Preamble

This manifesto emerged from a collective desire to foreground the climate crisis within digital humanities work. We are a collection of digital humanists, in varying positions and career stages, from the Caribbean, Europe, and U.S., working within well-resourced institutions in the U.S. and Europe. 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. But we know that as individuals and as a community we contribute to the climate crisis, and we believe that with the world on the brink of catastrophe the digital humanities has a responsibility to act.

This document is necessarily incomplete and insufficient, but we hope that it furthers conversations happening throughout digital humanities communities about our environmental impacts and responsibilities. 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.

We’d love for you to contribute to this document. You can do so by selecting the menu on the left and using the “Annotate” feature to make suggestions, comments, or revisions. We also welcome contributions via Github.

Some Contexts

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 which underpin sustainable solutions. In particular, given the concentrated nature of the global tech sector, and the economic, cultural, and scientific power wielded by companies such as Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Tencent, and Tesla, our use of their resources should be informed by a broad range of factors. Choosing a hardware provider, for example, means 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 means that it will often be necessary to take 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

DH research has an 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 that are actively researching how their research relates to environmental crises: to STS 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 artifical 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, not least as it is 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, this manifesto asks if our research could do more to resist the environmental emergency, and to do so in ways that complement DH’s anti-colonial and feminist identity/ambition/presentation. We might ask if we’ve done enough to resist the perceived ethereality of the digital, when the reality is stuff, power, and pollution. We might ask if we’ve done enough to investigate 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 might ask if we’ve done enough to 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). Or we might - and probably should - ask other questions we haven’t thought of. The point is that a manifesto like this cannot be just about practices adjacent to research, it should also be about the research we choose to do. Our research can play its part. And to do that, we must shift 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 videoconferences, but also traveling for workshops, conferences and congresses. While the multitude of scholarly events that are being organized is in dire need of a 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. 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 in that it will allow people to virtually attend who would not have had the chance to participate otherwise. Beyond an environmental perspective, this would address a pressing research ethics concern and present a big step towards inclusivity and truly “open” access to knowledge and academic exchange. Hybrid concepts are being developed and should be implemented in upcoming DH conferences, making it possible to measure the conference’s carbon footprint as well as that of each attendant, be they on site or not, to develop low-resource remote options for virtual attendance, and incentives for regional networking as the basis for scientific exchange on a wide-ranging scale (see the eco-friendly conferences wiki).

Even more broadly, environmental crisis invites us to fundamentally reimagine how academic communities are embodied across time and space. It invites 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; it invites us to innovate new institutions and procedures that embed the values of ecological and social justice.

Possible Next Steps

We haven’t decided what the next steps are for this manifesto, whether to maintain it as a live document, to publish it as grey literature, to submit a version of it to a journal regularly visited by the DH community, or a combination of the three. Equally, there may be options we just haven’t thought of, and we welcome suggestions. Whatever happens to the manifesto, we’d hope that all contributors will consider themselves co-authors, and that as the manifesto develops credit goes to all who’ve contributed to its gestation.

The Perspectives We Think We Are Missing

Who We Are (in alphabetical order)

Bibliography

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Liboiron, Max. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2021.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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