Pessimism and Hope When Teaching Global Environmental History

Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY. Photo by Guy Mendes (From Wikipedia)

By Jim Clifford

This past year I taught a small but fantastic group of undergraduate students in a course focused on the global environmental history of the industrial revolution. My goal in the course was to situate the massive environmental transformations of the past two centuries in a broad historical context and to provide an opportunity to discuss the benefits and costs of these changes. By the end of the course, however, it became clear that the students recognized the unsustainable nature of the global economy and that they were unconvinced that the more positive and sustainable developments in recent decades would meet the challenge of climate change.

We started the course by exploring global trade and connections from 1400 through to about 1800, recognizing the importance of China and Asia more generally during this time period. From there we explored the ongoing debates about the reasons the industrial revolution started in Britain. With that broad context established we explored some of the environmental consequences of industrialization and globalization over the past two hundred years. This included attention to the colonial disposition, resource depletion and widespread deforestation resulting from the reliance of industrial economies on on raw materials from forests, plantations, mines and guano islands scattered throughout the world. We explored a range of developments with significant environmental consequences, such as the application of industrial technology to fishing and whaling, leading to the collapse of whale populations and once productive fisheries, through to the extractive industries that harvested mahogany, cinchona and gutta percha from tropical forests in South America and South East Asia.

As we moved into the 20th century we read sections of J.R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World and other sources to explore the global significance of the discovery of oil, the construction of massive dams, global wars, the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, CFCs, and nuclear technology. These topics, when explored together over a semester, made it clear that the transition from biological economic regimes, where humanity faced the constraints of the amount of energy they could harvest from the sun each year, to the amazing abundance provided by coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy, came with significant costs to the global environment.

In the final weeks of the class I tried to turn away from these depressing topics and focused on political and social movements that blossomed as citizens increasingly recognized the relationship between environmental damage and human health. We discussed the rise of environmentalism during the mid-20th century and the very real progress made in the past few decades. Fish are coming back to the Thames and Rhine, industrial powers in Europe and North America stopped spraying DDT, removed lead from gasoline and reduced the prevalence of acid rain. Green parties and green issues became increasingly politically significant in many countries. The world even came together with the Montreal Protocol to stop the use of CFCs to allow the Ozone Layer to slowly recover and mostly ended the whaling industry. This is all good news.

In the second to last class and in the immediate aftermath of headline stories reporting on a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, I gave the students an opportunity to discuss the significance of the history we’d learned for our current situation. In general I left the students to lead this discussion. While their enthusiasm for the topic was encouraging, it was really depressing to be confronted with their deep pessimism for the future. In the context of decades of inaction on climate change they were not convinced of the significance of the smaller victories of the environmental movement. These students did not see much evidence that we could break free from our addiction to oil or coal and they lacked confidence in either our representative democracy or the potential of social movements to force change.

My first reaction was to intervene to remind them about successful examples of people standing up to entrenched interests in the past, from the many successful struggles for democracy, to the civil rights movement and the growing significance of aboriginal activism in Canada today. They were not swayed and I left the room a little depressed by the pessimism exhibited by a group of bright and engaged students in their early twenties. I don’t think this was the nihilism that this generation is sometimes accused of, but instead a reasonable assessment of the challenges we face based on the sustained inaction during the past decades.

From the perspective of a historian, I did not have much more to add to the conversation. I could find a few more examples of successful environmental remediation or social movements, but there is nothing really comparable to the challenge of climate change. A few days later I happened to read a paraphrased message from the poet and author Wendell Berry on Twitter:

This led me to search around the internet for something I could share with the students during our final class and I found an interview with Bill Moyer from last year. There was something powerful about two men born in 1934, both well aware of the challenges we face, talking about hope. In particular I was struck by this quote from Berry as a possible antidote to the student’s pessimism:

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is ‘what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

I think the students enjoyed the interview, though one did point out the segment focused on an emergency room doctor in his 40s about his desire to become an organic farmer did not really represent the lived experience of many “young” people in this economy. I am hopeful it will give them a different perspective and allow them to find some hope for the future even as they confront the very real challenges we face with their eyes open and a strong understanding of the historical context.

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7 thoughts on “Pessimism and Hope When Teaching Global Environmental History

  1. Nathan Smith

    Nice teaching material you mention here, Jim, for this important topic. Have to say also, sustainability and climate change demonstrate the value of a world history perspective. No need to talk about the whole world all the time in undergraduate courses, but, basically, more world history needed!

  2. Sean Kheraj

    Great teaching reflections. I am considering putting together a course on the modern environmental history of the Earth. I was also going to use McNeil’s Something New Under the Sun. I think I will also confront the optimism/pessimism spectrum, as I have with other EH courses that I have taught.

  3. Dan Allosso

    Important issue. I hadn’t thought about using Berry. I too worry about the pessimism — but even more about the sense of inevitability and impotence students might have. So while I do talk about resource peaks and “zombie apocalypse” late in the semester, I follow with resilience, transition, and food choice. The last is at least an area where individual actions are possible and people can start doing something immediately that can scale up to bigger life change.

  4. Jennifer Bonnell

    great conversation you’ve started here Jim, and I enjoyed reading about how you’d structured the course and made some adjustments as you went along, in response to students’ responses. bravo. and I heart Active History.

  5. David Webster

    Sounds like a great course, Jim! I’m wishing I could travel back in time to take it. Re searching for optimism: students in Regina a couple of years back seemed to appreciate a comparison of the Montreal convention on the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer with current failures on climate change, even though that one was not social movement led by any means.

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