Course guide 2018-19

In this course guide, we aim to provide an overview of courses that focus on topics related to the environmental humanities. The guide is a work in progress: would you like to include your course here, please contact We  welcome course descriptions from other Dutch universities.

Courses at the Faculty of Humanities

Research Master Humanities: Cross-cutting theme in the Environmental Humanities

This cross-cutting theme is ideal for students who have a drive to explore the social and cultural aspects of one of the most pressing concerns facing the planet: the environmental crisis. The question of how we interact with our natural environment is as much a problem of the imagination as it is of rising CO2-levels. Cultural modes of imagining the relations between humans and the environment impact our ways of interacting with planet earth. Scholars in the Humanities possess key tools to explore past and present entanglements of nature and culture across academic disciplines.

Students who choose this theme are encouraged to connect questions, issues and methodologies to probe pressing environmental concerns from the basis of their disciplinary track in History, Literature, or Arts and Culture. In the first semester of your first year, you begin your specialization with a core course in the Environmental Humanities. Building on the knowledge of the field’s key concepts, debates and methodologies you acquired in that course, you specialize further in the environmental humanities in a tailor-made package of courses and tutorials, combining your disciplinary training and knowledge with the interdisciplinary perspective of this specialization. Courses focus on such topics as the role of literature in shaping a sense of planet in the Anthropocene, sustainable design, or the history and cause of natural disasters (course topics subject to change). The environmental humanities specialization thus teaches students not only to apply their disciplinary methodologies and perspectives to environmental issues, but also to make creative connections to other humanities disciplines. Moreover, it trains a generation of students aware of the value of a broad field in the humanities in exploring pressing environmental concerns.

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam hosts the first Environmental Humanities Center in The Netherlands. As a research master student, you will be joining in our interdisciplinary events on such themes as the Anthropocene, nuclear waste, urban health, animal studies, landscape, eco-cosmopolitanism, and more. The Center also invites four students to join its board each year as student members, giving you an opportunity to follow your passion for combining your academic interests with the organization of public events. We have connections to several environmental institutes in the Amsterdam area and beyond, enabling you to pursue a research internship during your two-year programme.The track prepares students for a (research) career on the cusp of nature and culture in academia, in environmental research institutes, museums, cultural centers, or NGO’s.

Seminar Contemporary Art: Anthropocene Art

Lecturer: K. Kwastek
Period 1 + 2 + 3, MA Contemporary Art History
Course code: L_KAMAKGS027

In this course, students engage in depth with key issues in contemporary art and practice their research skills. In 2018/19, the course will be dedicated to ‘Anthropocene Art’. The Anthropocene is a term coined in 1997 (in reference to the geological periodization of time) to denote the period in which the human, for the first time in the life of our planet, is leaving a lasting global footprint in the earth’s crust, has come to signal the complex interrelations of political, social and ecological consequences of globalization, capitalism, and digitization.

The course will deal with artistic approaches to these interrelations from the 1960s to today, across media and genres (land art, installation art, digital art, performance art, participatory and activist projects, photography and video art). While we will for sure explore the art of key figures such as Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson, Joseph Beuys, Mark Dion, Pierre Huyghe, Ursula Biemann, Angela Melitopoulos and writings of amongst others Jack Burnham, T. J. Demos, and Timothy Morton, the course will also take into account individual student’s interests, and individual research topics may be chosen by the participants themselves.

Place and Planet in the Anthropocene

Lecturer: Dr. K. Steenbergh
Period 1, MA English Literature in a Visual Culture /RMA Literature and Contested Spaces
Course code L_ELMALTK001

In 2000, the Dutch Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that our current geological epoch should be called the “Anthropocene’. Deriving from the Greek anthros (human), the name refers to humanity’s major and lasting impact on the planet and its ecosystems. Geologists are still debating whether they will declare the Anthropocene (see the Anthropocene Working Group).

In the Humanities and Social Sciences, the realization that humankind’s impact is of a geological scale has led to rethinking of the relations between humankind and the environment. What are the social, cultural, historical and political dimensions of the Anthropocene? When did the social and economic developments that led to humankind’s devastating impact begin – what should be the starting date of this new epoch? Are all humans equally responsible for transforming the planet? How is the Anthropocene experienced in different cultures, and do different social, cultural, and economic traditions offer different modes of responding to the Anthropocene?

In this course, we focus on the question of a ‘sense of planet’ in the Anthropocene from an ecocritical perspective. As Cheryll Glotfelty wrote, “ecocriticism expands the notion of ‘the world’ to include the entire ecosphere. If we agree with Barry commoner’s first law of ecology, ‘everything is connected to everything else’, we must conclude that literature does not float above the world in some aesthetic ether, but, rather, plays a part in an immensely complex global system, in which energy, matter, and ideas interact” (Glotfelty, 1996: xix).

How can we think and feel this immensely complex global system? The Norwegian environmentalist philosopher Arne Naess has argued that with respect to humans’ capacity to care for others, “the nearer has priority over the more remote—in space, time, culture, species” (Naess qtd in Kernohan, 2017: 213) In response, other writers from a range of theoretical frameworks seek to shape a sense of eco-cosmopolitanism, or forms of cultural imagination and understanding that reach beyond the nation and around the globe. We will analyze the role of literature in the shaping of a sense of place and planet in the Anthropocene. Also, we will ask how literature, film, and the humanities can help motivate a shift in environmental consciousness.

Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities

Coordinator: Prof. dr. I. B. Leemans
Period 2, Research Master Humanities
Course code L_AAMPALG014

The aim of this course is to introduce students to the themes and
methods of interdisciplinary Humanities research (in the VU research environment and beyond) and to train students how to collaborate with scholars from different disciplines. How do we make useful and insightful connections between humanities disciplines and other fields of science? After a general introduction into Humanities research and the VU interdisciplinary research institutes, students choose to follow either the Digital Humanities or Environmental Humanities track.

History of Natural Disasters

Lecturer: Prof. dr. P. J. E. M. van Dam
Period 2+3, RMA Humanities
Course code: L_GEMPGES002

All sorts of authorities discuss how to give priority to the preservation of our planet for future generations. Often discussions focus on sustainability and quality of life. This course will focus on ’nature-induced’ disasters on land and at sea during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thereby taking for granted that most natural disasters have a human component. Examples of natural disasters with great impacts are the Tambora earthquakes of 1815 in Indonesia and 1923 in Japan, the floods of the Zuiderzee estuary in 1825 and 1916, the tsunami in de Indian Ocean of 2004 and the Katrina flood of New Orleans in 2005. A wide array of questions will be posed and addressed from environmental, institutional, cultural and socio-economic historical perspectives and environmental humanities.

In this course we distinguish two approaches, the management approach, including the history of prevention of natural disasters (Pfister 2009) and the cultural approach, the history of perceptions of natural disasters (Bankoff 2003, Assmann 2008). Managing includes developing social, economic, technological and political institutions and practices for prevention of and coping with natural disasters, all aimed, ultimately, at the improved resilience of a society. A historical question is how do long term developments show changes from traditional coping mechanisms to more ‘modern’ learning and investment in increasing resilience?

Environmental Archaeology

Lecturer: Dr. S.J. Kluiving
Period 2, BA Archaeology
Course code L_BEBAALG008

Environmental Archaeology covers the interaction between humans and their environment in the archaeological and historical past. Within the course this broad scope embraces research covering a range of environmental specialisms between science and archaeology, and will also be highlighted from a humanities perspective.

What are the main contributing disciplines and what is their respective role in environmental archaeology? What are the biotic and abiotic components of our environmental change in geological and archaeological archives? How to use relative and absolute dating methods in environmental analysis?

The lectures will focus on: 1) the importance of an integrated approach cutting across different specialisms to arrive at a holistic view of a site and its environment 2) concept of reconstructing palaeoenvironments and palaeoeconomies by identifying micro- and macrofossils, 3) future perspective of the Anthropocene.

Key methodologies that will be discussed stem from archaeology, archaeobotany, archaeozoology, forensic archaeology, palynology, geoarchaeology, biological anthropology, as well as more synthetic and theoretical approaches to the past human environment as well as to the future Anthropocene.

Courses at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Man and Climate

Lecturers: Dr. G. Ganssen, Dr. S.J. Kluiving, Prof. dr. P. J. E. M. van Dam
Period 4: MSc Earth Sciences
Course code AM_450187

Students are able to assess the best method(s) for any kind of climate research on both longer and shorter time scales which also implies knowledge and insight in climate research which is earth and life sciences based and climate research which is social sciences based (historical climatology). Students also learn about strategies of adaptation and resilience of past societies to climatic change in both marginal and none marginal place. Finally students learn to put into perspective present and any future climate research through study of climate research of the past half a century (IPCC-report).

How did climate during the Quaternary shape the development of Human ancestors during this time period? How have people adapted (or failed to adapt) to marginal and non-marginal environments and to climate change? How can we distinguish between natural versus anthropogenic climate change and what are Future perspectives regarding climate change? These questions lead to looking at climate change on a longer time scale, focusing on the early hominids. It also implies looking at a variety of climate research methods ranging from the natural sciences focusing on the longer time scale to historical climatology focusing at the shorter time scale. In order to be able to distinguish between the natural and anthropogenic of climate change, there is also a need to investigate strategies of adaptation of past communities to climate change, gaining insight in and understanding of their resilience and even of their perception of past climate and weather conditions.

The course is open for Faculty of Science students as well as from the Humanities to foster an open debate on multiple disciplines of man and climate.

See also the Green Office’s inventory of courses on relevant themes at our university:

Courses outside Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Climate Change and Environmental Ethics

Lecturer: prof. dr. Marc Davidson
Periods 1 and 2
Course code: 5264CCE12Y

Climate change has been called a ‘perfect moral storm’, since it involves the convergence of a set of global, intergenerational and theoretical problems. In this course, we will zoom in on various of the ethical problems posed by climate change.

1. When we burn fossil fuels today this will primarily affect future generations. Although most people hold the moral intuition that we have duties towards those who are as yet unborn, it proves to be remarkably problematic to provide a theoretical foundation for such intuitions. We will discuss how various moral theories break down in the intergenerational context. Among other topics, we will discuss Parfit’s ‘non-identity problem’, different interpretations of utilitarianism, and the relation between care for future generations and our need for self-transcendence.

2. Climate change will not only affect humans, but non-human nature as well. Do we have duties towards other sentient species? Or do we even have duties towards all life forms? What is the characteristic that makes life morally considerable? We will discuss the ideas of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Kenneth Goodpaster, Paul Taylor and others.

3. Climate change poses a social dilemma on a global scale. What are our individual duties to reduce our impacts? What are our collective duties? When we agree that we ought to reduce our climate emissions, what then is a fair allocation of responsibilities and costs between the various countries? Are countries responsible for past emissions, i.e. do they have a carbon debt? We will discuss Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, duties for birth control and various views on intra-generational justice, by for example Simon Caney, Darrel Moellendorf and Henry Shue.

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