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Environmental communication

In this advanced writing seminar, students analyze the history of debates over the environment, technology, and climate change; assessing how they are portrayed by experts, advocates, writers, journalists, and political leaders; focusing on the implications for effective communication, policymaker engagement, civic participation, and personal decision-making. Students improve their ability to find, discuss, evaluate, and use expert sources of information; assess competing claims and narratives; think historically, cross-culturally, and strategically; write persuasive essays, analyses, and commentaries; and author evidence-based research papers.


Sept 14 & 17— The City and the Pastoral

  • Guha, R. (2014). Environmentalism: A global history. Penguin UK pgs 1-24.
  • Thoreau, H. D. (1862). Walking. The Atlantic
  • Ruskin (1896). The Extension of Railways in the Lake District.

Discussion questions

  • What does Guha mean when he argues that environmentalism is now global, “constituting a field-of-force” in which groups and individuals far removed in space, collaborate and sometimes compete in forging a movement that often transcends national boundaries”? Drawing on the Guha, Cronon and Nisbet articles, what role does discourse, narrative, intellectual tradition, and power relations play in shaping these collaborations and competitions within the global environmental movement? Provide specific relevant examples of these influences and factors from these readings and others in the course.
  • Explain the romantic tradition in English and American environmentalism; its roots in writings by Woodsworth, Ruskin, Thoreau, and Emerson; and its shift by the late 1800s from a prior emphasis on the pastoral by these writers to an emphasis on wilderness by Muir? Be sure to describe key concepts like romanticism, primitivism, wilderness, the pastoral, and the frontier. Also be sure to include examples from a specific author that reflect these examples.

Sept 21 & 24  — Telling Stories About Nature and Climate Change

*Focus on for Tuesday.

Discussion questions

  • What does Guha mean when he describes scientific conservation as an ideology of “doom and resurrection,” a style of thinking about and managing natural resources that was both “apocalyptic and redemptive”?
  • How did the growing prestige of science and an emphasis by state governments on efficiency and centralization lead to the creation of numerous conservation-focused institutions across countries? Provide specific examples.
  • Explain what conservation scientists like George Perkins Marsh and Gifford Pinchot meant by sustainable yield. Is sustainable yield similar to what we refer to today as sustainability or sustainable growth?
  • Describe the basic elements of the “Wilderness Ideal” as articulated by John Muir and the “Land Ethic” as defined by Aldo Leopold. What were the key differences between the two discourses and what were the similarities? Do you see any problems with these constructions of nature and society?
  • Explain Cronon’s main arguments about why the “wilderness ideal” is problematic. Do his arguments also apply to the “land ethic”?
  • Describe the key characteristics that define a public intellectual and how their ideas help promote shared problem framings, theories of change, and solutions relative to climate change. Are there discourses from the three outlined by Nisbet missing from his typology/main table or that need to be updated?

Sept 28 – Oct 8 — Experts, Publics, Knowledge, and Decisions

Discussion questions

  • What does Guha mean when he writes that the “global discourse on forestry has moved towards a more accommodationist perspective” between central governments, conservation scientists, and local peoples? Drawing on Guha, describe the long history of criticism of how the Indian state managed the forests and the related conflicts and problems that the dominant management approach produced. By the 1970s, according to Guha, why were these longstanding adversarial discourses about forest management able to finally breakthrough leading to forms of accommodation? Specifically, drawing on Guha, what did these forms of accommodation in forest and wildlife management include; and how did they differ from the past?
  • Drawing on Cooke et al and McGreavy and Hart, discuss how sustainability co-management is deployed today specific to fisheries management and other environmental challenges? What do the authors argue were the main problems specific to past approaches; the challenges in implementing co-management approaches; and their advantages? Drawing on the authors, provide specific examples.

Oct 12 & 15 — The Age of Affluence, the Population Bomb, and Scientific Authoritarianism

  • Allitt, P. (2014). A climate of crisis: America in the age of environmentalism pgs 1-95.
  • Guha, R. (2014). Environmentalism: A global history. Penguin UK pgs 63-97.
  • Connelly, M. (2008). Controlling Passions. The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 32(3), 60-66.

Discussion questions

  • Drawing on Guha and Allitt; describe the key trends, historical factors, writers, and ideas that helped shift U.S. culture from an age of innocence during the 1950s to a new age of anxiety about affluence during the 1960s. Be sure to carefully define how these specific eras differed in their assumptions; what the authors say accounted for these differences; and why they mattered to the growth of environmentalism; and changed in U.S. national policy.
  • Drawing on Guha’s writing on the role of the authoritarian biologist and state power in India specific to forest management and endangered species; describe the specific parallels with the discourse, assumptions, and scientific voices that led to “Population Bomb” fears and to the violent mass sterilization campaigns in India as described by Connelly and Allitt. Make sure to draw on specific examples from the multiple authors in your answer.

Oct 19 & Oct 22 — Catch Up & Review



Tues Nov 9 to Dec 3 — Climate Change, Technology, Governance, and Expertise

* Discussed as of Nov 30

Discussion questions

  • What does Nelkin mean when she writes that controversies of science, expertise, and technology that had surfaced since the 1970s could be understand as “struggles over meaning and morality, over the distribution of resources, and over the locus of power and control”? Be sure to discuss specific issues or technologies as examples and to describe how opposition reflects relevant “sources of public ambivalence” as she describes them.
  • Between the 1970s and 1995, as Nelkin writes, public opinion surveys reflected relatively stable and strong public trust and confidence in the scientific community and an appreciation of scientific and technological advances to improve the quality of life. Public opinion polls today show a similar level of trust and appreciation. But why might national surveys be poorly equipped to identify the nature and sources of resistance and opposition to expertise and technology, as Nelkin describes and we discussed in class?
  • Technology has made great progress, but this progress raises ethical, legal, and social quandaries that call for deeper analysis and wiser responses, argues Jasanoff. Describe what she views as the central questions constituting an “ethics of invention,” and where is the place to start in addressing these questions, according to Jasanoff?
  • Describe what Jasanoff means when she argues that a main societal function of technology is to serve as a form of governance — if not legislation. Make sure to provide specific examples either from her book or class discussion.
  • Explain the deficit model approach to science communication and why it is typically ineffective. What role do factors related to social identity, religion, race, gender, and inequality play in relative to science communication? What does it mean for a scientist or science-related organization to engage in dialogic communication? Describe three major approaches, specific examples, their strengths and possible limits.
  • Explain what Hulme means when he says that what people know about the climate are influenced by their culture; and why the knowledge claims people deem trustworthy and authority are both cultural and political questions.
  • [More questions to be added Wednesday]




Dec 7 — Review / Discuss Final Paper