Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Green Guilt and the University Classroom

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Green Guilt and the University Classroom

Article excerpt


As we bring current environmental issues into the classroom, we risk overwhelming our students with "doomsday texts" cataloguing the ills that plague our planet. However, imaginative literature that truly brings nature to life can also bring our students to life, helping them confront the realities of ecological crisis without paralyzing them with "green guilt."


Though much is taken, much abides.--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

Stalled in traffic at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly Blvds., at the heart of West Los Angeles' shopping mecca, I gaze up at an electronic bulletin board perched atop the Beverly Center's Hard Rock Cafe. On the left, a steadily decreasing number tallies the acres of rain forest that remain, while a rapidly growing figure on the right lets me know just how much the earth's population has swollen as I wait out the light. My pollution-spewing vehicle noxiously idling, the gaily-wrapped spoils of consumerism squatting in the passenger seat, I'm sickened-with guilt, self-disgust, despair, and utter helplessness. (I'm also fuming at the corporate hypocrisy that allows a shopping mail to co-opt the environmental crisis.) I may decide, as I contemplate this grim scoreboard, to drive less, to buy less-and to contribute more to Greenpeace-but I certainly vow to avoid this distressing corner in the future.

My reaction to the Beverly Center's gloomy marquee parallels, I fear, some of my students' responses, evident in class discussion and daily journal entries, to the environmental issues they have confronted in my advanced composition course, "Writing and the Environment," a class that focuses on the kinds of topical, often contentious texts that create lively discussion and allow students to develop thesis-driven essays, including a long research paper. For many students, my course has served as a kind of initiation rite: into, on the one hand, the demanding world of university-level writing and research and, on the other, into a realm where beauty and fragility go hand in hand, where "DOOMED" is emblazoned on each feature of the land- and seascapes encountered in our readings. Eager to thrust my captive audience into the fierce green fire, I would assign text after text detailing the kinds of "actual and potential horrors" that Glen A. Love catalogues in his provocative essay, "Revaluing Nature: Towards an Ecological Criticism": "the alarming growth of the world's population.., mounting evidence of global warming, destruction of the ... ozone layer, ... acid rain, overcutting of the world's last remaining great forests, ... inundation in our own garbage, an increasing rate of extinction of plant and animal species" (22526). Add to these present plagues the increasing threat of bioterrorism and the less dramatic but perhaps more far-reaching shadow of bioengineering: the "familiar checklist of impending calamities," as Theodore Roszak puts it, just continues to grow ("Green Guilt" 535). Like Love, I believed that "The doomsday potentialities are so real and so profoundly important that a ritual chanting of them ought to replace the various nationalistic and spiritual incantations with which we succour ourselves" (226).

As students discussed and wrote about the ills besetting the natural world, and learned about the environmental problems plaguing the urban sector as well, I noticed that passion and engagement often gave way to weariness and even dejection. Our class sessions were becoming increasingly elegaic. We were all succumbing to what Roszak calls "green guilt and ecological overload." In his essay of the same name, Roszak warns of the numbing effect that information bombardment, coupled with the "shock and shame" approach to the environmental crisis, can have ("Green Guilt" 535). Similarly, pre-eminent ecocritic Scott Slovic, who confesses to his own bout with "ecodespair," points out that we "are already saturated with environmental consciousness," and perhaps hardened to the "usual litany of planetary degradations" ("Forward," The Greening of Literary Scholarship vii). …

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