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Professor Jeff McCarthy: What the humanities can teach us about the earth’s oceans and water systems?

“What can the humanities teach us about the earth’s oceans and water systems?” That was the question posed to Professor Jeff McCarthy, director of the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities Program. McCarthy has been immersed in a study of the earth’s oceans, and the timeless metaphors they provide for writers and artists.

McCarthy’s research is specifically looking at the depiction of ocean shipwrecks in the works of writers like Shakespeare and Conrad, and the painter Winslow Homer. “These stories and works of art enable the physical world to become social. This capacity of art to humanize the workings of the larger world is at the core of the role the humanities play in discussions of nature and environmental issues," according to McCarthy.  “Engineers and economists provide us valuable data, but the humanities tell the stories. We need compelling stories in order to understand and personalize complex environmental issues like climate change.”

McCarthy’s quest to connect with the ocean has taken on a distinctly personal dimension. Last year he navigated his small sailboat from the coast of Maine to Bermuda, studying and documenting the changing dynamics of the ocean’s ecology along the way. He published an article on his journey in the magazine Cruising World under the title “Witnessing Wonder in Marine Sanctuaries.”

A part of the mission of the Environmental Humanities Program, according to McCarthy, is to “pull back the lens a bit.” The vision is to help students find connections and learn to tell the stories that humanize and make relevant complex environmental issues. He also sees the program as an incubator for the next generation of environmental leaders.

In the spring of 2018, with the support of a grant through the U’s Global Change and Sustainability Center, the Environmental Humanities Program will be hosting an interdisciplinary symposium title Ocean's Future. Visit for more information.