Eco English Experience Essay

One day last summer, a young woman looked down on a small crowd of vocal supporters and police officers from her hammock or ‘sky pod’, 60ft above an old logging road in Moshannon State Forest in Pennsylvania. The pod was tied to trees and anchored to a blockade across the road, so that anyone trying to move the blockade would release her in a dangerous, perhaps fatal, fall to the forest floor. Another activist on the ground had locked his neck to one of the lines anchoring her pod.

It was a familiar sight from protests against the logging of old-growth forests, but here the target was different. Workers who arrived for their shift that Sunday morning could not get past the blockades to attend to a 70ft hydraulic fracturing drill rig used to extract natural gas from the rock formations beneath the forest floor. ‘You’re adults, but you’re acting like children,’ shouted one of the officers. They had been called to the scene by EQT, the natural gas company that had leased mineral rights to the gas-rich Marcellus Shale that lies beneath a large portion of several northeastern states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. ‘We are peaceful protesters,’ responded one of the activists. Other officers stood by with assault rifles, waiting to see what would happen.

Later that day, a basket crane removed two tree sitters from the blockade, and three people were arrested for disorderly conduct. Nearly 100 protesters and supporters associated with the 33-year-old radical environmentalist group Earth First! shut down the drilling site for 12 hours. According to Earth First!’s website, this was the first shutdown of an active hydrofracking site in the United States. With the rise of fracking, protest techniques that were developed in the endangered redwood groves and old-growth forests of the west coast of the US have been brought to the heart of the continent. As with their opposition to the logging of old-growth forests, radical environmentalists here put their lives — and their bodies — in the line of fire in order to protect the well-being of forests and waterways.

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Law enforcement agencies, news media, local communities and other environmentalists in the US have mixed reactions to acts of civil disobedience and sabotage. The government’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has made radical environmentalists a priority: putting them under surveillance and sending undercover agents to disrupt activist communities. In 2005, John Lewis, an FBI deputy assistant director and top official in charge of domestic terrorism, declared to CNN news that ‘The number-one domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.’ In the past 10 years, environmental and animal rights activists have been aggressively pursued by the FBI, according to the Washington journalist Will Potter in his book Green Is the New Red (2011).

The personal consequences for activists can be devastating. Jeff ‘Free’ Luers, a renowned eco-activist, was a Pagan teenager who talked to trees. When hanging around with his Pagan friends, he recalls: ‘We saw the underlying spirit in things. I became very in tune with the energy around me … the hardest part about being a Pagan is overcoming all you have been taught. I mean, people think I’m crazy when I say I can talk to some trees … And yet it is totally acceptable to talk and pray to a totally invisible god.’

Luers’s early relationships with trees helped draw him into protests against logging, excessive consumption and global warming. At the height of his activism, in the early morning hours of 16 June 2000, Luers and his friend, Craig ‘Critter’ Marshall, crept up to a car dealership in Eugene, Oregon. After checking to make sure no people were in the area, they started a fire that inflicted $40,000-worth of damage to three Chevrolet SUVs. Later that morning, they were arrested. Luers was convicted of 11 felony counts, which included arson and attempted arson, and was sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison. After much legal wrangling, his sentence was overturned, reduced to 10 years. He was released in 2010, with his idealism remarkably intact.

I asked Momma Earth what it felt like to have humanity forget so much, and attack her every day like a cancer

If government agencies regard eco-activists as a dangerous threat to business and social order, supporters praise them as warriors and heroes who are risking their lives or serving prison sentences for a just and noble cause. Radical activists believe they are freedom fighters at the forefront of a revolution in the relationship between human beings and other species, bestowing on trees and non-human animals the kind of inherent rights usually reserved for humans. Eco-activists tend to reverse accepted definitions of violence. They see property destruction as an act of love, and socially accepted activities such as building a ski resort or selling cars as violent acts against nature. I have been talking and corresponding with eco-activists over the past five years in order to better understand what motivates them.

In a letter written to me from prison, Rod Coronado, a well-known Native American eco-activist who served eight months in jail for sabotaging a mountain lion hunt, conveys his sense of loss:

I’ve seen some of the last great whales slaughtered in Iceland, herds of pilot whales butchered … Old-growth forests being chainsawed, even though there are less than five per cent left, pretty much the worst crimes of violence against nature I have witnessed. I have acted out of rage, sorrow and love, I have held signs, written letters, signed petitions, sabotaged machinery, even burned down buildings.

Out of rage and sorrow, desperation and urgency, environmentalists choose direct action, sometimes crossing the line to sabotage heavy machinery or set fire to buildings that symbolise for them global warming, pollution, habitat destruction, and mass extinction.

Those outside eco-activist communities, such as the police officers called to the anti-fracking demonstration in Pennsylvania, cannot fathom why anyone would risk injury or death for such a cause. Plenty of Americans believe nature is worth preserving, but not at the expense of human interests. But some young Americans — and most direct-action activists are young — continue to join radical environmental groups and participate in acts of civil disobedience, even at the risk of long prison sentences for actions that include sabotage.Why do these activists feel compelled to commit dangerous and often illegal actions at such risk? How do such extreme commitments come about?

Although Luers has been depicted as an ‘eco-terrorist leader’ in the news media and was put on special watch in prison for being politically dangerous, in a statement read at his sentencing in 2001, he insisted that his actions were not violent but were born out of love: ‘It cannot be said that I’m unfeeling or uncaring. My heart is filled with love and compassion. I fight to protect life, all life, not to take it.’

Luers’s determination to ‘fight to protect life’ dates back to an earlier experience. In 1998, at the age of 19, he travelled to the Willamette National Forest in Oregon to participate in a campaign to save an old-growth forest of Douglas fir, Western hemlock, and red cedar. For him, these trees were sacred and divine. ‘Standing before them is a humbling experience,’ he explained, ‘like standing before a god or goddess.’

Each time a chain saw cut through those trees, I felt it cut through me as well. It was like watching my family being killed

In ‘How I Became an Eco-Warrior’, written from prison in 2003, he describes joining the Willamette Forest tree-sit. He climbed into a tree he called ‘Happy’ and watched helplessly as nearby trees fell, while activists tried to save the ones they could and delay the loggers’ progress. He recalls sitting back against the tree and meditating:

I felt the roots of Happy like they were my own. I breathed the air like it was a part of me. I felt connected to everything around me. I reached out to Momma Earth and I felt her take my hand … I asked Her what it felt like to have humanity forget so much, and attack her every day like a cancer.

At that moment, Luers began sweating profusely as the boundary between his body and the tree’s body dissolved, and the Earth’s grief became his grief:

I felt the most severe pain all over, spasms wracked my body. Tears ran down my face. I could feel every factory dumping toxins into the air, water, and land. I could feel every strip-mine, every clear-cut, every toxic dump and nuclear waste site.

This experience marked his conversion to radical activism:

The feeling only lasted a second, but it will stay with me for the rest of my life. My life changed that day. I made a vow to give my life to the struggle for freedom and liberation, for all life, human, animal, and earth.

It is common for eco-activists to personify plants and animals as brothers and sisters, and mourn fallen trees as beloved family members. They exemplify a love for other species that the American biologist Edward O Wilson has called ‘biophilia’, an idea popularised in his 1984 book of the same name and described as an innate ‘urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. The anthropologist Kay Milton, professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, studies the ecology of emotions and argues that naming trees and animals is a way to personify nature, invoking an impulse to protect those special beings. Some individual trees have become almost as famous as their protectors: Julia Butterfly Hill became a media sensation and eco-heroine when she spent two years between 1997 and 1999 on a platform in a 1,500-year-old redwood tree named Luna 180ft above the floor of the Headwaters Forest in northern California. As trees fell around Luna, Hill — like Luers — felt the destruction in her own body. In an essay entitled ‘Committed Love in Action’ (2002), she wrote:

Each time a chain saw cut through those trees, I felt it cut through me as well. It was like watching my family being killed. And just as we lose a part of ourselves with the passing of a family member or friends, so did I lose a part of myself with each fallen tree.

When news outlets circulated images of Hill hugging Luna, the tree that was otherwise anonymous in a distant forest appeared in a shared, public space as a person with rights and feelings

When activists empathise with other species, they experience what the American biologist Donna Haraway has described as the bond of ‘companion species’. In her book When Species Meet (2008), Haraway quotes the anthropologist Anna Tsing, challenging us to re-evaluate our relationships with other beings, whether dogs or mushrooms: ‘Human nature is an interspecies relationship,’ she insists, because life consists of ‘knots’ of species ‘co-shaping each other’. Activists such as Hill who sleep and dream in trees for long periods of time without coming down, ‘sharing cells’ as Haraway describes it, discover that their lives are inextricably connected with the lives of other organisms.

For some activists, this sense of intimacy and reciprocity becomes a growing awareness of a sacred presence in nature. Although activists from Christian, Jewish and other religious backgrounds participate in protests too, most US activists have rejected organised religion, or follow Pagan, Native American and other ‘Earth-centred’ traditions. They see monotheistic traditions as separating humans from nature, echoing the famous critique by the American historian Lynn White Jr, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ (1967), in which he blames Christianity and its influence on Western science for our assumption of dominion over other species.

Activists reject the Christian belief of their parents that the divine is outside the natural world, and instead locate it within the world. Christopher ‘Dirt’ McIntosh, who set fire to a McDonald’s restaurant in Seattle in 2003 on behalf of extremist environmental groups, for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison, described to me the awe he felt towards the world as a divine body during the many days he spent outdoors as a child and teenager. He explicitly distances himself from ‘the Jews, Muslims, Christians [who] see their God as an entity upon some throne in the heavens, instead I see the Earth Mother in all things … Her “Body” making up everything in this infinite universe … so the only real law I follow is treating all things natural [as] sacred.’ While in prison, it appears that McIntosh disavowed his commitment to the radical environmentalist movement, yet he continues to stand by his early connection to Earth’s body.

Childhood memories are bittersweet for many activists

Influenced by the work of the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1920s, we might expect the kind of animistic thinking that characterises the childhood stories of activists and their ongoing personifications of nature in adulthood to give way to a ‘mature’ view of a disenchanted world. Piaget borrowed the concept of animism from the English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, who developed the late-19th-century cultural theory about the origin of religion, in which animism is seen as a primitive stage of human development.

But Pagan teenagers such as Luers and McIntosh who carried their love of the Earth and trees as sacred beings into their actions in later years, reject this theory. As McIntosh sees it, most of his peers became increasingly disconnected from nature as they grew up:

their connections to the world of ‘magic’ sever little by little — they may and do encounter nature, but they don’t any longer feel interconnected with it and it becomes abstract to them and their alienation keeps them from seeing it all as they did when they were children.

Although much critiqued and debated, Piaget’s and related views still have a hold over many of us, views that were clearly expressed by the officer who scolded activists for ‘acting like children’. Perhaps they are, indeed, acting like children — children, that is, who have not lost a precious connection to nature.

When eco-activists climb into platforms hundreds of feet up in redwood canopies and occupy fracking sites, they draw on memories of childhood places and experiences, as well as on skills and strategies learnt in action camps and workshops. Ritualised actions such as creating sacred spaces at forest action camps, sitting in trees with nooses around their necks, and chaining themselves to blockades to prevent logging, shape and reinforce these activists’ memories of past relationships to nature.

Childhood memories are bittersweet for many activists: on the one hand they remember nature as a special place that they explored and in which they developed close relationships to trees or animals. On the other, many recall the disturbed places of childhood memory. The first relationship is one of love and attachment, the second of grief and loss. If a child’s sense of self is extended into a landscape made sacred, then the loss of that landscape or its radical transformation into a clear-cut slope or a parking lot is a cause for grief. If particular trees in the landscape have been named, have become friends, then the loss is even greater.

When activists explain what drove them to break the law, they often describe the destruction of remembered places or their shock at seeing a housing development where there was once a field. In 2006 a jury in New Jersey found Joshua Harper and six others guilty of using their website to incite attacks on those who did business with Huntington Life Sciences, Europe’s largest animal-testing lab in Cambridge, UK. Harper was sentenced to three years for ‘conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act’ for his role in the international animal rights organisation SHAC (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty). Harper told me that when he was nine, his family moved from San Diego, California to Eugene, Oregon. He explained:

Seeing the juxtaposition between a sprawling hideous southern California city and a small tree-filled Oregon city was shocking to me… As I got older some of the places I had fallen in love with began getting paved over, clear-cut, or polluted. That was all the motivation I needed to adopt a militant outlook on the need for wilderness defence or more appropriately, offence.

Harper’s experience of seeing the landscapes of childhood — which once centred and gave meaning to his world — violated by development is a common theme in radical environmentalists’ accounts of their conversion to activism. Maia Oldham, who became involved with Earth First! after graduating from high school, recalls a similar childhood experience of familiar nature destroyed. She explained to me that she grew up in a small town in southern California where she spent most of her free time making water holes for animals in the desert. During high school, Oldham became troubled by what she saw happening: more and more tract homes being built in the open spaces she had loved as a child, and where she had called wild animals her friends. So one night while she was still in school, Oldham and her boyfriend crept into a construction site for new homes. The teen saboteurs pulled up survey stakes and put corn syrup into the gas tanks of bulldozers on the site, in order to delay the destruction.

Their notion of ‘home’ included the forest and its creatures, as well as the community of like-minded others sharing the site with them

Beloved landscapes and memories are ever-present in the stories activists tell about how they converted to environmentalism.In these accounts, the activists imagine both rupture and continuity with the past. Psychologists such as the Harvard professor Daniel Schacter have shown that memories are not a video replay of the past, but shaped by the contours of the present context in which we are doing the remembering. Tree-sits and action camps in the woods, during which activists touch tree bark for hours, sleep under the stars, and listen to the winged creatures and mammals of the forest conjure up particular images and relationships from the past. This past becomes alive with the memories of other times when the smell and feel of trees and earth were vivid and valuable to the remembered childhood self. At protests, this remembered eco-child from the activists’ pasts is invited to participate in the present. At the same time, the present illuminates the past in particular ways, shining light on those scenes in which the ecological child is front and centre.

In activists’ accounts of their childhoods, the child’s emerging sense of self is shaped by relationships with other species. The American poet Gary Snyder observes in his book of essays, The Practice of the Wild (1990), that: ‘The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is inscribed in the mind — trails and pathways and groves — going out farther and wider.’ So the activists’ maps of the world, extending out from the self, are not just human-centred, although human friends and family can also feature. Rod Coronado traces the roots of his activism to camping and fishing trips with his family that took him far away from the Californian suburbs of San Jose where he grew up. According to his biographer, Dean Kuipers, childhood trips to the woods moulded Coronado’s ‘lifelong identification of self with nature’. Children actively shape the landscape as they become intimate with it, modelling reciprocal relationships they will revisit later in their lives.

A week before the anti-fracking protest, I was driving down meandering roads in northeastern Pennsylvania, where depressed rural communities are divided over how to respond to the economic opportunities that they believe fracking might bring them. In these struggling communities, concerns about watershed pollution and suspicion of outside corporations sit uncomfortably with the desire for economic self-sufficiency.

‘Home’ read the banner that greeted me at the entrance to Earth First!’s Round River Rendezvous, a weeklong gathering of activists at a hard-to-find site deep in the Allegheny National Forest, 140 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. As I joined activists from around the US sharing strategies, learning climbing techniques and studying legal advice, it became clear that their notion of ‘home’ included the forest and its creatures, as well as the community of like-minded others sharing the site with them. Workshops on a wide range of topics at the Rendezvous showed a multipronged concern with injustice and violence: ‘Fighting Male Supremacy’, ‘Female-Identified, Queer and Trans Listening Circles’, ‘Challenging Racism in Our Movements’, ‘Edible Plants’, ‘Medical Misogyny in the Catholic Church’, ‘Mountaintop Removal’.

Over the course of the week in the forest, activists created a summer camp atmosphere with winding paths through the woods, colourful banners draped over their tents, songs and music around campfires. The primitive, makeshift gathering site with its carefully planned temporary latrines, ropes strung in the branches for a climbing area and community kitchen lent an aura of playfulness to the serious business of organising the anti-fracking protest. Tree-climbing, a puppet show, a talent show and other activities were a constant reminder of the strange juxtaposition of scenes from a childhood campout and such disturbing adult topics as rape and ecological destruction.

As the Rendezvous drew to a close, and a caravan of cars drove slowly away from our temporary home in the forest towards the anti-fracking protest, I thought of the irony of the young activists’ lives. They travel from one protest to another, leading a homeless existence in constant tension with the deep emotional connections to place of their childhood memories, only to re-create the intimacy, for a time, at the Rendezvous. For them, this temporary home was a utopian vision of a future that we are far from achieving any time soon, a vision fuelled by their sense of loss and grief. But tree-sits and other forms of eco-activism ask us to take seriously this vision of a world that childhood memory offers us, a world in which humans and other species might live at home together, united by a sense of kinship and community.

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Sarah Pike

is a professor of religion at California State University, Chico. She wrote Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and The Search for Community.

Sustainable Communities: Teaching the Environment in the English Classroom

By Theresa A. Dougal

As people across the globe grapple with the consequences of environmental degradation, “teaching sustainability” within the context of the humanities is imperative, yet the challenges are daunting for many educators who struggle to address the topic within their disciplinary norms.   In English Studies, we have seen this dilemma played out in numerous, ongoing scholarly debates about the practice and teaching of ecocriticism and environmental literature, the relative value of theory versus more experiential learning, and the merit and methods of an interdisciplinary approach and an action-oriented curriculum.  Cheryll Glotfelty captures the impulse many of us feel when she says in a letter published in PMLA: ”The question that fires me incessantly is this: how can one, as a literary critic and teacher, contribute to the ecological health of the planet?”1  In addressing this pressing question, those of us sympathetic to the cause bring to the table an array of possibilities that reflect our best intentions as well as the realities of the institutions we teach in and the students we teach. My own experience in teaching sustainability within English Studies at a small liberal arts college has led me to foreground a strongly interdisciplinary approach grounded in ethics, an effort made possible by a curriculum that actively encourages interdisciplinary learning and includes an upper-level category called “The Moral Life.”  The thoughts shared here emerge from my evolving efforts over the past several years to responsibly integrate an environmental perspective into my teaching.

The title “Sustainable Communities” originates with a first year seminar I was invited to teach within a new living-learning community on our campus.  After having recently experimented with a short section on the environment in my “Moral Life” literature course, I welcomed the opportunity to address the topic more comprehensively within a first-year writing course populated by students who shared a common interest. Unlike literature courses, a general education writing course is easily conducive to the kind of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) that Greg Garrard and others advocate, including but moving beyond mere Environmental Education (EE) to concrete action.  Through a variety of readings, films, speakers, discussions, and writing assignments, students examined how threats to the natural environment are influencing our ways of living, and how communities are working to create more balanced lifestyles, social structures, and economies.  The course aimed to provide the “fundamental knowledge” that Garrard describes as a “critique of consumerism and advertising . . . an understanding of distorted retail prices and environmental costs, and the contrast in moral values between a technocentric and ecocentric perspective.”2  Students also moved beyond merely thinking and writing about these issues, and participated in multiple hands-on activities, enacting what Stephen Sperling sees as the “primary aims” of education for sustainability – “to develop and link systemic and critical thinking and environmental and social action, or in other words, develop ecoliteracy and political literacy for full and active citizenship.”3   Teaching this seminar and witnessing its effect upon the students, several of whom went on to major in Environmental Studies and to assume leadership roles in environmental initiatives, motivated me to try to find ways to bring this pedagogy to bear within other courses.

Teaching the environment within standard English literature courses is clearly no easy task, as English major courses provide much less room for Education for Sustainable Development, a circumstance that underlies the dilemma of ecocritics who are sincere in their desire to make a difference outside the classroom.  Lawrence Buell, Ursula Heise, and Karen Thornber affirm the value of ecocriticism, which, as they write, “begins from the conviction that the arts of imagination and the study thereof – by virtue of their grasp of the power of word, story, and image to reinforce, enliven, and direct environmental concern – can contribute significantly to the understanding of environmental problems.”4   Critics like Garrard, however, worry that too few students exposed to this EE model, which emphasizes the “admirable canon” of environmental literature, go on to make practical use of their knowledge after they graduate.5   Karen Kilcup expresses similar concern when she writes, “The challenge for literary studies is to make an environmental perspective fundamental far beyond the discipline, to avoid making ecocriticsm merely another interpretive system.”6   She asks the pertinent question: “How can a literature course be structured both to meet departmental (and disciplinary) demands and to connect reading with real life – while developing students’ ecological literacy?”7   In my own limited efforts to “teach the environment” within early 19th-century American and British Literature courses, I have been acutely aware of the way the various, important disciplinary demands of these courses conflict with the impulse to foreground practical environmental concerns.  At my undergraduate institution, with an English Department consisting of eight full-time faculty and no environmental literature track, English students’ exposure in their courses to environmental issues and/or ecocriticism is minimal, to say the least.  In the end, my best effort to address this deficiency has emerged in an interdisciplinary course called “Literature and the Way We Live.”

“Literature and the Way We Live” draws juniors and seniors from across all majors and, in addition to being an English major elective, fulfills an upper-level category in the general curriculum called “The Moral Life.”  The deliberately interdisciplinary framework of the course allows us to approach a variety of literary and cultural texts from multiple perspectives, with less of a focus on strictly literary analysis.  Our central texts are works included in Peter and Renata Singer’s The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature8 and Simon Blackburn’s short but comprehensive Being Good: an Introduction to Ethics.9  These are supplemented, particularly in the environment section, with a variety of articles and films.  For their presentations, students provide the class with peer-reviewed articles from their particular disciplines, which I review and approve in advance for everyone to read.  Students maintain an extensive daily journal that includes responses to Blackburn, the literary text, and the reserve article, and a hypothetical dilemma related to the topic.  This substantial writing component, along with two formal essays and class discussion, constitute the work of the course.

In advance of the environment section, students read literature and secondary texts that explore the theme of identity, and they absorb a good deal of the Blackburn ethics text – all of which primes them for ongoing discussion about civic life, personal lifestyle, and moral decision making.  In the identity section we consider issues having to do with race and gender, money and ambition, education, technology.  With Blackburn, as we lead up to and engage in the environment section, we discuss, among other things, the concepts of relativism, egoism, desire and the meaning of life, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, rights, and unreasonable demands.  All of this material, when read in conjunction with provocative literature and related secondary articles, is conducive to preparing students to think about and analyze various beliefs and behaviors regarding the environment.  If, as Al Gore claims and many of us believe, the environment is essentially a moral issue and crisis,10  using ethics to frame a literature course both preserves the ideal model of liberal learning and grounds the discussion within universal concepts rather than partisan positions, allowing for dialogue that, though challenging, doesn’t turn off students who are skeptical or under-informed, that compels them to think broadly about concrete problems.

One cornerstone of the course is the use of interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed secondary articles submitted by the students.  In addition to presenting on the central readings, students lead the class in discussion over environmental topics related to their majors or to careers that emerge from their majors.  So, for instance, we’ve learned together about “Assessing Ozone-Related Health Impacts under a Changing Climate” (nursing), “Extinction Risk from Climate Change” (biology), “Psychology and Environmental Sustainability: A Call for Integration” (psychology), “The National Environmental Literacy Project” (education), “A Regional Dynamic General-Equilibrium Model of Alternative Climate-Change Strategies” (mathematics/economics).  I name these articles at length because the titles, so alien to an English course, work well as a supplement to our discussion about the primary texts.  I have found that when students are encouraged to seek out and share information that is relevant to their own scholarly and career aspirations, they process all the course material more fully.  Although students are not participating in any actual hands-on activities within the course, they’re integrating course content into their own frame of reference.  Nursing students begin to consider the ways in which climate change is impacting public health.  Education students are motivated to introduce environmental literacy into their classrooms.  Psychology majors recognize the potential effects of dramatic and ongoing weather changes on people’s psychological well being.  Everyone in the class benefits by being exposed to a variety of perspectives on pressing environmental issues, and the practice contributes to the kind of “transformative teaching” that Hayden Gabriel, Greg Garrard, and Steve Pratchett call for within a pedagogical framework that includes “awareness, analysis, evaluation, and participation.”11 12  The ideal is that, by relating the environment to what they already know and care about, students gain a measure of control.  And as David Sobel says in “Climate Change meets Ecophopia,” “A sense of agency and control leads to the knowledge of issues and action strategies, which lead to an intention to act, which under the right precipitating conditions, leads to environmental behavior.”13

Because “Literature and the Way We Live” is, at its core, an English course, we pay close attention to the rhetorical practices of our texts, and one Communication student’s secondary article was particularly useful in this regard.  The article, “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement,”14  helped us to consider the extent to which the novel, articles, and films we were using in class were effective in truly engaging us in our topic.  As I continually seek out the best material to use in class – cultural texts, dystopian or apocalyptic novels, nature writing, non-fiction and journalistic pieces – articles such as this one on “frames,” found and presented by a student in the class, are successful in drawing students into an even larger conversation – about the importance of communicating environmental issues to the public at large, and about how literature and other arts can play an essential role.  “Literature and the Way We Live” is an interdisciplinary course but it is also firmly aligned with the belief that the humanities are crucial to achieving environmental awareness.  As Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote argue, “the humanities are especially suited to speak to the rhetoric of crisis and to problems of futurity and scale because they demand that we understand how narratives about place, about value, and about the relation of social actors to those ideas are made.”15 Our study of such narratives and their effectiveness is central, and it is enhanced by the valuable insights and information brought into our deliberations from scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

In addition to the students’ interdisciplinary articles, another important interactive practice in the course involves the hypothetical dilemmas that students regularly write and deliberate upon.  For each moral issue addressed by the texts, students practice articulating truly difficult dilemmas for themselves – ones that have no easy answers and that tend to generate intensive debate in class.  During the environment section, such dilemmas have involved choices about where to live and how to transport oneself, how much stuff to buy, what profession to pursue, what energy to consume, whether to become vegetarian or vegan.  Students are encouraged to make direct applications of moral issues to their personal lives and professional aspirations in a way similar to what Richard Kerridge calls for in his article “Ecocriticism and the Mission of English” when he suggests that impersonal scholarship should be brought into dialogue with “personal narratives of reading, including emotions and bodily reactions, and the influence of other things going on in the person’s life at the time of reading.”16  In “Literature and the Way We Live,” our goal is to do more than merely read and learn about environmental issues.  The hypothetical dilemmas and student-chosen interdisciplinary articles are meant to compel students to internalize and be deliberate about tangibly dealing with environmental challenges that many of them admittedly would rather ignore.  Such classroom practices also have the added benefit of shielding the teacher from the charge of being activist in the classroom, since discussion emerges from peer-reviewed scholarship and student-centered dilemmas, all considered within the context of universal ethical concepts.

Obviously, no one course is likely to propel students toward environmental action, and only anecdotal evidence is available about how students have gone on to behave after taking the course.  Ideally, as Julie Matthews recommends in “Hybrid Pedagogies for Sustainability Education,” students are exposed to a number of approaches, including the “whole of institution” approach, which alongside theory, invites all constituents on campus to participate and to “think differently about life.”17  Students might also benefit from a pedagogy that, as Stacy Alaimo argues, recognizes the problematic nuances of the very term, “sustainability,” with its techno-scientific perspective, and endorses a more “embedded, passionate, and purposeful” mode of knowledge such as what the humanities can provide.18 In any case, since I began polling students at the beginning and end of our “Way We Live” course, I have seen a dramatic surge in the number of students who conclude that the environment is our most pressing moral concern.  These students, and those who have yet to be reached, certainly deserve our continued efforts to find a pedagogy that works.


  1. Balaev, Michelle. “The Formation of a Field: Ecocriticism in America-An Interview with Cheryll Glotfelty.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 610.
  2. Garrard, Greg. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 376.
  3. Huckle, John, and Stephen R. Sterling. Education for Sustainability. London: Earthscan, 1996, 35.
  4. Buell, Lawrence, Ursula K. Heise, and Karen Thornber. “Literature and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment & Resources 36. (2011): 418.
  5. Garrard, Greg. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 378.
  6. Kilcup, Karen L. “Fresh Leaves: Practicing Environmental Criticism.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.3 (2009): 847.
  7. Kilcup, 849.
  8. Singer, Peter, and Renata Singer. The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005.
  9. Blackburn, Simon. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  10. Gore, Al. “Former U.S. Vice President Gore’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture.” Current 499 (2008): 9.
  11. Gabriel, Hayden and Garrard, Greg. “Reading and Writing Climate Change.’” In Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. Garrard, Greg, ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 122-123.
  12. Pratchett, Steve. “A Model for Sustainable Development.” Primary Geographer 68 (2009): 26.
  13. Sobel, David. “Climate Change Meets Ecophobia”  Connect  November/December, 2007, 16.
  14. Nisbet, Matthew C. “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement.” Environment 51.2 (2009): 12-23.
  15. LeMenager, Stephanie, and Stephanie Foote. “The Sustainable Humanities.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 576.
  16. Kerridge, Richard. “Ecocriticism and the ‘Mission of English’.” Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 20.
  17. Matthews, Julie. “Hybrid Pedagogies for Sustainability Education.” Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 33.3 (2011): 271-275.
  18. Alaimo, Stacy. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA: Publications of The Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 560-561.

Works Cited

Alaimo, Stacy. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 558-564.

Balaev, Michelle. “The Formation of a Field: Ecocriticism in America – An Interview with Cheryll Glotfelty.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 607-616.

Blackburn, Simon. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Buell, Lawrence, Ursula K. Heise, and Karen Thornber. “Literature and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment & Resources 36. (2011): 417-440.

Gabriel, Hayden and Garrard, Greg. “Reading and Writing Climate Change.’” In Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. Garrard, Greg, ed.  London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 117-129.

Garrard, Greg. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 376.

Gore, Al. “Former U.S. Vice President Gore’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture.” Current 499 (2008): 7-10.

Huckle, John, and Stephen R. Sterling. Education for Sustainability. London: Earthscan, 1996.

Kerridge, Richard. “Ecocriticism and the ‘Mission Of English’.” Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. 11-23. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Kilcup, Karen L. “Fresh Leaves: Practicing Environmental Criticism.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.3 (2009): 847-855.

LeMenager, Stephanie, and Stephanie Foote. “The Sustainable Humanities.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 572-578.

Matthews, Julie. “Hybrid Pedagogies for Sustainability Education.” Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 33.3 (2011): 260-277.

Nisbet, Matthew C. “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement.” Environment 51.2 (2009): 12-23.

Pratchett, Steve. “A Model for Sustainable Development.” Primary Geographer 68 (2009): 25-27.

Singer, Peter, and Renata Singer. The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005.

Sobel, David.  “Climate Change Meets Ecophobia.”  Connect  November/December, 2007, pp. 14-21.


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