This manifesto emerged from a collective desire to foreground the climate crisis within digital humanities work. We are a group of digital humanists, in varying positions and career stages, from the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States, working within well-resourced academic institutions. We know that as individuals and as a community we contribute to the climate crisis. We believe that with our world in the midst of vast and borderless catastrophe, digital humanists have a responsibility to act.
The digital is material. As digital humanists, every project we create, every software application we use, every piece of hardware we purchase impacts our environment. In this document we aim to surface the ecological impacts of our work while learning with and from our DH community about ways to reduce harm to the environment and to the people most impacted by environmental injustices.
As humanities researchers, it is also our role to probe the values, the power structures, and the future imaginaries that underpin sustainable solutions. Given, especially, the immense and monopolistic power wielded by the global tech sector, and the critiques of this power that are part of DH, our use of their resources should be informed by the ways corporate economic, cultural, and scientific power perpetuates and exacerbates the crisis. Choosing a hardware or hosting provider, for example, should mean considering direct environmental impacts, broader environmental policies and record of the provider, and more broadly still, the kinds of collective future that such a collaborative encounter presupposes. We should be able to candidly explore the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of our ecological impact: we should be able to measure and model where possible, while also creating context around our measurements, flagging uncertainties, and advocating for transforming wider conditions. This would require taking a step back from detailing the environmental impact of a resource, to ask whether the activities supported by that resource really serve ecological and social justice.
The Research We Do
Like all academic disciplines, DH research has a particular environmental impact. Not the kind of impact typical of energy-intensive, high performance computing research elsewhere on campus, but intensive nevertheless: we buy new machines, we build infrastructures that host large digital objects, we run queries over large datasets. DH also works adjacent to fields whose research relates to environmental crises: to science and technology studies scholars concerned with their relations to L/land (Liboiron, 2021); to archivists describing how their approaches to digital preservation are environmentally unsustainable (Pendergrass et al., 2019); to artificial intelligence ethics scholars investigating the intersectional harms of large language models, some of whom have been fired by big tech for speaking out, others of whom only feel able to speak anonymously (Bender et al., 2021); to historians quantitatively analysing the disinformation tactics of big oil (Supran and Oreskes, 2021). Like much of this work, DH is increasingly – or has ambitions to be, or presents itself as – anti-colonial and feminist. At the very least it should be, given that it has been seven years since Bethany Nowviskie asked us, in an anti-colonial and feminist spirit, ‘What is the place of digital humanities (DH) practice in the new social and geological era of the Anthropocene?’ (Nowviskie, 2014).
As a community we have responded. DH practitioners are advancing knowledge of historic and ongoing environmental oppression (e.g. Schuyler Esprit and Oonya Kempadoo’s Carisealand and Minimal Computing).
At the same time, our communities can address the environmental emergency, and do so in ways that are feminist, anti-colonial, and aligned with diverse flourishings of the human and more-than-human world. We can resist the perceived ethereality of the digital, when the reality is stuff, power, and pollution. We can highlight the power consumption of some forms of play (e.g. a GPU attached Colab notebook) and to advocate for mitigations (e.g. energy-efficient programming practices). We might even ask whether our power consumption – set against all power consumption – even matters at all, is even worth worrying about, irrespective of the optics of us declaring that it doesn’t matter (Whitmarsh et al., 2021).
We can also cultivate alternative narratives of what technological progress or improvement feels like. We can investigate, for instance, how much inconvenience users will accept in return for getting their digital objects in less carbon intensive ways, which users they are, and how that matters. We can explore how we got here in the first place: we can critique concepts like ‘user’ and ‘convenience’ from an ecocentric standpoint. We can investigate alternative futures of work, in the tech and tools that we develop and study, and in the ways we ourselves work.
And we might – and probably should – do other things, and ask other questions, we haven’t yet thought of. Our ambitions cannot be just about how we conduct our research, or practices adjacent to it: our research can play its part. And to do that will require us to shift our points of inquiry.
The Places We Go
Like other research communities, digital humanists are scattered around the globe. Functioning as a community on a global scale requires us to use means of communication and mobility that have impacts on the environment. This concerns the equipment needed for email, audio and video conferences, but also traveling for workshops, conferences, and congresses. While the multitude of scholarly events that are being organized is in dire need of systemic revision at a much larger scale, we as a community need to reconsider not simply the amount of travels we undertake, but the way we conceive and implement scholarly gatherings likely to have an important environmental footprint (Caset et al., 2018).
Studies have looked into the correlation between intensity of travel to scholarly events and the h-index of traveling researchers (Wynes et al., 2019). While it is to be expected that more travel leads to more publications and to a higher h-index, such results only show that the academic system is consistent in reinforcing positions of intellectual domination. Instead of using h-indexes as a measure of success, outreach and quality could be modeled and supported in a more equitable, sustainable, and pluralistic manner. Fostering green Open Access and developing evaluation practices that are not solely based on h-index, as recommended by the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), is likely to be a better response to tomorrow’s challenges than encouraging the privileged few to travel around the globe and publish for a restricted audience.
We can individually decide to attend events by train and to attend fewer events, but these individual decisions are impacted by the ways in which scholarly events are organized and the infrastructures of the places where they are held. We need to take the environmental footprint of conferences into consideration from the onset in conceiving these events. This might very well mean organizing fewer events, but events that last longer: an opportunity to include training sessions and an incentive to develop novel funding schemes for longer research stays.
Adding a hybrid dimension to an otherwise in-person program can also be more inclusive, allowing people to virtually attend who would not have had the chance to participate otherwise. Beyond immediate environmental impact, remote and hybrid activities have the potential to make big steps towards inclusivity and truly “open” access to knowledge and academic exchange. There are ripple effects to consider — being more inclusive shifts the boundaries where exclusion begins, in particular. Nor should we take for granted that the environmental impact of a large hybrid event will always be better than the small in-person event it has replaced.
Even more broadly, environmental crises compel us to fundamentally reimagine how academic communities are embodied across time and space. They call for rigorous analysis and transformation of the conference, the workshop, the symposium, the meeting, the seminar, the tutorial, the lecture, the exam, the roundtable, the reading group, the performance, the exhibition, the sandpit, the hackathon, the jam, the sprint, the picket line, and many other forms that we use to collectively organize; these crises demand that we innovate new institutions and procedures that embed the values of ecological and social justice.
Next Steps: An Invitation
We need concrete tips and tools we can start using today, as well as questions big and small. We would like to share what we already know, and identify gaps. Above all, we would like to find our fellow travellers. The transformation that is beginning will be plural, polyvocal, and rhizomic, and we don’t claim to be its solitary origin point, nor seek any kind of ownership over it.
So let’s connect. If you have actions that you want to take, are planning, are working on right now, or have done, we invite you to add them to this Next Steps document.
We are a group of digital humanists, in varying positions and career stages, from the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States, working within well-resourced academic institutions. We are not experts in the consequences of climate change. And we are not those currently most directly impacted by the consequences of climate change. This document is, then, necessarily incomplete and insufficient, but we hope that it furthers conversations happening throughout digital humanities communities about our environmental impacts and responsibilities. We write in the tradition of digital humanities manifestos and observe that these previous manifestos have not engaged with climate change. And so part of the purpose of creating this document is to find each other—to connect, encourage, and support the ways we are already responding to the global climate crisis.
Authors (in alphabetical order)
- Anne Baillot
- James Baker
- Madiha Zahrah Choksi
- Alex Gil
- Kaiama L. Glover
- Ana Lam
- Alicia Peaker
- Walter Scholger
- Torsten Roeder
- Jo Lindsay Walton
We would like to thank those who made contributions to the original manifesto text, helping us to better tailor language and argumentation (in alphabetical order): Claudia Berger, Ben W. Brumfield, Steven Claeyssens, Jean-Baptiste Camps, Frédéric Clavert, Berenike Hermann, Cristina Holgado, Hannah L. Jacobs, Ben Schmidt, @djettka.
To co-sign this statement, add your name to the Next Steps document.
- Bender, Emily M, Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan-Major, and Shmargaret Shmitchell. ‘On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?’, 2021, 14. https://doi.org/10.1145/3442188.3445922.
- Caset, Freke, Kobe Boussauw, and Tom Storme. ‘Meet & Fly : Sustainable Transport Academics and the Elephant in the Room’. JOURNAL OF TRANSPORT GEOGRAPHY 70 (2018): 64–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2018.05.020.
- Liboiron, Max. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2021.
- Nowviskie, Bethany. ‘Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene’. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 30, no. suppl_1 (1 December 2015): i4–15. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqv015.
- Pendergrass, Keith, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna. ‘Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation’. The American Archivist, June 2019. https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081-82.1.165.
- Supran, Geoffrey, and Naomi Oreskes. ‘Rhetoric and Frame Analysis of ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications’. One Earth 4, no. 5 (21 May 2021): 696–719. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2021.04.014.
- Whitmarsh, Lorraine, Wouter Poortinga, and Stuart Capstick. ‘Behaviour Change to Address Climate Change’. Current Opinion in Psychology 42 (1 December 2021): 76–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.04.002.
This text is published under a CC0 license.