Environmental Humanities Initiative

The environmental humanities constitute an emerging transdisciplinary enterprise that is becoming a key part of the liberal arts and an indispensable component of the twenty-first-century university.  In recent years, at universities around the world, the institutional and scholarly umbrella of environmental humanities has provided specialists in various humanities and social sciences disciplines with a forum to join forces on shared environmental concerns, as well as to work together with engineers and scientists, politicians and business leaders, within and outside the academy.  Ideally, the environmental humanities not only draw on the expertise of individual humanists, social scientists, and others engaged in interdisciplinary work globally but also foster collaborative projects among scholars from across the humanities, social sciences, and related fields – from anthropology, architecture, art history, economics, education, ethics, history, history of science/medicine, law, literature, philosophy, psychology, religion, sociology, urban planning, and adjacent fields. Fundamental as well is collaboration with scholars in the digital humanities, public humanities, and especially medical humanities, given the devastating effects of environmental destruction on human health.

A primary objective of the environmental humanities is to promote the cultural transformations necessary for reducing ecological devastation and anticipating an increasingly uncertain and potentially traumatic future.  The environmental humanities seek to understand how different communities within and across national borders have grappled with ecological challenges both in the past and at present. 

The environmental humanities are concerned with cultural products – everything from architecture, literature and nonfiction writing, drama, music, the visual arts, film, and other media to the discourses of activism, politics, history, medicine, and religion, among others.  This attention to cultural products stems largely from their power to change environmental consciousness, subtly and radically, for better or for worse, and to mobilize or silence communities.  Cultural products often allow societies to envision alternative scenarios and to think imaginatively about implementing changes that enable adaptation, increased resilience, lessen fear, modulate risk, and make the competition for resources more manageable, or at least less catastrophic.  In so doing, cultural products give particular insight into how societies, communities, and individuals understand environments and engage with environmental challenges.   

As President Drew Faust explained in October 2015, when she announced the Harvard Global Institute, its role is “to convene faculty from across Harvard schools and scholars in regions outside the United States to investigate problems of global scale and significance, providing support for collaborative research by faculty and students working with them.  It will seek to attract faculty already committed to viewing the advancement of knowledge from a global perspective, as well as faculty who wish to broaden their vision. By mobilizing our unparalleled resources within a single enterprise, the Institute will help to shape the conversation around questions in new and fruitful ways and will simultaneously serve to advance our broader strategy of deepening Harvard’s international engagement in a truly meaningful fashion.”

The HGI EHI is an invaluable opportunity not only for developing new understandings of how communities contend with the myriad environmental challenges facing their nations and the globe, but also for radically rethinking the humanities and related social sciences, at Harvard and beyond, and ultimately for constructing new humanistic discourses confronting the urgent intellectual and policy agenda for the twenty-first century.  

These new discourses will need to work in tandem with scientific scholarship that continues to open new fields.  To quote from the homepage of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, “The focus on narrative skill, critical thinking, historicity, culture, aesthetics and ethics central to the humanities and to humanistic social sciences provides a crucial research complement to the endeavors of scientists.  The ecological value of humanities scholarship has never been more clear.”  Indeed, the February 2012 synthesis report of the Responses to Environmental and Societal Challenges for Our Unstable Earth (RESCUE) initiative, commissioned by the European Science Foundation and Europe’s intergovernmental Cooperation in Science and Technology program, argues that “Given the need to understand and include the underlying human drivers of global change, there is an urgent requirement for increasing the level of targeted support for those social sciences and humanities that can contribute to this effort . . . Social science and humanities research should now feed deeply into global change research to further our understanding of human-environment interaction . . . This becomes all the more necessary as the balance of attention shifts from defining the impacts of human activities on the environment to identifying pathways for societal change . . . natural sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities should be integrated from day one when tackling sustainability [and other] environmental issues . . . To understand and cope with global change all fields of human knowledge must be harnessed.” The RESCUE initiative has proposed a Radically Inter-and Transdisciplinary Research Environment (RITE) model – one already used in medicine – “to ensure that all relevant knowledge is harnessed collaboratively from the outset when approaching a problem, and no single discipline maintains overall dominance.”  This is precisely what we are endeavoring to achieve at Harvard.

Crucial foci for HGI EHI research activities, publications, and outreach include environmental health and climate change.  Regarding environmental health: How have artists, activists, politicians, and other cultural producers engaged with surging rates of pollution-related diseases and other environmental traumas, including, in China, the growing number of cancer clusters, the well-publicized “cancer villages”? How have cultural products such as creative writing, film, music, the visual arts, drama, nonfiction narratives, and news, digital, social, and other media, as well as the discourses of activism, politics, history, medicine, and religion, changed understandings of environmental health crises? What insights do these cultural products offer into future possibilities for changing treatment, in the broadest sense, of patients, families, and communities affected by environmental diseases?

Similarly, regarding climate change: How have cultural products addressed climate change and its threats to human health, including rising sea levels, increasing vulnerability to disease, and extreme weather events? How have fresh perspectives offered by humanistic interpretations of climate change altered, or how might they alter, attitudes and behaviors?  Yale University’s Wai Chee Dimock has commented, “Cli-fi [climate fiction], and any kind of science fiction, is the best gateway to science for many American students . . . Literature has the potential to get to the maximum number of students without intimidating them, alienating them, or boring them.”  “You have to make people care,” argues retired Hampshire College Professor Charlene D’Avanzo, a marine scientist turned novelist.  And cultural products play a fundamental role in making people care and acting on their convictions.


Bringing together nearly four dozen faculty members from across Harvard schools and several leading scholars from outside Harvard as interlocutors, the inaugural event of the HGI EHI will be a workshop held on the Harvard campus September 16-17, 2016, with the primary objectives of introducing to colleagues the many types of humanistic environmental research currently being conducted at Harvard and discussing together possible collaborations going forward.    

Plans are to create a HGI EHI Executive Committee following the September workshop, which would invite suggestions for collaborative research and publications under the aegis of the HGI.

A workshop in China and several talks on Chinese environmental humanities (co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and likely other Harvard entities) are also planned for the seed grant phase of the HGI EHI.

Harvard faculty members interested in participating in the HGI EHI should contact the initiative’s Director, Professor Karen Thornber (thornber@fas.harvard.edu).

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

Address: 26 Oxford Street, 4th Floor, Cambridge
Email: huce@environment.harvard.edu
Phone: (617) 495-0368

Connect with us

Follow HUCE to stay updated on energy and the environment at Harvard and beyond.

Subscribe to our mailing list