Reflections on my new Climate Change Course

I have been teaching a new course on Climate Trauma and the New Environmentalisms (syllabus PDF) to co-incide with the publication of my new book, CLIMATE TRAUMA: FORESEEING THE FUTURE IN DYSTOPIAN FILM AND FICTION (Rutgers U Press, 2015) but also bearing in mind the International Meeting on Climate Change which took place in Paris in November 2015. I have borne in mind the nearly daily articles in the press about developments in regard to climate change from a variety of perspectives–Obama’s decisions regarding regulation and the Keystone Pipe Line; what’s going on in China as it deals with increasing pollution; continuing stories about the drought and resulting wide-scale fires in California and devastating floods, meanwhile, in the mid-west; debates about closing of coal mines because of the market rather than environmental concerns, the drop in the oil market, and much more. My twenty students in the class came from several disciplines: English, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Art History, Philosophy, and represented very diverse interests and concerns, from activism to analyzing literary and media images, from practical concerns to highly theoretical articulations concerning the future for humans and the planet.

One interesting debate had to do with methods in our research as these relate to our understanding of how far theories from the 1960s to the millennium are still viable in today’s markedly changed situation of living in the Anthropocene. Many already knew Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects detailing his view that we already well into the Anthropocene and that indeed the end of the world is already here. We read McKenzie Wark’s conference paper where he argues forcefully for the need for new paradigms with which to confront humans’ new challenges, facing, as we do, the end of the world as we have known it. As Wark puts it, “If we understand that we are living in ruins, then we can understand that we do not have a tradition of knowledge that we can simply continue as if it were whole and intact and passing through an homogenous time” (Wark, 2015). Theory for the Anthropocene, Wark says, “will be made from a patch work of fragments, repurposed for the current situation.” Students drew my attention to short books by Roy Scranton and Eugene Thacker, both agreeing with Morton and Wark about the dire condition humans find themselves in. Thacker argues for a “cosmic pessimism” which scales down the human and asks us (as had Alan Weisman earlier) to think of the world without us. Scranton thinks we need to “learn how do die in the Anthropocene,” replacing what I had been used to calling “living with uncertainty” to “living with certainty”–that is, of the world’s end.

As I read student papers arguing on the side of Morton, Wark, Scranton and Thacker, I found myself resisting the position being taken up, resisting the concept that having hope is a useless humanist game. Part of me totally follows the logic of facing the reality of what seems inevitable–for this being, as Scranton puts it, the only way forward. But something in me also refuses to go down that tunnel. We have to function on more than one plane of thought. In the class, I argued for working on two levels: a “macro” level (that of understanding on a grand scale  what Morton, Wark, Scranton, and Thacker are showing), but the need also for working on a “micro” level, since we still live in the world as we have known it and as still, many of us at least, do know it. It seems to me ethically essential that we attend right now to those on the front-line of climate change, those already suffering its consequences with polluted rivers and soil near their homes, toxic garbage on their door-steps, etc.We cannot give up on the suffering ongoing right now, especially of those Agamben and others call “disposable lives,” just because we know the planet is in deep trouble. We have to work toward making better lives for those most vulnerable to the “slow violence” Rob Nixon has detailed as taking place in communities all over the world. We must do what we can while we are here.

One student in my class, Mark Pingree, offered an in between position that makes sense, as he moderated the thought of authors quoted. What we need he says is “A collective nihilism…as a condition of possibility for ethical and political action.” This same student offered an interesting idea, suggesting cancer as a metaphor for the Anthropocene. “The news of catastrophic climate change is a diagnosis of the earth,” he says, and continues to argue that “The earth’s cancerous tumors become malignant when we dig up the dead and release chemicals into the environment, chemicals that radiate, mutate into catastrophic hyperobjects that transcend human scale.” This analogy between the cancer patient in remission and humans facing catastrophic climate change is thought-provoking: “We are in remission,” Pingree suggests, “stuck between life and death, unable to find a vital impetus…”  As Pingree notes, “With remission, unlike with other traumas, the event is both in the past and in the future.”

If, as authors quoted show, we need new philosophical paradigms on a grand scale for moving forward, we also need to work psychologically to change behavior and help people in their daily lives and on a personal level accept the reality of what is happening to them. Susanne Moser’s thoughtful research is useful here, since she argues for training psychologically informed leaders to work in communities to help others “get real” about climate change (Moser, 2012). Our drastic plight as humans now more than ever requires an ethics of care. Leaders will encourage people to discover their empathic selves so that we can work together on both local and global levels to bear the brunt of catastrophic climate events. We must mitigate impacts as we can. If many argue that COP 21 in Paris failed, it also did more than earlier COP meetings were able to achieve. A consensus of a sort was reached for the first time. Ethics requires we put our energies to do what we can as we can, with full knowledge that the end of the world, if not already here, is in sight. There is some time, but we need to move fast.


Moser, Susanne,”Getting Real About It. Meeting the Psychological and Social Demands of a World in Distress.” Environmental Leadership. A Reference Handbook. Ed. Debrorah Rigling Gallagher.New York and London: Sage, 2012:432-40.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Pingree, Mark. “Cosmic Pessimism: Catastrophe, Trauma and Extinction.”
Essay written for “Climate Trauma and the New Environmentalisms.” Stony Brook University Course taught by E. Ann Kaplan, Fall 2015.

Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. City Lights Books, 2015.

Thacker, Eugene. Cosmic Pessimism. Univocal, 2015.

Wark, McKenzie. “Anthropocene.”