Faculty Favorites: Fall into these Environmental Excursions

Autumn leaves float upon a tea and saucer resting upon a book.

Leaves are turning, the weather is cooling, and the sun’s angle in the sky is shrinking with each passing day. With autumn’s return comes another semester. The Edge Effects editorial board asked a wide range of professors which environmentally minded books they are most excited to share with their students this semester. These faculty favorites could make a great addition to your fall reading list.

Lisa M. Brady, Professor of History, Boise State University

Faculty favorites: book cover for Last Chance to SeeCourse: HIST 376: Global Environmental History

Recommendation: Douglas Adams’s and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See (Ballantine Books, 1992)

Although not a scholarly analysis of the causes and costs of extinction, Last Chance to See covers most of the relevant issues pertaining to biodiversity loss and a variety of ways societies around the globe have tried to mitigate it. In the ten years I’ve been using this book, I’ve found that students appreciate Adams’s unique narrative style, which both engages them through humor and provides instructors opportunities to critique his assumptions and representations of people, their histories, and their interactions with wildlife.

Dagomar Degroot, Assistant Professor of History, Georgetown University

Faculty favorites: book cover for A Temperate EmpireCourse: HIST 007: The Little Ice Age: Volcanoes and Crisis in the Premodern World

Recommendation: Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2016)

To me, this is one of the most intriguing climate history books ever published. For decades, most historians and scientists have concluded that climatic cooling during the Little Ice Age undermined agriculture and led to widespread social crises. Yet few have explored how contemporaries understood not just climatic cooling, but all the complex and occasionally counter-intuitive trends in average weather that characterized the period. In A Temperate Empire, Zilberstein shows that European settlers thought they could warm North America’s climate by cultivating and therefore “civilizing” it. Remarkably, as deforestation and cultivation gathered pace in the eighteenth century, the coldest phase of the Little Ice Age ended for unrelated reasons and the world warmed. Many colonizers thought that their labors had made it possible. Zilberstein has written the first book-length study on this remarkable chapter in the history of the Little Ice Age, which anticipated many of our present-day debates on global warming. I can’t wait to introduce it to my students.

Elizabeth Hennessy, Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Faculty favorites: book cover for InsectopediaCourse: HIST 200/ENV. STUD 404: Thinking through History with Animals

Recommendation: Hugh Raffles’s Insectopedia (Pantheon Books, 2010)

Animals are all around us, but rarely do we recognize just how central nonhumans have been to shaping human history and identity. My class emphasizes the role animals play as historical actors who have worked beside humans, nourished us, and shaped the ways in which we understand ourselves. Raffles’s beautifully written essays explore the myriad ways that insects are entangled with human life, making Insectopedia an entertaining and thought-provoking read. I love teaching it because his stories surprise my students and push them to see the critters around them differently.

Amy Kohout, Assistant Professor of History, Colorado College

Faculty favorites: book cover for The Dog StarsCourse: HIST 212/ENV. STUD 273: American Environmental History

Recommendation: Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

The final book in this course is a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. The Dog Stars is set in near-future Colorado, and follows a man and his dog as they navigate life after a major pandemic. The world Heller creates is meant to be familiar, and together we analyze ideas about interactions with nature in the text using what we’ve learned about environmental history. This opens up room to consider not only what environmental history offers our understanding of the past, but also how it might help us approach the present—and a range of possible futures.

Mario Ortiz-Robles, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Faculty favorites: book cover for The Lives of AnimalsCourse: ENGL 245: Representing Animals

Recommendation: J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press, 1999)

One of the best introductions to the emerging field of Animal Studies, J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, uses fictional situations and literary devices to make us reconsider our complex relations to animals. Originally delivered at Princeton University, each of the two lectures that make up this volume follows a fictional novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who has been invited to deliver a series of lectures at a small college where, unbeknownst to the organizers, her own son, a physicist, teaches. Even though she has been invited to talk about her work, she decides to speak instead about how philosophers and poets have variously described the lives of animals. The fictional distancing effects Coetzee employs to talk about animal representation make visible the limitations as well as the possibilities intrinsic to our inevitable anthropocentrism.

Emily Wakild, Associate Professor of History, Boise State University

Faculty favorites: book cover for American TropicsCourse: HIST 585: A History of Science, Technology, and the Environment in the Americas

Recommendation: Megan Raby’s American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

American Tropics examines the scientific concept of biodiversity within the circum-Caribbean context by focusing on the individuals and institutions involved in research at field stations outside the U.S. mainland (including Cuba, Jamaica, Guyana, and Panama). Using these stations, Raby skillfully shows the strategic and serendipitous ways field science coincided with political and economic imperial pursuits in the twentieth century. This enlarged context greatly expands how we can look at both the process and knowledge of science as products of social contingencies.


Editorial note: This is the third time the editorial board has reached out to environmental scholars to present a list of helpful books for teaching environmental material. Be sure to read our Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017 editions as well!

Featured image: pixabay.com

12 Responses

  1. Annis Pratt says:

    For a treatment of the environmental degradation visited upon the East Anglia Fens by “Merchant Adventurers” determined to drain them, see my now completed Infinite Games eco-fiction series about attacks on self-sustaining folks and their way of life in the early modern economy. http://www.annispratt.com
    Annis Pratt
    Professor Emerita
    Department of English
    The University of Wisconsin-Madison

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