Charles Zerner

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

BA, Clark University. MArch, University of Oregon. JD, Northeastern University. Areas of specialization: landscape studies, environmental arts and humanities, political ecology, and environmental justice. Recent research focuses on urban and post-industrial landscapes of the anthropocene and visions for future interventions in a time of climate change. Field research on an ancient market garden in Istanbul; migrant families’ kitchen gardens in Kathmandu, and landscapes in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Earlier research on fishing and agrarian communities of Sulawesi, Indonesia, community-based reef management in Maluku Islands; groundwater salinization in west Java; indigenous communities and logging concessions, Kalimantan. Former program director, the Rainforest Alliance. Contributing author and editor, People, Plants, and Justice: The Politics of Nature Conservation (Columbia University Press 2000) and Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia (Duke University Press 2003). Co-editor of Representing Communities: Politics and Histories of Community-Based Natural Resource Management (2005) and Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties (AltaMira Press, 2005). Recent chapters and articles include “Insurgent Ecologies: Rhetorics of Resistance and Affirmation in Yedikule, Istanbul’s Ancient Market Garden” (2020), “The Garden of Dreams: Weedy Landscapes in Kathmandu,” (2016), “Landscapes in Translation: Traveling the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel with Raja Shehadeh and David Grossman” (2014), and “Honey in the City, Just Food’s Campaign for Legalizing Beekeeping in New York City” (2012). Director, Intersections Colloquium Series: Border Zones in Environmental Studies. Residencies at University of California–Irvine, Humanities Research Institute, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Recipient of Fulbright-Hays fellowship for fieldwork in Indonesia, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Social Science Research Council. SLC, 2000–

Undergraduate Courses 2021-2022

Environmental Studies

Environmental Humanities: An Introduction

Open, Seminar—Spring

The environmental humanities are an emerging assemblage of disciplinary perspectives that draw the humanities disciplines into conversation with the natural and social sciences. In this course, fiction and non-fiction writing, history, and film will be drawn on to investigate contemporary understandings of an epoch controversially called “the Anthropocene.” What do perspectives, methods, insights and values of the arts and humanities, as well as the natural sciences, bring to our perceptions of specific environments and the global environmental emergency that is the signature of this moment in planetary history? How do the environmental humanities and social sciences inform visions, affect, and social perceptions of environmental issues? How do interventions in the arts and humanities constitute acts of “world-making”: new ways of seeing, feeling, and imagining human and other-than-human ways of caring for this planet in this long moment of danger?  We will read fiction and non-fiction as well as works by anthropologists, lichenologists, historians, literary scholars, science fiction and non-fiction writers, and explorers of seas, caves and mines.

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The Environmental Imagination: Perspectives From the Social Sciences, Environmental Humanities, and the Arts

Open, Seminar—Fall

“Climate change” covers a variety of hydrological, thermal, geological, and atmospheric crises that are intersecting and accelerating in scope and intensity. Inspired by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwOvBv8RLmo) performing her poem Earthrise, this course invites a conversation that draws together the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts: a journey through the global climate crisis on a variety of scales, in specific contexts, and through diverse media. Fiction and nonfiction writing, history, and film will be drawn upon to investigate understandings of an epoch controversially called “the Anthropocene.”  What do these different perspectives, methods, and insights bring to our perceptions of specific environments? How do different rhetorical formations, imaginaries, narratives, and visual images inform cognitive and affective responses to the Anthropocene?  What do they bring to our understanding of the global environmental emergency that is the signature of this moment in planetary history? How do interventions in the arts and humanities constitute acts of “world-making”—new ways of seeing, feeling, and imagining human ways of caring for this planet? In conjunction with the literatures of political ecology and cultural anthropology, we will read fiction by authors such as Amitav Ghosh and Stanislas Lem; nonfiction by Robert MacFarlane (Underlands), Ben Ehrenreich (Desert Notebooks), Joseph Masco (irradiated landscapes in the American West), Kate Brown (Plutopia), and Madeleine Watts (The Inland Sea).

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Previous Courses

Environmental Studies

Environmental Humanities: An Introduction

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Spring

The environmental humanities are an emerging assemblage of disciplinary perspectives that draw the humanities disciplines into conversation with the natural and social sciences. In this course, we will draw on fiction and nonfiction writing, history, and film to investigate contemporary understandings of an epoch controversially called “the Anthropocene.” We will investigate soils, caves, oceans, microbiota, as well as rising seas and glacial melting, plastic and chemical pollution in the Pacific Ocean, toxic pollution in the Mississippi delta, and irradiated landscapes in Japan, the American West, and the Ukraine. What do perspectives, methods, insights, and values of the arts and humanities bring to our perceptions of specific environments and the global environmental emergency that is the signature of this moment in planetary history? How do the environmental humanities and social sciences inform visions, affect, and social perceptions of environmental issues? What interventions in the arts and humanities constitute acts of “world-making”—new ways of seeing, feeling, and conceptualizing human and other-than-human ways of caring for the planet in this long moment of danger? We will read fiction by authors such as Amitav Ghosh and nonfiction on the “underland” by Robert MacFarlane, as well as works by anthropologists, political ecologists, historians, literary critics, science-fiction writers, and underwater explorers.

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

Open, FYS—Year

In a time of extreme environmental events that include climate change, rising sea levels, flooding, toxics, and radiation, environmental imagery is part of the fabric of daily life and communication: on the Web, on television, in newspapers, and in advertisements. Images of sea rise, genetically modified salmon, or landscapes of environmental devastation in Africa are found in the subway and in Benetton ads, as well as on the front pages of The New York Times and in social media. Representations of nature 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. This FYS seminar introduces students to the insights and methods of environmental humanities, environmental history, science studies, and political ecology. How do stories, images, and maps of nature shape perceptions and practices of environmental management? How is the same patch of “nature” imagined and described by differently positioned observers? How are environmental representations, historical contexts, facts, and rhetoric linked? How are particular forms of environmental representation used? By whom? Where? To what ends? In a time of extreme environmental events, sometimes called the Anthropocene, how are ideas of nature, ecology, and environmental futures changing? How are ideas of resilience now shaping the visions and material interventions of architects, engineers, landscape architects, and urban planners? How do works of fiction, nonfiction, film, and other arts encourage imaginative interventions in an era of increasing environmental risk? In the fall, students will alternate biweekly conferences with biweekly small-group activities. In the spring, students will attend conferences on alternate weeks.

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Introduction to Property: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives

Intermediate, 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.

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Landscapes in Translation: Cartographies, Visions, and Interventions

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

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.

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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.

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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.

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