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Emotions in the Environmental Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Exploration (EES)
Graduate Program (& Advanced Certificate) Status
Course Description

In September 2019, activist Greta Thunberg stirred the world when she addressed the United Nations and spoke about how “sad and angry” she was. She told world leaders that young people felt betrayed and that if the leaders continued to fail future generations, they would never be forgiven. As the multiple socio-ecological crises intensify, emotions understandably come to the fore: People may be hopeful or hopeless, grieving, frightened, angry, anxious…

In researching and studying the environment and environment-society interrelations, we begin to understand the aspects of societal organization that are linked to far-reaching crises which include global heating, biodiversity loss, and severe local pollution events. But what about the emotions that piggyback onto this understanding, that are intertwined into our research and our studies? To what extent is there space for emotions in environmental sciences research? Do we have to make space?

This class introduces environmental emotions as linked to socio-ecological crises and transformations and to different forms of inequality and their intersectionalities. We then explore the knowledge and strategies that can aid us in understanding and responding to emotions as environmental researchers and activists, based on the need to ‘caretake the care-giver’. We study where we might find emotional cues, including in policy communication and, perhaps surprisingly in academic publications. On this basis we turn to insights from environmental justice research and activism, eco-feminism, ecological economics and degrowth research and communities as to both the relevance of emotions and to strategies allowing us to address them, collectively and personally.

The current environmental crises, and in particular the climate crisis, do not affect all people and communities equally. This is true not only of the local impacts associated with global average surface temperature rises, but also of the mental and emotional impacts of crises: Environmental and climate workers and academics have been shown to be particularly vulnerable, as have young people. Students of the environmental sciences belong to both these groups, making the class especially relevant to them. Nonetheless, this class acknowledges that addressing and expressing emotions might be a new experience to many students, especially in the academic context. Teaching and learning therefore takes various forms: lecture-style inputs, plenary discussions, small-group activities, individual work, flipped classroom settings, reading, watching, listening. Next to the assigned reading, the four assignments that must be completed outside of class are a short academic essay, a podcast-style recording, a written reflection on a journaling exercise, and a free-form eulogy/lamentation.

Learning Outcomes

Through this course students will be able to

  • describe the role of emotions in environmental literacy,
  • detect appeals to emotion in environmental communication and critically discuss their possible effects,
  • identify their own emotions around environmental issues,
  • develop the ability to critically reflect on the underlying reasoning for experiencing any form or intensity of eco emotions. Are these emotions a result of direct or indirect impacts? In the case of indirect effects, a critical learning ability could be to be aware and critically reflect on the environmental/ climate narratives that one is exposed to (e.g. scientific evidence, cultural perceptions, social media, journalistic messages), and explore how climate change is perceived not only in academia but also through cultural discourse.
  • develop strategies to deal with such emotions as they arise and to support their peers,
  • experiment with different forms of reflecting on and addressing environmental emotions.

This class is graded. Up to 20 points can be earned for active participation in class. The four assignments are worth up to 20 points each: For each assignment, students identify a goal they want to achieve through the task and review their own work in light of that goal after having completed the assignment. Grading takes these individual goals as well as progress during the term into account.

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