EnviroLab Asia: A Liberal Arts Approach to Studying Environmental Issues in Asia

By Karin Mak

In May 2017, the undergraduate consortium of five liberal arts colleges collectively known as the Claremont Colleges (Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, Pitzer College, Pomona College, and Scripps College), received a $1.4 million grant to support “EnviroLab Asia,” an initiative aimed to create spaces that generate new knowledge about environmental issues in Asia. Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation’s Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE) Program, EnviroLab Asia encourages humanities and social science faculty to work closely with faculty from the sciences to produce new research and classes on environmental issues in East and Southeast Asia. It embodies a liberal arts approach to learning about Asia and the environment. The cross-disciplinary framework, close collaborations between faculty and students, and experiential learning are hallmarks of the program. EnviroLab Asia is led by Albert L. Park (History, Claremont McKenna College), Branwen Williams (Environmental Sciences, Keck Sciences), and Marc Los Huertos (Environmental Analysis, Pomona College).

The program began in 2015 under an Exploration grant also funded by LIASE. EnviroLab Asia created opportunities for faculty to integrate environmental issues of Asia into their classes. Students and faculty also worked closely in research clusters, and met with artists, scholars, and activists engaged with environmental issues in Asia.

This next phase of the grant enables greater room for collaboration and experimentation for faculty research that will enrich the learning environment for students at the Claremont Colleges. According to Co-Principal Investigator Albert Park, Professor of History of Japan and Korea at Claremont McKenna and an AAS member, the impetus behind creating EnviroLab Asia was the desire to provide opportunities for faculty to conduct cross-disciplinary research. “Talking with my colleagues trained in the sciences while building this initiative has really changed and challenged the way I think, and has enriched my research and teaching,” says Park. He adds, “Faculty research at liberal arts institutions is sometimes overlooked, but with EnviroLab Asia, our premise is that faculty research not only pushes research boundaries to create new knowledge but also enhances teaching.” With that in mind, EnviroLab Asia includes opportunities for social science/humanities faculty to create their own research lab with colleagues from the sciences. “They develop their proposal so they have room to experiment and try different approaches,” says Park.

Faculty research and student collaboration are also connected through the Clinic Trip, a cornerstone component of the program. The trip enables faculty and students to travel to Asia to conduct research. In January of 2016, eight faculty and nine students from the Claremont Colleges joined six faculty, eight students, and one staff member from Yale-NUS College in Singapore to witness how issues of the environment connected with those of development, sustainability, deforestation, food systems, and human rights. In Malaysian Borneo, they met with indigenous communities opposing a proposed dam, visited a palm oil plantation, and took scientific measurements along the Baram River. [See a Flickr album of photos from the Borneo Clinic Trip here.] In Singapore, they met with palm oil companies and also visited organic farms.

Listening directly to people impacted by environmental issues was a transformative experience for participants. Pomona College student Ki’Amber Thompson recalls, “Experiencing some of the environmental issues first-hand, staying with the Dayak peoples of Borneo in their villages and talking with them about the environmental, socio-economic, and political effects of the palm oil industry, the Baram Dam project, and deforestation, were eye-opening for me. Listening to the voices of those most impacted by deforestation and dams complicated the potential solutions … Stories humanize. And stories allow for imagination, which is critical to constructing solutions to these environmental, social, and economic issues.”

How to bridge academic disciplines to understand environmental issues such that one can act to shape the practices and policies was on the mind of students on the trip. Madison Vorva, a student from Pomona College, summarizes her exchanges with faculty from different disciplines:

I learned so much from the professors on the trip. Zayn Kassam [Professor of Religious Studies] and I had great conversations about religion, culture, and the environment. We discussed how the Dayak’s combination of pagan/Christian views influenced their relationship with their local environment and their opposition towards the dam, which would flood their churches and burial sites. The blockades had crosses, a symbol of strength and sacrifice that they rebuilt three times to prevent illegal logging. Marc Los Huertos’ talk about water quality and river ecology got me thinking about the relationships between agriculture, erosion, and river health. We tested turbidity, pH, and dissolved oxygen levels. Stephen Marks [Professor of Economics] and I had a long debate on the economic ramifications of trying to curtail palm oil expansion. “Marty” Wallace Meyer [Professor of Biology] and I talked a lot about how to measure and evaluate biodiversity in an ecosystem and how you define sustainable palm oil standards that are scientifically accurate. These three conversations were incredibly fruitful and some of my favorite moments from the trip.

Beyond the experiential learning and cross-disciplinary conversations that arose out of the Clinic Trip, EnviroLab Asia also created opportunities to deepen research and scholarship on environmental issues in Asia. Faculty who previously had little-to-no background in environmental analysis or Asian studies have continued to research topics they were introduced to through EnviroLab Asia activities.

The next four years of EnviroLab Asia will focus on the theme “Environmental Infrastructures in Asia: Nature, Networks, and People in the Anthropocene.” A newly-established EnviroLab Asia class will be co-taught by two faculty from different disciplines to introduce research methodologies from the science, social sciences, and humanities to prepare students for their research projects on the Clinic Trip. In Year 1, the Clinic Trip will take place in Thailand, where students and faculty will work with scholars from Burapha University to examine themes of infrastructure & power, trans-boundaries & governance, agency & built environment, performance art & resilience. On Year 2 of the grant, the Clinic Trip will take place in Japan, where students and faculty will study the intersection of nature, nuclear history & infrastructure, social movements & activism, and conservation. Year 3 of the grant will focus on Korea and explore themes of contested infrastructure & ecological development, human agency & social organization/transformation, specifically related to military demands (missile defense systems in Seongju, naval base in Cheju that threaten coral reef), and rural and urban ecology (as related to farms near the DMZ, Nanji Park, and Cheonggyecheon). The last year of the grant will focus on China and study the roles of agriculture, development, infrastructure, sustainability (specifically of nature reserves), and ideas of rural/urban and de-industrialized/industrialized.

As EnviroLab Asia explores the role of infrastructure on environmental issues in Asia, it is also building infrastructure at the Claremont Colleges—to create networks by which scholars may meet each other, learn from each other, and train the next generation to confront the complex environmental issues in Asia. A collection of student and faculty research and reflections from the first year of EnviroLab Asia can be found at EnviroLab Asia, a digital-native site done in collaboration with the Claremont Colleges library that explores some of the key environmental issues that Asia has confronted, and will continue to confront, across the 21st century.

Karin Mak is the Project Administrator of EnviroLab Asia