Read my lit

Big ideas reach students in a team-taught eco-literature class

Students confer with professors John Sagebiel, middle, and Scott Slovic after their Literature of Sustainability class at UNR.

Students confer with professors John Sagebiel, middle, and Scott Slovic after their Literature of Sustainability class at UNR.

Photo By kat kerlin

If one were to teach an environmental literature class 50 years ago, the book list might be relatively small. Thoreau’s Walden would surely be there. So would Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. But now, a decade after Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and just four years after Michael Pollan’s hugely popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma, thousands of environmental titles have come tumbling after, hoping to gain even a fraction of the appeal of those books. Some have been more successful than others, but many of them are stacked floor to ceiling in Prof. Scott Slovic’s office at the University of Nevada, Reno.

For the second time, Slovic has teamed with Prof. John Sagebiel to teach The Literature of Sustainability at UNR. The coursework draws from fiction, nonfiction, poetry and essays. Topics of food, water, building, energy, ecology and sustainability are explored through the works of Barbara Kingsolver, Gary Snyder, Sandra Steingraber, Barry Lopez, and others.

Though trained as a chemist, Sagebiel minored in English as an undergrad and is interested in how to communicate complex ideas. Slovic is an environmental critic who enjoys the subtle philosophical issues literature can raise. Their goal, say the professors, is not to preach the green gospel but to get students to think critically.

“So it is about the subject but also the method used to communicate this—and how effective that is,” says Sagebiel.

A recent class contrasted Derrick Jensen’s essay in Orion Magazine called “Forget Shorter Showers” with Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother” essay in The New York Times Magazine. On the one hand is Pollan’s idea that planting a garden is “one of the most powerful things an individual can do.” On the other is Jensen’s, “Personal change doesn’t equal social change.” Pollan admits the idea of saving the Earth through changing light bulbs is discouraging, yet writes, “There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing, but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we do manage to do, it will be too little too late.” Meanwhile, Jensen says it’s not enough to compost or take shorter showers if you’re not voting or actively demanding change. He writes, “The role of the activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”

The students in this class aren’t tasked with siding with one or the other. They are here to evaluate how the writers communicated their thoughts. They also tied some of these ideas into Ruth Ozeki’s novel All Over Creation and discussed how fiction can be used to convey complex environmental issues. Many of these students have only recently left home and started making their own decisions. Their discussion—which dips into hypocrisy, gardening and the complacency of Americans compared to say, Egyptians—hints at how they are relating the readings to their own lives.

“I get his point, but it’s not a positive article,” one student says of the Jensen piece. “Reading this article, where do you start getting these big corporations to change if it doesn’t start with the individual?”

“The worst thing is to back off and not participate,” says Slovic near the end of the class. “People change in transformative ways if they open themselves up to ideas.”