Some teachers may face resistance to devoting time in the English classroom to environmental literature and to the tenets of environmental justice: the documentation and study of the intentional and disproportionate harm done to environments occupied by marginalized communities. In reality, English teachers have a unique and essential opportunity to foster understanding and discussion surrounding these topics.
Limiting the study of the environment as a field only to be taught in science classes profoundly disservices students. Similarly to the English literature teacher only “doing” the environment through the study of American transcendentalism, the school which only teaches environmentalism in science classes deprives students of their power and a complex understanding of the role of nature in their world-- and of the role humans play in that natural world. Tim Swinehart, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, describes this as “ecological illiteracy,” a crisis of understanding crafted by this lack of understanding the inextricably interconnected anthropocene and the natural world (1). In history textbooks, for example, the environment is largely ignored; the exception is when it is commodified, rivers “made to provide power...simply waiting to be harnessed by the new industrialists.” The outcome of this lack of complex or accurate depiction of nature damages not only our academic understanding, but also our morality. “When we’re not taught to understand the intimate and fundamental connections between people and the environment in our nation’s history,” writes Swinehart, “it should come as no surprise that we struggle to make these same connections today. (2)”
Limiting environmental education to the science classroom also limits students in their understanding of themselves as readers, writers, artists, and thinkers. Most science teachers do not introduce poetry, art, fiction, or film into their classes. This is not a criticism of science teachers, who are constrained by time, curricular pressures, or lack of experience in texts other than nonfiction; rather, it should serve as a call to action for secondary teachers in other subject areas to heed their responsibility to introduce environmentalism in their classes.
This approach is, unfortunately, uncommon; however, the reason for this is all too understandable. Professor of environmental justice and Chicanx studies Laura Pulido, in her foreword to Latinx Environmentalisms, admits to her own shortcomings in broadening her perspective of environmental writing to include fiction: “I recall, in particular, a discussion of Raymond Barrio’s The Plum Plum Pickers. How could a piece of fiction, let alone an analysis of it, be of consequence when people were dying? (3)” Pulido later refined and reevaluated her perspective, coming to the conclusion that “questions of representation, futurity, imagination, and memory and the need to examine complexities that exceed social science tools” are reliant on all fields, including the humanities. In his interview “A Story is a Physical Space,” author Héctor Tobar, whose background is in journalism, came to a similar revelation:
“I didn’t feel that I was being allowed the full expression of my voice as a writer within the boundaries of daily journalism… I wanted, seriously to study fiction...I read a novel by an LA writer that began in East LA. It had a portrayal of a neighborhood that I did not recognize and that seemed incredibly stereotyped and exploitative. It made me really angry because I loved to read… But that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to be. I felt I had more stories to tell; I felt I had stories to tell that didn’t fit within the columns of a newspaper. (4)”
Pulido and Tobar made the conscious decision to expand their environmental writing and study to encompass fiction; however, most scientists do not give this same attention to art, fiction, and poetry. Combine this with the fact that most humanities teachers do not offer the integration of nature and the environment as a lens through which to view human stories, and you have a recipe for ecological illiteracy; in this model, literature and science pass each other as parallel lines, never converging, never offering students the opportunity clearly see the existence of their intersection.
Furthermore, limiting the study of the environment solely to nonfiction offers students a skewed view of who is entitled to the identity of an activist, an author, a scientist, or an artist. As Pulido learned, fiction has a valuable role in creating a complex understanding of the links between humanity and the environment; so, too, does it create a reclamation of rights, joy, and humanity for students who see themselves in the stories of marginalization often created by nonfiction. English teachers, then, must remember their moral responsibility to their students as they teach potentially traumatizing and dismissive concepts. Focusing on the devastation of Flint’s lead poisoning without introducing the courage and resistance of those such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who saved lives by refusing to remain silent, is denigrating to students. A broader view of subject areas where environmental justice studies belong expands students’ understandings beyond the scientific facts and figures, bending the arc of the narrative towards the triumph, reclamation, and renaissance of the artists and authors who resist injustice and affirm their identities with joy.
In the midst of stories of destruction and hopelessness common in the field of environmental literature, this shift towards joy must remain central. Without the affirmation of joy, there is no story of resistance, no stories of reclamations or affirmations of power. Without stories of celebration, there are no stories of revolution to serve as inspiration for a new generation of essential activists, authors, and artists.
These young activists are more important than ever in creating a new generation of storytellers and critical thinkers who are able to resist and use their voices when they encounter environmental injustices. To empower young people, English teachers can narrow their focus of environmental literature or nature writing to recent and current works of literature, art, or film. This offers a counternarrative to the portrayal of nature writing as something irretrievably “from the past,” which students may have encountered in previous classes discussing Whitman or Thoreau. Secondly, English teachers can refine their focus by not only limiting their texts to current works, but through ethical consideration. In this sense, “ethical” does not refer to the study of environmental ethics, which is often covered in science classes; rather, it refers to the ethics of sharing with students stories that 1) disrupt the dominant narrative of the environment as simultaneously a colorblind and white-only space; 2) illustrate a triumph through resistance to environmental racism; and 3) serve as an illustration of the renaissance in environmental literature and art, reaffirming identity in spite of, rather than in response to, environmental injustice.