Humanistic Ecologies and China: New Perspectives on Environmental Health and Climate Change

Professor Karen Thornber, author of Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures (Michigan 2012) and the upcoming Climate Change and Changing Literature, announces the launch of the Fairbank Center’s collaborative project with the Harvard Global Institute in China.

The “Humanistic Ecologies and China” project is funded by the new Harvard Global Institute, which will focus on energy, atmosphere, and climate change in China. Photo: Lu Guang / Greenpeace

The project “Humanistic Ecologies and China: New Perspectives on Environmental Health and Climate Change” recently received seed grant funding from President Drew Faust to lay the groundwork for an eventual three-year project under the auspices of the Harvard Global Institute in China. “Humanistic Ecologies” is an invaluable opportunity not only for developing new understandings of how communities in China and populations worldwide affected by China’s broader ecological footprint have grappled with the myriad environmental challenges facing their nations and the globe, but also for radically rethinking the humanities, including individual humanities fields, at Harvard and beyond, and ultimately for constructing new humanistic discourse for the twenty-first century.

The environmental humanities constitute an emerging transdisciplinary enterprise that is becoming a key part of the liberal arts and an indispensable component of the twenty-first-century university. Seeking to understand how different communities within and across national borders grapple with ecological challenges and mobilize for change, the environmental humanities work to promote the cultural transformations necessary for limiting ecological devastation. As Professor Lawrence Buell (FAS, English, emeritus) has pointed out, “For technological breakthroughs, legislative reforms, and paper covenants about environmental welfare to take effect, or even to be generated in the first place, requires a climate of transformed environmental values, perception, and will. To that end, the power of story, image, and artistic performance and the resources of aesthetics, ethics, and cultural theory are crucial.”

Photo: Jialiang Gao

The environmental humanities look closely at cultural products — including everything from creative writing, drama, music, the visual arts, and film to various types of media, religious treatises, historical documents, and medical reports. Cultural products have the power to increase environmental consciousness and to mobilize communities as they expose how people dominate, damage, and destroy their environments, and as they grapple with an uncertain and potentially traumatic future. Moreover, cultural products allow societies to envision alternative scenarios and to think imaginatively about implementing changes that enable adaptation, increase resilience, lessen fear, modulate risk, and make the competition for resources more manageable, not to say less catastrophic.

“Humanistic Ecologies” will draw together scholars from Harvard and universities in China and around the world, in numerous fields across the humanities and related social sciences (from anthropology, architecture, art history, economics, ethics, history, history of science/medicine, literature, philosophy, psychology, religion, sociology, urban planning, and adjacent fields), in addition to the natural sciences, and engineering and applied sciences, as well as such disciplines as business, education, law, public health, public policy, and medicine. Fundamental as well is collaboration with scholars in the digital humanities, public humanities, and especially medical humanities, given the devastating effects of environmental destruction on human health. In its research activities, conferences, publications, and outreach, “Humanistic Ecologies” will seek to address urgent questions related to climate change and environmental health.