Researching AUM - Seth Reno merges the sciences and the arts

Seth Reno in his AUM office. 

The area of environmental humanities is a relatively new academic field.

“It draws from literature, history, philosophy, and the ecological sciences to understand how humans have represented and interacted with nature and the environment at different moments in history,” explains Seth Reno, an associate professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of English and Philosophy.

His research focuses mainly on the eighteenth century to the present.

“I’m really interested in how literature, art, and other forms of writing influence how we think about the natural world,” said Reno. “I grew up in a rural area of Ohio with a huge cornfield as my backyard surrounded by wooded areas and much of my childhood and high school years were spent outdoors. So I’ve always been invested in the importance and beauty of the natural world.”

Dr. Reno emphasizes the urgent need to protect and preserve Earth in all its diversity.

“I believe climate change is the biggest challenge we face in the twenty-first century, but people have recognized and written about it for hundreds of years – really, since the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. But the kinds of debates and problems we see today are certainly more dire now.”

Reno’s current book project titled “Representing the Anthropocene, 1750-1884,” is a literary and artistic history of the early Anthropocene, a proposed name for our current geological epoch – a subdivision of the geologic timescale.

“Several geologists and climate scientists proposed this name about twenty years ago, and they’re still debating on the exact dating,” explained Reno.

While some scientists have suggested the Anthropocene time frame should start in the mid-twentieth century, Reno favors the mid-eighteenth century.

“That was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the start of the fossil fuel era,” he said. “Anthropocene translates as ‘the age of humans’ and it began when human activities started to have a noticeable and traceable impact on Earth’s ecosystems. You might also say it corresponds with the era of global warming.”

More locally, Reno began a group called the Alabama Symposium on Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Studies in 2014 where faculty and students from universities across the state meet for a one-day symposium on a topic relevant to that period. The group plans to meet at AUM in the fall.

“However, the coolest thing that I’ve done as a scholar was to deliver a keynote lecture at an international conference on Wild Romanticism at the University of Tromso in Norway in 2018,” he recalled. “It’s the northernmost university in the world, over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I delivered a lecture on geology, poetry, and volcanoes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

Reno also brings his expertise to the classroom.

“I want to show my students how writings from the eighteenth century are really quite modern and can tell us a lot about ideas and debates today.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).