Teaching Earth

Article excerpt

In 1996, I taught a writing class at Rutgers University where students researched various aspects of the environmental crisis. Part way through the semester I administered an "Apocalyptic Quiz." One of the questions I asked was: What level of crisis do you think would be necessary to effect real change in the American way of life? My students agreed that the United States needs a series of mid-level disasters, one after another, over a number of years. The disasters should be large enough to keep our attention, but not so large as to provoke despair and inaction. California wildfires, the Great Flood of New Orleans, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico: my students' hypothesis is tested each night on the news. The question of how to teach in response to these events has acquired an urgency that is sometimes absent from pedagogical discussions.

Two years ago, I taught my first environmental studies course at the Juilliard School, an elite performing arts college in Manhattan. I called the course "Perfect Storms," intending to evoke Hurricane Katrina, to imply storm fronts whipping around each other - climate change, industrial agriculture, mass extinction of species. By the end of the class, students did indeed feel assaulted. I had structured the class as an exploration of intractable problems, only to offer strategies for action when students were too frightened to accept them. The task of "teaching earth" at the present time requires a new approach: to navigate between hope and horror, to connect the fate of the planet to the world of the student, "to make and make again where such unmaking reigns," as Adrienne Rich has written. This issue of Transformations offers materials, strategies, and disciplines of hope from scholars in many institutional locations, all writing as citizens of earth, as "terrapolitans": Joni Adamson overcomes American exceptionalism with a planetary approach to literature and film. Eric Perramond asks students to confront the history of atomic testing in the deserts of the Southwest. Kimberly Moekle and Jeannie Ludlow take a rhetorical and service-learning approach, respectively, to grounding student lives in environmental issues.1 Here, I offer a brief sketch of the phases of terrapolitan teaching over the last century in the United States, knowing that Americans are not the only people of earth, and that academe is, in many ways, an unlikely place from which to launch a planetary intelligence.

What happened when American scholars first understood that humanity had attained the power to change the face of the planet, to become a "force of nature" unto itself, as George Perkins Marsh said in 1869 in his prescient Man and Nature? They realized, first of all, that new theories and practices would be necessary, and new disciplines would have to invent them. Two prominent examples come from the first wave of American feminism: Ellen Swallow Richards and Anna Botsford Comstock. Born within ten years of each other in the mid-nineteenth century, these women were among the first to hold academic positions in the new universities of the East - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell, respectively. Although conventional accounts of the origins of the word ecology credit it to the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, Ellen Swallow Richards coined the term independently, and meant something different by it. For Haeckel, ecology was about the relationship of organisms to their environment to the exclusion of humanity; Richards included humanity in her idea of the world as household: hence, oekology, as she spelled it, from the Greek oikos, "household." As a chemist, Richards realized that industrial cities could be much healthier if more attention were paid to public and household cleanliness. She taught oekology at MIT as a discipline that included what we would call urban ecology, sanitation engineering, water purification, and nutrition science. She campaigned vigorously for hygienic public schools, a campaign which had lasting effects on the cities of Boston and Cambridge, among others. …