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For a human problem, a humanities solution

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March 06, 2015

Most, if not all, of the major challenges of our time require us to consider a time far beyond the present. Consider climate change – a process that will affect the next generation, or even the generation after that, far more than the current one.

However, human beings often struggle with this type of thinking.

"Long-range planning is really one of our big problems. We don’t do it very well, or very often, or with very great intelligence,” says Sally Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research and a Regents’ Professor of women and gender studies at ASU.

A group of scholars at Arizona State University is helping us do better at addressing long-term sustainability problems by using a potent combination of humanistic scholarship and scientific research.

Scientists and engineers are paying increased attention to sustainability issues these days, developing solutions like sophisticated solar panels, algae-based fuels, sleek wind turbines and artificial leaves. Despite the given inclination toward techno-scientific approaches, the human element is just as important. We cannot solve sustainability problems without major transformations in the way humans live and think.

“We have technological advances that could go a long way to solving some of these problems. But we aren't implementing them. We don't have the political or social will to make the kinds of dramatic changes in our values, in our sense of comfort and well-being in the world, that are really required if we're going to get off of the fossil fuel gravy train that shapes our current political and economic systems,” says Kitch.

The emerging, interdisciplinary discipline of the “environmental humanities” is taking on the challenge of de-railing that train and shifting our focus to long-term, human-centered solutions.

Joni Adamson, a professor in the Department of English, has been working to advance the field since she was a graduate student, when the “movement” in the humanities, as she calls it, first started.

“We started out as just a small group of literary critics who were interested in literature and film focused on the environment, and we’ve created organizations and international networks that do not have as their goal only the reading of texts,” she says. “We want to change the ways that humans understand their relationships to the natural world and to all the species that live on the planet.”

Environment in the age of man

One way Kitch and Adamson are approaching this world-altering ambition is through their leadership in the international Humanities for the Environment project. Started in 2012, the project is funded as part of a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes.

There are three main branches of the project: the Australian Observatory, the European Observatory, and the North American Observatory, with an Asian Observatory being planned. Kitch is lead researcher of the North American Observatory, which is headquartered at ASU. Its stated mission is “Building Resilience in the Anthropocene.” But what is the Anthropocene?

According to Kitch, it’s a concept that “suggests we’ve entered a time in which human activities are significantly shaping the geological future of the planet.”

For instance, she says, humans are moving elements that used to be underground, such as fossil fuels, and transferring them to the atmosphere.

Despite the growing use of the term, we’re officially still in the Holocene, an epoch that began 11,700 years ago. The International Union of Geological Sciences is the organization that is officially in charge of defining Earth’s geologic timescale. As of yet, they haven’t declared the Anthropocene’s beginning, but many scientists use the term anyway.

“The term ‘Anthropocene’ is being embraced for a lot of different groups because it's handy shorthand for the transformations we're working with,” says Kitch. These transformations include rapidly decreasing biodiversity, migrations triggered by higher temperatures and air and water pollution.

“Many of these are effects of human activity, which are the root of sustainability issues, as they are at the root of the environmental crisis to begin with,” says Kitch. “So what we realize now and what this project [Humanities for the Environment] is all about is bringing the study of the human into the deep sustainability challenges.”

A plateful of values

The North American Observatory is split into several “clusters": NortheastSoutheast and West, which Kitch and Adamson co-lead. The West cluster is headquartered at ASU, although the regional names don’t limit the participants. Each cluster involves multiple universities from a variety of regions.

The theme of the West cluster is “Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice.” One of its projects is Dinner 2040, which explores the theme through the lens of food and food culture, asking what people in Phoenix will be eating in the year 2040.

“It's very hard to get people motivated to think about climate because people don't really get it; they don't see climate,” says Joan McGregor, a professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, who leads the Dinner 2040 project. “But people care about food, and it turns out that our food production system is a big contributor to global climate change.”

McGregor and others on the project brought together a group of culinary professionals, indigenous communities, farmers, policy experts, planners and others for a charrette. During the workshop, they discussed and strategized about what the future of Arizona’s food and food system could, and should, be.

“[The project] emphasizes that whatever you put on your plate illustrates your values,” says Adamson.

During intensive discussions, participants decided what values would need to be developed in the present in order to make sure certain foods, or types of foods, would still be available to eat in 2040.

For example, our current approach to getting protein in our diet mainly revolves around eating large vertebrates. However, we are already seeing significant environmental, social and ethical consequences due to intensive farming of these types of animals. A solution, says Adamson, might be to start eating insects, such as crickets. Insects provide huge amounts of protein without creating nearly as much impact on the environment as raising cattle, pigs, turkeys and even chickens does.

But if we are squeamish about eating bugs, as many Westerners may be, then the question becomes: What values, desires and behaviors would we need to change in order to make sure we could still eat the meat we love 25 years from now?

Because food is so personal and central to culture, Dinner 2040 was intentionally limited to Phoenix and Maricopa County.

“[We wanted to think about food’s] impact on the environmental integrity of a place, a particular place. So rather than thinking in global terms, we were thinking more on place-based kind of food production and consumption,” says McGregor.

The process of creating the Dinner 2040 workshop – and the actual dinner that will be held next year – is being turned into a template that other cities or universities can replicate in order to think about the future of food in their own areas. Other university and community groups around the country are already planning their own dinners, McGregor says.

Designing the future

Both of the other main projects of the West cluster, Life Overlooked and the Archive of Hope and Cautionary Tales, also act as templates that other groups can use to explore the environment through a humanistic lens.

The major outcomes of the projects are featured on the Humanities for the Environment website, itself an outcome of the project. The site acts as a digital hub connecting all the facets of the project, as well as an arena for further research and collaboration, and a public face for the environmental humanities. Not only does the site help increase the humanities’ visibility, it also shows, through videos, essays, interactive maps and more, that humanities scholarship involves more than sitting alone in a dusty room, leafing through an ancient tome with white-gloved hands. It can make meaningful and necessary contributions to addressing the most pressing problems of the 21st century.

Perhaps one of the most important and intriguing outcomes of the HfE project, however, is the new narrative it is aiming to create. Humans are a story-telling species: there is no culture without some tradition of storytelling. The narrative, more than anything else, is the province of the humanities, according to Kitch.

“One of our ideas about outcomes is that we are writing a new, complex narrative suited to the new era that we're living in, the Anthropocene, and whatever it's going to bring,” she says. “Not that you can produce a coherent narrative that works for every single person on Earth, that's not possible. But [we can make] new chapters for people to think about as ways of designing the future. “

While popular media, and even many scholars, tend to trumpet the decline of the humanities, projects like Humanities for the Environment show that they are relevant to society’s most pressing problems. The great challenges that we are facing today cannot be solved without addressing the fundamental human beliefs, values and desires that underlie them.

“In some disciplines,” says Adamson, “you’re discouraged from talking about the subjective.” But especially in cases of sustainability, people need to be able to talk about their values. The humanities provide a space for this.

“Human values are embedded in everything we do,” says Adamson. “Everything we do from here on forward needs to be interdisciplinary.”

Written by Erin Barton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Editor's Note: The author was a student in Joni Adamson's Environmental Nonfiction class during the fall 2014 semester and contributed an essay to the Life Overlooked project.