For most of its history in academia, ecological studies has been centered on STEM disciplines. But an emerging interdisciplinary movement is opening the environmental field to new scholarly approaches and bringing new voices into the discussion. PEC’s Lily Jones speaks with John MacNeill Miller, a professor of English literature at Allegheny College, about his work exploring the link between humans and non-human systems through a cultural lens.
Allegheny College, in Crawford County, is an environmental and sustainability leader in higher education. Last year it became the first college or university in the state to achieve carbon neutrality, earning a 2020 Western Pennsylvania Environmental Award from PEC.
Allegheny also offers highly-regarded degree programs in Environmental Science and Sustainability, and in Environmental Studies, which emphasizes the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the field. Students from a variety of academic concentrations are encouraged to explore the ecological dimension of their studies through coursework offered by faculty like John MacNeill Miller, a professor of English and one of Allegheny’s leading environmental humanists.
In the emerging field of Environmental Humanities, literary scholars work with historians, anthropologists, linguists, and thinkers from a whole range of humanistic disciplines to explore the relationship between humans and the non-human world we inhabit.
“If you’re an environmental humanist, you’re trying to study the same kind of thing that an environmental scientist studies… [but] we’re doing it from the human perspective.”
According to Dr. Miller, environmental humanists and their STEM counterparts are really engaged in the same project – just from a different angle.
“If you’re an environmental humanist, you’re trying to study the same kind of thing that an environmental scientist studies – that is, [we’re] trying to study how humans and human society relates to and has impacts on the natural world, and vice-versa – [but] we’re doing it from the human perspective,” he said.
Scholars of the Environmental Humanities are curious about how human values and beliefs shape our relationship to the environment. And according to Dr. Miller, the language we use to convey these values and beliefs can have real-life impacts.
Reading literature is a low-stakes way to learn how to be critical of linguistic choices, and to consider how they shape our understandings of the environment.
“There’s a whole array of responses that happens when you get people to engage with the words and ideas of others that then enable them to see their own perspective as just one option in a much wider array of cultural possibilities.”
“If you study literature, you get the chance to think about these devices outside the context of real, practical applications,” said Dr. Miller. “So that later on, when you’re thinking about how you want to frame an environmental policy, or an argument about a kind of ecological impact, you have the ability to pay attention to the kind of language people are using and the kinds of values they might be conveying. And you can think a little more conscientiously about the kind of language you’re using, and the kind of values you want to convey to other people.”
So, how can people outside the world of academia pick up these skills? Dr. Miller says the best way to start is by expanding the kinds of things you read, and looking for new and broader perspectives.
“There’s a whole array of responses that happens when you get people to engage with the words and ideas of others, that then enable them to see their own perspective as just one option in a much wider array of cultural possibilities for seeing the non-human world,” he said. “You force people to think hard about where their own ideas come from… so I think that’s a big service that literature can provide, literature about the natural world. It’s just these windows into other perspectives, historically and culturally.”