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Creating a Culture of Concern

October 25, 2017

“I’ve always been interested in the work words do in the worldincluding the nonhuman world,” says Dan Philippon, associate professor of English and cofounder of the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI). Philippon examines the relationship between literature and the physical environment, a study known as ecocriticism. He’s observed the way environmental literature has evolved over the past few decades, from “when it was really focused on the idea of wilderness and nature: How is nature represented in text? How are writers valuing wild places and species?

“What started to change in the ‘90s was a recognition that the nonhuman world can’t really be separated from the human world,” Philippon says. “There’s really no place on the planet anymore where you can go and not see the human footprint.” 

Philippon began to envision the EHI two years ago while coteaching a class with Charlotte Melin in collaboration with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Germany, where Philippon served as a senior fellow. (Melin is professor and chair of the U’s Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch.) In the course, called Transatlantic Environmental Humanities, graduate students from Minnesota traveled to Munich while German students came to the U; together they discussed environmental literature, philosophy, culture, and on-the-ground issues. “It’s an example of the kind of pedagogy we’re interested in pursuing,” Philippon says.

This fall, Philippon is working on a book about the sustainable food movement as exemplified by four writers and food lovers: Wendell Berry, Carlo Petrini, Julia Child, and Alice Waters. The recognition of agriculture as an environmental issue “illustrates that shift [from nature writing to environmental literature], from ‘pristine’ landscapes to working landscapes.” 

He’s excited about the prospect of students and faculty from so many different disciplines nurturing each other’s work. “English, Spanish, German... science, technology, and medicine... history, art history. They’re all interested in the same thing: How do we build an environmentally healthy and just society? You can explore that question from so many different perspectives,” Philippon says.

The humanities can’t offer a quick fix, but they can help engender positive change, he says. “Environmental issues are deeply cultural. Solving them isn’t just about a technological tweak; it’s also about creating a culture of concern. This is our attempt to contribute in ways that are true to our disciplines.”

This story is part of a larger article on the Environmental Humanities Initiative. Read more at The Human Side of the Climate Equation