Charles Zerner

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

BA, Clark University. MArch, University of Oregon. JD, Northeastern University. Special interests in environmental ethnography; political ecology; environmental justice, law, language, and culture; 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 the University of California-Irvine, Humanities Research Institute, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; grants include Fulbright-Hays fellowship for fieldwork in Indonesia, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Social Science Research Council. SLC, 2000–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Landscapes in Translation: Cartographies, Visions, and Interventions

Year

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.

Faculty

New Nature: Environmental Design in the 21st Century

Year

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?

Faculty

Previous courses

Picturing Nature

Spring

From the painting of prehistoric bestiaries on cave walls in Southern France to the creating of animated, pixilated fantasies of toxic forests by Japanese anime artists, environmental imagining and image-making are fundamental human capacities and activities. Representing nature is a world-making activity. What work does nature-making do at different historical moments? What historical forces precipitate changes in the way that nature and its boundaries with the “human” are imagined? How, for example, did 18th-century English ideas of the pastoral lead to an obsession with making flat, uniform lawns in mid-20th-century America? How was nature imagery used to fashion ideas of German and English nationhood and national character? We examine landscape aesthetics and forest mythology in Nazi Germany and the England of Robin Hood to offer insights into this question. We also investigate how images of the enemy as insect were used during World War II to mobilize campaigns of total “extermination,” and how ideas and images of nature lured into the Alaskan wilderness John Krakauer’s protagonist in Into the Wild.  We ask how images of the wild are produced, mediated, and circulated in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney, James Cameron, Youtube videos, and US Air Force animations. The course also explores nature-making as a world-making activity. How are images of the human body, as well as  the “nature outside” imagined, and with what consequences? How, for example, are images of the immune system changing, as ideas of park management and ecology permeate medical understandings of the microbial world as well as nature conservation policies? What is distinctive about the garden as a human invention? Meditations on gardens, forests, and farms—from the gardening of forests in Southeast Asia and Latin America to “gardens of the homeless” in New York City—form a path in this itinerary. What are the gardens of the future? And what forms of the wild do we wish to cultivate, create, or conserve?

Faculty

Strategies of Visibility: Arts of Environmental Resistance and Creativity

Fall

Many of the lethal compounds produced by contemporary industry and government-sponsored facilities are not accessible to the senses. Human beings are not biologically equipped to sense the hazards of radioactivity; nor do they perceive, under normal circumstances and levels of contamination, the presence of chemical compounds or radioactive materials that are significant causes of disease, debility, and mortality in human and nonhuman populations. A key problem and challenge for artists, local residents, writers, scientists, and public policy experts, as well as for local, regional and nongovernmental environmental advocacy organizations, is how to render “visible”—or accessible to our senses—the nature and immanence of these toxic and radiological threats. How are individuals and organizations creating and deploying “strategies of visibility” and “tactics of sensibility”—techniques of translation and mediation that engage human capacities to perceive and respond to sensory stimuli—in order to create more fully informed, alert, and engaged publics? How do strategies of visibility create possibilities for awareness and empathy? What possibilities are there for developing strategies of visibility that engage the affections and perceptions of citizens in a world of proliferating threats and images of threat? The aesthetic project is investigated as a tactical and strategic attempt in fashioning sensibilities, making and mobilizing publics, and equipping citizens to respond to environmental issues. 

Faculty

Understanding Property: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives

Spring

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.

Faculty