Humanities: bringing a different—and necessary—perspective to the global issue of Food, Water and Sustainability

A portion of Min Wang's slide from her 3MT presentation for the Food, Water and Sustainability session of the McDonnell Academy Symposium
A portion of Min Wang's slide from her 3MT presentation for the Food, Water and Sustainability session of the McDonnell Academy Symposium

By Min (Margaret) Wang, McDonnell Scholar from Arts & SciencesChinese and Comparative Literature (PhD)

I was very lucky and honored to participate in the 3MT—Three Minute Thesis— competition on the McDonnell Academy Symposium theme of Food, Water, and Sustainability. As the only presenter from the Humanities, I was indeed worried but at the same time excited to bring a different perspective to the discussion.

I spoke about world literature on the problem of unsustainable development and expressed my wish that literature could perform a more active role in addressing these global challenges.

With 70 percent of the symposium attendees being from natural science and perhaps 29 percent from social science, I knew that the small percentage of people from the Humanities needed to count on the  open-mindedness of the other attendees.

I was happy and relieved to receive encouragement and some very interesting comments on my presentation from several scientists. It is an optimistic sign that people began to see the possibility of cooperation across the boundary between the Humanities and the Sciences.

Literature can hardly contribute directly to increasing food production or establishing new models of sustainable development. Yet we have the power of heart-wrenching tears and imagination that knows no limit.

Literature is able to reach audiences from diverse backgrounds, present the fruits of scientific research in an approachable way, and offer inspirations for new scientific explorations.

Nevertheless, having read a bunch of literary works that attempted, but failed in realizing these possibilities, I understand that literature cannot rely only on the open-mindedness of scientists to claim its place in addressing these global challenges.

Many writers, in terms of understanding these global problems, are still staying on a superficial level, mainly because of the limit of their knowledge.

It is not easy to for writers and literary scholars to cross the disciplinary boundaries and learn science, but efforts must be made for the sake of progress.

The McDonnell Symposium is an excellent opportunity, especially for scholars from the Humanities, to broaden our horizons, reflect on these global challenges, and think seriously about what we can do to make a real presence. It is actually not difficult to draw connections between the Humanities and the Sciences if we get to know each other more closely and break away with the stereotypical images of other disciplines in our mind.

For instance, I considered scientific research as rather specialized in each individual field while literature as more inclusive in its perspective into social issues. Yet during the session on Food, water, and sustainability, I found the strong repercussion of literature’s inclusiveness in the comprehensive approach that more and more scientists have adopted to address the concerns about food and sustainability. What the scientists are doing now is not merely doing experiments in their labs. They are going into different realms of the society and seeking for cooperation among academic, governmental, as well as private institutions.

It is indeed time for scholars and students of the Humanities to go out of our library, join our colleagues of Sciences, and contribute to solving global problems that are related with every one of us.

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