Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
May 16, 2018
Public forum takes on human dimensions of climate change issues
Is it time to rethink the relationship between humankind and plant life?
This is a key topic on the table at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH) annual community forum, which is being held Friday, May 18, at the Kahanoff Conference Centre.
The public forum, entitled Living With Plants, will wrap up an ambitious three-part series which has seen the annual event take on provocative topics from within the field of the environmental humanities. In 2016, urban animals were in the spotlight while last year’s discussions revolved around water rights.
Guest speakers at the sold-out event include:
- Biological sciences professor James Cahill (University of Alberta) who studies plant behaviour — from how plants forage for resources and cope with enemies to the ways in which they parent and communicate with one another.
- Anthropologist Andrew Matthews (UC Santa Cruz) will focus on how human history and plant history have been intertwined.
- Patricia Viera, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Comparative Literature and Film & Media Studies (Georgetown University) will discuss the book she co-edited, The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy and Literature, a collection of essays on plant ethics.
In advance of the community forum we sat down with CIH director, professor Jim Ellis, to discuss plants, the environmental humanities and a few of the fascinating and challenging discussions set to ensue on May 18.
Q: At this year’s forum you’re capping off what has been a really thought-provoking series on the environmental humanities, wherein you’ve taken it on from all angles — animals, water and, now, plants. What inspired the CIH to tackle this series?
A: The CIH has a long history of dealing with climate change. In the '80s and '90s we held community seminars on the ethics of climate change and issues around energy transition. We’ve been a leading voice in the west, taking on these types of issues long before other people had. And it occurred to me these would be useful topics to take up again, when climate change is the great issue of our day.
Q: But issues of the environment are most often thought of as being the domain of scientists. Where does the humanities fit in on such topics?
A: It’s been expressed with growing frequency that scientists have spoken loudly and clearly and conclusively, but for some reason the rest of us aren’t listening. So, in some ways, it’s now up to the humanists to talk about not just the facts and the science of it all, but to also address the human dimensions of climate change issues. I think we humanists have lagged a bit in taking on these issues that are facing us and future generations. I think it’s vital for humanities institutions to bring our expertise to these issues.
So, environmental humanists have been challenging us to rethink our relationship with the environment. To think about animal rights and even water rights. Do bodies of water have rights? Actually, there have been bodies of water granted rights. There’s a river in New Zealand and a glacier in the Himalayas that have both been recognized as beings with rights. And this is central tenant of First Nations thinking.
There’s a similar approach happening in the way humanists are approaching plant life.
Q: Can you elaborate on this humanist approach to plant life?
A: We often think of plants as being the lowest form of life — as being immobile and insensate. But a lot of botanists, philosophers and ecologists alike have been challenging our notions as to what plants are as beings — asking what they can do, what they can sense? Do they communicate and have relations with others? Do they process information? If we think differently about plants, we might also reconsider our shared space with these living beings. We might consider we have a relationship with them which we haven’t always recognized.
Plants were the first living beings to colonize the planet. They created the atmosphere that made life possible for other animals. They continue to shape life on this earth, and they’re intimately intertwined with human history in ways we rarely consider.