Adopt a humanistic approach to environmental issues

April 15, 2021

3 ASU humanities faculties share their thoughts on creating a more sustainable future

From food insecurity to the collapse of biodiversity, the field of environmental humanities tackles broad issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, aiming to connect two traditionally separate fields.

“The environmental humanities are invaluable because they give us the historical, ethical, literary, theoretical and narrative tools we need to understand the complex phenomena that reveal the interconnections between, for example, poverty, racism and the increased risk of harm. caused by a virus. ” noted Joni adamson, professor of environmental humanities at Arizona State University English Department and a leading sustainability specialist and director of Environmental Humanities Initiative to Julie Ann Wrigley Laboratory of Global Futures.

In Adamson’s work, she writes on environmental justice, the centrality of environmental humanities to sustainability science, designing desirable futures, Indigenous literatures and scientific literacies, the nature rights movement and the food justice movement. Adamson is one of many researchers at ASU and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences whose work focuses on environmental humanities.

Celina Osuna is the coordinator of the Humanities research institute and the deputy director of Desert Humanities Initiative. Her work explores the literature, art and cinema of and about the desert of the Southwest, emphasizing the abundance of multicultural, multiethnic and multispecies stories of desert environments.

Juliann Vitullo is associate professor of Italian studies at the School of Letters and International Cultures, co-director of the Humanities Lab and a principal researcher in sustainability. She has written on various aspects of medieval, modern and contemporary Italian culture with an emphasis on the relationship between textual traditions and the material world, including economics, food, and gender studies.

For Earth month, these three humanities professors shared their approach to environmental issues, how people can make change and what gives them hope for the future.

Question: What are the current projects you are working on that lie at the intersection of the humanities and the environment?

Joni adamson

Adamson: With an international partnership with five universities funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, I co-lead a food justice project that brings together interdisciplinary professors from across ASU. We explore how a wide range of factors that have long been studied in the humanities – including race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, economic position, and geography – influence how people individuals and groups experience and respond to complex social and environmental problems. challenges such as food insecurity, economic inequalities, human displacement and the collapse of biodiversity.

Osuna: It has become extremely important for me, as a Chicanx of a desert location, to contribute to a scholarship that celebrates the abundance and wonders of the Southwestern Desert as much as it addresses the complexity of border violence and intergenerational trauma. … As part of my work within the Desert Humanities Initiative, I organized an interdisciplinary panel for an event on May 11 on the relationship between water and desert environments. I am also excited about a series of desert land events taking place in the fall. Ron Broglio and I worked with Heather green and graphic designer Tyler owens on a zine about the saguaro, which we hope will educate people about the extraordinary cactus native to the Sonoran Desert as much as it will feature artwork inspired by the saguaros. At the moment, I am also preparing to host a literary salon for the Virginia G. Piper Writing Center’s Light up May 6, where I will share my work and talk to people in our community about their own relationship with desert places.

Vitullo: I am researching and teaching a course on the Mediterranean way of life in Italy. The Mediterranean diet is heavily marketed as a universal solution to chronic diseases in many societies, but the earliest studies that developed the concept of the Mediterranean diet were based on the local cultures of southern Italy and other Mediterranean territories; these communities still had close ties to their land and their history thanks to traditional ecological knowledge, which had been passed down to them by generations of peasants. By the end of the course, students understand that these types of traditional lifestyles exist all over the world and if we live in Arizona, in order to create a healthier and more sustainable food system here, we must support the indigenous food cultures of the world. South West. while recognizing how much we have to learn from them.

Q: How does the study of humanities and the environment overlap, and why is it important to take this perspective for environmental issues?

Adamson: If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that social and ecological are inextricably linked. We know that viruses are natural and can spread in human populations when they come in contact with wild animals where these viruses are not harmful, such as bats. We also know that the discriminatory practices that have long targeted minority communities for polluting industries are, in many cases, the same practices that put Africans, Latin Americans and Native Americans at increased risk of COVID-19.

Celina Osuna

Osuna: What became clear to me very early on is how deeply rooted any humanist enterprise is in the environment. For example, “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley is a canonical literary text. When I was teaching the book, most of my students had read or at least heard of “Frankenstein”, but none of them had been invited to read the book and pay close attention to natural environments before. Reading it this way, through an ecocritical lens, we had the opportunity to discuss how the environments in the novel reflected or fueled the moods of the characters and how geographic distance or harsh climates behave. Watching them engage with the 200-year-old text and put it into contemporary discussions of climate change, hyperobjects and posthumanism has shown that the humanities can work to solve environmental problems. In all the humanities, be it history, religion, languages, literature or philosophy, we are inevitably interested in people and places. What we sometimes don’t realize is that the humanities and the environment are always already interconnected.

Vitullo: The humanities are important for understanding the historical and cultural contexts in which we develop relationships with our environment. In order to create a healthy and sustainable food system, we need to explore how food connects us with each other as well as with other animals, plants and the land where we live. We must investigate the histories and cultures of different food systems, decolonize the hierarchy that promotes the study and branding of certain traditional diets while ignoring those of historically under-represented communities, and fostering a better access to local food producers.

Q: In this Earth Month, what issues do you think are the most crucial to tackle and what can people do to effect change?

Osuna: The humanities are centered on storytelling. Today, Earth’s environment – through the extinction and endangerment of species, droughts, forest fires, sea level rise and an endless list of others means – tells us urgent stories. They tell us as humans that our current practices – for example, dependence on fossil fuels and capitalism – are doing irreparable harm. What humanists have the skills to do well is listen to, tell and interpret these stories which will hopefully bring about change, but we do it best with the help of scientists, artists and members of the community. our community, which often have intergenerational ties to a place.

Juliann Vitullo

Vitullo: Creating sustainable, healthier and more equitable food systems while fighting climate change is what drives my research, teaching and community work. There are many ways to create a healthier, more sustainable local food system. You can buy locally produced food, support programs like Double your food dollars that give more people better access to fresh food and advocate for the protection of local farmlands in Maricopa County which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Q: What gives you hope for the future of these issues?

Adamson: In my classes I always talk about the Decade of Action and I am very optimistic, not that we will return the Earth to an Edenic state within the next 10 years, but that we can ensure our own survival and the survival of our people. teammates in the next century. My students will be in charge of the planet long after I’m gone, so I want them to understand that while humans are responsible for much of the activity that caused climate change, they are also able to imagine a different world and make choices to move in different directions. Based on the exciting work that I see happening in my classes, I have no doubt that the ASU students in our classes today are the generation that will meet the challenges of the Decade of Action.

Osuna: My hope comes from finding ways to build community, and I think that’s something most people would find true. Sometimes the tough part is finding a community, but it starts with the little things like walking into your local independent bookstore or volunteering for fundraisers. There is a lot of work to be done in the face of unprecedented climate change, but nothing can replace that work. The key is to find joy in this work, which I think comes from other people, their poetry or their music, a good book, a moving movie or an inspiring art.

Vitullo: Every week when I participate in my Community Garden and Farm Bag Membership Program, it gives me hope.

To learn more about Earth Month at ASU, visit Earth Month is a registered trademark of Brad Follett.

Top photo: Celina Osuna, coordinator of the Institute for Humanities Research and deputy director of the Desert Humanities Initiative, is pictured in Oak Flat, Arizona. Photo by Brad Kahlhamer

Emilie Balli

Communications Specialist and Senior Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences