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  • From Principles to PracticeA Place for Stories
  • Paul Hirt (bio)

"We inhabit an endlessly storied world."

—William Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative"

Storytelling is the most ancient and arguably the most effective form of learning-based communication that humans employ. Stories make meaning out of an overwhelmingly complex world. They draw connections between events, ascribe significance, and offer lessons. As William Cronon observed in 1992, "Narrative is a peculiarly human way of organizing reality."1 By placing an observer at the center of the narrative, stories make our world legible. They allow listeners to identify; they appeal at an intellectual and emotional level. Scholars steeped in the scientific method can easily lose sight of this when communicating their research. Humanities scholars more consistently understand and embrace narrative, but even they can drift far from shore if their only intended audience is a small group of like-minded specialists. Committed to reaching a broad audience and hoping to make an impact in the world, the Humanities for the Environment collective fully embraced storytelling as a central part of its practice and as a practical means for illustrating principles.

The Humanities for the Environment (HfE) project facilitated an extraordinary conversation among a diverse group of humanists and social scientists about the relationship between human societies and the biophysical world we inhabit. One key aspect of our intellectual work was to explore the emerging concept of sustainability, which clearly unites the social and biophysical worlds in important ways. Sustainability [End Page 74] discourse regularly addresses environmental problems but usually in economic, political, social, and technological contexts. Being mostly humanities scholars, we lamented how sustainability discourse is too dominated by material considerations like technological innovation and economic development, when cultural elements such as values and worldviews were so obviously fundamental to sustainability challenges and solutions. A related conversation centered on the degree to which environmental problem-solving efforts often ignore affiliated problems of social injustice. All of us hoped to find a way to merge concerns for the environment with concerns for social justice within sustainability discourse. Indeed, this desire to articulate a combined discourse of environmental sustainability and social justice became the overarching theme of our West Cluster work on HfE.

As Sally Kitch mentioned in "Experimental Humanities and Humanities for the Environment," the process of working together across disciplines and intellectual paradigms was facilitated by our decision up front to seek tangible, socially relevant outcomes for our collaboration. One of those outcomes was the Archive of Hope and Cautionary Tales,2 which was born during our conversations about the role of narrative in articulating the connection between environmental sustainability and social justice.

A ubiquitous global catchword nowadays, sustainability originated in natural resource management science in the nineteenth century but became virtually a household word after 1987 with the publication of Our Common Future by the UN Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission report).3 This report defined sustainable development as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."4 Authors of the report argued that economic development would not be successful or sustainable if it did not integrate environmental, technological, political, social, and cultural considerations. By the twenty-first century "sustainability" became the most common term to describe efforts to achieve a proper balance between economic development, environmental protection, and social justice.

Nowadays sustainability can mean almost anything, like another ubiquitous and often-abused term "green." The HfE workshop participants debated whether we should ignore, resist, embrace, or seek to redefine sustainability. In the end, we chose to explore its social meanings [End Page 75] through real-world stories of people and communities struggling to integrate development with environmental protection and social justice. Focusing on the medium of narrative, we committed to generating stories rich in the experience of human beings trying to live more responsibly with each other and among our fellow species in the diversity of life—stories that would reveal the complexity of the struggle as well as the alternatingly anxious concern for the future and hopeful embrace of problem-solving...


Additional Information

pp. 74-84
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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