To address climate anxiety, colleges embrace environmental humanities
A dozen Harvard students huddled around a table — their laptops open — trying to find new words to redefine a phenomenon they've seen happening their whole lives: climate change.
That's the assignment on this December morning: invent futuristic words for a world in the throes of climate change.
"Catastrohood," said junior Sabrina Freidus. It's a word describing a particularly tight-knit community formed in response to a disaster.
Other students offered their own: "pralayakam" and "Climate-self" to the delight of English professor Sarah Dimick.
Classes like this one, called Climate Change Literature, are part of the rise of "environmental humanities" majors at United States colleges and universities from Harvard to the University of Wisconsin to UCLA. Wildfires, floods and extreme weather have spurred deep climate anxiety among students who are wrestling with big questions about the future of the planet. Dimick's class, which she created, aims to help students cope through the discussion and dissection of books and creative works.
“Climate change literature is probably the most active element of environmental literature right now," Dimick said. "So I thought it would be exciting to have a course that focused just on the novels and the poems and the essays that are really tackling that head on.”
The shift also comes as fewer college students are majoring in liberal arts subjects, from history and political science, to philosophy and English.
Over the past 20 years, the number of English majors fell by half to 5% of all college graduates.
Skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree is widespread. In 2018, comedian John Mulaney joked on stage about the cost of his English degree from Georgetown.
"I paid $120,000 for someone to tell me to go read Jane Austen and then I didn’t,” he joked in his Netflix special "Kid Gorgeous." “That’s the worst use of a-hundred-and-twenty-grand I can possibly fathom.”
Despite growing skepticism, college humanities programs have been found to still offer value. A 2023 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences said humanities majors incomes are 40% higher than those with a high school degree.
And English professors defend the new environmental humanities courses — as both directly relevant to students' lives and as a way to counteract climate anxiety.
Christina Gerhardt teaches literature, film, art and climate change at the University of Hawai'i, where she initiated the Environmental Humanities program. She said what makes a strong environmental humanities course is one that centers on justice.
“Solutions are really important to counteract any sentiments of climate anxiety that people might be experiencing," Gerhardt said.
Skeptics of such programs said students would be better off with a solid education in hard science that would train them for an environmental career where they could make a difference.
“I think it's fabulous that people are waking up to the concerns about the environment," said Rick Miller, the former president of Olin College in Needham whose background is in engineering.
He predicted that the climate crisis will create many jobs, but most of those careers are going to require “more than having read something about” climate change.
“It’s going to require some science background,” he said. “It’s going to require understanding how to use what you’ve learned to make an impact."
Back in Dimick's classroom, students offered varying reasons for taking the class.
Bioengineering major Shivi Srikanth said she enrolled because it offered balance in her course load.
“Climate change is so nuanced, and I don’t think I could do what I want to do — and do it well — without having a very informed understanding of the multitudes of fields that are impacted by this [climate] phenomenon," she said.
Dimick said it's important for students — regardless of their major or intended career — to be able to identify a problem clearly and with precise language.
Sitting around the small seminar table, Srikanth presented her word:
1. the inner destruction of the self and spirit at the hands of climate change and natural disaster.
The word combined the Sanskrit term pralaya (a Hindu understanding of a far-off apocalypse induced by nature at the end of a period of billions of years) and the Tamil word akam (the poetic interpretation of human emotion).
Dimick described the word as "lovely." After class she said she hoped the exercise helped lighten students' existential dread.
“Oftentimes when you talk with people who are in their undergraduate years, they will say, 'I don't know what to call it, but ...'” she said. “I think being able to be precise about language and being precise about those terms is going to help us achieve efficient solutions.”
Freidus, the inventor of the word "catastrohood" said the course reminded her of the importance of community, which in turn, helped her envision her life after college.
“We are going to encounter a climate disaster — and all the engineers and the scientists, they’re telling us this. But we can’t respond to disasters with numbers,” she said.
“We need to understand how to communicate with each other, how to respond in a way that we would actually be productive," she added, "and the science [alone] obviously isn’t doing that for us."
Junior Cory Beizer said historically what has sparked real change and large social movements has been art and people who are moved by ideas. That's why he created the word:
1. The part of you that is fully aware, entangled and reckoning with the reality of climate change. To avoid being overwhelmed by climate anxiety, most people’s climate-self gets tucked away and placated in favor of the everyday self, but your climate-self takes center stage when talking or thinking deeply about climate change.
Beizer said the underlying science about climate change is important, but it's often in isolation of other disciplines.
“To have a better world that's for everyone, you need everyone's voice, you need everyone's interest,” he said. “People aren't going out on the weekends and reading scientific reports and opening up Nature magazine, but people are opening up a book or a newspaper, and so I think that's what really drives us.”
Like many of her students, Dimick said climate change keeps her up at night.
"It's why I do this job,” she said after class, sitting in her office surrounded by climate change literature like Octavia Butler’s classic science-fiction novel "Parable of the Sower." “I think one of the critical tasks of our times is to imagine a better future."
A first step, she said, is helping young people manage their fears and build the connections they need to feel less alone.
GBH’s Maryann Guerzon contributed to this report
This story was originally published by GBH. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.