Desert Humanities Origin Story

Here is the background vision and thinking that has made Desert Humanities possible. This is part of a document written by environmental faculty at ASU who proposed this initiative in the Fall of 2018.

Attending to ASU’s place in the Sonoran Desert, its longstanding institutional investments in sustainability and planetary thinking, its strengths in the environmental humanities and its diversity of faculty and students, the Desert Humanities initiative is charged with inventing a new model for the interdisciplinary practice of the humanities. At the heart of the Desert Humanities project is the insight that inquiry rooted in the local (our Sonoran biome) immediately scales up to the global (dwelling within climate extremes worldwide), the planetary (climate change means hundreds of cities will soon face the challenges that Phoenix already does), and the cosmic (the desert has long been a place for experimenting with what makes a life on any planet survivable). The initiative aims to intervene in conversations about climate change, living in extremes and inclusive community by making clear how central the humanities are to the articulation of a humane and just future. 

Overview

A domain of extremes, the desert challenges its inhabitants to imagine (1) what a good life consists of; (2) how to practice a sustainable and equitable mode of living that life, paying careful attention to the long history of human cultures attempting just that; (3) the relation of art and story to the creation of both. It’s not a coincidence that the Hebrew bible and works like the Epic of Gilgamesh – the texts that gave us the foundations for many of the stories we tell today about survival during difficult times  – came into being in the desert. It’s also where the western canon interacts in complicated ways with the stories and art of the American Southwest’s indigenous peoples. 

The desert is the future. According to the UN, 40 percent of the world’s population (about 3 billion people) now live in water-scarce regions, and desertification will impact hundreds of world cities in the years ahead as the climate warms. The Desert Humanities is historical and forward-looking, local and global at once.

Creating Knowledge for Desert Futures

The future is the desert. Even as oceans rise, scientific consensus points to steady increases in catastrophic weather events and scarcities in water that will threaten billions across the Earth. Phoenix offers a glimpse of conditions to come, and provides a unique opportunity to figure out how to manage ecological stressors equitably. Science and engineering are necessary but not sufficient measures to grapple with life lived within extremes. We have an equal need for the humanities. Extremes of climate and extremes of culture (including the polarization now besetting the United States and abroad) historically arrive hand in hand. To live in the desert, to build resilient and just communities when resources diminish and careful management becomes imperative, to guard against violence and enable sustainable futures for diverse populations: these goals require that we pay close attention to long duration history, the human imagination and its expression, and modes of collective wellbeing – that is, the domains to which the humanities devote their energy. Understanding ethics, society, the arts, the movement of ideas (innovative as well as toxic), cultural difference, religion and tolerance at a time of extremes is at the heart of the socially engaged humanities. The Sonoran Desert and its communities are a laboratory for their practice and scalability. In collaboration with partners across ASU and worldwide, the Desert Humanities initiative aims to map a collective road forward that ensures our shared future is a humane one.

The Desert Humanities initiative is an ASU endeavor with global significance, relating questions being asked throughout the university’s schools and units to cutting-edge humanities work across discipline, time period, and expertise. Spurred by the urgent problems of the Anthropocene, the initiative integrates place-based research as part of its identity, and incorporates desert based inquiry and pedagogy into the core of its mission. Housed in the Institute for Humanities Research, the initiative also fulfills the IHR’s founding mandate of fostering transdisciplinary research that changes the world. With its doors open to all ASU students and faculty, the initiative collaborates deeply and continuously with centers and schools across the university, strengthening each through alliance. Offering a new model for how to practice the humanities in the century ahead, the initiative, in short, offers a signature ASU model for converging and reinventing fields.

Impact

ASU’s Desert Humanities initiative’s mission is specific and inclusive, focusing upon collaboration and community-building as the best means of producing new knowledge. The initiative offers a space where a scholar studying the Hebrew Bible can have a transformative conversation with a group that includes a local artist creating public murals in Tempe, a professor who works on environment and race, a historian of indigenous waterways, a researcher who studies community resilience in relation to public storytelling, and a scientist who charts the possibilities of life on dry and distant planets. These artists and scholars are asking related questions. The collaborations that begin here will be brought to the wider public in multiple forms; every desert humanities project is also an engaged and responsive public humanities project. The initiative does not aspire to universal answers, but instead develops methods that can be used to explore thespecificities of other extreme locales with their cultures, stories, and technologies, building local sustainabilities for global futures.

Deserts are demanding and pose large questions to us—questions that invite ecological solutions at scale. With this simple yet fundamental frame in mind, the Desert Humanities initiative explores our cultural comportment within the environment of the arid Southwest and innovates ways of reconfiguring habits of living that determine our wellbeing and how we bear upon this world. The expectations we have about how we live our daily lives are determined by culture and by place—the implicit and explicit stories we tell ourselves here about who we are individually and as a people. How we dwell in the desert tells us what we value about this environment; it determines the commodities we buy, the food we eat, the transportation we take, and the energy we use. It also yields consequences unevenly distributed across economic and racial groups (consequences that ASU through its charter has long positioned itself to address).

Unlike many research clusters and initiatives, the Desert Humanities initiative unites diverse ASU units in a shared endeavor, the invention of a new way of thinking that honors our desert location and participates in solving the most pressing issues of our day. The Desert Humanities aspire, in other words, to be at the very heart of a future-looking, resilient humanities worldwide.