- Stories from the FieldPublic Engagement through the Environmental Humanities and Allied Disciplines
As moderator of this panel and consultant to the HfE project, I want to begin briefly with the experiences and perspectives that I bring to this project. I've worked on the topic of environmental racism and environmental justice movements, primarily in New York City and the Central Valley region of California for over eighteen years. I was the faculty advisor for a project developed by Tracy Perkins called "Voices from the Valley" that was an entry into the public and digital humanities (www.voicesfromthevalley.org). That experience shaped how I interacted with the Archive of Hope and Cautionary Tales, in terms of how to think about public and environmental humanities audiences. I have been involved with a Mellon-funded Environments and Societies Initiative at the University of California, Davis, as well as with the Environment and Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association. Lastly, I edited a book called Sustainability: Approaches to Environmental Justice and Social Power (2018), which argues for a better integration of social justice and sustainability, with a particular attention paid to the contributions that environmental humanities can make to urgent social and scientific problems.
As a consultant to the HfE, I contributed ideas to the shape that one of the signature projects of the North American Observatory's Humanities for the Environment project has taken. This project is titled the Archive of Hope and Cautionary Tales. The collective aim of the project group [End Page 49] has been to develop a praxis for environmental humanities, with the end goal of promoting environmental, social, and intergenerational justice. A central tenet of the archive project is the importance of storytelling in generating changes in ideas and behaviors from one generation to the next. We see the project as meeting the challenge outlined by Steven Hartman on the Future Earth blog. Future Earth is an international research program focused on social and environmental challenges run under the auspices of the United Nations. Currently, there is lots of reflection about the environmental humanities going on in programs such as Future Earth at the international level. Hartman writes, "Never before have environmentally-focused humanities scholars from so many disciplines been in conversation with each another, and increasingly with researchers in the social and natural sciences. This innovation is a defining aspect of the Environmental Humanities movement, in contrast to the largely mono-disciplinary research communities out of which it emerged. In addition to liberating vital knowledge from disciplinary silos, the rise of interdisciplinary EH holds the promise of generating new knowledge that might be difficult or even impossible to achieve otherwise" (Hartmann 2015).
As a pilot project, there were inevitably bumps along the way. However, the goal of HfE is to bring the best practices of the humanities to bear on social science and science approaches and to think about how we might address anthropogenic environmental change. The Archive of Hope and Cautionary Tales juxtaposes hope and caution, to show how problems generate both creativity and change. The "Why?" landing page of the website that houses the archives explains: "The environmental challenges facing humanity today are so massive and widespread and present us with so many uncertainties about the future, small acts on a local scale may seem insignificant. But in fact, many of the most effective approaches to climate change, water and air pollution, and species disappearance have historically occurred on a relatively small scale, as national governments and large international organizations have failed to initiate or enforce larger scale solutions."
The implicit question the stories in the archive ask is, How do the humanities contribute uniquely through storytelling? The archive is a carefully curated (but not complete) example of stories that differ across time and space but share certain themes and desires. Chief among these [End Page 50] is the balance between documentation of environmental problems and the impulse to change conditions for the better, whether environmental or social. These projects illustrate how the search for social and environmental justice is better served...