Toward a scholarly embrace

Environmental Humanities Initiative brings science and the humanities together
California coast range newts in amplexus. (Photo: http://dipperanch.blogspot.com)

California coast range newts in amplexus. (Photo: http://dipperanch.blogspot.com)

Ambling along the oaky trails at Finley Wildlife Refuge last Saturday morning — one of the first days without rain in a long, long time — my two friends and I paused at the edge of a pond along Woodpecker Loop.  Just under the murky surface, several rough-skinned newts were swimming in slow motion, their bodies undulating in rhythm with the rippling of the water and the dappling of the sun.

“Hey, they have two tails!” Lorraine pointed out. We realized, all at once, that each newt was in fact two newts, one atop the other. These weren’t just newts lazing around in the sun. They were mating. When I got home, I Googled “newt mating.” The term “amplexus” is what biologists call this behavior, which involves a lot of chin rubbing and sometimes goes on for days before the male deposits his sperm to fertilize the female’s eggs. That cold Latin noun seemed like an impoverished descriptor for the dancelike fluidity of the newts’ courtship. And it offers a huge clue to why ordinary people often have a hard time relating to, or believing in, science. Tell someone you witnessed newts in “amplexus” and watch their eyes glaze over. But tell them you saw newts in “embrace” (the English translation of the Latin), and they’ll want to know more. The explanation for the behavior may be biologic. But the pathway to understanding is, for most of us, more poetic.

This, in a nutshell, is the challenge that Kathleen Dean Moore, an environmental philosopher of national reputation, has taken on at Oregon State University. Last night, Moore and her colleagues Allen Thompson (coeditor of Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change just released by MIT Press) and Carly Lettero of OSU’s Environmental Humanities Initiative, hosted more than 40 scientists, graduate students, science educators and science writers on campus for conversation and nascent collaboration. Co-sponsored by OSU’s Research Office, the gathering brought together researchers and scholars to talk creatively about the subject that unites their work: climate change. Scientists of oceans, rivers, forests, mountains, plants and wildlife met scholars of philosophy, history, communications, education and human health, briefly sharing their current research endeavors with one another. Then, over beer, wine and smoked salmon, they began to talk about new ways of thinking about and working on the looming crisis threatening our planet and our survival.

Joking that he was happy to see OSU’s “climate rogue’s gallery” assembled in one place, Rick Spinrad, vice president for research, kicked off the event by saying, “No single discipline can respond effectively alone.”

Moore, coeditor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, expanded on the urgency of talking and working across disciplines, the necessity of merging the empirical and the cultural in both conversation and action. Science is only half of the persuasion equation, she said. To get the average person to believe in climate change and, more importantly, to act on that belief, it’s not enough to pile more and more data onto their plates. Rather, the data (the way the world is) must be linked to values (what we ought to do). This “normative premise” derives from what we care about most deeply. For most of us, Moore said, it’s our children. This shared cherishing of children is the bridge, she said, that can carry us over the political chasm swallowing up so much of our national conversation these days.

“We need to create a global moral consensus that it’s wrong to wreck the world,” Moore told the group. “We have to tell the stories of climate change in ways that make people cry.”

Oceanographer Alan Mix added his voice: “Scientists are admitting that we’re never going to win the argument on a scientific basis — always thinking in terms of evidence, data points and squiggly lines on graphs.”

Moore summed up the event by encouraging “creative collaboration to amplify the social impacts” of scientific discovery. “It’s not enough to just do our own work,” she told the group. “We have to make sure our work is making a difference out in the world.”

What’s needed, she seems to be saying, is a sort of scholarly amplexus: an embrace of the sciences with the humanities toward renewal and restoration of life on Earth.

For more information, contact Carly Lettero, carly.lettero@oregonstate.edu, coordinator of the Environmental Humanities Initiative.

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