Of Climate Change and the Humanities

This week, most unusually, two topics that are of great interest to me, but which rarely make it into the mainstream media, suddenly surfaced in The New York Times.

It was not glad tidings.

ipcc_altlogo_full_rgbAn article about a “leaked draft” of a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, strategically placed in the Saturday edition of the NYT–generally the least read—warned that global warming is going to severely disrupt food supplies in the near future.

A burgeoning global human population, expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, is going to need more food—but climate change is predicted to reduce agricultural production by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century, with predictable results in terms of famine and civil unrest.

Meanwhile, back on the higher-education ranch, it was doom and gloom for the humanities this week, with a “Room for Debate” discussion in the New York Times about whether or not the study of the humanities has become vestigial in these science-focused times, just an “academic luxury.”

The answer I liked best to the question “what good are the humanities today” came from Lisa Dolling, an associate professor of philosophy, and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology, who said:

“While science and engineering can tell us the “what” and “how” of the world, the humanities and social sciences provide insights to answering the “why” — along with the skills necessary to communicate it all to others.”

i-f38d8b0bf62d6e656f1e4bf2c111d9b2-IPCCScience and engineering can tell us all about the problems we face due to global warming, but it is the humanities that will be able to tell us why it is so impossible for human beings to agree on reducing carbon emissions and shifting into a sustainable economic framework.

And perhaps it is the humanities that will be able to persuade us to overcome our collective inertia…find the necessary fire in our bellies…and insist that corporations and politicians join hands to make a livable future for us all.

 

Personally, I have never been more excited to be a humanities professor than I am today.

All of my courses this year are focusing on urgent issues of social and environmental justice, giving students the models and tools they need to become the kinds of change agents our world so desperately needs.

In science & engineering courses, students will learn how to measure and impact biofeedback systems.

But in my courses, they will learn how to communicate these statistics in ways that not only inform, but also inspire a thoughtful response in others.

It is not enough today to understand what is going on, although that is a crucial first step.

We must also be able to take the next steps of a) explaining to others why global warming is important and b) creating channels through which people’s fear, passion and courage can flow into positive efforts at social change.

According to the Stanford University website, “the humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

I find it sad that humanities scholars have to defend the utility and validity of our field today.

Science without the humanities would be a cold social environment indeed, and I think even scientists probably recognize this.

In the age of climate change, we need the humanities more than ever to understand where we are, and to provide the moral framework for where we want to go.

It is not enough to simply describe population growth or agricultural decline. We need to explain why it is imperative that we work to curb human populations and create economic and biological systems for sustainable growth.

We need history to show us how we got here; philosophy to show us our ethical responsibility; and literature and rhetoric to show us how to most effectively communicate with others.

What an impoverished human society it would be if empirical evidence was all we focused on.

Scientists need the humanities, and vice-versa.  To suggest otherwise is to greatly undersell the capacity of human beings to think with both sides of our large, ambidextrous brains—with potentially disastrous results for human society and planet Earth.

We can do better than that.  And we will.

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3 Comments

  1. I love this post, Jennifer. I love the way you link the humanities with climate change. It’s true that engineers and the practitioners of the exact sciences and artists, writers, historians, philosophers and the like need each other–like feminism and socialism do. It is indeed sad that people in the humanities feel we must defend ourselves. At our universities the money is going elsewhere, but a society without art, literature, music, dance, theater, etc. would be a very sterile one indeed.

    Reply
  2. The same thing is increasingly true of the high school educations that students receive. The over-emphasis on standardized testing has resulted in a class time being dedicated to test prep, rather than pursuits and projects that foster critical and creative thinking. I could go on, but I know you are familiar with these issues, and I need to get bed. Tomorrow is my last full day of writing. I hope to get up early and make the most of it.

    Reply
  3. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  November 7, 2013

    Yes, it really is sad that we feel like we need to be defensive of the value of the humanities, and argue for their continued inclusion in education. I am thinking about creating a program for high school students on writing for social and environmental justice…it would undoubtedly start as an after-school elective, but I have a feeling if it incorporated digital media, the students would be quite excited about it! And particularly on the environmental justice side, science would naturally be a part of the substance we’re working with–

    Good luck with your writing, Jan! Go for it!!!

    Reply

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