Charles Zerner

Barbara B. and Bertram J. Cohn Professorship in Environmental Studies

on leave spring semester

BA, Clark University. MArch, University of Oregon. JD, Northeastern University. Special interests in environmental ethnography; political ecology; environmental justice, law, language, and culture; and environmental security and public policy. Ethnographic fieldwork with Mandar fishing communities of Sulawesi, Indonesia, and reef management in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands; former program director, the Rainforest Alliance. Contributor and editor, People, Plants, and Justice: The Politics of Nature Conservation and Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia. Co-editor of Representing Communities: Politics and Histories of Community-Based Natural Resource Management and, with Banu Subramaniam and Elizabeth Hartmann, of Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties (AltaMira Press, 2005). Residencies at University of California–Irvine, Humanities Research Institute, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Grants include Fulbright-Hays fellowship for fieldwork in Indonesia, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Social Science Research Council. SLC, 2000–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

Environmental Studies

Shadows and Light: Landscapes of the Contemporary and of the Future Planet

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Spring

The opening lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light, sung in somber harmony with The Persuasions, announce the theme and tonal register of this course:

Every picture has its shadows
And it has some source of light
Blindness, blindness and sight

Shadows and Light examines the infrastructures and ecologies of contemporary landscapes by building on the concept of landscape as a “view” or “scape” and landschaft as a complex vision of human engagement with planetary ecosystems. This course investigates the entanglement of human infrastructures, industrial processes, and visions of modernity with the health and wellbeing of the planet, including human as well as nonhuman organisms. How do the chemicals used to increase agricultural production, for example, affect the health of human and nonhuman organisms, as well as the flourishing and degradation of geophysical systems including soils and water sources? How is the health of Native Americans and Hispanic Americans living in the nuclear “sacrifice zones” of the American Southwest and American Northwest affected by living in irradiated landscapes? How is the health of Inuit peoples, whales, porpoises, algae, and plankton living in circumpolar regions poisoned by the dry-cleaning fluids carried by atmospheric currents? Part I of this course introduces varying understandings of the current era, increasingly called the Anthropocene. What is the Anthropocene? When did this era begin? Why is the articulation of a new period in planetary history important? What are its diagnostic signs and symbols? Conceptions of the “risk society” are introduced, focusing on temporal and spatial dimensions of contemporary environmental risks resulting from anthropogenic processes. Part II is case-based: Several “dark” landscapes, all risk-zones deeply contaminated and environmentally problematic, are investigated, including “radiological-scapes,” “chemo-scapes,” and “agro-industrial food-scapes.” In addition to scholarly analyses, we read first-person accounts of chemical and radiological invasions of the human body and local ecosystems. Part III moves into the “light,” examining visionary work of artists, lichenologists, landscape architects, anthropologists, and writers of contemporary “speculative fiction.” Whether in imaginative modes of experimental fiction, the visual and plastic arts, landscape and architectural design, or experimental protocols, we examine the work of creative people struggling to create new ways of thinking about human relationships, both material and conceptual, to planetary ecologies.


Understanding Property: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives

Open , Seminar—Fall

Perhaps few issues are more contentious in the environmental arena than those surrounding struggles over rights to private, as well as common, property resources. What is property, and how is it made? Who makes property? How are property rights performed, publicized, and enforced? What is a commons, and what is common property? Debates over the “commons” implicate ideas of citizenship, community, the public good, justice, and governance. Controversies over public space and community gardens, genetic recombinant research and rights to the genome, and North-South disputes over rights to biodiversity in the geographic South, as well as debates over property in the Middle East, form some of the hotly contested terrain of property rights and the commons use and ownership. Property rights on a variety of scales, from the biomolecular to whole organs and organisms, from individual trees to whole ecosystems, are examined in varied geographic, biological, cultural, and historical contexts. This course is an introduction to ideas and cultures of property (private, public, and collective); debates, claims, and arguments over the commons; and the environmental and social consequences of different property regimes.

Related Disciplines

Landscapes in Translation: Cartographies, Visions, and Interventions

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Background in humanities, social sciences or arts preferred. Advanced, open to students with developed skills in critical thinking and analysis of texts.

This course investigates the multiple ways in which landscapes have been imagined, interpreted, physically shaped, and controlled in a variety of historical and contemporary sites. The first section, Cartographies, explores ideas of landscape in Euro-America, Southeast Asia, and colonial-era Africa. The literatures of critical geography and political ecology provide theory and cases illuminating connections between the position of the cartographer and presuppositions about the nature of the territory being mapped and managed. We examine how landscapes on a variety of scales, from “bioregions” to nations, are imagined, codified, and transformed through representational processes and material moves. The second section, Visions, investigates how landscapes are embodied in fine arts and literature, as well as in garden and urban design. Readings draw on examples of landscape design in colonial New England and Indonesia and on contemporary examples of landscape design in response to climate change. We also study reworkings of the urban landscape to integrate more productive, biologically diverse “fringes,” as well as rooftop farms and apiaries. The third section, Control: Emerging Security-Scapes, investigates the rise of militarized “security-scapes” or “surveillance-scapes,” dating from slavery in the United States to the Department of Homeland Security in the post-9/11 era. We analyze the visual surround and landscapes seen by remote drone “pilots” scanning Los Angeles and Somalia and surveillance of the occupied Palestinian landscapes; we draw upon websites, advertisements, and new scholarship in security studies, media studies, and social theory.

Related Disciplines

Previous Courses

First-Year Studies: Introduction to Environmental Studies: Cultures of Nature

Open , FYS—Year

Environmental imagery is part of the fabric of daily life and communication on the Web, on television, and in newspapers and advertisements. Images of Ebola viruses, genetically-modified salmon, or landscapes of environmental devastation in Africa can be found in the subway, in Benetton ads, and on the front pages of The New York Times. Representations of nature and the environment are not restricted, however, to popular media and texts; they also form the terrain for scientific contestation, debate about environmental ethics, and "high" policy formulation. We will explore how stories, metaphors, images, and maps of nature are constructed, disseminated, and received differently by particular audiences and in specific areas of environmental controversy. In Asia, Latin America, Africa, and North America, we will explore how issues and debates in tropical conservation and development are fashioned by the World Bank “experts” and contested by scholars and nongovernmental activists. We will examine how America's southwestern landscape is imagined, mapped, and described in the reports of the nuclear industry, the literatures of Native American activists, and the essays of conservationists. How do particular representations of “nature” become historically important and widespread? When did the Grand Canyon become grand? How are environmental representations linked to policy, publicity, and persuasion? How are issues in environment, health, and disease imagined during different historical periods? What implications do these imaginings have for public policy, including immigration and civil rights? How are representations of food, embodied in television and mass- media advertising, linked to the politics of food supply and the American diet? We will use a variety of sources, including mass media, environmental ethnographies and histories, conservation organization reports, and the Internet. Conference work may engage representations from a broad spectrum of issues.


New Nature: Environmental Design in the 21st Century

Open , Seminar—Year

Background in humanities, social sciences, and/or natural sciences with experience in critical analysis of texts.

This course investigates emerging technologies, philosophies, and practices of environmental design and management in the early 21st century from the level of regional landscapes to the level of cells. What are the values, visions, and assumptions that animate contemporary developments in environmental design? What forms of technological know-how and knowledge production practices enable these developments? What ethical, aesthetic, or political implications might these shifts in the making of environments, organs, and organisms entail? How might we begin to make informed judgments about emerging form(s) of nature, environmental design, and humanity? The course begins with an introduction to debates on the nature of nature and machines in America in the 18th century, grounding discussion through examining changing ideas of environment, ecosystems, and equilibriums. Post-World War II ideologies of design, command, and control of the environment, including nuclear power and developments in chemistry, are examined. We then turn to debates on nature, communities, and conservation from the 1970s through the late 1990s, from the era of “the green planet” and “rain-forest conservation.” Preoccupations with biowarfare, genetic engineering, and human enhancement in the post-9/11 era are key topics. We examine contemporary developments in environmental design in several domains, including landscape architecture; cyborg technology; simulation, mediation, and virtual environments; and biotechnology/biowarfare. The work of bioartists and engineers, genetic engineers working for private industry and the government, as well as the work of environmental networks—including the Critical Art Ensemble, Rhizome, and the New Media Caucus—form part of this itinerary. Attitudes toward pollution are undergoing sea changes as landscape designers remediate toxic sites using natural processes and timescales. Industrial designers and environmental chemists are reconceptualizing the basis for resource extraction, processing, and manufacturing. On a micro level, molecular biologists and nanoengineers are creating emergent forms of tissues and organisms for purposes of medicine, as well as for waging war. On the battlefield, the nature of war is rapidly changing. Robotic armies under “human control” may be the armed forces of the future. Organisms and biochemical processes are being enlisted and drafted into military, as well as medical, service. At the same time, landscape architecture is being reconceptualized as the discipline charged with responsibility for “imagining and saving the Earth.” A marvelous diversity of efforts at innovative sustainable uses of energy, water, and industrial design will be examined through texts, websites, films, and speakers from the ES/STS Colloquium Series. Where possible, field trips within the New York City/New York State area will be arranged. In New York City, for example, community gardens, rooftop agriculture and botanical gardens, waste treatment, and innovative urban installations may be visited. What will constitute our planetary home in a world of emerging new nature(s)? What forms of energy, water, and toxic management are being imagined, designed, and implemented? How are engineers, artists, architects, and agronomists, as well as writers of science fiction and film, contributing to the formation of new nature and human relationships to the environment in the 21st century?