Humanties Professors at Stanford look at climate change under the banner of "human experience".
Humanities Scholars Shed New Light on the Past, Present, and Future of Environmental Change
At first glance, Stanford University history professor Richard White might seem an unlikely source for fresh perspectives on today’s environmental debate. But White—a humanities scholar whose research focuses on American history—believes that looking back at events of the past often gives keen insights into what has shaped the present, as well as offering glimpses of what the future holds.
White’s examination of the expansion of railroad system in the American West during the 1800s, for example, revealed an unexpected and lingering ecological downside. While creating a brief economic boom for dozens of cities at the time, many of the regions that were developed have been in economic and environmental decline for years.
“Americans tend to focus on the environmental disasters of other countries and point out the ways in which they had environmental catastrophes,” White said. “You sometimes forget that we in the United States also have a history which has many of the same elements.”
White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, is just one of a number of humanities researchers at Stanford who feel that current-day environmental issues should be considered by a range of scholarly disciplines, including those in the humanities and in the sciences.
Scholars from the University’s philosophy, literature, and history departments are contributing to interdisciplinary discussion through their publications and in academic workshops and research groups. They stress that their unique perspectives are valuable because science alone can’t completely address the massive problems of global climate change, industrial pollution, food shortages, and vastly unequal living standards in Western and developing nations, none of which can be fully understood without considering their complex historical and cultural legacies.
With input from colleagues in academic disciplines from the economics to medicine, humanities professors across campus have created a variety of opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion about the environment. Graduate students, too, are working alongside faculty members in several workshop groups and research teams. In all these cases, their aim is to paint a more detailed picture of the nuanced reality of the past, present, and future of environmental change.
“You might be able to do scientific studies about what is happening,” White explains, “but if you want to know why it’s happening, how it’s happening, the political background, and what to do about it, then you’re into the humanities and social science research.”
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