Conference Explores Environmental Humanities in a Changing World

Holly Welles ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

Rarely do photographers, artistic directors, musicians, novelists, poets, scientists, engineers, and scholars in religion, philosophy, and literature come together for two full-days to explore an emerging field of mutual interest. Such a unique gathering took place during Princeton University’s conference “Environmental Humanities in a Changing World.”

Organized by the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) and co-sponsored by ten other entities across Princeton University, the goal of the March 8th and 9th conference was to provide succinct overviews of scholarship in the respective disciplines and to consider how these various approaches can work together for the future of the planet.

During his opening remarks Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of PEI, stated, “This conference is a culmination of a dream of mine from 20 years ago when I first came to Princeton. PEI had just formed and we were a union primarily of scientists, engineers, and social scientists and we were looking for dance partners in the humanities. Somehow it never came together until now with this conference.

“What is needed in order for society to tackle the enormous environmental challenges that confront us,” said Pacala, “is for humanity to somehow find the nobility and the virtue and maturity to do what’s right and that is the domain of the environmental humanities.”

“This conference is really the result of the vision and tremendous energy of Ken Hiltner who is a visiting professor of English and the PEI and Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron ’74 Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities. He has been a fantastic visitor and we’ve been fortunate to have him on loan from the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara,” said Pacala.

In planning the conference, Hiltner said he wanted to provide an overview of the environmental humanities for scholars, students, and the general public.

“A lot of people don’t know what environmental humanities are and hopefully we will answer this and also help answer questions I get frequently from students about what they can do, particularly the kinds of careers they can embark upon. The environmental sciences have been active for so many years, the career path is more known. The path is less clear if one is interested in the humanities, in art, poetry, or theater. How can you help? What are your options? This conference offers different answers to these questions.”

During his presentation, internationally renowned Canadian photographer and artist, Edward Burtynsky, described how he came into this field through art and his appreciation and awe of the natural environment.

Early in his career, he started taking photographs of the natural landscape. But, he said, after a couple years, “To be true to our times, I began taking photographs of the things we do to the landscape…. Rather than a celebration of land, of the wonder of nature, it became a critique of human enterprise and how it’s expanding upon the landscape and how it is usurping the natural world to the human world.”

To convey this point, Burtynsky showed slides of his visually powerful images of various industrial landscapes from gigantic tire piles, large oil spills, dying seas, to deep and vast coal mines.

His prints are often four feet by five feet. “I don’t believe I am communicating with you until you are in my image,” he said. “When you are in my image, I have succeeded. I can get you looking and talking about images and talking about what’s behind them without anyone being threatened…it doesn’t matter from what perspective you are coming from – religious or non-religious, left or right, rich or poor, it doesn’t matter…what we are talking about here is beyond geopolitics, beyond religion, beyond anything. This is our habitat. If you pollute your water and drink it you are all going to get equally sick. The environment trumps all the geopolitics and it gets down to humans and our relationship to our habitat.”

Audience member Evan Cole ’15, a politics major, was particularly taken with the presentation by former Barron Fellows and cofounders of The Civilians, Steve Cosson and Michael Friedman, and their discussion of The Great Immensity, a play they wrote and co-produced about climate change during their year at Princeton.

“Specifically, it was the variety of the content they included that impressed me so much,” said Cole. During their development of the play, Mike and Steve talked to dozens of people from a variety of disciplines. The way they integrated all of those diverse concerns into a theatrical work struck me as a very effective way to communicate the vast scope of the problems with our environment today.

“To me, it’s [The Great Immensity] symbolic of the multifaceted nature of certain types of social issues, and that nature will necessitate an equally multifaceted set of solutions to those issues. It’s a unique type of professional challenge, and the conference helped me see that a little bit better.”

Dale Jamieson, Director of Environmental Studies at New York University and professor of environmental studies and philosophy, addressed the question of environmental ethics. He emphasized that an environmental problem like climate change requires revisions in our morality.

“Today we face the possibility that the global environment may be destroyed, yet no one will be responsible. This is a new problem,” he said, “that will require revisions in our morality, especially around concepts of responsibility.”

Yale University religion and ecology scholars and former Barron fellows, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, stated that they agree with another of Jamieson’s key points that, unfortunately, there currently is no magic bullet, no one thing that will change the conversation from the moral, ethical, spiritual perspective. “But we are,” said Tucker, “trying to point to other ways to value nature beyond the economic. Ecosystem services is a fabulous cost benefit analysis as far as it goes. It is necessary, but not sufficient…. There is something beyond the economic valuing.”

Tucker emphasized, “The environmental humanities need to enter into this discussion. Our collective challenge, from literature, and history, and ethics, and the arts, is to find a language that articulates what that is.”

During a video address, Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Lars Hedin, stated, “Many of the issues that now face us are not just the scientific issues, equally important are the interactions between these issues around what it means to be part of a system, a system of nature and a system of human society and the interaction between nature and human society.

He raised several questions such as what are our ethical and philosophical responsibilities in a rapidly changing society? How do we place a value, a monetary, a conceptual value on climate, our ecosystems, or even on our way of life? These dimensions are expanding what it means to be part of a system.

Hedin, who is also the director of the Program in Environmental Studies left a final challenge for the group.

“The real question,” he said is, “How do we engage this generation of students, this generation of new minds, this generation of future leaders?  How do we help them create a world that no longer separates the environment from the idea of being human, from the idea of how we reflect on our common future? How do we allow them to think about the history of art, music, religion, philosophy as it relates to the environment? How can we help lead the way forward? How can we create the next model for educating the next generation of leaders in this area? This is a terrific and important discussion to have.”

Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and PEI posited another challenge, particularly targeted toward those working in the field of the environmental humanities.

“Spend time not only amongst yourselves, but also with us, the scientists…. We need to work together.”

The conference concluded with a roundtable discussion among 5 former Barron fellows, moderated by Hiltner, the current Barron Fellow.

The Barron Visitors Program, established in 2003, has enabled PEI to forge closer ties between environmental studies and the humanities and social sciences at Princeton. It was made possible through the generosity of Princeton alumni, Thomas A. Barron ’74, and his wife, Currie, both long-time supporters of PEI. They are also credited for inspiring this conference.

During his conference remarks, Barron said, “We are, at our core, emotional beings. Our extraordinary capacities for rational thought and inquiry can be empowered—or derailed—by our emotional selves. Just as we rely on stories to understand our lives and our world, we yearn for knowledge to understand the greater story of which we are a part.”

He asked, “Do we hope to change human behavior? To affect economic markets, technologies, and public policies? More than that, do we hope to survive as a species?”

If so, he said, “We will need all the comprehension we gain from the sciences and all the context we gain from the humanities. We cannot prevail, alas, with only the facts. We need to inspire loving as well as learning. And to do that, we must rely on the humanities: our stories, music, art, religion, myths, psychology, history, and cultures. The voices of all peoples, from all times.”

Videos of all the conference presentations are available on the PEI website.