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2020-2021 Course Descriptions



ENVR_POL 212: Environment and Society

Overview of the interactions between societies and the natural environment. Examines both key environmental problems, like climate change and oil spills, and possible solutions, and the roles played by different social structures and groups in shaping both issues.

ENVR_POL 336: Climate Change, Policy and Society

Climate change is the worst environmental problem facing the earth. Sea levels will rise, glaciers are vanishing, horrific storms will hit everywhere. After looking briefly at the impacts of climate change on natural and social environments both in the present and near future, we then consider how to best reduce climate change and how to adapt to its impacts. Issues of climate justice, divides between the global North and South, social movements, steps taken in different countries and internationally, and the role of market and regulations are addressed.  

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Political Ecology

This class is an introduction to Political Ecology, a multidisciplinary body of theory and research that analyzes the environmental articulations of political, economic, and social difference and inequality. The key concepts, debates, and approaches in this field address two main questions: (1) How do humans' interactions with the environment shape power and politics? (2) How do power and politics shape humans' interactions with the environment? These questions are critical to understanding and addressing the current issues of climate change, the Anthropocene, and environmental justice. Topics discussed in this class will include environmental scarcity and degradation, sustainability and conservation. Readings will come from the disciplines of geography, anthropology and archaeology. Case studies will range from the ancient, to the historical and the present-day. No prior background in the environmental sciences is needed to appreciate and engage in this course.

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: U.S. Environmental Politics

Political problems associated with human impact on natural environment; pollution, natural resources, public lands, land use, energy, and population.

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Media, Earth and Making a Difference

The central question of this course is: What Makes a Difference? Analyzing a variety of works of media addressing environmental themes, including works drawn from advertising and marketing, we will consider different types of environmental messaging and attempts to mobilize public moral engagement. Specifically, we will be looking at strategies for implementing media interventions as moral interventions. Discussion taken up in this class will include evaluating the comparative value of media messaging that emphasizes individual action and personal responsibility, versus messaging that promotes collective action, policy, and structural changes. Students will consider and debate what constitutes authentic "green" messaging versus mere corporate "greenwashing." Throughout, we will ask what kind of media we need in what has been called the "Anthropocene" (a time when humans are now a major geologic force affecting the future of the planet). When motivating public moral engagement in climate crisis, are the solutions being offered those that the planet will actually "register" or "notice" on a global scale? If not, what kinds of "media interventions" do we need to be making and how?

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Politics of Disaster: A Global Environmental History

The term ‘natural disaster' conjures images of tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other powerful forces of nature that strike without warning, inflicting massive suffering on a powerless and unsuspecting populace. We now have several decades' worth of research from the social sciences and humanities showing that so-called "natural" disasters are not very natural at all. Instead, they are deeply political and profoundly man-made. This course adopts a historical and global approach in order to denaturalize disaster. From famines in British India to earthquakes in post-colonial Peru, from floods in New Orleans to nuclear disaster in Japan, we will see how disasters expose and exacerbate pre-existing inequalities, inflicting suffering disproportionately among those groups already marginalized by race, class, gender, geography, and age. These inequalities shape not only the impact of the disaster but the range of responses to it, including political critique and retrenchment, relief and rebuilding efforts, memorialization, and planning - or failing to plan - for future disasters of a similar kind. The course culminates in a unit on the contemporary challenge of anthropogenic global climate change, the ultimate man-made disaster. We will consider how memories, fears, and fantasies of past disasters are being repurposed to create new visions of what climate change will look like. 

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Nature and Empire

The arrival of European colonizing powers in the Americas in the wake of Columbus's voyages marked a new and often disastrous chapter in global environmental history. American nations and environments shaped the course of European colonial settlement at the same time as colonial expansion profoundly changed the flora, fauna, disease ecology, and patterns of labor and land use prevailing across the Americas. This seminar explores the entangled histories of imperial and environmental history in the colonial Atlantic world. Topics will include the so-called Columbian Exchange and the dispossession of indigenous lands; the transatlantic slave trade and the rise of the plantation system; the intersections of African, European, and Indigenous American agricultural practices; European theories of race and climate; colonial bioprospecting; and the role of disease in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions. We will also consider the imperial origins of modern conservationism and of key environmental concepts such as ‘wilderness’ and 'native' and 'invasive' species. 

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Native American Environmental Issues and the Media

Native American Environmental Issues and the Media introduces students to indigenous issues, such as treaty-based hunting, fishing, and gathering rights; air and water quality issues; mining; land-to-trust issues; and sacred sites. These issues have contributed to tension between Native and non-Native communities and have become the subject of news reports, in both mainstream and tribal media. We will focus on how the media cover these issues and how that coverage contributes to the formation of public opinion and public policy. Students will read and analyze newspaper and on-line news reports and view and critique broadcast news stories and documentaries about Native environmental topics. 

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Environmental Cultures of East Asia

This course is dedicated to the study of environment and culture in east Asia, particularly in China. China is often imagined both as a site of localized environmental ruination that prefigures imminent global collapse and as a source of contamination and contagion that easily cross national borders. Particularly in the Global North, China has become a focal point for ambient eco-anxieties that are shadowed by longer histories of perceived racial, cultural, and economic threats. It is easy (and essential) to critique the demonization of China; the challenge lies in disentangling the imagined from the very real and present dangers that country’s environmental and public health problems pose at home and abroad. This course confronts that challenge by approaching our current environmental crises not as scientific issues with technological solutions, but as crises of culture and urgent objects of representation. How we imagine and depict our uncertain future has a direct impact on how we act in the present. 

Winter Courses


ENVR_POL 340  Global Environments and World History

Environmental problems have today become part and parcel of popular consciousness: resources are being depleted at a record pace, human population levels just crossed the seven billion threshold, extreme poverty defines the majority of people's daily lives, toxic contaminants affect all ecosystems, increasing numbers of species face extinction, consumerism and the commodification of nature show no signs of abating, and weapons and energy systems continue to proliferate that risk the planet's viability. This introductory lecture course is designed to help students understand the relatively recent origins of many of these problems, focusing especially on the last one hundred and fifty years. Students will have an opportunity to learn about the environmental effects of urbanization, industrialization, population growth, market economies, empire-building, intercontinental warfare, energy extraction, and new technologies. They will also explore different environmental philosophies and analytic frameworks that help us make sense of historical change, including political ecology, environmental history, science studies, and world history. Finally, the course will examine a range of transnational organizations, social movements, and state policies that have attempted to address and resolve environmental problems.

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Climate Change Law and Policy

Climate change is the keystone environmental issue of this generation, and most likely for many generations to come. It now appears inevitable that temperatures will increase this century by more than 2ºC, and perhaps by substantially more than 3ºC, with the inertia of the system ensuring that temperatures will continue to increase for centuries thereafter even under scenarios of total decarbonization. Climate change is already posing serious risks for both human institutions and natural ecosystems. These risks will seriously escalate throughout this century, especially if the world community fails to substantially increase its commitment to addressing greenhouse emissions, inadequately allocates resources to adaptation, or, perhaps, fails to commit itself to technological approaches to remove carbon from the atmosphere. 

This course examines the potential role of the law in confronting climate change from an institutional and policy perspective, examining the role of treaties, national legislation (in the United States), sub-national responses and judicial and quasi-judicial fora. Among the topics that will be addressed include the science associated with climate change, the role of key international climate treaty regimes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, national and state and local responses to climate change in the United States, the role of litigation in confronting major emitters, and the potential role of climate geoengineering approaches. It will also seek to help students develop critical skills of analysis of treaty provisions, legislative language, and court decisions, public speaking and cogent writing.

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Maple Syrup and Climate Change

As the earth's climate changes, maple trees and the maple syrup industry in the U.S. and Canada are being affected, in both good and bad ways. The class will cover these effects, their impact on Native American and non-Native communities, the maple syrup industry, and maple species themselves through articles and readings.   

This class is on site and will practice Northwestern’s social distancing protocols. In the event of a Stay-at-Home Order, the course will meet via Zoom and we will adapt our field observations and sap collection accordingly.   

Students will work in groups, to collect data from three maple species on campus and examine sugar ratios, sap flow rates, and ambient temperature and precipitation. There will be a focus on species differentiation, soil science, and campus micro-climates. Students would also learn about how to utilize outdoor space as an informal science classroom and community science methods.   

The final product for the class would be a group data report. A copy of the report will go to facilities management to be added to their campus tree inventory.  

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: Archaeologies of Sustainability and Collapse

This course is a seminar that uses archaeological case studies from the past to interrogate human-environment relationships across time and space, including the present and the future.  The emphasis here will not be on learning environmental archaeology methods.  Instead, we will be focusing on how archaeologists think about key environmental concepts, including climate change, sustainability, and resilience.  We will discuss examples of “failure” and “success” in the long history of human-environment interactions, and see if there’s room for nuance along the way.  We will also use this course as an opportunity to consider how archaeology can contribute to environmental sustainability and environmental justice efforts.  Prior coursework in archaeology is not required to appreciate this class or do well, but would be helpful. 

ENVR_POL 390 Special Topics: The Visual Language of Protest in Winter

The year 2020 has witnessed a series of crises in which protest has been both effectively and creatively used and also, at times, demonized. This class examines themes in the visual language of protest in the United States since the 1960s, with particular emphasis on recent political movements and topics that will include climate change and global climate justice and responses to police violence, prisons, and antiblackness, and may also include Indigenous sovereignty, antifascism, disability and trans rights, activism around Covid19, and other efforts. We will bear in mind relationships to more traditional forms of art like painting and sculpture as well as print media and social media; we will also discuss theories of collective action and questions of force and violence as well as nonviolence, but the main focus is on modes of creativity connected to protest. The organizing principle will be specific tropes and media of protest: for example, tree-sitting, tents and occupations; the megaphone, sound, and music; bicycles, automobiles, pushcarts, floats, and other vehicles; the mask; giant puppets; parties and pleasure; coffins, memorials, and the Grim Reaper; stenciling, graffiti, murals, and mark-making; video and social media; and other modes of performance and strategies for producing visibility. Class will be held remotely; if possible, we may have one or two optional socially distanced field trips. Following a short sequence of introductory readings, students in small groups will participate in researching imagery and themes that they will present to the class as a whole for group discussion. The final project will involve small groups each making contributions to the curating of a collective "guidebook" of protest imagery, format to be determined. Work will be assessed both collectively and individually.

Spring Courses

ENVR_POL 101: First-Year Seminar: Chicago Environmental Justice

The concept of environmental justice in the United States emerged in the early 1980s as African-American residents fought hazardous waste sites planned in and around their communities. Since then, the environmental justice perspective has been expanded to include the struggles of other minority groups disenfranchised on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or class. In the first part of the course, students will learn about the history of the environmental justice movement in the US and its development. Next, the course will take a closer look at environmental justice in Chicago, both past and present. A mandatory field trip to a local environmental justice organization is part of the course.

ENVR_POL 390-20 Environmental Anthropology

Anthropology has had a long, storied relationship with questions of nature and culture, society and environment, during which time a variety of theoretical approaches have been developed. This class will review these intellectual developments and recent trends with the aim of giving students toolkits for analyzing present-day environmental concerns.

ENVR_POL 390-21 International Environmental Politics

Description coming soon

ENVR_POL 390-22 Environmental Justice in Black and Indigenous Womens' Literature

While ecocriticism has not always considered the lived experience of women of color, literary texts by African American and Native American women have found ways of theorizing their own versions of environmental and spatial justice. Reading leading theorists like Rob Nixon and Edward Soja side by side with Jesmyn Ward's post-Katrina novel Salvage the Bones (2011), Toni Jensen's stories about oil and fracking on Indigenous lands, and poetry by Nikky Finney and Heid E. Erdrich, this class interrogates how literature can inform our understanding of environmental injustice and different types of violence. It grounds the discussion in a longer history of colonial extraction and Indigenous dispossession, racism, structural neglect, and ongoing residential segregation by discussing Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 hurricane novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and looking at Zitkala-?a's influential 1924 report on the settler defrauding of Osage Indians for their oil-rich lands.

ENVR_POL 390-23 Media and the Environment

With daily reports of super storms, heat records, species declines, and melting arctic ice, there is a global recognition that we are living in an era of environmental crisis. What role does the media play in that crisis? Media production depends upon the expenditure of large amounts of energy and natural resources. Media devices contain toxic materials and take part in a culture of obsolescence that sends increasing amounts of "high tech trash" to the landfill. Media content has often developed in close connection to advertising, and so has taken part in the creation of an unsustainable consumer culture. Despite marketing rhetoric that characterizes digital technologies as weightless, virtual, and environmentally clean, we learn more every day about the energy, resource, and labor costs that undergird the Internet. At the same time, media communication can function to increase awareness about environmental issues, can substitute for other kinds of high-carbon activities like international travel, can foster communication between humans and animals, and can aid in the fight for environmental justice, as well as a host of other social and cultural benefits. How can we make sense of the complicated equation of environmental cost and benefit in media culture? This course will explore intersections of media and environment, considering media about the environment, media in the environment, and media as environment. It will cover a variety of media forms and examine how they shape our perception of the environment and foster environmental action. We will consider topics such as theories of media ecology; definitions of the "Anthropocene" epoch; the materiality of media infrastructure; media's role in raising environmental consciousness and promoting environmental justice; advertising and consumer culture; wildlife documentary; ecocritical aesthetics; environmental history; indigenous media; representations of landscape and soundscape; and animals as media performers. We will assess multiple forms of media (film, television, videogames, podcasting, sound art, infographics, and more) from a range of critical frameworks. We will consider numerous genres of environmental media as well, including apocalyptic and eco-disaster narratives, eco-comedies, "toxic" dramas, environmental melodrama, conspiracy thrillers, documentary, and animation.

ENVR_POL 390-26 Becoming Planetary: Earth, Power, Imagination

Planetary" has increasingly come to capture the imagination and apprehension of people around the world. It has also been receiving special attention in the critical social sciences and humanities as a concept that captures the relationship between social life and the Earth. Our planet is going through massive changes in its climate and ecosystems. At the same time, humans have become a major force that has been shaping the dynamics of the planet. Taking this interdependence between social life/humans and the planet, this course explores the ways in which social sciences and the humanities are responding to the entanglement of humanity and our planet. Understanding our planet as the product of a dynamic planet, self-organizing over deep time, we will explore how social and political processes —fire use, mining, disease, slavery, colonialism, extraction, trade, and extinction— have powerfully shaped and have been shaped by inhuman planetary formations. One main task of the course will be to understand how racialized and economic inequalities have made their mark on Earth through the reorganization of planetary processes.

ENVR_POL 390-27: Fire and Blood: Political Ecologies of the Environment, Energy, and Life

What kinds of tools would help us understand urgent global issues we are facing today, ranging from global pandemics and climate emergency, wildfires in California and Australia, hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Louisiana, occupational diseases in South Dakota and Toronto, or urban infrastructure crises in Mumbai and Senegal? Over the past three decades, political ecology has emerged as a powerful interdisciplinary tool for understanding and critiquing global ecological change. Political ecology seeks to unravel the political forces at work in environmental processes on a global scale. It is a powerful strategy for reinserting politics into apolitical or “greenwashed” discussions of ecology and the environment and unsettling common-sense understandings of “the environment” or “nature” as separate from the social and the cultural. It is also an essential tool to understand how disparate-seeming places, events, and living entities in the world are intimately linked to each other in often uneven ways. In this course, we will critically approach topics such as resource extraction, conservation, carbon management, natural disasters, sanitation politics, and human-animal-plant relations. In doing so, we will explore the gendered and racialized ways and the ongoing histories of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism through which environmental and energy politics operate in our societies today.

ENVR_POL 390-28: Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy

This course focuses on laws, policies and the decision-making process related to coastal and ocean resources in the United States, and internationally. Through examination of treaties, statutes, cases, administrative materials, and academic articles, we will explore issues such as coastal land use, offshore energy, ocean pollution, the impacts of climate on ocean/coastal ecosystems, marine mammal conservation, and fisheries management.

ENVR_POL 390-29: Natural Disasters

From earthquakes to hurricanes, fires to floods, we tend to think of natural disasters as spontaneous occurrences. The word disaster originates in the idea of being born under an unlucky constellation or struck down by an uncaring universe. When homes are flooded or crops are destroyed, we see the natural world encroaching on lives and livelihoods in seemingly unpredictable and certainly unwanted ways. But are these disasters truly a product of nature?
In this class, we will engage with the complex history of natural disasters: how people experience and rationalize these events, how communities respond to them, and how the causes of disaster are explained by various stakeholders, from victims to insurance companies. By the end of the quarter, students will have developed historical, cultural, and theoretical tools for understanding the nature of the natural disaster.

ENVR_POL 390-30 Cyborg Environmentalism: Technology and the Natural World

When was the last time you hiked without a smartphone? What can playing video games teach us about interacting with nature? If you didn’t post a picture of a tree in the forest, did you really see it? In this course, digital humanities theory and practice are taught through the lens of environmental studies and political ecology, using cyborg theory to explore how the relationship between humans and the natural world is increasingly shaped by and mediated through digital technologies. This course explores theoretical concepts like connective memory, our relationship to social media and mobile photography, and digital colonialism, grounding them in tangible examples of digital humanities projects. This course will primarily use seminar style discussion with some lecture and workshops.