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$1.2M grant helps ASU advance sustainability research

March 22, 2013

ASU to serve as North American hub for environmental humanities research

The Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University is among the major partners involved in a three-year, $1.2 million grant, awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aimed at fostering scholarly innovation in the humanities on a global scale.

Awarded to the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, the grant is in support of the Integrating the Humanities Across National Boundaries initiative – designed to foster new forms of collaborative research and partnerships among the consortium’s international membership. The Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes encompasses 180 humanities centers and institutes.

Two large-scale pilot projects through 2015 are supported by the grant with the goal of fostering innovative programmatic ideas and new forms of collaborative research across national, regional and disciplinary boundaries. The first is Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging and the second is Humanities for the Environment, in which ASU's Institute for Humanities Research will play a major role.

Launched in 2008 and led by Sally Kitch, director of ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research, Sarah Buie of Clark University, and David Phillips of Wake Forest University, the Humanities for the Environment project is an outgrowth of a member-driven initiative. The project will focus on the role of the humanities in the age of the Anthropocene – a concept developed by scientist Paul Crutzen to identify a new era in which human activity is significantly reshaping the geological future of the planet.

Project researchers will examine how we might reform our knowledge about the environment, such as the epistemological distinction between "human" and "natural" history, for example. Participants will explore the multitude of responses the arts and humanities have given to the fundamental question of what it means to be human within a moment of planetary crisis and change.

Rather than attempting to define a single research agenda, the project will establish three research observatories: one each in Australia, Europe and North America. The observatory in North America will support three regional clusters – Southeast, West and Northeast – and ASU's Institute for Humanities Research will serve as the cluster site of the West, as well as the headquarters for the North American Observatory.

“The grant itself puts ASU and the IHR at the center of a significant project on sustainability that is focused on the humanities, and this kind of funding is difficult to achieve," said Kitch. "Most funding agencies associate sustainability with science and technology. The Mellon Foundation is forward-looking in recognizing that science and technology, not only cannot solve the problems alone, but have also been part of creating the problems that we are now grappling with, in terms of climate change, pollution levels, various kinds of scarcities, lack of biodiversity – all the elements of the problem that we’re working on. 

"In fact, we’re learning to call sustainability a 'wicked problem,' which are problems that are defined by their complexity, by the idea that no one perspective or disciplinary approach can solve them, and by being caused by the people who are now charged with solving them.”

Each observatory will spend the first two years of the project addressing a particular thematic strain within the Anthropocene humanities. In the final year of the project, representatives from each observatory will convene for an international conference to discuss their research and plan for a possible ensuing phase of the initiative.

“What we are hoping to do is begin to identify what the real issues are, what the questions are, how we need to reframe and reshape our approaches to the natural world, and our membership in the natural world as human beings, which is why we call the current era the Anthropocene,” said Kitch. “We now are geologic agents and not just recipients of what Mother Nature decides to do.”

Included in the research are ASU-based national leaders in environmental humanities Joni Adamson, Ron Broglio, Netra Chhetri, Matthew Garcia, Paul Hirt, Joan McGregor, Stephen Pyne, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Rebecca Tsosie. The cluster at ASU will organize and host the meeting of the North American Observatory clusters in spring 2015, preceding the international conference.

“To reduce the impact of the human footprint on the earth requires numerous enormous changes in the way we think about what it means to be human; what it means to be on the planet with other species; what it means to truly care about and plan for the future," Kitch said. "The humanities contribute a great deal to the overall solution, but what needs to happen is collaboration among people of different knowledge bases.

“Through the CHCI, ASU now has a place at the international table for promoting this idea, and we hope in helping to solve this wicked problem.”