Monday, August 27, 2012

The Humanities and the Sciences Squabble for Sustainability’s Soul: First Thoughts

Chicago Wilderness is an environmental consortium with a mission to restore biodiversity and improve the quality of life for people living in the Greater Chicago area.  Their vision is to include one third of Chicago and the surrounding areas in an interconnected network of lands and waterways in order to provide a healthy and sustainable region for people and nature.  Although the sustainability goal of the consortium is focused on environmental outcomes, nonetheless there is recognition of the need to integrate this goal with the economic and social developmental plans for the region. Therefore the 260 member institutions of this sustainability oriented organization includes local, state and federal agencies, large conservation organizations, cultural and education institutions, volunteer groups, municipalities, corporations, and faith-based groups.  Together these organizations commit to four key initiatives: restore nature to health, protect green infrastructure, mitigate climate change, and leave no child inside.  Projects are undertaken through four teams:  education, natural resources, science and a sustainability team.  Representation in team leadership and in working groups are drawn from a range of professions: land managers, research social scientists, ecologists, conservation biologists, planners and so forth.  Many, though not all of course, are scientific in nature.  Few, in contrast, are drawn from humanities.  That is not to say that there are no individuals in the consortium with training in humanistic disciplines; indeed many may have.  Rather what I am contending here is that these individuals are not engaged in the work of Chicago Wilderness in their role as humanists, not, at least, in the way that the scientists are engaged in project work qua scientists.    

The sciences and humanities are often depicted as playing complementary roles in imagining a sustainable future.  However, there may be a competitive edge to their proposed usefulness for planning environmental sustainability.  Which provides the more powerful tools; in turn which should be provided with more resources when plans are being developed?

In some circles there is a perception that the sciences have failed in their task of securing the future.  For instance, In The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, philosopher Bill Vitek and ecologist Wes Jackson interrogate the value of science in facing our current dilemmas.[1]  Their critique of science points to the supposedly unfortunate scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, shaping, as it did, the patterns of thought that facilitated an aggressive exploitation of the Earth’s resources, the large-scale despoliation of habitat, and the loss of diversity both organismic and cultural.  Such a critique can be extended by implicating the sciences in an ongoing complicity with the technological systems that perpetuate environmental problems thus endangering the health of planet and people.  Now Vitek and Jackson are not advocating the humanities as substituting for the sciences in sustainability studies.  Rather they ask: “Why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance based worldview.”  “We are”, they go on to say, “betting that there is an important paradox in all of this: knowledge and insight accumulate faster in the minds of those who hold an ignorance-based worldview…Darting eyes have the potential of seeing more.”  Though, as mentioned, the humanities are not proffered here as the intellectual corner stone of sustainability thinking, whatever else that might be, it certainly ain’t the sciences.  Nonetheless, one might ask whether the resources for designing a sustainable future are not in fact better excavated by the humanistic disciplines rather than dictated by the intellectual traditions of the sciences that created the problems. 

Ironically, claims that the humanities rather than the sciences are foundational to sustainability may be best arbitrated by the humanistic disciplines.  That is because the humanities, defined National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as “the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts” are precisely those disciplines that seem most helpful is interrogating the veracity of claims about the legacy of modern thought and contemporary environmental practice.  Environmental history, for instance, to unravel the history of our physical relationship with the planet and the practical ramifications of our representation of the nature in from Enlightenment until the present time; environmental literary studies to investigate the ways in which our knowledge about the world and its problems is taken up in the culture; environmental philosophy to interrogate question of values and of the epistemological validity of the methods of the environmental sciences.  This is of course just to name a few relevant disciplines.  Though critique may be an invaluable task, nonetheless it is hard to image sustainability being discussed without the very practices, scientific often usually quantitative ones that describe the patterns of the environment along a gradient of human impacts.  The natural sciences are needed even, it seems, when we are in the act of questioning them.

Against those who might incline to argue that the sciences are not adequate in addressing the most significant questions about our future are those who tout the sciences as being, to the contrary, the most solid epistemological footing for understanding the human condition and therefore for designing solutions to our problems.  Edward O Wilson provides a recent justification for this approach in his book The Social Conquest of Earth.[2]  The big questions of life Wilson argues “cannot be solved by introspection.”  Such introspectiveness is, he argued, the foundation of the creative arts, “but it tells us very about how we think the way we do, and nothing of why the creative arts originated in the first place.”  Furthermore, one of the sharp tools in the humanistic drawer, philosophy, may avail us little in answering “the great riddle.”  “Pure philosophy’, Wilson states, “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.”  In part philosophy has moved along to those more tractable matters such as “the problems of personal life adjustment.”  Now, despite the manner in which his own oleaginous prose seems to betray him here, Wilson is not dead set against interdisciplinary collaboration – in fact, through his consilience model he is strenuously in favor of it.[3]  But there are certain fundamental questions – questions about the riddles of existence, where the humanities have, in Wilson’s assessment, ceded territory to the sciences, but whether he is correct or not, needs some quite careful inspection, perhaps even of an introspective nature.  I’ll defer a closer examination until later, but for now I point out the somewhat obvious fact that to conjecture about the origins of things, though inarguably important, does not always inform us of our requirement for correct action.  For instance – let’s take something uncontroversial – to know the origins of love may be to know the tritest thing about it.  Furthermore, the relegation of introspection (“thinking about thinking”) to a role exclusively in the creative arts seems somewhat hasty.  After all thinking about the manner in which we think about the relevance of the sciences and humanities seems to be, as I have argued above to be a matter for the humanities rather than the sciences.  

Of course, the role of the humanities goes beyond that of curbing the excesses of a strictly scientific approach of sustainability.  The specific role of humanities disciplines has been sketched out in a helpful document compiled by the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University.  They compiled a list of humanities disciplinary fields and subfields with an account of their relevance for sustainability.  These disciplines and subfields include Gender and Environmental Justice, Gender and Sexuality, History, Language and Culture, Literature and Environmental Studies, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Rhetoric.  The authors of the document are of the opinion that “ecological sciences and the humanities must be coupled in the sustainability enterprise.”  Through these intersecting enterprises the humanities assesses value, assess destructive habits of mind, interprets the language used in defining goals, promotes useful rhetorical practices, interrogates knowledge construction, investigates moral systems, examines religious structures engaged in sustainable practices, addresses fundamental questions about the human condition, exposes inequalities, explores cultural diversity, examines the time course of human interactions with the earth, and investigates the historical causes of our current environmental crises.  And of course, it interrogates the nature of scientific truths.

Despite the dyspepsia at the margins about assigning relative value or even pre-ordained tasks to the sciences and the humanities it seems that in recent years there has been growing appreciation of the role of the humanities in sustainability.[4] Some of the reasons why this might be so are implied above and I’ll discuss them in more detail in the posts to follow this one.  Assuming that these arguments convince us, it will be useful to assess how best to integrate the work of humanists into sustainability projects.  If Chicago Wilderness is a representative sustainability project then it would seem that the route by which the humanities influences is currently an indirect one – the humanities do not have a seat at the table.  Is this generally the case?  I suspect it is but we will need some data to assess this.  If you have examples or counterexamples that you can share I would appreciate it.

Another task for a future post is the evaluate models of interdisciplinarity, including the consilience model mentioned above, to see how we might get the best possible value of having more discipline influence sustainability plans.

[1] Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson (2008) The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge The University Press of Kentucky
[2] Edward O. Wilson (2012) The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright.
[3] Wilson, Edward O (1998). Consilience: the unity of knowledge. New York: Knopf.
[4] Fischer, J.; Manning, A.D.; Steffen, W.; Rose, D.B.; Daniell, K.; Felton, A.; Garnett, S.; Gilna, B.; Heinsohn, R.; Lindenmayer, D.B., et al., Mind the sustainability gap. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 2007, 22, 621-624; Paehlke, R., Sustainability as a bridging concept. Conservation Biology 2005, 19, 36-38. Daniel J. Philippon Sustainability and the Humanities: An Extensive Pleasure. Am Lit Hist (Spring 2012) 24 (1): 163-179.


  1. Okay, I'll bite. But I feel like the humanities are on trial here, as if they are guilty of not putting in their proper weight to support sustainability and Chicago Wilderness. I'll keep this short. First, I think its fair to say that there has been a long-standing concern about sustainability in the humanities which dates back to well... as old as the humanities themselves. One could start with the epic of Gilgamesh, I suppose, and argue that this is a lengthy narrative poem of one man's battle to sustain not only his legacy and fame, but the civilized world. Second, it seems odd to take note that there are no humanities scholars that are actively engaged with Chicago Wilderness and to conclude that the humanities are not sitting at the table. Humanists are everywhere, and of the four initiatives you noted, three of them sound like deeply humanistic projects to me: "restore nature to health," "protect green infrastructure," and "leave no child inside." What does it mean to be healthy? Why do we need green infrastructure? And who leaves their child inside? I'm begrudgingly leaving "mitigate climate change" to the sciences, but the humanists have to leave something for the scientists to do, no? That said, I definitely think it would be great if there was more direct engagement with public history but I'm biased. Lastly, just to turn things around a bit, rather than asking what the humanities can do for sustainability, I'd be interested in knowing what you think sustainability can do for the humanities? To be honest, I don't understand why it seems like the humanities are guilty until proven innocent here, whereas it is assumed that the sciences are obviously contributing to the conversation. Any attempt to answer the question--what have the sciences done for sustainability?--will necessarily have to deal with questions of definition, interpretation, narrative, dialogue and so on, if there is any hope of figuring out the right or desired answer to the question. In other words, academics aside, everyone is going to have to go through the humanities whether we fund them or not. Then again, I may be misinterpreting the question your asking in the first place.

    As always, thanks for the provocation.

    1. Andrew, thanks for biting! You convinced me that the CW mission can benefit from input from humanists. Though, in reality, I needed little convincing on the point. I hoped that at the end of the piece I had sketched what the different humanistic disciplines contribute to sustainability writ large (CW being an example here, rather than being single out for a scolding). And, as you know, I have somewhat quixotically am now in the PhD program of DePaul’s Philosophy department. Though this may sound a little like the “some of my best friends are humanists” line of defense, but in reality I am not, it seems to me, putting the humanities on trial here. However, I am, dare I say it, putting sustainability on trial though.

      The pattern of representation that I refer to, one that I suspect is common in most municipalities, of professional representation on sustainability needs to be accounted for. The academy may be an exception here. It is a conjecture, anecdotal at this point, that the humanities literally do not have a seat at the table. It is not to say they do not exert a needed indirect influence, but philosophers, eco-critics, artists etc. are I suggest rare in decision making roles in sustainability. (But all means show me the evidence that I am wrong).

      Now it may be that we think sustainability initiative are a spectacular success and therefore we’ll muddle along just fine the way things are. I don’t think that this is, in fact, the case. Therefore we must think about governance and the role of the humanities in governance structure.

  2. Hi Liam,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my song and dance. As for putting sustainability on trial, I'm with you (in a democratic way, I hope). I am aware of your philosophical investigations, which is partly why I was perplexed by the whole question regarding the humanities at the table of CW. Don't you count?

    But the issue you are raising about the lack of representation of the humanities is quite pervasive and goes far beyond the world of sustainability. Although it depends on what your looking for, since it's also the case that the humanities and humanists are everywhere. It's an odd paradox that hits the hardest when any humanities graduate goes looking for a job. (Side note: I recently learned that Newt Gingrich has a PhD in modern European history, but that is probably more disturbing than encouraging.)

    Some exceptions:
    1) Just north of the border from us the CHE (culture, history, and environment) group at UW Madison:
    2) Related, the website is a good example of the 'digital humanities' at work. Wisconsin has Aldo Leopoldo to thank for many of their humanities-based initiatives.
    3) I know some folks (especially those in the sciences or who lived through the 'science wars') like to keep their distance from him, but much of Bruno Latour's work has been directed at some of the questions your asking. Maybe his recent mapping controversies project ( can serve as an example?
    4) I'm also a fan of the work being done at the Center for Urban Pedagogy: Their work tries to pair the research of policy makers with designers and has created some fantastic work in the process (some of it 'sustainability' related, some of it not directly).
    5) Along similar lines, there is the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), which is a think-tank that documents our changing landscape, and, in my opinion, helps put sustainability on trial while keeping it real:
    6) Neighborland and pretty much anything that Candy Chang touches:
    7) PBS specials like this one on the SF Bay:
    8) The theme of the current Venice Architecture Biennial is "common ground" which may be of interest?
    9) The cultural landscape foundation has been involved in some very important projects:
    10) Ai Weiwei:

    All of this is just a random sampling of what's out there. Still, I'm not convinced any of these are what you are looking for...