Santa Barbara, Thomas Fire
CLIMATE CRISIS 101
(A.K.A. ENGLISH 23)
The Climate Crisis
What It Is and What Each of Us Can Do About It
(Go to directly to the Syllabus or Table of Contents)
I just stumbled on this page. What’s this all about?
This website contains a university course on the climate crisis. It is a complete course and completely open to the public. Although the only way to receive university credit is to take the course at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), all of the course material is available, free of cost, from this page.
Navigating this material
Navigating this site is simple: in the upper right corner of this page is a “hamburger menu” – i.e three horizontal lines. If you click the burger and select “ClimateCrisis101,” a Table of Contents will appear. Pick any section to be taken to its webpage. For more detail, jump down to the expanded Table of Contents on this page. In the lower right, note the faint box with a small chevron in it. Click it and you will immediately be taken to the top of any page.
Why is English 23 also called Climate Crisis 101?
Although the URL and YouTube channel associated with this material are called “ClimateCrisis101,” the UCSB course that this is all based upon has the designation “English 23.” Sorry for any confusion – as this is hardly an ideal situation – but this is how UCSB designates its courses. Nonetheless, Eng 23 is a 101 (i.e. introductory) course on the climate crisis. Why not stick with the name “English 23” throughout? The simple fact is that it’s hardly a descriptive name. Actually, it’s not even a little descriptive… So, in order to make the course immediately recognizable to an online audience as an introduction to the climate crisis, it is also known as “ClimateCrisis101.”
Course overview and approach
In one sense, the climate crisis is being caused by a rise in atmospheric CO2 and other so-called greenhouse gases. Science can address this cause. However, approached in another way altogether, this crisis is being caused by a range of troubling human activities that require the release of these gases, such as our obsessions in the developed world with endless consumer goods, cars, certain food, lavish houses, fast fashion, air travel, and a broad range of additional lifestyle choices. The natural sciences may be able to tell us how these activities are changing our climate, but not why we are engaging in them. That’s a job for the environmental humanities and social sciences.
In this course, we will see anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change for what it is and address it as such: a human problem brought about by human actions. Thus, we will be taking a long hard look – from the perspective of the environmental humanities – at these actions and how they are culturally constructed. In other words, we will be exploring why we do what we do, even when these actions are disastrous for our planet and our species (along with most other species on the planet).
While this largely academic question is interesting in its own right, the course is also meant to be deeply personal insofar as we will be looking at our own actions and how they impact the planet and climate. Moreover, we will not just be considering our individual actions, but also forms of collective climate activism. Becoming engaged and active, whether simply by voting or by becoming a committed climate activist, is of paramount importance if we are to mitigate this crisis.
In this course, we will not be focusing on technologically-based solutions, rather human-based ones. In other words, instead of looking to technology for solutions to the problem of the climate crisis, we need to look at its cause directly: human action. While human action caused the climate crisis, the good news is that human action can go a long way toward solving it.
In short, this course is in many respects less about climate change than it is about human change.
The course lecturer is Professor Ken Hiltner, who wrote and recorded all this material. Whenever something is written in the first person (i.e. “I believe that…”), it is Ken’s voice that you are hearing. In addition to the University of California, Santa Barbara, Ken has taught at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., and at Princeton, where he served for a year as the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities at Princeton University’s Environmental Institute (PEI). He is currently Director of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.
Why take a human-based approach?
As noted above, the climate crisis can be seen as a human problem brought about by human actions. In addition to seeing the problem in this way, the solutions to this crisis that have the greatest potential impact also center on human behavior (i.e. cultural norms) rather than just technological innovation.
According to Project Drawdown (see Scenario #1), which is the most comprehensive plan ever put forth to reverse global warming, the #1 thing that we can do to roll back global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions does not involve wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, or any sort of similar technologies.
Instead, what is required is a cultural change regarding food: we need to waste far less of it and to switch to largely plant-rich diets. Doing so will result in a staggering reduction of 152 gigatons of CO2 or equivalent gases.
In comparison to this reduction, globally shifting from fossil fuels to electricity generated by photovoltaic (solar) panels will roll back less than half this amount of emissions. The adoption of electric vehicles? Far less than ten percent. We should, of course, work on exploring a variety of technologies to help reduce our emissions, but it is important to keep their relative impact in perspective.
Worldwide, agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, yet between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the food that we produce on this planet is wasted. Regarding the switch to a largely plant-rich diet, the same amount of greenhouse gasses is released in producing one pound of beef as is released in producing thirty pounds of lentils, also a great source of protein.
I know, changing how we eat doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as a self-driving electric car, but it would nonetheless be ten times better for the planet.
On a similar note, the #2 thing (according to Project Drawdown) that we can do to roll back GHG emissions is also a cultural issue that is a far cry from technology.
We need to educate more girls and women (which dramatically curbs population growth, as the more education a woman has, the fewer children she has) and promote family planning (globally, there are roughly 85 million unintended pregnancies every year). These two things together would roll back 85 gigatons of GHG emissions.
This is not to say that we should place responsibility for this particular issue with girls and women. To the contrary, the responsibility lies with the institutions that restrict a woman’s access to education and control of her own body. And too, it is obviously the case that contraception is a male responsibility as well.
Why is population so important? Sixty years ago, the global population was about 3 billion. Currently, it is 7.75 billion. By 2050 it will be approaching 10 billion. The simple fact is that this many people are profoundly taxing the resources of our planet. Hence, reducing the population of our species is one of the main things that we can do to mitigate the climate crisis.
However, population is a complicated issue. As we shall see, when people in developed countries like the U.S. call for the developing world to reduce its population, this can sometimes be simply racist. The profound irony here is the half of the world’s population have had a minimal impact on CO2 rise, yet will suffer the consequences of the climate crisis the most. For the most part, these individuals are in the developing world and will suffer because of the actions of wealthy countries like the U.S.
In any event, taken together, these two cultural changes regarding food and population can take us nearly a quarter of the way to where we need to go to get GHG emissions under control. Note that very little is needed by way of technology here, as the necessary changes can be made right now by both individuals and a range of groups and institutions.
This is not to say that these changes will be easy. Indeed, it is arguably far easier to change cars (such as by making them electric) than to change people’s actions, as issues like family planning are controversial across the planet, including the U.S., where Roe v. Wade may soon be challenged.
Nonetheless, we need to seriously roll up our sleeves and address the climate crisis as a human problem in need of human solutions.
Incidentally, many of these may well be win-win solutions, as giving girls and women equal access to education, as well as control of their own bodies, are worthwhile goals in their own right – at least as far as I am concerned.
Similarly, reducing the global herd of 70 billion animals that we keep for food is obviously great from the perspective of animal rights. Hence, the changes that we need to make to address the climate crisis may not only be better for the planet, but for human (and a range of) beings in a host of ways.
Although I have great respect for the sciences, science- and technology-based solutions to cultural problems like the climate crisis are rarely sufficient in themselves. The simple fact is that they often fail to attend to the root cause of problems of this sort.
This course will focus on these root causes.
One of the things that I find interesting about this human-based approach is that it returns (to echo a 1960s phrase) “power to the people.” In other words, you do not need to be a specialist in climate science or lithium battery technology to make a dent in the climate crisis. Instead, anyone can make a meaningful, indeed crucial impact on the climate crisis, either through personal action, collective activism, political action, or – ideally – though a combination of all three.
Given that the climate crisis is so overwhelming, where do we even begin? Please see the following section for some ideas.
Examples of a human-based approach (20 things we can do)
(Note that this is a continuation of the previous section on the merits of approaching the climate crisis from the perspective of the environmental humanities. Ideally, that section should be read first, otherwise the below mention of things like contraception and education may be a little bewildering. Note also that my lecture on “Pulling it all together: 20 things that each of us can do to save the planet” is an expanded, annotated version of this list.)
How do we begin to save the planet?
Author Jonathan Safran Foer recently published a book entitled We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, where he argued that each of us should adopt a plant-based diet if we want to save the planet from catastrophic climate change. Hence, saving the planet begins when we eat, breakfast and otherwise. Since, as noted above, such a switch could make a significant dent in the climate crisis if adopted by everyone, I definitely applaud this as a step in the right direction.
However, while eating a largely plant-based diet is generally a good idea, the situation is sometimes more complicated. For example, eating asparagus in the Winter in most of North America is often no better for the climate than eating chicken or pork. Why? Because it is generally flown in from South America – and air travel has a huge climate footprint.
Moreover, we need to be clear about something: regardless of what we do, the planet will obviously continue on. Hence, the phrase “saving the planet” almost always implies that we are saving it for ourselves, humanity. As humans are just one of many species of beings that inhabit the earth, a more equitable and less anthropocentric way of stating what the phrase leaves unsaid is “saving the planet [for all life on it].”
Still, in so far as he approaches this as a human rather than technological issue, I think that Foer is on to something. What he proposes is certainly what I would call a human-based approach.
Consequently, in order to help flesh out the underlying rationale for this course, allow me to articulate a range of things that each of us can do to help mitigate the climate crisis.
First, while personal action is certainly essential, it is important to realize that we need to act at more than just the breakfast table. Here are ten examples of what we can do that are in this vein:
Saving the planet begins
1) in the kitchen, when we eat, rather than waste, what we buy and grow.
2) at meals, when we eat for the good of the planet and its climate, such as through largely plant-rich diets.
3) in the bedroom, when we practice family planning and limit family size.
4) in the classroom, when we fairly and equally educate boys and girls.
5) on the way to work, when we walk, bike, or use public transportation, rather than owning a car, which can account for a quarter of our personal carbon footprints.
6) at home, when we choose to live in an appropriately sized dwelling or co-housing, instead of an average (i.e. oversized) American house, let alone a McMansion.
7) on vacation, when we choose slow travel over air travel, which is, environmentally, the worst way to get around.
8) in stores and online, when we choose not to buy yet more unnecessary stuff.
9) off-line, when we barter, borrow, rent, and otherwise exchange, as well as repair, things, rather than buying still more stuff.
10) with buying, not only by buying less, sharing, and keeping things longer, but also by only buying from companies with environmentally sound and socially just practices.
This list of ten things is by no means complete, but you get the idea. Note that all of the above involve personal and cultural changes rather than new or more technology. In the course material, we are going to meet people who have reduce their carbon footprint by a factor of 10 just through the above actions.
Similarly, but on a somewhat different note, saving the planet begins
1) at the polling place, when we cast our vote for candidates, from local to federal, advocating for sweeping climate policies, such as carbon pricing and the Green New Deal.
2) again at the polling place, when we vote for candidates and initiatives that put people and the planet ahead of corporate interests.
3) prior to the polling place, as we explain to five or more of our friends and family the importance of voting on behalf of our planet, its climate, and all the life that lives on it.
4) at gathering places. when we join together and collectively demand climate action, such as with the Sunrise Movement.
5) by protesting and through acts of peaceful civl disobedience, such as Greta Thunberg’s protest outside the Swedish parliament.
6) with reading, as we learn more about the crisis and what is being done – as well as why nearly enough isn’t being done.
7) with rethinking, as we, as individuals and as a diverse range of human cultures, take a long hard look at how we inhabit this planet.
8) by sharing what we know and do with others, so that they too have a better understanding of the climate crisis and what can be done.
9) by joining with others in initiatives, from local to global, such as freegan or bicycle collectives, so that we can support each other.
10) with us, as we become (to echo a phrase often attributed to Gandhi) the change that we want to see in the world.
Again, this second group of ten things is not an exhaustive list, but it should be clear that none of the above (on either) list requires much by way of technological innovation, but rather just people both embodying change and joining together to demand it.
In other words, both lists suggest personal, cultural, economic, and political changes, rather than technological solutions, to a crisis caused by human beings. Again this is not to say that technological innovations are not needed to address the climate crisis, but this is not nearly enough by itself.
Because so much depends on human actions (personal and collective), this course focuses on many of the above 20.
Note that both of the above lists are aimed at the principal cause of the climate crisis: the actions of human beings in the developed world. Since those of us in countries like the U.S. are the cause of the problem, these solutions need to be enacted by us.
Since the poorest 3 billion people on the planet have emitted just 5% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, only a few things on these lists apply to them. Moreover, there is one thing that I would add just for the developing world that would be absolutely huge, if they could somehow succeed in doing it: convince the developed world to stop emitting so many greenhouse gases! If you are curious what such an appeal would be like, see Sunita Narain take Leonardo DiCaprio to task in the documentary Before the Flood. Seriously, it is the best part of the film.
This human-based approach is, in fact, a form of technology.
In my most recent book, which is on moving forward to nature by writing a new environmental era, I argued that the human-based approach that we will be using in this course is, in fact, a form of technology. Allow me to explain by quoting from that book for the remainder of this section:
“The sciences can apply what they have learned to solve real-world problems. We generally refer to such applied-science approaches as ‘technology.’ What if we similarly used an applied-humanities approach to solve problems? What if, after studying a problematic cultural practice, we then attempted to directly intervene by writing a new practice (or at least a new variation on an old one) into being? Conducting a cultural analysis of an existing practice would help explain why it came into being and what social needs it fulfills. Having learned this, we would be in a position to use this knowledge to propose something new that also addresses these needs, but in a better, more environmentally sound and socially responsible way.”
“Once I turned my attention to this idea, I began wondering why humanities scholars do not do this—or at least attempt it—more often, even as a routine matter of course. It is often said that the humanities, especially when compared to the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), have little to offer the world. To the contrary, the applied-humanities approach that I am suggesting promises to have a great deal to offer. In many cases, as much or even more than the applied-sciences.”
“I see this applied-humanities approach as a form of technology. When talking about technology, we generally mean an application of knowledge (i.e. applied knowledge) that brings about a change in the world. Usually, this knowledge is scientific. But must it be? The applied knowledge, the technology, can just as easily come from the humanities.”
“Let’s again take the automobile as our example. Using an applied-science approach, we could work on technologies to make cars more energy efficient and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Alternately, using an applied-humanities approach, we could study something like commuting by bus in order to find out why it is so undesirable—let’s face it, nearly everyone hates it. If we could crack this nut (by exploring how mass transportation was largely written out of American culture as cars were written in, which did not happen to such a degree in any other country) and then apply what we learned to help make buses more appealing, we could advance a form of transportation that is a whopping 14 times more energy efficient than cars with a single occupant.”
“Approached from the perspective of the applied sciences, a 1400 percent increase in automobile efficiency is utterly unthinkable (even 14 percent would be quite an achievement). However, an applied-humanities approach could pull off such a feat by seeing this as a human problem brought on by human actions, which can be rewritten. This is why I suggested that an applied-humanities approach can offer as much or more than the applied-sciences. This is not to say that rewriting transportation practices would be easy. Indeed, it is arguably easier to change cars (such as by making them electric) than to change people’s actions. Nonetheless, it is time for specialists in human culture (like me) to devote ourselves to developing such humanities-based technologies to help with real-world problems.”
How this course is structured
A frequent objection to Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth was that it principally explained the problem rather than offered solutions to the climate crisis. As it provided little direction on how to solve this extraordinary problem, more than a few people found the film depressing. Some even felt hopeless after viewing it, which was certainly understandable.
After all, on what were we to pin our hopes? What could avert, or at least mitigate, the crisis? Gore offered us very little to go on – and, thus, very little hope.
In fairness, given that the film ran for just under two hours, Gore was able to do quite a bit in a short time. He certainly energized a generation of activists, like filmmaker Kip Anderson (as he explains in the opening of Cowspiracy). Nonetheless, An Inconvenient Truth is something of a cautionary tale for anyone wishing to communicate the extraordinary challenge that the climate crisis presents for humanity.
This course humbly both takes up this formidable challenge of communicating the climate crisis, as well as exploring the challenges we face in averting or mitigating this crisis.
As An Inconvenient Truth made clear, both challenges are indeed formidable and interconnected. Why didn’t Gore communicate more solutions? In part, he arguably didn’t because they were still being worked out in detail across the globe in 2006.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve known for over 50 years that we needed to switch to renewable energy like photovoltaic and wind power. Moreover, we largely had the necessary technology 50 years ago.
However, as far as our day-to-day lives are concerned, a climate friendly lifestyle seemed, to be honest, like something of an oddity. Again, this is not to say that people haven’t been developing and advocating for such a lifestyle for 50 years, as environmental vegetarianism, for example, is certainly that old.
Part of the problem was that we were still in something of a state of denial. By that, I do not mean that Gore’s audience was denying that the crisis was real. While it was the unfortunate case that many Americans were denying the crisis in 2006, the people that filled theaters to watch An Inconvenient Truth likely acknowledged that there was a problem. At least by the end of the film they certainly did.
I’m talking about a different sort of denial here. Denial that our lives would have to change in order to avert the crisis.
Many people were (and are) still hoping that a new kind of car, perhaps a hybrid or fully electric one, or buying organic food would solve the problem (Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma also came out in 2006). But they weren’t at all prepared for the fact that we would have to forgo owning cars altogether and radically rethink the way that we eat. Pastured beef may arguably be better for the planet than feedlots, but a far bigger problem is that we eat beef at all.
It is not that Gore and his original audience were denying the validity of the climate crisis, they just were – as far as I am concerned – in a state of denial when it came to personally addressing the problem. Gore himself certainly repeatedly came under fire for his personal failure to do so. It is, in fact, difficult to understand how a Nobel laureate for his work on the climate crisis would be ok with crisscrossing the globe in a private jet.
This course takes the position that we both need to stop denying that personal changes will be necessary, as well as stop delaying implementing them.
Once we open ourselves up to the fact that we need to make changes to our way of life, we are suddenly presented with scores of things that we can do to help mitigate the climate crisis. Big and little things that together that can reduce our size-ten climate footprints down to size-one. I am not just being figurative here, as it is quite possible for Americans to reduce our individual climate footprints by a factor of ten and still live meaningful and happy lives. Arguably happier lives.
The needed changes are both individual and collective. Hence, things that we can do by ourselves, such as switching to a largely plant-based diet, and things that we can only do collectively through activism and political action, like enacting a Green New Deal.
These changes form the basis for this course. In other words, this course is less about climate change than it is about human change – how we human beings, both individually and collectively, need to change.
Consequently, and in contrast to An Inconvenient Truth, which focused on the problem, this course focuses primarily on solutions. This is not to say that we gloss over the problem, but rather that we only devote about a third of the course to it.
Here is how the course proceeds, which should help explain its underlying rationale.
The first three of ten sections are devoted to the problem. (Incidentally, as the UCSB course runs for a ten-week quarter, we devote one week to each section.)
Section 1 focuses on the problem by considering how the climate crisis is a global phenomenon already impacting the entire planet. Moreover, as we explore in this section, this is just the beginning, as the worst is yet to come. How bad will it be? It all depends on how quickly and decisively we act.
Section 2 brings things close to home, as we look at how the crisis is already having a real impact on us locally. Since this course is taught in California, the focus is on how the crisis is unfolding here. This is an important section, as it underscores that this worldwide crisis will be experienced very differently across the globe.
Section 3 takes up the question of climate change denial and delay, which is greatly exacerbating the problem. If we resolve to take the required actions, we can avert the worst of what is to come. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry and other interests are devoted to thwarting those actions.
Three sections are not a lot to devote to the problem. We could easily spend the whole course on this. Indeed, multiple courses. But this brings us back to Gore’s challenge with An Inconvenient Truth, as a course devoted to the problem would offer little hope for the future.
In fact, when this course was taught for the first time, during the first three weeks many students were already becoming profoundly depressed and indeed despairing. After reading their weekly comments, I found myself repeatedly reassuring them that there was hope and that we would get to it soon.
And there is hope, lots of it. The final seven sections are devoted to it.
Section 4 introduces, by way of Henry David Thoreau and the modern movement of minimalism, how lifestyle choices and personal actions can have a profound impact on our individual climate foot prints.
Section 5 not only takes a look at the environmental impact of the past 60 years of consumer culture, but also the social justice issues that it created.
Section 6 looks at the top 25 sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and considers how important personal action is to many of these. In particular, we look at how limiting food waste and switching to largely plant-based diets are together more important than either wind or solar energy in reducing GHG emissions.
Note that Sections 4-6 focus on personal action. I agree with climate activist Naomi Klein that “focusing on individual consumer behaviour, whether it’s changing lightbulbs or going vegan, is just not going to get us there.”
However, as I note in the lecture for this segment (“Personal action, climate activism, or becoming politically active. Which matters more?”), it is not a question of choosing either personal action or climate activism or becoming politically active. In many, many cases, all three are integrally connected.
I would argue the personal action has a special position, as it can help keep our focus on the prize on a daily basis. Everyday that we hop on a bike or forgo a burger, we remind ourselves that much needs to be done – and that we are, even if in a small way, doing something.
Doing such little things also sends a message to the rest of the world, as we lead by example.
However, Naomi Klein is right that this is not enough, which is why the next two sections of this course are devoted to climate activism, political action, and the challenge of communicating climate change.
Section 7 underscores the importance of climate activism and political action. In particular, the focus will be on the Green New Deal, as it promised sweeping political, economic, and cultural changes in response to the climate crisis. Although it is presently not being enacted, it represents the most reasonable response to the climate crisis that has yet to be put forth by politicians in the U.S.
Section 8 focuses on the importance of communication. In addition to personal action, activism, and being politically active, it is important for each of us to communicate to others the urgency of the climate crisis and what can be done about it.
Section 9 takes up what may seem to be an odd question: Can the climate crisis make us happy? In no way do I mean to be insensitive here, as I realize that millions of people are already suffering because of the climate crisis – and that this is just the beginning.
In response to this suffering, this course takes a long hard look at the current, consumerist iteration of the “American Dream” and how it is not just an environmental and social justice nightmare, but has also taken its toll on the American psyche.
The problem is that this consumerist dream promising happiness has not at all delivered on the promise.
In fact, in recent decades, Americans have become less and less happy. While this would be a sad irony in itself, the great tragedy is that in pursuing happiness in this way we are destroying our planet. During the same period that Americans have been becoming less happy, we have been pumping more and more greenhouse gases into our planet’s atmosphere.
Not only could profoundly reevaluating and reducing consumerism make us happier, it would reduce suffering in the developing world now, as well as when the rest of the world develops out of poverty.
Section 10 concludes the course by considering how we can make a difference in the world in light of what we have learned.
By ending on an optimistic (indeed “happy”) note, my goal is to make clear that not only is there hope for the future, but that it can be a far better, happier future than the present – or, for that matter, any point in human history.
How do we bring such a future about? The majority of this course is devoted to what each of us can do about realizing it.
Why is this an issue for an English course?
As noted above, not only does the climate crisis need to be seen as a human problem brought about by human actions, but the solutions to this crisis that have the greatest potential impact also center on human actions.
But why, exactly, is this an issue for an English course?
Wouldn’t approaching this crisis from another field of the environmental humanities or the social sciences makes sense? The simple fact is that we really need everyone to address this issue, including the average person on the street and scholars ranging from scientists, to sociologists, to specialists in the humanities.
Nonetheless, the study of English does bring something unique to the table.
The public is inundated daily with a broad range of material relating to the climate crisis. We know that fossil fuel interests annually spend hundreds of millions of dollars producing this material, which is often distributed by way of conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute.
Moreover, now that the climate crisis has become a politically polarized issue in America, a variety of additional media outlets (including a major news network) now spread the message of climate skepticism or outright denial. Alternately, scientists, scholars, journalists, and others are desperately trying to convince the public of the validity and urgency of the climate crisis.
Confronted with this bewildering array of material, how does one get to the truth of the matter?
This course takes the position that we can read through to the truth.
In other words, since most people do not have a background in climate science or renewable technology, we have to rely on our ability to critically read a variety of materials in order to determine their validity. In this sense, teaching the skills of textual analysis, which is something that we do throughout this course, is central to our approach.
On the other hand, what we read in this course is just as important as how we read it. Hence, instead of randomly selecting texts to teach the art of careful reading, the course texts are designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the climate crisis and what we can do about it, as well as the debate that it has engendered in the U.S.
In this sense, this course studies the culture and thought of the climate crisis – which is really now two cultures in the U.S. fiercely competing for dominance.
In this course, these two projects – studying the culture and thought of the climate crisis by learning how to read through to the truth of the matter – are not limited to written texts. The last few decades of critical analysis have expanded our definition of what constitutes a “text.”
Hence, for our purposes a text can be a written work, a photograph or painting, a film or video, or a range of additional creations – and any of these can be ‘read’ in our sense of being actively analyzed. In practice, this means that we will be analyzing both written works and documentaries that throw light on the climate crisis.
But why focus on English texts in particular? There are a variety of reasons, but two in particular are worth noting.
First, a significant number of texts that deny (in one way or another) the reality of the climate crisis, or its severity, are written in English for American, British, Australian, and worldwide audiences.
Second, as 25% of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were put there by the United States, understanding how this particular country has framed the issue is of unusual importance, as it can give us insights into how this crisis was brought about – and, hopefully, what we can do to reinvent U.S. culture, which is now being exported to the world with disastrous results for our planet and its climate.
Should you agree with everything that is presented here?
In a word, “No.” Given that our topic is the climate crisis, this may come as something of a surprise. I am certainly not suggesting that you deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Nonetheless, when students disagree with me, it is often a sign that I have succeeded at my job.
Why? In part, it has to do with the humanities approach that we are employing here.
If this were a class on the science of climate change, I would expect you to agree with most of the material presented. For example, that a rise in global CO2 levels is having an impact on global temperature. While a particularly advanced student, such as a PhD student working in the area, might (after years of work and research) be able to take exception to certain aspects of the relationship of CO2 levels to global atmospheric temperature rise presented at lecture, this would be a major accomplishment and almost certainly not an intervention that would come from a student taking an introductory lecture on the climate crisis.
But the humanities are different.
Imagine if we were not considering the climate crisis, but (using a more traditional subject from the humanities) a poem. As your instructor, my job would be to introduce you to the poem and its context, get you focused on it, and to give you a range of material to help you think about it in new and perhaps unexpected ways. If your encounter with the poem went well (i.e if you committed yourself and I did my job well), you would be able to offer up a reading of it, or at least a portion of one.
My goal would not be to have you agree with me, but rather to mentor you in developing your own reading of the poem, which might be completely different than mine. If, on an exam or assigned essay, a student just repeated back everything that I had said about a poem, I would sadly conclude that I had failed to mentor them into the art of textual analysis. However, I would be really excited if they came up with their own way of approaching the text.
Returning to this class and the climate crisis, my job is to get you thinking about it in an informed way – which is not to say that you must agree with me. For example, I have a series of lectures focused on the climate crisis as a generational issue. You might disagree with this approach in a variety of ways.
First, you might draw attention to the fact that, when considering different positions on the climate crisis, the gulf between generations is not as great as the gulf between people of different political leanings, especially those individuals that think of themselves as either very conservative or very liberal. Alternately, you might feel that casting blame from one generation to another is not particularly helpful, and in fact might just make things worse.
Neither response is in any way wrong. In fact, I think that both of these reflections are useful and completely valid. If students had made such observations in their YouTube comments on my lecture, I would be more than a little gratified, as it would be clear that they were thinking hard about the climate crisis and how best to approach it.
My goal is to get you to do just that.
Table of Contents
Course Rationale and Content
Why is English 23 also called Climate Crisis 101?
Course overview and approach
Why take a humanities approach?
Examples of a humanities approach (20 things we can do)
This human-based approach is, in fact, a form of technology
How this course is structured
Why is this an issue for an English course?
Should you agree with everything that is presented here?
What exactly is Climate Crisis 101?
This is a discussion-based course with 1000 students
Attend, read, or watch. The choice is yours.
Does posting this material online make the class redundant?
Is this a MOOC?
This is a living document
A note for teachers
A note on the syllabus for people not taking the UCSB course
Is this a book, a course, or a website?
Seriously, why does this page look the way that it does?
Some reflections on the first time that the course was taught
This course is creating a lasting archive
Week 1: The uninhabitable (or at least unwelcoming) earth
Week 2: The climate crisis as a local, burning issue
Week 3: Denying the undeniable
Week 4: Front only the essential facts of life
Week 5: Making waste (of the planet)
Week 6: The Green New Deal
Week 7: Drawing down the climate crisis
Week 8: Communicating climate change, through words and actions
Week 9: Can the climate crisis make us happy?
Week 10: The Climate Crisis: What It Was and What Each of Us Did About It
Climate and Generation
The climate crisis as a generational issue (Introduction)
1) How the climate crisis was brought about in a single lifetime
2) Why the generation that caused the climate crisis is not acting
3) What a new generation can do to mitigate the climate crisis
4) Can one generation do what previous generations failed to do?
5) What the Boomer generation knew – and when we knew it
What each of us can do about the climate crisis
1) Why the climate crisis is a cultural rather than just technological problem (and why electric cars are more trouble than good)
2) Flying, the absolute worst thing that you can do environmentally
3) Do we need a climate vanguard? (Food, today and tomorrow)
4) Personal action, climate activism, or becoming politically active. Which matters more?
5) Housing and Cities
6) Pulling it all together: 20 things that each of us can do to save the planet
Introductions to Course Readings
The Uninhabitable Earth
2°C: Beyond the Limit, Fires, floods and free parking
Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming
The Waste Makers
Project Drawdown, Summary of Solutions
Social justice, environmental justice, climate justice, and the injustice of it all
Communicating the Climate Crisis: vegans and freegans, vegetarians and climatarians
Drawing down greenhouse gas emissions by being the change
Introductions to Course Films
Before the Flood and An Inconvenient Sequel
Fire in Paradise
A Climate of Doubt and Merchants Of Doubt
The True Cost
Cowspiracy and Wasted!
The Green New Deal
Being the Change
Are we destroying the planet in a misguided pursuit of happiness?
Copyright 2020-21 by Ken Hiltner