EH, Ethics, and Teaching for the Future with Roy Scranton

October 27, 2021

On Oct 6, 2021 PPEH was pleased to host Dr. Roy Scranton from the Notre Dame Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHUM). As part of his visit to learn more about our work, he gave a talk titled "Killing the Messenger: Challenges in Climate Change Communication" at one of our Working Wednesdays series, designed to showcase in-progress Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) straddling theoretical and practical environmental concerns. After his presentation and a lively discussion with attendees, he joined Field Notes managing editor Mia D’Avanza for a conversation about teaching environmental humanities and building new programs in the field.


Roy Scranton presenting on Killing the Messenger: Challenges in Climate Change Communication via Zoom


Mia D'Avanza: Roy, thank you for joining me. So you are building a new EH program, right?

Roy Scranton: Yes, it's in the very early stages right now. It's the Environmental Humanities Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, working to support research and student work and student learning on the environmental humanities, and that could mean a lot of different things but fundamentally, it has to do with addressing the broad ecological crisis that we're living through, and the question of what it is to be human in the world, as it changes around us, through a broadly humanities perspective, and that means a perspective that is informed by questions of value, meaning ethics, history. 

There's so much great work that the sciences and scientists are doing when it comes to climate change and so much great work that policy people are doing and engineers and so on and so on. But the fundamental question of what this problem means and what it means to us, and how we cope with it and adapt to it is not — these are not questions that science can answer, because they're values questions. They're ethical questions. They're questions that have to do with meaning. And that's where the humanities can come in and help explore these questions and provide a framework, and in collaboration with the arts and artists begin to create and explore whole new answers, answers that we haven't even imagined.


MD: We do a very similar thing here at PPEH, which is why you're here, and we're so excited for you to be here! I'm really curious to know what your hopes and dreams are for your own program. 

RS: My hopes and dreams are fundamentally that the program will grow into something that is shaping conversation on campus. That's both among the faculty, and particularly, helping to create a kind of a culture among our students of thinking about these questions directly, and thinking about them in creative and historically informed and engaged ways, and also thinking about them in ways that connect the philosophical or conceptual or academic questions around what does it mean to be human, or what is good, or how does climate change affect our sense of what the good life means, connecting those questions to our engagement in communities and our responsibilities to each other in communities, and also connecting them to how we talk to each other in the world and how we talk about issues like climate change. 


MD: How do you address an urgent problem with a set of tools that are sort of necessarily long? An undergraduate education alone is four years if you know what you want to study immediately and you get into it, and you know, you're looking at potentially eight years of somebody coming into a program like ours.

RS: There's no way we can solve today's problems today, with the tools that we have. It's a part of the reason why it's so important that we be thinking about adaptation, that we be thinking about the environmental humanities-- we actually need to be thinking 10 years down the road. We need to be thinking about the climate crisis as it exists now, but we need to take a hard look at where we're likely to be in 10, 15, 20 years, and begin to think about what might be necessary there. And what we need to do to prepare for that for that moment. The German philosopher Hans Jonas talks about the necessity for a kind of futurology as being an ethical responsibility in a time of of ecological crisis. And we're not well equipped for that. It's not incentivized.

This is one of the things that the arts have, is more social license to think into the future in that way. But nevertheless, it's an obligation that we need to be thinking into that future. And again, pessimistically, you know, not with a sense that oh, things are gonna go well for the next 20 years and then what do we do, but what if things don't go well, then what do we do? And if we're wrong, we're wrong, and everything's great. 


MD: Thank you so much for your time today.

RS: I appreciate the conversation, and it's been lovely to be here at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, which I've admired for a long time. It's a great community, and you're doing good work, so thank you.


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Roy Scranton is the author of five books, including Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We're Doomed. Now What? He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the Environmental Humanities Initiative.