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Decolonizing the American Literature Curriculum through an Environmental Justice Lens

Rebecca Macklin

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  • 1 The golden spike is a marker used to identify the beginning of a new geological epoch.

1It is difficult to talk about the climate crisis without talking about America. This is true whether we talk about its origins, its current manifestation, or possible futures. While the start date of the Anthropocene is still disputed, many scholars place the “golden spike” in 1610, tying the origins of our current epoch to the date by which European colonization of the Americas became legible on the geological record (Lewis and Maslin 175).1 This particular geologic marker stemmed from the death of over fifty million Indigenous peoples, as the death of so many over such a short period of time had a direct impact on the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Others argue for the golden spike to be located in the 1950s, pointing to the atmospheric presence of radionuclide fallout signals as a result of US, and later Soviet, British, and French nuclear testing during this period (Waters 19).

  • 2 As reported by the Washington Post in December 2021, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in Presid (...)

2In recent years, the United States has experienced some of the more visible extreme impacts of climate change. Images of wildfires, droughts, and flooding have permeated the global news cycle, while the crisis of South and Central American migrants reaches new levels of desperation at the Mexican border. Simultaneously, American governmental decisions have been at the forefront of conversations around global climate strategy. Bearing in mind that the United States accounts for only five percent of the global population but is responsible for twenty-eight percent of carbon emissions, decisions made by US legislators carry significant global implications. The Biden administration was quick to rejoin the Paris Agreement upon entering office in January 2021, following Donald Trump pulling out of the global commitment in November of 2020. Yet, despite its attempts to position itself as deeply committed to tackling climate change, there are serious concerns about the extent to which this is just rhetoric. In his first year in office, Joe Biden approved more oil permits than Trump approved during any year of his presidency,2 while the war in Ukraine has seen the United States renew its interest in natural gas exports—a stance that is seemingly at odds with stated commitments to lower carbon emissions.

3Given all this, it becomes unthinkable that one can undertake an education in American Studies without attending to the question of environmental crisis. And yet, speaking from the position of someone who has studied and worked in a number of English literature departments across the United Kingdom and the United States, it is remarkably rare to see American Studies courses that engage meaningfully with this topic. Much fiction and poetry produced by American writers has historically been preoccupied with questions of energy, infrastructure, and the nonhuman environment—a preoccupation that is gaining traction as more writers begin to pay attention to the issue of climate change. However, this interest is only visible through occasional glimpses in the way that the majority of American literature courses appear to be structured. In this contribution, I seek to explore what the study of American literature specifically can contribute to this challenge. I will offer reflections from my own experience designing a course on “Imagining Environmental Justice,” which I have taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Edinburgh, before concluding by reflecting on some of the wider challenges facing our discipline.

4In carrying out my own research and teaching, it has become clear that the need to embed climate change into American Studies education is inseparable from the need to decolonize the university. We can’t untangle climate change from its colonial origins and the ways they continue to shape the present. The debates surrounding potential golden spikes for the start of the Anthropocene epoch are a clear indicator of how entangled these systems are. In their landmark essay “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” Heather Davis and Zoe Todd argue for the golden spike to be placed in 1610, asserting that explicitly linking the Anthropocene “to the beginnings of colonization, would at least assert it as a critical project that understands that the ecocidal logics that now govern our world are not inevitable or ‘human nature,’ but are the result of a series of decisions that have their origins and reverberations in colonization” (763). While the mainstream adoption of the term “Anthropocene” is a relatively recent development, the impacts of the epoch it names are not new. As Indigenous and allied scholars have long argued, anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change marks an “intensification of environmental change imposed upon Indigenous peoples” for centuries through colonialism (Whyte 153). Notably, this framing places climate change into a much wider context of environmental change: one that refuses to privilege the current “crisis” as a unique event. As Kathryn Yusoff argues in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019), this comes down to a question of visibility and privilege: while the “Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, […] imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence” (xiii). Reframing anthropogenic climate change in this way is necessary, as it not only draws attention to the long temporal realities of colonially induced environmental change—of which we are currently experiencing the latest manifestations—but it also challenges the implicit notion that catastrophic environmental change only matters if it happens to certain populations. This view is shared by many that emphasize not only the place of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but also the significance of the transatlantic slave trade. Yusoff counters what she describes as the willful “racial blindness” of geology, contesting that any discussion of the “Anthropos” should begin with an analysis that attends to how the category of Man has always been an inherently racialized formation. This kind of critical transdisciplinary work urgently challenges the ostensible neutrality of categories and logics that are so frequently deployed in scientific research on climate change.

5What significance do these debates have for the way that we teach American literature? If we recognize the irrevocable entanglement of colonialism and climate, then it becomes clear, following Davis and Todd, that “in order to adequately address climate change […] we also need to seriously think through and enact processes of decolonization” (774). Efforts to redesign curriculums to better serve our students would be more fully achieved through a holistic approach that does not see these two challenges as distinct. Restructuring American literature syllabi to account for the climate crisis in many ways means revealing the geopolitics of settler colonial nationhood, the enduring realities of environmental racism and racial capitalism, and the heteropatriarchal hierarchies that these logics depend upon. Additionally, it requires a shift in terms of whose narratives are being included, to enable the representation of a wider range of histories and worldviews, including distinct ways of relating to the nonhuman. Calls to decolonize the curriculum, originating from international student-led movements such as the Rhodes Must Fall protests to the 2015 “Why is my curriculum white?” campaign, are gradually (if imperfectly) being taken up by universities (Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nisancioglu). Yet, the intersections between colonialism, racism, land, and climate—and the implications that they have for education—are rarely elucidated in such debates. To take these concerns seriously, we must place pressure on institutions to understand the environment as a key facet of their decolonial actions.

6In designing and teaching the course “Imagining Environmental Injustice,” I have encouraged students to engage with the climate crisis as one question within the larger issue of environmental injustice, bound up in the uneven, intersecting registers of capitalist modernity, colonialism, and environmental degradation. The class seeks to understand the genres, forms, and strategies employed in literature to imagine the multiple scales of environmental justice—a concept that is difficult to singularly define, ultimately operating in different ways across geographical spaces, cultures, legal structures, and historical periods. Perhaps unusually, the syllabus is not exclusively focused on literature produced by American writers and instead employs a transnational lens. Reading works by Native American, African American, Palestinian, and Pacific Island authors, students are invited to develop an understanding of the ways that global texts are complicated by American histories and the legacies of American imperialism. In taking this approach, the students and I uncovered common threads among a number of writers and thinkers, as well as crucial points of divergence. This multilocal focus enables students to grasp the ways that environmental justice is always heterogeneous and necessarily place-based. For example, environmental justice does not mean the same thing in Flint, Michigan, as it does in Gaza. And yet, reading Jonah Mixon-Webster’s 2018 poetry collection Stereo(TYPE) alongside the speculative fiction short stories of Palestine +100 (2019), there are clear commonalities that emerge: access to clean water, environmental racism, and the daily threat of police or state brutality that controls and constricts movement across urban geographies.

7Designing a syllabus that moves across geographies, cultures, and temporalities diversely connected to the machinations of the United States, helped then to clarify and reveal the governing logics and structures that are intrinsic to the climate crisis. Crucially, it also allowed students to access and consider alternative ways of being, knowing, and relating to the environment that are often marginalized or excluded from mainstream education centers. Linda Hogan’s classic novel Solar Storms (1995), in both literary form and content, enacts Indigenous ontologies that imagine reciprocal modes of relating to the nonhuman that challenge capitalist logics of extraction and exploitation. Too, it documents and contextualizes the long histories of resistance that have been enacted—and continue to be enacted by—Indigenous peoples to colonially induced environmental change. Reading Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner’s anti-nuclear poetry from the Marshall Islands, students were able to make connections between the ways that US imperialism has disrupted Indigenous relations to land and waterscapes across North America and the Pacific, as well as identifying similar strategies of literary resistance and reclamation that animate these works.

8Rather than asking students to engage with these texts purely as objects of study, I invited them to blend critical and creative research methods in their weekly written responses. Students were asked to explore the course materials through reflective work that, at times, accounted for their own positionality and relationship to these subjects. I felt this reformulation to be necessary in order to impress upon students the ethics involved in witnessing the types of concerns being raised and to avoid getting stuck in staid dynamics of distant spectatorship that are all too prone to romanticization. As a result of this work, students began to see themselves as agentive actors in processes of imagining environmental justice. By giving students the chance to critically evaluate and even practice this imaginative work, one aim was that the class would help students to develop the knowledge and skills with which to go on to engage with issues of environmental justice, beyond the classroom.

9To conclude my contribution, I wish to turn our attention to consider the crisis within our own profession. The questions that we’re discussing here cannot be separated from the precarious and unsustainable working conditions that academic colleagues and university staff members are dealing with. While some of the challenges to embedding climate change into the curriculum relate to context and method—concerns that I have spoken to up until this point—in other ways these challenges are deeply material. Over the past ten years, the higher education sector has seen unprecedented levels of industrial action as a consequence of exponentially increasing workloads, stagnating pay levels, and the rise of precarious employment. The toll that this takes on our health, physical and mental, cannot be overemphasized—and we know that this weight is disproportionately carried by scholars of color. All of us are, in different ways, aware of this. But these conditions are not always highlighted, when in fact they play a defining role in shaping our capabilities as researchers and teachers. Rewriting syllabi and designing new curriculums takes a significant amount of labor; for those colleagues whose research doesn’t already speak to environmental issues, carrying out the necessary work of embedding climate into the curriculum poses a daunting, potentially insurmountable task. So, I invite us to think, together, about how we might tackle this urgent challenge in a way that is mindful of the demands that our colleagues are facing and the increasingly untenable working conditions being created through the neoliberal university system. How can we work together to share resources and use our collective leverage to inform wider university processes? And more than this, can we collectively imagine new ways of working that are sustainable for the future—for our profession as well as our environment?

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BHAMBRA, Gurminder K., Dalia GEBRIAL, and Kerem NISANCIOGLU, eds. Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press, 2018.

DAVIS, Heather, and Zoe TODD. “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 16, no. 4, 2017, p. 761-780.

GHALAYINI, Basma, ed. Palestine +100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba. Manchester: Comma Press, 2019.

HOGAN, Linda. Solar Storms. New York: Scribner, 1995.

JETÑIL-KIJINER, Kathy. Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2017.

JOSELOW, Maxine. “Biden Is Approving More Oil and Gas Drilling Permits on Public Lands than Trump, Analysis Finds.” Washington Post, 6 December 2021. Accessed 19  November 2022.

LEWIS, Simon L., and Mark A. MASLIN. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature, no. 519, 2015, p. 171-180.

MIXON-WEBSTER, Jonah. Stereo(TYPE). 2018. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

WATERS, Colin N., et al. “A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene?” Geological Society, London, Special Publications, vol. 395, 2014, p. 1-21.

WHYTE, Kyle. “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” English Language Notes, vol. 55, no. 1-2, 2017, p. 153-162.

YUSOFF, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

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1 The golden spike is a marker used to identify the beginning of a new geological epoch.

2 As reported by the Washington Post in December 2021, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in President Biden’s first year in office, “approved an average of 333 drilling permits per month,” which is “more than 35 % higher than Trump’s first year in office, when BLM approved an average of 245 drilling permits per month” (Joselow).

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Rebecca Macklin, « Decolonizing the American Literature Curriculum through an Environmental Justice Lens »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2022, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Rebecca Macklin

University of Edinburgh

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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