Humans across time have contemplated their role in nature.
The Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities will contribute to these thoughts with its yearlong program theme of "Culture of Green: Nature and the Environment," says director and art historian Anne Helmreich.
Environmental historian Peter Shulman says that the most striking thing about contemporary "green" debates are their similarities with ones over past centuries.
"Humans have always depended on nature—for food, shelter, materials—and we have always shaped our environments in turn, often for the worse. In response, visionaries have long sought a world in which civilization and nature could coexist in harmony," says Shulman.
The coexistence with nature generates some ethical and sociological questions about what it means to be human, says Laura Hengehold, associate director of the Baker-Nord Center and associate professor of philosophy.
The "human questions" have been central to the philosophers from Aristotle, Spinoza, Adorno and Heidegger to contemporary thinkers like Andrew Light, who will be visiting the university as a Baker-Nord speaker, October 22.
Charles Burroughs, chair of the department of classics, agrees that the roots are deep in the ancient intellectual culture. In search of answers, ancient thinkers built foundations for the sciences of biology, zoology, botany, meteorology, mineralogy, and cosmology.
Department of Philosophy Chair Colin McLarty adds that these sciences created the foundations for "how we are able to understand the things we find in nature and how it is that we can describe nature mathematically."
The landscape ignited the imaginations of ancient poets and orators as a place for aesthetics, pleasure, respite from city life, meditation, intellectual discussion, and a space full of unseen but occasional all too visible and active forces, says Burroughs.
The legacy is alive in many ways in today's literature.
The poet Vergil influenced the establishment of three literary forms—the epic: the story of territory and political conflicts among humans; the georgic: the account of husbandry and care of the productive earth; and the pastoral: the utopian world and space of inspiration, explains Burroughs.
Moving to the 16th and 17th centuries, Italian Renaissance art scholar and Department of Art History Chair Edward Olszewski says nature was important for people of Rome. He associates Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740) with the topic of "green."
Ottoboni commissioned French painter Gaspar Dughet for landscapes to bring the outdoors into the inner sanctuary of the home, creating a tranquil space for city dwellers shut off from the green spaces of the countryside. In the Ottoboni palace, nearly 100 works were in this special gallery.
Individuals with financial means also created rooms devoted to landscape art. Like Ottoboni, families such as the Borghese, the Barberini, the Chigi, and the the Orsini had a gallery in their homes dedicated to landscape art.
"It gave them a place to perform otium (communing with nature) when apart from their country villas," says Olszewski.
"The first book I read that made me think about our connection to nature was Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey," says Author Mary Grimm, chair of the Department of English. "It's about his time as a ranger at Arches National Park. It's a kind of rough and ready approach to environmentalism."
Other "green" books Grimm cites are Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked through Time, a "reflective and compelling" account of a man who hiked by foot the length of the Grand Canyon, and Kim Stanley Robinson's fictional trilogy on global warming, which includes Forty Signs, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting.
Tim Beal, the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion, finds three major "green" ways in which religious studies link ecology and environment: "religious ecologies" —the ways different religious traditions conceive of nature, ecology, human-animal relations; "the environmental situatedness of religion" —how the natural environment helps shape particular religious beliefs, practices, and institutions; and "ecotheology" —the scholarly work to develop new religious-theological conceptions of ecology and environmental ethics in light of religious tradition as well as contemporary environmental studies.
"Doing environmental history, in sum, is not about cheerleading for things green, but rather developing critical tools for analyzing humans' ancient relationships with the world outside their front door," says John Broich , assistant professor of history.
"My hope is that after we get done digging up 'green' histories, students leave my classes less willing to throw around the word," say Broich, "I hope they are less willing to thoughtlessly use words of the moment like 'sustainable'."
"We've been a reactive society, not a proactive one," says Shulman.
He adds that what's "missing is what the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold called a land ethic, a practice that forces us to think about the long term environmental consequences of our actions years and centuries down the road."
Shulman's hopeful that we have a chance to change things.
Helmreich encourages the campus community to participate in this yearlong discussion. Go online to learn more about Baker-Nord Center talks, research, films, and activities open to the public.
Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.