Teaching experiences, environmental thought

Since I’m attending a teaching workshop later today related to engaging students in the writing process through term paper design, it seems like a good time to reflect on teaching experiences in light of my current course on environmental thought. A fourth year capstone course in the McGill School of Environment, the ENVR400 course is described more generally as follows: “Students work in interdisciplinary seminar groups on challenging philosophical, ethical, scientific and practical issues. They will explore cutting-edge ideas and grapple with the reconciliation of environmental imperatives and social, political and economic pragmatics.” In the course syllabus designed by a colleague, the description is slightly different: “Environmental policy is not only informed by science, but is also represents cultural values as revealed in such diverse disciplines including philosophy, political science, environmental economics, literature, poetry and art. This course examines these cultural factors that shape the societal worldview, which in turn is what helps determine effective environmental policy.” In different individual seminar groups, students work with one of the three professors reading and discussing the two books that the professor has chosen.  I’d like to spend some time examining my own objectives in choosing what turned out to be two extremely challenging books for the students.

When I initially presented these books to students, I pointed out that contemporary solutions to environmental problems have for the most part failed to get people to change their actions and that part of the problem might be the use of old models or the “wrong” language to echo Bill McKibben’s argument (“When Words Fail”). What might be, I asked, the metaphors and images that we need to get rid of and what new metaphors and images might we consider? Each of the two books I describe below answers in very different ways this question: one by critiquing a sense of place and appealing to a sense of planet (Heise) and the other by deconstructing the idea of nature and proposing a dark ecology (Morton).

Ursula Heise, Sense of Place, Sense of Planet (Oxford UP, 2008)

Given my own background in environmental literary theory, I wanted to expose students to some of the “cutting-edge” work in this area. Heise’s book challenges traditional understandings of place and the local that characterized environmentalist discourse for quite some time. She proposes an interesting new concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism” for rethinking the relationship between the local and the global and for highlighting the complexity of global systems as well as the importance of cultural differences. In terms of the course’s objectives, I felt this book exposed students to the “cultural factors that shape the societal worldview” (or rather the Western worldview) while also pointing to a possible alternative. Interestingly, many students were not convinced by Heise’s arguments possibly in part because of her use of literary texts to illustrate her points. At times, they found the text difficult to read because of the style and tone. I agree that Heise is writing for an academic audience, largely her own peers, who adopt (possibly too quickly) complex terms without necessarily defining them. Yet her thoughts on deterritorialization (where cultural practices are no longer tied to place) and risk theory (where new risks transcend local and national boundaries, creating new types of world communities) are well-illustrated, well-argued and extremely relevant.  Even if Heise’s examples are largely drawn from the Western world, she nevertheless convincingly critiques and deconstructs this worldview “from within.”

Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007)

Steeped in philosophy, aesthetics and literary poetics, Morton’s text is difficult to understand to say the least. My own experience with the book definitely includes moments of complete frustration and yet further readings have revealed some valuable insights in terms of an alternative viewpoint and method for dealing with environmental writing. As the title of the book clearly points out, Morton believes that the idea of Nature is itself getting in the way of our living ecologically. His theory of perception (as differential) and his theory of aesthetics (as a problem of distance) both draw widely on philosophy, literature and (some) science. Intriguingly, Morton does not want to do away with Cartesian dualism and instead asks us to move less quickly in our rejection of this Western philosophy in order to remain in the moment of difference a little longer. It is upon this principle of difference that Morton constructs a “melancholy ethics” that instructs us to love the strange creatures we have created and to mourn not some lost environment from the past but the gap that is always present between self and other. Students found such a dark ecology much too negative and felt disenchanted by the lack of solutions. They felt the writing was inaccessible and the book far too difficult for the general public. Yet I’m not sure that Morton is writing for his colleagues or peers. In fact, his use of sound bite sentences and quick-fire ideas seem very much aimed at his own students, both undergraduate and graduate. Which brings me to the reading experience itself since this is one of the things I had hoped that students would take away from this book – maybe the problem is not that Morton should have used clearer language in order to convince and mobilize people around his theory of dark ecology; maybe this expectation on our part is part of the problem. Morton forces us to acknowledge the labour of reading as also physical; this in itself breaks down the theory/action or reading/doing dichotomy. Maybe through our frustration with the book we begin questioning our own constant need for solutions. By not giving us one, Morton forces us to experience his dark ecology to some extent – we remain caught in the paradoxes and contradictions of environmental thought, caught in the viscosity of language and the play of writing itself. In terms of the course objectives then, the book very much pushes students to “grapple with the reconciliation of environmental imperatives and social, political and economic pragmatics” in its very refusal to offer a pragmatics or set of easy to apply solutions. The book also to some extent questions such a need for solutions and actions. Might we not slow things down rather than always looking forward to new ways of living? I agree that this is not possible interminably but it might just be what we need right now.