Environmental Studies Capstone: An Early Sketch

Next spring, I’m going to be the faculty coordinator for the Environmental Studies capstone course for seniors completing a minor in the program. The field as a whole is not an area where I’m deeply knowledgeable or do a great deal of research of my own: my primary point of connection until now has been through a course I teach on the environmental history of Africa. What I want to do is focus the capstone on something I know a bit more about, namely questions about the intersections between the public sphere, online communication, everyday life and popular consciousness, expertise and academic authority and political activism and policy formation. The driving question behind our work will be: why have debates and conflicts over climate change science and policy taken the shape that they have in the United States over the past fifteen years? What drives controversy and contestation over this issue? And depending on the answers, what do the students in the course want to do about their conclusions, if anything?

So I’m imagining the course as a very open-ended, problem-based, student-driven investigation of the big questions in the first half, and an equally open-ended brainstorming and workshopping of strategies and solutions in the second half, almost as in a lab-based approach. What I have in mind right now is that in the first half the students will investigate what I would call “big narratives” about the underlying causes of political and social debate about climate change, and build up what I’ve imagined as a series of flow charts built around each of these big narratives. Each week in the first part of the course, I want all of students to participate in a scavenger hunt looking for what they consider to be influential, successful or intriguing examples of a particular narrative: books, online discussions, organizations, political campaigns, advertisements, and so on.

At this point, I’ve got four such narratives in mind, and I’m interested in getting feedback on whether these are sufficient, or whether there’s a better way to characterize them, keeping in mind that I’m trying to come up with highly generalized starting points.

1. Conspiracy. E.g., the legitimate findings and recommendations of climate change science are being deliberately sabotaged by powerful interests who either will suffer financial losses or political influence (or both) if those findings and recommendations are broadly accepted. Examples: Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Hoggan, Climate Cover-Up, Michaels, Doubt Is Their Product.

2. Climate change science or its accompanying policy orthodoxy is actually wrong in some or all respects. Opposition is rational and legitimate. Flaws might be epistemological, empirical, or involve the policy recommendations that have followed on the scientific findings. Examples: Bjorn Lomborg, Cool It; Roger Pielke, The Climate Fix; Michaels and Balling, Climate of Extremes; Spencer, The Great Global Warming Blunder.

3. Climate change scientists and their political supporters have erred tactically, rhetorically or organizationally in disseminating their findings or mobilizing public support, or must otherwise pursue new kinds of political tactics or work with different structures. Examples: Schellenberger and Nordhaus, Break Through; Kirkman, Skeptical Environmentalism; Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption; Heinberg, ed., The Post-Carbon Reader; Craven, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?; Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes From a Catastrophe. (This narrative probably requires a significant week-long detour into more abstract discussions about activism, political organizing, policy formation and so on.)

4. The climate change debate is the product of complicated, deep-seated conflicts, transformations and habits of mind. It is a synecdoche for much larger struggles over culture and values, social antagonisms, economic transitions; is strongly skewed by new relations between expertise, authority, information and democratic publics; is shaped by complex-systems interactions involving nature, economies and society that no one controls or can predict; or follows from powerful cognitive habits and patterns governing the formation of opinion, the assessment of risk, and so on. (This narrative probably requires a significant detour into questions about popular relationships to scientific expertise, red-state/blue-state cultural conflicts, the nature of the public sphere, complex adaptive systems theory, and discourse analysis.) Examples: Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Science; Randy Olson, Don’t Be Such a Scientist; Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems; Gardner, The Science of Fear; Burton, On Being Certain; Latour, We Have Never Been Modern; Mitchell, Rule of Experts; Aggrawal, Environmentality.


Obviously, 1 and 2 are in some sense the simplest narratives for us to work with (and this might be why they are strong catalysts for political organizing on either side of the conflict). Narrative 4 is a bit overwhelming in that I’m collecting virtually every complex systems-level interaction I can think of under that heading, but I’d like to consider those all alongside each other and poke around for ways to integrate or connect some of those approaches.

Should I subdivide these (keeping in mind I have a finite number of weeks, that I want to present a big overview early and have the students make their own selections or decisions about where to dig deeper)? Am I missing another “big narrative” that warrants early investigation?

This entry was posted in Academia, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Environmental Studies Capstone: An Early Sketch

  1. The flip side to narrative 1 is the idea that climate change science itself is a conspiracy, or at best a group-think error.

    There does seem to be an implicit understanding in these categories that you’re looking at not the climate-change debate per se, but at roots of resistance to the climate-change narrative. While I’m sympathetic to the assumption here, it’s also worth noting that resistance differs (both in population and argument) depending on the nature of the climate change narrative being put forth; different models of causality produce resistance from different economic and cultural sectors.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I expect to discuss narrative 1’s mirror-image under narrative 2, but also to some extent under narrative 4, since I think some popular antipathy to experts and expertise comes from a perception that experts are a self-interested social constituency.

    I think that the class does start with that implicit understanding, perhaps most predominantly because I think that’s where most of my students are going to start and where the field of environmental studies starts: with the assumption that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is fundamentally correct and that the failure to date to adopt an ambitious policy agenda to deal with the phenomenon is one of the most urgent contemporary political issues. A common trope among politically active Swarthmore students (and maybe faculty) when they come up against what they take to be a self-evident truth which does not meet with widespread popular or political support is that the main solution is to further educate the public about the truth. I suppose one of the things I want the students to consider from several angles is whether that initial assumption is itself one of the problems here (a question that narratives 2, 3, and 4 all take up in some fashion).

  3. ls says:

    Where’s 5 — “Real permanent action against climate change and global environmental problems in general would require an end to growth-based economics, less inequality, and real decreases in the elite’s appropriation of wealth; as a result numerous strategies have emerged to defend the status quo?” I’ve now worked for years with environmental campaigners and the above is the consensus view. The way you’ve written (4) might include this but it is very broad and makes it all seem to come down to nebulous differences in individual attitudes.

    Also, I’ve met Schellenberger and encountered some of his hired blog-commenters. He’s carved out a nice contrarian lecture-circuit schtick but his ultimate message seems pretty shallow to me — especially considering that there’s no more actual support for his “moonshot” spending levels on green issues than there is for carbon capping.

    I think a more interesting take on the failure of environmentalists would be an analysis of what we call the “inside strategy” of the past couple of decades (lobbying and legislative focus) along with green consumerism and its apparent failure. Greens were seduced the idea of being allowed to sit at the grown-up table while not actually achieving anything like the kind of shift that’s required. In contrast, “outside strategy” protest is often thought to be ineffectual but might actually be key:


  4. ls says:

    by the way ls = Luke Smith ’06

  5. Ted Wong says:

    This probably fits into #4, but to me it deserves its own narrative: the psychology of self-fashioning and the futility of argument. This is about how it’s monumentally difficult to talk people into changing their values — much less their behavior. More often, when values change, it’s because something’s changed their behavior and then they reshape their values to eliminate dissonance.

    As is often the case, there’s a smart summary of the idea at Grist:

    So a lot of it may have nothing to do with the dynamics of the public sphere or with people’s distrust of experts — it may have to do with the irrelevance of any public discourse.

    And by the way — it points to a possible role of another of your pet interests, Tim: games. Games let people try on behaviors without requiring them to challenge their own values. There’s a lot of talk these days about harnessing the power of games for the good of the world, but so far it hasn’t really taken off. I went to the recent Games for Change conference, and I saw a lot of people trying to shoehorn good intentions into first-person shooters.

Comments are closed.