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Society for the Humanities launches sustainability initiative

The Society for the Humanities has formed an Initiative on Sustainability Via the Humanities and Arts that will engage scientists and humanists in new collaborations, working on climate change, energy and other research.

About 60 Cornell faculty and students attended a forum, "Cultures of Energy: A Conversation," last semester at the A.D. White House to discuss areas the initiative could address. These included Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling; a culturally informed investigation of energy; developing tools for better understanding sustainability and environmental issues; the impacts of technology on culture; engaging with community partners; the role of visual and performing arts in developing "environmental humanities"; and climate change as an immediate and long-term problem.

Project leaders are society Director Timothy Murray; Karen Pinkus, professor of Romance studies and comparative literature; Nicholas Salvato, assistant professor of theater, film and dance; and Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history.

"We've had technological solutions to a lot of environmental problems over the years, but we haven't solved them because they are also problems of behavior," Sachs said. "Sometimes people propose 'sustainable' solutions or alternatives without considering cultural assumptions, patterns and structures of thought -- precisely the kinds of things that the humanities and arts are set up to deal with."

Climate and sustainability were among the topics for humanists during the society's 2008-09 critical focus on water. Last semester's forum posed "questions about how the humanities and arts can contribute inventive concepts and approaches to energy, from literature and art to philosophy and anthropology, before linking with the broader sustainability initiatives on campus," Murray said. "Sustainability for us is a long-term reflection."

Sachs is facilitating ongoing discussions between social scientists and humanists, and working with the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST), a separate initiative of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. CREST will present a roundtable Feb. 17 in G01 Biotech on the role of the humanities in the environmental crisis.

"We are going to end up partnering between the society and Atkinson Center in ways that are extremely fruitful to the humanities, and with some unanticipated approaches to sustainability," Murray said.

Pinkus is interested in new collaborations and "projects with multiple dimensions" -- such as integrating speculative and cultural perspectives into quantitative science and technology research on wind power, fuel cells and solar power.

"We see individual research conducted without a broader cultural view, and it just hasn't been up to the challenge that has been posed by the enormity of climate change," she said. "We can't solve natural crises like climate change without the thought that comes from the humanities, such as philosophy and literary theory. We have an active role to play."

Virginia Kennedy, a Ph.D. student researching environmental ethics in American and American Indian literature, pointed out "the immediacy of crisis generated by the implications of climate change, and the need for a deeper cultural transformation that provokes Western society to rethink its place in the biosphere."

Structural concerns included ways to get research groups to work together, and how environmental studies is taught at Cornell. The College of Engineering would have a role, with a new minor in sustainable energy systems and another being developed in climate and global change.

"Integrating environmental sustainability into all campus operations is a part of the strategic plan," said university sustainability coordinator Dan Roth. "There's a very open space for people in the humanities to walk into; technology can only get you so far on some of these issues."

The initiative is sponsored in collaboration with the society's participation in the international Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes' affinity group on climate and sustainability. The collaboration will be "important to humanists at Cornell, and in raising the importance of the conversation to humanists nationally," Murray said.

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Joe Schwartz