T S Eliot, Spiderman and the ugly apples: sustainability in the humanities

A report on "Nature and the natural in the humanities: Teaching for environmental sustainability"

As the organiser it is predictable that I will be biased but the LLAS-organised, HEA-supported workshop on environmental sustainability and the humanities was an excellent event which far too few people attended.

Peter Vujakovic spoke about Christ Church Canterbury University’s Bioversity Project. Although the campus is modern it is located on a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sense of place and a connection with history was very much at the heart of Peter’s talk. One of the highlights is the planting of an orchard with local Kentish varieties including Pride of Kent cooking apples, apparently considered too ugly to sell in supermarkets (I can’t find a picture of one online, even in this otherwise illustrated leaflet).

The place theme continued with Alun Morgan’s talk on sacred places. Sacred places can be of any scale from a tree to an entire landscape. Alun’s sharing of a personal sacred space from his childhood, aided by OS maps and Ariel photographs led to thoughts about my own sacred places.

Adrian Rainbow provoked an interesting discussion about whether science is reductionist and whether storytelling offers a way forward. He quoted from Greg Garrard that we need “…ideas, feelings and values more than we need a scientific breakthrough”. In a second literature paper Elizabeth Harris spoke about how she has engaged urban students with sustainability issues through the study of T S Eliot’s the Waste Land.  Elizabeth argued that locating sustainability in the rural (e.g. through the study of the Romantics) can serve to exclude students from more urban backgrounds.

The key thing I’ll take from Arran Stibbe’s discussion on discourse analysis was his comment that with exception of hot sunny days most weather is defined as ‘poor’ and in negative tones. After the workshop I tried to gauge Arran’s reaction on the opposite platform of Birmingham University station as we were warned to take extra care on the station platform “…due the poor weather conditions” Rain is poor weather, not wet weather.

Paul Reid-Bowen set up his talk though talking about the “post-everything” discourse and the human evolutionary ability to manage anxiety – however this attitude is maladaptive when we reach overshoot. His ecological philosophy course focuses on reconceptualising and rethinking economy, nature life, ethics and what is valuable in the world.

Andrew Stables drew on the work on Kant discussing whether sustainability could be said to be a moral principle and universal ethical law.

A couple of good quotes from his paper:

In effect, it is unsustainability far more than sustainability that prompts human action. Furthermore, we are often most strongly prompted when the illusion of sustainability  is shatter by the reality of unsustainability.

… it can be argued that the arts, humanities and critical social sciences have a disillusioning role. They serve to perpetually disabuse humanity of its naïve, often vainglorious commitments, to remind us of the limits of our ambitions, even of our ambition for sustainability”.

Bertrand Guillaume teaches humanities to engineering students at Universite de technologie de Troyes. Engineering students need insights which go beyond the technical and he draws on philosophy, ethics, poetry and graphic novels in his teaching, including the Peter Parker (Spiderman) quote "with great power comes great responsibility".  Sustainability has changed the nature of ethics—traditionally ethics has not engaged with reciprocity to future generations and non-humans.

I hope to be able to organise a similar workshop next year. The opportunities for the humanities are tremendous. We need to get more people involved.

  • Twitter
  • del.icio.us
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Technorati
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo Buzz
  • StumbleUpon