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Changing our view of humans’ place in the world could save the planet: U of T environmental humanities prof

Professor Andrea Most studies and teaches students about environmental humanities (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Andrea Most is engaged in a relatively new field of research – environmental humanities – that re-conceptualizes our relationship to the world in a way that might even save us from ourselves.

She is a professor of American literature and environmental studies in the department of English at the University of Toronto, where she teaches and conducts research in modern American literature and culture, Jewish cultural studies, food studies, and theatre and performance.

Most has students use the lens of literature, history, art and philosophy to explore the human relationship to the environment.

“How we behave in relation to the world around us is shaped first and foremost by cultural values, by the stories we tell about who we are – and who we should be – in the world,” she says. 

U of T's Kim Luke spoke with Most about environmental humanities and a new way of thinking.


What role could the humanities play in addressing the environmental crisis?

We have really good science on climate change, environmental toxins, pollution, water issues and so on.  The science is essential for explaining what is happening and what we need to do to address these crises.

But for reasons that have mystified scientists, politicians, economists and social scientists, the general public doesn’t pay much attention and certainly isn’t taking action proportionate to the severity of the situation.  This is where humanities scholars, writers and artists have a crucial role to play.

How we behave in relation to the world around us is shaped first and foremost by cultural values, by the stories we tell about who we are – and who we should be – in the world.

We need to understand the old stories in order to figure out how we got into this mess, and, most importantly, we need to collectively imagine new stories. Only through creating and living new stories – what I would call new cultural mythologies about freedom, success, health, nature, humanity and ethics – can we begin to change our behaviour in the deep and fundamental ways necessary to allow us to rise to the challenge of the great crisis facing our species. There is a terrific call to action for writers in the Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and Humanities journal.

Humanities scholars are uniquely trained for this task. This work can’t happen without us.


Students in Andrea Most’s first-year seminar, The Environmental Imagination, present their final projects, exploring a multilayered celebration of spring (photo by Diana Tyszko)

What exactly are environmental humanities?

On the simplest level, the environmental humanities study environmental issues and especially the human relationship to those issues through the lens of literature, history, art and philosophy.  The field is fundamentally interdisciplinary and often includes collaborations with the sciences, social sciences and various areas of the humanities.

In the earlier days of the environmental humanities, scholars focused on championing and explaining environmentalist thought – this is still a part of our agenda – but in recent years, the environmental humanities have begun to challenge environmentalists – and all of us – to think more carefully about our concept of nature and the relationship between nature and culture.  

Environmental humanities scholars often straddle the divide between academia and the general public, both responding to and influencing popular representations of current ecological conditions and problems.

How does your first-year seminar course, The Environmental Imagination, introduce students to some of the core concepts of the environmental humanities?

I try to move students from thinking of themselves as “being in nature” when they are out in the country to “being in nature” even within an urban-built environment and finally “being nature” by the end of the year so that they begin to conceive of themselves as part of an ecosystem and not separate from it.

The idea of decentring human beings is central to the course, and students explore a wide variety of creation and apocalypse myths from ancient sources – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Anishinaabe traditions.  We explore how North American thinkers have represented the human relationship to the world through fiction, essays, poetry, film and new media, and ask how the stories we tell about our relationship to the earth have shaped the way we encounter and enjoy, destroy and restore, and use and abuse the natural world.

We read and study works by Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Andy Goldsworthy and many others. And, we watch films such as Pocahontas, WALL-E and Merchants of Doubt.

This year’s course culminated with an experiential component in which the students told their own nature story by creating a ritual celebration of the seasons using songs, stories and theatre.

Tell us about your own research in environmental humanities?

My main focus right now is The Persephone Project, a research initiative that explores what happens to life writing when individual human beings – shaped by a long-standing cultural mythology that separates mind, body and earth – are reconnected to the world.

Specifically, I am interested in how climate change, species extinction and the discovery of the human microbiome are transforming the way we think – and write – about our lives.  The book that is emerging from my research, currently entitled A Pain in the Neck, engages literary and political issues in a deeply personal way, and is intended for a broad general audience. I’m writing it in the first-person, layering stories of individual experience within the more scholarly historical and critical narrative.

A Pain in the Neck begins with the tale of a mysterious neck injury, which becomes a metaphor for the troubled yet life-sustaining connection between our rational and embodied selves.  This pain in the neck – and the narrator’s attempts to heal it – leads her from a personal health issue to a wide-ranging exploration of the still powerful but fatally flawed mythology, which assumes that mind is separate from and superior to the body, and human culture is likewise separate from and superior to nature. As she watches this old story unravel around her, she begins to discern the outlines of new strategies for reconnection, and, in the process, re-imagines what it means to be human.

For parts of the book, I am conducting land-based and embodied writing experiments around the ecological design principles of permaculture and new discoveries of the microbiome inside us.  I explore the relationship between ecological and literary form and ask how our sense of subjectivity changes when we realize we are actually walking ecosystems, that Walt Whitman’s proclamation “I contain multitudes” is materially true.
  
Do you ever hear from students/parents who are afraid that studying humanities is not a good way to prepare for the future?  What advice do you give them?

Sure, that’s a common concern.  What good is reading books and thinking about ideas when what we need is a good job?  This is why I really love teaching my first-year course, which tends to attract students in commerce and life sciences who are looking to fulfil a humanities requirement.

I am much more interested in teaching students to read and think critically in whatever field they choose, than in specifically training them to be literary critics or English teachers – we need some very talented people to do that as well, of course, but they tend to be a self-selecting group of those who love books so much they want to spend their lives studying them.

What I try to communicate to my first-year students is that there isn’t a gaping divide between the core ideas of the environmental humanities and their own long-term goals in business, technology or medicine.  We discuss questions of what it means to be human, what our responsibility is to one another and the earth, how we can bring these concerns and thoughts into many fields.

For example, we have a unit on time, where we use literary texts like the Sand County Almanac to look at how ideas of productivity have changed over history, or how body/nature time conflicts with industrial time in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, how our culture has chosen to resolve those conflicts in the past, and how we can imagine new ways of resolving them for the future. And then, I ask them to write stories about this, integrating their own life goals and studies.

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