Environmental Studies

Environmental studies at Sarah Lawrence College is an engagement with human relationships to the environment through a variety of disciplines. Sarah Lawrence’s environmental studies program, a critical component of a liberal-arts education, is an intersection of knowledge-making and questions about the environment that are based in the humanities, the arts, and the social and natural sciences. Sarah Lawrence students seeking to expand their knowledge of environmental studies are encouraged to explore the interconnections between disciplinary perspectives while developing areas of particular interest in greater depth. The environmental studies program seeks to develop students’ capacities for critical thought and analysis, applying theory to specific examples from Asia, Africa, and the Americas and making comparisons across geographic regions and historical moments.

Courses include environmental justice and politics, environmental history and economics, policy and development, property and the commons, environmental risk and the rhetoric of emerging threats, and cultural perspectives on nature, as well as courses in the natural sciences.

Environmental studies offers an annual, thematically focused colloquium: Intersections: Boundary Work in Science and Environmental Studies. This series brings advocates, scholars, writers, and filmmakers to the College, encouraging conversations across the disciplines among students, faculty, and guest speakers, as well as access to new ideas and lively exchanges. Students may participate in internships during the academic year or in rural and urban settings across the country and throughout the world during the summer. Guest study at Reed College (Portland, Oregon), the Council on International Educational Exchange (Portland, Maine), the semester in environmental science at the Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole, Massachusetts), or other programs are available to qualified Sarah Lawrence students. Vibrant connections across the faculty mean that students can craft distinctive competencies while building a broadly based knowledge of environmental issues, problems, policies, and possibilities.

2017-2018 Courses

Environmental Studies

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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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.

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First-Year Studies: Urban Ecology

Open , FYS—Year

Ecology is a scientific discipline that studies interactions between living organisms and their environments, as well as processes governing how species are distributed, how they interact, and how nutrients and energy cycle through ecosystems. Although we may think of these processes occurring in “natural” areas with little to no human development, all of these processes still take place in environments heavily modified by humans, such as cities. This course will cover fundamental concepts in the discipline of ecology and then further explore how these patterns and processes are altered (sometimes dramatically) in urban environments. We will use examples from our local environment—the New York City Metropolitan Area—to understand ecological concepts in light of urbanization. The fall semester will include a weekly outdoor lab session at local parks and field stations. Special attention will be paid to the ecology of the Hudson River, including field trips and work involving the Sarah Lawrence Center for the Urban River at Beczak.

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General Biology Series: Photosynthetic Life

Open , Seminar—Spring

Billions of years of oxygenic photosynthesis has altered the Earth's atmosphere and modified its landscape. From single-celled cyanobacteria to towering redwoods, photosynthesis produces the fuel that powers the food webs upon which all life depends. Rubisco, a key enzyme in photosynthesis, has been identified as the single most-abundant protein on Earth. In this course, students will develop an understanding of the origin and diversity of photosynthetic life, including cyanobacteria, marine and freshwater algae, and land plants. Concepts will be placed in an evolutionary framework that demonstrates the interconnected history of life. Seminars will be supplemented by lab sections, in which students will be exposed to the diversity of photosynthetic organisms and will learn to identify representative species and key morphological features and adaptations.

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Global Change Biology

Open , Seminar—Spring

Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Nutrient pollution. Invasive species. Global ecosystems are being altered in dramatic ways due to human activities. In order to address these challenges, we first need to understand them scientifically. This course will explore the impacts of global environmental change through the lens of the biological sciences. Should humans assist with tree migration so that slow-migrating plants can catch up to changing temperature conditions? How are invasive predators like Burmese pythons in Florida affecting mammal populations? How can the extensive use of fertilizers upstream in a large river affect biological communities downstream? How has overfishing altered marine biodiversity? How could urbanization and habitat loss alter the risk of disease spillover from wildlife to humans? We will use scientific journal articles and other primary sources to address these kinds of questions and more in this seminar course.

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Disease Ecology

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course explores infectious diseases—disease caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other parasites—through the lens of ecology. Thinking like a disease ecologist means asking questions about disease at different scales. Rather than just considering interactions between an individual host and a parasite, we will look at disease at the population, community, and ecosystem levels. A disease ecologist may ask questions such as: How does a disease make a jump from one species to another? Why are some environments so conducive to disease transmission? How can we make better predictions of where and when new diseases may emerge and develop better management strategies to combat them? A disease ecologist may even consider infected hosts as ecosystems, where pathogens feed on hosts, compete with one another, and face off with the host’s immune system or its beneficial microbiome. Mathematical models of disease transmission and spread will be introduced. We will consider examples from plant, wildlife, and human disease systems.

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Environmental Chemistry

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course provides an introduction to basic concepts of chemistry and their application to current environmental issues. Topics include acid rain, ozone depletion, air pollution, global warming, and surface water and groundwater pollution. We will then consider how human activities—such as transportation, energy production, and chemical industries—influence the environment.

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First-Year Studies: Introduction to Development Studies: The Political Ecology of Development

Open , FYS—Year

Some experience in the social sciences is desired but not required.

In this yearlong seminar, we will begin by examining competing paradigms and approaches to understanding “development” and the “Third World.” We will set the stage by answering the question: What did the world look like 500 years ago? The purpose of this part of the course is to acquaint us with and to analyze the historical origins and evolutions of a world political economy, of which the Third World is an intrinsic component. We will thus study the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the rise of merchant and finance capital, and the colonization of the world by European powers. We will analyze case studies of colonial "development" to understand the evolving meaning of this term. These case studies will help us assess the varied legacies of colonialism apparent in the emergence of new nations through the fitful and uneven process of decolonization that followed. The next part of the course will look at the United Nations and the role some of its associated institutions have played in the post-World War II global political economy, one marked by persistent and intensifying socioeconomic inequalities, as well as frequent outbreaks of political violence across the globe. By examining the development institutions that have emerged and evolved since 1945, we will attempt to unravel the paradoxes of development in different eras. We will deconstruct the measures of development through a thematic exploration of population, resource use, poverty, access to food, the environment, agricultural productivity, and different development strategies adopted by Third World nation states. We will then examine globalization; and its relation to emergent international institutions, transnational corporations, the role of the state, and civil society will provide the backdrop for the final focus of the class—the emergence of regional coalitions for self-reliance, environmental and social justice, and sustainable development. Our analysis of development in practice will draw upon case studies primarily from Africa but also from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States. Conference work will be closely integrated with the themes of the course, with a two-stage substantive research project in the fall semester to be completed in the spring. Project presentations will incorporate a range of formats, from traditional papers to multimedia visual productions. Where possible and feasible, students will be encouraged to do primary research during fall study days and winter and spring breaks.

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The Geography of Contemporary China: A Political Ecology of Reform, Global Integration, and Rise to Superpower

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

Some experience in the social sciences desired but not required.

Despite widespread daily reporting on China’s rise to superpower status—and both its challenge to and its necessary partnership with the United States—what do we really know about the country? In this seminar, we will explore China’s evolving place in the world through political-economic integration and globalization processes. We will consistently focus our efforts on reframing debates, both academic and in mass media, to enable new insights and analyses. We will begin with an overview of contemporary China, discussing the unique aspects of China’s modern history and the changes and continuities from one era to the next. We will explore Revolutionary China and the subsequent socialist period to ground the seminar’s focus: post-1978 reform and transformation to the present day. Rooted in the questions of agrarian change and rural development, we will also study seismic shifts in urban and industrial form and China’s emergence as a global superpower on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy. We will analyze the complex intertwining of the environmental, political-economic, and sociocultural aspects of these processes as we interpret the geography of contemporary China. Using a variety of theoretical perspectives, we will analyze a series of contemporary global debates: Is there a fundamental conflict between the environment and rapid development? What is the role of the peasantry in the modern world? What is the impact of different forms of state power and practice? How does globalization shape China’s regional transformation? And, on the other hand, how does China’s global integration impact development in every other country and region of the world? Modern China provides immense opportunities for exploring key theoretical and substantive questions of our time. A product first and foremost of its own complex history, other nation states and international actors and institutions—such as the World Bank, transnational corporations, and civil society—have also heavily influenced China. The “China model” of rapid growth is widely debated in terms of its efficacy as a development pathway, and yet it defies simple understandings and labels. Termed everything from neoliberalism to market socialism to authoritarian Keynesian capitalism, it is a model full of paradoxes and contradictions. Not least of these is its impact on global climate change. Other challenges include changing gender relations, rapid urbanization, and massive internal migration. In China today, contentious debates continue on land reform, the pros and cons of global market integration, the role of popular culture and the arts in society, how to define ethical behavior, the roots of China’s social movements—from Tian’anmen to current widespread social unrest and discontent amongst workers, peasants, students, and intellectuals—and the meaning and potential resolution of minority conflicts in China’s hinterlands. Land and resource grabs in China and abroad are central to China’s rapid growth and its role as an industrial platform for the world. But resulting social inequality and environmental degradation challenge the legitimacy of China’s leadership like never before. As China borders many of the most volatile places in the contemporary world and increasingly projects its power to the far corners of the planet, we will conclude our seminar with a discussion of security issues, geopolitics, and potential scenarios for China’s future. Throughout the seminar, there will be comparisons with other areas of the world within the context of the broader theoretical and thematic questions mentioned above. Weekly selected readings, films, mass media, and books will be used to inform debate and discussion. A structured conference project will integrate closely with one of the diverse topics of the seminar.

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Food Environments, Health, and Social Justice

Open , Seminar—Fall

With obesity and diabetes rising at alarming rates and growing awareness of the social determinants of health and disparities in food access, researchers and policymakers are rethinking the role of the environment in shaping our diets and health. This course takes a collaborative approach to investigating some of the key issues guiding this area of research and action. Students will critically review literature on food environments, food access, and health inequalities and explore how modes of food production and distribution shape patterns of food availability and inequities in the food system. Students will use photography and video to examine foods available in the neighborhoods where they live, review media related to the course themes, and use a time/space food diary to reflect on the ways in which their own eating habits are influenced by the social and material settings of their day-to-day lives. The course concludes with students writing letters to the editor/op-eds to a news outlet of their choice, with suggestions about how to move forward with action to improve food access, public health, and social justice in the places where they live. Students may have the opportunity to engage in community-based service learning and/or research, with the possibility of conference projects resulting from that experience.

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Wherever You Go, There You Are: An Exploration of Environmental Psychology

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course explores the relationship between physical and social environments and human behavior. Utilizing qualitative methodologies (autoethnography and photovoice), we will critically explore human interactions from the body, the home, and the local to the globalized world, with a return to the individual experience of our physical and social environments. As a survey course, we will cover myriad topics that may include food (in)security and alternative food networks, informal family caregiving, urban/rural/suburban relationships, gentrification, urban planning, environmental sustainability, globalization, social justice, and varying conceptualizations and experiences of ”home” based on gender, race, class, and people with disabilities. Topics will ultimately be driven by student interest. Films and a field trip will be incorporated. Students are encouraged to participate in service learning through local community involvement facilitated by the Office of Community Partnerships, with the possibility of conference projects resulting from that experience.

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Cities of the Global South

Open , Seminar—Fall

Saskia Sassen conceptualizes the “global city” as a model defined by the concentration of the economic activities of globalization, from infrastructure to services, as well as new forms of corporate governance and labor structures. The restructuring of global neoliberal economics has been a major factor in the unbalanced development experiences of various cities and urban centers in the Global South. While many enjoy vast material benefits from rapid economic expansion in cities like Singapore and Mumbai, others also experience an increase in precarious conditions and unprecedented levels of inequality, as witnessed in cities like Jakarta, Johannesburg, and São Paulo. In this course, we will be looking at the implications and consequences of uneven development in urban societies of the Global South. We will be particularly focused on issues such as urban informality, poverty, violence, inequalities, segregation, and surveillance as they pertain to cities outside the Global North countries. In addition, the course will also be focused on changing notions and meanings behind “urban” in the context of increasingly cosmopolitan societies and globalization by looking at how migration and mobility have had an impact on the social, political, and economic dynamics of urban living. Some of the case studies that we examine include gated communities in Johannesburg, informality in Mumbai and Jakarta, and precariousness in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. Finally, we look at how urban transformations and realities in cities of the Global South give rise the new forms of social movements and political agency among dispossessed and marginalized communities that strive to make demands and claims at both micro and macro levels—from the collective mobilization of migrant women in Hong Kong in order to secure humane working conditions to the major public protests and revolutionary movements in cities such as Cairo. We will be reading and engaging with the works of scholars such as Sassen, David Harvey, Asef Bayat, Stephen Graham, Mike Davis, Teresa Caldeira, and Ananya Roy, among others. Students will be given the opportunity to design case studies of different cities in the non-Western world, focusing on key issues that we read and discuss in the course.

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