Global Disasters

GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTERS IN SPACE, HISTORY, AND STORY

Daniel Grant (dagrant2@wisc.edu)

Geography/History/Environmental Studies 300

Course Description

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“After Tsunami,” Fukushima, Japan, April 16, 2011. By Jun Teramoto (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Natural disasters that occur on American soil are often moments laden with lessons and morals – in 2005 Hurricane Katrina inspired many stories about what happened and why, each naming different causes and solutions in the aftermath. But while Americans donate considerably to far-off disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it is often more difficult to see how we are implicated in international disasters and what lessons to draw from them. In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown only became a major event in American life when radioactive waste began appearing on the West Coast of the United States. Even then, Americans struggled to understand who was responsible or what was to be done as they encountered this waste during walks on the beach or in the news.

As mass extinctions, rising sea levels, and oil spills now more than ever blur the boundaries between crisis and daily life, this environmental humanities course will connect sites of “normal” American life with the “abnormal” aftermath of major disasters around the world. Our goal will be to trace and analyze the economic, political, and social global connections that link us to these seemingly distant disasters (as well as disasters closer to home), ponder common storylines for these disasters, and understand how these storylines shape adaptation strategies. Using examples of historical natural disasters, we will see disaster landscapes in places both near and distant not as discrete and isolated events, but rather interwoven in a global web of awareness (and non-awareness), political will (and lack thereof), and economic decision-making.

Our course will be divided into three interconnected units. In Unit 1, Landscapes of Disaster, we will investigate how to read the American landscape and various international landscapes as disaster zones linked to economic, cultural, and material life. In Unit 2, Representing Crisis in Stories, we will examine common genres of disaster stories and how they emerge in daily life today. In Unit 3, Strategies of Coping, we will combine Units 1 and 2 to interrogate how people use stories about disasters and the lessons they draw from them to adapt in the face of crisis.

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize landscapes of disaster as part of political, social, and economic connections between America and different parts of the globe.
  • Identify and analyze common narrative shapes of literary depictions of crisis.
  • Apply insights from narratives and landscapes of disaster to understand how people make sense of causation in order to determine how they will adapt to contemporary disasters.
  • Become proficient interpreting and deploying in argument different written texts: scholarly argument, popular journalism, fiction, film, and primary documents.
  • Become proficient creating your own research questions and a small research project that deepens and develops your historical, geographic, and literary research skills.
  • Develop critical thinking skills by engaging in close reading and discussion with fellow classmates.

Required Readings:

  • Kate Brown, Plutopia (Oxford, 2013)
  • Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, 2000)
  • Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Bloomsbury, 2006)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Knopf, 2006)
  • Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard, 2011)
  • Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Penguin, 2013)
  • Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Disaster in America, 2nd edition (Oxford, 2000)

Assignments

Reading Responses: For every class from Week 2 through Week 15, with the exception of four “free passes” that you may take whenever you wish, answer the following in a substantial paragraph or two (~250 words): In your own words, what is the point of the reading? What surprised you? What confused you? Pose a question that you think would be productive for class discussion.

The Research Presentation: During Weeks 13-14, you will each be expected to give a 10-minute research presentation that should do the following: 1. Concisely and persuasively explain your research paper topic; 2. Explain the historical question you have answered and why it is valuable, and 3. Discuss your research methodology. This presentation should be seen as more of a near-endpoint rather than a beginning, where you are translating your major findings from your research paper into a cohesive argument for the class. There will also be time for you to ask questions about your project’s uncertainties to the class and discuss common challenges of conducting primary- and secondary- source research to help with your final push on your paper. I will distribute a handout with more detailed instructions as this approaches.

The Research Paper: Research papers should focus on a global disaster event and unpack it by analyzing different stories about what caused it, how it transformed the landscape, and what humans and non-humans should do about it. Papers should be 12-15 pages in length and should be based on a mixture of primary and secondary sources (including literature and film, as appropriate), should address historical questions and utilize historical methodologies, and should represent your best efforts to think through the issues involved in polished, carefully edited, well-crafted prose.

Discussion Leading: In pairs, you will each be expected to lead a seminar discussion once this semester. In preparation for leading discussion, please read the assigned readings ahead of time, meet in pairs to devise critical questions for the week’s reading, and meet with me to amend and confirm these questions prior to class.

Grading

Attendance and Participation: 15%

Reading Responses: 40% (10 x 4% each)

Discussion Leader: 10%

Research Presentation: 10%

Final Research Paper: 25%

X = posted on course portal

Class Schedule:

WEEK 1: INTRODUCTIONS: THE GLOBE AS DISASTER ZONE

We will introduce the concept of the globe as a disaster zone and consider different disasters that help illustrate this conception (Katrina, Fukushima, Haiti) as an entry point to the course. We will then discuss the overall trajectory, noting the linkages among material and cultural transformations (Unit 1), representation in story (Unit 2), and disaster coping/response (Unit 3). What are the stakes of understanding the world as a disaster zone? Is it always a disaster zone? Who is enrolled in this conception of the globe, and how?

UNIT 1: LANDSCAPES OF DISASTER

WEEK 2: DISASTER AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE

T *William Cronon, Uncommon Ground, Introduction (“In Search of Nature”) (pp. 23-68) X

*Ted Steinberg, Acts of God, pp. xi-78

R *Ted Steinberg, Acts of God, pp. 79-211

This week begins by problematizing the concept of “natural disasters,” and interrogates the way disasters expose the ideas of nature Americans have used to transform the material landscape. We start with American landscapes to set the theoretical and historical groundwork in a familiar landscape (for many students) in order to apply these concepts to global landscapes later.

WEEK 3: AMERICAN PROGRESS, AMERICAN CRISIS

T *Kevin Rozario, The Culture of Calamity, Introduction-Chapter 3 X

R *Kevin Rozario, The Culture of Calamity, Chapter 4-Epilogue X

This week builds off the previous week by linking the history of modern “American progress” to disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1927 Mississippi flood, Katrina, and 9/11. Whereas the previous week’s goal is to show the material manifestations of disasters, this week delves into the realm of cultural landscapes, and makes the case that disasters are the “flip side” of progress transforming the American landscape.

WEEK 4: LANDSCAPES OF PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION

T *Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, Preface, Part 2 (pp. 1-16, 117-210)

R *Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, Part 4 (pp. 277-394)

With the foundation laid for understanding the material and cultural history of American disasters, this week seeks to apply a political-economic lens to historical disasters in the Global South noting the connections between political-economic processes within the US and the effects of disasters. This week serves as a bridge between American disasters and disasters abroad, and notes key similarities and differences between the American project of progress and the imperial project abroad. This week also serves as pretext for next week’s focus on nuclear landscapes, as American production practices materially, socially, and ecologically shape nuclear landscapes abroad.

WEEK 5: NUCLEAR DREAMS, NUCLEAR NIGHTMARES

T *Brown, Plutopia, Introduction, Parts 1-2 (pp. 3-164)

R *Brown, Plutopia, Parts 3-4 (pp. 165-331)

This week interrogates the useful concept of linked landscapes to see the similarities and differences in how landscapes in the US and USSR were imagined, transformed, embraced, and feared.

WEEK 6: SLOW VIOLENCE

T *Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Introduction-Ch. 3 (pp. 1-

127)

R *Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Ch. 5-Epilogue (pp. 150-

282)

Students will be primed by this point to see disasters not only as dramatic spectacles, but rather as unfolding processes that link “normal” life in the United States and invisible, attritional harm over time abroad. This week will also serve as a pivot to Unit 2, as Nixon gives a good deal of attention to writer-activists. We will ask what strategies they used to represent slow violence, and signpost the next week’s gear shift.

UNIT 2: REPRESENTING CRISIS IN STORIES

WEEK 7: GENRES OF STORYTELLING

T *William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, Narrative,”Journal of American History, March 1992, (pp. 1347-1376) X

R *Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow” (pp. 1-3) X

*Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, Introduction (pp. xiii-xxiv) X

*Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, Prelude (pp. 1-12) X

This week serves as a buffet of different genres of storytelling about disasters, and asks how the same disasters can be interpreted so differently with different narrative arcs (i.e. prophecy, dystopia, utopia, etc.). This sets the stage for the following three weeks’ worth of in-depth analysis of disaster narratives.

WEEK 8: FROM WHENCE WE FELL: EDENIC PASTS

T The Optimist in the Garden

*Voltaire, Candide (pp. 1-89) X

R Agrarian Dreams

*Film, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) on reserve

We’ll delve into the satirical classic of Candide to discuss a utopic vision that serves as counterpoint to the illusion that people can control natural events. We’ll then apply this to the film version of Grapes of Wrath (film instead of book to give students a break from a heavy reading load). Discussion will center on the role Eden and its fall plays in a story, and how it leads to declensionist plot lines.  

WEEK 10: DYSTOPIC FUTURES

T *McCarthy, The Road (pp. 1-150)

R *McCarthy, The Road (pp. 151-287)

*”Scorched Earth, 2200 AD”: https://aeon.co/essays/welcome-to-earth-2200-ad-pop-500-million-temp-180-f

The Road is a classic in the canon of dystopian fiction, and we’ll juxtapose the narrative arc of a world in which the fall has already occurred with the one in which the fall takes place over the course of the story. What messages and landscapes are invoked in this narrative arc, and at what scale?

WEEK 9: IN SEARCH OF HOME

T * Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (pp. 1-220)

R * Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (pp. 220-432)

We’ll discuss the genre of the “journey” narrative. A Tale for the Time Being tells a journey story with a twist, however. Using the lives of two characters separated by the Pacific Ocean, it looks at how debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan (the same tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown) can connect two seemingly separate and independent lives. We’ll use this story to think about how these lives are connected, and how the disaster upended and redefined the search for home for each character. This will serve as a pivot to the first week of Unit 3.

UNIT 3: STRATEGIES OF COPING

WEEK 11: DIASPORAS OF BODIES AND SPECIES (LEAVING)

T *Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (pp. I-45, 93-133)

R *Hurricane Katrina readings http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org

*In-class film clips: When the Levees Broke

We’ll think through the moral and political implications of leaving home. In what kinds of landscapes do diasporas occur, and to whom? Where do bodies and species go?

WEEK 12: CREATING A LIVING SPACE (STAYING)

T *James Galvin, The Meadow (pp. 1-120) X

R *John McPhee, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” in The Control of Nature, 1989 (pp. 183-272) X

We’ll use the American West as a metaphor for emplacement – stories of community who build (or rebuild) home when home leaves them.

WEEK 13: PRESENTATIONS

T *Read each other’s synopses

R *Read each other’s synopses

Students will present on their research papers during these two weeks, and will circulate synopses of their paper for other students to read beforehand in order to come prepared.

WEEK 14: PRESENTATIONS

T *Read each other’s synopses

R *Read each other’s synopses

Students will present on their research papers during these two weeks, and will circulate synopses of their paper for other students to read beforehand in order to come prepared.

WEEK 15: THE ANTHROPOCENE: THE DISASTER THAT CONNECTS US ALL?

T *“An Ecomodernist Manifesto”: http://www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto-english/

*Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014, Introduction (pp. 1-30) X

R *Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Ch. 10 (pp. 183-190)

* Rob Nixon, “The Anthropocene: Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea”:

The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea

We’ll attempt to bring everything together by interrogating the concept of the Anthropocene. As an entry point we’ll juxtapose Klein and The Breakthrough Institute, and ask what kinds of disasters each portrays. Who is present, and what landscapes do they inhabit? What are the intended prescriptions and perils of this envisioned future? How is the past configured to lead to this future, and what are its causes? This conversation should bring together all 3 units: material transformations on the landscape, modes of representing these transformations, and ways of coping in the face of disaster.

Final papers due at 5pm on the Wednesday of Finals Week.

Syllabus DOWNLOAD

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