"Nature” is what we see –
The Hill – the Afternoon –
Squirrel – Eclipse – the Bumble bee –
Nay – Nature is Heaven –

“Nature” is what We hear –
The Bobolink – the Sea –
Thunder – the Cricket –
Nay – Nature is Harmony –

“Nature” is what We know –
But have no Art to say –
So impotent our Wisdom is
To Her Sincerity –

Emily Dickinson, 1863

Deforestation, overpopulation, pesticide use, toxic oceans, endangered species, global warming. How are we to make sense of the many environmental problems facing the Earth today?

Although the sciences provide a factual account of environmental threats and ways of countering them, scientific facts alone seem not to be enough. For it is the case that artists, writers, filmmakers, and even scientists find themselves turning again and again to their imaginations to respond to the environmental predicaments of society. For example, Rachel Carson opens Silent Spring (1962)—the book that launched the modern environmental movement—with “A Fable for Tomorrow,” a fairytale in effect that shocks us with the future we face if the insidious harm of chemical pollution goes unchecked.

James Lovelock, the British climate scientist who developed “Gaia”—the hypothesis that the Earth reacts like a living organism in regulating the conditions suitable for life—has recourse to a pre-Olympian ancient Greek deity, a personification of the Earth. They may be doing what English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley powerfully described 200 years ago as an essentially human and creative impulse: “to imagine that which we know.” In what other ways, then, have creative minds imagined—in essays, books, and movies—the very idea of nature, the place of humans in it, and their power to change the environment?

In what other ways, then, have creative minds imagined—in essays, books, and movies—the very idea of nature, the place of humans in it, and their power to change the environment?

These are some of the questions considered by the freshmen taking my course, “Humans, Nature, and the Environment,” which I teach in the Harvard College Writing Program. Expository writing, or “Expos” for short, has a long history at Harvard, going back to the nineteenth century. Generations of alumni have all had to take Expos, since it is a required, foundational course, preparing them as academic writers and critical thinkers for their other courses in the College and, indeed, for life beyond Harvard. All Expos courses are designed to instruct students in the skills of academic argument, which is to say, how to develop a contestable claim in response to some primary source—whether it be an essay, a book, a movie, or an artwork—and how to argue that claim persuasively in the form of a well-crafted essay that carefully analyzes textual evidence.

The course themes in Expos differ markedly, to be sure, depending on an instructor’s academic interests. The “green” theme of my course comes out of my background in Romanticism and American literature. What’s more, it comes out of my own fascination with the protean idea of nature, which, as French philosopher Pierre Hadot shows, has a long and rich history. Just as our sense of the world around us is in part shaped by these underlying ideas of nature, so too are the controversies about the plight of the environment in the twenty-first century.

Harvard Yard. Photo by Martin GreenupHarvard Yard. Photo by Martin Greenup

“Humans, Nature, and the Environment” is divided into three units of increasing length and complexity. In the first unit, the students interpret Henry David Thoreau’s seminal nature essay, “Walking” (1862), after going for a walk at Walden Pond. They then argue their interpretations in short essays that closely engage with Thoreau’s language and ideas. In his essay, Thoreau ponders the value of wildness, imaginatively transforming American westward expansion into a personal spiritual quest and re-characterizing the age-old figure of “Mother Nature” as “vast, savage, [and] howling.” 

In the second unit, the students critically compare the literary approaches of two books by scientists which belong to the genre of popular environmentalism: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006). To focus their arguments, the students use a “lens” which they develop from secondary sources—either an essay by literary scholar M. H. Abrams on the Romantics’ vision of nature or extracts from various texts on environmental ethics. On the face of it, the two books seem very different. But the use of a lens affords the students the opportunity to uncover some unlikely connections.

In the third unit, the students write longer essays after developing research projects about one of two documentary movies that examine relationships between humans and animals—Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) in which the filmmaker takes issue with the self-proclaimed environmentalist Timothy Treadwell who strove to protect bears in the Alaskan wilderness, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) in which she delivers a brilliant polemic against the SeaWorld corporation and its treatment of captive killer whales. Both films implicitly explore the creative problem of anthropomorphism—that is, the attribution of human qualities to animals and other non-human entities.

Although the sciences provide a factual account of environmental threats and ways of countering them, scientific facts alone seem not to be enough. For it is the case that artists, writers, filmmakers, and even scientists find themselves turning again and again to their imaginations to respond to the environmental predicaments of society.

The six outstanding essays included here were written by freshmen for the second unit of “Humans, Nature, and the Environment” – the two most recent are from the spring semester of 2017, and the other four are from earlier semesters. As academic essays, they do a number of things well: each has a strong yet contestable thesis that is urgently argued throughout; each adroitly sets up and enters into an existing scholarly debate; and each sheds new light both on Carson’s and Lovelock’s books and on the bigger debate through carefully working with evidence.

The first essay, “The One Life and Science: A New Relationship,” is by Sydney Record, Class of 2020, and looks at the Romantic idea of the One Life as it appears in environmentalism, revealing how this idea is now supported by the science that proves the interconnectedness of life on Earth. The second essay, “Extending Environmental Ethics through Fear,” is by Laura Cegarra, Class of 2020, and argues that both Carson and Lovelock use fear to supplement their ethical stances and so motivate readers to act on behalf of the environment.

The third essay, “The Intertwining of Romanticism and Science through Metaphor,” is by Oliver George, Class of 2020, and explores the relationship of Romanticism and science in popular environmental writing, arguing that the expression of science through metaphor strengthens respect for the natural world and appreciation of the interconnectedness of nature. The fourth essay, “Ethical Anthropocentrism: Making Environmentalism Relatable,” is by Joseph Winters, Class of 2020, and examines ethically anthropocentric representations of human relationships found in Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia, showing how these representations help to connect with readers and make environmentalism more understandable.

The fifth essay, “Metaphor and Visions of Home in Environmental Writing: From the Romantic Poets to Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia,” is by Alison W. Steinbach, Class of 2019, and examines the use of Romantic metaphor in the two books, especially the metaphor of home and how the two writers use it in a significantly different way from the Romantics. The sixth essay, “Daring to Care: Deep Ecology and Effective Popular Environmentalism,” is by Zeke Benshirim, Class of 2019, and considers the relationship of Lovelock to Carson with regards to environmental ethics, focusing on Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess’s concept of “deep ecology.”