Investigating and Responding to the Environmental Challenges of our Time
by Sarah Steimer
“CEGU faculty are creating a vibrant, multidisciplinary platform for environmental social science and environmental humanities that is inspiring for students from across campus, and also in the broader public spheres connected to the University,” says Neil Brenner, the Lucy Flower Professor of Urban Sociology and CEGU Chair.
The re-envisioned committee brings together academics from across SSD, the Humanities Division, and beyond to support research and teaching in this rapidly growing field.
“Across the Divisions of Social Sciences and Humanities, the massive scholarly capacities and creative energies in these fields have been relatively fragmented. CEGU seeks to build upon departmental and disciplinary strengths in environmental studies while creating new intellectual synergies and opportunities for collaboration, at once in research, teaching, and public engagement,” says Brenner.
According to Sabina Shaikh, Associate Senior Instructional Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in CEGU, the committee’s momentum is reflected in the large number of existing social sciences and humanities faculty who have committed to the endeavor.
Among their diverse disciplinary backgrounds and research agendas, the CEGU faculty share a concern to channel their work collaboratively toward a deeper understanding of contemporary environmental crises. The triad of environment, geography, and urbanization around which CEGU’s work is framed reflects the faculty’s common research concerns as well as their desire to engage with questions of practice in an open-ended, holistic manner.
“Conducting scholarly research on socio-environmental transformations and crises requires us to analyze and criticize the dominant approaches to practice in these fields,” Shaikh says.
CEGU builds on the University’s legacy in geographical studies by a reshaping of the long-standing Committee on Geographical Studies, itself derived from the University’s Department of Geography, which was one of the world’s leading centers for work in the discipline during the post-World War II period.
CEGU remains strongly grounded in spatial approaches to socio-historical processes, adding an explicit focus on the geographies of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other forms of socio-environmental transformation and crisis.
CEGU also builds on the University’s strengths in urban studies as cities and metropolitan regions will continue to be central foci for many of its faculty and students, especially in relation to the environmental dimensions and impacts of urbanization. Several faculty are exploring the connections between urbanization processes and other key arenas of socio-environmental transformation in the modern world, such as agrarian restructuring, extraction, logistics systems, energy regimes, population displacement and migration, and the degradation of the biosphere through pollution.
The committee’s work is animated by scholarly concerns, but is also a direct response to the growth of student interest in environmental questions. Among other agendas, CEGU’s faculty are especially concerned to interrogate and reinvent inherited frameworks for the study of society and environment.
Currently, CEGU supports 118 majors and 32 minors in Environmental and Urban Studies, and is preparing to expand its undergraduate program in response to intensifying student interest in such issues. The curriculum is being updated to reflect the expanded faculty’s breadth of expertise and to ensure that CEGU majors acquire appropriate foundational knowledge for work in this field.
The committee is a draw for undergraduates who are interested in, as Shaikh explains, bringing their interests and activism to their studies at UChicago. She notes that they’ve watched as the world has sought to address environmental problems using existing frameworks and structures, whether through advanced technology, market-based processes, or public policy. But, she says, many students see it as a problem at a completely different scale — and the impacts and outcomes have been constructed by the same structures being used to attempt to solve them.
“They’re embedded in the struggle, and they’re looking to draw upon social science and humanistic knowledge to decipher current conditions and to critically assess current approaches to dealing with environmental crises,” she says. “So here’s a program that’s really suited to seeking out alternative approaches, ideas, methods that goes beyond disciplines.”
CEGU is working to expand its community studies and experiential learning dimension to the program in collaboration with Chicago Studies and other partners on campus, not only in relation to Chicago and the Great Lakes region but through new study-abroad initiatives. The committee has recently appointed a new instructional professor as the director of community studies and is developing a new capstone track as an immersive field study and experience.
CEGU will continue to foster and enhance undergraduate research opportunities and internships with campus partners, including the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation and the Office of Career Advancement.
A new CEGU doctoral certificate is also expected to launch during the current academic year, enabling doctoral students in the humanities and the social sciences — and possibly from other units — to take courses and develop specialized knowledge in environmental studies, and to apply the latter in advanced research.
“A large number of the faculty in CEGU believe that our capacity to understand the origins and consequences of contemporary planetary environmental emergencies is constrained by inherited frameworks of understanding,” Brenner says.
“Thus, in the course of our research and teaching, many of our faculty are exploring new ways of thinking about society and nature, not as separate ‘spheres’ that interact, but as co-produced dimensions of planetary life, both human and non-human. Such re-conceptualizations may have significant implications for our understanding of contemporary environmental crises, and may also contribute to the development of new strategies for confronting the latter.”
In addition to this year’s current program plans, the committee is gearing up for the future. CEGU’s faculty will be expanded as additional scholars working on socio-environmental transformations, especially from Humanities, join. New instructional faculty positions in environmental design and earth science are also planned. There are aspirations related to the eventual formation of research labs or longer term collaborative research projects among faculty, postdoctoral researchers and doctoral students.
“Given the existential urgency of contemporary environmental crises, our goal is to take into the classroom some of the most exciting and generative ideas that are emerging from cutting-edge research in environmental social science and humanities,” Brenner says. “We want to provide our students with all the resources they might need and more, through which to develop their own critical capacities for understanding the environmental crises of our time — and, we expect, for contributing to ongoing, collective efforts to confront them.”