- Environmental Pedagogy, Activism, and Literature In The U.S. South
For a recent issue of Mississippi Quarterly, editor Ted Atkinson asked me and several other members of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature's Emerging Scholars Organization to write short essays for a roundtable assessing the current state of southern studies. I wrote about the pressing need for the field to address environmental concerns, those with local and global ramifications. In that essay ("The Anthropocene"), I highlighted the relative dearth of ecocritical scholarship in southern studies, a shocking omission given the dire consequences that we are beginning to see in the region, from rising sea levels to ocean acidification, and from large-scale coal and gas extraction to vast carbon and chemical emissions from industrialized agriculture.
Regarding environmental issues, the South is not exceptional. It shares, for example, most of its principal threats to its ecosystems with other regions and bioregions of the United States. In some key ways, however, the South is facing unique ecological catastrophes, such as mountaintop removal in southern Appalachia and increasingly destructive floods on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The South, too, has recently been the site of the first official climate change refugees in the United States. The inhabitants of southern Louisiana's Isle de Jean Charles, many of them members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, were slated for government-funded relocation in 2016 because their ancestral lands have been largely lost due to [End Page 225] coastal erosion, sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion, and subsidence (see Davenport and Robertson; Van Houten; Krol). The people of Isle de Jean Charles may be the first, but are certainly not the last, of such climate refugees. Ecological crises in the context of the U.S. South and the Global South disproportionately impact marginalized people, especially the impoverished and communities of color (see Park and Miller; Nixon; Reed). The story of the soon-to-be displaced inhabitants of Isle de Jean Charles is a tragic instantiation of the fact that environmental issues are inevitably social and cultural issues as well, and thus the fight for environmental justice is inextricably bound to the fight for social justice.
Confronted with overwhelming evidence that we will soon crest a tipping point, if we have not done so already, with regard to carbon dioxide levels and resulting human-induced climate change, only a science-denying fanatic would contest the need for vast environmental reform. However, the roles that literary studies and, more broadly, the arts and humanities are to play in the fight for environmental justice are more difficult to determine and perhaps also to defend. The fundamental necessity of scientists and policymakers in this fight is clear, but what of teachers of literature, film, and culture? In this essay, I would like to provide a brief answer to this question by first examining Jon Smith's reaction to my aforementioned essay in Mississippi Quarterly and then turning to my own explanation of the importance of teaching environmental issues in the southern studies classroom.
When Jon Smith was asked to respond to our Mississippi Quarterly roundtable, he did so in his typically perceptive, if caustic, manner. Smith's evaluation of my essay emphasizes how southerners should address environmental issues with direct political activism, and, in stressing this point, Smith disparages the potential environmentalist work done in literary studies courses. I would like to take this opportunity to consider Smith's argument point by point, because I think the claims he is making are irresponsible pedagogically, are potentially dangerous for the field, and could ultimately serve as a barrier to environmental justice.
Responding to my assertion that much environmental knowledge—about, for instance, industrial agriculture, the ecological sublime, foodways, and sustainable tourism—can be gleaned from reading and teaching southern writers like Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Randall Kenan, and Ron Rash, Smith argues that religion and the region's [End Page 226] dominant conservatism are more responsible than the arts for shaping the southern environmental imagination. Thus, Smith writes, "I expect, therefore, that while Vernon is staggeringly in the right about the need to address these issues, in the short to middle term activism may need...