Humanities for the Environment at Stony Brook

July 11, 2012

Humanities Institute at Stony Brook
One-Paragraph Executive Summary

The Humanities Institute at Stony Brook (HISB), under the leadership of E. Ann Kaplan and former Associate Director John Lutterbie, has been deeply involved in environmental issues for the past several years and intends to continue its activities in this area into the future.  HISB hosted the conferences Changing Climates/Changing Minds: Storms, Trust and Public Perception (2008) and Going Green From the Black Perspective (2011); spearheaded a community-outreach project called Port Jefferson Village-Go Green (2008 to the present); hosted an environment-themed film-and-discussion series under the rubric Climates On-Screen; staged a parliamentary-style debate on the proposition, “Be It Resolved That:  Human Intervention Can Control Climate Change in the Next Twenty-Five Years” and created several videos on climate change and the humanities that have been uploaded to YouTube.  In conjunction with Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, HISB hosted a post-doctoral CHCI/ACLS/Mellon fellow in 2010-11 working on climate change, fisheries, and the humanities, that provided the context for several interdisciplinary events.

Extended Profile of HfE Activities
HISB has long been engaged in the theme of the environment, climate change and sustainability, in partnership with Stony Brook’s renowned School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS).  In 2008 we hosted a three-day conference, Changing Climates, Changing Minds:  Storms, Trust and Public Perception, featuring a keynote address by the climatologist and media personality Dr. Heidi Cullen, and planned by an interdisciplinary community of humanists and scientists that included three members of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (please see  Dr. Cullen returned again, this Spring, 2012, as the Earthstock keynote speaker.

That same year we inaugurated our activist Port Jefferson Village-Go Green community outreach program in partnership with local public officials, private citizens, businesses and schools in the surrounding community (please see  We also hosted a parliamentary debate on the subject:  “Be It Resolved That:  Human Intervention Can Control Climate Change in the Next Twenty-Five Years” (please see

In tandem with all of these initiatives we ran a film-and-discussion series called Climates On-Screen. Most recently, through the CHCI’s ACLS-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows program, we co-hosted with SoMAS a Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Pillsbury, an environmental historian who is writing a book on the history of fishing.  Concurrent with her presence on campus, and also in concert with SoMAS, we ran a guest lecturer series called Coastlines that brought environmental historians to our campus including D. Graham Burnett, Matthew McKenzie, Christine Keiner and Peter Mancall.  We also partnered with Stony Brook’s annual “Earthstock” event—a weeklong celebration of Earth Day—by presenting the documentary film Living Downstream profiling the environmental activist and author Sandra Steingraber and her important work on the links between pollution and cancer.

In Fall 2011 we hosted an interdisciplinary panel discussion called “After Fukushima: Nuclear Power and Public Health,” involving faculty in English, Marine Sciences and Journalism, and building on a parliamentary debate we hosted last Spring on the future of nuclear power.  We also hosted a lecture by NYU cultural studies professor Nicholas Mirzoeff on the subject of “Occupy Climate Change.”  In Spring 2012 we hosted an “Earthstock” event in celebration of Earth Day, this one on the theme:  “Be it resolved that humankind is heading into a population explosion.”  We feel it is important to encourage as global a perspective as possible since obviously this is a global problem.

Port Jefferson Village – Go Green, entering its fifth year, is a community outreach program that combines education, information about environmental technologies and strategies, and intergenerational programming.  Strong ties have been made with the local government, schools, public libraries, and local environmental groups; with events that include seminars on local environmental issues and information fairs that bring local businesses, community groups, and the schools together for a day of fun and education.  The project has had a significant impact.  In year one of the program, an Environmental Club was started at the local high school for the first time, and similar programs have been initiated at the middle and elementary schools.  The village government has installed solar compactors at major intersections (prior to the Go Green project there were no recycling receptacles anywhere).  They are also in the process of negotiating a new contract with waste management companies that will mandate the pick up of recycling for local businesses, which currently is optional and generally ignored because of the extra cost.

The project is focusing on two fronts.  One is village policy. Go Green representatives serve on the Conservation Advisory Committee, the board dealing with environmental issues; and the Mayor has asked the advice of the planning committee for setting an agenda for her tenure in office.  The other is education.  The success of the high school environmental club and the enthusiasm of its students led us to call year three of the Go Green project “Youth Lead the Way.”  The decision to celebrate their work was in part in recognition of the strides they had made in awakening their fellow students to the value and relative ease of recycling, but also observing that the enthusiasm of students is contagious, encouraging their parents to become engaged in community responses to environmental issues.

Of vital importance to any long-term initiative's success is the ability to transition from the founding team to its successors. A problem with many activist groups is that once the founders are ready to move on to other projects, there is no one in place to continue the work. Go Green co-founders Naomi Solo and John Lutterbie are currently training community and faculty members of the committee to assume leadership roles.  The success of such initiatives is measured by their efficacy but also the continuity and persistence.

Compelling Themes and Questions
As Nick Mirzoeff has put it in recent work, “climate needs to become a first-tier category of cultural analysis in the manner of race, gender, class and sexual orientation.”  He is working on “an anthropocene visuality derived from the concept that human action since 1750 has produced a new geological era….” People will be differentially impacted in the anthropocene era depending on where they live, what resources they have available, etc.  So, we need a truly global conceptual framework as we understand how class, race and affluence will be determining at least in the early years of dramatic climate change.

Paul Holm’s concept of an “imaginarium” of research on still and moving pictures from around the globe leads to questions of the role of the arts in transforming perceptions and behavior.  One area, within the larger purview of the many arts relevant to work on climate change, is studying and teaching popular culture images—films, TV programs, journalism, magazines, blogs, internet sites, video games, etc.—about future catastrophe, dystopian imaginaries, and so forth. Dr. Heidi Hutner, now on the faculty in Stony Brook’s Sustainability Studies Program, has long been teaching and writing about Eco-Feminism and Environmental Humanities--using film, literature, other media and activism, both in and out of the traditional classroom. She takes her students into “nature,” to environmental “Occupy” events in New York City, and to environmental festivals such as “Clearwater” on the Hudson River.  Her students will be presenting their research on “Women Who Save the Planet” at Earthstock, 2012. Following the methodology of new sustainable ‘ecology’ studies, Hutner’s pedagogical and writing approaches are broadly cross-disciplinary.  Dr. Kaplan is currently planning future courses on climate change and the media, including her new research on futurist dystopian imaginaries that implicate climate change. Meanwhile, Stony Brook’s School of Journalism teaches students how to write about important science developments, including debates about climate change. We find Susanne Moser’s and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concepts about the environment, emotions and capitalism compelling and hope to work with some of their ideas in courses and public programs.

Mechanisms and processes for transcending disciplinary boundaries and engaging publics beyond academia
A major challenge is changing behavior on the local and global levels in the world outside the academy.  How do we get humans to move on this? How to avoid getting caught in the problem of putting aside comfort, ease, and pleasure today to save the planet? How can we make the dangers real to enough people before it will become only too real because we have run out of water or fuel and food resources?  Humanists can contribute to making a change in the real world through public humanities programs such as Stony Brook’s Port Jefferson Village-Go Green and Earthstock initiatives. If Go Green addresses encouraging behavior that serves the planet, Earthstock provides information about debates ongoing about environmental dangers so as to help students be more responsible citizens. These are examples of initiatives that “think globally” while “acting locally.”  They are also models of cooperation across the so-called “town-gown” divide.

Affiliates and networks for our HfE work
Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
Stony Brook University School of Journalism
Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare (Environmental Justice program)
Stony Brook University Environmental Stewardship office
Stony Brook University Sustainability program
Stony Brook University Ecology and Evolution department
Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson

Future plans
The Humanities Institute at Stony Brook has plans to examine the topic of environmental justice at the local, national and international levels through a proposed conference, “Environmental Justice:  From Brownfields to Slum Cities.”  This builds on earlier projects on “Civic Performance” that HISB undertook some years ago. The effects of environmental degradation are not felt equally across divisions of race and economic status.  Whether because of natural events, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, or manmade disasters, such as the gas leaks in Bhopal, India, the catastrophe tends to fall unequally on the shoulders of the underprivileged who are forced to live in vulnerable areas, have limited access to services, and lack mobility.  These environmental disasters affect citizens around the world, whether it is a toxic plume from an abandoned aircraft company in Port Jefferson on Long Island, or slums in sub-Saharan Africa where populations are being forced onto the peripheries of cities due to desertification caused by droughts (  “From Brownfields to Slum Cities” will look at different causes of the changing environment and the impact they have on those in greatest need.

The three-day event will combine talks by academics with presentations by activists working locally (Grassroots Environment Education), nationally (Dr. Robert Bullard, Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University) and globally (Vandana Shiva).  Talks by scholars will cover a range of disciplines including Environmental Science, Social Welfare, Sociology, Political Science, History as well as the Arts and Humanities.  In conjunction with the conference, there will be a series of outreach programs coordinated with local libraries and school districts based on the successful Port Jefferson Village – Go Green project, HISB has been spearheading for the past five years.  These events will use science and the arts (cinema, dance and theatre) to engage students of all ages, to begin discussions about how they can work with their schools, parents and communities to identify actions that can improve the environments in which they live.

As noted, we are moved by the work of Susanne Moser and Bill McKibben who have pointed to yet more ways humanists can contribute: As they argue, humanists can help by helping others “get real” about what is happening (i.e. facing the truth about changes to the planet already irreversible). We hope to organize events around some of Moser’s ideas about dealing with emotional distress caused by environmental change and climate disruption. We also hope to address Chakabarty’s ideas about humans as a “species” outside of the usual frameworks of capitalism, class, race and culture, as this might urge us to move forward collaboratively for the ultimate benefit of all.

There are many Stony Brook faculty members carrying on work that amplifies and extends the projects of HISB.  An example is Heidi Hutner, an eco-feminist with a joint appointment in the English department and the Sustainability Studies Program.  Hutner teams up with Grassroots Environmental Education, a Long Island and Westchester advocacy group that fights on behalf of environmental issues in New York State—particularly in the areas of hydro-fracking, toxics and chemical pollution, wi-fi radiation, transportation, and much more. This Spring, Hutner, the Sustainability Program, and Grassroots will hold a “Greening Your Town” event at HISB with Long Island politicians to discuss the implementation of major local governmental sustainable innovations in New York State. Hutner also works with New York City Environmental Occupy and Japanese environmental groups, as well as national women’s green activist organizations—to promote environmentalism both locally and nationally.  For example, in March of 2012, Hutner brought Japanese speakers from Japan and New York City to commemorate 3/11 and discuss the environmental, health and cultural ‘fall out’ from the Fukushima disaster.

The Humanities Institute at Stony Brook will continue to encourage activism through a series of activities related to what we have been doing these years on various levels, namely through the community outreach projects, through film series on campus, through our links to Earthstock, the School of Marine Sciences, the Journalism School and the expanding Sustainability Studies Program. We hope to develop more courses related to Humanities for the Environment, and perhaps organize a Graduate Certificate in this area. We will develop closer links with the Department of Ecology and Evolution for future collaborations.