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Beyond Environmentalism:
Culture, Justice, and Global Ecologies
Featuring Ursula Heise and Elaine Scarry

May 22 - 23, 2009
UCSB Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, McCune Room HSSB


In the global context, right action on the part of humans toward each other and the biotic community, what Aldo Leopold called the land ethic, is difficult to represent in political speech, in policy, and even in the imaginative realm of the arts. Like the troubled concept of the global, the concept of justice, as Elaine Scarry has argued, founders in the problem of imagining other people, distant people, strangers. As our species faces anthropogenic climate change, world water shortages and world famine, the twin projects of giving expression to a truly global ecology and to global environmental justice have never been more urgent. This conference aims to bring together individuals whose life’s work has been the study or practice of writing—literary historians and theorists, journalists and cultural critics, social scientists and environmental policy makers who have made the written word central to their understanding of how social changes are achieved. All will be asked to pursue a knotty question: are we up to the task of writing a global environment, a global sensorium that impinges upon us so intimately that we are forced to recognize its crises as our own? Can the culture of letters bring the biosphere into our embodied sense of the everyday? What we are interested in is the task of creating a social aesthetic, if we use the term in Ramon Saldívar’s sense to mean “those complex emotions, reflections, and sensations which give rise to a peculiarly poetic organization, responsive to the demands of history.”

In an age in which the majority of the population no longer receives its information from the printed word and yet more flexible language is called for by political policy-makers, we will interrogate the role of the language arts in framing environmentalism’s so-called third wave. If the apocalypticism that inaugurated the era of environmental protectionism in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring no longer inspires political action, then what sort of literary performance speaks for the post-industrial hazards that spill beyond the boundaries of nation-states? If literary narrative can be said to be structured by the balance of risk and enclosure, what sort of narrative expresses risks that have no possible limitation, risks to the atmosphere itself? Is it time to give over literary imagining to the (perhaps) more immediate demands of film and new media? Our goal is not only to analyze the difficulties of creating a global environmental imaginary, but also to build such an imaginary, to create a set of strong metaphors that move us beyond what provocateurs Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus label the “literal-sclerosis” that has limited environmentalist rhetoric in the United States.

The conference will take place Friday, May 22nd, and Saturday, May 23rd, 2009, at UC Santa Barbara’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. With a number of presentations from multiple disciplines, this event is being structured to maximize rich and on-going exchanges among the full set of participants. Invitees are encouraged to present research on any aspect of the conference topic. Possible topics that might inform presentations include:

  • Imagining Global Ecologies: Weather, Water, Food, Energy Systems
  • Planetarity
  • Ecological Citizenship
  • Environmental Justice and the Limitations of US Race Studies
  • The Global South and the Making of the Rural
  • Climate Change Discourse
  • From Poetics to Policy (Culture's Role in Global Environmental Politics)
  • Toxicity, Illness, Trauma
  • Environmentalism Across Media
  • Environmental Refugeeism
  • Changing the Terms: From Ecologies to Economies
  • Ecologies of Empire
  • Post-Environmentalism
  • Aesthetics, Justice, and Eco-Activism
  • Hope