Below is a sampling of the upper-level undergraduate courses I have put together. If interested in more information or a copy of a syllabus, please contact me.
The Environmental History of Latin America
Students in this course will explore the history of Latin America through the lens of human-nature relations. Through readings, lectures, and discussion, we will examine how the environment and various human groups have shaped each other in different ways through the centuries. The central idea of the course is that “environmental” problems like deforestation, declining biodiversity, and pollution are inseparable from social problems like colonial domination, uneven capitalist development, and political violence. Our discussions will concentrate on the post-contact era, when the continents of the western hemisphere became a New World. Lectures and class discussion will include primary sources, maps, and multimedia—students are encouraged to find supplementary material on their own and bring them up in class. Some of the big questions we will ask throughout our discussions are: Who is responsible for environmental change? What is environmental “degradation” and who gets to define it? What is conservation? What makes Latin America unique, and what does it have in common with North America and the world at large? Why is Latin America’s past important to understand the world today?
Gaia and the Global Cold War
The modern concept of a global ecology, most famously described in James Lovelock’s “Gaia Theory,” is a product of a decades-long political conflict that threatened to destroy all life on the planet. Although the twentieth-century Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is now almost thirty years in the past, its scientific, environmental, and political legacies are all around us. This course approaches the Cold War as a global environmental phenomenon, the emergent result of many local and regional conflicts that became entangled in the rivalry of superpowers and reshaped that larger conflict in turn. The readings and class discussion will decenter the United States and Soviet Union in order to focus on the “Third World” places that supplied the great majority of the combatants, strategists, and casualties of the Cold War. The superpowers will not disappear altogether, but rather recede into the margins of events driven, if not ultimately determined, by actors and processes in the countries of the Global South. The historical study of the Cold War has blossomed in recent years as new sources have been made available and innovative approaches have challenged longstanding assumptions. This course uses primary sources and some of the most influential new secondary literature in order to demonstrate the diverse array of interests involved in the Cold War, as well as the profound legacies of that ideological conflict in the landscapes, institutions, and politics of the twenty first century.
Mythbusting Tropical Nature: Environmental History and Ecological Fables
This seminar uses historical methods to deconstruct three widespread myths about tropical nature, the people who live in them, and what “fixes” both require. Each of the myths examined appear in twenty-first century policy debates over environmental conservation, but each has deep roots that often reach to times and places far removed from the contemporary tropical world. These myths are closely related, playing off of and reinforcing each other. In this class, we will explore why these myths have proven so resilient, despite repeatedly being revealed as untrue or at best misleading, and how their use serves to redirect attention away from the role played by outsiders in altering and degrading tropical ecosystems. By the end of the class, students will be equipped to spot these myths and use the tools of history to challenge them.
Narcolandia: An Environmental History of Drugs
Drugs are the most valuable commodity in the global economy—their production, distribution, and efforts to control them have had profound impacts on the landscapes of every inhabited continent on earth. From imperial wars of conquest, through pot plantations in Mexican deserts and opium plots in the Burmese highlands, to aerial spraying of herbicides and crop-substitution programs, drugs have made and remade local and regional environments in surprising ways. This class explores the environmental changes associated with the global drug trade, including coca in the Andes, opium in Asia and Mesoamerica, and cannabis all over the place, as well as non-”narcotic” drugs like coffee, birth control pills, and anti-malarial chemicals in tree bark. We will also look at the reasons drugs are controlled, how effective those controls are, and why certain drugs remain prohibited when all controls have failed spectacularly, sometimes at great cost in blood and money. Drugs and the wars the wars fought over them are a window into the modern world, and offer a unique perspective into the “anthropocene”—the geological era of humankind.
Climate Change and Human Adaptation in the Americas
Climate change today is confronting humanity with unprecedented challenges to feeding a growing population, potential wars over scarce resources, and maintaining comfortable middle class lifestyles that have only just been obtained by many around the world. What might history tell us about how societies in the past coped with a changing climate? How did they understand the environment around them, and how did that perception shape their response? What is a “climate refugee” and do today’s migrants victims of climate change? How does your class, race, and gender affect how you feel the environment around you? Have humans triggered climate changes in the past, and if so, is it anything like what is happening now? This class explores these questions, and others, through three case studies—the ancient Maya (2,000 BC to 1500 CE), the Little Ice Age (1250 CE-1900 CE), and fossil fuel-induced global warming now widely described as the “anthropocene” (21st century). A historical perspective on climate change reveals that human behavior, especially on a scale as large as the earth itself, is never predetermined, but it is always conditioned by politics, culture, economics, and available technology. Besides historical sources, we will use LANDSAT images, fossil pollen records, and “Cli-Fi” novels to interrogate the significance of “the era of humans.”