Teaching tools Mobilizing the Green Imagination

In the Curriculum


In scope and voice, Mobilizing the Green Imagination fits best in lower- or mid-level college courses. With some help it also could be used with good High School students. For students who might benefit from more of a running start, try approaching it through another book of mine: my little “pocket handbook”, How to Re-Imagine the World (more here). In upper-level college or graduate settings, Mobilizing might be read for one sitting and followed up with a more thorough-going look at sources and more specific themes as students and instructor prefer. Another book of mine might be a helpful complement at that level, at least where the focus is on philosophical or cultural themes: The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher: Essays from the Edges of Environmental Ethics (more here).

Course Design

One of the book’s prime uses should be in courses that survey environmentalist thinking about the nature of the crisis and our options in the face of it. Build a course around a look at representative texts such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, some “doom and gloom” prophecies like James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia (though recently Lovelock has distanced himself from this degree of pessimism), as well as work on the more optimistic mainstream end such as Andres Edwards’ Thriving Beyond Sustainability or works on permaculture, environmental ethics, and the like. Then put Mobilizing the Green Imagination alongside these others for a thorough-going alternative view.

When the usual range of prognoses stretches from “total disaster” only to “barely getting by” or McKibben’s “relatively graceful decline”, this more optimistic -- never mind audacious -- end of the spectrum disappears entirely. And once again, it’s not just an imperative of fairness or representativeness to include it: it’s also profoundly heartening.

Another type of course is more thematic, exploring a variety of views on a sequence of topics: the state of contemporary environmentalism; questions of materials, recycling, and “stuff” (read McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, maybe); transport and city design (Richard Register’s Eco-Cities…); and similarly with climate change, our relation to other animals, and so on. Mobilizing the Green Imagination treats each of these themes in this same natural order: consider using it, then, as a general framework for such a course. Read it chapter by chapter; complement each chapter with a variety of readings on the same topic from other points of view.

I use Mobilizing the Green Imagination mostly in a course called “Environmental Visions”, explicitly slotted as a counterweight to the “doom and gloom” that otherwise pervades the Environmental Studies curriculum. Visions begins with a brief bow toward mainstream environmentalism as well as the more pessimistic perspectives, but spends almost all of the rest of the term looking toward farther-out, more inventive and adventurous alternatives, a much wider and wilder spectrum of perspectives and proposals, from Callenbach’s Ecotopia and the “eco-stery” and eco-village movements to geo-engineering schemes, “viridian design”, and “re-wilding” proposals, as well as what I call “extraterrestrial environmentalism”. A sample syllabus is here. [syll1]

There’s a travel version too, for Elon’s month-long, one-course January Term. We live, study, and work at two sites that represent eco-futurist visions taking shape today: Paolo Soleri’s hyper-dense “arcology” (architecture / ecology), a prototype of which is rising in the high desert near Phoenix, Arizona; and a maximally sustainable “permaculture” (permanent agriculture) as it is being practiced and taught in the seaside rainforest at Punta Mona, Costa Rica. Accompanying side trips -- to Biosphere 2 near Tucson; to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale; to Tacotal Eco-Villages in San Mateo, Costa Rica -- will complement (and complicate) the two main visions. A sample syllabus for this course is here. [syll2]

Another approach: my colleague Martin Fowler adopts Mobilizing as a main text for a his upper-level General Studies course called “To Boldly Belong: Environmental Stewardship and Space Exploration”, where, as he puts it, the book “guides us to imagine an exuberant environmentalism which embraces [both] other species and other worlds”. As far as I know, Martin and I are the only philosophers anywhere who systematically interface environmental philosophy (not just ethics) and space exploration themes in this way -- and do not necessarily presume from the start that space exploration is problematic from an environmentalist point of view (or rather, any more than the other way around). Fowler’s course also uses the layout of Mobilizing as (one of) its course frameworks, integrated with other readings. His class ends with a “Reacting to the Past”-style debate on terraforming Mars. Here [syll3] is a sample syllabus.


Mobilizing aims to equip students with tools and models for venturing their own visionary thinking. It therefore naturally invites an active and student-centered pedagogy.

My own approach therefore is to run the class like a series of workshops, to actually practice and thereby develop visionary thinking in and as the work of the class itself.  Chapter 2 introduces some basic tools for visionary thinking: “thinking off the scale,” for instance, and “Redesign systems (not components)”. These can be supplemented with How to Re-Imagine the World and/or other handbooks for creative thinking. Practice them explicitly near the beginning of the course: make sure students understand them thoroughly and know how to use them. Then build your consideration of other topics around them. (Ask, for instance: how do the ideas on the table in any particular session or topic represent uses of these kinds of visioning? And: could we also take them farther along the same lines?). A syllabus from a related course of mine, “Millennial Imagination”, may make this clearer: look here. [syll4]

I also take my classes on many trips: to co-housing communities, animal sanctuaries, earth sanctuaries, eco-villages. My January course (above) is essentially a whole month on the road -- living and working mostly at two eco-futurist sites. Such visits are an unparalleled way for students to see that there are visionary alternatives already on the ground, now, and -- most generally -- that vision is a real force in the world. My job as I see it is not so much to tell students about the alternatives that lie all around us, but to show them: to facilitate the real experts showing them, and inviting them, a little bit, in. We speak directly to people who are doing permaculture or building eco-villages and rehabituating wild animals to nature. At the co-housing community to which I regularly bring classes, we now cook a meal with some of the residents, who find it as fascinating to talk to my students as they find it to talk with them. In the January course, we live the alternatives 24/7…