UCLA takes flight with environmental humanities

By Rebecca Kendall
Originally posted in UCLA Today

"We’re constantly being bombarded by problems that we face and sometimes we can get completely overwhelmed. [But] we should always feel like a hummingbird. I may feel insignificant, but I don’t want to be like the other animals watching the planet go down the drain. I’ll be a hummingbird, I’ll do the best I can."(watch video)

~2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Matthai

The late Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Matthai eloquently emphasized that every individual can do something, no matter how small, to combat a large, pressing issue, no matter how insurmountable it seems.

At UCLA, Matthai’s resolve to do what she could for the good of the Earth resonates with the hiring of three new faculty members from Stanford University who will work within the departments of English and history, and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), to bridge disciplines, ideas and people. This effort recently caught the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jon Christensen, Ursula Heise and Allison Carruth recently moved south into new offices at UCLA to help bolster the university’s expertise in environmental humanities, an emerging interdisciplinary field that includes historians, literary and new media scholars, philosophers and art historians. They focus on the many roles that culture — and cultural differences — play in how societies define nature, understand particular ecosystems and respond, both politically and scientifically, to environmental crises. It’s a task they share with their UCLA colleagues Professor Rob Watson and Associate Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey, both from the Department of English. Christensen and Heise also work on the connections between the environmental humanities and the digital humanities, another emergent area of research.

Ali Behdad, chair of the Department of English, said he is excited to be ushering in a new era that puts UCLA at the forefront of this field. After losing two faculty members from his department to Stanford last year, he was eager to pick up some esteemed new additions to his team. He says that Heise and Carruth, who both join his department, were his top picks for the senior and junior faculty openings. Christensen, who joined IoES and the Department of History as an adjunct assistant professor and Pritzker Fellow, was an amazing bonus hire, he said.

"We were looking to recruit stars, and now we have arguably created the best environmental humanities department in the country," he said, noting that Los Angeles is the perfect location for this work because of its dense and diverse populations and the city's mix of environments, ranging from a thriving metropolitan region and ocean settings to desert landscapes and mountain ranges.

Literary scholars have largely been left out of the debate regarding the environment, a field largely dominated by scientists, he said "I really believe, and I think my colleagues believe, that we have a lot to contribute as literary scholars in this debate … and in preparing citizens to make better decisions in an era of incredibly rapid environmental and social changes."

Behdad said that he is also optimistic about the new funding possibilities that cross-campus and cross-disciplinary collaboration on environmental topics may open up, as well as the opportunities it will create for teaching, research and public engagement.

Adds David Schaberg, dean of the Division of Humanities: "We’re in a period in the humanities where we’re rethinking the things that we do for our students, for scholars around the world and for the public in general," he said. "The common denominator is always rediscovering the human and rediscovering the relevance of the humanities at the center of the other kinds of scholarly enterprises we have on campus," the dean said.

By having historians, literary scholars and artists work alongside engineers, biologists and physicists — layering expertise in nontraditional ways — there is the potential to frame research questions in more innovative ways and to approach them from many different perspectives, said Christensen, who will be teaching a course on environmental journalism, science communications and new media during the winter quarter. Thanks to a Mellon Foundation grant, he is also conducting experiments with colleagues at Stanford on "crowdsourcing," engaging the broad public in helping to compile, catalog and organize sources to build a more diverse, inclusive picture of how different people and communities relate to the environment.

"Instead of turning to the humanities just to help communicate the findings of natural or social scientists, and tell their stories once the research has been done, consider integrating these perspectives from the beginning of the process," Christensen urged.

When it comes to issues of the environment and sustainability, it is critical to make the message and the information accessible and compelling, said Glen MacDonald, director of IoES and a professor of geography.

"You can have the best science and engineering, but if it’s not properly communicated to the public, policymakers and stakeholders, that information might end up being completely valueless because nobody gets it," he said. "Art, writing, theater and dance are really important ways to reach people. Typically, the sciences haven’t gotten too far into that. I really want to see us build bridges with a common cause of saving the planet."

Heise, a professor holding a joint appointment with IoES and the Department of English, is hoping her work will help people better understand and appreciate biodiversity and the stories we tell about endangered species. She is currently finishing a book, entitled "Where the Wild Things Used to Be," set for release in 2014. For this work, she started out using nonfiction books, documentaries, photos, films and computer games about extinction and biodiversity loss, among other conventional materials in literary and cultural studies. Then she expanded her search to scientific databases like the Encyclopedia of Life and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

After noticing that some species receive much more attention than others on the IUCN Red List, she became interested in how these databases were compiled, what information was included, and how entries were coded and categorized.

"You cannot even begin to think about these issues without knowing something about the sciences," said Heise, who also works on endangered species laws in different countries. "In addition, you often have to know something about certain social sciences and about the legal, governmental and historical dimensions that frame our concerns with endangered species. Sometimes it’s really challenging work because you have to choose how to bring these things together, and you have to talk to a lot of people to make sure you get it right."

Carruth, an assistant professor in the Department of English and a scholar of contemporary food culture, has just completed a book entitled "Global Appetites," which offers a cultural history of industrial agriculture and its imagined alternatives since the First World War. The focus is on how writers have responded to and shaped developments such as the supermarket, the Green Revolution and the engineering of plants for specific traits, she said.

The book "explores the political ramifications of industrial agriculture through the lens of various cultural materials … showing that food has become central … to American global power … and to how the United States conceptualizes its power," Carruth said.

In her latest research, Carruth is exploring collaborations among writers, scientists and artists around biotechnology and tissue culturing, and looking at emergent trends such as "gene tinkering."

"Ursula, Jon and Alison are wonderful, exciting scholars," MacDonald said. "They are so collaborative. They’re bridge builders. This is a group that really hit the ground running, and we’re trying to support them as best we can."