AMERICAN LITERATURE AND FILM FROM A PLANETARY PERSPECTIVE: Teaching Space, Time, and Scale

Article excerpt

What, then, is the American, this new man?

- Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur

I began teaching American literature and environmental humanities courses in Arizona in 1996, only two years after Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" swept in a new Congress bent on curbing environmental regulations. Although it had been President Richard Nixon who founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 (the same year that the nation sanctioned the first "Earth Day"), Gingrich outraged environmentalists by attacking their long-fought for programs. Later, despite growing scientific evidence of species extinction, waning energy resources, and a warming planet, President George W Bush led a push to cut environmental budgets and open wilderness areas to oil and natural gas exploration. As fighting terrorism rose on Bush's agenda, environmental concerns fell even lower. Then, Hurricane Katrina turned the nation's attention back to the possibility that climate patterns influenced by human activities might be playing a role in the increasingly larger scale of weather events. Today, as I write, the environment is again front page news as oil spews from a gaping hole caused by the explosion and collapse of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It threatens wildlife in the water and on the shore, and the fishermen and women who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.

I recount this short history because I live in a "red state" and in almost every environmentally themed course I teach, some students express skepticism that we are living through what scientists have called the sixth megaextinction or that changing weather patterns are wreaking havoc on glaciers and polar bears. Most students are enthusiastic about addressing what they see as an important and pressing issue, but some insist that climate change is simply an unfounded theory. Indeed, a recent Yale poll found that only 12 percent of Americans were "very worried" about global warming (Rosenthal). In analyzing this trend, environmental educators such as Mitchell Thomashow point out that species extinction is "hard to grasp without an understanding of evolutionary biology. Global warming can only be understood in relationship to paleoclimatology" (Thomashow 78). Since most humans Hve only about seventy to eighty years, we tend to be deeply embedded in places that are small in scale - home, neighborhood, city, region - and to rely on sensory impressions for information about those places. Education, however, can juxtapose small and large scales of place and time, and gready amplify what humans understand about the world we Hve in. With education we can understand plate tectonics, ancient landscapes and atmospheres, mega-extinctions, and cosmic impacts. These concepts, writes Thomashow, are "highly abstract, intangible, and. . .demand an advanced level of cognitive sophistication" (78). For example, although some beHeved that the recordbreaking 2009 snowfall on the Eastern coast of the US demonstrated that the earth was not warming, the ability to scan broad horizons of space, time, and scale in order to understand that oceans warm and glaciers melt over the course of decades or centuries aHows us to perceive global environmental change (Rosenthal).1 This means that teachers, poHticians, philosophers, and professors concerned for the environment must work creatively to make abstract, often intangible, large- and smaU-scale patterns and concepts accessible if they are to succeed in shifting pubHc discourse and students' perspectives away from skepticism and towards problem solving.

Even pubHc officials find themselves having to be more creative when they talk about the environment. For example, President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency (epa) Aclministrator, Lisa Jackson, recently appeared on The Daily Show with fon Stewart to make the first presentation of her agency's newly released eighty-page report, "Climate Change Indicators in the United States," and help Americans make sense of its scientific data. …