Environmental Justice Courses

Many Cornell students are interested in learning about policies and practices that link environmental degradation to inequities in resources and power available to different groups of people, particularly low-income individuals and communities of color. Yet students also point out that few course titles or course descriptions explicitly refer to environmental justice as a core course theme. Although many Cornell courses focus on environmental problems, it seems that few courses explicitly link these topics to deep discussions of social inequality.

As a result, faculty involved with the E&S major have reached out to colleagues to identify the following list of courses that focus on environmental justice. We do not claim that this small list is comprehensive and hope it expands. For now, we consider it a starting point for a discussion among faculty and students about how to expand Cornell course attention to environmental justice.

Please contact the Environment & Sustainability program director, Cliff Kraft (cek7 [at] cornell.edu) or Environmental Humanities concentration chair, Anindita Banerjee (ab425 [at] cornell.edu) with additional courses that should be added to this list.

This course attends to the contemporary issues, contexts and experiences of Indigenous peoples. Students will develop a substantive understanding of colonialism and engage in the parallels and differences of its histories, forms, and effects on Indigenous peoples globally. Contemporary Indigenous theorists, novelists, visual artists and historians have a prominent place in the course, highlighting social/environmental philosophies, critical responses to and forms of resistance toward neocolonial political and economic agendas and the fundamental concern for Indigenous self determination, among other topics.

Politicians, scientists, and citizens worldwide face many environmental issues today, but they are neither simple nor straightforward. Moreover, there are many ways to understand how we have, do, and could value the environment from animal rights and wise use to deep ecology and ecofeminism. This class acquaints students with some of the challenging moral issues that arise in the context of environmental management and policy-making, both in the past and the present. Environmental concerns also highlight important economic, epistemological, legal, political, and social issues in assessing our moral obligations to nature as well as other humans. This course examines various perspectives expressed in both contemporary and historical debates over environmental ethics by exploring four central questions: What is nature? Who counts in environmental ethics? How do we know nature? Whose nature?

Literature has long been understood as a window into the human condition, with nature serving as its mere backdrop. How would our relationship with literature change if we reversed this hierarchy? In an age when human activity has irreversibly transformed all four elements of nature -- air, water, earth, and fire – how do we rediscover the active role that the elements have always played in the constitution of the literary imagination? Through a journey with texts from five continents, this course offers a new model of world literature, one predicated not on social actors and cultural forces alone but on the configurations, flows, and disruptions of the elements. In the process, we will also address the place and work of literature in an increasingly threatened planet.

The environmental humanities pose a radically different set of questions to texts, materials, and contexts that were previously approached in terms of human intentions and actions alone. This seminar explores the theoretical and methodological potentials of this rapidly emerging and constantly evolving field from the interdisciplinary, comparative perspective that it also axiomatically demands. Together we will discuss seminal works that tackle four foundational concepts imperative for reframing the traditional concerns of the humanities under the sign of anthropogenic planetary change -- scale, form, matter/ energy, and distribution. The seminar will develop ways to configure these focal points to the theoretical and practical concerns of various disciplinary approaches and, especially, to participants' individual interests and research projects.

In this course we will look at garbage, or waste, as a lens for thinking about consumption, value, inequality, and marginalization at home and around the globe. One definition of waste is matter that has no value. As such, waste is a powerful signifier. What we throw out tells us something about ourselves and the societies we live in. Waste has the capacity to mark people and places, to shape subjectivities, and to contribute to the marginalization of occupational groups and affected communities. But people also have the capacity to transform waste and to find new and creative uses for discarded objects, infusing them with value once again. Waste is good to think with when exploring a broad range of sociological themes.

This course investigates social, political, and economic life in the age of the "Anthropocene": the current geological era in which humans have irrevocably altered the earth's biophysical systems. We analyze what political-economic dynamics have led to this, how climate change is known and predicted scientifically, and the impacts it has on politics, economies, environments, and societies across scales. Drawing on case studies from around the world, we investigate topics including climate change impacts on land, oceans, animals, and forests; climate migrants and political instability; (un)natural disasters such as fires, floods, and hurricanes; and sea level rise and cities. We also investigate existing and potential political and economic responses to climate change ranging from international governance agreements and green markets to local climate justice movements.

Humans have fraught relationships with the animals, plants, land, water—even geological processes—around us. We come together to revere, conserve, protect the things many call nature. We struggle over who gets to use what, which resources to use or to keep intact, which scientific claims are true and worthy of action. Every environmental concern is on some level a social concern, and more social concerns than we often realize are environmental concerns. In this course, we will examine how people make and respond to environmental change and how groups of people form, express, fight over, and work out environmental concerns. We will consider how population change, economic activity, government action, social movements, and changing ways of thinking shape human-environmental relationships. The fundamental goal of this course is to give you knowledge, analytical tools, and expressive skills that make you confident to address environmental concerns as a social scientist and a citizen.

How is our food produced: where, by whom and under what conditions? What are the major trends and drivers of the agriculture and food system? How has our agriculture and food system changed over time? What are some of the environmental, social, nutritional and health implications of our food system? In this course we will use a sociological perspective to examine the social, political, economic and environmental aspects of agriculture and food. We will consider the historical background to our food and agricultural system, and will look at different agriculture and food issues in the Global North and South. We will also examine examples of alternative agriculture and food approaches and concepts, such as food sovereignty, agroecology, food justice, fair trade and community-supported agriculture, all of which attempt to support more sustainable, socially equitable agriculture and food systems. Engaged, critical learning is encouraged, including regular field trips for hands-on learning, guest speakers and films as well as discussions and lecture-based classes.

This course focuses on works that exemplify environmental consciousness—a sense that humans are not the center of the world and that to think they are may have catastrophic consequences for humans themselves. Environmental literature is not just a major strand of American literature but one of its most distinctive contributions to the literature of the world. We will be reading works mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, both poetry and fiction, confronting the challenges of thinking and writing with an ecological consciousness in the 21st. Cornell being a rich environment in which to pursue such investigations, creative projects will be encouraged. Inspiration is assured.

This lecture course serves as an introduction to the historical study of humanity's interrelationship with the natural world. Environmental history is a quickly evolving field, taking on increasing importance as the environment itself becomes increasingly important in world affairs. During this semester, we'll examine the sometimes unexpected ways in which "natural" forces have shaped human history (the role of germs, for instance, in the colonization of North America); the ways in which human beings have shaped the natural world (through agriculture, urbanization, and industrialization, as well as the formation of things like wildlife preserves); and the ways in which cultural, scientific, political, and philosophical attitudes toward the environment have changed over time. This is designed as an intensely interdisciplinary course: we'll view history through the lenses of ecology, literature, art, film, law, anthropology, and geography. Our focus will be on the United States, but, just as environmental pollutants cross borders, so too will this class, especially toward the end, when we attempt to put U.S. environmental history into a geopolitical context. This course is meant to be open to all, including non-majors and first-year students.

"Environmental Justice" is a relatively recent term, coined in the United States in the 1980s.  It usually refers to a social movement fighting against the unfair concentration of toxic sites within impoverished communities of color.  As a broader set of ideas, though, "environmental justice" has a much longer history, going back at least to the 17th century in England, when poor farmers banded together to prevent common land from being enclosed for the exclusive use of the aristocracy.  This course explores that deep history, examining various overlaps between environmental thought and theories of social justice over the past 400 years in the western world.  It concludes with an examination of the current climate justice movement and a consideration of how environmental justice concerns are being played out in recent works of speculative fiction.  What do we owe to the climate refugees of our present day?  What do we owe to future generations?

Within the U.S. and globally, there continue to be stark racial and economic differences in 1) the distribution of environmental harms and goods and 2) the determination of who meaningfully participates in environmental decision-making processes. This course examines how environmental processes and policies interact with race and class to differentially affect people’s exposure to environmental harms and their ability to participate in environmental decision-making. We will review the history of the environmental justice movement in the U.S. and use an environmental justice framework to examine various case studies and responses to environmental injustice. Through these examinations, students will enhance their ability to analyze the impact of environmental work on vulnerable communities and improve their ability to work with diverse social groups in the U.S.

Based on indigenous and place-based "ways of knowing," this course (1) presents a theoretical and humanistic framework from which to understand generation of ecological knowledge; (2) examines processes by which to engage indigenous and place-based knowledge of natural resources, the nonhuman environment, and human-environment interactions; and (3) reflects upon the relevance of this knowledge to climatic change, resource extraction, food sovereignty, medicinal plant biodiversity, and issues of sustainability and conservation.  The fundamental premise of this course is that human beings are embedded in their ecological systems.

This course provides a comprehensive review of the modern food system from the green revolution to the industrialized model of today. It offers a critical perspective on existing paradigms and insights into alternative approaches for producing food security, environmental stewardship, and equity in an era of climate change. The course is taught by an interdisciplinary team of instructors who bring insights from both the biophysical and social sciences and will ask students to consider their food using a systems-thinking lens.