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Reframing Environmental Studies

October 25, 2017

Christine Marran, professor and chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures and cofounder of the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI), believes that for many of us, culture can be a stumbling block to valuing organisms and ecosystems for their own sake. 

Marran’s upcoming book grapples with this phenomenon, and she’s developed some terms that can help in reading literature with a closer attention to the nonhuman world. One is the “biotrope,” a term she created to offer an interpretive tool for describing literary tropes through both a cultural and material history. For a professor of Japanese literature and culture studies, the cherry blossom offers a compelling example.

“We associate the cherry blossom with Japanese culture, and the cherry blossom is then used to say certain things about what Japanese culture is. But cherry blossoms are also things in the world: their petal numbers differ, they’ve been grafted to survive in a wide range of climates, and their very makeup has likely led to the production of cultural ideas,” Marran says. “The idea behind the biotrope is to encourage attention to the material world itself.” This is the kind of innovative re-envisioning of cultural studies that the EHI hopes to spur.

Part of that re-envisioning is acknowledging that when it comes to studying the environment, institutional boundaries—while necessary for organization’s sake—should be porous and pliable. More interdisciplinary collaboration may help further the understanding that the study of cultures and human interests is integral to advancing environmental awareness. The humanities, Marran believes, have been an underutilized resource in the fight against climate change. Enter the EHI.

“People like to say that [the liberal arts] are not curing cancer. But is that true? Maybe not,” Marran muses. “Maybe storytelling, using language to express ideas and concepts, learning the histories of those ideas and concepts, will help us on the path to implementing policies that lead to greater human health.” 

And with the urgent work of promoting a healthy planet. “Encouraging dialogue and teaching skills needed to take on critical roles—that’s really important. That engagement is what the humanities teaches.”

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