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Southern Appalachian Student Conference on Literature

Department of Literature and Language

Keynote Speaker

Dr. Daniel Helbert will present "Premodern Environmental Humanities: Or, How Literary Studies Can Save the World." 

Dr. Daniel Helbert

Daniel Helbert currently teaches literature, writing, and humanities at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He earned his PhD in English from the University of British Columbia (2016), his MA from Virginia Tech (2011), and his BA from UVA-Wise (2009). Dr. Helbert’s research specialties are the comparative literatures of the British Middle Ages and Environmental Humanism. He is currently working on two book projects: one on the development of the British Arthurian legend along the border between England and Wales titled The Arthur of the March of Wales, and another an environmental history of the mould-board plow within medieval intellectual discourse, titled Ideological Plowshares: Enviro-cultural Catastrophe in the Middle Ages. He has published on both topics in Arthuriana: The Journal of Arthurian Studies and Studies in Medievalism among other venues; and has presented on these topics internationally.

Abstract:  "Premodern Environmental Humanities: Or, How Literary Studies Can Save the World"

The “Anthropocene” will soon be the official geological epoch in which we live; the Working Group on the Anthropocene within the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) has recommended a change to the official International Chronostratigraphic Chart in order to recognize the alteration of the planet by humans on a geological scale. At the same time, however, Environmental Scientists have already predicted the end of this newly christened geological epoch: the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, caused by a human-driven environmental catastrophe.

Scientists have told us how we got to this point, and they have even told us how it is likely to play out and how we might mitigate the damage of this catastrophe. With their legions of white-coated, beaker-wielding soldiers in their multi-million dollar labs, they have described in intimate detail the evidential particulars of the environmental crises for carbon-based life forms to the fourth decimal point—the when, the what, the who. What they cannot tell us—where their data-driven divinations fall short—is the why. To understand the “human-driven” portion of the phrase “human-driven environmental catastrophe,” they must ultimately defer to another field.

Environmental Humanities, and especially literary studies therein, seek to fill precisely this gap. Imaginative literature is, without question, the most consistent expression of the human conscience and its collective culture throughout the Anthropocene—it is the cleanest window into the culturally-sanctioned ideologies which begat and drove environmental crises throughout history and into our contemporary era. This talk will outline the broad ways in which literary studies can provide a much-needed humanistic context to human-driven environmental disaster, with a particular focus on environmental literary studies from the historical period most responsible for the confines and characteristics of our current anthropocentric culture: the European Middle Ages.

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