“Here is everything advantageous to life”: Teaching environmental history and the humanities

DND, HMCS Summerside in the Davis Strait during Operation NANOOK 11, 16 August 2011

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Most of NiCHE’s activity has, quite rightly, been focused on research. But for many of us, teaching is an equally, if not more, important part of our lives. I teach environmental history in the guise of both History and Canadian Studies classes, but also as one of two co-instructors for the first-year class in Dalhousie’s College of Sustainability. All College teaching faculty meet twice a month to discuss everything from “Where can we teach numerical literacy?” to “How do we get students to stop Facebooking in class?” So I’ve had more opportunities than many, I suspect, to talk about teaching, but I hope we in NiCHE talk more about teaching environmental history. What are we teaching, and how, and to whom, and why? What are we trying to accomplish? Does our teaching look different with a HIST course code than with a SUST one? How is it being received across the country, by students and faculty? (Do other people get asked, “Is it a fad?”) How do we create teaching positions in environmental history?

For this post, though, I wanted to talk content over institution, and specifically, how and how well environmental history fits in the landscape of the humanities. I’ve long had a chip on my shoulder about the image (both within and without) of environmental studies: to wit, that greenhouse gas formulas or water use statistics are more fundamental to sustainability than the ideas within the Group of Seven paintings or the search for the Northwest Passage. Or in other words, that the scientific data is essential while the arts are merely ornamental. And I sometimes wonder if the environmental history community perpetuates this distinction by emphasizing how our work is a bridge to the sciences − different from conventional history in its ability to incorporate measures of change in flora, fauna, climate, and so forth. Yet the majority of Sustainability students declare a B.A., just as most people want to understand the environment as literate citizens, not biologists. Where can these students pursue – and integrate – environment and humanities? (Not in Dal’s [“environmental and resource studies”] graduate program, that’s for sure.)

Francois Boucher, Portrait de la Marquise de Pompadour,1756
Francois Boucher, Portrait de la Marquise de Pompadour,1756

As one of the very few humanists Sustainability students see (and sometimes the only one – although this year a philosopher of ancient Greece did a guest lecture on Prometheus), I’m especially aware of two things. I think it’s crucial to show them how humans generally have conceived of the “environment” not as a compendium of biophysical features, but in strategic, functional, and imaginative ways. Second, I feel compelled to represent the humanities and the arts as broadly as possible.

In a class on water in the Canadian imagination – a deliberate counterpoint to a section on water use calculations – we look at paintings, an NFB film, and DND photographs of the 2011 Arctic exercise. Reading external expectations of Acadia in the language in Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847) or a 1920s tourist guide helps explain contemporary pressures on the Annapolis Valley. We can see the material costs and benefits of global trade in the luxury consumables of Francois Boucher’s portrait of la Marquise de Pompadour (1756) or Nicolas Lancret’s The Cup of Chocolate, or, Lady and Gentleman with two girls in a garden (1742). And to introduce ecological imperialism, there is the beautiful parallel between Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611):

Nicolas Lancret, The Cup of Chocolate (or, Lady and Gentleman with two girls in a garden), 1742
Nicolas Lancret, The Cup of Chocolate (or, Lady and Gentleman with two girls in
a garden), 1742


The air breathes upon us here most sweetly/Here is everything advantageous to life…
How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!…

Had I plantation of this isle, my lord …/nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance…/To excel the golden age.

…and Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (1925):

On his land he was master; he knew just how to act.

Both articulate the idealized possibilities of the New World, and the colonial ambitions for ordered, productive, proprietorial, and monocultural landscapes.

I think I do a pretty good job at conveying the historical and environmental messages contained in these sources. And it’s enormous fun to spend hours in ARTstor. But … what the hell am I doing teaching Shakespeare and eighteenth-century art? One year I showed medieval illuminations of the story of Jonah (to demonstrate the evolution of the whale from monster to resource in tandem with early modern marine technology) and I could just imagine the horrified reaction of the history department’s medievalist.

So there’s a lot of flying without a net. But if not me, then who? How do I get the English professor interested in green literature and the Music professor studying nature in opera to teach these as applicable to environmental sustainability, in the same way the sciences do? And how do we sell that connection to an audience (students and faculty), an institution, and a society that defines the environment as greenhouse gases rather than Shakespeare, as disconnected from human thought, belief, and action?


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Associate professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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