Ken Hiltner created the Environmental Humanities Initiative to teach students and staff how they can use the humanities to understand our environment and mitigate climate change. 

Ken is a Professor of English and Environmental Science at UC Santa Barbara. He holds a PhD in English from Harvard University, a master’s degree from Rutgers University, and has achieved a number of distinctions, including the Bowdoin Prize and the Harvard English Prize fellowship for four consecutive years. At UCSB, he has served as Director of the Literature and the Environment Center, Director of the Early Modern Center and Director of Graduate Studies for the English Department. He has also contributed to a guide on how to host a nearly carbon neutral professional conference at a university or another similarly sized institution.

To learn more about Ken visit his website.

Ken is using literature and the humanities to examine climate change issues in a new light.

Unlike most people researching climate change, Ken is not a scientist. While he believes that hard science is the foundation for making sustainable choices, he studies the humanities to explore how humans perceive the environment and climate change issues. Ken believes that the humanities can provide something that science cannot — inspiring new human behavior and cultural shifts.

As an example of this approach, Ken wrote his master’s thesis and a 300-page book on John Milton — a 17th century writer — who explored the intersection of ecology and humanities. He teaches a class on literature and the environment that explores environmental activism through cultural artistic works.

Ken created the UCSB Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) to connect humanities students and staff to environmentalism. Rather than approaching the topic through scientific data and laboratory research, EHI encourages faculty and students to discuss literature and cultural works that have contributed to current ideas about the environment and environmental activism. For people not studying or teaching in STEM fields, this can be a much more useful way to look at climate change that can be integrated into their own areas of expertise.

Over 70 faculty from 24 different departments teach 300 undergraduate and graduate students interdisciplinary, environmental humanities courses. UCSB has a variety of environmental humanities resources including a visual art gallery, a film library and a list of essential texts.

Environmental Humanities Initiative
in Action

Ken and some of his students toured Fairview Gardens in Goleta as part of his course “The Rhetoric of the Anthropocene and Climate Change.”



What is a common misperception from non-scientists about climate research?

Many people assume that climate research is limited to the sciences and that this is, accordingly, mainly a problem for scientists. While it would be terrific if this were an issue that could be tackled and resolved through some tour de force application of science and new technology, the fact is that our planet’s climate is being changed by a range of human activities, which is why we rightly call it anthropogenic climate change. The individuals who best understand why human beings do what they do – scholars from across the humanities and social sciences – can accordingly do much to help mitigate climate change when the application of science and technology alone is simply insufficient. It is also clear that the humanities cannot do this alone. It is, to adapt C. P. Snow’s famous phrase, a true “two-culture” project involving both the sciences and humanities. Ideally, a feedback loop should exist by way of a dialogue between the two cultures whereby 1) each informs the other of what is needed and possible and 2) in turn each directs its special skills to the issues. The EHI was created in order to foster this sort of interdisciplinary discussion. Our nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference model is an example of this approach.

What is the most rewarding part about being a Sustainability Champion?

UCSB is home to more than 70 faculty members who teach courses and do groundbreaking research in the environmental humanities. Consequently, thousand of UCSB students have taken courses in the environmental humanities in recent years. The best part about working to create our Environmental Humanities Initiative was getting to know these colleagues and students better.

What do you hope your project contributes to your university, the UC-system, and society?

In general, my hope is that the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) will continue to offer real-world solutions to climate problems. For example, the EHI’s most recent project involves academic flying and climate change. Roughly a third of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for UCSB – 55,000,000 pounds of CO2 or equivalent gasses – currently comes from air travel to conferences, meetings, and the like. Putting 55 million pounds of CO2 into human terms, this is equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in India. Note that this is more than UCSB’s undergraduate, graduate, and faculty populations combined. In response to this staggering problem, the Environmental Humanities Initiative has developed an online, nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference model that reduces GHG emissions to less than 1% of a conventional event. My goal was not only to make a study of the suite of practices that constitute the traditional academic conference, but to then apply what we had learned to bring about a shift in them. I see such “applied humanities” projects as important to the future of our profession – and planet. As a proof of concept, we staged a conference on this model in May of 2016 and another in October and November. Because our approach made travel unnecessary (the talks were pre-recorded; the Q&A sessions online and interactive – which differs significantly from a typical teleconference or webinar), these two conferences alone reduced UCSB’s GHG emissions in 2016 by nearly a quarter of a million pounds.

What is one thing you want to tell non-scientists about climate change?

Although climate change is an overwhelming issue, the fact is that we can all do our part to help mitigate it, as human behavior is centrally important here. For example, a single transcontinental flight releases one metric ton of CO2 per coach passenger, which climate scientists inform us is the total annual recommended emissions for each person on the planet. There is simply no way that a single person can do more in a short period of time to accelerate climate change than air travel. As 19 out of 20 people on the planet will never step foot into an airplane, traveling by air puts us in a very rarified group indeed. If we were to equate this to ground transportation, we would not be among those walking, biking, or using mass transit, or even those carpooling in hybrid cars. We would be the solitary SUV drivers. Limiting our personal air travel is just one example of what we can do to seriously help mitigate climate change.



Created a nearly carbon neutral conference model for professional and academic conferences to reduce emissions and energy usage normally generated by these events

Established the Environmental Humanities Initiative with programming and resources for UCSB and the broader community

• Developed coursework to look at the connections between literature and ecology

"Many people assume that climate research is
limited to the sciences and that this is,
accordingly, mainly a problem for scientists."
To get involved, contact us



Ken discusses his work with the Milton Society of America and how scholars can make old books and manuscripts interactive and accessible in digital formats.