Leading Scholars in the Field of Environmental Humanities Gather at Colby

Humanities6 min. read

In its fourth year, the Summer Institute in the Environmental Humanities creates a platform for discussing the pressing issues of the day

Natalie Michelle talks to group
Natalie Michelle, visiting assistant professor in American studies and a member of Penobscot Nation, talks with participates on Allen Island as part of the Colby Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities. The institute brings together scholars from around the globe to collectively explore how the environmental humanities contribute to the theorization, imagination, and practice of socially just and ecologically hopeful futures for humans and nonhumans.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
August 8, 2023

When eco-poet Craig Santos Perez visited Colby in 2019 to discuss his writing, he was intrigued to learn about the College’s plans to host what was then the inaugural Colby Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities.

Perez, an Indigenous Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guam, pondered the possibilities of bringing together scholars from around the world to collectively explore how the developing field of environmental humanities would contribute to the theorization, imagination, and practice of socially just and ecologically hopeful futures.

Four years later, Perez was back in Waterville for the 2023 iteration of Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities, an annual gathering of up to three dozen scholars from across the country and around the globe—and spanning academic disciplines—to discuss pressing environmental issues from a humanistic perspective.

Perez, who discussed his own work and the writing of other Pacific Islander writers during his keynote address, said he was honored to be invited to participate. After hearing about the early plans for the institute when he visited Colby in 2019, he was pleased to see what the institute had become.

“I got to hear about the dream four years ago, and so it’s been amazing to me to be here in person and see the vision come to life in really exciting and dynamic ways,” said Perez, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, where he teaches eco-poetry and Pacific literature.

Chris Walker, assistant professor of English, welcomes participates to Allen Island as part of the Colby Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities. Three dozen scholars spent a day at the island as part of the weeklong institute.

This year’s weeklong institute opened July 31, the last day of the hottest July on record, during a time of dangerous heat waves across the globe, life-altering rising ocean temperatures, and rampant, out-of-control wildfires. 

“We have had such good science on all these issues for decades, and the science continues to improve. But climate change is at its root a cultural problem,” said Assistant Professor of English Chris Walker, who has been active in planning the institute since its inception.

“The humanities think about the lived conditions of all these things. We know the science, but what does it look like and what does it feel like on a day-to-day basis? … Beyond what the science says we should do, what are we really going to do? The humanities can tell us what people think and how we might act and how we might feel when faced with a crisis like this.”

Originally funded by a Mellon Foundation grant and now supported by Colby, the Summer Institute is part of the College’s larger environmental humanities initiative, an emerging, multidisciplinary field that recognizes the failure of the industrial world to address complex environmental problems and the need to question basic, long-held assumptions about human interactions with nature.

In a short time, the Colby Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities has become a leading gathering place for established and emerging scholars. The institute is dedicated to creating space to share research and ideas, building an international network of scholars, and creating opportunities for mentorship and rigorous scholarly engagement.

The institute’s core values are its diversity of ideas, the range of cultural and geographic range of participants, and the willingness of participants to challenge assumptions and press for new ideas and new ways of thinking, said Dean Allbritton, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities, which organizes and hosts the institute.

“We look for the people who are doing the most interesting work in the field right now, the people who have the most interesting things to say and who are doing something that feels real and pressing and that can help us have dynamic conversations that actually lead somewhere,” he said.

Cultural tools for climate solutions

The institute focuses those conversations on current and emerging scholarship while taking advantage of Maine’s natural and cultural attributes to encourage participants to recharge, forge new connections, and find new inspirations. In addition to several days of workshops, seminars, and keynotes at the Chace Community Forum at the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons in downtown Waterville, institute participants made excursions to Colby’s Island Campus, the Colby-Hume Center, and the Colby Museum of Art.

Participants walk on a trail after exploring part of Allen Island as part of the Colby Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities.

Mirzam Pérez, originally from Honduras, is a professor of Spanish, digital studies, and European studies at Grinnell College in Iowa. She was pleased to meet colleagues who are thinking about and advancing new ideas. “It’s inspiring to learn about the field and what other people are doing and thinking about in different ways,” said Pérez. “It’s exciting to be here.”

Keith Peterson, associate professor of philosophy at Colby and an institute organizer from the beginning, said the gathering is unique because of its ability to bring together participants whose ideas are often overlooked and undervalued in the larger conversations about the environment. “Involving the people who have historically been excluded is important,” he said. “Getting everyone involved and including as many voices as possible is always a good thing.”

Exploring the pluriverse

Among the topics participants explored during their time in Maine was the international degrowth movement, which advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being ahead of profits, production, and consumption; the concept of a pluriverse, which implies the existence of many interconnected worlds, including the human world, the natural world, and the spiritual world; the practice of multi-species justice, a theory of justice that emphasizes the interests of humans and nonhumans alike, including other animals and ecosystems; and Wabanaki resilience and sustainability in the face of climate change.

Perez, the Pacific Islander eco-poet, was one of four of the institute’s seminar leaders, who were recruited to present their research, deliver a keynote address, and lead discussion groups. As seminar leaders, they guided week-long engagements among three dozen scholars, who were chosen from more than 100 applicants representing 14 countries and top U.S. and international universities and liberal arts colleges.

Perez discussed the discipline of eco-poetry, which addresses “the interconnectedness of all things,” he said. “Nature poetry is more about contemplating the sublime. Eco-poetry does that too, but it also looks at deforestation, human-animal relations, and larger issues like climate change.”

Poetry offers the opportunity to move, inform, and inspire people in ways that science does not. “Poetry can really capture the hearts and emotions of the audience and listeners in a way that scientific data or climate-change graphs don’t always capture,” he said. “Poetry can bring out the emotion of what it means to live in a time of climate change.”

Brian Burkhart, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation citizen, spoke about Indigenous philosophies related to the land, land ownership, and land-based concepts of well-being and environmental ethics. He also previewed research from his current book project, As Strong as the Land that Made You: Native American and Indigenous Philosophies of Well-Being through the Land.

Ursula K. Heise, chair of the English Department and professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, specializes in contemporary literature and environmental humanities, environmental literature, and literature and science. A Guggenheim Fellow and the former president of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, she presented research about multi-species justice in the field of speculative fiction.

Barbara Muraca, associate professor of environmental philosophy at University of Oregon, gives a keynote at the Chace Community Forum in downtown Waterville.

Barbara Muraca, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, whose research focuses on environmental and social philosophy and political ecology, spoke about “post-growth societies,” drawing on ongoing research she is conducting related to her work with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which seeks to improve biodiversity, long-term human well-being, and sustainable development.

The College and the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities supported four students’ involvement in the institute as summer research assistants, including Sammie Chilton ’25, Kate Landis ’25, Kathryn Mechaley ’26, and Sam Mercatz ’26. The students worked on logistics in advance of and during the gathering. The students prepared by reading and discussing the works of the seminar leaders in advance, and they participated in all seminars and keynotes as full participants, asking questions and sharing their ideas and thoughts.

Chilton, an English major with a concentration in literature and the environment, said the institute helped her think about life after Colby, which likely will include graduate school and all the research, writing, and collaboration that comes with the pursuit of an advanced degree.

“I have been thinking a lot about what I want to do with my degree after college, and working with the institute this summer has been valuable to see what other scholars are doing and what their work actually looks like,” Chilton said. “It’s helpful for me to have an understanding of what I might be doing if I take that route.”

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