Inventing the Environment in the Anthropocene

Although the concept of the Anthropocene can be dated in various ways, two of the most important benchmarks seem to be the beginning of industrial production in the late 18C and the uptick in CO2 emissions from the mid 19C (petroleum came into use during the Civil War).  As it happens, the period between these two moments is also that in which the modern language of the environment took shape, from Cuvier’s discovery of extinction and Humboldt’s holistic earth science to the transformative work of Thoreau and George P. Marsh.  This course will shuttle between the contemporary debate about the significance and consequences of the Anthropocene and a reexamination of that environmental legacy.  We will look at the complexity of “nature,” beginning with the Bartrams, Jefferson, Cuvier, and the transatlantic literatures of natural history; georgics and other genres of nature writing; natural theology; ambiguities of pastoral in American romantic writing (Bryant, mainly), the impact of Humboldt (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman); westward expansion and Native American writing about land; Hudson School painting and landscape architecture; etc.  We will also think about the country/city polarity and the development of “grid” consciousness in places like New York City (not just the famous grid plan of 1811 but, more tellingly, the new relation to resources that followed the Croton aqueduct and gaslight).  One aim will be to assess the formation and legacy of key ideas in environmentalism, some of which may now be a hindrance as much as a foundation–for example, the idea of nature as a primordial equilibrium from which the human is estranged.  Secondary readings will include classic readings from Leo Marx, Henry Nash Smith, and William Cronon, as well as more recent attempts to reconceive environmental history (Joachim Radkau), ecocriticism (Lawrence Buell), and related fields, as well as science journalism (Elizabeth Kolbert).   We will attend and discuss Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Tanner lectures in February.  Students will be invited to explore a wide range of research projects; and one assignment will be to devise a teaching unit for an undergraduate class on the same topic, since one aim of this course is to generate further teaching in environmental humanities. 

Also AMST 848.

Graduate Course #: 
Th 1.30pm-3.20pm
20th-/21st-Century Lit