“The Answers in Ourselves”: The Environmental Humanities at Yale

Design by Iris Tsouris

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Five years ago, Yale established the Environmental Humanities program. Most scholars in the program would say Yale was a few decades late. Humanities scholars have long been advocating for the crucial role of their work in solving the climate crisis. Paul Sabin, the director of the program, explained that the program aims to “draw a circle around” as many scholars as possible to prepare them to communicate and participate in climate change discussions, which are still dominated by the sciences. English professor Katja Lindskog and urban studies professor Elihu Rubin also work in the program. Lindskog has conducted extensive research into the representation of the natural environment in literature, while Rubin takes a very different approach, bringing his expertise in thinking about the public and public space to the program. The three scholars offered fascinating, sometimes conflicting, definitions of the environmental humanities and its future in climate change.

Lindskog and Sabin argue that the humanities are vital to climate progress because climate change is fundamentally a human problem, not a scientific one. This crisis is the product of human practices, and as such, its solution must be rooted in an understanding of humanity. As Sabin, professor of history and American studies, summarizes, “The reason that we have not solved the climate problem—it’s not for lack of science, the reason we have not solved climate change is because it’s a social problem.” Lindskog agrees; she claims that we are currently “pretty close to a standstill on climate action,” and without work in the humanities, “I just don’t see what’s going to change.” 

Both scholars believe that science has been falsely represented as the sole solution to climate change. Lindskog admits, “I feel a great impatience, at times, at the great focus on technological solutions that we all kind of know are not going anywhere because they are all going to be blocked at one point or another.” Sabin echoes this sentiment, arguing, “When we talk about understanding the problem of climate change—understanding that putting more CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to fundamental changes in the Earth’s systems—people made a lot of predictions about that decades ago.” While he expresses a sincere admiration for the science used to “enhance our understanding” of the issue and make solutions more financially palatable, he reflects that “more and more scientific knowledge is not necessarily going to make it easier to make social decisions” to protect the environment. He says that ultimately, “we’re going to find the answers in ourselves,” not in the lab.

But what kind of work in the humanities will solve these abstract social barriers to climate action? Perhaps the most established role of the environmental humanities is that of the translator, tasked with disseminating technical, scientific information into compelling communication. However, Lindskog, Sabin, and many other scholars of the Yale Environmental Humanities program are divided on the role of the translator. Lindskog is resistant to the role. She believes that the humanities should have their own, generative role in climate solutions. Sabin is also wary of this limited definition, highlighting the danger of parroting scientific solutions when they may not actually be aligned with the culture’s values, ethics, and needs. However, some members of the program invite this task. Elihu Rubin endorses the humanities’ ability to link science and the public, explaining that effective communication goes beyond simple regurgitation of scientific information; it is an art unto itself. Furthermore, increasing public awareness of scientific information is crucial to climate action and to gaining public input into climate policy.

Lindskog shared, “I don’t think academics should be the broader voice [of scientific research]…that’s not necessarily our job.” Instead, she imagines a world in which humanities are at the heart of climate solutions. In her class, Climate Change and the Humanities, students read a variety of texts ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the United Nations’ “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” reports, with the goal of understanding how cultures past and present have responded to environmental disaster and how those insights can contribute to our current situation. Lindskog’s work examines economic and cultural obstacles and places literary and historical academic thinking at the center of climate action rather than as a middleman caught between science and society.

Rubin disputes the implication that communication work is somehow reductive of the humanities. He argues that there is tremendous power in the translator. “It’s a way of discussing what might be difficult, obscure, technical topics and attempting to communicate them clearly…and bring these environmental topics into public discourse and public culture.” He goes so far as to say that this public work is an “obligation in the academy.” Rubin is currently involved in a project to raise public awareness of Brownfields in New Haven. Brownfields are former industrial sites that have been abandoned and undeveloped due to the environmental pollution remaining from industrial activity. The project will create and distribute broadsides that describe the condition of these sites and offer possible solutions while inviting public input. He seeks to get the New Haven public involved in this challenge to reinvent these sites in an environmentally responsible way. He also mentions the development of high school environmental curricula. While many Connecticut schools have included climate education in their curricula for years, it was only mandated in 2022. Rubin suggests that improving this curriculum is an excellent example of the environmental humanities’ role in bringing awareness and inviting youth input into climate issues. 

Rubin sets high standards for his field, saying “even if the topic is serious, [like] difficult issues around environmental justice, it can be presented to public audiences in a way that is engaging, participatory, and interactive. I’m motivated by that.” According to Rubin, the role of the translator should not be immediately dismissed as a reductive job because it requires its own expertise.

The influence of the translator is undeniable. It is dangerous to simply regurgitate scientific policies without interrogating their connection to public values. In response to this danger, Sabin and Rubin stress the need for historical scholarship and public involvement in climate solutions. Sabin warns that “some people have the idea that through science and engineering, they have determined what should happen…and then the humanities are going to help people understand the scientific information and what the right [policy] is.” However, this approach is misguided in his view. He reiterates that climate issues are “not fundamentally scientific problems.” They are “ultimately social problems, and they have to do with how people live, how people work, [etc.]” These are often questions of ethics, identity and culture so we need “the humanities to help us figure out what the right thing is.” Rubin argues similarly. He criticizes the “tyranny of expertise,” a philosophy which has historically dominated urban planning. He stresses that “local knowledge is powerful” and “tapping into the local expertise becomes one of the things that we…have to continue to do or aspire to do.” While communication is a key role of the humanities, it must not be top-down, but rather executed with the goal of public involvement.

All three scholars agree that one challenge persists in climate work: gaining public involvement. Lindskog uses the term “climate resignation” to describe the sense of powerlessness in the general public that paralyzes the individual. Rubin sees effective communication as an antidote to this condition. “We have to empower people to recognize their own agency and to exercise it. That’s one of the promises…of the Environmental Humanities: that we want to make people aware of their own agency, even in the face of what are daunting circumstances.” As he puts it, he wants to inspire individuals to say “I have a role here.” Lindskog fights climate resignation with “tough-minded hope” derived from academic action. She offers a quotation from Rebecca Solnit, “[Hope] is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.” In her class, she teaches The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, a dystopian novel in which a society periodically endures a “fifth season” of devastating climate change, which prompts the government to intensify systemic discrimination. She describes the book as a grim text centered around structural violence, but she teaches it in a hopeful light, putting emphasis on those people who choose to stand up to institutions even in a world of dismay. Whether it be through public humanities or more internal work, the environmental humanities is dedicated to fighting climate resignation.

While individual empowerment is crucial, all three scholars concede that environmental humanities must also appeal directly to the government to achieve progress in the U.S. Rubin attributes such an appeal to democracy; eventually, his work in gathering public input must reach people with the “levers of power.” Sabin also highlights the importance of historical perspective in government policy. Sabin’s most recent book, Public Citizens, investigates the history of environmental activism in the 60s and 70s, during which grassroots advocacy rose to popularity with tremendous success, overturning traditional liberalism and passing legislation addressing environmental concerns. He says that while consumers and companies play a role in climate solutions, “the government has an especially important role to play because individuals really can’t solve that by themselves.” Furthermore, the government “structures the landscape within which corporations and consumers and activists are operating.” He cites the recent frustration over environmental regulation dating back to the California Environmental Quality Act (1970), which required local governments and public agencies to evaluate and report the environmental impacts of proposed projects. Today, some advocates for the construction of green energy infrastructure chafe against these regulatory barriers and delays, but Sabin asserts that understanding this historical context of the Act is crucial to making amendments. Sabin also cited social scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication out of the Yale School of the Environment, which assesses public opinion of climate change and reports those findings for a variety of audiences, including policymakers. While public engagement is crucial in developing receptive climate solutions, these thinkers also recognize the value of government adoption and direct their research to government audiences.

After speaking with Lindskog, Sabin, and Rubin, I got the sense that the Humanities have been waiting for decades to offer solutions to the climate crisis. For too long, they have not been recognized as an equally important source of insight. The Yale Environmental Humanities program dates back only five years, demonstrating that even as an institution renowned for its leading role in the humanities, Yale has only recently officially organized the humanities around the climate. But despite this struggle for acknowledgment, I didn’t hear any discouragement from these scholars. Instead, they are full of energy and inspiration. 

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