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The United States and the Global Environment


Admission requirements

Bachelor’s degree.

Note: This course is intended for students from a limited number of programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for each programme, you may be placed on a waiting list. Students in the MA program in North American Studies (NAS) and if their places are filled, those in MA History will have priority. The definite admission will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of places that will be available after the NAS students have been placed. In total there is room for a maximum of 25 students in the seminar.

Students from other MA programmes are welcome to apply. Please enquire with the study adviser for the options.


In the last decades, an abundant and interdisciplinary scholarship has contributed to shedding new light on the scale and nature of the wide variety of (imperial) practices that have determined the transformation of the United States into a global power and the evolutioin of American global ascendancy. In so doing, historians have been able to re-assess the role that the US has played in the world and have disentangled the multifaceted relationship between the US and the world. At times, they ended up by interpreting the US as the world. Only recently, however, such a scholarship is starting to gauge the overall impact that the US – with its overwhelming economic power, its military-industrial predominance, and its increasing cultural hegemony – has had on the world, in the sense of the global environment. This course invites students to engage with this growing discussion, which fully embaces the so-called planetarty turn, in creative and innovative ways.

This course wants to reconnect American history with studies on the Anthropocene and, more specifcally, on the so-called “great acceleration,” a seemingly irreversible, unprecedented, and, as a matter of fact, largely US-shaped process of sweeping changes that from the 1970s omward has completely altered the socio-economic and biophysical spheres of the Earth. This course will invite students to explore the intersections between such changes and the trajectory of contemporary American history. What have, thus, the building of the US as a modern nation and the irresistible projection of its power abroad meant for the global environment? How have both these processes contributed to reshuffling human geographies and landscapes? How has the US affected the consumption, depletion, and exploitation or, by converse, the conservation, restoration and preservation of natural resources and raw materials throughout the globe? How has American power impinged on world’s waters? How has the US adapted and forced adaptation to energy crises and transitions? Which kind of socio-ecological developments has the US fostered on a global scale?

Firmly rooted in historical analysis and research, this course will allow students to gain a better understanding of US and global environmental history. It will also enable them to engage with timely issues and contemporary debates about climate crises and ecological injustice. Given its interdisciplinary nature, the course is reading-intensive and requires students’ preparation and active participation at any class. Classes will have the structure of seminars where, with the help of the instructor, students will present the arguments of a series of readings, will elaborate on them, and will provide original solutions to present-day environmental challenges that confront the United States.

In addition to seminars, students will be engaged in a series of alternative teamworking activities. They will have the opportunity to take part in a Virtual Exchange program in cooperation with an international network of universities coordinated by De Paul University in Chicago, which will be addressing issues related to environmental democracy and policymaking, watery environments’ degradation, and socioecological marginalization. In alternative, students will be asked to produce, in small groups, a podcast based on an interview with scholars or activists working on pertinent environmental subjects of topical interest.

All the students will have to write an original research paper based on a clearly identifiable historical case study.

Course objectives

The student will be able to:
1. Identify the most important ecological challenges that confront the contemporary United States;
2. Gain knowledge and insight into major issues in US and global environmental history, as well as the main scholarly and theoretical debates about these issues;
3. Develop a critical understanding of theories of US exceptionalism and its connections with the rising of our contemporary environmental crises;
4. Critically analyze American historical and literary texts and place them in a cultural and historical context;
5. Explore the theoretical and methodological overlaps between American Studies and Environmental Humanities;
6. Conduct independent multidisciplinary research;
7. Identify and collect primary and secondary sources for their own research project;
8. Develop the ability to apply knowledge of North American history, literature and culture to contemporary social, political, literary and cultural developments;
9. Develop the ability to critically assess and utilize primary and secondary sources to construct an extended argument in their research papers;
10. Develop the ability to judge the relative merits of academic opinions and arguments about contemporary developments in North American Studies and their connections with environmental themes;
11. Improve their ability to orally present and defend the results of individual research in a group context;
12. Develop teamworking, digital skills, and intercultural skills through group assignments;
13. Improve their ability to effectively communicate research results in written English in various formats.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. Students who are unable to attend are required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method

Students’ knowledge and understanding will be assessed through a series of assingments. These assignments will be meant to evaluate students’ ability to manage complex information about the historical relationship between the US and the global environment, write elaborate, informative and historically grounded essays on such a relationship, present and expose orally academic arguments, and participate in teamwork activities.


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    *measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-24

  • Oral presentation/Participation
    *measured learning objectives: 3-7, 21, 22, 24,

  • Teamwork (Virtual Exchange or Podcast)
    *measured learning objectives: 13-24
    Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation/Participation: 10%

  • Teamwork: 30%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient. Re-sits and extensions are arranged individually.


IShould the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

John R. McNeill, Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015)

Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2021)

Hannah Holleman, Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)


Enrolment through My Studymap is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal


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