English 9193

Climate Arts & Activism

Instructor: Professor K. Stanley.
Full Year Course.

What resources can art and literature offer when confronting the paralyzing reality of climate change? What function should the humanities classroom serve when the future of human life itself seems increasingly precarious? Can aesthetic responses to ecological emergency inspire and sustain quantifiable climate action? These are some of the questions that will guide this course's exploration of climate arts and activism. 

We will begin by investigating whether novels, poems, or essays written before the era now termed the Great Acceleration (beginning after 1945 and continuing into the present) can meaningfully anticipate and belatedly intervene upon the modern experience of rapid environmental change. While the immediacy of the climate crisis might reasonably hasten a swerve away from historical perspectives, towards more urgently politicizing the present, we’ll take up writers who suggest that this is not an either/or choice. The first half of the course will examine contemporary poets, novelists, and critics whose climate change narratives are unexpectedly animated by canonical authors from earlier eras. In particular, we'll investigate why this contemporary work so often engages with American literature of the long nineteenth century—a period distant enough to demand historical consciousness, but proximate enough that its humanist legacies remain vividly relevant. For example, we might examine how the multimedia artist and essayist Jenny Odell roots her notion of "bioregionalism" in Dickinson's poetry, or how Ben Lerner’s novel approach to climate fiction draws on Whitman’s planetary "modes of care," or how the indigenous poet Tommy Pico radically recontextualizes Emerson’s transcendental understanding of "Nature." 

The second half of our course will test the possibility that the literature, art, and criticism of climate change can motivate interventionist climate action. We will study the methods of various artists and critics (including Edward Burtynsky, Margaret Atwood, Olafur Eliasson, Jonathan Safran Foer, Lauren Groff, Bong Joon-ho, Naomi Klein, Maya Lin, Jenny Offill, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Lydia Millet) who frame their creative work in activist terms. Our class will also feature several guest speakers who will present projects-in-progress that model various methods of merging climate art and activism.