Eh? The Rise of the Environmental Humanities Movement

Peter Wood

Eh.  (with interrogatory intonation) Used to invite confirmation or to express inquiry or slight surprise.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary

The sustainability movement has many progeny.  One of the youngest is the Environmental Humanities (EH). What can, or should, an expert in Anglo Saxon literature or a professor of art history do to make the world a cooler place? The Environmental Humanities offer an answer. 

As part of our continuing study of the campus sustainability movement, we have examined the rise of this new academic sub-discipline, which has so far given rise to a new journal, Environmental Humanities, degree programs at seven universities, at least eight campus centers, and numerous conferences, ad hoc committees, and nascent associations.  EH, however, is still too new to have come into focus for the broader public.  What we offer is a preliminary account of what this movement is, where it has come from, and what it means.

The Crisis in the Humanities, 2014 Version

The Environmental Humanities movement arises from two campus developments:  the broader crisis on the humanities (loss of academic prestige, severely declining enrollments) and the pressure on scholars across all of the disciplines to “do their part” in the fight against climate catastrophe.

The broader crisis in the humanities has occasioned a lot of handwringing.  In June 2013 a special committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a glossy report, The Heart of the Matter, calling on Congress to increase support for the humanities. The report came on top of data showing that only 7.6 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2010 were awarded to majors in the humanities. And it followed on the heels of a report from Harvard that revealed that its bachelor's degrees in the humanities had fallen from 14 percent of all degrees in 1966 to 7 percent in 2010, and that students starting out in the humanities were the most likely to switch to another major. In October 2013, the New York Times reported, "As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry," which spotlighted the situation at Stanford, where 45 percent of the university's undergraduate division faculty members teach—but attract only 15 percent of the students.  These and numerous other reports have intensified the apprehension of humanities professors across the country and spurred efforts to discover new ways to draw students. 

Some of the proponents of EH explicitly claim that their new discipline promises to change the fortunes of the humanities as a whole.  What’s needed, EH proponents say, is a demonstration that the humanities are “useful” and “practical” and that is exactly what EH offers.  Part of this is good marketing.  Appending the adjective “environmental” to the humanities catches the attention of environmentally conscious, social justice-minded students. The University of Washington, for example, noted this trend at a conference in November 2013, “The Future of the Environmental Humanities: Research, Pedagogies, Institutions, and Publics,” where it commented that although “the humanities have in general seen a decline in their enrollments and perceived relevance,” the fields of ecocriticism, environmental history, and environmental ethics have seen “impressive” growth and “steady progress.”

Neil B. Weissman, the provost and dean of Dickinson College, puts the issue more forcefully in an article in Liberal Education: “Sustainability powerfully validates the liberal arts.” That’s because in a time of “contemporary accusations of economic impracticality,” the “defenders of the liberal arts” have been pressed to emphasize the useful skills that their disciplines foster. Sustainability is no exception: It has “become a growing source of employment across many fields” and actually ennobles the baser ideas of purely pragmatic education: “Sustainability, by contrast, lifts the concept of useful” by “encompassing vocation and social action but in a way that moves toward deep, integrative learning.” 

Topical Shifts

Salesmanship is one part of the equation, but the more important part of the rise of EH is the belief that the humanities can indeed be corralled into work that advances the academic fight against climate change.  We have reported extensively on the premises of the broader sustainability movement and the robust institutional and financial backing it has on many of the nation’s colleges and universities.  At nearly 700 campuses, college presidents have committed their institutions to making the fight against global warming intrinsic to all the academic departments. It is far from clear how to extract contributions from disciplines that are remote from climate science (e.g. medieval literature, neuroscience, nursing) but a promise is a promise.  Some faculty members go grudgingly to the task but others have embraced it. The Environmental Humanists have enthusiastically taken up the puzzle of how, say, English professors and historians, can fight climate change.

They have actually conjured two answers, which we will consider separately:  topical shifts that open space for environmental advocacy; and a conceptual transformation of the humanities as a whole in the direction of a new understanding of humanity’s relation to nature.

The topical shifts consist of new courses in areas such as environmental history, eco-feminism, and environmental world literature.  Artists can paint, sculpt, and create depictions of drought-parched grounds in Africa or vulnerable flood zones in Malaysia; and philosophers can lecture society on its moral culpability for emitting too much CO2. The topical shifts also include a strong re-orientation of the humanities away from knowledge for its own sake to pragmatic training in how to take action on environmental causes.  Stony Brook University, for example, explains that its Environmental Humanities major prepares students for environmental advocacy/lobbying, green-business management, “green” planning and design, and eco-tourism, among other things.  Students are taught such skills as “ways to identify and overcome resistance to change” and “effective behaviors for advocating for causes, explaining viewpoints, managing conflict, and achieving consensus.”

These are, to be sure, significant diversions from the way the humanities have traditionally been conceived.

The topical shifts are also visible, for example, in the way Oregon State University’s new master’s degree program in “Environmental Arts and Humanities” lays out the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences:

By creating new alliances between the humanities and the environmental sciences, the Environmental Humanities Initiative offers educational, research, and outreach programs that will help humankind make the difficult turn toward a more sustainable life on Earth.  Our times present challenges that are unprecedented in their complexity, danger, and scale. Meeting these challenges and opportunities will require new ideas and new forms of intellectual and cultural leadership based on a scientific understanding of Earth’s environmental and ecological systems, and grounded in a deep understanding of the sources of human wisdom and values. Neither the sciences nor the humanities can meet the challenges alone. Together, we have a chance.

The Oregon program calls for “close collaboration” between humanists and scientists that will bring together “the full powers of empirical knowledge and cultural, moral, and spiritual understanding.”

Oregon’s program emphasizes the Environmental Humanities’ capacity to improve on the sciences by adding “creative imagination, conceptual analysis, and historical and moral reasoning” to mere “empirical discourses.”  There is more than a hint of grandiosity in this approach.  The Oregon program is not merely interdisciplinary, it is “transdisciplinary” and “can be the foundation of new forms of cultural and ecological thriving on a chaotic, increasingly crowded planet.”

Other EH programs have contrasting métiers.  Some see the Environmental Humanities as an expansion of the humanities’ content into new fields (climate, geography, topography) rather than a shift in their methods of research. At the University of Florida, a group of faculty members who work on the Environmental Humanities describes their goal as one of making the humanities “central to environmental education,” and environmental education “central to all education.” The emphasis is less on ways of thought and more on content of thought. Thus in their list of goals, these EH professors want to encourage faculty “from a wide range of disciplines” to “integrate material in environmental humanities into their classes,” and to “increase the number of environmentally-themed classes taught in humanities disciplines.”

The University of Nevada-Reno’s Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities (recently absorbed into the Academy for the Environment) explained the incipient EH discipline as one that expands the traditional humanities focus on human culture to include the natural world:

Traditionally, environmental studies programs have emphasized the physical sciences and policy studies; however, the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities brought together a group of distinguished scholars and teachers from such fields as literature, photography, philosophy, history, geography and anthropology to illuminate not only the physical and political dimension of the environment, but the important ways in which nature permeates our imaginative lives, our cultural and aesthetic experience, in America and throughout the world.

The oddest part of this statement is the opening word, “traditionally.”  Traditionally there was no such thing as environmental studies programs.  They have a short history extending back no further than the end of the 1960s. 

Wholesale Transformation

The definitive arc circumscribing the boundaries of the Environmental Humanities has yet to be drawn; the new field is disputed territory among those who see its purpose as drawing the humanities into current scientific debates, and those who hope to develop a new, sustainable philosophy of life. The editors of the journal Environmental Humanities, in their introduction to the journal’s inaugural issue, pay homage to that debate when they acknowledge that the field offers a “useful umbrella” under which to unite interdisciplinary studies, but on the other hand, at “another, perhaps more ambitious level…challenges these disciplinary fields of inquiry” as themselves insufficient and arbitrary. Instead, the Environmental Humanities offer an intellectual worldview that simultaneously encompasses both natural cosmology and human societies.

Those who advocate the latter approach—the wholesale transformation of the humanities—are most visible in their manifestos.  They see the humanities as ripe for a new worldview that magnifies nature from mere subject of thought (e.g. the natural sciences) to the whole of thought itself. The division between what is human (and therefore has complex self-awareness, moral agency, a sense of beauty, and intimations of the transcendent) and what is outside the human in a “state of nature” is to be abolished, according to this view, and replaced with a conception that the “human” is just an eddy in the larger stream of existence.  

To put this another way, natural scientists want to study man’s influence on nature, and the more orthodox environmental humanists want to study nature’s influence on mankind. But the radical branch of environmental humanists want to promote the “Anthropocene,” an epoch of history in which man and nature blur to the point of being indistinguishable. That’s because man has so tampered with the environment, interrupting natural cycles and injecting pollution into the atmosphere, that when scientists examine nature, they actually look at extensions of our human existence. George Handley, professor of humanities at Brigham Young University, explains:

If we take seriously the challenge posed to human culture by the question of the natural world, we begin to see that there is little or no room to insist that “nature” and “culture” occupy separate and distinct arenas of our experience. And if this is the case, either all of nature is somehow subsumed by human culture and history or all culture and history is subordinate to and reflective of the character of the natural world.

Hence the Environmental Humanities cannot serve as a mere addition to the roster of academic sub-disciplines. They are not, Handley avows, “a kind of thematic set of questions” that can “organize the various fields of the humanities in a certain kind of way,” nor are they a “sort of tree-hugger’s tour of the great works of civilization.” Instead, EH must be a meta-narrative of existence, a philosophy of sustainability for humans and for the natural world alike.

Curricular EH

What we reported so far—a response to the broader crisis in the humanities, the pressures on faculty members in every field to join in the crusade against global warming, the effort to focus humanities departments on environmental themes and skills, and the emergence of a radical vision of a de-humanized humanities—falls short of saying what an EH professor actually does or what a student of EH actually studies.  Let’s consider some of the details.

These programs are, as advertised, interdisciplinary.  The undergraduate major at Stony Brook University requires students to “work in teams with students enrolled in related majors to solve problems collaboratively.”  Foundational courses include cultural anthropology, “Ecoaesthetics in Art,” “Mathematical Thinking,” “Introduction to Sustainability,” and a choice of two from a list of five science courses:  physical geography, “Chemistry, Environment and Life,” oceanography, “Organisms to Ecosystems,” and “Introduction to the Natural History of Long Island.”  Students also have to take three one-credit “Career and Leadership Skills” courses.  To complete the major students then have to take seven more courses from a wide selection of offerings.  These include

Group A: Writing, Literature and Philosophy

• EGL 373 Literature in English from Non-Western Cultures

• EGL 378 Contemporary Native American Fiction

• EGL 379 Native American Texts and Contexts

• EGL 395 Topics in Literary and Cultural Studies of Europe

• EHM 310 Beyond Eden: Contact Narratives, Origins and Sin

• SBC 321 Ecology and Evolution in American Literature

• SBC 325 Environmental Writing and the Media

• SBC 330 Extreme Events

• SBC 331 City, Suburb and Sprawl

• SUS 301 Environmental Ethics

• SUS 350 Contemporary Topics in Sustainability

Group B: Social Sciences

• ANT 201 Peoples and Cultures of South America

• ANT 357 The Agricultural Revolution

• ANT 362 Long Island Archaeology

• ANT 381 Applied Anthropology

• EHM 314 Civilizations and Collapse

• EHM 315 Ethnographic Methods

• HIS 215 Long Island History

• SBC 307 American Environmental History

• SBC 308 American Environmental Politics

• SBC 309 Global Environmental Politics

• SBC 311 Disasters and Society: A Global Perspective

• SBC 312 Environment, Society and Health

• SUS 305 Collective Action and Sustainability

Group C: Applied Environmental Aesthetics

• SBC 117 Design Drawing

• SBC 354 Drawing for Design—CAD

• ARS 205 Foundation—Idea and Form

• ARH 205 Introduction to Architecture

• EHM 320 Artists and Designers of the East End

• EHM 330 The Household in Non-Western Society

• EHM 331 Precolumbian Urbanism

• SBC 200 History of Human Settlements and Long Island’s Development

• EDP 307 Theory and Design of Human Settlement

Students must also take an advanced course titled “Integrative, Collaborative Systems Project.” 

The reader who would like to compare the Stony Brook Environmental Humanities curriculum to that of rival programs can explore those of the University of Utah’s master’s degree program, Bucknell University’s Environmental Studies program (see List A for the Environmental Humanities offerings), the “Nature, Culture, and Justice” concentration in the University of Vermont’s Environmental Studies program, or the Environmental Humanities B.A. program at tiny Sterling College in Vermont.  All of these offer a mixture of science courses with boutique courses that sound, by turns, a little nouveau humanities, a little identity studies, and a little social science lite.  Bucknell offers Green Utopia; Ecopoetics; Environmental Justice; and Nature, Wealth and Power.  The University of Vermont offers “Cars, Culture and Media”; “Ecofeminism”; “Race, Class and Garbage”; and “Ecopsychology.” 

As for Stony Brook, what is perhaps most notable about the courses offered in the Environmental Humanities major is the dearth of humanities courses as traditionally understood.  The graduate of the program is certified as a “humanist” with no courses in Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton; no courses on Plato, Aristotle, or Kant; no courses on classical antiquity, the middle ages, or the Renaissance; no foreign languages; no courses on Western art history or music; and history truncated to environmental history and the history of Long Island. 

Environmental Humanities at Stony Brook may be a popular assemblage of courses in its own right but its claim to being a version of a “humanities” program is weak.  The weakness goes beyond the omissions to the course that are in fact offered.  Courses such as “Contemporary Native American Fiction” and “Native American Texts and Contexts” play on the conceit that Native North Americans are somehow more in touch with nature than other Americans.  A course such as “Extreme Events in Literature” appears to be little more than a jumble of items of interest to the instructor and gathered together under a broad claim of political and social relevance. 

It examines the depiction of extreme events (both natural and human-related) in literature, journalism, art, and film, with special emphasis paid to the extended political and social issues that are raised by the events in question.

If Stony Brook’s program in Environmental Humanities is typical of the substance of this new sub-discipline, the field seems unlikely to fulfill any of the promises we have noted.  It has no possibility of restoring the prestige and curricular centrality of the humanities.  It is a frail substitute for learning about the sciences that bear on climate change or other ecological issues.  And the idea that it will abolish the distinction between humanity and nature is just a bubble of intellectual vanity.  So much for sustainable disciplinary growth, eh? 

Image: "Sustainability image light bulb at sunset" by Intel Free Press // CC BY-SA

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