to environmental distress as internal problems, therefore, and to treat them using conventional therapies, would be, as these theorists argue, to miss the underlying condition. I’m interested in how these ideas, which have much in common with deep ecology, were drawn into psychological schools, or rejected by them.

I hope that my historical methods – bringing these alternative perspectives together into one narrative, studying the intellectual and emotional trajectories that produced them, and showing how they relate to present psychological theories and practices – will generate new and useful insight into the climate crisis.

What has your research taught you about the value of engaging in interdisciplinary discussions? And in what ways do you hope to further these discussions with colleagues at SEI?

A good part of my research focuses on intellectual leaders who have broken through disciplinary bounds in their quest to understand the world and address pressing threats to health and life. My work with health scholars and my research on these theorists both have helped me to develop some of the disciplinary creativity and adventurism, an important part of their make-up of those I’m writing about. And it’s wonderfully refreshing to see the epistemology that drives other disciplines and the methods they produce in their encounter with the world.

Having only formally joined the SEI in June, I am already involved in a wonderfully rich and generative continuing discussion about ecological emotion and anxiety, and later this year I’ll participate in a workshop hosted by SEI as well as the Sydney Centre for Healthy Societies about the intersection of microbiology and multispecies approaches – about the boundaries of species thinking. I’m looking forward to many creative encounters with people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds and to the ways these will change and strengthen my historical practice.

James Dunk is a Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Trained as a historian, his current research focus is on the way the physical environment as figured in mental health and psychology. He works with scholars in psychology, medicine and public health to understand how ideas of health are becoming more ecological. His book, Bedlam at Botany Bay, won the Australian History Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards in 2020. His articles have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and a range of historical journals. He writes essays and reviews for Griffith Review and Australian Book Review.

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