What Can the Humanities Do For the Environment?

As almost any university professor or student will tell you, college campuses tend to be split in two, with the sciences on one end and the humanities on the other — and rarely do the two engage each other. That’s why I was thrilled to read a piece of commentary by Dick Munson, Director of Midwest Clean Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, wherein he describes his visit to the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival.

There he saw Al Gore speak about climate change as a “moral issue,” and climate fiction author Claire Vaye Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus) discuss environmentalism in fiction. His main takeaway? “To be effective, [environmentalists] need to expand our cultural vocabulary.”

I spoke with Munson about what he means by this, about his other takeaways from the festival, and the important role he sees the humanities playing in environmental activism.

Amy Brady

You have a background in finance and now work in energy policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. What inspired you to visit the Chicago Humanities Festival?

Dick Munson

I wanted to check out the festival’s mixture of biographers, poets, and writers to hear new ideas and fresh perspectives. I always come away a bit more energized, inspired by different insights.

Amy Brady

How important is it that scientists, financial directors, engineers, and other folks in non-humanistic careers explore the humanities for answers to their questions? And vice versa?

Dick Munson

I’m reminded that Nikola Tesla invented the electric motor while walking through a park quoting Goethe’s Faust and that Albert Einstein would take up his violin when he was stuck on some formula. Maybe it’s a right-brain-left-brain thing, or maybe it’s just the diversity of thought, but the mixture of humanities and science seems to be a key component of creativity.

Amy Brady

Which speaker surprised you the most?

Dick Munson

I was struck by how initially unwilling Al Gore was to talk about his faith.  His book focused on the science of climate change and the mechanics of political organizing, but the moderator’s questions seemed to move him to reveal a depth of conviction, which conveyed to his audience a fresh appreciation for the science and politicking.


What do you think would happen if activists and scientists began using a vocabulary usually reserved for spiritualism or religion when talking about climate change?

Dick Munson

I think all of us switch our perspectives or voices throughout each day, moving from, say, a political voice to a music-focused or sports-analogy voice. Most of us also have a faith-based, religious or spiritual voice.  I think Al Gore’s observation that climate change is a “moral issue” made me realize that my environmental colleagues and I must incorporate that powerful moral voice if we are to tackle the clear threat to our planet.

Amy Brady

Have you read any fiction that addresses issues of climate change?

Dick Munson

There are, of course, the classic ecological books, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, but perhaps the first novel that I associated with climate fiction was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. It conveys the threats to the beautiful monarch butterflies. After this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, I took up Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, which is framed around a global-warming-induced drought in Southern California.

Amy Brady

Any new developments in the Chicago branch of the EDF that you’d like our readers to know about?

Dick Munson

Last year in Illinois, the Democratic General Assembly and the Republican governor approved a remarkable clean-energy bill that will cut greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector by almost 60 percent. A key part of the coalition advancing that legislation was Faith in Place, a group that effectively discussed the moral case for climate action. We need more such coalitions that bring together a diverse set of voices.

Dick Munson is the Environmental Defense Fund’s Director of Midwest Clean Energy. In this role, he works to advance the use of clean energy in Illinois and Ohio.

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