Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Getting oriented....

This week, you have read one article that asks "why environmental studies?," which considers interdisciplinarity as a method for understanding environmental problems, two articles introducing you to the field of ecocriticism and some of its concerns, and the introduction to a text about the imagined space of Alaska by Susan Kollin.  Our aim in assigning these texts is to orient you to the themes of the course and the impetus for the symposium.  So, this first post asks the questions: wherefore "environment, culture, and place in a rapidly changing North"?  What would environmental studies scholars--particularly ecocritics--find compelling about this event?  How do the readings orient you to the field, or not (remember, you are posing and responding to a question, so you certainly may discuss how the readings fail to orient you as well)?


  1. Environmental studies is a unique field in that is is nearly impossible to decide upon a precise definition. The texts did a good job of orienting me in a field that is constantly shifting and evolving, as it should be considering the organic chaos of its subject matter.

    At first I didn't agree with the choice of the first reading, "Why Environmental Studies?" thinking that it was too vague and therefore essentially useless, but then I remembered a TED talk ( that I had recently watched on the progress of separate fields through interdisciplinary collaboration, focusing on the exchange between medicine and astronomy. Remembering this made me realize that "Why Environmental Studies?" is not a complete piece of fluff as I had originally thought and that the point of it was actually to open the reader to the idea that environmental studies cannot be constrained to one discipline. The environment is a ubiquitous presence and therefore applies, in one way or another, to all fields of study.

    The chapter "Beginnings: Pollution" was also very helpful in orienting me due to its incorporation of pieces of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," a book that was part of the curriculum of last year's Literature and the Environment class. The book's familiarity to me was useful in introducing the literary aspect of environmental studies. It is sometimes difficult to look at a widely accepted term such as pollution and recognize it as a social construct rather than an environmental constant. This chapter introduced the uses of literary interpretations and rhetoric in understanding the full environmental situation. Since this is a way of thinking that comes naturally to me and that I enjoy participating in, I was happy to see this chapter as part of the introductory texts.

    The article "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ecocriticism" provided a sort of history lesson of environmental studies which, valuable in its own right, gave those of us without a background in the field a base of knowledge to go off of. It also continued to develop the idea of the environment as a social construct and delved into the perspectives of different social groups. I have an interest in reading literature in both a feminist and Marxist light, so I was happy to find some new lenses through which to view this topic that I hadn't considered before. When we were talking in class about what we hoped to get out of this course, one of my goals was to experience as many perspective shifts as I could get out of it in order to grow both as a writer and an individual, so it was gratifying to read an article that forwards that goal right off the bat.

    The last piece, Kollin's introduction to Nature's State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier, was my favorite piece, partially due to her engaging writing style. Also, the theme of the lower 48's vision of Alaska being incongruous with the actuality of Alaska is one that is very familiar to me, having moved here only 2 years ago with little factual information on the state and a grand idea of pristine wilderness in my head. Kollin's depiction of the reality of Alaska through the oil spill in Prince William Sound continued to deconstruct my idea of Alaska and portrayed the state as a strategic yet failed maneuver in the USA's empire building. Yet again, this is the perspective shift I am looking for.

    The "North" is also unique when it comes to ecocriticism, as it is one of the few places in the United States that everyone has an opinion on. Ever since the oil spill it has emerged in the public consciousness as the last bastion of the environment in our country, and it is also one of the few places in the US that is still in the process of being stripped of its resources rather than already having been dessicated. If there is any place in the United States where the attendees of this event have a chance to make a difference, it's Alaska.

  2. All of these readings were focused on explaining what ecocriticism is, how literature and the environment can be examined, and the relationship culture, gender, and place have to this study.

    In Susan Kollin's book, Nature's State, she explains that through the idea of a "vanishing wilderness" people create an image of nature, and through that see places like Alaska as the last frontier. Kollin discusses Alaska as a sort of phenomenon in the American imagination, driven by the propaganda from tour companies, the news, and how Alaska is viewed as a state that is not connected to the rest of the union.

    In "Why Environmental Studies?", a description of what exactly environmental studies encompasses is mixed with the importance of utilizing all forms of science and the humanities to protect and maintain the environment by understanding culture,biology and environmental science. This was an easy and informative read, and I enjoyed it.

    "Ecocriticism" by Greg Garrard went in depth to the literary end of ecocriticism,discussing a public and literary portrayal of "pollution" and an attempt to understand how the definition of pollution has changed in different writings and in the minds of modern day cultures.

    "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ecocriticism" is based off the cartoon by Raymond Macherot, discussing how literary analysis of nature and how reading about nature can interfere with an individual's personal encounters with nature, making it seem like that person's interaction isn't authentic compared to what they have read on the interactions of others.

    These articles made me question how gender and culture can affect your sense of place. In "The Hitchhiker's Guide" and in the pollution article, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" is discussed, explaining how a political view, such as a fear of nuclear fallout and Communism could be used to warn people about the threats of poisons like DDT. Nearly all the articles mention that it is difficult to analyze the environment through literature because of all the factors such as views on ecology, whether people view the environment in a holistic way, and whether the Western view of "wilderness" is still marred by colonialist and gendered view.

    Depending on how people think about their sense of place has a huge impact on the environment. For example, people do not feel compelled to stop attempts at oil drilling in ANWR because they feel no sense of place there since it is a place they cannot relate to culturally, whereas the natives who live in the area understand the value of the area for traditional and subsistence purposes. Through this class, and from the readings we'll have in the future, hopefully we can get a better understanding of the gender, culture and sense of place people have in referring to the North, and how that affects the environment.

  3. Studying Environmental Sciences is learning about the varied ways everything is interconnected. I think the readings brought that across well. Our studies will not be limited to a specific field or even group of fields, but will be wide open. Biology, Geography, Ecology, Physics, Tectonics, Meteorology, Oceanography, Sociology... they all play a part in defining our world and they all relate to each other. The more we know about our world, the more we can predict how our actions will affect the present and the future.
    Juneau, Alaska is a unique location for a symposium of this kind, on the coastal waterways in a temperate rainforest and bordered by glacial mountains so close guests can take a tour walking on the Mendenhall Glacier. We have a unique collection of ecosystems here and a unique way of life. Tiered levels of buildings seam to clime the steep hillsides downtown. Drainage allowances compensate for the high annual rainfall. Indigenous people study their culture and languages while adapting to the changing modern world with agility and ingenuity.
    We are not living in a pastoral paradise, but neither are we living in an apocalyptic nightmare. Times are changing and we are adapting to those changes, altering our own actions as we gain more wisdom as well as knowledge. The more we share with each other, the farther we will be from the frightening conclusions of images like those brought forth in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) or in Waterworld (1995 film).

  4. Jen Smith

    Can wilderness mean anything we want it to?

    "So although wilderness might seem to form a bulwark against an industrialized, materially progressive world view and social order, elements of that order such as manufactures of four-wheel-drive SUVs have still been able to appropriate the wild as the 'natural home' of their products in their advertisements. Since these vehicles virtually require their own oil well to feed their huge engines, the irony of juxtaposition might suggest to us that 'wilderness' has an ideological function in this case, helping to legitimize the conspicuous consumption of a privileged class and nation"(Garrard 9).

    "..the notion of nature tended to be approached as a sociocultural construct that had historically often served to legitimize the ideological claims of specific social groups" (Heise 505).

    The readings for this week are a great, informative start for the class to get our bearings on what exactly we're attempting to take on this semester. The concepts and descriptions in these readings stretch between disciplines, the literal and metaphorical, and branch over a breadth ideologies which makes for a fascinating field of study.

    The readings this week seem concerned with pushing us to start thinking of common concepts that surround the environment, like "pollution", "wilderness", "nature", "the last frontier", "pristine", "untouched", as ideas that can be understood as cultural constructs. To that end, we create concepts, attach connotations, hopes and beliefs to places in such a manner that it becomes old hat. That just the word "nature" or "wilderness" can represent something immense and metaphorical, to a point that the representative word may no longer be attached to reality or something actually tangible. These pieces direct our thinking to the interaction between culture and nature, and provide different theories that help us process these relations. We are asked to examine the different ways we use nature both literally-possibly through resource extraction- and metaphorically. Or as the first example above portrays, its use in both ways.

    In continuation of nature as a construct, we can convince ourselves that wilderness can function in two ways simultaneously, both as an endless resource to "feed engines" and as an epic playground that is not susceptible to defilement, and will always exist in such a way even though one obviously contradicts the other. Also, this ironic, hypothetical situation is only available to those with the fortune to enjoy nature in such a way.

    We see this dichotomous idea appear also in Kollin's introduction, with the idea of viewing northern Alaska as "'two Alaskas', a vision of the region as 'a wilderness to be preserved and a frontier to be exploited'" (11). The ways in which we use place are far reaching and not always clear. The concept of wilderness does not only exist as the counterpart to things like development or "pollution", we have learned to appropriate wilderness to support several kinds of arguments, no matter how confusing or contradictory they are.

  5. Should institutions require more interdisciplinary studies to earn a degree?

    Ecocriticism continuously seems to question the dichotomization of western culture, and the thinkers of our society tend to have a degree in one or two narrow subjects. If the solution to environmental degradation requires “systems thinking,” then why limit societies’ scholars to one way of thinking? Wouldn’t we have many more creative ideas for solutions if we all had more insight to different fields of study? This, I feel, could be the way to open American minds and is a good step toward progress and a more sustainable way of life.

  6. The readings did a good job tuning me into the perspective of the ecocritic and the interdisciplinarity of environmental studies. Environmental studies draws from a web of different fields of material and social sciences, linguistics, literature and more.

    Of all the readings, I most enjoyed the introduction to "Nature's State." Kollin does a good job reading the role Alaska has had in a cultural consciousness. She shows quite clearly the Euro-American conquest/imperial mindset that not only helped to bring Alaska into the union, but which still persists today. Kollin seems to be a very well established ecocritic. She picks up on small hints that are perhaps part of greater gestures towards the past and active roles of gender, environment, colonialism, political economy and rhetoric.

    As for how this conference can be of interest to these kinds of issue, there is much to draw from. The Physical sciences have much to look at in Alaska -- Glacier Studies, Ocean Acidification, salmon returns. For those attuned to post-colonial studies, Alaska, as well as the rest of the US, is caught up in a predicament worth interrogation. I believe it was Cheyfits who said that there is nothing post about post-colonial studies of Native American Indians -- the colonial apparatus is still at work in many ways. Those attuned to gender studies are afforded the luxury of Alaska's representation through hyper-masculinized television shows -- also playing a role in political rhetoric. The controversy surrounding the Pebble Mine is something of great interest to me and which takes up ethical, economic, and environmental issues. Should they mine for copper, gold, and molybdenum and then contain the toxic mine tailing is one of the largest damns ever constructed in the watershed of the worlds most productive wild salmon rivers? Again the question of the essential NEED for "jobs" and its relation to environmental issues.

  7. Tom Schwartz

    Our readings this week fulfilled their intention to educate the reader on the issues and complexities of ecocriticism. The short “Why Environmental Studies?” introduced the necessity and the more informative “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism” did a good job at presenting the issues and difficulties facing the field. I did not find Garrard’s “Ecocriticism” to be as informative as it often became too vague and bogged down by excessive terminology. Kollin brings the issues home to us in Alaska by examining the construction of the state in the minds of Americans.

    How can the rapidly changing field of ecocriticism re-define the balance between the environmentalists and corporations in the future of Alaska?

    Kollin informs us of the formation of the Alaskan image in the not-so-distant past. This image is constantly being re-shaped for the American people. Much of what the average American thinks about Alaska now comes from the great extent of “Reality Television” shows. The viewers are drawn to the extreme challenges that humans endure to extract resources for the consumers in the rest of the world. This perpetuates the idea that Alaska’s vast natural wilderness is a playground for corporations to profit while reducing the country’s reliance on foreign oil and other natural resources. The belief persists that the extraction of these resources has no detrimental effect on the people of the environment of the region or the world. Recent concerns over climate change have done little to change the appetite for cheaper oil and a more sustainable culture.

    In order for the attitudes and beliefs to change the America outside of Alaska must begin to see Alaska not as a resource piggy bank but as a part of the world environment. The unique ecosystems in our region are not as endless as the image suggests. They are more interconnected than people realize. What happens in Alaska affects the world and what is happening in the world is affecting Alaska more noticeably than in other regions. The image of Alaska and the uninhabited North must change in the eyes of Americans before the attitudes towards its “true” value can be realized.

  8. I liked all the readings. I found , "Beginnings: Pollution" to be very interesting with the citations the author chose to make his point. However, and I'm not sure I understood the entire story, but on page 11

    "Baarschers is highly critical of environmentalist 'hysteria' surrouonding the presence in the environment of amounts of chmicals far below levels of observable toxicity. His frustration at widespread misunderstanding and ignorance of environmental science is reasonable ... Evivonmental pressure groups may also promote ignorant paranoia rather than educated critique(See Chapter 5)" (11).

    It seems they are making a good effort at describing the tension between the science community and the (for lack of a better term) local community.

    This really resonated with me because of a story about 15 teenagers displaying tourette-like symptoms in Le Roy, N.Y. (All of the students go to the same high school) Erin Brockovich is investigating. ... The reason she is investigating is because the science community has decided this is a conversion disorder or mass hysteria. Erin Brockovich is investigating because this area is a superfund site, and the site of a major chemical spill in the 70's. If we do the math, these students could be the children of the children who were exposed fetally via the ground water, or exposed as infants/children to the ground water. Granted, this is supposition by me and partially about the article I was reading. I think this supposition, or mindfulness can be ascribed to the looser definitions of environalism.

    So to answer your question, "What would environmental studies scholars--particularly ecocritics--find compelling about this event?"

    I think a tour of these sites and where they are situated with humans, animals, water sources and vegitation would show that even in the stark beauty of Juneau, our environmental concerns are not debatable.

    • Juneau is lucky that the A-J mine's waste rock, upon which much of downtown is built, turned out to be mostly harmless. Downtown's shoreline originally stopped where McDonald's restaurant is; the land beyond that is waste rock from the A-J gold mine.

    • Around Juneau, however, a few problems do remain. For instance, the lower of two tailings dumps from the Treadwell mine in Douglas was long a barren zone without plants, about a quarter of a mile south of Sandy Beach.

    • The legacy of the Alaska-Juneau Mine, closed in 1944, included a riveted steel tank filled with heavy black petroleum sludge, across Thane Road from what is now Taku Smokeries.

    Last year the landowner and state finally cleaned up the contaminated sludge, to the tune of $1 million, Janes said.

    • The sand of the Thane mine tailings dump, near Sheep Creek and the old Alaska Gastineau mine, has arsenic and lead in it at twice the concentration of surrounding areas.

    The official state cleanup threshold is 4.5 parts per million of arsenic. A study found 35 parts per million.

    But nothing has been done about the Thane Road rock dump.

    • Jualapa Tunnel: This former underground sluice for gold extraction now pipes Juneau's drinking water to Gold Creek. In 1987, the state found mercury on the tunnel floor, but this was not making it into the drinking water. Nonetheless, the state installed a concrete barrier and a plastic liner to prevent mercury from entering the water.

    • Perseverance Mill: This site off Perseverance Trail has elevated levels of arsenic, lead, zinc and mercury. The area is "hazardous but stable," according to a 1988 study by the landowner. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation found the area to be too contaminated to allow plants to grow as they would naturally, though metals weren't leaching out to the surface or groundwater.

    I culled the sites from an awesome article:

  9. Kahle Ess

    What makes listening to authors present their information and thoughts on the environment at a symposium more beneficial than an individual reading them?

    As we plan and prepare for the conference to be held in our school in June, I think it is important to recognize the reasons for bringing people together regarding the subject. We are studying changes of the outdoors, culture, and socially constructed ideas about the North, but why?

    After reading the articles for this week I was reminded that environmental studies (which is basically the concept of the conference subject) encompasses many different fields. Together ideas form that can change the way people think of culture, place, “wilderness”, even huge ideas of what the “north” represents. When I think of this collaboration I think of the ways in which change is made. In the case of the symposium with our topic, I think about the need for scientific speakers and information along with compelling authors who have information that couples with emotional stories and scenarios to accompany the hard facts. Without input from scientists, many who write environmental literature would not have a basis for their arguments. Reciprocally, I feel that sometimes science is compelling, but there are definitely elements of social ideas that are needed for me to become fully convinced and on board. So the reason we are hosting this conference is to bring in all types of opinion and facts. By bringing in new ideas and information from many fields we can understand the issues at hand as a whole, connected topic.

    As the articles discussed there is no one certain way to look at or access environmental issues, literature, or science. There is much ambivalence in ecocriticism, and in general regarding the changing of the environment and culture. By bringing people together from many academic areas we will get feedback and information that discuss not only nature, but the people that use it as a resource. Furthermore, the symposium will bring together a collective idea of what the north is, and what it represents.

    I think that bringing people together to talk about issues rather than individuals reading papers or other information alone presents an opportunity for collaboration. For example, while anyone may be able to read Susan Kollin’s Nature’s State and access its arguments, only those who attend a conference will be able to get the messages that are presented along with it at a conference. By providing a space for discussion and information sharing there is a greater understanding and synthesis of the material. Often when I am reading something for a class, I may discount what an author has to say. It is too easy for me to create an opinion that is not challenged at all. This conference will provide a space for authors to present their ideas and then back them up. There is a space for questions (I think) and answers. Along with the discussion I feel that there is an opportunity for new ideas to be made and acted upon.

    I feel that ecocritics would highly approve of this style of information sharing and analysis, because they understand that there are so many ways to access environmental pieces and ideas. I am excited to see the different mediums in which ideas regarding the conference topic are presented.

  10. Sammy Becker

    Garrard illuminates ecocriticism as being a form of literary analysis that seeks to create a, “synthesis of environmental and social concern (3),” through this simple definition alone it is easy to make connections as to why a professional in this field would be interested in attending a conference entitled “Environment, Culture, and Place in a Rapidly Changing North,” the titles lends itself to the core stated purpose of the field. What is most compelling about this event is that it is attempting to make connections between the environmental and social facets of a particular location. What contributes even more to it’s appeal is the fact that it is centralized on a very narrow location. The North, although encompassing a large portion of the Earth, when referred to on an ecocriticism scale, creates a conference where ecocritics are able to focus their attention a specific geographic location, and although a major idea of many environmentally fueled studies tend to lean towards a form of global thought, for ecocriticis the opportunity to be able to focus on literary works that deal with a narrowed location could lend itself to some really interesting concepts and constructions.
    Being from “The North” I have grown up with this construction of my head as the North being the “wild” land and to really exaggerate it, I might even say that I grew up thinking that there was no way that every single part of Alaska had been seen. There was always the romantic ideal to me that parts of Alaska had never been touched. I think that in general, the North had been heavily constructed into being a “wild, and rough” place where truly on the fittest survive. I think that ecocrticism provides a space for anyone, whether they contribute to literary journals or are just a 20 year old college student, to be able to pick up a piece of literary work, or even to watch a movie, or other forms of media and ask questions in regards to “constructionism” or post modernism and to try and figure out how they are impacted by these things on an individual level, and also how it effects them as a member of society that may or may not give into certain ideals in which ecocriticism has shone light upon such as “untouched, pure, wilderness.”

    What implications do the connotations of the term wilderness have on the current “environmental movement.” Is its ability to invoke in people a desire to “save” it a crucial element in furthering the spread of environmental and social understanding? Wilderness is something that I feel I spend a lot of time thinking about, I mean we live in this land where our national parks are some of the biggest destinations, and in particular even the state in which I grew up in is often referred to as the last great wilderness and yet, I can see all around through the different land designations and proposals of development, or even the visitation to these areas that they have all been touched and controlled by man in some way, shape or form. However I feel as though referring to these lands as wilderness gives something they feel as though they connect with. Denoting land as untouched gives people a sense of purity and perhaps a degree of gratitude in thinking that perhaps if we could save this land and leave it completely untouched then human race is not all that bad. But this creates several problems and enables the separations between humans and the natural world to become even further apart. Denoting lands as wilderness is a form of control in a sense and I think that this is really interesting in terms of trying to figure out a way to make people care about the natural world so that they choose to have any form of environmental focus or care in their lives, but at the same times sometimes I feel as though it’s just a new construction in place of the old one when both of them still have humans at the top.

  11. Liz Hendrix

    When reading the different articles about ecocriticism, I often asked myself, what exactly are they being critical about? Nature itself or how humans interact with that nature? I wondered how ecocritics defined “nature”. When I think of nature, I think of landscapes full of animals, vegetation and naturally occurring objects such as waterfalls, creeks, lakes, etc., and these landscapes are usually void of humans and/or markers of their presence. I’m sure that this is one of the leading images of nature that most people today have.
    When I was contemplating my vision of what nature is, it lead to me ponder what other means of nature our. I know back home in SoCal, some of the people I knew considered a community park in the middle of a housing track to be “nature”. I used to scoff at this idea- how can a few puny, skinny trees that are sparsely distributed in an area of manicured grass and bushes be considered nature? There are benches, sidewalks, and playgrounds in the park, surely this isn’t nature? It always bothered me that these certain people would have the audacity to call it nature. I think that this would be an interesting subject for this conference and this class- trying to understand how other people perceive nature to be, and what they want to do with it. How someone would designate a parcel of land for preservation, conservation or something other action concerning nature would all depend on how one looked at nature. How a person looks at their idea of nature could hold different uses, ideas and methods of how that natural place is viewed and used.
    Everyone has their own opinions of what the country (and the world) should do with nature. I think this conference will be a good way to see different ideas and thinking from my own views. I like the idea of the conference being interdisciplinary for different areas have other views about nature. I think that it would be a good thing for people to hear or see various points of view separate from their own.