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  • Sustainability and the Humanities:An Extensive Pleasure
  • Daniel J. Philippon (bio)

This essay seeks to answer three related questions: how might the humanities make the case for sustainability in the US, how might sustainability supersede other concerns as a presiding paradigm for environmental studies, and how might those of us who do something broadly defined as "literary and cultural studies" contribute to the creation of a more sustainable world? It does so in two parts: first, by reflecting on these questions directly, and second, by analyzing an example of sustainable food discourse to illustrate these reflections in more detail.

1. Sustainability and the Humanities

Let's assume, for a moment, that we can agree on a definition and goal for sustainability: the process of achieving ecological health, social equity, and economic viability for current and future generations. We'll come back to this definition, but for now, let's use it as a basic placeholder. If this is our goal, how might the humanities make the case for sustainability in the US?

The first way to address this question is to acknowledge that many humanists have already been attempting to answer it in their teaching, scholarship, and service activities on campuses around the country over the last few years. To give just three examples, we can look to Portland State's two recent conferences on "Understanding Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities" in 2009 and 2010; Florida Gulf Coast University's Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, which also held two [End Page 163] recent conferences on the humanities and sustainability in 2009 and 2010; and Arizona State University's (ASU) NEH summer institute on sustainability and the humanities in 2011. Joni Adamson and her colleagues at ASU's Institute for Humanities Research have also done an excellent job identifying many of the contributions the humanities can make to sustainability on their website.1

As a starting point, then, let's acknowledge what Jill Ker Conway, Kenneth Keniston, and Leo Marx point out in the introduction to Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment (1999), which is that "many, perhaps most, of our most pressing current environmental problems come from systemic socioeconomic and cultural causes and for this reason their solutions lie far beyond the reach of scientific or technical knowledge" (3). Extending that statement to sustainability, we can observe that if the problem is human behavior, then how can the humanities not play a crucial role, particularly if our behavior is related to our ideas, our values, our emotions, and the stories we tell ourselves about Paul Gauguin's central questions: "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"2

It's not enough, however, to stop there and assume we all agree on the particular contributions the humanities can make to solving the problems related to sustainability. We need to go further and ask what critical and creative tools the humanities possess that can aid in this effort. In attempting to answer this question, I want to build on the work of many other writers and scholars who have detailed the contributions the humanities make to society more generally, especially the contributors to the Winter 2009 issue of Daedalus devoted to this topic.3 And I should clarify that by "the humanities" I mean the admittedly diverse fields of history, literature, language, philosophy, religion, and many aspects of the visual and performing arts.

So here is my list of eight tools I think the humanities provide, divided into two central and overlapping contributions: the humanities provide meaning, and the humanities provide perspective.

The humanities provide meaning in at least four ways.

First, by defining and questioning definitions. Humanities scholars have been some of the leading voices in helping us understand the keywords involved in the concept of sustainability, such as "human," "nature," "environment," "wilderness," "equity," and "wealth." And they have done so in part by questioning the assumptions that underlie these definitions—a crucial activity involved in all eight of these contributions. [End Page 164]

Second, by theorizing and questioning theories. By "theories," I mean not only critical theory but also moral theory, particularly as examined by environmental philosophers and philosophers of science...


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