Interview with Kate Rigby

We talk Australian wildfires, the emerging field of environmental humanities and rock musician aspirations with Bath Spa’s new interdisciplinary professor

September 1, 2016
Kate Rigby, Bath Spa University
Source: Photo courtesy of Sara Penrhyn Jones, taken at Durgan in Cornwall

Kate Rigby is professor of environmental humanities at Bath Spa University. She joined the institution from Monash University in Australia earlier this year. Professor Rigby is a leading figure in the field and is responsible for shaping Bath Spa’s research strategy for the subject. Along with colleagues, she is leading on the launch of Bath Spa’s pioneering MA and PhD programmes in environmental humanities, which begin in September and October, respectively.

Where and when were you born?
At the start of the sizzling 1960s in Canberra.

How has this shaped you?
Probably in all sorts of ways that I’m not consciously aware of, but there are things that stand out. Canberra was designed as a city in and of the [surrounding] landscape; I benefited from that. I grew up largely outdoors, roaming between the playing field with its willow-lined creek down the road, and the grassy woodland with granite boulders and eucalypts up the road. Growing up with dogs, who were my close companions, taught me that animals are [just like] people. 

Environmental humanities is an emerging field, how best would you describe it?
It’s an interdisciplinary field that looks into the cultural dimensions of human relations with what we tend to call “nature”, that is, other animals, plants, waterways, soil, weather and so on, but also the technologies that mediate our relations with all this. It’s been gestating for quite a while in each of the humanities disciplines, where explicitly ecological lines of enquiry have been developed. In the past decade or so humanities scholars struck up conversations with conservation biologists or climate scientists and started to think about how they could bring these strands of enquiry together in a more integrated field.

Do you think that there is enough being done at policy level to implement the findings of environmental humanities research?
Definitely not, I’ve seen it for myself. A few years ago, I went to a United Nations conference on global human security – relating to climate change impacts – and I was one of about five humanities scholars, so did feel slightly sidelined. There’s a problem in the way environmental policies get framed, but this is where we can prompt some rethinking of the underlying assumptions that go into policy development. 

What is the biggest threat facing society from an environmental humanities perspective?
I guess the biggest threat that we, in company with many scientists, are desperately worried about are extinctions, overfishing, climate change and so on. I would say the greatest risk factor is that humans, whose way of life has the greatest impact on global ecosystems, are generally least vulnerable and remain locked into a world of “human self-enclosure” – an ignorant or uncaring attitude towards the impact of our way of life. This is impeding the changes required to turn back the tide of destruction washing around the world.

Did you always want to become an academic?
No, I never wanted to become an academic! I was rather a reluctant academic to begin with. I love learning, but when I finished my doctorate I had become deeply environmentally concerned and wanted to go off and become a “rainbow warrior” with Greenpeace. But I wasn’t quite sure what they would do with someone with a PhD in German drama and German philosophy!

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
I feel like I’m having them all the time. My first one was at the tender age of 18. More recently, I had an experiential moment that has profoundly influenced my research over the past decade or so. I was standing on a little hill at the back of the house where I grew up watching a massive firestorm eat into Canberra’s well-heeled outer suburbs. You could see whole suburbs going up in flames. It made me realise that Australians, certainly urban Australians, haven’t quite got the hang of living on our continent, with its non-annual weather cycles. Beyond that, I realised that well-heeled Westerners more generally are mentally and emotionally unprepared for the impact of climate change.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
Short of being a full-time environmental activist, I’d probably prefer to be a rock musician or film star. I’m actually quite good at music and acting, but that was never going to happen. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be a bit more strategic. I tended to bumble along a bit.

What keeps you awake at night?
The overriding terrible sense that the web of life on this stunning planet is unravelling in ways that are invisible to most people. And I know that I am complicit with this “ecocide”.

What’s your biggest regret?
On a personal level, not having more children. I had my sight set on six children, rather unecologically. In the end, I managed only one. In terms of academia, I particularly regret not making more of my doctorate. After all, you slave over it for about three and a half years, so it’s a shame if it’s not more widely available in published form.  

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
I have no doubt about this and it’s also germane to my work. It was looking across a classroom in my first tutorial and beholding – somewhat fuzzily because I had just broken my glasses – an utterly arresting guy with long, blond, curly hair and intense blue eyes...whom I impulsively married the next year. He remains my husband, and his deep thinking about big philosophical and eco-political questions has really informed my own thinking.


Helen Griffiths has been appointed executive dean of the University of Surrey’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. Professor Griffiths, who takes up her position in December, is currently pro vice-chancellor (international relations) at Aston University. She has previously held a number of senior academic leadership roles including executive dean and associate dean (research) of the School of Life and Health Sciences at Aston. “I am delighted to be joining Surrey as executive dean,” Professor Griffiths said. “I am looking forward to the opportunity to catalyse cross-disciplinary research and education that tackles global health challenges that are relevant to the local and international communities.”

Martin Hewitt is to join Anglia Ruskin University as dean of the Faculty of Arts, Law and Social Sciences. Professor Hewitt, who arrives from the University of Huddersfield, will formally take up his position on 1 October. He has taught at various institutions including the London School of Economics, the University of Hull, Leeds Trinity University and Manchester Metropolitan University. “I know from long experience just how important the education offered by institutions such as Anglia Ruskin is to the life chances and personal development of their students,” he said. “There is huge potential here and exciting opportunities for the faculty to play a leading role in the cultural and intellectual life of the East of England.”

The European Commission has appointed two new members of the European Research Council’s scientific council. They are Kurt Mehlhorn, professor of computer science at Saarland University, and Nektarios Tavernarakis, professor of molecular systems biology at the University of Crete.

The University of Northampton has announced two new appointments for October. Helen Poole will join as deputy dean of the Faculty of Health and Society, while Hastings McKenzie will be dean of academic partnerships.


Print headline: HE & me

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