HL99 EE: Fighting the Climate Crisis

Get your shopping lists ready! We asked our lecturers about their fall HL90s. Patrick Whitmarsh is ready to take on the climate crisis with students this fall!

Tell us about your class!

I was inspired to teach this course after participating in a team-taught seminar at Boston University called Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Global Challenges: Climate Change. That course spent a lot of time covering the actual science and political dynamics of climate change, but I wanted to focus more on the ways that narrative, rhetoric, and storytelling intersect with the science and politics. So I decided to teach a class about that! This course pays more attention to cultural artifacts including environmental writings, fictional texts, advertisements, music, and other materials that engage with climate change, both directly and indirectly. We’ll also read secondary materials on environmentalism and the oil industry.

Do you have a text you’re looking forward to sharing with students?

I’m excited for students to read an article that John Steinbeck wrote for Life in 1961 about something called Project Mohole.  The project wasn’t directly related to climate change, but is a vivid instance of what scholars today call the Anthropocene—a proposed period of geological time in which humanity’s presence on earth can be detected in the fossil layer.  If you’re interested, you can read about Project Mohole here.

What might students be surprised to know about the climate crisis?

Students might be interested to know that evidence suggests there are links between climate change and emergent diseases. Although there is no definitive link in the case of the novel coronavirus, it’s believed that previous epidemics have been at least partially caused by practices of deforestation and resource extraction, both of which drive animals from their indigenous habitats and lead to new interactions between species. So when we talk about fighting the climate crisis, we should remember that it’s not only about global warming and rising sea levels—it’s also about public health!

Are you planning any creative assignments?

One cool assignment that students will complete early in the semester is a carbon footprint calculation. This isn’t an involved assignment, but it is a revealing one! Students can also take into consideration whether recent changes in lifestyle or behavior, due to the pandemic, have contributed to their footprint; and we’ll talk about our results as a class and discuss what the options are for individual agency.

Your class is so timely; what can the history of climate activism tell us about today?

More than anything, this topic helps us understand that our current situation was NOT inevitable, but could have been otherwise. When we study the histories of the fossil fuel economy and environmentalism, we can see a tug-of-war between financial incentives and social/ethical responsibility. Our present situation was never certain or guaranteed, but is the result of long processes of capitalism, industrialization, and colonialism. And if our present moment could have been otherwise, then that means our future can be otherwise!

Anything else you want to share?

Any science fiction fans out there? Believe it or not, sf writers really do lead the way when it comes to writing about climate and the environment. We’ll check out a few short stories in this course…

To learn more, you can check out the syllabus on Canvas, watch a short introduction to the class, attend drop in office hours on Monday, August 17 and Wednesday, August 19 from 1:00-2:45, or email Patrick!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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