Eco-Collapse: Fear, Disaster, and Nature in U.S. Culture

Professor: Sarah Jaquette Ray
Institution: University of Alaska Southeast
Course Number: ENG 418

Spring 2010 Course

Professor Sarah Jaquette Ray

CRN 38087   ·   TH 5:30-7:30   ·   EGAN 223

Office: SOB 104     ·    Hours: MW 2-3:30pm   ·

Course Premise:

Narratives and images of the planet’s total destruction — “eco-collapse”– abound in contemporary culture. Take, for example, the increased proliferation of films about collapse, from Wall-EIce Age, and Happy Feet toThe Day after Tomorrow, The Road2010, and, not to be forgotten, An Inconvenient Truth.  And then there’s the polar bear: what does the fact that this one species has become the symbol of climate change tell us about the human-nature relationship?  Such cultural expressions affect political will, ethical values, and even scientific research.  Given our particular moment in history, greater understanding of the cultural work that these environmental images and narratives do is central to responsible global citizenship.  In this course, we will obtain this greater perspective by investigating the role of “eco-collapse” in U.S. culture.  We will do this by close-reading a variety of texts, including science fiction, poetry, journalistic nonfiction, popular culture, psychology, historical interpretation, and political and literary theory.

Some underlying questions that will help us with our investigation are: What is new (and not) about the rhetoric of collapse in contemporary culture?  How do fear, the perception of risk, and the globalization of environmental threats inform literary, artistic, and cultural production? What are the respective roles of science, politics, and art in representing and addressing environmental crises? Whose claims are more “valid,” meaningful, and/or effective?


Required Texts (The following texts are available in the bookstore.  PDFs and links to all other required course readings are on UASOnline or the course blog, as indicated in the schedule below):


Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century

Don Delillo, White Noise

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster



Blog Assignment (40%): Grading, Etiquette, and Expectations

Our course blog can be found at  I invited each of you as authors based on your email. The site is public, but only students in the class can post.  The blog will provide the main forum for our course, and your contributions to it will play a major role in directing course content and discussion.  I encourage you to post on the blog as much as you want, but please be attentive to the following rules, etiquette, and expectations.

Details: Over the course of the semester, you are expected to post a minimum of five “main” posts and respond thoughtfully to another post at least three times.  Posts are due each Wednesday before 9pm.  This will give us all day Thursday before 5:30 to review the posts.  Each of you are expected to review the posts every week and come to class prepared to talk about the posts, whether or not you published a main post or a response. Each main post should be between 250-350 words.  With this word limit, I am asking you to practice being precise, clear, and to-the-point, but thorough. Your posts are formal assignments; that is, your prose must be well-polished.  Therefore, revise your work well before publishing. Remember, you have a public audience!  You will sign up for your posts on the first day of class.

Content: Your posts can do some combination of the following: 1) respond to the week’s readings, 2) share and analyze outside material—links, articles, poetry, videos, lectures, images, photos, music, etc.—and elaborate on its relationship to our course, 3) include personal stories and narratives to ground the material, and 4) include discussion questions that your post and/or the readings/outside material/personal story provoke. There is no research paper in this class, but these posts demand that you do some research and contribute content that will help us generate discussion in class.  You’ll hyperlink all your outside discoveries (your “research”) within your posts.  The syllabus can’t possibly cover everything there is to know about eco-collapse, and so we will rely on each others’ posts to deepen and broaden our exposure to the topic.  In addition, I want to encourage you to personalize the material we’re discussing, and so feel free to write in the first person.  When you post, please include “tags” that refer to specific details about your post, such as the unit of our course that the post relates to, names of authors, relevant geographical locales or events.  Also, identify which “category” the post fits into.  This will help organize the blog for ourselves and for outside readers.   I will address this in class.

Etiquette:  Writing is a social act.  Writing on a blog is even more so. It involves etiquette that isn’t always obvious, and which we must practice. Write for a non-specialized audience. Don’t assume knowledge of inside material, so gloss anything you reference.  Your prose should be well-crafted, professional, and respectful, as it is available to a wider audience than just our class.  While you are expected to engage each others’ and outside ideas, you’ll want to practice doing so graciously and productively.  It might take a few attempts, but we’ll get the hang of it.

Purpose:  My intention with the blog is to connect our class to the wider cultural discussion about eco-collapse.  I want it to serve as a warehouse of resources, links, and cultural production that coheres around the questions of the class.  Also, by making your writing public, I want to hold you accountable to a writing standard and style that is not academically specialized and encourage you to see yourself as a globally-situated thinker and actor.   It’s an experiment; help me iron out the kinks! I think it will be worth it.

Grading:  Easy as pie, of course!  You will receive full credit for the posts if: 1) you do all 8 (5 main, 3 responses) on time, 2) they are written well and respectfully, and 3) they engage the topics of our class beyond the readings.


Seminar Leading (20%):

Two students will lead part of a seminar on a week of your choosing.  You will sign up for the week you want on the first day of class. You can lead seminar on the same week that you post to the blog, but it isn’t necessarily related or required.  Try to think of leading seminar as fun. Seriously!  It’s a chance for you to be creative and think about how to get the rest of the class talking about questions that interest you.  During the week prior to your seminar, you must meet with me to discuss your plans.  Leadership should summarize the readings, bring the questions of our seminar to bear on them, and provoke discussion.  We will discuss expectations in class and individually during our pre-presentation meeting.

Film Review + Report (20%)
We will celebrate week 13 with Film Day!  You will each submit a film review (of 400-600 words) of a film of your choice and report on the film to the class.  We’ll have a hedonistic day talking about popular culture.  There are so many eco-collapse-themed films out there, and so one purpose of Film Day is to cast a wide net around them and each benefit from each others’ viewings.  We will use the films as lenses through which to illuminate our course questions.  How has what we learned in class influenced your reading of the film?  What does the film say about the human-nature relationship?  What nuance to the conventional collapse narrative does the film employ, if any?  Let’s collect a list of film ideas in your blog posts and as a class as the semester progresses.  See UASOnline for links to “How to write a film review” and a sample film review.

Investment (10%)
This part of your grade includes, but is not limited to attendance, taking responsibility for your own success, respectful and thoughtful participation, out-of-class communication with me, your work ethic, and your willingness to rise to the occasion of our time together.  In short, what can you do to make this class “work”?

Grade Breakdown
Blog Postings:                 50%
Seminar Leading:            20%
Film Review + Report:     20%
Investment:                     10%
Total:                            100%

Grade-Percent Conversion:
A = 92        A- =  90

B+ =  85     B = 82     B- = 80

C+ =  75     C = 72    C- = 70

D+ = 65      D = 62    D- =  60

< 60 =F

Policies & Expectations
Attendance: Missing class will affect your grade, as per the “investment” component.

Late Work: Can’t happen; each class discussion is built upon the work you produce.  No late work accepted.

Classroom Behavior: See above comment about “mature and curious adults.” To be more specific, this means I expect you to respect your peers, make an effort to include them in conversation, avoid doing any other tasks unrelated to the class (i.e. listening to music or surfing the web), and come to class prepared (with your readings and ready to discuss, take notes, etc).  Outside of class, I expect you to communicate with me frequently about your progress in the class. The best way to make the most of my support and resources is to come to office hours!

Plagiarism: All work submitted in this course must be your own. Sources, including ideas, quotations, and paraphrases, must be documented (this is especially important on the blog). Departmental policy is that plagiarism will result in the student receiving a failing grade for the paper and/or course.
Access/Ability: I am committed to making this course as accessible to all students as possible. If there is anything I can do to make course materials and ideas more accessible to you or any other members of the class, please share your ideas with me.  In addition, the University of Alaska Southeast is committed to equal opportunity and programmatic access for students with disabilities.  At any point in the semester, if you experience a disability and would like information about support services, please contact me and/or Disability Support Services, located at the Student Resource Center in the Novatney Building (x6000).

Learning Outcomes
•    Acquire critical thinking skills that allow you to recognize the social, cultural, political, and environmental implications of eco-collapse rhetoric, thereby transcending “doom and gloom” environmentalism;
•    Learn the historical genealogy of apocalyptic narrative in U.S. culture;
•    Learn to better distinguish between alarmist rhetoric, political/ideological agendas, and “real” environmental problems;
•    Learn to critically read images, narratives, and arguments in terms of their mediums as much as their messages;
•    Become more conscientious about your connection to global environmental ideas and issues;
•    Identify the importance of discourse, language, and art in environmental science and policy;
•    Explore your own environmental identity and voice.

Week 1:   1/21    Environmental Apocalypse in U.S. Culture

•    Nordhaus and Shellenberger, “Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change” (blog)
•    Lee, Earth First! Environmental Apocalyse, Chapter 1: “Millenarianism in the  American Context” (UASOnline)

Week 2:   1/28    Apocalyptic Rhetoric I: Origins

•    Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life, page xi-66
•    O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse, Chapter 1: “Toward a Rhetorical Theory of the Apocalypse” (blog)
•    Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It, Chapter 1: “Approaching Doomsday” (UASOnline)

Week 3:    2/4    Apocalyptic Rhetoric II: Implications

•    Karen Litfin, “Science in World Politics: The Need for a Discursive Approach” (UASOnline)
•    William Cronon, “A Place for Stories” (blog)
•    Robin Morris Collin, “The Apocalyptic Vision, Environmentalism, and a Wider Embrace” (UASOnline)

Week 4:   2/11    Sci-Fi: Post-Apocalypse

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Week 5:   2/18  (leave 6:30 pm)    Dystopia: Now or After the Apocalypse?    Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Week 6:   2/25    Environmental Crisis as Social Crisis

•    Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time
•    Buell, pages 143-176

Week 7:    3/4    Nuclear Fallout

•    Rachel Carson, Silent Spring selections (UASOnline)
•    Barbara Adam, Timescapes of Modernity, Chapter 7: “Radiated Identities” (blog)
•    Paul Slovic, The Perception of Risk, Chapter 17: “Perceived Risk, Trust, and the Politics of Nuclear Waste” (UASOnline)
•    Environment: An Anthology, Chapter 3: “Nuclear Power: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Future” (UASOnline)

Week 8:    3/11    Postmodernism I: The Globalization of Risk

•    Peter Singer, One World, Chapter 1: “A Changing World” (blog)
•    Arthur Mol and Gert Spaargaren, “Environment, Identity, and the Risk Society: The Apocalyptic Horizon of Environmental Reform” (blog)
•    Ulrich Beck, “Politics of a Risk Society” (blog)
•    Buell, page 177-208

Week 9:    3/25    Postmodernism II: Culture of Fear

•    Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, chapter 4: “Narrative in the World Risk Society” (UASOnline)
•    Don Delillo, White Noise

Week 10:   4/1     “Root Causes”

•    Jared Diamond, Collapse, Chapter 14 and “The Ends of the Worlds as We Know Them” (UASOnline)
•    Jeffrey Ellis, “On the Search for the Root Cause” (UASOnline)
•    Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, Preface, Chapter 6: “Millenarian Revolutions,” and Chapter 9: “The Origins of the Third World” (blog)
•    David Arnold, The Problem of Nature, chapter 4: “Environment as Catastrophe” (UASOnline)

Week 11:  4/8    “The Coming Anarchy”: Environmental Change and National Security

•    Thomas Homer-Dixon, “On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict” (blog)
•    Simon Dalby, Security and Environmental Change selection (UASOnline)
•    Environment: An Anthology, Chapter 7: “War and Peace: Security at Stake”
•    Alan Weisman, The World without Us, Chapter 13: “The World without War”

Week 12:  4/15    Natural Disasters

•    Rebecca Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell 
•    Katrina Poems (UASOnline)
•    Ted Steinberg, “What is a Natural Disaster”? (blog)
•    Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” (UASOnline)

Week 13:  4/22    FILM DAY!

Week 14:  4/29     The World Without Us?

•    Rebecca Solnit, “Judgment Day in Copenhagen” (blog)
•    Alan Weisman, “Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls” (UASOnline)

And into this crazy world you go!