Violent Environments: Nature and Capital in Global History
From nuclear disasters, to mass extinctions of animal species, to the large-scale desiccation of global forests, the modern world’s violent relationship to nature threatens to undo the very ecologies that sustain human life. Yet this destructive form of modernity is not the result of evolutionary tendencies of an abstract human nature, but the outcome of the contradictory ways in which human beings have come to organize nature under the compulsions of modern capitalism.
This class invites undergraduate students to read the history of capitalism through an in-depth study of global environmental history. Global history is a necessary perspective for understanding large-scale structures, comparative trends and conjunctural events within environmental history; while also revealing the ways in which global inequalities that characterize the contemporary world have emerged through the historical development of nature under capitalism. Course readings will thus reflect a particular concern for colonialism and the making of imperial modes of power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Students will examine case-studies from irrigation infrastructure in modern Pakistan, grazing lands in the Ottoman Empire, Brazilian sugar plantations, the Columbia River basin, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, Niger’s uranium mines, southwestern China’s agrarian frontier, and the drinking water pipelines of Flint, Michigan. Through class lectures and discussions, students will develop understandings of the complex interactions between nature, culture and society, generating critical perspectives on state-formation, histories of finance, the human body as a site of environmental history, the meanings of ‘energy,’ race, and the past and future of modern capitalism. No previous experience in environmental or global history is presumed.