Just before noon on the second day of a faculty workshop on Environmental
Issues Across the Curriculum last May, a passage from Brave New
World came back to me. Its the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning
explaining why children under his care are conditioned by electric shocks
to scream at the sight of a rose:
Primroses and landscapes
have one grave defect: they are gratuitous.
A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the
love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes
but not the
tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they
should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it.
Maybe some of the frightful statistics we were tossing around in the workshop
that morning (e.g., that every car in the United States needs 7,841 square
feet of asphalt or concrete for roads and parking spacea paved football
field for each five cars) made me think of Huxleys mordant critique,
but, whatever the reason, I was glad to gain a sense that my own work
in this workshop was under way.
That task was, indeed, the self-imposed one of rethinking a dozen works
of English and American utopian fiction from a perspective that would
highlight an issue heretofore only latent: How might the ideal human polity
(or the most dystopian) relate to nature, to the environment? In a word,
Id set for myself the task of greening my old utopian-literature
course, of repositioning it so it would front the ever more crucial matter
of utopian ecology.
I would not have been doing this without the impetus provided by the Environmental
Issues workshop (see
story), which was the brainchild of two dedicated faculty
colleagues, chemist and anthropologist. Theyd secured generous support
from Emorys Center for Teaching and Curriculum, which made possible
the contribution of two seasoned seminar leaders from the national educational
consortium Second Nature (whose website, incidentally, is indispensable).
Applicants from across the University were invited to create a new course
that would raise awareness of issues of environmental sustainability,
or to retool an old one. The enterprise would involve taking part in the
workshop, spending three weeks of precious summer vacation time thereafter
in gestation, and giving birth to a syllabus by Aug. 31.
The invitation was for me propitious. Although Id taught utopian
fiction for years, Id long understood that the most demanding work
on the reading list, Walden, was properly no utopia at all, but, if anything,
a preface to a higher kind of polity, to higher laws.
I realized that perhaps Thoreaus transcendentalist understanding
of what we now might call deep ecology gave the intellectual
purchase needed to make sense of any utopian impulse that might remain
in the face of ongoing 21st century environmental degradation.
It was well past time to color my old course green.
The workshop itself was wonderfully interdisciplinary. There were 14 faculty
from the Arts & Sciences, plus five more from public health, theology,
law and business. Each brought a new slant, and for two days I borrowed
wisdom from everything they said about how ecological awareness might
inform and reinvigorate ones teaching.
Without that experience I doubt Id have overcome my own inertial
guidance system to devote three weeks to revising a course that was easy
to think of as already a finished product. I surprised myself by producing
a big, baggy monster of syllabus by the middle of July, one replete with
secondary readings in the environmental science, philosophy, political
science and religion. Realistically, its overreaching will probably scare
many students away, and I expect I shall have to trim it to realistic
proportions before I launch the course this spring.
The syllabus begins: The goal of the course is understandingunderstanding
of how better to live in the natural world, plus a grasp of what we need
to do to change the system so we may live sustainably, in
harmony with nature.
I felt a genuine urgency when I wrote that, for if this younger and reasonably
idealistic generation of Americans doesnt attain such understanding
soon, those coming after may be facing environmental catastrophe.
essay first appeared in the Department of English newsletter,
and is reprinted with permission.