Ari's SUST Elective #2: Environmental History

Another one of my favorite Sustainability electives was HIST 410: Historic Survey of Environmental History. I took this during the second semester of my freshman year, and consider it to be one of the best classes I’ve taken at UNH. This special topics class provided a strong overview of environmental history in the United States, and by the end I understood all of these events shaped our country into what it is today. Our professor, Jordan Coulombe, clearly understood how all three pillars of sustainability – the environment, economy, and society – were interconnected, and wove this theme into his lectures. We discussed many different historical events, including farming and land use by the Native Americans and European colonists in the 1600s, and suburban sprawl and the advent of cars in the 1950s. Jordan also made the classes incredibly fun, using clips from Monty Python and commercials from the 1950s to help us understand the material and contextualize the specific historical era. At the end of the semester, we wrote a review on a specific book we read to learn more about a particular topic in environmental history; I wrote mine on The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, which was about the Great Fires of 1910. I had never heard of this event before and really liked how the book discussed the effects of the fire on ordinary Americans. To learn more, here is a copy of my book review: The_Big_Burn_book_review.docx

Before this course, I’d never considered how the environment influenced our country’s history and who we are today. For instance, I had heard of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and DDT before, but I’d never realized how the use of DDT was linked to World War II, a human-caused conflict. Additionally, we discussed environmental justice issues and champions of the movement, like Erin Brockovich and her case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. This reminded me of the film A Civil Action, starring John Travolta, that recounted real-life water pollution in Woburn, MA that caused young children to become extremely sick. This hit close to home for me because I’m from Melrose, MA, which is only 10 or 15 minutes from Woburn. In fact, when I take the train home from UNH, I usually get off at Anderson Regional Transportation Center in Woburn. This station is named in honor of Jimmy Anderson, a young Woburn boy who developed leukemia and passed away as a result of the contaminated water. Remembering this story made me realize that sustainability is truly about incorporating aspects of the environment, economy, and society. Discussing instances of environmental injustice in Jordan’s class made me even more determined to use the knowledge I have learned to ensure that tragedies like this will never happen again.

HIST 410 was the first class I’d ever taken that focused only on tracing US environmental history through the years. Although I’d learned snippets of important historical events in my high school environmental science class, we never concentrated only on the historical aspect of sustainability and environmental issues. This class ended up counting both for my Sustainability Dual Major and History minor, and reflects my interest in both subjects. I hadn’t declared the Dual Major or my minor at this point, though – I was solely an English major and took the class because I was interested in it. At the time, it didn’t count for anything, not even a Discovery requirement, and I wondered if it would set me behind in my major. As it turned out, this class helped prompt me to explore my interest in Sustainability, and I signed up for SUST 401 the following fall. Beginning to understand how the environment, economy, and society were connected in Jordan’s class prepared me well for the topics discussed in the Sustainability Dual Major, and I'm so glad that I took it on a whim at the end of my freshman year.