The Human Touch

The Book of Genesis, Cherokee creation stories and Les Miserables inform the environmentally minded

The Environmental Studies Program is a magnet for students. Currently, 500 students are majoring in environmental studies (for a bachelor of arts), or environmental science (for a bachelor of science), adding up to one of the most popular undergraduate fields on the UO campus.

Those who pursue the BA track focus more intensively on social science fields such as geography and political science, as well as the humanities. It takes a village to support students in this track—in addition to English and philosophy professors, faculty members from other disciplines support the BA option (political science, geography, history, etc.).

All students in this track begin their humanistic inquiry with a course called Introduction to Environmental Studies: Humanities.

A glance at the syllabus reveals how literature, philosophy and religious studies directly intersect with environmental issues. Readings range from religious sources such as the Book of Genesis and writings by Saint Francis of Assisi to contemporary Native American writers such as Winona LaDuke. Students read foundational philosophical texts from Plato, Aristotle and Descartes and also examine Cherokee creation stories.

They ponder numerous wilderness writers and learn about “urban ecology” by reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. They explore the importance of place through poet Gary Snyder.

In their discussions and explorations in this course, they apply the humanist perspective to topics such as wilderness preservation, the Pacific Northwest salmon crisis and global climate collapse, among other current issues.

Other courses in the humanities track include upper-division offerings such as Literature and the Environment and Global Justice. The former, an English course, ranges from critical animal studies and food culture to the “rhetoric of nature writing”; the latter, in philosophy, addresses large-scale, absolute poverty and what should be done about it.

“Science is good at asking and answering some questions, but it’s not so good at identifying whether we’re asking the right questions,” said Alan Dickman, director of the Environmental Studies Program. “The environmental humanities help us to ask the right questions.” 

Read about the UO’s longstanding commitment and national leadership in the field of environmental humanities.

—Lisa Raleigh