Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene

We live in a moment defined by environmental change. Yet the causes and consequences of these planetary transformations are profoundly uneven. Across race, class, gender and other forms of difference, “environmental problems” manifest in radically unequal ways, disproportionately burdening some while benefiting others. In this course, we will grapple with this central tension in debates concerning what to do about present socio-environmental crises, from toxic dead zones and mass extinction to world hunger and a warming climate. Certainly, these problems pose urgent, even existential problems that demand intervention. Yet common refrains about how we are to “save the environment” always come with baggage (e.g. who is “we” and whose environments, exactly?). They have deep histories and hidden assumptions about causes and solutions, justice and inequality, politics and social change, which we will uncover in this course and wrestle with as a group.

Our discussions will weave together three sets of perspectives: (1) dominant strains of environmental thought and what they are now saying about the inauguration of “The Anthropocene”; (2) critiques highlighting various blind spots, complicities, and exclusions that have long bedeviled those mainstream traditions; and (3) our own standpoints as thinking, feeling, acting people struggling to find our feet in this surreal historical moment. Our dialogues will be generative and exploratory rather than definitive: the goal is not necessarily to find clear answers (because the instructor certainly does not pretend to have them) but rather to take seriously Donna Haraway’s admonishment to “stay with the trouble” as we attempt to envision “arts of living on a damaged planet” (Tsing 2016).

This involves having to come to terms with our world’s compounding socio-environmental ruinations and confronting how we are all, in different ways, implicated in their making. By actively linking each of the three elements of this course — mainstream environmentalism, critical perspectives, and ourselves — we will try to reconstruct, collectively as a class and individually for ourselves, ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of relating with the present that are both cognizant of its dire urgencies and wary of the violent exclusions, pernicious inequities, and forms of magical thinking that so often afflict seemingly common-sense “solutions.” The aim of this course — and the task for our group — is to recover from this predicament something that is both analytically honest in its reckoning of the scale and scope of current ecological transformations yet something that is also more than paralysis, nihilism, or despair.

Fall 2018, Middlebury College (ENVS 208)

The image at the top of the page was made by NASA and depicts global aerosol patterns on August 23, 2018. Salient features of the image include several tropical cyclones, dust originating from deserts in Africa, smoke from agricultural burning (also in Africa and elsewhere), and a lot more smoke related to wildfires that had spread across many areas of western North America.