Reconciling the humanities and the sciences

Today marks the start of a major stepĀ in my Bowdoin education: this summer I will live and study in Japan. I am excited and grateful to start my studies in Japan with my classmates in the Japanese program as we explore our research projects on Japan and the environment.

In discussion today, we looked at two foundational articles in environmental history with the goal of getting everyone on equal footing with environmental history terminology and methodology as well as allowing each of us to see how the academic discipline of our individual projects is informed by environmental history, or vice versa. My research topic — the development of Sapporo as a urban space in colonial Hokkaido — is deeply rooted in the discipline of history so it was useful for me to step outside my history bubble, so to speak, and hear what my peers had to say about how reading an historian’s point of view can inform research in the natural sciences. In “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” historian Julia Adeney Thomas encourages scientists to value the work of historians in order to give social, cultural, and political context and relevance to the findings of scientists. I think that thisĀ idea will be a critical point of discussion for us as we not only pursue our individual projects, but also as we attempt to use each other’s work to inform our own projects, whether they are rooted in the sciences or humanities.

Today’s reading also lead us to discussing how humans categorize and interact with nature. Richard White’s “The Problem with Purity” puts nature on a spectrum and somewhere along that spectrum lies purity, where humans fence of nature and conceive it as orderly. Somewhere else on this spectrum is hybridity, where human and natural factors are inextricably mixed to the point that one cannot distinguish between the human and the natural. This idea sets the ground for me to look towards my own project and explore how this spectrum acts in an urban, colonial setting — was Hokkaido a hybrid landscape before the colonial incursion of the young Meiji state? Did Sapporo as an urban space push out nature? I look forward to further discussions this week as we delve into reading about the various environmental issues in Japan, while keeping today’s foundational discussion in mind.