ENST 201: Environmental Problems–Sustainable Futures

What’s the storyline going to be like 100 years from now? Will it be a story about overcoming collective challenges and achieving sustainable prosperity for all life on the planet? Or will it be a story about constant struggle and conflict where only a few prosper but the vast majority—including the Earth itself—suffers just to survive? Perhaps the stories of the future will fall somewhere in between these two extremes. At present, dominant narratives regarding humans and nature are filled with concern. By nearly all accounts, our planetary home and all of its inhabitants face unprecedented stresses that could dramatically alter life on Earth. A wide range of experts urges that we collectively change course as soon as possible away from “business-as-usual” in order to avoid a very bleak future much closer to “suffering to survive” than “sustainable prosperity for all.”

At the same time, however, our current storyline about human relationships with the environment is not entirely pessimistic. Many voices point to a “greener,” more sustainable world in which collective agreements, human ingenuity, new technologies, and “softer” living can transform how we impact the Earth’s life support systems. Some argue that we have all the tools we need to make the shift right now while others maintain that our environmental problems run much deeper and thus require new ways of thinking. Which approaches or strategies will best address environmental problems? Which course of action will get us closest to “sustainable prosperity for all?”

This course critically explores both the problems of the present and the possibilities of the future to provide a “gateway” to the broad field of Environmental Studies. It examines the empirical, political, and ethical complexities inherent in how we define environmental problems on one hand and how we envision and construct problem responses (or solutions) on the other. Each endeavor—problem definition and problem response—involves uncertainty, risk, assumptions, choices, and, in most cases, trade-offs.

ENST/GEOG 215:  Environmental Planning

What makes a space a place? When we think about the places where we live, images of the physical landscape or built environment (buildings, roads, parks, bridges, etc.) may come to mind. But we don’t often take the time to ponder linkages between the natural and built environment or to consider our own relationship to the places we call home.

What makes a place sustainable—ecologically, economically, socially, and culturally? Again, unless you’ve encountered the term sustainability before, you probably haven’t thought much about whether or not the place where you live is sustainable or not. Many times when people think about “the environment” or “environmental studies,” they envision stunning landscapes like mountains, forests, and rivers—wild nature, nature “out there,” nature far from home. Nature where we live, on the other hand, is so close at hand that we often overlook the complex interactions between natural systems and human activities right in our own backyards. Unless we’re confronted with major problems like wildfires or violent crime, we tend to take for granted that the places where we live are ecologically, economically, and socially healthy and stable.

This course focuses on nature where we live. It examines current trends in land use in the United States and elsewhere and contemplates whether or not planning for sustainability is desirable and possible.

ENST/GEOG 325:  Nature, Wealth, and Power (A Seminar in Political Ecology)

Images of nature often shape how we view the world—particularly those places imagined as remote or exotic. Scenes that may come to mind include lush tropical rainforests, high cascading waterfalls, gorillas in the mist, elephants on the savanna, or vibrant coral reefs. Even when we’ve had the opportunity to visit distant places, we often see the sites that match the idyllic images engraved on postcards and projected on web pages.

At the same time, we hear of problems in the world that seem to defy resolution such as climate change, poverty, deforestation, food shortages, violent conflicts, and water scarcity. As host to many of our ongoing global challenges, nature is less an idyllic scene and more a contested terrain tied to the production of wealth and power. From this perspective we see nature as increasingly transformed by a wide spectrum of human production and consumption activities enmeshed within interconnected global economies.

A key question that emerges in this context is: Despite continuous growth, technological innovation, and wealth creation, why have human societies failed to overcome or eliminate poverty and environmental degradation? On one hand, we tend to assume that production and consumption—what most call development—will lead to improvements that allow humans and our supporting environments to prosper. And yet, careful examination of how development has unfolded in specific places over time leads to a more complicated picture in which processes of change that we think of as progress have produced differentiated outcomes that have favored some but not others (including nature).

On another hand, to a significant extent, modern environmentalism and related social movements emerged around the 1960s to counter and reverse the social and environmental degradation produced by 20th century economic growth and development. In this regard, we could pose a second question: Despite policy reforms and successful environmental protection/restoration efforts, why has environmentalism (what we will call conservation) failed to stem the tide of environmental decline?

This course addresses these two questions head-on drawing insights from political ecology. Political ecology is a sub-field of human geography and cultural anthropology that explores the political, economic, institutional, and historical dimensions of environmental and social change. Political ecology examines interrelated environmental and social problems contextually, tracing processes of change over time and across spatial scales (e.g., local, national, global). Situating our work in relation to critiques of development and conservation, the course explores issues such as trafficking in endangered species, tropical deforestation, modern food production, global solid waste trading, water privatization, and protected areas.


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