Faculty Favorites: Books That Go Beyond the Classroom

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite scholars from a range of fields to share with us the environmental books and essays they are most excited to teach in the weeks ahead. As we approach yet another semester shaped by the realities of a new COVID surge, educators find themselves in the balancing act of trying to keep students engaged with limited opportunities for in-person connection and collaboration. For this list, contributors from campuses across the country recommend environmental readings that go “beyond the classroom” by showing the power of environmental thought in action.

We hope that these books offer rich material for your to-read list. For more reading suggestions, you can browse our full archive of recommendations.

Sari Edelstein, Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of the Center for the Humanities, Culture, and Society, University of Massachusetts Boston

Recommendation: Wild Blue Media: Thinking through Seawater by Melody Jue (Duke University Press, 2020)

As my teaching and scholarship venture into the “blue humanities,” I look forward to assigning Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media: Thinking through Seawater. Jue’s book asks us to consider the ocean as an environment for thinking and interpretation and seeks to inspire what she calls “amphibious scholarship,” which abandons terrestrial bias and surface reading in favor of an immersive, embodied orientation to knowledge. I love how this book beckons us to new depths in its pursuit of a defamiliarization that might hold ameliorating potential for the planet and those who dwell on it. Indeed, Jue posits that the perceptual shifts inspired by scuba diving and vampire squid and underwater museums can generate “new tactics of artistic and political resistance against climate change in both its global and local effects.” Ultimately, Wild Blue Media aims to jolt its readers out of accustomed habits of perception, and for me, creating the conditions for such heightened sensitivity is what teaching is all about.

Christopher Schaberg, Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English, Loyola University New Orleans

Recommendation: Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences by Nigel Clark and Bronislaw Szerszynski (Polity, 2020)

This past semester I taught an environmental humanities seminar called Ecological Thought, which cast a wide-gap net (though modest in size!) across recent texts in this urgent if heterogeneous field. I ended the course with the introduction to Nigel Clark and Bronislaw Szerszynski’s Planetary Social Thought, a book I came to be aware of through my membership in the Consortium of Environmental Philosophers. This book takes helpful stock of the concept of the Anthropocene, considering how our epoch challenges and is itself challenged by the social sciences. Clark and Szerszynski think about the Anthropocene through a surprising constellation of non-dominant cultural registers and alternative philosophical frameworks. The book is rigorously academic, yet pragmatic and lucid. Ultimately, the book is a necessary illumination considering the ways that humans are being forced (finally) to confront planetary existence—its limits and possibilities to come.

Kate O’Neill, Professor in Global Environmental Governance and Global Waste Politics, University of California, Berkeley

Recommendation: Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement by Michael Méndez (Yale University Press, 2020)

Michael Mendéz’s prize-winning book Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Cooperation Shape the Environmental Justice Movement takes us from the streets of Oakland to the convention halls of Paris via policy-making in California. I like it because it develops a theory of climate justice activism that crosses scales. Global environmental politics—such as negotiating the Paris agreement—can feel so distant from regular lives, but in this book, Mendéz brings them closer to home by tracing the evolution of the climate justice movement and its challenges to the status quo. It’s well-written, accessible, and one of the most useful studies of environmental activism in recent years. A really good text for learning about policy-making too.

Joseph Weiss, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Adjunct Faculty in Science and Society, Wesleyan University

Recommendation: A Short History of the Blockade: Giant Beavers, Diplomacy, and Regeneration in Nishnaabewin by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (University of Alberta Press, 2021)

I could not be more excited about Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s A Short History of the Blockade, both to teach and as a text from which I have learned tremendously. Moving elegantly between scholarly discourse, poetry, and narrative, Simpson explores the social work of Indigenous blockades in settler colonial spaces, focusing in particular on Canada. Blockades are not, for Simpson, mere spaces of “resistance” against colonial inevitability, nor, even more so, are they in any sense illicit. Instead, they are vital, potent spaces of world-making that are at work generating alternatives to ongoing colonial orders.

Alongside its powerful sense of political praxis, Simpson’s text is also significant in terms of ecological thinking. In her history of the blockade, she is guided not just by human action but by the work and lives of beavers, whose dams she situates as the original blockades—highlighting how blockades are always at once spaces of interruption and of vitality and liveliness. As non-humans with whom Nishnaabeg peoples have been in relation since time immemorial, beavers can be both teachers for humans and fellow travelers working together to build respectful worlds of mutual care, understanding, and responsibility. These are companion species existing without domestication or the assumption of human priority; rather, Simpson pushes us to understand how worlding can move across even the most deeply held Euro-American divides between what (and who) counts as human and who does not. It is a stunning piece of scholarship and an equally moving work of art, and one that is dearly needed in a moment in which Indigenous blockades and blockaders are regularly subjected to the violence of colonial states desperate to protect their own (fundamentally fictional) legitimacy.

Angie Carter, Assistant Professor of Environmental/Energy Justice, Michigan Technological University

Recommendation: Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers (The New Press, 2020)

Catherine Coleman Flowers’s Waste weaves social history and memoir into a powerful invitation to join in a larger movement for rural justice. An estimated 90 percent of home in Lowndes County, Alabama have failing or failed wastewater systems, and tropical diseases long eradicated have reappeared. Here, asthmatic children sleep with CPAP machines because their homes are riddled with mold. Toilet paper and raw sewage leave trails across backyards. But this is also home to the birth of the Black Power movement, where Stokely Carmichael helped found the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and where, in 1965, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery passed through along U.S. Highway 80. Lowndes County residents bravely share their stories with Flowers, speaking up even as racist and classist policies criminalize the lack of adequate septic systems with fines and jail time.

Margot Higgins, Associate Teaching Professor of Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse

Recommendation: Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road by James Longhurst (University of Washington Press, 2015)

With escalating climate change, pollution, traffic congestion, and more widespread public awareness of the harmful impacts of automobiles, bicycle transportation is experiencing a boom. The start of the pandemic heightened the phenomenon as urban streets opened up to pedestrians, people engaged in more outdoor activities, and bicycles flew off the shelves faster then retailers could replace them. By May 2020, bicycling was one of the most popular forms of exercise in cities around the world and new spaces emerged for bicycles to gain a greater share of the road.

Such trends and opportunities inspired me to design Bicycling the Urban Landscape: A History and Politics of Bicycling. The overarching objective of this class is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling. In addition to bicycling as a form of embodied learning on an array of field trips throughout the semester, students read Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road by historian James Longhurst. Longhurst examines how the conflicts we observe between bicyclists and motorists are situated in historical debates about individual rights, the public good, and the role of government. He incorporates clever references to popular culture: Charlie Chaplin, Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Andy Griffith Show. He also includes little-known media that support his arguments. For example, educational films produced by the auto industry in the 1950s framed bicycles as a stepping-stone to train children to drive cars. Through this history, Longhurst shows that it was not inevitable that bicycles were displaced by automobiles. Bike Battles is accessible, informative, and fun to read for a generation of students who are more likely to consider alternative forms of transportation.

Featured image: Three red pencils balance between two stacks of old, thick books, creating the image of a precarious bridge. Photo by Old Photo Profile, 2008.