Mellon Initiative Seeds Work in Environments & Societies

Update: The Environments and Societies website is now live at

On a crisp October afternoon, faculty and graduate students from across UC Davis filled Voorhies 126 to hear Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor in Environments & Societies Traci Brynne Voyles present “Unsettling Environmental Justice Studies: Mapping Environment and the Uranium Landscape.” This talk examined the history of the uranium industry on Navajo/Dine land, focusing on the way in which the uranium industry has naturalized environmental injustice at the expense of Navajo lives, lands, and relationship to the environment.

Voyles’ presentation was just the first in a series of events planned by the Mellon Research Initiative in Environments & Societies. Co-directed by Louis Warren, the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History, and Associate Professor of English Michael Ziser, the initiative aims to provide a venue for collaboration and cross-pollination for scholars who define themselves as environmental humanists and social scientists at UC Davis.

In winter and spring quarters, the initiative will host an Environments & Societies Workshop–a weekly colloquium that brings together scholars, journalists and activists whose work represents the best research and writing happening now on environmental questions. Each meeting will feature one invited presenter whose work is pre-circulated for discussion. Winter quarter will also feature an interdisciplinary graduate seminar in environmental literature and history, co-taught by Warren and Ziser.

The initiative has hired Voyles as a visiting assistant professor to help manage the series. With specialties in environmental history, Native American studies, and social justice, Voyles will also teach courses in the UC Davis History Department and present at an upcoming event co-hosted with the Campus Community Book Project regarding environmental injustice and Native American land.

While UC Davis is renowned nationally and internationally for its research in environmental sciences, the campus’s strengths in environmental humanities and social sciences are less widely known. Disciplinary boundaries have sometimes made it difficult for humanities and social science scholars to work together, according to Ziser. The initiative aims to break down these boundaries by providing institutional support for collaboration at the intersection of the environment, social sciences, and humanities.

Such interdisciplinary analysis is crucial, says Ziser, “As Californians face 21st century challenges defined by the collision of industrial, ecological, and cultural systems, the expertise of humanities and social science scholars in analyzing and addressing environmental problems will be of as much importance as the scientific knowledge and techniques that UC Davis already recognizes with institutional support.”

According to Ziser, this winter’s interdisciplinary graduate seminar could provide the template for a regular seminar focusing on environments and societies. While the initiative’s current educational focus is on graduate students, Ziser hopes to create undergraduate courses to replace the now-discontinued Nature and Culture undergraduate major.

The initiative also aims to reach out to the public. “We have a lot of good science in the West, but we’re failing to inform policy, and our public discussions of environmental issues are impoverished” notes Ziser. The collaboration will enrich this public discourse through its speakers series and by potentially establishing an outreach program modeled after the history department’s public history project.

Winter speakers include Sarah Jaquette Ray, Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of the Geography and Environmental Studies BA Program at University of Alaska Southeast.  Her work combines environmental justice literature and theory, human geography, and cultural studies, and she will present “The Ecological Other: Bodies, Nature, and Exclusion.” Valerie Kuletz will present a talk titled “The ‘Elemental’ Problems of Life: Un-Natural Natures in the Age of Fukushima.” Other scheduled speakers include Nancy Peluso, political ecologist and co-director of the Berkeley Workshop on Environmental Politics, and Richard Hiskes, editor of the Journal of Human Rights and Associate Director of the Connecticut Human Rights Institute and scholar of environmental ethics and human rights theory.

The Environments & Societies Mellon Initiative joins Early Modern Studies as one of two three-year research initiatives funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation. With the Early Modern Studies Initiative’s web site already launched, a web presence for Environments & Societies will follow in the coming weeks to broadcast all the great work expected out of the group’s colloquium.