Alternative Conversations: Classics in Environmental Thought (5 one-hour sessions) We will read short selections from five seminal texts in American environmental thought. Each of the authors challenged the conventional thinking of his or her time, and all insisted that we look at the natural world in new ways. Writing in an era that worshipped progress as much as our own does, Thoreau criticized the belief that economic growth was the only measure of our lives and found solace in a nature that was more than a collection of resources to exploit. Leopold gave us “the land ethic,” which “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Derided as a woman in the man’s world of hard science, Rachel Carson changed our understanding of the effects of chemicals in the atmosphere and laid the groundwork for the modern environmental movement. To the love of the solitude Thoreau and Leopold found in nature, Edward Abbey added a childlike wonder, boundless humor and a philosophy of environmental sabotage. David Orr, one of today’s most intriguing environmental thinkers, advocates an education whose value “must now be measured against the standards of human decency and human survival.” Each of these authors writes with grace and insight, and each gives us stimulating thoughts and a good read.
Before the first European settlers had disembarked on the rough New England coast, America was as much an idea as a place, and ever since it has been a vessel into which newcomers pour their dreams of exchanging a constricting past for a boundless future. “American Exceptionalism” – the idea that America is a unique nation with a sacred mission – remains a powerful and controversial component of the American identity. While critics scoff at the idea as arrogant and dangerous nonsense, it has lately become a litmus test in Republican presidential debates. The notion of specialness, however, is not just the property of the reflexive patriot. Throughout our history, leaders have emerged, like old-testament prophets, to insist that Americans live up to the ideals they espouse.
In particular, four men – writing across more than 300 years of history – called on their people to embrace America’s destiny to be a beacon to the world. John Winthrop’s, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” (1776), Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” (1863), and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” (1963) remind us that principles are not easy to live by. The four documents provide a unique framework for understanding the American experience, and we will examine them to understand the America their authors saw. We will discuss the ideals they assert and the contradictions they embody: that Winthrop came to the New World, not to establish religious toleration but to shun it; that Jefferson, who advocated both equality and liberty, was a slave owner; that Lincoln addressed American idealism even as he waged total war; that King called for a new revolution based on the old ideal of the American Dream. Each writer looks consciously back to those who came before, and their collective story speaks to the enduring tension between America’s ideals and American reality. America and the Search for Community (5 one-hour sessions)
“In a world inclined toward chaos, the most men could hope for was a stable life in a small community.” So wrote Kenneth Lockeridge of a 17th-century New England town; and almost 400 years later we still wrestle with the chaos. The history of this nation can be read as the tension between the pull of individualism and the quest for community. We embrace the new even as we cling to the old. We glorify change yet fear instability. We deify the lone hero and run with the pack. We suffocate in communities. We are lost without them. This course examines:
Rivers around the world no longer run regularly to the sea. The Colorado stopped doing so in 1960, and China’s Yellow River runs dry for two thirds of the year. More than half the world’s rivers are now seriously polluted. The Ganges is befouled almost from its source, while the Volga annually transports 42 million tons of toxic waste to the Caspian Sea.
Rivers have always provided immeasurable benefits to humans. But we are destroying them, and in doing so, we are imperiling our future. Each week we will look at the river from a different perspective: Aldo Leopold and Robin Vannote discuss the science – the physical attributes and biological ecosystems of rivers; de Villiars and Barlow write about the human threat to rivers and the issue of social justice and water; McPhee takes us, as only he can, down the Mississippi and the Colorado to explore the consequences of human engineering; Hemingway and MacLean write great stories about rivers and people. In the last class we will explore the ways we all depend on rivers and what we can do to protect them.
The profession of journalism is in trouble. Technology has exploded the economic models that made the old media extraordinarily profitable. The public’s perception of journalism and journalists has evolved from confidence to distrust to disgust. Media owners and practitioners have become their own worst enemies – pandering to the powerful, breaking laws and invading privacy, and putting entertainment before investigation. Because journalism is the only profession protected by the First Amendment, publishers have always walked a tight rope between operating a private business and serving the public trust. Is that model even operative any more? What is the role of journalism in today’s world? Where will we get the credible information we so desperately need? Who will hold governments and corporations accountable? We will seek to answer these and other questions by examining:
Huck and Jim float down the Mississippi in search of freedom and build a Utopian community on a raft. Charles Marlow heads upriver for ivory and to find the man named Kurtz who has created hell in the Belgian Congo. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty take manic road trips across North America and create a cultural bible for the 1960s. Paul Berlin and the rest of his squad take off after Cacciato, who is walking amiably from Vietnam to Paris. Some of the most poignant moments in Never Let Me Go take place on the road, as Tommy, Ruth and Kathy drive toward completion. In each of these short novels the protagonist sets off on an adventure, a ramble, an escape. But the stories they tell are far more than personal journeys; they are literary landmarks written in the timeless tradition of the hero’s quest for the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition.
Let’s go to the movies. These five documentary films explore issues surrounding wilderness protection and resource extraction, the victims of environmental injustice, the courage it takes to stand up to government war policies and corporate pollution practices, and the worsening – and increasingly unheeded – tragedies in our inner cities. In each class we will watch a film and discuss the social and environmental justice issues it raises.
Sometimes people or groups appear on the scene and forever change the conventional conversation. Walt Whitman redefined poetry, individualism, America and himself with his sprawling revolutionary poems. W.E.B. Du Bois’ lyrical essays not only celebrated Black culture, they paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson Pollack, Willem de Koonig and other abstract expressionists made New York the center of the art world – a world they were in the process of radically transforming. Betty Friedan wrote the book that changed gender politics forever. And Edward Abbey injected passion, irreverence, and both civil and uncivil disobedience into an environmental movement that often seems impotent in the face of institutional power . . . and sometimes could use a sense of humor.
Who speaks for nature? Do animals have rights? Do all beings have intrinsic value? Should trees have standing? One of the most inspiring ways to read the history of human development is as the gradual, often fractious and sometimes violent efforts to expand the realm of fundamental rights. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” In America we are still hung up on what rights to afford gay people and immigrants. Imagine taking those issues further, as these writers do, to examine efforts to include non-humans – and indeed the whole of creation – in the larger community.
City and Country (5 one-hour sessions) “The United States was born in the country and has moved to the city,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in the opening sentence of his Pulitzer-prize-winning The Age of Reform. While this statement may be so . . . or maybe not . . . it is undeniably the driving American myth, encompassing such disparate ideas as the closing of the frontier, a nation of immigrants, the American Dream, the birthplace of freedom and an almost blind faith in progress. But Americans have had a difficult time bringing city and country together, other than through the ruinous policy of suburban sprawl. We will examine the myths and realities of city and country in America, seeking to understand both their distinctness and their connection – and to understand why sprawl is not simply an aesthetic blemish on the landscape nor the triumph of bad taste, but the culmination of a national obsession with growth and progress that relies on environmental exploitation, urban segregation and economic inequality.
The five books we will read appear to have little in common. But from Huck Finn's raft on the Mississippi to Jay Gatsby's mansion on Long Island Sound, from George Washington Plunkitt's rollicking descriptions of the big city machine to W.E.B. Du Bois' insight that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” to Michael Herr's brutal reports from Vietnam, each of these works seeks to define the American experience and to come to terms with the American Dream. And while they all defy conventional literary categories, each has become an American classic.
Half-day and full-day workshops on journalism and expository writing