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Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran, eds., "The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities" (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), 424 pp.:


Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran, eds., The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), 424 pp.

The COVID-19 pandemic has largely helped us recognize health as not only a medical but also an environmental issue. Yet the pandemic is only one lens through which the relationship between human and environmental health can be viewed. Environmental toxicity, zoonoses, climate change, and multiple other environmental issues are manifestations of environmental unhealth that dramatically impact the health and well-being of humans and nonhumans. It is thus imperative to use an intersectional approach to the study of health, recognizing it as both a medical and an environmental phenomenon. To that end, The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities, edited by Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran, draws on the two fields of research—the medical humanities and the environmental humanities—in order to address the problem of human health.

This book is divided into four parts and overall includes twenty-nine contributions from scholars working in a variety of disciplines across the world. The aim of the book, as the editors articulate in their introduction to the volume, is to “trace the intersections between ecocriticism (and other subfields within the environmental humanities) and the medical humanities, shedding light on the ways in which literature and other forms of cultural expression address our understanding of human minds and bodies within the context of the physical environment” (2). While oftentimes it is easier to recognize the impact of environmental problems on physical health, environmental precarity and the sense of a catastrophic present that erases a possibility of a future cause mental unhealth, too. The essays in this handbook acknowledge this important aspect that emerges at the intersection of environmental and medical health, and investigate how environmental unhealth impacts both physical and mental health of humans. Specifically, the editors emphasize: “In addition to the obvious (and scarcely perceptible) physical aspects of disease and contamination, in the twenty-first century we must learn to understand the mental health implications of climate change, the anxiety caused by increasingly toxic environmental conditions, and the overarching challenges of facing vast, slow processes that jeopardize not only the more-than-human world but also our own safety” (2).

Focusing on narrative medicine, graphic medicine, and environmental texts, as well as drawing on the theories of ecofeminism, (new) materialism, race, identity, and many more, the contributions to this collection explore the relationship between environmental toxicity and public health, the ways landscapes, bodyscapes, and micro- and macro-biota are connected to each other, as well as provide examples of how Indigenous knowledges can help understand the relationship between the environment and human health. Although rather narrow in scope, zeroing in primarily on the medical and environmental aspects of human health, this collection provides a wide range of examples that justify an intersectional approach to health—from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to the COVID-19 pandemic, from the Anthropocene to climate change, from the explorations of the nonhuman world (specifically, plants, mushrooms, and viruses) to the role and place of humans on this planet and the meaning of being human, from slow violence to Black Lives Matter—and it explores vast geographies, including West Africa, South Asia, China, Australia, and India, among other places.

While the essays provide a variety of approaches and close readings, the introduction lacks an exploration of the medical-environmental nexus and the importance of the research at the intersection of the medical and environmental humanities. The introduction offers an excellent overview of the essays included in the book, but it fails to bring the reader where its title promises: “Toward a Medical-Environmental Humanities.” It lists some important works in the field of the environmental humanities, from Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010) to Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (2014), but it does not contextualize the medical-environmental approach that the book employs and the contribution that this research makes to both the medical and environmental humanities, and to the study of health as a whole. Moreover, while the introduction makes a reference to Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara’s groundbreaking book Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory (2017), it fails to employ perspectives from critical disability studies that are essential in this kind of research. The editors even begin their introduction with a problematic observation, “There seems to be a universal human tendency to take good health—and other fortunate blessings—for granted” (1), completely neglecting the issue of disability.

The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Medical-Environmental Humanities is, to this date, the first book that attempts to explore the relationship between the environmental and medical humanities and study health at the intersection of these two disciplines. This is an important and much-needed research, which is, understandably, not flawless in these initial stages. While this book explores human health, it is crucial to address the problem of nonhuman health at the intersection of the medical and environmental humanities, too. The editors recognize “the shared precarity of human and nonhuman life on the earth” (2). They also invite the reader to contemplate the idea of health through the COVID-19 pandemic as “one”: “[T]here is no ‘human health’ and ‘environmental health.’ There is only one health—and the absence of health. There is only precarity, experienced admittedly in variable degrees according to just and unjust social and economic systems, but an overarching and fundamental precarity that encompasses all of us, regardless of nationality and ethnicity and species” (9). This important observation should signal to the scholars working at the intersection of the two disciplines, and in related fields, that addressing nonhuman health is as important as studying human health. This handbook is an important contribution to the ongoing research in the medical humanities, health humanities, and environmental humanities, and it will be of interest to both academic and general audiences who are trying to understand the precarious present and work to secure a healthy future for all.

Tatiana Konrad (Universität Wien)

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