This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Donald Trump election means American environmentalists will need to work harder and smarter. Beginning Jan. 20, climate change is "a Chinese hoax," the EPA "is a disgrace" and as for nature, "we can leave a little bit, but you can't destroy businesses." This logic makes the environmental humanities more important than ever.
Environmental humanities is an emerging field that examines environmental issues with the tools of culture. We look at issues like Utah's water usage or national monument designations from the perspective of history, of religion, of ethics, and both students and faculty imagine solutions in terms of the stories people tell and the values they embrace.
Tools like these will be important supplements to the usual environmental kit of policy, economics and scientific data when we contemplate a neutered EPA, a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and a return to coal burning. These tools will be important to a broader hopefulness and care for the non-human world amongst all Utahns, of whatever political stripe. You see, history shows us the environmental movement has worked with other reverses think of James Watt, think of the Bush administration's energy plan, think back to nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. We emerged from those times and re-invested in open space, in clean water, in consideration for other species. To endure and rebound is a fundamental pattern in the forests and deserts around us. The humanities show that whoever the president, the stories we tell will shape our culture, the history we know will form our hope, the ethics we understand will shape our actions.
The polls were wrong, yet the feelings of national division were there to be felt. All Americans witnessed a sobering failure of predictive instruments Tuesday night. If the tools American pollsters use to understand Americans did not work, then I conclude narrative and understanding are skills our culture must cultivate.
W.H. Auden rhymes "I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return." Divisiveness and blindness seem the order of the day, but they lead nowhere. Instead the environmental humanities offer a sense of a shared habitat and the equipment for examining any cultural heritage. Auden finishes with compassion: "May I … beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame."
I affirm that the environmental struggle continues for reasons that make sense on either side of the political aisle. Through language we can find common ground, through art we can share beauty and through listening we can find compassion for the displaced and the overlooked in our new American order. The learned skills of careful reading and rhetorical analysis equip us to cut through the rhetoric of division and to reckon ourselves as neighbors who share an extraordinary and fragile landscape.
In Shakespeare's plays some characters feel tragedy and give up in madness or suicide; others meet adversity with new energy. Henry V shouts to his outnumbered troops, "If we are marked to die, we are enough / To do our country loss; and if to live, / The fewer the men, the greater the share of honor."
Likewise, stunned environmentalists now must neither run nor withdraw from the public sphere, but stand and fight for community, for health, for nature and for people.
Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy, Ph.D., is director of Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.