Earth as seen from space disintigrating into red particles

Our House on Fire – New Course Asks: ‘What can we do about climate catastrophe?’

A new Topics in American Studies course at Rutgers University-Newark aims to answer the question “What can we do about climate change?” Public historian Jack Tchen, Director of the Price Institute, and Leora Fuller, technologist and co-teacher, will introduce the course “OUR PLANET CRISIS: change, justice, urgency” in the Spring 2020. The class will explore ways in which individuals can work together as global citizens to make sustainable, lasting changes in society.

“With the forest fires raging, icecaps melting, sea levels rising, birds and insects dying in massive numbers, I’m scared.” Says Tchen. “And I know I’m lucky and privileged. As the anchor baby of refugees, I’ve worked for decades organizing against racism and building from the grassroots. But what’s happening now is way outside my toolkit, way beyond the hype of recycling, and way beyond some magical tech fix that will save. While Newark streets are flooding, the wealthy and powerful are buying mountain top properties and hoarding for their luxury survival. Seen Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) anyone? Or, check out Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die! (2019).”

The course is open to undergraduates from any major and fulfills the requirement for American Studies, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Honors College, and Honors Living-Learning Community. There are no prerequisites for the course.

Tchen, who is a public historian collaborating with  the Lenape to document and research their stories, says, “In this land of the Lunaapeew/Lenape our original, grandparent peoples, public universities need to be more than job prep agencies. We’re supposed to be learning communities extending the “enlightenment” project and building more just, more democratic futures. If we’re the living dead, yes we become work machines always trying to de-stress. But we’re alive and improvising if we keep asking the important questions!”

According to Tchen, the course will explore the questions of what we can do to hack / rewire / reboot our campus to deal with this ten-year window we have to grapple with the climate catastrophes already cascading season by season.

“I won’t pretend to have the answers,” says Tchen. “And I’m not a climate ‘expert.’ All I know is we have to pull together and approach this ‘hyperobject’ from all our perspectives – which extends way beyond our everyday abilities to quite see, touch, feel, understand as isolated beings. This unseen out of balance, interlocked ecological system envelops all we love, all we hope for, and all our futures, pasts, and presents, here, there and everywhere.”

Through readings, discussions on building community, and projects the class will explore the ongoing history of environmental issues and global warming here in Newark and the region, and students will brainstorm practical actions they can take today. Tchen is enthusiastic about connecting with the students in the classroom. “Weirdly though, even with the planetary clock ticking, my gut tells me we have to slow down. We’ve got to make every week, every semester count. We’ve got to build relationships of trust. Relationships build movements. Movements make change. We need to become a community doing by learning. And we can’t be distracted.”



"OUR PLANET CRISIS: change, justice, urgency" is taught by Jack Tchen and Leora Fuller and offered through American Studies and cross-listed with History, Sociology & Anthropology, The Honors College, and HLLC. In Spring 2020, class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 am – 12:50 pm, with Tuesdays dedicated to exploratory talks and Thursdays to building community.

Course description:
Scientists - thousands of them, the best in the world, correlating big data - are projecting we earthlings have a ten-year window to radically cut back carbon emissions into the air and waters before our life support systems seriously rip and tear. What’s the science behind the IPCC predictions? How can we each and together across our different majors and passions grapple with global warming? What does it mean for the places we call home? What can we do for the people we love and have yet to meet?

Rather than lead our daily lives as usual, how can we rewire and hack out routines to start making a difference? This mega-class opens up these questions beginning with our lives then to the whole campus, to our families, and to our communities. First we’ll learn some basics. Our class will become a lab reimagining our power in and outside the classroom.

Bottom line – these 15 weeks are about “radical hope.” What can we do, what must we do to stay focused, stay engaged, stay steadfast in reducing the harmful effects on our food systems, our water, our air, and our basic health while working together to making sustainable, lasting changes in our societies? This is not wishful thinking. This is making virtue out of necessity – we here are global citizens who care deeply about our communities and to use our voices in the service of justice, courage, and daring to hope for the future.

Students can register for the course through any of the following departments:

  • American Studies: 21:050:488:01 (32410)
  • Anthropology: 21:070:314:05 (16151);
  • Sociology: 21:920:393:02 (16153)
  • Honors College Students use 21:525:254:01 (32125)
  • Honors-Living Learning Community Students use 21:526:295:01 (32157)