Power Down- Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities

January 29, 2016

One of Penn’s newest environmental groups has certainly made a splash, quite literally that is. With innovative projects like Wetland, a sustainable barge, the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) bridges the gap between the sciences and the humanities to foster greater dialogue around sustainability issues.

Make sure to attend PPEH's upcoming event, "Carbon Histories and Post-Carbon Futures", on February 5th. This roundtable discussion will focus on the historic negotiations in Paris and what to expect in the wake of COP21. Focusing on the Philadelphia-Pennsylvania region, panelists will respond to a variety of topics including: the history of energy transitions in Pennsylvania, the science and business of fracking, regional solar policy, and the impacts of air and water quality on public health. 


We sat down with Professor Bethany Wiggin, founder and director for PPEH, to learn more about the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities.

Green Campus Partnership: What is PPEH?

Professor Wiggin: We are the place right now, academically, where people who are interested in humanist approaches to natural questions can come and explore answers. We are working to develop a core group of faculty around these issues as well as building a bank of courses that will, we hope, eventually lead to the creation of a certificate or minor in the Environmental Humanities.

We are student-driven and this year we have three major components. The most central part is our student research fellowships. We have 12 research fellows who are pursuing projects that range from understanding Saudi investment in Dutch natural gas development, to exploring ancient land art.

Secondly, we are running a yearlong series of events under the title Curriculum for the New Normal where we are bringing leading experts from Europe and North America together to discuss various interdisciplinary modes of approaching topics that in the Anthropocene will be increasingly important.

The third and most public part of our program is our artist-in-residency. Together with Mary Mattingly and Bartram’s Garden we have piloted the Wetland project and have attracted a really large public.


GCP: Could you talk more about the project?

Wiggin: Wetland is a really capacious project, which means it can accomplish a lot of different things but it is also difficult to describe. Nominally, it’s a public art project. But it’s at this juncture where art meets science. So it is a floating sculpture that at the same time is a habitable laboratory. It is meant to be a catalyst for citizen art and citizen science projects. One of the things that’s been a real delight this year is to see how this project galvanizes various peoples’ imaginations and largely because it is designed as a public project it is also deeply participatory.


GCP: What did the Wetland experiment teach us about sustainable living as it relates to energy?

Wiggin: It’s certainly applicable on an individual level. You could live in this modified house-boat and you can live completely off the grid and survive in a hotter, wetter Philadelphia with a zero carbon footprint. But it’s not that comfortable and it’s hard.

So perhaps more importantly, Wetland teaches us about the kinds of collaborations and kinds of communities that will need to come together to make this kind of habitation less uncomfortable and more communal and more supported. It teaches us a lot about the various networks of production and consumption that we are all engaged in and how difficult it is to extract yourself from that and live completely off the grid.


GCP: On February 5th, PPEH is hosting a conference exploring the world conference in Paris last December (COP21). Why was Paris so important and what will happen at this event in February?

Wiggin: Paris signals a sea of change in the discussion. Almost every country has recognized that nations must individually do something to bring emissions down. Paris was, in a sense, a motivating call for national and regional action.

The conversation on February 5th is meant to talk about what is already happening in Philadelphia and in the region and to catalyze progress on Penn’s campus to think meaningfully about decreasing the University’s carbon footprint and to increase the knowledge infrastructure on campus needed to make those changes globally.


To RSVP for the event or view more details, please visit here. For more information on PPEH, visit their homepage

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