(Patrick Kline/ Amherst Wire)

Combating climate change, one class at a time

UMass professor Malcolm Sen teaches the stigmatized subject of climate change.

April 29, 2019

With Earth Day in the rear view mirror and spring finally gracing the Pioneer Valley with its blossoming trees and warm breezes, celebrating the Earth is in season. Our Instagram timelines are congested with all of the best flower garden collages, tropical selfies and travel photos.

But is this spring a time for celebration? Or is it a time to savor all of the lush greenery and nice weather that the Earth has to offer, before climate change takes its toll?

It can be easy to ignore the looming threat of climate change if you live in a region that remains untouched by natural disasters and maintains its regular seasons. But Professor Malcolm Sen, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, chooses to be real with his students about the dangers of climate change. The place we call home and celebrate every Earth Day is slowly being destroyed by human activity.

The phrase “climate change” is seen often in the media and discussed in political settings, but Sen is amazed by the amount of misinformation that is being spread to the public. He better defines climate change by referring to the drastic change in lifestyle that it demands.

“Climate change, or climate chaos as it should now be called, is an existential threat that can only be addressed by unlearning what we have come to imagine as the good life,” Sen said. “The courses I teach, which reflect on some of these inherent contradictions of the climate change discourse, aim to show the radical importance of the humanities, which has been sidelined over the last number of years.”

Sen teaches an English 300 course called “Culture, Capital and Climate.” While climate change is a topic largely discussed in scientific settings, Sen sees it as a common motif in literature as well. He uses climate fiction novels, poetry and scholarly articles to discuss it with his students. This course demonstrates the depth of climate change – an impending disaster that is being discussed by authors, scientists, actors and singers alike.

While the course mainly focuses on climate change in literature, it has touched on other platforms that are discussing climate change as well, such as video and art. A class presentation on Monday featured Lil Dicky’s “Earth,” a music video released a few days before Earth Day. This video featured several artists voicing animated animals, viruses and even Kanye West. Seeing musical artists using their platforms to raise awareness on climate change demonstrates the dynamic reach that it has across all fields.

Climate change is an issue that affects all of us, but Sen stresses that some communities are affected by it more than others, and the Global South – made up of regions at and below the equator – has been dealing with the effects for years.

“When Hollywood was dreaming up alien invasions a decade ago, many communities in the South were already experiencing an unfolding apocalypse: extreme water shortage, food scarcity, unrelenting heat, turbulent storms and rising seas that engulfed entire islands,” Sen said.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh is a novel that Sen utilized in his class this semester. It focuses on the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in the delta of the Bay of Bengal that is constantly hit by tropical storms and submerged by rising sea levels.

Another featured novel, Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich, provides a similar situation but in a futuristic New York that is overcome by a great flood. The range of literature that Sen includes in his course shows both the effects that climate change has already had and its potential to level the playing field for western countries.

Teaching such a large and daunting subject as this one is difficult, especially when saving the planet could mean an end to our consumerist lifestyle. Sen is fully aware of the weight that rests on our generation’s shoulders.

“I have to face my students who are emerging into adulthood and a future ‘workforce’ to lay out the complexities that they will navigate more fully than I will. Together we analyze the imagined dystopias of the past and the ones that beckon from the future,” he said.

Sen knows that the generation he teaches will see the large scale effects of climate change slowly unravel. They will be hit with the greatest impact. However, Sen also teaches a generation that he believes will be the most likely to take action.

“It definitely is a game changer and the ones who will inhabit the future should do so knowingly,” he said. “This is not only because knowledge builds resilience; it is also because the magnitude of the failures of my parents’ and my generation should be clearly understood so that history is not farcically replicated.”

As Professor Sen emphasizes, climate change should not be a debate, but a call to action; to change our consumerist lifestyle and fix some of the damage we have already done.

While UMass’ sustainability efforts are nothing to ignore, Sen finds their divestment from direct fossil fuel holdings to be their most impactful initiative. He thinks this is a step in the right direction in terms of combating climate change.

He praises divestment campaigns, saying, “This is the level of action we need but it does not mean that we should still use plastic straws. It just means that responding to climate change is not a matter of individual choice but structural change.”

Using reusable straws, recycling and reducing your individual carbon footprint are all great efforts in terms of creating a greener future. But this isn’t enough to stop the dangerous effects of climate change. So watch Youtube videos, take courses, read climate fiction literature – do whatever you can to educate yourself on climate change and, most importantly, take action!

Here’s to hoping for many more Earth days to celebrate in the future.

Email Isabel at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @izzy__fowler

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