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New Global Environmental Studies Program at the Kennedy Center

We are excited to announce the creation of a new academic program at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies: Global Environmental Studies. This program will prepare students to work on solutions to environmental problems by offering an interdisciplinary minor that combines coursework from a variety of fields, including biology, political science, chemistry, English, geology, history, and plant and wildlife science.

Comparative Arts and Letters professor George Handley, who will be the program’s first faculty coordinator, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the minor. “I’m thrilled we have this program,” he says. “I feel passionately that this is an important step the university has taken in creating this program.”

Quinn Mecham, Associate Director for Academics and Research at the Kennedy Center, anticipates that “this will be a really attractive minor program for students in almost any major who care about environmental issues”—not just for Kennedy Center and humanities students. Students in fields as varied as law, business, arts, engineering, and education will find this program a vital step in preparing them to create professional and personal lives that include consideration for environmental issues.

Environmental Studies at BYU

According to Dr. Handley, the creation of this minor has been a long time coming. “Interdisciplinary conversations about the environment on this campus have been happening for many years,” he says, “but there has never been a program home for it. Certainly, a lot of science programs have looked at environmental topics—we’ve had environmental science as a program on campus for a long time—but we have never really crossed those interdisciplinary bridges on campus in any formal institutional way.” By “interdisciplinary,” he explains, he refers to the bridge between the sciences, humanities, and the social sciences.

Though his background is in comparative literature, his interest in environmental studies was piqued early in his career when, as a new professor at Northern Arizona University, he was challenged to incorporate principles of sustainability in his teaching. “Later,” he says, “I heard a lecture by a literature professor who completely persuaded me that I had been thinking about literature in an insufficient way, because I hadn’t seen how relevant literature was to environmental values and behavior.” When he was hired at BYU in 2001, he started researching and eventually teaching in that area. All the while, his own research and writing was increasingly focusing the environment, especially in relation to the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He also got involved in city government—he’s been on the Provo City Council for six years—where he often deals with environmental issues.

Since the 1990s, the fields of ecocriticism and environmental humanities has been growing worldwide. “There are programs studying literature that emphasize environmental humanities all over,” he says. “There are special programs and journals in environmental humanities. It’s international now.” Dr. Handley has seen a similar increase in interest in environmental studies across BYU campus, from both students and faculty. “I’ve been here 25 years, and it feels to me that faculty are getting hired every year on this campus with environmental interest from disciplines I never would’ve imagined.”

Some of the earliest attempts to get an interdisciplinary environmental studies dialogue going at BYU involved the Kennedy Center: in 2011, Dr. Handley and other professors created the Environmental Ethics Initiative and coordinated with the Kennedy Center on projects such as lecture series and symposia. "So," says Dr. Handley, “when we started saying ‘We really need a formal program,’ the Kennedy Center was always, in our minds, the natural place for it. This goes back to when Renata Forste was the director; she made it clear to me and a handful of other faculty that if we were going to do this, the Kennedy Center was keenly interested in being our host.”

The COVID pandemic put the process on hold, but this Fall semester, more than ten years after the first collaboration between the Environmental Ethics Initiative and the Kennedy Center, the Global Environmental Studies program will be officially offered here at the Center.

Environmental and International Studies

To Stan Benfell, director of the Kennedy Center for International Studies, the Global Environmental Studies program is an excellent fit for the Center. “The Kennedy Center programs are interdisciplinary and international in scope,” he says. “The new Global Environmental Studies program fits both of these characteristics.”

First, he says, “Obviously, environmental issues transcend national and international boundaries.”

“Anybody can recognize that environmental issues obviously always have their local manifestation,” Dr. Handley adds, “but there’s an international dimension to most of them.”

Second, the new Global Environmental Studies program will fit well with the interdisciplinary nature of Kennedy Center programs: “While we certainly need scientific disciplines to understand the environment,” says Dr. Benfell, “we need other disciplines to understand our relationship to the environment. We know, for example, that environmental questions become heavily political as we decide as a society how we should treat the environment in which we live. Furthermore, the way that we think about and interact with the environment depends heavily on the stories we tell about it, and so the Humanities also have an important role in considering our relationship to the environment. In other words, only a fully interdisciplinary approach can begin to tackle the complexities of the human relationship to our environment.”

Dr. Handley agrees, stating that the new program will be able to facilitate the interest shown in environmental issues across many fields at BYU, from business to engineering to life sciences to fine arts. This is important, he says, because “environmental problems won’t get solved in vacuums or in silos or by one discipline. They really have to involve dialogue across the disciplines.”

To demonstrate the interdisciplinary approach needed to tackle environmental issues, he uses the example of public lands: “If we’re going to talk about public lands, we need a public policy person; we need someone who understands soil science and climate impacts on desert areas in Utah, we need someone who knows native American cultures and history. Any major environmental problem has four to six major disciplines that are needed to be brought to bear to really solve the problem.”

He hopes the program will be a launching point for students: “We want to make this the point of departure for them, where they can really think broadly and outside of the traditional parameters and disciplines, to really understand how to solve a lot of the problems we’re dealing with.”

Dr. Benfell is excited for the new perspectives and areas of study the new program will bring to the Kennedy Center. “Most of our programs depend most heavily on disciplines found in the colleges of Humanities and of Family, Home, and Social Sciences,” he observes. “I’m looking forward to having another program that also draws extensively on STEM disciplines. In addition, questions addressed in GES will be of obvious interest to each of our programs, as each of them to some degree must grapple with the environmental challenges of our day and how they affect a certain part of the world.”

Dr. Mecham agrees: “We anticipate that bringing students of environmental studies into our ongoing discussions of international affairs will enrich the quality of our campus dialogues. Geopolitics, culture, and environment have great intersections and we look forward to incorporating more environmental questions into our lecture series and research areas.”

Why Environmental Studies?

So why should students and faculty be interested in getting involved in environmental studies? Dr. Mecham says, “We are all so impacted by the environment that we live in and we are so interconnected across countries through our interaction with the environment. It’s really important to see the interactions between our local environment and our global relationships.”

Dr. Benfell adds, “One of the most frequent types of news stories this summer concerns what are often called extreme weather events. July, I recently read, will most likely go down as the hottest month in recorded history. In addition, we have seen flooding in Vermont, wildfires in Canada (whose smoke has impacted the United States), extreme heat in Europe and Asia, etc. It is urgent that we gain a better understanding of our changing environment and how human beings should respond to it.”

To Dr. Handley, who has dedicated so much of his professional and personal life to environmental studies, the reasons are many: “First,” he says, “I would point to our faith tradition. I think the theology of the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is radically original and insightful and desperately needed in helping people have guiding principles to help them think about the environment. I don’t think Latter-day Saints have any excuse to ignore the environment.” He points out that Joseph Smith restored three accounts of the creation: the endowment ceremony, the Book of Abraham, and the Book of Moses. “Each has very important restored doctrinal principles that make a strong case for the centrality of the creation in our understanding of who we are and what we understand our purpose is on this earth.” There have been a number of landmark talks about environmental stewardship at General Conference in recent years, he says, but the topic doesn’t always get the focus it deserves from members of the Church. “I feel like environmental stewardship is deeply embedded in our theology and our doctrine, but it needs a little rescue and dusting off because it’s not gotten the attention it needs.”

He also points to the importance of being equipped to tackle the many (and increasing) problems the environment is facing. “I don’t think any student should graduate from this university without some fundamental understanding of the nature of the problems we face as a global community and without having the resources to be a part of the solution. And I think environmental studies as an interdisciplinary framework is a really unique way to begin to put together the broad kind of thinking that’s going to be important to solving problems in the future.”

Environmental Studies also prepares students for future educational, professional, and civic work. Where graduate schools are concerned, he says, “having an interdisciplinary framework that you bring to that advanced study is what those kinds of programs want right now.” And when it comes to life after school, he says that those skills are what are society needs: “Wherever you go, if you have a background in environmental studies, you’ve got a set of tools that you’re going to be able to use to really be effective; you’ll have good critical thinking skills, communications skills, and literacy in science and humanities—enough to make sure that those two sides of our brain our working together.”

The program will also prepare students to make certain important ideas and solutions are heard: “Science is all about information and knowledge, but most scientists will agree that throwing more data at people doesn’t necessarily persuade them of certain realities; you have to learn how to speak their language, their culture, their values. We need artists, we need people in communications, we need people in law, we need people in government, we need people in business, and we need people in education who understand how to communicate about environmental issues, if we’re going to get out of the problems we’re in.”

Want to get involved?

If this interests you, get in contact! Says Dr. Handley, “I would say to any faculty that don’t know about us and want to be affiliated: reach out to me. We want this to be a big tent; we want to make sure everyone is included; we want as much involvement across campus as possible.”

For interested students, reach out to Dr. Handley or visit Kennedy Center Advisement (801-422-3548, 273 HRCB) to learn more about this new minor. And consider signing up for the Introduction to Global Environmental Studies class, offered this fall, to learn more about this new program.