Unlocking Environmental Narratives

Towards Understanding Human Environment Interactions through Computational Text Analysis

Newspapers, travel diaries, policy documents and even fiction offer rich material capturing relationships between people and surroundings. A new book explores the possibilities and advances in computational analysis of natural language – for newcomers to the field as well as for experienced researchers.

glacial striations on Rhone glacier, Switzerland

Understanding the role of humans in environmental change is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. Environmental narratives – written texts with a focus on the environment – offer rich material capturing relationships between people and surroundings. We take advantage of two key opportunities for their computational analysis: massive growth in the availability of digitised contemporary and historical sources, and parallel advances in the computational analysis of natural language.

We open by introducing interdisciplinary research questions related to the environment and amenable to analysis through written sources. The reader is then introduced to potential collections of narratives including newspapers, travel diaries, policy documents, scientific proposals and even fiction. We demonstrate the application of a range of approaches to analysing natural language computationally, introducing key ideas through worked examples, and providing access to the sources analysed and accompanying code.

The second part of the book is centred around case studies, each applying computational analysis to some aspect of environmental narrative. Themes include the use of language to describe narratives about glaciers, urban gentrification, diversity and writing about nature and ways in which locations are conceptualised and described in nature writing. We close by reviewing the approaches taken, and presenting an interdisciplinary research agenda for future work.

The book is designed to be of interest to newcomers to the field and experienced researchers, and set out in a way that it can be used as an accompanying text for graduate level courses in, for example, geography, environmental history or the digital humanities.

Ross S. Purves, Olga Koblet, Benjamin Adams (eds.) 2022. Unlocking Environmental Narratives: Towards Understanding Human Environment Interactions through Computational Text Analysis. London: Ubiquity Press.

Download it, completely free, in multiple formats: https://doi.org/10.5334/bcs

About the book cover

The cover image tells a story - it shows glacial striations - scratches left on bedrock by a glacier that has now receded. Such marks can be found in many locations across the world, but this site - the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland is special - since it has been visited by tourists, and written about, for more than 150 years. If we were to turn 180 degrees, then we would see the rapidly receding remains of the glacier where tourists, after paying an entry fee, can descend into ice grottos laboriously carved out of the ice each spring. We would also see thermal blankets, draped across the glacier in an attempt to slow its melt and preserve the grottos for a few more years. This narrative can be pieced together by reading newspaper stories, travel diaries and even fictional writing about this site, and analysing such material at scale, using computers, is the subject of this book.