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Environmental series joins humanities and science

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A year-long series integrating the humanistic and scientific perspectives of environmental problems began last Wednesday with the New England premiere of “Butte, America,” a film chronicling the history of a Montana mining town with the same name.

The screening, which included a discussion with the filmmakers, marks the first of many events in the interdepartmental film and speaker series, “Nature and Legacy: Humanists, Scientists and the Environment.”

The Cogut Center for the Humanities and other on-campus bodies have sponsored this year’s series to integrate several disciplines, draw a wide audience and foster intellectual discussion about the pressing environmental matters, said Cogut Center Director Michael Steinberg, who is also a professor of history.

“Nature and Legacy” is the second series the Humanities/Science project has offered. The first, “Darwin’s Evolution,” honored the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species.”

In addition to the Cogut Center, this year’s series is sponsored by the Committee on Science and Technology Studies, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Environmental Change Initiative, the John Nicholas Brown Center and the Urban Studies Program.

“We’re interested in how questions that are profoundly scientifically informed, like climate change and changes in the natural world, actually work or take shape in a particular social context,” said Anne Fausto-Sterling, chair of the Faculty Committee on Science and Technology Studies.

The “Butte, America” film screening saw a turnout of about 70 people, according to Fausto-Sterling. She said the documentary was chosen for its integration of the issues of “community development, labor history and environmental discussion.”

Steinberg said he considered the film a “broad-minded way of starting off the series.”

Upcoming events include another film — “Blue Vinyl,” a documentary about America’s use of plastics — and several panels, each covering a topic within the broader theme.  This year’s panels will differ from last year’s in that fewer panel members will lead the discussions to allow more time for audience participation, Fausto-Sterling said.

Each panel will include three members: a humanities scholar, a scientist and someone to discuss relevant policy questions. According to Steinberg, the emergence of newer fields of study in the humanities such as “eco-criticism” and environmental history means that scholars will bring a distinct perspective to the discussions.

“On the issue of the environment, the humanists obviously share everyone’s concerns,” he said, “but the broader question is, how can humanists have something to say to the issue, in terms of possible policy and analyzing the effect on people’s lives?”

Leaders of the project have struggled with event planning this year due to the economic downturn. To cut costs, “Nature and Legacy” will not have the luxury of the print advertisements that were used for the Darwin series, Fausto-Sterling said.

Though Steinberg said the organizers “were somewhat limited by budget realities, just like anyone else,” monetary concerns did not affect the strength of the program.

Future panels will include “Climate Change” (Nov. 5) and “Toxicity” (March 18). Steinberg said readers should expect to see another panel, entitled “The Return of Nature,” which will discuss the implications of taking nature for granted.

In addition to variety in the panelists’ academic backgrounds, Steinberg said he hopes the series will attract a wide range of audience perspectives. Last year, the Darwin events drew participation from the University as well as the greater community, including local high schools.

Steinberg said he expects the same kind of participation this year and emphasized the importance of a rich discussion. Because of the broad range of perspectives in the audience and among the panelists, “there should be something fresh and, to a great extent, unpredictable, about what happens at these events,” he said.

Fausto-Sterling echoed Steinberg’s enthusiasm. “We’re very excited by it,” she said of “Nature and Legacy.” “I think it’s going to be very interesting … these are pressing scientific/social issues  that are in our lives and we are happy to be able to have a public investigation of them and conversation about them.”
 

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