The Humanities Must Engage Global Grand Challenges

March 30, 2016

Humans have become a planetary force. According to an ever-growing scientific consensus, human activities are causing unsustainable disruptions to the ecological systems on which all life depends. The fossil-fuel-driven production, distribution, and consumption of goods has altered biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Humans and our domesticated animals now constitute an unprecedented share of the Earth’s zoomass and consume a disproportionate part of the biomass. The result is environmental stress and destruction. Such effects contribute in turn to the exodus of refugees from blighted land and armed conflicts over scarce resources.

But not all the news is bad. Material abundance and technological innovation exist on a scale never before imagined. We enjoy longer, healthier lives. And although these benefits are not equally shared, more and more people experience greater security and comfort than in the past. Whether good or bad, our present age — the Anthropocene — calls for unprecedented responses and responsibilities.

The humanities are needed if we are to succeed in articulating relevant, historically informed, and culturally nuanced responses to grand challenges.
Scientists and engineers describe our era in terms of grand challenges. These are urgent, widely shared problems that call for large-scale, long-term, coordinated responses. They are also great opportunities. We need to develop renewable energy, slow the destruction of ecosystems, and stem the rise of greenhouse gases. We need to ensure adequate, safe, and secure food, water, and shelter. We need to design effective, accessible, and affordable healthcare systems.

But more research and new design, while necessary, will not suffice. For we also face a crisis of meaning, at once political, linguistic, and philosophical. The anodyne “interdisciplinarity” glosses over the need to rethink entrenched disciplinary, ethnic, national, and even natural borders. We must learn how to foster development without adding to environmental decline. And to accomplish all of this, we need to mobilize substantial intellectual, economic, and technological resources. The task before us requires nothing less than restructuring everyday life, the relations among human beings, and dealings between humans and nonhumans.

Where are the humanities in all of this? Earnest hand-wringing over the crisis of the humanities has yielded defenses focusing unpersuasively on the "intrinsic" value of these fields or touting their "practical" value, which often means little more than individual graduates landing high-paying jobs. Such responses have largely ignored today’s grand challenges and the vital role of the humanities in responding to them.

We need a shift in thinking. Fulfilling the United Nations sustainable development goals or the accord reached at the Paris climate talks will require mustering the force of humanistic endeavor. Now, examples certainly exist of the arts and humanities engaging with the broad issues of our day. Think of the STEM to STEAM movement or a play such as David Kaye’s How I Brought Peace to the Middle East. Consider the public thought marathon “A Night of Philosophy” or Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. And of course we could multiply the number of such examples. But within college curricula and research, how are the humanities engaging crucial problems in a focused, discipline-bridging way? This question is urgent because, as scientists themselves increasingly insist, the humanities are needed if we are to succeed in articulating relevant, historically informed, and culturally nuanced responses.

Recent publications by the National Academies Press as well as the National Academy of Engineering’s “Grand Challenges for Engineering” call for engagement across disciplines, and specifically request greater participation by the social sciences and humanities. And recent planetary boundaries research appeals to the humanities and social sciences to address questions of equity, causation, and regional distribution of environmental impact. The role of the social sciences may seem obvious — think of policy work, economic analysis, gauging public attitudes, and understanding social action — and many social scientists have eagerly taken up the challenge.

But what about the humanities? Some extant research and community engagement brings the humanities to bear on grand challenges. However, much more such work is needed: for example, to help persuade a skeptical public that matters of dire importance exist and that the well-being of humans and the planet hangs in the balance. Scientists and engineers remind us again and again that these matters must be understood within broader realms of human concern, like health, vulnerability, sustainability, and the joy of living. These are basic issues of meaning, purpose, and value, questions that the humanities confront. We can thus see underlying all of the other grand challenges the fundamental questions at the heart of humanistic inquiry: Who are we and how ought we to live? And so the humanities also reveal additional grand challenges overlooked by science, engineering, and technology.

Although scientists and policy experts have succeeded in identifying and highlighting many of the major challenges we face, they have devoted less attention to evaluating and ranking them. Yet surely, given limited resources and time, some are more urgent than others. Securing cyberspace means nothing to those without Internet access. The same goes for personalized medicine to those lacking clean water or basic medical care.

In order to decide which challenges call for the most immediate response, we need to ask who we are individually and collectively, what it means to be human, and how best to care for ourselves and our circumstances in order to live as well as possible. These concerns transcend any one tradition or context. They are the concerns of humankind, across the Earth and through the ages. Past responses were largely local and parochial, restricted to individuals or a particular people and place, yet today we face shared global problems that require inclusive and universal strategies.

To confront those problems today we need to reinvigorate and expand the perennial questions of who we are and how best to live. One of the responsibilities of the humanities is to remind a world obsessed with the new and novel that we have much to learn from the past. But we have to adapt perennial questions in ways that fit new contexts. Traditional responses must be made relevant to our unprecedented age.

Today, fundamental questions of who we are and how we ought to live transcend the outmoded divide between nature and culture. Earth itself, as well as future generations, should remain ever present in our deliberations. There is a pressing need for a politics of grand themes. We require a global, eco-cultural awareness that would best allow us to respond collectively and cooperatively to the difficulties before us.

The humanities must take the lead in forming this political consciousness and this eco-cultural awareness. The world needs new narratives capable of situating and conveying to a global audience the challenges we share. Such narratives could direct and motivate action, foster solidarity, and help us reimagine who, when, and where we are: earthbound, sharing a fragile planet and an uncertain future.

Despite the fantasies of some to flee the earth, our destiny resides in learning new ways to share this singular planet and view it not just as a house that holds resources to be consumed but as our home.

Heidi Bostic is director of interdisciplinary programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Baylor University.