New initiative explores how culture is intertwined with nature

October 2, 2017
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.”
Read the full story at Yale News.