But what, you may ask, justifies this title? Such a framing of hope surely defies the environmental realities of our time: from melting polar ice to irreversible species losses, from threats to coastal lands to dangerously poor air quality in urban areas and increasingly frequent violent weather events, our planet and its inhabitants seem headed for near-certain calamity. Indeed, despair presents itself as both seductive and appropriate. And yet, in the framing of this conference, we decided to argue for hope, not despite but because of our appreciation of the magnitude and consequence of these issues. We believe there simply is no time for despair and its attendant catatonic inaction. Instead, we urge a clear-eyed and determined optimism.
While the humanities may not have a reputation for action and pragmatism, we argue that humanities scholars are in fact especially well equipped for this task. Their work recognizes beauty and reckons with human folly, analyzes trenchantly and listens carefully, tolerates ambiguity and embraces rigor. At their best, the humanities not only uncover and interpret; they facilitate understanding and mobilize action.
The gap between scientific consensus and public acceptance of human-caused climate change is well-documented. Involving over 800 scientists from across the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth Assessment Report on climate change in 2014 and affirmed that the “human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed across all continents and oceans.” And yet, skeptics abound and persist, especially in the United States. A study released by the Pew Research Fund in May of 2018 found that just slightly over half of American adults (53%) accept that human activity is causing global warming. These disparities demonstrate that scientific evidence alone is not sufficient to compel public assent and action.
The humanities can help bridge this gap of understanding. Environmental historians have revealed how our romance with wilderness has persisted at the expense of our stewardship of seemingly less pristine nature in which humans can flourish and prosper; literary scholars have exposed how the nexus between time and catastrophe can heighten awareness or blind us to the degradation of our lands. Scholars have revealed how indigenous communities have brought a deep historical sense of belonging to the land to a trenchant and scientifically informed activism; how food resources and global commodities markets exacerbate and maintain global wealth disparities; and how an appreciation of beauty in nature can deliver us from loss to a place of understanding and action.
This year, the Center is hosting scholars who focus on the environment from across the disciplines, including history, literature, geography, and anthropology. The Center is also hosting a series of events that showcase this work and bring humanists into dialogue with legal scholars, teachers, and scientists, as well as the public.
- Conference — Beyond Despair: Theory and Practice in Environmental Humanities
- Public Conversations — Beyond Beauty: Exploring the Environmental Humanities
- Scholarly Roundtable — Environmental Humanities at the Crossroads of Climate Change
This is the time to look beyond despair to humanities in action.
NHC Position Statement
The National Humanities Center has not issued an official statement concerning this issue.
Find out how you can get informed, get involved, and take action on this and other issues.
What experts are saying:
- Why science needs the humanities to solve climate change (Steven D. Allison and Tyrus Miller, The Conversation, 8/1/19)
- Surviving Despair in the Great Extinction (Margaret Renkl, The New York Times, 5/3/19)
- The Story of Storytelling (Ferris Jabr, Harper’s Magazine, 3/19)
- The Uninhabitable Earth, Annotated Edition (David Wallace-Wells, New York, 7/17)
- Saving the World with Metaphor: Toward an Ecological Poetics (Robert D. Newman, Los Angeles Review of Books, 5/23/18)
- Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point (Daniel Aldana Cohen, The Nation, 11/2/18)
- How the Environmental Humanities Can Heal Our Relationship to the Planet (Ben Valentine, HyperAllergic, 3/13/18)
- Science can’t do it alone: the environment needs humanities too (Thomas van Dooren, The Conversation, 10/1/2012)
- Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously? (Sverker Sörlin, BioScience, 9/1/2012)
Research & Resources
Materials for further exploration:
- Climates of Inequality, Humanities Action Lab
- Peace with Nature in Costa Rica, documentary
- Environmental Humanities, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal
- What Lies Beneath: The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risks, National Centre for Climate Restoration, September 2017 (PDF)
- Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement, Margaret Klein Salamon (PDF)
- Humanities for the Environment, eds. Poul Holm and Ruth Brennan, special issue of Humanities vol. 7, no. 1, 2018
- Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto of Research and Action (2017)
- Humanities for the Environment: Observatories for Humanities Researchers
- Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA
- “Majorities See Government Efforts to Protect the Environment as Insufficient” Pew Research Center (May 2018, PDF)
- Climate Change 2014, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2015, PDF)