My Environmental Ethics & STEM class asks big questions about knowledge, values, justice, and responsibility – both individual and systemic – related to environmental issues. Although I try to situate these conversations in specific, real-world examples, they can still sometimes seem abstract or beyond the scale of my students’ reach. They may wonder what they can do to address climate change, for instance, or to change corporate policy.
But they can, of course, make a difference, and we look for ways to identify the actions they can take (again, not just individually but within larger contexts). In the meantime, to help connect us more fully to the environment, this semester I asked my students to plant seeds and to do their best to grow them and keep them alive. It’s my hope that working to protect and nurture one small plant will give the class a personal connection that issues of pollution, plastics, or water rights may not always have.
This week’s recommendations stick with the emphasis on ecohorror introduced last week. Instead of presenting monsters like Godzilla or crocodiles, though, these two films find both wonder and horror in exploring the agency of the nonhuman world. How do other species communicate? How do they act upon us and shape our actions?
In any case, monsters demonstrate something about both the world we live in and what we fear. In the 1950s, people feared nuclear war; now, we fear climate change. The two horror movies I’m recommending for this week directly address those fears, presenting viewers with monsters that embody the harm of nuclear warfare/testing in one case and that are the direct result of climate change’s superstorms and unpredictable weather patterns in the other.
Many, perhaps most, of the students I teach are from the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, all states that are frequently referred to as “Plains States.” (We can spend a lot of time debating the inclusion criteria for a state to qualify as a “Plains State,” but that’s a different post.) At some point in the semester, I usually ask them, as a group, to complete this sentence: “The landscape of my state is ______.” Almost invariably, I am met with a unison chorus of “flat!” or “boring!” This response is more than mere topographical observation.
I grew up in western North Dakota, seeing the landscape much as my students do: essentially flat and nondescript. Not until years later did I realize that I lived in a very dramatic landscape: knuckles of stone push their way out of ancient hills, the last evidence of resistance to glacial domination thousands of years ago. Stretches that appear flat are actually cascading downward, racing toward whatever rare stream or coulee will collect the sparse rainfall. The grass itself frustrates efforts to touch the ground, as one must dig through several inches of dense, matted undergrowth to find soil. This immense complexity is most evident at dawn and dusk, when the extreme angle of sunlight throws easily elided variation into sharp relief.
Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.
Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.
In 1976 my eighth-grade science teacher gave us an assignment that seems as if it possibly aligned with that year’s Earth Day activities. I recall this primarily because of its embarrassing results. We were told to dig up some soil from our family’s yard and bring it to school to develop our own little in-door plot for growing some plant or other. Being part of the only family in southwestern Ohio not possessed of an old coffee can or some other suitable container, I dutifully filled a black plastic lawn bag with what seemed like a lot of dirt and stuffed that in a gym bag. Managing to lug my Earth Day “earth” on to the school bus, I stuffed the gym bag in my locker. When the time came for science class, I opened the locker and discovered that the plastic bag had ruptured. I suppose I somehow wrestled my embarrassingly overflowing bag of dirt into class and eventually grew something, but that sickening demoralization of middle-school level humiliation was all that really stuck with me.
My hapless effort at dirt transplantation offers a metaphor of sorts for the Earth Day phenomenon. Well-intentioned individual efforts on behalf of noble aspirations to better the planet, even if more successful than mine, amount to relatively small achievements. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was certainly a masterstroke in terms of generating citizen engagement and marketing an increasingly popular sentiment into a mass movement spectacle. It can even be argued that bipartisan passage of significant federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fed on momentum provided by Earth Day. Additional impacts included a surge in environmental organization memberships during the 1970s and growing influence of such organizations in legal actions against corporations and government agencies.