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In Class with Char Miller: "Nature, Culture and Society"

Char Miller teaching Nature, Culture and Society

A ’50s Smokey the Bear video launched the class discussion on“Life in the Hot Zone,” during the fourth week of Professor Char Miller’s class on Nature, Culture and Society. The two student discussion leaders used the public service announcement, along with the scene of a forest fire from Bambi to address how and why our perceptions of fire have changed in the past 60 years. In preparation for the class, students were assigned Stephen Pyne’s America’s Fires: a Historical Context for Policy and Practice

Annie: We are the Bambi-watching generation. Before I took AP biology in high school and learned about the benefits of fire, my view of fire was that it was horrible; it killed all the cute animals.

Miller: And now?

Annie: You realize there are ecological benefits to fire.  DAVID: Reading Pyne has helped me understand the benefits of forest fires, and how we need things periodically burned, although there is no real answer of how we can get the long-termbenefits, while stopping the tragedy in the short run. It’s a hard balance.

Miller: In Pyne’s book, where does he talk about fire being expunged from the landscape and from human behavior? What time frame is he talking about? 

Gator: The Mesozoic Era. The plants were buried instead of burned, which made the coal deposits. And now we’re burning them.

Miller: Those fuels are driving our post industrialization, and fires are part of that larger process. There is even a more recent moment when Pyne looks at why fires were stopped in the postWorld War II era. This is part of the larger cultural discussion that says that fire is destructive and you have to stamp it out whenever you can … How did we go from thinking fire is awful to viewing it as a good thing? 

Megan: This whole prescribed burning method started in the 1960s and that was a huge defining moment for the environmental movement. It was when Rachel Carson wrote her book about how pesticides and insecticides were damaging the environment. All this new information that was very scientific-based was coming out, and I think that really played a role into why peoplebegan to shift their views about fire. 

Miller: The drive for fire suppression came how? What is the political and institutional context in which the suppression of fire emerged?

Julie: I thought it was interesting how it corresponded with the military. Following World War II, the military was viewed as an excellent thing; that it should solve all our problems. 

Miller: How did the military shape the post-World War II response?

Julie: They already had a system of mobilization intact, and they had this equipment they didn’t need any more--let’s use it to not make things burn.

Miller: You take the infrastructure that fought a war and led toward that victory and, as Pyne says, you mobilize it, put the Forest Service logo on it, and you can enter into landscapes andfight fires that you couldn’t fight before because you didn’t have the technology. The first agency outside the military to use parachutes was the U.S. Forest Service. They could get behind thefire and literally get into the up country to fight fire.

Joyce: We’re talking a lot about fire in forests, but we also wanted to discuss fire in urban and suburban areas.

Miller: Here’s the language we need to play with—natural disasters. What does that concept mean?

Anna: I think in the context of our society, it’s an event that harms us on a large scale.

Cindy: Something humans can’t control.

Miller: If you suppress and suppress and suppress a fire, Pyne says, it’s going to come back with a greater intensity and do a lot more damage. The conception of natural disaster has to have sortof parenthetical marks around it because humans aid and abet “natural disasters.”

Megan: That leads to our final, really broad question: can nature resolve its fire issues better than we can? 

Hanna: I struggle with the question of nature versus people. People do change their environment, and we can argue that there is no such thing as a natural state outside of people because we are in nature, so it seems like we have to deal with what we’ve got. I don’t think there is such a thing as letting nature take care of itself.

The Professor

Char Miller is the director of the Environmental Analysis Program and the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona, and coordinator of the new five-college major in E.A. Miller earned a B.A. from Pitzer College and M.A. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. His research interests include water in the West, urban environments and the history and politics of U.S. public lands.

The Class

Nature, Culture and Society employs case studies to help analyze some key contemporary environmental dilemmas. It draws on an interdisciplinary array of sources in the humanities and social sciences, including history, philosophy and literature; religion; art; politics and sociology.

The Reading List

  • Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
  • Dolores Hayden, Field Guide to Sprawl
  • Neal Stephenson, Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller
  • Stephen Pyne, America’s Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice
  • Kenneth Helphand, Defiant Gardens
  • Chip Jacobs and William Kelly, Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles
  • Luis Alberto Urrea, Across the Wire
  • Ann Vileisis, Kitchen Literacy
  • E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

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