The Environmental Humanities Initiative — a one-year-old university-wide collaboration that spans myriad disciplines and connects two historic strengths of the university, humanities and environmental studies — has had a “ripple effect” across campus.
The initiative aims to deepen understanding of how nature and culture are interconnected, says its lead faculty coordinator, Paul Sabin, professor of history and American studies. “Yale has quietly become one of the strongest universities in the country or the world in the environmental humanities,” notes Sabin. Dozens of faculty members study environmental topics from the vantage point of literature, film and media studies, history, anthropology and archaeology, religious studies, history of art, and other disciplines.
The initiative, which has received two grants from the 320 York Humanities Programming Endowment and funding from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES), will particularly emphasize the intersection of energy and the humanities during the 2018-2019 academic year. This thematic focus will kick off with a panel on “Energy & the Humanities: Interventions & Ambitions” on Friday, September 7, and, over the course of the year, will include at least six visiting speakers as well as additional internal workshops and two spring conferences. In support of the energy humanities programming, the initiative has received backing from Humanities/Humanity and Kempf Fund grants. Participants in the initiative also are developing two new courses in the energy humanities: “American Energy History” and “Energy and Society.”
The growing world-wide interest in energy issues was one of the motivators for choosing this year’s thematic focus, says Sabin. “We are going through an energy revolution in terms of our consumption of fossil fuels. What the energy humanities initiative allows us to do is to think about that transformation as something that is not purely technical, scientific, or economic, but with tremendous cultural, social, and political origins and ramifications.”
Deepti Chatti, a doctoral candidate at F&ES and in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, is helping to coordinate the energy humanities programming. “If you pick up a newspaper today, you will likely see the words ‘carbon,’ ‘sustainable development,’ ‘renewable energy,’ ‘fossil fuels,’ and so on,” says Chatti, whose research takes a feminist political ecology approach to studying household energy transitions in rural India. “It is important to understand how energy affects the lived realities of the human experience. Energy systems shape our politics, our economies, our societies, and our environments, and, conversely, are shaped by them.”
More broadly, the multi-faceted Environmental Humanities Initiative is opening new avenues for Yale students and faculty. Paul Burow, who is in a combined Ph.D. program with the Department of Anthropology and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, says the initiative has created an “intellectual ecosystem around the environmental humanities” that has promoted “collaboration and cross-disciplinary engagement.”
During the first year, the Environmental Humanities Initiative created a new website with a common calendar listing more than 120 events held around campus; a weekly newsletter to promote environmental humanities events and courses; and three signature campus events: “Teaching the Environmental Humanities,” “Entanglements with Nature: Environmental Humanities in Asia,” and “Keywords: Justice, Preservation, and Scale.”
An important aspect of the work that the faculty, graduate students, and staff associated with the initiative did was to bring together all of the programming that was happening across campus related to humans and the environment, says Burow. He says that the initiative would not be as successful had it not been for a strong community already looking at these issues in various schools, departments, and programs.
A new graduate seminar, “Readings in the Environmental Humanities,” also was offered last spring. Designed and implemented with leadership from graduate students, the course drew students from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the School of Architecture, anthropology, English, history, and other areas across the university.
Burow is one of the students who planned the spring graduate seminar. “I don’t think I would be making a foray into historical archives, landscape art, and literary works, without the influence of the people involved in the initiative and the graduate seminar,” says Burow.
The initiative and course, says Burow, has instilled in him a deep respect for the value and complexity of different methods of humanistic inquiry. “I will never be a canny literary scholar to the degree that an expert in the field is, but I hope to be passable enough that it can influence my thinking and approach, and bring some of that magic into ethnography.”
One fundamental insight of the humanities that still has not fully permeated public consciousness, or even the natural sciences in many cases, says Burow, is that there is no tidy distinction between nature and human societies. “They are inextricably intertwined. This has profound implications for how we grapple with crises like climate change. This is precisely where the environmental humanities have become salient to current challenges humanity is facing.”
He adds: “Reading and discussing how environmental humanities scholars across disciplines grapple with questions of life, hope, justice, and future, opened up new approaches for how I do my own work.”