The American idea of nature

I am beginning my environmental literature/ethics/politics course by having my students read a chapter of Nadia Tazi’s Keywords: Nature, a book that juxtaposes ideas of nature from a number of different world cultures. Leo Marx wrote “The Idea of Nature in America,” the chapter I’ve asked them to read. This chapter is a nearly flawless example of an essay in the history of ideas, as one would expect from Leo Marx. However, it is also the case that the chapter is not so much about nature in American culture, as it is about Nature in Anglo-American culture. I don’t see this as a weakness: the specificity of the subculture is part of what makes the essay so strong.

Nonetheless, it is no longer sufficient (especially when teaching in Manhattan) to assume that American culture as a whole is coterminous with Anglo-American culture. I assume that it is more accurate to talk about American cultures of nature. So, I am asking my students to compare Marx’s account of American nature with their own history with nature in America. If anyone is curious to see what they said, you can check out their posts at the end of this week on our class blog:


What does the term “environmental humanities” mean to you?

For many of us in North America this week marked the start of the academic year, a good time to think about teaching and pedagogical issues. The launch of Planetary provides an exciting new venue for this type of dialogue, and I thank Anthony and the rest of the editorial team for inviting me to participate.

I’ll start by posing a basic question: what do we mean when we talk about “environmental humanities” in the classroom? Courses on nature writing are, perhaps, the first thing that spring to mind. But what about other courses in the humanities that do not necessarily have words like “nature” or “environmental” in their titles? What are some strategies for teaching from an environmental humanities perspective in these courses?

I teach art history and visual culture and have had a couple of opportunities to teach senior level special topics classes with titles like “Landscape & Photography,” but for the most part my courses need to have a broader focus in order to fit into the curriculum of the various departments I have taught in. On the surface, these are not courses that appear to have an environmental humanities focus. If I were to ask incoming students to jot down their expectations of an introductory course on 19th century art, for instance, few would list “discussion of environmental issues.” However, when we stop to think about how cultural representations of space and place both inform and are informed by the world around us this connection becomes a lot more apparent. I often use writing exercises in order to get students to think about why a particular artist may have chosen to represent a landscape (including urban landscapes) in a particular way.

I’m interested to hear how others approach these themes in the various courses they teach. What kinds of exercises or models have you found to be particularly successful?

Welcome to Planetary

Welcome to Planetary, a new community blog about teaching the environmental humanities. Planetary started to form as the editors, sitting on their high horses, reflected on the need for a new media space to discuss, share, and preserve some of the excellent work being done in green pedagogy across the disciplines. We invite all who are interested in this work to join us as readers and contributors.

Planetary appears at a time when the environmental crisis has become unavoidably global; hence, our name. To think about fresh water supplies, global climate change, industrial pollution, environmental justice, species extinction, habitat preservation, and the like is to think about our life on Earth. The editors hope that this blog can play a role in enhancing communication across disciplinary and national boundaries. We want Planetary to be part of the global commons.

This philosophy informs our standards of intellectual property, too. Planetary follows the conventions of free use, with attribution, outlined by the Creative Commons movement. This means that readers are free to use ideas and information they find on Planetary as long as they give proper credit to the original authors. We encourage you to explore the realm of the intellectual commons by visiting Environmental pedagogy just wants to be free, as the Linuxfolk would say.

Though Planetary is, in part, inspired by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE-USA) and its international affiliates, membership in the association is not required of authors on this blog. We encourage everyone, in and out of the academy, to raise their voices here, and to remember that we are not alone in the great work of planetary repair in the twenty-first century.

Currently, Planetary allows readers to comment on posts without joining the community, but if you’d like to post, you have to join. Fortunately, joining is easy. You can contact me, Anthony Lioi, at, or one of the other editors listed in the About section, and ask to be invited to join. (NOTE: Email addresses are written with “_at_” to avoid detection by spambots. When mailing us, please use the regular @ sign.) Then we’ll send you an invitation. Once you respond, you’re in.

Planetary is a moderated blog; the editors reserve the right to weed out posts or comments that are in any way poisonous or violent. If we must contend, still there can be courtesy.

Let’s get to it!