Sustainability and the Humanities


Joan and Dan
Institute co-directors Joan McGregor and Dan Shilling
We are delighted that you are interested in “Rethinking the Land Ethic,” a four-week NEH Summer Institute that will take place in the high country of Flagstaff, Arizona in 2011. Up to 22 college and university professors, and three graduate students, will join our outstanding faculty to investigate one of the most common, if ambiguous, terms in contemporary discourse: sustainability. With the inspiring Colorado Plateau as our backdrop, the institute's faculty, guest speakers, readings across the curriculum, field trips, and other engaging activities are designed to demonstrate the important role the humanities play in helping us understand a topic that is all too often framed in technical terms only. During the month in Flagstaff, the 25 NEH Summer Scholars will be encouraged to explore the conceptual background and contemporary thinking about sustainability by focusing on its historical development with Julianne Warren, literary and cultural contributions with Simon Ortiz, religious dimensions with Bron Taylor, and philosophical and ethical aspects with Bryan Norton.

Our conversation begins with forester Aldo Leopold's 1947 essay “The Land Ethic,” which describes a relationship to nature that re-imagines society’s responsibilities to current and future generations. Leopold's vision was informed by the humanities, especially “the wisdom,” he writes, afforded by history, philosophy, religion, and literature. In 2009, the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State Uni­versity conducted a stimulating NEH Summer Institute, "A Fierce Green Fire at 100," that examined the humanities’ contributions to Leopold’s statements – many of them captured in his posthumous masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac (1949), or more than 300 other published articles. “Rethinking the Land Ethic” builds on the earlier institute, suggesting that Leopold’s call to supplement scientific research with humanistic reflection is critical to researching and teaching sustain­ability.

The concept has lately been thrust center stage, earning both buzzword popularity and sharp criti­cism. Regrettably, given sustainability’s visibility, its conceptual boundaries and implications are seldom interrogated from multiple perspectives, leaving its practice open to confusion and exploitation. Something should be sustained. But what? For what purpose? And who gets to say? Revisiting Leopold’s Land Ethic, which some scholars see as one of the first modern philosophies of sustainability, will help educators better comprehend the term’s history and meanings, providing a new roadmap for research, teaching, and practice – a point others have made as well. In 2009, for example, Cambridge University published The Top 50 Sustainability Books; the book at Number 1 on author Wayne Visser’s list is not a scientific text or technical manual. It is, instead, a collection of essays that never uses the word “sustainability”: A Sand County Almanac

Sustainability Today

Small group work in a pleasant setting is part of most day’s activities.
Small group work in a pleasant setting is part of most day’s activities.
Sustainability discourse stretches across numerous fields, not only the predictable environmental landscape – touching upon societal norms, politics, education, commerce, and many professional sectors. Its prominence alone is a reason to pay attention. Countless organizations and businesses include the word in their name or mission. Reinforcing these trends, universities encourage sustainability studies across an increasing number of disciplines. Many educational, commercial, and research efforts, however, still reside in the silos of science and engineering, disengaged from broader perspectives, which is ironic since most interpretations of sustainability embody interrelatedness.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), a founding voice of environmental ethics, complained about similar isolation­ism, which he felt contributed to the Dust Bowl and other eco-disasters. While he honored the land’s “cultural values,” Progressive Era policy remained stuck in a narrow utilitarianism, a condition Leopold blamed in part on the curriculum: “Most education seems deliberately to avoid ecological concepts.” Today, many programs still frame sustainability as problem-solving through tech­nol­ogy. The approach makes sense: it’s linear, measurable, and offers assurance that cri­ses will be averted by new tools. No one begrudges the groundbreaking engineering underway; but, as Leopold cautioned, tools only create more tools, not the wisdom to use them – echoing Thoreau's line, “men have become the tools of their tools.” Bringing Leopold's voice to bear on sustainability will add an element of critical reflection that subjects the term’s meanings to cultural scrutiny, tests the moral ambiguities which disturb utilitarianism, and illuminates and incorporates sustainability's role in intellectual his­tory.

Sustainability, we suggest, is in a place similar to where forestry and agricultural studies were in the 1930s, when Leopold and others wrote about the conservation movement as an important chapter in the nation’s story. Leopold also said land studies and the newly coined word ecosystem (1935) are themselves defined by interconnections – biological and cultural. That being the case, instructional meth­ods should mirror that interdisciplinary connectivity. He lamented and eventually responded to the absence of history, philosophy, religion, and the arts from most discussions about nature. Hence, Leopold’s creative blend of science and the humanities, in pursuit of “integrity, stability and beauty,” has tremendous implications for sustainability studies.

What We Hope To Accomplish in the Cool Mountains of Flagstaff

As in the 2009 institute, in 2011 we’ll again visit the Grand Canyon to learn about the cultures who had sustained themselves there for thousands of years.
As in the 2009 institute, in 2011 we’ll again visit the Grand Canyon to learn about the cultures who had sustained themselves there for thousands of years.
Given its standing in modern discourse, sustainability should be vigorously interrogated: How have cultures thought about it? How have the arts engaged it? What values form its foundation? How does the idea shape society? Has its meaning changed over time? Where does one even look for contexts and principles, against which methods and outcomes might be measured? One should look, we argue, to the humanities, which provide the content and technique for a multidimensional inquiry – a potentially rich and exciting field of study. Happily, sustainability is present in more humanities classrooms today, but the disciplines are still not at the forefront of influencing research and pedagogy, even though histori­cal and philosophical reflection can make a significant contri­bution to understanding socially-constructed concepts – including this one.

“Rethinking the Land Ethic” will challenge the 25 NEH Summer Scholars to engage and test the belief systems that underpin sustainability. Doing so will illustrate how the humanities can help edu­cators, students, and the public better understand a concept that threads its way through economic, cul­tural, and scientific expressions. The institute will not suggest “how” to be sustainable by applying the humanities; nor does it preach that one must live sustainably. Instead, given that sustainability has become an idea that can shape contemporary thought and action, the institute’s goal is to ex­amine the theoretical foundations and implications of that devel­opment. The approach is transdisciplinary; all perspectives inform the other by measuring expressions against the philoso­phical bedrock upon which sustainability rests: how the human-nature relationship shapes responsibility.

To realize this goal, the institute will use Leopold’s Land Ethic as a springboard to: 1) examine the history of sustainability through scientific, social science, and humanities texts; 2) explain how scientific and cultural pursuits work together to deepen our appreciation of sustainability; and 3) help educators pursue re­search and design lessons that incor­porate the contributions made by the humanities. “Rethinking the Land Ethic” argues that sustainability is, at root, a humanistic concept, which should be accounted for alongside other research. Emerson hinted at why: “The man who grasps principles can suc­cess­fully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trou­ble.”

Design, Personnel, and General Planning

Social events help build collegiality. Author Scott Russell Sanders (middle) meets with institute participants at an evening party.
Social events help build collegiality. Author Scott Russell Sanders (middle) meets with institute participants at an evening party.
This section provides a general overview of “Rethinking the Land Ethic,” which will be held on the campus of Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Arizona, June 20-July 15, 2011. For a detailed day-by-day program, as well as information about the required readings, intellectual goals, and project requirements, please visit the course content link. Other sections in this website include more information about the institute’s core faculty, guest speakers, field trips, projects, and the application process.

Recognizing there will be overlap, we have divided the institute into four weekly themes, each intended to encourage participants to explore the conceptual background and contemporary thinking about sustainability: 1) history and development; 2) literary and cultural contributions; 3) religious overtones; and 4) philosophical and ethical aspects.

Week One: History and Development   The first week covers the intellectual history and evolution of the idea of sustainability, primarily but not exclusively through a scientific lens. The history of conservation, leading importantly to Aldo Leopold, distinguishes the week, as does the work of the first core faculty member, Julianne Lutz Warren. Professor Warren is the author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, which explores the scientific and cultural milieus that contributed to Leopold’s fusion of land and culture, an organic notion that she sees as a defining moment for sustainability. Reclaiming this history will set the stage for further research. The guest faculty for Week One is ASU law and indigenous studies professor Rebecca Tsosie, who will explore sustainability’s historical and legal backdrop, especially its adaptations of indigenous values, something Leopold and others understood. On Thursday, the group will travel to the Grand Canyon to uncover a sig­nificant chapter in conservation history. They will meet with NPS historian Mike Anderson, to learn how earlier civilizations sustained themselves in this hostile but fragile setting. Again, Leopold is a lynchpin, since he completed the park’s first master plan in 1916, in order to pass it on “not only to immediate posterity, but to the Unknown Future.”

Week Two: Literature and Culture   The second week builds on the indigenous themes by focusing on stories and art with ASU English professor Simon Ortiz, a scholar and writer of Pueblo heritage who specializes in Native literatures. Dr. Ortiz will look at the way sustainability has been depicted in the art and stories of various cul­tures, from Thoreau and Leopold to ancient Eastern poetry and contemporary authors – and he will discuss how professors can use literature and the arts in sustainability classes to shed light on the topic. Ortiz is joined Wednesday by ASU English professor Joni Adamson, who has edited several books on social justice and sustainability, and is co-creator of ASU’s Environmental Humanities program. Thursday the group visits two sites: Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s visionary city, and Montezuma’s Castle National Monument, a Sinagua cliff dwelling. Separated by a thousand years but less than 50 miles, the locations both address the sustainability challenge through philosophies of design. Soleri will discuss “arcology,” his blend of architecture and ecology, and at Montezuma participants will meet with ASU anthropologist Elizabeth Brandt to learn about the building and agricultural practices of ancient cultures.

Week Three: Religion   This week draws together histories and cultural expressions to explore various religions’ notions of sustainability. What has been the role of belief systems in forming the foundations of our relationship to nature? Certainly St. Francis of Assisi had one view, while the Book of Genesis has another, or several others. What do Eastern religions suggest, and how do they color today’s thinking? How are “green” theologies shaping the discourse about our duties to the future? The core faculty member for the week is Bron Taylor, author of many studies on the environment, religion, and social ethics, including the book Dark Green Religion. Taylor is joined Wednesday by NAU sociologist Janine Schipper, who researches the connections between Eastern religions and land use. Thursday the group travels to Sedona to experience a popular destination struggling to implement sustainable tourism. Scholars will meet with ASU professor Gyan Nyaupane to discuss the challenges of designing sustainable place-based economies. After Sedona, participants will travel to Page Spring Winery and meet with owner Eric Glomski, who practices and writes about sustainable agriculture.

Week Four: Philosophy and Ethics   The final week brings everything together, moving to philosophical and ethical considerations, i.e., what it all means. One argument the institute makes is that sustainability is foremost a philosophical construct, having to do with humanity’s relationship to the built and natural world, and our responsibility to future generations. These are questions philosophers have confronted for thousands of years, and their observations hold meaning for contemporary investigations of sustainability. The week’s faculty member is philosopher Bryan Norton, whose comprehensive book Sustainability: A Philosophy defines its subject as “a relationship between generations such that the earlier generations fulfill their individual wants and needs so as not to destroy, or close off, important and valued options for future generations.” A goal for guest speakers is to expand content globally and historically; on Wednesday afternoon Norton is joined by ASU professor Nalini Chhetri, who has studied sustainability programs around the world. There is no field trip this week, providing time for participants to prepare and present their projects.

Planning:  Participants are asked to read four books prior to the institute. Other reading occurs during the month, and professors should purchase the texts before arriving in Arizona. Some readings will be sent beforehand through online links. NAU’s classrooms and campus have wi-fi, so participants should bring laptops for research and presentation. The 25 NEH Summer Scholars will work on one of two projects during the month, either a publication or course design, and present their findings to the group during the institute’s last days. Visit this link for more course content detail.

From the $3,300 stipend, visiting scholars will make their own travel arrangements. Most will fly to Phoenix, from which a shuttle runs every two hours; the drive to Flagstaff is about two to three hours. Participants are responsible for meals and lodging. Visit this link for more information about transportation and housing. Dorms at NAU have been reserved, and at this page you can also search for local lodging if desired. This section provides a sample budget breakdown.

Co-directors:  The institute’s co-directors are Joan McGregor, Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University, and Dan Shilling, with the ASU Institute for Humanities Research – the same team that co-directed the 2009 NEH institute. McGregor has taught international and intercultural environmental ethics, as well as the history and philosophy of sustainability. Shilling, former director of the Arizona Humanities Council, has developed programs on environmental ethics and taught the history of sustainability. We believe Leopold’s writings are central to contemporary discussions of sustainability, and we look forward to extending the engaging dialog that took place during the 2009 institute.

Weekly Schedule at a Glance

Not all activities take place in the classroom. From the 2009 institute, participants learned about indigenous agricultural practices at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Not all activities take place in the classroom. From the 2009 institute, participants learned about indigenous agricultural practices at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Monday through Wednesday participants will meet in the NAU classroom. Mornings are reserved for lecture and discussion with the week’s core faculty. Monday and Tuesday afternoons are set aside for group work. Wednesday afternoons feature a talk by guest faculty, who will help enrich and deepen the discussion by providing additional perspectives, including counterpoint. This afternoon also includes time for participants to discuss their individual projects with the core faculty and guest faculty members. On Thursdays, to introduce the 25 visiting scholars to locations that shed light on sustainability, and also relate to Leopold’s life and work, we will take a full-day field trip, traveling together on a bus. At each destination we will hear from a guest speaker who will interpret the site and its connections to sustainability studies. Fridays are free for participants to work on their own projects – either curriculum design or research toward a publication. Evenings and weekends are also free for reading and research.

Finally, throughout the month we will host social events for the 25 NEH Summer Scholars, faculty, and staff. For example, the Sunday before the institute begins we will hold an evening mixer at a Flagstaff restaurant so the participants, co-directors, and the first week’s faculty member can get to know one another. Every Sunday evening thereafter we will host another get-together at a local restaurant for the NEH Summer Scholars to meet the next week’s core faculty. Also, every Tuesday evening the faculty member for that week will present a talk at Flagstaff Public Library, an event we encourage all institute participants to attend. Because the City of Flagstaff and the area’s two colleges have many sustainability projects underway, we want to engage them, to extend the reach of the institute’s conversation.

Academic Resources

We’ll leave the classroom to take advantage of northern Arizona’s beautiful weather and attractive facilities.
We’ll leave the classroom to take advantage of northern Arizona’s beautiful weather and attractive facilities.
Flagstaff is home to two large colleges, Northern Arizona University and Coconino Community College. NAU, which expresses its commitment to sustainability studies through several departments and programs, has generously provided lodging and classroom space. The classroom facility offers wireless internet access and most meeting spaces are set up for PowerPoint presentations. Nearly 20,000 students attend NAU, and the college’s faculty and alumni boast more than a few distinguished teachers, nature writers, and conservation voices. A historic campus established in 1899, NAU features a wonderful Special Collections Library and other amenities. On-campus parking passes will be provided for a small fee, as will access to the university’s gymnasium. You can learn more about the many amenities afforded by the university at this link.

Flagstaff Resources

A year after the 2009 institute, Summer Scholars met at Leopold's Shack in Wisconsin to discuss how the institute affected their teaching and research.
A year after the 2009 institute, Summer Scholars met at Leopold's Shack in Wisconsin to discuss how the institute affected their teaching and research.
At more than 7,000 feet, Flagstaff is one of the highest cities in Arizona – less than three hours from Phoenix but 30 degrees cooler. Summer days average 75 to 80 degrees, and are clear and dry. Although Flagstaff is home to about 60,000 people, it still exhibits a small-town atmosphere, and a beautiful historic downtown is just a few minutes’ walk from campus. Here participants will find a wide variety of restaurants, shops, and attractions, including the local public library, where the institute's public talks take place.

Outdoor recreation is one of Flagstaff’s main attractions, and many first-rate museums and other heritage sites are nearby, including the Museum of Northern Arizona, Arizona Historical Society, Riordan Mansion, and Lowell Observatory. In less than two hours you can visit the Grand Canyon, Waputki National Monument, Walnut Canyon, Meteor Crater, and Petrified Forest National Park. Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Indian reservation, is a nearby neighbor. More information about the region’s exciting features can be found here. We’ve also provided additional information about the community, including off-campus lodging opportunities, at this link.

Applicant Profile

Reaching out to the community is part of the institute. The weekly talks draw 60 to 80 people at each event.
Reaching out to the community is part of the institute. The weekly talks draw 60 to 80 people at each event.
The institute is being publicized nationally. Up to 25 college and university faculty will be selected, and each will receive a $3,300 stipend to be applied toward books, transportation, food, and lodging. A sample budget can be found here. Half of the stipend will be available to participants upon arrival in Flagstaff, with the remainder distributed at the midpoint of the institute. We hope to draw faculty from diverse geographic, gender, and ethnic backgrounds. Our selection committee will also take into account experience, hoping to attract both senior professors and emerging scholars. Most importantly, to build a diverse and dynamic learning community, we will make an effort to constitute the institute with representation across the curriculum, including the natural and social sciences, languages and literature, philosophy, history, and the arts. Community college teachers are encouraged to apply, as are independent scholars who work with universities, public agencies, and community groups, such as national parks or museums. Also, up to three graduate students will be selected, so we encourage professors to pass this information on to appropriate students. (Arizona State University graduate students are not eligible.)


Field trips are an important part of the institute. Once again, we’ll visit Arcosanti and learn about “Arcology,” Paolo Soleri’s blend of architecture and ecology.
Field trips are an important part of the institute. Once again, we’ll visit Arcosanti and learn about “Arcology,” Paolo Soleri’s blend of architecture and ecology.
Candi­dates are asked to complete the online IHR application, which is available at this link. The application deadline is March 1, 2011, we will notify you of the selection committee’s decision by April 1, 2011, and your acceptance or refusal is due on or before April 5, 2011. A small pool of applicants may receive notice that they have been placed on tentative status, in case other accepted candidates cancel. The complete packet is due at the ASU Institute for Humanities Research, not NEH, before the deadline date, and all materials should be submitted online rather than as hard copies. Perhaps the most important part of the application is the essay that must be submitted as part of the application, so please read the essay instructions closely. Note that you must also email a copy of the NEH cover sheet only to the Endowment.


Although most activities take place on the NAU campus in Flagstaff, the institute’s sponsor is the Institute for Humanities Research at ASU in Tempe. All communications should be directed to IHR or the co-directors, not NAU. Please email the IHR or call 480-965-3000; you can also use the Contact page to email a form to IHR. The ASU Institute for Humanities Research has supported projects that investigate the humanities and sustainability for several years. Watch a 20-minute video that highlights three projects, including the 2009 NEH Summer Institute on Aldo Leopold, at this link.

The institute’s co-directors Joan McGregor and Dan Shilling look forward to answering any questions you may have about “Rethinking the Land Ethic,” so please do not hesitate to email one or both of us.