New initiative explores how culture is intertwined with nature

A new collaborative initiative links scholars in the arts and humanities to deepen the understanding of the ways culture is intertwined with nature.
A tree grows over a book.

Embracing the idea that human engagements with the natural world are profoundly shaped by culture, ethics, history, politics, and the arts is one of the central tenets of a new collaborative initiative at Yale.

Launched by faculty and graduate students, the Environmental Humanities Initiative links scholars of history, literature, religious studies, film and media studies, anthropology, history of art, and music, among many other disciplines — all of whom seek to deepen the understanding of the ways in which culture is intertwined with nature.

Environmental problems are interdisciplinary challenges that need to be understood in their fullest dimensions,” says Paul Sabin, a professor in history and American studies, who is coordinating the collaborative initiative. “That includes the human imagination and culture, and our complex social relationships unfolding over time. Yale students and faculty in the humanities are eager to advance that conversation.”

The project has three broad goals, says Sabin, explaining that Yale, with its depth and breadth in the humanities, already does a great deal in this area.

The first of these is to make more visible and help coordinate the complement of programs, courses, and activities currently being offered in the environmental humanities at Yale. To achieve this, the steering committee has created a new common calendar and weekly newsletter of campus events to publicize complementary activities across campus. More than 40 environmental humanities-related events are being held at Yale this fall. 

The second aim of the initiative is to stimulate interdisciplinary engagement and research across humanities disciplines and between the humanities, the natural and social sciences, and the professional schools. “The human commitment to solve the environmental crises that loom is widespread, denoting a moral, political, and artistic commitment that is extraordinary and generative. The emergence of such a common cause of great consequence is a unique opportunity for new collaborations university-wide, and for the humanities to deeply inform the shape and content of the research and teaching that follows,” says Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, the Dinakar Singh Professor of Anthropology and professor of forestry and environmental studies.

I believe that we need to understand the roots of environmental problems and their complexity,” says Sabin. “We need to understand the longer history rather than starting from a blank slate in time.”

Encouraging the development of new graduate and undergraduate courses in the environmental humanities at Yale is the third objective of this enterprise. This will enhance the education of Yale students by broadening what it means to study the environment, notes Sabin. The steering committee has compiled a guide to dozens of undergraduate and graduate courses offered this year that approach environmental issues from a humanistic perspective.

Representative fall 2017 undergraduate courses include “Environmental Justice in South Asia” (anthropology); “Race, Class, and Gender in American Cities” (American studies); “The Nonhuman in Literature since 1800” (English); and “Cartography, Territory, and Identity” (history).

For students interested in justice, inequalities, ethics and values, says Sabin, these types of courses will provide “an opportunity to probe these themes and issues and to help give students a language for discussing environmental challenges in their social context.”

Climate change is not a technical problem, it is a moral challenge for which there is no quick fix, explains Deborah Coen, professor of history. “It will not be solved simply by churning out calculations. It demands rigorous, innovative thinking across the disciplines. It forces us to formulate new historical, moral, and aesthetic questions about how humans have blinded themselves to their own destructive potential. Already the crisis has been met by a surge of creativity in the arts and humanities. Environmental Humanities aims to support such work at Yale and to bring it to a wide audience on our campus and beyond.”

Other faculty members who serve on the Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative steering committee are Gary Tomlinson, the John Hay Whitney Professor in the music department and professor of humanities; Michael Warner, the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English and professor of American studies; Jennifer Raab, assistant professor in the history of art; and Mary Evelyn Tucker, senior lecturer and research scholar at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). Graduate students from American studies; literature; history of science and medicine; anthropology; and F&ES also are helping to guide the new venture.

The Environmental Humanities Initiative has made visible the stunning array of humanistic work relating to the environment that is done across Yale’s campus,” says Amy Hungerford, dean of the humanities division, the Bird White Housum Professor of English, and professor of American studies. “The collaborative spirit of the initiative and new infusions of resources will take Yale’s existing strength to the next level of coordination and impact. We can’t wait to see where this initiative will take us.”

Upcoming events organized by the initiative include a panel on Nov. 3 titled “Entanglements with Nature: Asian Environmental Humanities,” featuring scholars from Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard. In the spring, Sabin will lead a new graduate course in readings in the environmental humanities. A working group of graduate students is meeting in advance of the seminar to help to design the course.

The initiative already has hosted a September panel on teaching the environmental humanities, as well as an interdisciplinary conference last spring titled “More than Nature: Environmental Humanities at Yale,” which featured presentations by 17 doctoral students from 11 different Yale programs.

Environmental humanities fields are tremendously important for advancing our understanding of how individuals and cultures value the environment,” says Indy Burke, the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of F&ES. “We know now, better than ever, that sciences — both natural and social — can inform us about critical environmental questions and issues. But the process of decision-making is entirely depending on human values, as well as their understanding of the science. Now, more than ever, it is important to invest in scholarship, teaching, and outreach about environmental humanities.”

The Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative is funded by one of three inaugural grants from the 320 York Humanities grant program, as well as by matching funds from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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