Sample Discussion Questions
In our Note on Classroom Use, we outline a variety of ways you might use Keywords for Environmental Studies in the classroom, particularly in developing syllabi and formulating student activities and assignments. In what follows, we provide a broad range of sample discussion questions that you can use to stimulate student conversation and hopefully encourage action.
As you’ll see, rather than provide separate discussion questions for each individual keyword, we’ve grouped the entries into keyword clusters, to help students draw connections among related concepts. We have also further organized the clusters according to the three broad disciplinary divisions that inform environmental studies: environmental humanities, environmental social sciences, and environmental sciences.
These divisions are meant to inspire, not to constrain. (You’ll notice, in fact, that many terms cross from one category to another.) Feel free to mix and match among the different sections, and to invite students to develop their own clusters and questions. The main goal is to prompt active learning through vigorous discussion by getting students thinking and talking about the core concepts and debates that underlie the field of environmental studies.
Teaching with the Environmental Humanities cluster
The following are possible questions that emerge from keywords associated with the environmental humanities that instructors can pose to their students:
Nature, Nature Writing, Pastoral, Place, Landscape
- It is coming to be widely agreed that humans have become a geomorphic force that is changing all of Earth’s biogeochemical processes at a biospheric scale. If this is true, does the term “nature” retain a semantic importance as a key signifier in both expert and lay discourse? Why or why not?
- What accounts for the persistence of pastoral visions of nature or landscape? Why does landscape, in many aesthetic genres dealing with nature, feature as a catalyst for human emotional or affective attachment to place?
- How do writers, artists, and intellectuals use pastoral, nature writing, and concepts of place for a range of functions and intentions that support—or undermine—increased understanding of environmental ethics and human-nonhuman relationships?
Ecocriticism, Ecofeminism, Ecopoetics, Sublime
- How have ecological literary and feminist scholars worked to rethink the nature-culture binary in ways that have helped us revisit what we understand as the meaning of “culture” and the meaning of “nature”? To what extent have you experienced or witnessed these tensions in your own life and/or in society?
- How have keywords like “sublime” carried significant meaning not only as an aspect of aesthetics, literary studies and/or ecopoetics in general, but also as a characteristic of engagement with the natural world or a particular kind of reverence for intense embodied experiences in nature?
- How have ecocritical and ecofeminist scholars worked to reveal masculinist and western philosophical biases that often undermine the use of keywords such as sublime, and how have they suggested ways that these words might be recuperated for contemporary environmental ethics, ecocriticism and/or ecopoetics?
Animal, Culture, Queer Ecology
- How have Western philosophies and everyday conceptual frameworks of “culture” defined the human against the animal in ways that have shaped categories used to describe the multitude of beings other than homo sapiens?
- How does the interdisciplinary constellation of practices referred to as queer ecology draw from traditions as diverse as evolutionary biology, feminist science studies, ecofeminism, LGBTQ+ geography and history, and environmental justice? Why might it be important to disrupt prevailing heterosexist discursive and institutional articulations of sexuality, nature, and culture in light of queer theory? What are some ways that we can use these ideas to promote such disruptions in everyday life?
- How and why are environmental ethics and more and more “greening” religions recognizing the moral standing of non-human nature, advocating respect for nature on its own terms, and recognizing the interdependence of humans and non-humans?
- Why is the recognition of respect for nature, at least in the Anglophone traditions, associated with the color green, as in the “greening” of ethics, religion, or politics? How and why does green share affective or emotional space with ideas about nature, the countryside, fertility, life, or the pastoral?
- Why are increasing numbers of community leaders, activists, academics, and policy makers recognizing the power of the eco-arts, ecomedia, and the environmental humanities to contribute to comprehensive shifts in the behaviors, motivations and desires of both individual humans and in society writ large?
- How do the ideas and products of the arts and humanities, which make manifest a human capacity to be deeply imaginative, creative and feeling, contribute to critical conversations about global environmental change at both the local and regional scales?
- How are the environmental humanities and sciences joining forces to contribute to a more extensive conceptual vocabulary for describing the relationships between humans, nonhuman animals, invasive plants, microbes and toxins?
- Why are many of the world’s educators insisting that addressing the environmental and the social challenges we face in the future will require understanding earth systems, new technologies, economics and policy, as well as the cultural components of society such as religious and philosophical traditions that led us to this point in global history?
- Why should “translation” be considered a keyword in environmental studies? How does translation, in both its linguistic and disciplinary sense, create opportunities not only for cultural and interdisciplinary conversations, but also for trans- or cross-disciplinary ones?
- How might concepts of translation apply in “biosemiotics” realms that seek to consider how humans might speak across long-held notions of divides separating human from nonhuman communication?
Teaching with the Environmental Social Sciences cluster
The following are possible questions that emerge from keywords associated with the environmental social sciences that instructors can pose to their students:
Built Environment, Political ecology, Urban Ecology
- Why do you think cities have been described as quintessentially anti-environmental and why do political ecologists and urban ecologists reject that viewpoint? What is at stake in this debate?
- For the first time in history, the majority of human beings now live in cities and towns. How do you think the urbanization of humanity might impact ecosystems and affect our capacity to address environmental challenges in the future?
- Discuss how efforts to support democracy and environmental protection have intersected and have produced constraints and possibilities for the sustainability and defense of these two goals.
- In particular, how have desires for environmental protection sometimes threatened the goals of social equality and political freedom?
Consumption, Economy, Ecotourism
- If ecological economics is the study of what is desirable and what is sustainable on our finite planet, please discuss what you believe are sustainable practices and ideas, and whether they are compatible with our current desires.
- Many widely accepted analyses of the causes of and solutions to our environmental challenges are arguably simplistic and overlook the ways in which our ability to enact change as individuals and collectives is often constrained by social structures and by institutional choices that have been made for us that are difficult to reverse or overcome. What are some examples of how existing social structures and institutions affect our ability to make “pro-environmental” choices individually and collectively? How might we address those barriers?
- To what extent do you think many of us will have to fundamentally change the way we live in order to address our ecological crises? Is greening our lifestyles enough, or, must we pursue deeper societal changes to achieve ecological sustainability and environmental justice? To what degree do you think the global tourism industry (including eco-tourism) can be refashioned so as to have a positive impact on ecosystems and social systems?
Biopolitics, Eco-Terrorism, Environmental Justice, Risk Society
- How are the boundaries of the human (and what it means to be human) being changed and challenged by the introduction of new technologies, and how should we make decisions about when and whether to allow these boundaries to be transgressed?
- How and why has the human body become a site of environmental struggle, conflict, and management by governments, corporations, and scientific establishment? What are the implications of these dynamics for peoples’ lives and for the future of democratic societies?
- Discuss how and why “environmental” issues are inseparable from “social” issues and how social justice concerns have been articulated through the environmental justice movement.
- What lines should not be crossed in the name of environmental protection? Do you believe that our dominant institutions such as the government and corporations can ever be responsible stewards of our environment? Why or why not?
- How would you communicate the idea and concerns associated with the pervasive presence of harmful chemical toxins and other global ecological threats in a way that might inspire people to engage in positive social change rather than pushing them to despair?
- How might different research methods and epistemologies facilitate or inhibit the pursuit of questions concerning multispecies communities, environmental justice, and social justice?
- How would you reframe the idea of “history” in ways that include but extend beyond “human history”? What are the implications of doing history with more than one species (the human) in mind? Similarly, what might be the consequences of broadening the scope and definition of “health” and “public health” to include more-than-just-humans?
Globalization, Imperialism, Indigeneity
- What are some of the hopeful and troubling ways in which globalization has impacted the lives and life chances of diverse groups (non-Global North, ethnic minorities, Global South, indigenous, etc.) humans and the more-than-human world?
- Discuss the ways in which imperialism and indigeneity have clashed over the course of human history, with attention to how these dynamics have impacted both human and more-than-just human communities.
Teaching with the Environmental Sciences cluster
The following are possible questions that emerge from keywords associated with the environmental sciences that instructors can pose to their students:
Species, Biodiversity, Extinction
- Some scientists believe we are in the midst of a new phase of mass extinction, influenced by human behavior, threatening the earth’s biological diversity and contributing to widespread ecological crises. How can the study of non-human species help shape human responses to these potential threats?
- Why is the biodiversity of non-human species important to humans? What kinds of biodiversity should concern us most? Why?
Sustainability, Environmentalism(s), Conservation-Preservation
- Find out whether your school has a sustainability plan. If so, what are the plan’s goals? How does it define sustainability? How are this definition and plan limited, and how might you intervene to deepen and expand them?
- Sustainability has become a tremendously broad term and as a result can be used to justify a wide range of environmental practices, including those whose main goal is economic profit. How might the three main currents of environmentalism—the Cult of Wilderness, the Gospel of Eco-Efficiency, and the Mantra of Environmental Justice—support one type of sustainability over another?
- How is conservation different from preservation, and why do the distinctions between them blur when they are analyzed at multiple scales? What does exploitation have to do with conservation and preservation?
Ecology, Environment, Agrarian Ecology
- Ecology and environment are two of the broadest terms in environmental studies. How would you distinguish them? Where do they overlap? Why do we need both words?
- Does what you eat matter to the environment? How? Why? How do the principles of agrarian ecology promote a sustainable human connection to food-producing landscapes rather than an economically exploitive one?
Anthropocene, Climate Change, Degradation, Natural Disaster, Pollution
- If you were a member of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy—the body charged with deciding whether to propose adding the Anthropocene to the Geological Time Scale—what date or event would you propose as the start of this new era? The dropping of the atomic bomb? The invention of the steam engine? The beginning of European exploration? The advent of farming? Some other date or event? Why did you choose your particular starting point?
- Is Anthropocene the best term to describe the current epoch? Some have objected that it unfairly implicates all humans equally in the profound changes to the world’s environments, even though it seems clear that humans living in overdeveloped (or wealthier) regions have done far more to accelerate these changes than those living in underdeveloped areas. Others object to the term’s implicit anthropocentrism. Do you think this is the term we should use? Why or why not? What would you propose in its place?
- Degradation, natural disasters, and pollution are all scientifically measurable phenomena. But they can also designate the mental, emotional, and societal impacts of environmental change as well as the physical impacts. Why is it important to understand the multiple implications of these terms?
- Why is climate change a human rights issue as well as a scientific issue? How could that realization affect the way we develop solutions to address climate change?
- Through sit-ins and school walkouts, students around the world are beginning to pressure their society’s leaders to take meaningful action against the devastating effects of climate change. How effective are these acts likely to be in prompting change? Have you participated in a sit-in or walkout? Would you? Why or why not?
Evolution, Genome, Biomimicry, Biosemiotics
- How does understanding evolution or the genome contribute to an environmental perspective?
- Biomimicry and biosemiotics appear to take very different approaches to studying the natural world. One looks to nature to discover design ideas for humans to copy; the other studies the signs that living organisms use to communicate. Their contributions have differed as well. Might they also be said to share certain similarities? How?
Cosmos, Biosphere, Bioregionalism, Scale
- Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of terms like cosmos, biosphere, and bioregionalism for thinking about the central questions of environmental studies. When is it useful to pull back to the cosmic scale, for example, and when is it more helpful to focus on the biosphere, or on a specific bioregion—or perhaps on something even smaller?
- What other keywords in this volume might be said to describe a particular environmental scale?