This Professor Believes We Need Humanities As Much As Science To Save The Planet

Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 12:11pm
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 1:39pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The Trump administration made the move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. The southwestern part of the country, including Arizona, is in the midst of a nearly two-decade drought, and a recent polar vortex hit the Midwest leading to wind chills of close to 60 degrees below zero. Those are reminders to millions of people around the world who are concerned about climate change and whether we're headed toward ecological disaster. So in addition to science, what approach could help us fix or at least understand what's happening? Sir Jonathan Bate is a visiting professor at ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability, and he's giving a series of lectures titled "How the Humanities Can Save the Planet," and he is with me to talk about it. Sir Jonathan, do the humanities help us understand some of the worries we have by opening them up to conversation?

JONATHAN BATE: It's exactly that; I think conversation is exactly the right term, Steve. I mean, the humanities are about the big questions of what it means to be human. Now in recent years, over the last couple of decades, the focus in the humanities has very much been on identity, on the politics of gender, class, race. But it seems to me the humanities are also fundamentally about how we relate to the world around us, how our communities and ourselves relate to the natural world, to nature, to the environment. And so it is that the humanities have a key contribution to make to our debates about sustainability, the future of the planet. How we live as humans is intimately bound up with how we live with nature, and all the arts and humanities have in different ways explored this question for centuries, if not millennia.

GOLDSTEIN: Well that's why I wonder, the humanities as they're created now, do we need to look back? Do we need to either with some sort of primmer or just because they'll help us understand more of what's going on today?

BATE: One of the great things about the humanities is that they use the past to help us understand our present and shape our future. So if one just takes a couple of examples from history and literature, which are the two fields in which I'm sort of most fully versed — In history, it's very interesting that in recent years there's been a real explosion of environmental history, thinking about the great changes in society like why empires come to an end. Not only from the point of view of high politics, the invasions, and so forth but also from the point of view of how empires relate to the environment, how resources get used up, how disease travels, how in the end, climate, and all those things we can't control, do shape our history. Similarly with literature, there's a long, long tradition in literature of looking at the great debates between the city and the country between nature and culture so that the great cultural artifacts, literary texts of the past, can be brought to bear upon the present to help us understand our world better for the future.

GOLDSTEIN: Where's the irony of the fact that many of us, if not, maybe not all of us, but many of us, understand what nature provides for us; both in terms of what it can teach us how can make us feel? And yet there has been that debate probably for centuries of where does technological advancement balance out with nature that we all need to survive, because well we need jobs, but then does it take away from what makes us more human, frankly?

BATE: That is exactly the debate that great writers have wrestled with, primarily I think in the last two centuries. My work in this field really began when I was looking at the British romantic poets of the early 19th century who were arguing for the importance of nature, of communities in rural environments, communities close to nature, at the first great period of industrialization and urbanization. At exactly the point when, as a result of the invention of the steam engine, fossil fuels, carbon, climate change begins, the evidence of this is incontrovertible. This is also the period when writers and thinkers begin to worry about the potential dehumanizing results of industrialization and urbanization, and we see that romantic tradition beginning in Britain, and then of course developing in the States. While I'm here visiting in Tempe, I'm teaching a course at Arizona State and we've been looking at texts like Henry David Thoreau's “Walden,” John Muir's account of his work founding the Sierra Club and the national parks, looking at the point that as America began to take off as a capitalist economy, the downside was this ravaging of nature and perhaps a sense of an alienation of the human spirit as we become detached from the woods, the lakes, the hills, the simple pleasures.

GOLDSTEIN: And is that about individuality and community? Are there the benefits from that? Because one of the things that comes up often now is social media, and that brings people together in some ways but greatly divides in others. Is nature the same way or is nature more of a collective feeling around it?

BATE: I think it's one of the interesting problems in a lot of the cultural artifacts in this tradition and we see it in the writing. We also see it in paintings, and another set of works that I've been looking at with my students has been Thomas Cole's great paintings set in upstate New York, but also exploring the rise and fall of empires. And with romantic artists in particular, you do have a sort of paradox that one of their visions of the kind of ideal human state is to be alone on a mountain or in the wild communing with nature feeling part of some kind of universal, almost divine spirit. But then another part is the recognition that how communities relate to their environment does always have a social dimension.

GOLDSTEIN: How much importance is placed on certain things like overall political policy? There was backlash when President Trump here decided to take America out of the Paris Climate Accord for example. Does that in essence set up a bigger dividing line between us that is political that really shouldn't be, it should be more about something bigger than that?

BATE: I absolutely think it transcends party politics, transcends national politics and politics really for several hundred years has essentially been based upon the interests of the nation state. The environmental crisis is the first great global crisis that far transcends the boundaries of any nation state. And that can only be addressed globally. But perhaps part of the role of the humanities is to recognize that climate change is invisible and the problem is global. It's very hard to grasp it. And it is very hard to imagine all nations coming together in each other's interests and what the humanities can help us to do is to connect more personally. Remember that old green slogan from the origins of the environmental movement back in the 1960s and 70s, "Think globally. Act locally." And I think little local connections, little local acts of ecological belonging, can be the starting point of global change. Think globally, act locally.

GOLDSTEIN: Sir Jonathan Bate is a visiting professor at ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability is giving a series of lectures titled "How the Humanities Can Save the Planet."

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