Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities Is Shaping a New Normal

There’s no doubt about it. Philadelphia weather is getting hotter and wetter each year influencing public concern about climate change. To increase understanding about the issue, a collective of faculty and students at the University of Pennsylvania, with other scholars, artists and scientists near campus and beyond, are working together in the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities.

Launched in 2014, the PPEH is on a mission not only to raise awareness but also to increase engagement in the emerging field of environmental humanities. This spring the PPEH 2015-16 “Curriculum for the New Normal” series of events continues with lectures, forums and field trips to address global-warming topics.

"For decades, scientists have known that global warming endangers humans' — and many other species' — futures," says Bethany Wiggin, founding director of the PPEH and an associate professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. "We have in effect endangered ourselves. But despite years of consensus in the scientific community, the factual story of our warming planet has only recently found an audience.”

She tells her students that the best thing about studying the past is that it helps us recognize how we got where we are today. It reminds us that, like the people and processes we study, we are also historical agents. And that means we have the power to change the path we're on.

And that, she says, is really good news.

“But it will take a path on which we in the academy learn to integrate knowledge across the sciences and the arts,” Wiggins says. “We need to think and to teach our students to think in new ways in these new times.“

Wiggins says that our era is in fact so new that many scientists and humanists believe it merits a new name, the Anthropocene: a time when we humans are the single most powerful geomorphological force.

As part of the “Curriculum for the New Normal” slate of programs, Sverker Sörlin, professor of environmental history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, will give a public lecture, "The Future of Humanity — and the Future of Humanities: Planetary Transformation Agendas and the University in the Anthropocene” on March 29 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Houston Hall’s Ben Franklin Room. Steven Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, will join Sörlin in a moderated discussion afterwards on "Knowledge Infrastructures for the Anthropocene.” The program, which is free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by PPEH, the Perry World House at Penn, the Green Campus Partnership, and the Office of the Dean of Arts & Sciences.

Sörlin is currently working on a project that examines Arctic climate-change models, how they work and how they “travel” or are disseminated through media and political discourse to the public. He is co-editor of The Future of Nature. At Penn, he will also meet with the PPEH Fellows and join a Penn faculty working lunch discussion.

Additional information about PPEH is available at

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