LETTER FROM THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, STEVE BELKO
Missouri Humanities implemented an environmental humanities program
several years ago, and it has blossomed substantially since its inception. Our recent annual Humanities Symposium addressed the subject, focusing in this particular instance on water. In the simplest terms,
our environmental humanities program validates the integral intersection between environmental concerns and the humanities.
Let me use our recent Humanities Symposium (which you can find online at www.mohumanities.org/public-forums/ humanities-symposium-water/) as an example. For the vast majority of us reading this column, I am confident we would first think of the importance of water in basic survival terms, but this very approach makes water so valuable to our very existence that we seek it at all costs, even by violent means (e.g., “water wars”) to guarantee our permanent access to it. Access to clean water would follow closely in second, I am sure. In the tradition of Western civilization, moreover, our initial thoughts regarding water most certainly and immediately turn to economic association—that is, water in terms of science and technology.
The Water Symposium brochure, entitled Ripple Effect: Water & the Humanities, began with the contention that:
Water powers the environment’s engine, impacts climate, and sculpts the landscape. All living creatures rely on water. Water also plays a practical role in American society. Access to water and control of water resources have increasingly become politically charged issues. Communities throughout the nation are coming together to protect their waterways and, when necessary, recover from water related disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and drought.
Throughout our nation’s history, individuals, communities, and even states, have verged on outright conflict to protect “their” water. Yet, as we demonstrated in the recent symposium, the impact of water on mankind transcends mere scientific and technological capacities and emphases. Again, per the brochure:
Water influences our culture: roughout history, it has served as a constant source of inspiration for artists, authors, and philosophers. Many faiths revere water as a sacred symbol. rough the lens of water, we can understand and appreciate the connection between natural science and the humanities.
The humanities is not solely an academic profession in a university setting; it is not the exclusive domain of Ph.D.s, scholars, egg heads, the ivory tower. e humanities (and I use the term in a singular sense) has extensive application in every other profession out there, and most of all, in the fields of science and technology. As just one example, medical research and medical treatment cannot in any healthy sense be devoid of bioethics—science and technology drive the former, while the humanities provides the roadmap.
We at Missouri Humanities cannot emphasize enough the dire need for this approach, for we ardently believe the humanities, as it relates directly to science and technology, is essential for the appropriate advance of mankind. Science and technology (which includes engineering, mathematics, and medicine) is inarguably the module, the vessel, the transportation device for the advance and progress of human civilization, but the humanities can never be dissociated from this evolvement process, for the humanities provides the direction, the purpose, the validation—and, all too often in the history of mankind, the brakes—in the cause of our growth. While we advance in science and technology, the humanities concomitantly prevents us from losing our moral compass, thereby allowing for a more intellectually inventive and vibrant society.
The humanities provides us the appropriate context and perspective for confronting the issues that science and technology present us every day. While scientists consider mathematics to be the language of the universe, we cannot ignore the fact that language is the domain of the humanities; thus, the two are interdependent, as we move through our universe together. I cannot recall who said this (and, please, if anyone reading this has stumbled upon this, let me know!), and so I must paraphrase, but an individual in the humanities unlearned in the sciences is simply ignorant, but a scientist unversed in the humanities is dangerous. e humanities, therefore, furnish mankind the ethical bounds, the sound and informed judgment, to scientific discovery and the consequences of technological change, thereby making humans much more than simply intellectually advanced creatures. We can all agree that advances in science and technology daily bring the world closer together, but such advances also accelerate alienation among individuals and expose deep and dark crevices in our composition—the humanities exist to ameliorate these effects.
Environmental humanities, therefore, is simply one component of the larger symbiosis between the humanities and science and technology. For decades, there has been a quote so pervasively employed in public circles that I would be stunned if anyone reading this would not have encountered it: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Now, this phrase has been consistently altered and regularly paraphrased, but you get the gist of it.
In fact, no one really knows the origin of the quote. Numerous attributes have been declared over the past half century, from Native American tradition (Chief Seattle, for example) to the Amish, from Ralph Waldo Emerson (who never uttered it) to the Audubon Society, and a host of individuals in between. e origin is unimportant; the meaning, however, is.
This ubiquitous phrase always reminds me of a debate between omas Jefferson and James Madison, occurring right after the ratification of the US Constitution and the outbreak of the French Revolution. Jefferson questioned whether “one generation of men has a right to bind another,” and, in doing so, made a famous assertion (at least in scholarly constitutional circles): “I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living: that the dead have neither the powers nor rights over it.” Now, to be sure, Jefferson addressed the right of one generation to encumber debt that the successive inherited, and whether this was sound policy “among the fundamental principles of government.” Yes, Jefferson applied this equation only to the world of finance—to the realm of debt (personal and governmental), bankers, money-men, and stockjobbing, and the whole world of Hamiltonian finance the Jeffersonians knew to be dangerous to society and to liberty. It is to this subject exclusively that Jefferson contended that “the earth belongs always to the living generation,” that they alone “manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during this usufruct.”
Madison replied, of course, tempering his friend’s contention (and he did so within the subject at hand, “contracting and providing for public debts”), arguing that “the improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them.” ere seemed to be a foundation in the nature of things, Madison continued, “in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations to another. Equity requires it. Mutual good is promoted by it. All that is indispensable in adjusting the account between the dead & the living is to see that the debits against the latter do not exceed the advances made by the former.”
So, just what does this have to do with environmental humanities, you ask? Well, let us take some semantic liberty with this whole line and put it in the context of environmental humanities. In this sense, then, Jefferson’s contention certainly chafes the claim that we do not inherit the earth and borrow it from our children (that is, the ensuing generation), and Madison’s retort proves the efficacy, even the necessity, of our “moral” debts to the contrary. But this Jefferson–Madison exchange piqued my thoughts about another venture that both Jefferson and Madison actively and passionately participated in (albeit several decades after the exchange above) that proves more pertinent to our argument herein, and one that directly concerns the realm of environmental humanities, that is, of the interdependence of science and technology and the humanities—in this instance, agricultural reform in antebellum America.
During the first half of the 19th century, many influential statesmen and community leaders, primarily in the South, formed a host of local and regional agricultural societies. ese societies intended to address what they perceived at the time to be destructive agricultural practices (soil exhaustion being the primary concern), with the ultimate objective of achieving more efficient yields, more productive farms and plantations, and just better farmers and planters. e constitutions of these societies, their meeting minutes and the addresses of and to these groups, were replete with recommendations for improved methods— that is, the proper application of science and technology. ey covered every agricultural practice imaginable: planting, sowing, fertilizing, plowing, machinery, husbandry, orchards, irrigation, labor, and so many more. But these societies sought more than simple improved agricultural production, more than mere scientific and technological applications, for there was a higher civic ideal involved. A better farmer made a better citizen; better farming methods meant a healthier republic. Herein was the humanities component, for a republican society, a vibrant body politic, derived from the advances in science and technology.
No better example of the day demonstrated this higher facet of agricultural reform than the Jeffersonian Old Republican John Taylor of Caroline (I have to add that we named our daughter after him). In a series of essays penned under the name of Arator, the “Virginia Cato” addressed every form of agricultural practice conceivable for the time, recommending a plethora of improvements. But Taylor also consistently implored his readers that there was more to the issue than simple advances in science and technology; his advice on improving farming methods served concomitantly as moral instruction. Cherished republican principles—virtue over vice, independence over dependence, liberty over power—were also at stake. In sum, improvements wrought by advances in science and technology necessarily carried with it a humanities facet—society progressed accordingly. (A whole other identical argument can be made about 19th- century industrial reform, such as the Lowell movement in the wake of the Fall River System; for more on this Age of Improvement and the direct role of the humanities, see my previous column in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue at www.mohumanities.org/mo- humanities-magazine/.)
Of course, labor entered regularly into the equation of agricultural reform in the early 19th century, and Taylor and other reform- minded men offered recommendations for improved use of labor, that is, of slaves. Science and technology could make better use of a slave, but it was the humanities that chided these two for the immorality of enslavement as a form of labor. Agricultural reform ultimately failed in this period, for farmers and planters could simply move westward and till fertile “unsettled” lands; there were millions of acres just there for the taking, no need for improved methods when you can take your “labor” and proliferate across western lands. But it was the humanities that interjected (unsuccessfully, albeit) and raised attention to the continued brutal dispossession of the original occupants, the American Indian. Science and technology are not intrinsically evil, but they can often lack a moral compass; the humanities adds that. Constant advances in science and technology necessitate the pervasive and permanent participation of the humanities.
One last comment about agricultural reform, about the intersection of science and technology and the humanities: At the time that Jefferson, Madison, and Taylor sought improvements in both the plantation and the pastoral republic, a future famed painter was born in rural France: Jean-François Millet. I introduce him here simply because of a series of his paintings portraying agricultural scenes in Europe in the mid-19th century. One of the more moving is L’homme à la houe [ e Man with the Hoe]. I have always found it a powerful image, for (in my mind, at least) it portrays the brutal potential of feeding the populace in the most efficacious means possible, even to the utter exploitation of human beings. Yes, the painting scared the snot out of the wealthier sorts in Paris, as the industrial revolution in France rapidly drew from the ranks of farming society. To the urban well-off, the painting represented a socialist’s perspective on the state of farm laborers in the mid-19th century. Millet thought otherwise, however, and never attributed any political connotations to his paintings—he simply grew up in that world and felt moved to put it on canvas. Either way, the painting (again, in my mind) reminds me always of how we may push to make reforms in the way we produce crops for human consumption, but never realize the potential adverse consequences on the human condition. Again, the humanities provides the remedy for what ails society in the wake of the rapid and certain advance of science and technology. They cannot be separated without harming the healthy progress of human civilization. at is why Missouri Humanities is so excited about our environmental humanities program, as it emphasizes this very symbiosis. Stay tuned for so much more programming on this wonderful—and oh so needed—subject! Especially in the wake of the past few months.