summer 2009: the rhetoric & poetics of sustainability

“What should be our society’s relationship with nature? What are the intellectual causes of the current environmental crisis? These ‘great questions’ of environmental studies are essentially humanistic inquiries into ethics and values.” —Jeanne Kay, “Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

In this course we explore the intellectual, social, scientific, and rhetorical
backgrounds of sustainability. We read technical and imaginative literature,
view and discuss visual arts, and try to come to a collective understanding of
the movement that has attracted so much academic, community, and
environmental attention and commitment. Our approaches will be to explore
the assumptions, values, and practices of sustainability wherever we find them,
with an eye toward practical, meaningful applications in our personal and
professional lives, and in our community.

Sustainability has a now-classic definition: “Sustainable development is
development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs
,” originally articulated
by the U.N.’s Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on
Environment and Development
(1987). In that context, it’s interesting to think
about how Adam and Eve may have felt upon their expulsion from their rich
orchard to labor on the land and to grow their own food:

Cursed is the ground because of you
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.
(Genesis 3: 17-19)

Since 1987 sustainability has taken on many additional meanings—spiritual,
global, economic, scientific, social, cultural, and more. If the average person
is overwhelmed by conflicting messages found in the media regarding climate
change and sustainability, and my Mom sure is, what role can engineers,
scientists, writers, editors, and artists play in developing a coherent and
active understanding of the concept? I propose that we frame some of these
questions in terms of creativity and the imagination.

We’ll look at and discuss some visual art in this class, read parts of the bible,
poems, farm manuals, personal narratives, and interdisciplinary research
in ethnobiology, hydrology, and microbial ecologies. We’ll meet people from
campus and from the local community whose work in sustainability take on
many different approaches.