Environmental studies is typically the domain of the natural sciences. Ecologists, geologists, and chemists—these are the experts who tell us how the world works. The social sciences, too, claim authority over the environment. Through these fields of knowledge, we learn about environmental law and policy, cultural adaptations to the planet’s varying physical conditions, and the economic dynamics of natural resource management. What role, then do the humanities play in understanding nature? Where do history, philosophy, literature, and the arts fit in environmental studies?
In answering these questions, scholars have founded a new field called the “environmental humanities.” Environmental humanities analyzes the human relationship with the natural world in ways not found in the natural and social sciences, highlighting issues of meaning, identity, ethics, and patterns of historical change. As an emerging area of study, the environmental humanities contribute to a greater understanding of “the environment,” but also unsettle how scholars typically define and negotiate environmental problems.
In this class, we gain an appreciation of the perspectives of environmental humanities and grapple with how, exactly, these perspectives might help us in the struggle to live rightly on earth. Our course is built around three units, each of which is both a big idea and a kind of human engagement with nature. The first, preservation, examines the challenge to protect the non-human world, as it is, for all time. Our case study will be the creation and management of Yosemite National Park, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. The second unit, cultivation, investigates the process of wresting from the earth the food humans require to live. We will focus on the history, literature, and philosophy of growing what we eat. The third unit, imagination, analyzes the project of responding to global environmental crises by attempting to create new ways of living. We will study various approaches to understanding climate change, from film to fiction to science.
The semester culminates with student presentations of an environmental humanities approach to an idea they’ve chosen to study.