There are few colleges where students are more interested in social justice and environmentalism than they are here at Macalester. So it makes sense that a course called “Environmental Justice” is fully enrolled with 21 enthusiastic upperclassmen from many different majors.
“Mac is a place where lots of students are interested in the intersection of the social justice and the environmental movements,” says geography major Marshall Genn ’12 (Berkeley, Calif.). “In this class we have history majors, environmental studies majors, American studies majors, even chemistry majors.” Although Genn is well versed in global environmental challenges, the class has helped him, he says, understand “why fissures exist between the environmental and social justice movements in the United States today.”
Chris Wells, an environmental historian and an assistant professor of environmental studies, is teaching the class for what is only the second time at Macalester. It’s being offered, he says, due to student demand.
“What does it mean to kick someone off their land so you can make it into a park?” As a big city dweller, Rudoy says, he’d never before thought of the creation of, say, Yellowstone that way.
Over the course of the semester Wells is having students explore such disparate topics as suburbia, the Middle Ages notion of the commons, Native American land use, the location of nuclear waste sites, and how national parks were developed.
This last topic captured the imagination of history major Charlie Rudoy ’12 (New York City). “What does it mean to say a place can no longer be inhabited?” he asks. “What does it mean to kick someone off their land so you can make it into a park?” As a big city dweller, he says, he’d never before thought of the creation of, say, Yellowstone that way.
A late semester assignment conceived by Wells will make the subject of environmental injustice truly come alive. Groups of students will put together a “virtual toxic tour” of a Twin Cities site—a metal plating factory, for instance, or the former Ford factory site, or a garbage burner. They’ll be asked to explore the history of the site, discuss its current status, and give examples of any political organizing taking place around it. The actual project, says Wells, may take the form of a website done by an environmental justice group or a faux bus tour designed to raise citizen awareness.
Wells is also known around campus for advising the residents of Mac’s EcoHouse, a rambler retrofitted with a solar hot water system, recyclable steel roof, extra wall insulation, and other green features and occupied by students interested in exploring a green-living lifestyle.
Back in “Environmental Justice” class, Wells’s goals for his students are twofold: To teach them about the unanticipated consequences of even the most well-meaning environmental policies and to teach them “that history matters, and that past events are written into the physical world we inhabit today.”