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Humanities Scholars Shed New Light on the Past, Present, and Future of Environmental Change

Stanford University history professor Richard White might seem an unlikely source for fresh perspectives on today’s environmental debate. But White—a humanities scholar whose research focuses on American history—believes that looking back at events of the past often gives keen insights into what has shaped the present, as well as offering glimpses of what the future holds. White’s examination of the expansion of railroad system in the American West during the 1800s, for example, revealed an unexpected and lingering ecological downside.

While creating a brief economic boom for dozens of cities at the time, many of the regions that were developed have been in economic and environmental decline for years. “Americans tend to focus on the environmental disasters of other countries and point out the ways in which they had environmental catastrophes,” White said. “You sometimes forget that we in the United States also have a history which has many of the same elements.”

White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, is just one of a number of humanities researchers at Stanford who feel that current-day environmental issues should be considered by a range of scholarly disciplines, including those in the humanities and in the sciences.

Scholars from the University’s philosophy, literature, and history departments are contributing to interdisciplinary discussion through their publications and in academic workshops and research groups. They stress that their unique perspectives are valuable because science alone can’t completely address the massive problems of global climate change, industrial pollution, food shortages, and vastly unequal living standards in Western and developing nations, none of which can be fully understood without considering their complex historical and cultural legacies.  

With input from colleagues in academic disciplines from the economics to medicine, humanities professors across campus have created a variety of opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion about the environment. Graduate students, too, are working alongside faculty members in several workshop groups and research teams. In all these cases, their aim is to paint a more detailed picture of the nuanced reality of the past, present, and future of environmental change. “You might be able to do scientific studies about what is happening,” White explains, “but if you want to know why it’s happening, how it’s happening, the political background, and what to do about it, then you’re into the humanities and social science research.”

Philosophy Raises Questions of Environmental Ethics

Philosophical inquiry, at the core of the humanities, helps scholars form the questions that need to be answered in discussions about the environment. Professor Debra Satz, is a political philosopher and spends her time thinking about questions of fairness – an area where answers are not always clear when it comes to environmental choices. “There are quite a few dimensions of environmental problems that are not strictly questions of science or of social science, but really have to do with values, with what we care about, and what we ought to do” she said. “That’s something that political philosophers, ethicists, and other humanists have something to say about.”

Satz, whose current research centers on the relationship between markets and social equality, gives the example of what should happen to a community that’s dependent upon fishing if that industry suddenly faces catastrophe. “If a community’s way of life is going to be wiped out by the devastation of the local fishery, how do we think about that?” she asks. “Do we just sum up the costs and benefits of the fish that are lost? Or do we think about the value of a way of life that’s been sustained in the village and handed down from generation to generation?”

Cattle awaiting slaughter in a West Texas feedlot.
Photo credit: © Hughes

Another example of ecological fairness: what’s served on the dinner table. We can’t have a world where everybody eats meat on the level that American families eat meat without causing serious environmental consequences, she asserts.  “But what does that mean? That Americans gets to eat meat, but tell the rest of the world, ‘too bad, you only get to eat a vegetable diet?’ How should we think about our own individual food choices? And how should we think about our food policy? Food production contributes to global warming. We know that now we have to pay attention to the way that food ethics and politics intersects with environmental problems.”

Recently, Satz brought her humanities perspective to The Stanford Food Summit, a daylong, cross-disciplinary event where more than 300 Stanford academics and others discussed food-related problems and solutions. Satz—the senior associate dean for the humanities and the arts and the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of ethics in society—weighed in about food ethics. She told the gathering that one major question that will linger for the next decade is “not what we eat, but what so many don’t eat [and] what responsibility the developed world has in the face of hunger around the globe.”

Multi-Disciplinary Conversation Inspires and Informs

In “Environmental Norms, Institutions, and Policy: Blokker Research Workshop,” an academic discussion group founded by Professor Satz, scholars from a range of disciplines lend their expertise to philosophical and ethical dilemmas pertaining to the environment. With input from frequent guest presenters, Stanford faculty members and graduate students tackle a variety of environment-related topics in the multi-disciplinary setting of the workshop.

Participants meet once or twice a month with the objective of examining “key issues of environmental ethics and policy, including equity (its meaning and measurement), the role of institutions (including universities) in meeting environmental challenges, and the design of policies aimed at sustainable management of natural resources,” as stated on the Stanford Humanities Center website. In one recent session, participants examined the advantages and unknown risks of genetically modified foods. Research on whether countries that are dependent on mining are more prone to produce greenhouse gasses—and therefore cause greater environmental harm — sparked another group discussion


Smog blankets the downtown Los Angeles skyline.
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“It’s been a really good experience for people from the science side and the humanities side to be in conversation together on environmental issues,” said Satz. Workshop participants say that the robust inter-disciplinary dialogue typical of each meeting informs and inspires their own research.

Literature Builds Cultural Bridges

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst accident in the history of civilian nuclear energy, helped cement English professor Ursula Heise’s passion for environmental studies. She was a graduate student living in Germany at the time of the meltdown and, like millions of others in Europe, feared negative health implications from the radioactive fallout. “The idea that here something had happened hundreds of miles away that was transforming the landscape and poisoning it without our being able to see it or sense it in any way was truly mind-blowing and eerie,” Heise said. The accident showed that “things happen outside our borders that nevertheless affect us deeply.”

A professor at Stanford since 2004, Heise works in ecocriticism, a field that explores literature and culture from an environmental perspective, with a particular focus on books, art, poetry, music, photography, and film. These works, Heise said, can “galvanize people and catalyze environmental action in a very real way.” Ecocriticism, which emerged in the early 1990s, has now developed into a vibrant field. The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), of which Heise currently serves as president, includes 1,300 members.

One of the most famous examples of how a literary work can spark environmental discussion, Heise said, is Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book that details the harmful effects of pesticides. That popular scientific book is widely credited with helping launch today’s environmental movement. “So, there is real political power in good writing,” Heise said. To explore such works, Heise founded the Environmental Humanities Project, which draws academics and graduate students from across the Stanford campus. 

The group examines and discusses environment-focused works from literature, cultural studies, philosophy and history. Through that regular series of workshops, “We’re trying to build bridges in all kinds of ways with both social scientists and natural scientists,” she said.

A nest of young Mockingbirds.
Photo credit: © Campbell

One of their recent readings was Animal’s People, a 2007 novel by Indian author and environmental activist Indra Sinha. The book tells its story through the eyes of a victim of an industrial chemical accident in India that left his bones so twisted he had to walk on all fours. This account is based on an actual industrial accident—the deadly Bhopal gas disaster of 1984. “This was a very powerful description of what it means to be a victim of pollution and not have access to any justice system that will hold the producers of the risk accountable,” Heise explained.

The book served another important role: telling the tale of an environmental disaster from a very different cultural perspective from the ones most Americans know. “What literary and cultural scholars bring to the table is a very detailed understanding of culture,” she said. “If we want to solve environmental problems, we need to know a great deal about culture.” Heise’s own environment-oriented research has focused on the way in which environmentalist movements, the American one in particular, seeks to anchor environmental ethics in a "sense of place," and how such local commitments relate to the experience of an increasingly globalized world.

She has traced such local and global perspectives in their sometimes tense relationship in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (2008). More recently, she has researched cultural representations of the current mass extinction of species. Biologists believe the sixth mass extinction in the world’s history is now underway, she says, the result of human destruction of native habitat, pollution, and over-harvesting of crops. According to Heise, some scientists believe this combination of events could result in the loss of as much as half of all the Earth’s animals and plant species by 2100.

In After Nature: Species Extinction and Modern Culture (2010), Heise explores how the endangerment and extinction of charismatic species becomes part of stories particular cultures tell about their own history of modernization. Besides elegiac and tragic accounts focusing on individual species, she is also investigating the creation of global biodiversity databases, the cataloguing of all currently known animal and plant; about 1.8 million species have been classified so far. In their attempt to grasp the entirety of the known biological world, Heise believes, those databases are a new and important cultural genre that in some ways resembles ancient epics, and that provides an important and desentimentalized alternative to accounts that mourn that passing of individual species. Understanding such databases as cultural artifacts and not just as scientific tools, Heise believes, might open up new kinds of storytelling about the natural world.

Vintage photograph of a 19th century steam train.
Photo credit: © Walker

Digital Humanities Projects Uncover the Roots of Environmental Change

History professor Richard White is also sorting through vast amounts of data, though most of what he’s studying has to do with human, rather than animal, activity. Three years ago, with the help of undergraduates and graduate students and a skilled staff, White created The Spatial History Project, a research lab using complex yet creative visuals to illustrate environmental changes over many years.

One project mapped population density in the United States between 1790 and 2000, dramatically showing population migration from Eastern cities to the West during that 210-year period. Another project illustrated changes in civic participation following Chile’s decision to open its doors widely to foreign companies, a political move that resulted in major pollution from foreign mining firms, decimation of native forests by loggers, and intense contamination of the air and water by industrial fishing plants. His own research involves examining the environmental impact of the early development of railroads in the United States.

While enabling development in the West, the railroads also made possible “industrial hunts” of buffalo, quickly decimating the herds by the 1870s. In addition, the railroads encouraged human settlement in Western areas beset by drought, leading to a “boom and bust” economy. The more efficient mode of transportation even led to a glut of beef, wheat, and silver, White explained, prompting many residents who had flocked to the area seeking profits to move on when times turned bad.

Large areas in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and elsewhere, continue to suffer today, White says. “They can’t sustain schools or stores. The population that’s left there is aging, isolated, and poor. The argument is sometimes made to restore those communities. But my argument would be that founding those communities in the first place was a mistake.” White added: “Unless you peel back that past, you’d have no idea what was going on. Again and again, humanities research can bring up these hidden stories, which really become the explanations for environmental issues and social issues.”

Research Predicts “Climate Migrants”

The Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina’s Patagonia National Park.
Photo credit: ©

Stanford historian, archeologist, and classics scholar Ian Morris has also been examining the past as a means to understanding the present, and even predicting the future of the global environment. For centuries, Morris says, climate change has accompanied massive social change, upheavals ranging from the fall of the Roman Empire to the spread of the Black Death throughout Europe in the 1300s. Morris suggests that environmental and cultural events indicate the world might be heading for yet another transformation.

Already, global warming is hurting parts of central and eastern Asia; Pakistan’s recent devastating floods are a case in point, Morris says. And he cited a respected British report cautioning that more negative environmental events could unleash as many as 200 million “climate migrants,” people who are desperately “driven by water and food shortages, undermining states as they go, and setting off wars.” As a humanities scholar, “I bring an awareness of how this fits into the larger history and what we can learn from how people have faced problems like this in the past,” Morris explains. “You see plenty of examples in early history of leaders making (sic) disastrous decisions because they aren’t able to see the larger picture, but they are driven by very short-term considerations.”

Morris presents these and other insights in his recently released book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. His book builds a case that geography played a key role in the rise of Western nations to dominance. However, technology has shrunk the geographic distances that once gave the West such an edge. As a result, Morris believes, Eastern nations with abundant wealth, resources, and human talent are now poised to take over as new world leaders, essentially “displacing America from the top of the pile, in amazingly similar ways to how the Americans displaced the Europeans 100 years ago.” While Morris isn’t convinced that today’s global policy leaders will use historical findings to drive their decisions, they’re certainly listening to what he has to say.

Recently, Morris discussed his research before the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the World Affairs Council. Meanwhile, he continues to search for interdisciplinary answers to profound environmental questions. “One of the big things historians and archeologists have been able to show is that climate change alone never causes anything in a straight-forward sort of way. It’s human response to climate change that drives the change, and that is something we can do something about,” Morris said. “We can shape these views, so if people understand what’s happening around them, they can respond constructively.”

Through collaborations that sometimes reach beyond campus walls, Morris and his humanities colleagues will continue to drive environmental discussions that inspire others to imagine new possibilities.

By Michele Chandler