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Environmental Humanities

A sustainable symbiosis between the arts and the sciences

Claudia Tan, Karen lui, and Tan Zi Ying

Jan 17, 2018 | Articles

Climate change is often treated as a political issue but it should not be. Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal and it is extremely likely to be the result of man-made pollutants that require strict regulation. However, in 2003 the respected Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, urged the party to emphasise that the evidence is not complete: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue”.[1] Fifteen years later, political debates around climate change continue to swirl. Scientific knowledge is always provisional, uncertain, and evolving but this is not to say that it can be simply dismissed. Instead, it is more urgent than ever to heed the warnings of scientists, anticipate and mitigate against the risks of climate change, and reconsider our relationship with the environment.

The environment is a matter of critical importance in both local and global contexts. While scientists play an invaluable role in making discoveries that have the potential to benefit all of humankind, the humanities help separate rhetoric from reality and make the key issues understood by a wider audience. A deeper understanding of environmental concerns across disciplines is necessary for tackling the challenges that humanity faces. This article introduces some of the ways in which faculty and students at NTU are engaging with environmental issues in new and imaginative ways.

What are the Environmental Humanities?

The Environmental Humanities is a broad and multi-faceted area of study including linguistics, literature, art, and philosophy and each disciplines takes a markedly different approach. The are united by a concern with the relationship between humans and the natural world and typically focus on cultural practices, perceptions, and historical traditions.

Assistant Professor Miles Powell (History) explains: “The Environmental Humanities studies how humans interact with their environment. The difference with the physical sciences is that you do not examine the environment in isolation, but at the intersections between nature and artifice. That includes how humans have transformed and conceptualised environments, and how they have sought to achieve sustainable interactions with their environment.”

Assistant Professor Samara Cahill (English) supports this interdisciplinary perspective by arguing that we need to cultivate what Gillen D’Arcy Wood calls “systems literacy,” a broad-based familiarity with multiple disciplines: “This means, if you are coming from the humanities, familiarising yourself with the sciences and, really, all of the STEM disciplines,”

Deputy Director William Clune of the Sustainable Earth Office (SEO) agrees, emphasising how the humanities help us to understand the importance of context: “You can’t just take a solution from one place and assume it’s going to work someplace else. Sustainability solutions have to be culturally appropriate. The humanities are the important lens through which we understand culture and society and the philosophers and artists lead the way on these issues.” The fresh perspectives of humanities scholars supplement scientific findings and broaden environmental studies by focusing on how environmental issues are registered by the arts and communicated to the public.

In January 2017 Asst Prof. Cahill launched the Sustainable Earth Film Series, which consisted of weekly screenings of films that sustainability issues, such as James Cameron’s Avatar and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Students and staff were invited to attend viewings and informal discussions. Initially planned as a four-week event, the series was so well-received that it was extended for another two weeks to include M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, Healing Fukushima, a documentary by Associate Professor Sulfikar Amir (Sociology), and ad-hoc viewings of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Such events provide invaluable opportunities for scholars and students in the humanities and the sciences to interact and exchange their views about the representation of environmental concerns in film; they thereby facilitate well-rounded, interdisciplinary conversations, which continue to impact students after the event itself concludes. Indeed, as Asst Prof. Cahill notes, these screenings motivated students to undertake URECA (Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus) projects that investigate related issues such as the representation of coal, apocalyptic science fiction, and treatments of masculinity and environmental resources in Steven Universe and Avatar. The popularity of this event and its influence on student research trajectories and outcomes demonstrates how the Environmental Humanities encourage engagement with sustainability and the environment outside the classroom.

Ongoing communication between the humanities and sciences is of utmost importance. “In SEO,” says Mr. Clune, “we try to make our programmes multidisciplinary, while also taking into account that sustainable solutions must be culturally appropriate.”

One way that SEO facilitates multidisciplinary discussions is through the S3 symposium. According to Mr. Clune, these symposiums support innovation by including technological, economic, legal, and governmental perspectives. They bring together people working on sustainability across disciplines to share their perspectives. He adds, “People in all the disciplines go away with their wheels turning. The key for it to be effective is to make it open and welcoming to everybody.”


Inspiring the Next Generation

Environmental Humanities modules taught across the School of Humanities at NTU encourage students to think about their role in climate change. For example, Assistant Professor Ivan Panović’s module, Ecolinguistics: Language and the Environment, analyses how language represents the relationship between humans and their environment, and how it can shape either ecologically damaging or harmonious practices.

With respect to how language affects the way we think, he remarks, “The word ‘environment’ often refers to our surroundings. Thus, it is something that is outside, surrounding us. This tends to put us at the centre, at the top of the food chain. The word ‘resources’ comes to mean something that is there for us to use. As we can see over the last century, there have been dramatic changes that seem to be irreversible. Great damage has been done to our ecosystems which jeopardises the life-sustaining systems of this planet.”

Asst Prof. Panović also cites examples from other cultures to make students mindful of ecologically harmonious language: “Most traditional Japanese haiku is really about nature and the appreciation of the small things around us,” he observes. “They are about rain, water, leaves, and animals, which are represented in a very defined format and within a very specific genre.”

The main goal of his module is to demonstrate how language plays a role in environmental sustainability today, and how students can contribute to it by using language ethically. He states, “You may end up working as a copywriter in advertising and I will feel better that you are aware of this and familiar with how consumers can be manipulated, like when we talk about ‘food production’ instead of slaughtering animals.”

Another course in the Environmental Humanities at NTU is Introduction to Sustainability, a compulsory online module for all undergraduates created by the Sustainable Earth Office and administered by the Asian School of the Environment. “The whole idea,” Mr. Clune explains, “was to create a multidisciplinary approach. It’s engineering, but it’s also governance and policy, business and economics.” He expresses interest in having a humanities topic in the future that takes for instance, palm oil, a regional issue, as its focus.

Mr. Clune is currently working with Professor Ben Shedd, an Academy Award winning filmmaker and Professor at the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) on Introduction to Sustainability: “The next phase,” he says, “is going to be an even bigger move, a massively open online course, where everybody can see everyone else’s perspectives.”

In addition to courses in linguistics, SEO’s online course, Professor Powell’s The Green Earth: Issues in Environmental History, and Professor Cahill’s Introduction to Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature: Ecocritical Enlightenments, students can look forward to future changes and additions that further promote the Environmental Humanities. With Dr. Kira Alexandra Rose joining the English programme as a Postdoctoral Fellow this year, her expertise in water scholarship will be harnessed by Professor Cahill as they jointly re-organise her core module to include contemporary sources on environmental ethics, activism, and climate change.

According to Asst Prof. Cahill and Dr. Rose, the revamped module, “The Ecological Thought: Environmental Consciousness in Literature and Beyond,” will “approach environmental consciousness from a number of perspectives so that students get a fuller picture of current work in environmental scholarship and creative production, past and present, across regions.”

Dr. Rose will also teach a new Environmental Humanities module, The Environmental Imagination, starting in Fall 2018. The module approaches climate change holistically by placing contemporary creative sources – including literature, film and documentary, visual art, and sculpture – into conversation with environmental history, public science writing, and climate communications research.

Asst Prof. Powell, meanwhile, offers Marine Environmental History, which examines a range of issues, including those explored in his upcoming book on the global history of human interactions with sharks in the twentieth century; it also addresses depictions of marine environments and indigenous and industrial fisheries, transboundary issues particularly important to marine environmental history.

Students visit the S.E.A. Aquarium while reading Susan Davis’s Spectacular Nature, which covers the anthropology of Sea World. As Asst Prof. Powell points out, “humanities scholars should never lose sight of what we do best, which is connecting environmental issues to power structures, politics, culture, economics, race, gender and class.”

The growth of the Environmental Humanities at SoH, which also houses the Sustainability Research Cluster, attests to its faculty’s commitment to helping students to understand their role in sustainable development through an array of perspectives. Scientific study is invaluable, yet so are public awareness and action, activated by the arts. In other words, one need not necessarily be an expert in science to make conscientious, informed, and valuable contributions.

As a representative of SEO, Mr. Clune acknowledges the value of interdisciplinary collaboration under the banner of the Environmental Humanities, which provide an integrated approach to sustainability. He agrees that the humanities speak to key issues pertaining to culture and the environment and shed light on people’s changing mores, such as their stance on meat consumption and the treatment of animals.

Continuing to incorporate the Environmental Humanities into classrooms will enhance awareness and sustainability efforts at NTU, one student at a time. Attending to the impact of critical and creative efforts in the arts and humanities on environmental outcomes will enable scholars to mobilise their knowledge, contribute holistically to conversations about climate change, and effectively tackle large-scale problems using interdisciplinary solutions.


Is Climate Change Real?

Since 2011 U.S. President Donald Trump has been stating on Twitter that climate change is a conspiracy that is designed to stifle U.S. manufacturing and that previous administrations had expended too many resources on the issue of global warming. On 1st June 2017 the United States stated that they would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. However, Article 28 of the Agreement states that the earliest effective withdrawal cannot take place before 4th November 2020 until which date the U.S. is obligated to maintain its commitments. The next U.S. Presidential election takes place the day before, which means that Trump’s successor may reverse this decision. The climate change debate looks set to run well into the twenty-first century.

Associate Professor Teru Miyake (Philosophy) explains, “There is a lot of debate about things like global warming and climate change and what is established by science. Some people doubt that global warming is happening. Others insist that it is a certainty. We know for a fact that it’s happening. If you have an oversimplified view of how science works, the research on global warming and climate change may not agree with your preconceived knowledge. Science is much more complicated than that and so you need to pay careful attention to what goes on in climate science.”

Assoc Prof. Miyake studies epistemology, with a specific focus on how knowledge about the Earth’s deep interior is derived from observations of seismic waves. The manner in which people gain knowledge about a topic frames how they come to perceive it.

Assoc Prof. Miyake cites an example that may justify skepticism. “If you go to museums or if you go and look in a book, you’ll see those cut-away models of the Earth that show a core, a mantle and a crust. And you might think, well, how do you know that there’s a core? Nobody actually dug a hole down there, right?” Philosophy’s study of how knowledge is derived is hence crucial to understanding why people may not recognise problems such as climate change, persuading them to look at things differently, and motivating them to be more concerned.


Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink

The issue of water is especially important in Singapore. As a small nation, we depend largely on Malaysia for our water supply. However, unpredictable weather patterns in recent years have led to falling water levels at the Linggiu Reservoir in Johor, a reservoir that supplies approximately 60% of our water needs. In an effort to discourage water wastage and invest in alternative water supplies such as desalination and NEWater, water prices have increased by 30%. This is where Dr. Rose’s research on contemporary depictions of water in global Anglophone literature, art, and media – including sources produced in Singapore – comes in. She explains, “I hope to reframe how we think about water. The metaphors we tend to link with water are shifting in response to policies and to what scientists predict could become a global water crisis if not addressed. The issues that some regions and populations are facing today include drought, shortage, and uneven distribution; these issues, and the risk of water conflict, are exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Water is also being talked about as something to be owned. In some quarters, they’re talking about it like oil, and that could potentially be very dangerous. We need to look at how authors and artists today are treating water in light of its status as a politically contested resource, one that’s not just plentiful and always available, but in fact one that’s monitored, controlled, contained, and redistributed.”

[1] “Environmental Word Games,” New York Times, 15 Mar. 2003, p. A16.