On January 28, Humanities Institute Director Dr. Pauline Strong led the first session of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows Seminar, “The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities.” As an introduction to the theme, she presented the Humanities Institute’s successful proposal to the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes to conduct a Global Humanities Institute in Summer 2022 on the theme “Climate Justice and Problems of Scale.” Three of the 2020-2022 Fellows—Heather Houser, Katherine Liebernecht, and Adam Rabinowitz—also participated in the proposal process. The proposal provided a starting point for the discussion of two broad and intersecting themes: the possibilities and complications provided by an environmental humanities perspective, and the role of scale in identifying and analyzing environmental issues.
The environmental humanities both offers opportunities for interdisciplinary inquiry and presents challenges. Fellows identified multiple tensions presented by the effort to construct a common interdisciplinary project. Some tensions revolved around the relationship of the humanities to other disciplines. Questions arose as to whether a common project even exists. Speaking of “the” environmental humanities or “the” natural sciences implies a unitary focus that elides difference not just between but within disciplines. Unitary conceptions of the human also came under scrutiny. How is the “we” in documents such as the United Nations report “The Future We Want” constituted? Colonialism shapes understandings of what is human, making it imperative to attend to projections of “the human factor” or “the human condition.”
Tensions between the specific and the general carried into methodological questions. Interdisciplinary work requires translation across disciplinary practices within the academy. What methods are best suited to the production of environmental knowledge? Humanities disciplines share a reliance on interpretive methods. Should the humanities be more accommodating of quantification? Practices such as close reading, with its intent focus on particular works, are a product of a culture that values the private individual over the collective, a factor in the current environmental crisis. Perhaps methods such as Franco Moretti’s “distant reading”—which uses tools developed in the digital humanities to focus on trends rather than singularities—provide a more relevant mode of inquiry at a time of environmental crisis. Research design focused on environmental and social justice often calls for new ways of structuring research, highlighting the need to build internal institutional capacity. To affect policy, this work must also move outside of the academy. What tools do we need to translate it into policy applications?
As an analytical tool, scale facilitates thinking across space and time; it enables us to connect the dumping of pollutants in one place to the appearance of toxins in ecosystems thousands of miles away, and allows disparate communities damaged by the actions of a single multinational corporation to stand together in solidarity (Sze 2016). However, scale is culturally situated and technologically mediated. We inhabit multiple scales simultaneously; environmental catastrophes can also be experienced and observed in multiple scales.
The concept of “zoom” illustrates the harm that can be done by scalar thinking. Zoom gives us the ability to pull back or hone in. Either extreme presents difficulties: not everything is visible in the service of the scale. Pull out too far and difference disappears; hone in too closely and you risk overemphasizing a singular detail. What is set aside or ignored to allow scale? How does the scale of “the local” enable the exclusion of histories of displacement and migration? The entanglements of scale and privilege can allow people to focus on individual actions rather than collective approaches to identifying and addressing social and environmental crises.
A focus on story or narrative emerged as one way to mitigate the damage done by scalar thinking. Both qualitative and quantitative disciplines use story to communicate their findings. Rachel Carson relied on story to convince the public of the dangers of DDT; engineers use story to promote particular solutions or projects. Fellow Heather Houser’s book, Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data, explores the ways visual artists and writers create new ways of understanding the overwhelming amount of information available to us in an age of climate crisis. The session provided a broad review of topics with which the Fellows will engage this year.