Lit­er­a­ture and the En­vi­ron­ment

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –MAG­GIE MILLNER

In 1992 in Reno, Nevada, a group of schol­ars and writ­ers founded the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Study of Lit­er­a­ture and En­vi­ron­ment (ASLE) to pro­mote in­ter­dis­ci­plinary re­search and con­ver­sa­tion about the con­nec­tions be­tween humans and the nat­u­ral world. Com­pris­ing pro­fes­sion­als in both the hu­man­i­ties and the sci­ences, ASLE en­cour­ages col­lab­o­ra­tion, sup­ports en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion, and con­venes a com­mu­nity around the twin goals of lit­er­ary ex­cel­lence and eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity. Now, twen­ty­five years later, the or­ga­ni­za­tion is more ro­bust—and nec­es­sary—than ever.

The in­ter­sec­tions of po­etry and con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­ogy, or spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism, may not seem in­tu­itive. But in the early 1990s many schol­ars work­ing at the cross­roads of these in­creas­ingly siloed dis­ci­plines sought a way to share ideas and en­list cre­ative, sci­en­tific, and eth­i­cal ad­vice from spe­cial­ists in other fields. With the ad­vent of ASLE, mem­bers gained ac­cess to a direc­tory of mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary schol­ars, as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies cur­ric­ula, a list of awards and grants, men­tor­ing pro­grams, and a bib­li­og­ra­phy of eco­log­i­cal writ­ing, among other re­sources. In 1993, ASLE launched the semi­an­nual (now quar­terly) jour­nal ISLE: In­ter­dis­ci­plinary Stud­ies in Lit­er­a­ture and En­vi­ron­ment, which pub­lishes aca­demic ar­ti­cles in ad­di­tion to po­etry, non­fic­tion, and book re­views.

Since 1995, ASLE has also hosted a

bi­en­nial con­fer­ence, each event held in a dif­fer­ent U.S. city, at which in­tel­lec­tual cross-pol­li­na­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion can hap­pen in per­son. The twelfth con­fer­ence, ti­tled “Rust/Re­sis­tance: Works of Re­cov­ery,” took place in June and dou­bled as a cel­e­bra­tion of ASLE’s twen­ty­fifth an­niver­sary. Hosted by Wayne State Univer­sity in Detroit, the 2017 con­fer­ence fea­tured more than eight hun­dred pre­sen­ters as well as key­note ad­dresses by writ­ers and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists such as poet Ross Gay and his­to­rian and nov­el­ist Tiya Miles. Ac­cord­ing to ASLE co­pres­i­dent Christoph Irm­scher, these con­fer­ences serve as “sus­tained in­tel­lec­tual ex­pe­ri­ences in which an ar­ray of amaz­ing speak­ers com­ple­ments the se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tions that take place in in­di­vid­ual pan­els.”

ASLE’s quar­ter-cen­ten­nial comes at a crit­i­cal mo­ment. As an or­ga­ni­za­tion com­mit­ted equally to lit­er­a­ture and to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, ASLE and its mem­ber­ship are dou­bly threat­ened by the mas­sive roll­backs in arts and cli­mate spend­ing pro­posed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The White House’s 2018 bud­get plan, un­veiled in May, would slash fund­ing to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency by nearly a third, elim­i­nat­ing 20 per­cent of its work­force and leav­ing the agency with its small­est bud­get in forty years, ad­just­ing for in­fla­tion. Pred­i­cated on a staunch de­nial of the ur­gent re­al­ity of cli­mate change, the plan pro­poses crip­pling re­duc­tions to pro­grams that clean up toxic waste, de­ter­mine the safety of drink­ing wa­ter, and re­search and pre­dict nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, among oth­ers.

In June, Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced that the United States will also be with­draw­ing from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, an agree­ment be­tween nearly two hun­dred na­tions to re­duce emis­sions and mit­i­gate global warm­ing that was adopted by con­sen­sus in 2015. “As we have known ever since Rachel Carson, the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis can only be ad­dressed glob­ally, not within tra­di­tional na­tional bound­aries,” says Irm­scher. Branches of ASLE have been es­tab­lished in nearly a dozen coun­tries or re­gions out­side the United States, in­clud­ing Brazil, In­dia, and Ja­pan, and this year’s ASLE con­fer­ence drew around a thou­sand mem­bers from twenty-five coun­tries. Irm­scher de­scribes the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s in­ter­na­tional, in­ter­dis­ci­plinary con­fer­ences as its “pièce de ré­sis­tance against Trumpian uni­lat­er­al­ism.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed 2018 bud­get would also elim­i­nate the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts and Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Hu­man­i­ties. Though such cuts seem un­likely at this point— Congress thus far hav­ing up­held fed­eral fund­ing for both agen­cies—the pro­posal it­self is in­dica­tive of an at­ti­tude that de­val­ues the im­por­tance of art and lit­er­a­ture to Amer­i­can life and cul­ture. In light of such threats, Irm­scher looks to lit­er­a­ture for mod­els of po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. “Pan­els and pre­sen­ta­tions on Thoreau’s Walden—to men­tion one of the in­tel­lec­tual pro­gen­i­tors of ASLE—can no longer ig­nore the fact that his phi­los­o­phy of re­sis­tance has as­sumed new im­por­tance in an era when the gov­ern­ment sys­tem­at­i­cally sup­presses sci­en­tific ev­i­dence,” he says.

In a sense, the joint dis­avowal of both en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and the arts can be seen as a con­fir­ma­tion of what ASLE has al­ways known: that these dis­ci­plines are deeply linked and even in­ter­de­pen­dent—that, as Rachel Carson once said, “No one could write truth­fully about the sea and leave out the po­etry.” In the face of these most re­cent threats, ASLE will con­tinue to serve as a meet­ing point. “In a cli­mate that dis­cour­ages in­no­va­tion, sci­en­tists have adopted new roles as dis­senters and pro­test­ers,” says Irm­scher. “As they unite and march, they find new al­lies in the arts and hu­man­i­ties that have long spo­ken truth to power. ASLE, whose core mis­sion is to pro­mote col­lab­o­ra­tion and pub­lic di­a­logue, pro­vides an or­ga­ni­za­tional frame­work for such new al­liances.”

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