- Experimental Humanities and Humanities for the Environment
Humanities and arts disciplines are undergoing an important transition in this century, as artists and humanists from many fields increasingly engage with the grand social and cultural challenges of our time. Many of these challenges are complex and intractable "wicked problems," with deeply human roots, multiple causes, no single solution, and the ongoing complicity in problem perpetuation by all who seek to address them (Brown, Harris, and Russell 2010). In their efforts to address such problems, historians, philosophers, media experts, gender scholars, dancers, painters, designers, and religious studies and literary scholars are working together in various ways to provide contexts for and clarify the dynamics of conflicts about and resistance to new ideas; to represent and express collective and individual emotions about cultural and technological changes; to interpret and synthesize big data about the effects of media representations on public attitudes; to develop ethical frameworks for accommodating a growing human population; to build scenarios for anticipating the future of cities; and to collaborate with the sciences and other fields to address social problems.
In some academic institutions, this evolving role for the humanities has resulted in the creation of experimental spaces or collaboratories, which adapt some techniques of laboratory and design practices from other fields, including an emphasis on precise methodologies, transdisciplinary collaboration, coordinated research outcomes, data analysis, and shared responsibility for project development, while also utilizing more familiar methodologies of arts and humanities inquiry that are [End Page 21] often omitted from traditional problem-solving approaches.1 Such qualities include design process, prototyping, the construction of scenarios and new expressive and analytical tools, and powerful methods for dialogue and public engagement, as well as attention to language, representation, symbolic systems, context, meaning, subjectivity, and human diversity and affect.
Grand challenges presented by current health disparities, income inequality, and the spread of violence and war across the globe are among those being addressed through arts and humanities research methods, pedagogy, and social engagement projects. But no challenge is more appropriate for such experimental approaches, especially transdisciplinary collaboration and coordinated research outcomes, than the challenges of climate change and other aspects of the environmental crisis of the twenty-first century. Indeed, environmental humanities scholars recognize that the collective strength of humanities fields must be mobilized for the production of "actionable knowledge" that can shape humanity's responses to global environmental change (Castree et al. 2014, 763).
Designing research projects and tangible outcomes through experimental approaches to the contents, interpretations, insights, and analyses of the environmental humanities were primary goals of a team of researchers from multiple universities working on a Mellon-funded Humanities for the Environment pilot project in 2013–15. This special issue of Resilience—"The Green Humanities Lab"—includes discussions of the projects that team generated as scholars affiliated with the West Cluster of the North American Observatory of the Mellon grant project.
Humanities for the Environment
Humanities for the Environment (HfE) evolved from the 2008 conference of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI). Attending members recognized the responsibility and potential importance of the humanities as a collective force against growing evidence of a human-caused climate and environmental crisis. The resulting CHCI affinity group, HfE, was initially chaired by Sarah Buie of Clark University, myself, and, after 2009, David Phillips of Wake Forest University. International partners joined us in 2010—Poul Holm of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and Iain McCalman of the University of Sydney in Australia. Interest in the HfE affinity [End Page 22] group within the CHCI was strong, as over seventy center directors (two-thirds of the then CHCI membership) expressed interest or pledged support. The HfE affinity group represented the CHCI's first attempt to mobilize the power of the humanities across the globe for social benefit. Three years later that initial step morphed into a series of grants from the Mellon Foundation that have supported the CHCI's engagement with environmental humanities (HfE) as well as with medical humanities and public humanities.2
In funding HfE, the Mellon Foundation approved the principal investigators' idea about forming observatories...