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The Human Side of the Climate Equation

New CLA initiative focuses on human culture, behavior—and climate change
October 25, 2017

Literature, language, philosophy, religion, history, the arts, and social sciences: all have crucial roles to play in wrestling with climate change and twenty-first-century global environmental realities. That’s the proposition behind CLA’s new Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI), which aims to spark research, new ways of teaching and learning, and greater public engagement in what is arguably the single biggest issue of our time.

The notion is this: you can’t focus exclusively on the number of carbon molecules in the air and ignore the human forces, behaviors, and motivators that put them there in the first place—not if you want a lasting solution to climate change.

The initiative brings together faculty and graduate students from across the University—from art history and anthropology to literary studies and landscape design—who share an interest in global environmental change. With an eye toward developing an interdisciplinary graduate certificate, it strives to foster environmental discourse throughout the University, at other institutions, and in the public at large. 

The EHI is led by three CLA faculty: Christine Marran, professor and chair of the Department of Asian Languages & Literatures; Charlotte Melin, professor and chair of the Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch; and Dan Philippon, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of English. Each has examined environmental concerns through the lens of their respective disciplines, and seeks to develop a robust graduate cohort trained in the environmental humanities.

The EHI, they say, will provide an infrastructure and a community to support interdisciplinary research on environment-related issues: “The Environmental Humanities Initiative is really building a place for scholars and students who’ve been limited by departmental structures,” Marran says. It recognizes the fact that environmental studies transcends disciplinary boundaries, and the organizers believe it will encourage cross-pollination of projects and ideas. 

“There are many scholars exploring this in the College of Liberal Arts,” Melin says. Bringing them together—at lectures, films, seminars, and other events—will strengthen their efforts. “Having many different perspectives makes it much more likely that we’ll come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking about the environment.”

Graduate students involved in EHI are probing a wide range of questions and subjects. One is studying “slow violence,” environmental injustices perpetrated against historically disadvantaged communities. Another student is examining the clash between the engineered and natural environments around the Panama Canal, and how that conflict is addressed in Spanish literature.

Funding from the College has allowed the team to hire a research assistant, and the EHI began hosting events last spring. They’ve included a workshop about 1940s and ‘50s industry-produced documentaries about petroleum; a presentation on the shared interests of the environmental humanities and digital initiatives in ensuring data preservation; a graduate student roundtable in which students presented their research projects; and more. Organizers have hosted an ecofilm series focused on the Pacific Rim, and are planning a range of offerings for fall 2018. Many EHI events are open to the public by design.

“A big component of the Environmental Humanities Initiative is a kind of public scholarship,” Philippon explains. “It tries to engage the broader public. Part of what we’re doing is trying to connect what we’re doing here at the University with other communities and individuals who are interested in environmental issues.”

Professor Dan Phillipon outside on a sunny day

Creating a Culture of Concern

Dan Philippon, co-founder of the Environmental Humanities Initiative, writes on the sustainable food movement and the relationship between literature and the physical environment. "The nonhuman world can’t really be separated from the human world,” he says.


Portrait: Charlotte Melin

A Transformative Impact

Professor Charlotte Melin, cofounder of the Environmental Humanities Initiative, finds its multidisciplinarity inspires more creative research.


Portrait: Christine Marran

Reframing Environmental Studies

More collaboration across academic disciplines may give people better environmental awareness. Professor Christine Marran believes understanding cultures and people will be the key.