Connecting the Humanities and Sustainability: An Interview with Joni Adamson

HumanitiesJoni1Joni Adamson likes to call herself a “Jill of all trades.” Adamson, a professor of English and Environmental Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, has developed an impressive repertoire of research interests including but not limited to: environmental humanities, environmental literature and film, Sonoran Desert ecosystems and cultures, global indigenous studies, food sovereignty, and critical plant studies. The research that Adamson contributes uncovers the ways in which sustainability sciences and the humanities work together, which is crucial to solving the complex ecological and urban challenges that we face now and in the future. At LightWorks we understand that sustainability is fundamentally a human problem that needs the expertise of the humanities, a field that studies, critiques, and lays bare the experience of being human. The humanities, which include studies related to history, philosophy, aesthetics, religious studies, literature, theater, film, and media studies, are becoming increasingly integrated into research focused on the sciences of nature and sustainability in a field of study called the “environmental humanities.” Adamson’s work with the environmental humanities includes utilizing collected archives of oral story cycles and written texts to prove that humans have long been raising questions about a “quality of life” that is equitably shared and sustainable for all species. Adamson believes that analyzing the ways humans muse on the value of sustainability addresses the anthropogenic factors contributing to the increasingly extreme weather-related events we are seeing occur around the world. We sat down for an interview to discuss exactly how the humanities and sustainability are interconnected as well as her current position working as a Principle Investigator for the North American Observatory and West Cluster of the Andrew W. Mellon funded project, “Humanities for the Environment” (HfE) and the Desert Cities Initiative, a seed grant awarded by the Carnegie Humanities Initiative Fund (CHIF) which was created by President Michael Crow and is administrated through the College of Humanities and Dean George Justice. The interview begins below. Interview with Joni Adamson:
  1. Why should the humanities and sustainability be studied together? Multiple fields must be brought together because our problems with sustainability not only emerge out of nature but out of human cultures and ways of being. There are things human beings can and cannot see physically. Sight has limitations. We don’t always experience our limitations or even see the ways our physical and cultural limitations might be creating sustainability problems. Sustainability scientists and humanists can therefore come together to think about the ways in which our planet is changing and what it is about humans and the ways we live, acculturate, and sometimes clash, to reveal the ideas that we may not have yet imagined. The humanities do this very well because humanists are trained to look at human cultures and philosophies and how they came to be. Humanists seek to ask questions about how the paths we as humans are taking now were shaped by the ones we took in the past.  Through genres such as science fiction, they encourage us to think about the future.  Further, they encourage us to ask, do we necessarily have to continue on this path? Do we need to shift course?  Can we imagine an alternative future?In the past, one of the goals of Western cultures has been “progress,” but what if, instead, our goal was to develop “prospect?” “Prospect” requires “vision,” it means the possibility that something auspicious might be on the horizon.  It is what you look for if you are an explorer. What if our goal was not “progress” but to “see more clearly, from a 360 degree prospective, from the past, present and future, a complete circle of vision, a complete vision of not only our our past but what might be possible in the future”?  “Progress” only looks to the future, while “prospect" seeks a complete understanding of past, present and future, in order to make wise decisions about “what is on our horizon.” In other words, how do we understand the possibility of a future event occurring? For the sake of future technology, let’s think about expanding our understanding of where it is we’ve been, and where we’re going.
  2. Can you explain the CHIF: Desert Cities Initiative project you are working on?  In 2013, ASU President Michael Crow was among one of four recipients to receive a Carnegie Corp. grant to pursue academic initiatives. One of the initiatives that President Crow feels strongly about is funding humanists at ASU who are working to develop interdisciplinary projects. He has also supported desert cities as a major focus of research on well-being at ASU. The CHIF has given generous external funds to support the environmental humanities to date. With this level of support, Sally Kitch, founding director of the Institute for Humanities Research (IHR), and I proposed the project “The Future We Want: Desert Cities as Physical Systems and Cultural Objects.” This project will utilize the expertise in desert ecosystems, indigenous cultures and urban systems at ASU to build bridges between the environmental humanities and sustainability scientists. We specifically aim to work with the Wrigley Institute, LightWorks, and ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) to discuss the ways we should build our future desert cities to be both physical systems and places that encourage rich cultural diversity that promotes a sense of well-being.  We hope to do this by developing collaborative teams of researchers in the context of on-going discussions.  Our aim would be to encourage thinking that promotes quality of life in desert cities that would be equitably shared and environmentally sustainable. Our first brainstorming meeting took place in January at the IHR.
  3. How will your work with the Desert Cities project contribute to a sustainable energy future? Part of what the Desert Cities project aims to explore in its focus on cities as both physical systems and cultural objects is the complex, systemic nature of a city as a whole, of which energy consumption, and cultural ideas about energy consumption, are both integral considerations. The project views the city as a kind of living organism.In a sense, cities “breathe” just like any living organisms. They either have more trees or less trees, more or less stringent policies on particulate matter in the air. Everything that is alive breathes. If the air is choked up then we all have problems breathing. Scientists can approach these problems by building better technology, but humanists help by providing the context for new technology – who will use it? Why will they use it? What cultural problems are we solving or creating with this new technology? We want to create cities as places that can actually make the environment and the humans that occupy them better. We also want to make cities forces for good where people think about their attachment to place in unique and specific ways. When places become homogenized, there is no attachment to the place or “sense of place,” or for that matter, no “sense of planet.” The Desert Cities project wants to get people to think about the city and the planet as a combination of its physical, cultural and ecological complexities. We need to think about it as an ecological place, but also as a place with its own aesthetics, history, spirituality and other culturally-driven features.For example, many people who are living in Phoenix go outside and experience what the Sonoran desert has to offer, but there are others who have lived here for years and have never taken a moment to explore the desert. They simply get into their cars, go to work, and never take the opportunity to see our city as a living organism. If we challenge others to look at cities as living organisms, we can create cities as places that actually make the environment better. That could include planting more trees, or reimagining the ways we generate and use energy. In the Desert Cities Initiative, we will bring in architects as key players in the project, since design is so important to the ways we think about and utilize energy in the city.  My fellow humanists and I will contribute by offering students and our multidisciplinary team members ways to think about place, and the ways humans experience place.  We want people to think, create, and experience in ways that help them understand the places we live and conceptualize the “future we want.”  For example, a short  video clip recorded by Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni illustrates what the humanities offers interdisciplinary teams exploring desert urbanism.  Al-Koni suggests that “In the desert we visit death” and challenges listeners to rethink the idea that the desert is “without soul.”  Instead, al-Koni examines the desert as a transcendental space as well as a symbol of human existence. This raises the question, how could desert cities become spaces that are aware of themselves as places that ensure well-being and equity? Excerpt from the video: “The desert is still an untouched treasure, because the prevailing view, the general perception in the world is that the desert is desolate, that the desert is dominated by nothingness, that the desert is a void. In reality, that’s not true. The desert has everything. The only difference is that a desert is forbidding, inaccessible, unforgiving. It disguises its true nature. To face it, to discover it, constitutes a harsh challenge for those who aspire to penetrate the world…The desert has been the home of saints and prophets because [it] is an oasis for contemplation, because it is the isthmus between total freedom and existence, between death and life. That is why the desert is a complete system. [It] is a whole knowledge that hasn’t been fully discovered yet.” Watch the Ibrahim Al-Koni video “In the desert we visit death” below.
  4. How can the humanities and organizations like LightWorks encourage human empowerment, equality, and well-being? I think the LightWorks vision statement encapsulates that goal (see statement below). LightWorks encourages people to work in a day-to-day way to secure not only energy security but also energy justice for communities around the world. It envisions people who are working not just for the development of alternative forms of renewable energy technology, but also for spaces and places where people are able to creatively achieve their full potential as human beings. The humanities analyze history and employ the arts and media in ways that aim to encourage people to imagine, adapt, or transform everyday practices and encounters with other people in ways that open up possibilities for energy transitions that work.The LightWorks’ vision statement is listed below: “ASU will inspire and develop ways to revolutionize the use of energy and the large scale conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into useful products. We will support creation of new industries not just to power the world, but to empower it; not just to create wealth for a few, but to enrich people’s lives everywhere; not just to light an energy revolution, but to enlighten communities across the globe; not just to achieve energy security but to secure energy justice.”
Conclusion of interview. Following the lecture that Joni Adamson presented at LightWorks on March 18, 2014, “How the Humanities Power Efforts to Live Well (Not Better),” the Wrigley Institute and LightWorks have been working more closely with ASU humanists across all four campuses to develop better methods of multi-disciplinary collaboration. For another look at the way humanists are engaging with issues of sustainability, watch the video below with Sally Kitch, Director of the Institute for Humanities Research (IHR). Written by Gabrielle Olson and Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks. Additional Information: