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Humanities field helps scholars address sustainability issues

May 09, 2008

Most people don’t think about the humanities and arts as playing a role when talking about sustainability. However, a group at the Polytechnic campus is showing the interconnectedness of both in discussions surrounding this topic.

The Polytechnic Sustainability Research Group, organized in April 2007 and co-led by Joni Adamson and Christopher Wharton, explores how scholars in the humanities are working with scholars in other fields to address the interdisciplinary challenges, opportunities and realities of creating a socially and ecologically sustainable world.

“We are breaking down boundaries between the arts, humanities and the sciences, at least as those boundaries are perceived in conversations about sustainability,” says Adamson, associate professor in Humanities and Arts in the School of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The group of 20 faculty, staff and students from several academic areas is brainstorming projects, seeking funding opportunities and pursuing grants for projects that will take place over the next several years.

Some of the projects the humanities and arts members have started include Joe Herkert’s work on the interplay between engineering ethics and sustainable development.

“Through this effort I am examining how engineers and professional engineering societies attempt to address sustainability in their work, including social and macroethical issues, such as social equity, cultural diversity and public participation,” says Herkert, Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology.  “The study of ethics, history, literature, and art can shed light on the human condition and the value choices/changes necessary for sustainable development.”

In June, Herkert will present on “Engineering Ethics and Climate Change” at the annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education.

In addition, April Summitt, assistant professor of history, is writing a book about the Colorado River and why environmental histories are key to discussions surrounding sustainability.

“Understanding metropolitan culture and how cities have used water over time helps scientists find solutions for the future,” argues Summitt.

“Tracing the ongoing struggle over allocations between states, tribal governments and agribusiness is essential to solving sustainability challenges for the Southwest.”

This month, Adamson presents “Coming Home to Eat: Re-imagining Place in the Age of Global Climate Change” at the Fourth International Conference on Ecodiscourse in Tamshui, Taiwan. (See “Eco-focused literature is the subject of Taiwan lecture tour” on page H3.)

The group also established a Community Sponsored Agriculture group, and is working with the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) to create and fill a new position called the “sustainability desk” that will examine opportunities for creating a more sustainable culture at the Polytechnic campus.  

And a recent public showing of “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” an “artistic docudrama” about community sponsored farming, was used to help students understand food culture, politics and policies.

Wharton, an assistant professor in nutrition who focuses on issues surrounding policy and obesity, led a discussion after the  movie, noting that documentaries such as “Farmer John”  play an important role in the kind of message framing that can potentially change human behaviors and perceptions.

“For this reason, understanding the role the humanities and arts play when we address environmental issues is key to  building a sustainable culture and society in the future,” he says.

For more information contact Adamson at (480) 727-1562 or