Environmental Literature | Social Justice | Sustainable Futures

Humans are notorious for multiple behaviors in our short history: categorizing, assigning value, and declaring ownership of things both human and nonhuman. Borders, along with who and what resides within them, are distinct examples of the history of human interaction with each other and with their environment. The three pieces of discussion this week hinge on these human ideals. They center on the division of natural resources and discuss this issue through numerous storytelling techniques.

In the fictional novel Oil on Water, authored by Helon Habila, two Nigerian journalists set out on a mission to rescue the wife of a British oil engineer from her kidnappers, Nigerian militants. The theme of this story is power; who has the right to control their environment? In the famed Berlin Conference of 1885, leaders of European nations gathered to draw borders and allocate sections of Africa among themselves. Following this event, Great Britain officially colonized Nigeria. Many believe that the conference was the precursor for present day strife in areas such as Nigeria, where civilians fight for the right to keep their land, the government fights for the right to trade oil with other nations, and the environment suffers as a result of both sides. If native ethnic groups were able to draw their own borders, perhaps the conflict over oil and natural resources would have occurred anyways, but perhaps native people could have remained in symbiosis with their environment, such as the island community in the novel who continue to worship their environment.

“Belgium’s King Leopold II divides up the spoils and takes the Congo as his own private state.”

Similarly, the short story The Petrol Pump by Italo Calvino discusses the rationing of oil. He creates a compelling tale through the use of poetic language woven into real-world events. Calvino personifies his automobile while also directly comparing it to the environment in the way that they are both running out of oil. I initially interpreted the story as set in the future, so with the price of crude oil at eleven dollars per barrel in the story, I couldn’t help but wonder what international crisis had led to the economy plummeting so steeply. This interpretation of the story is very pertinent to the state of oil today and how local prices and opinions about gas are directly impacted by the state of the international relations. Borders hereby impact not only countries in Africa affected by colonialism, but also has effects on the world in its increasing state of globalization.

Lastly, in the short film Pumzi I was struck by the lack of water present in a futuristic African territory. The film is set after a third World War entitled “The Water War”, and this setting supports an interpretation that nations began withholding water resources from one another. The concept of conflict over water rights is nothing new, and in many cases, land that contains the source of bodies of water is highly valued. Sources and their respective bodies of water that lie between man-made borders are in complete control of the nation that claims the source. The power that one country could have in the ability to decimate the environment and people living in another country is astonishing.

As a result of this discussion, I’m believe that we must continue to view the environment as part of one large ecosystem that we all thrive in. Victor Davis Hanson of the LA Times stated, “Borders are to distinct countries what fences are to neighbors: means of demarcating that something on one side is different from what lies on the other side.” However, this “demarcating” of people and resources is extremely harmful and confusing when it comes to environmental issues. As an increasing number of humanitarian organizations name themselves [Insert occupation] Without Borders, I can’t help to wonder, would it be more helpful in solving environmental issues to consider the environment to be beyond borders?

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo, and Tim Parks. “The Petrol Pump.” Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1995. 170-75. Print.

Dodocutepoison. “Pumzi”. Youtube. Youtube, LLC. 2013.

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Hanson, Victor Davis. “Why Borders Matter — and a Borderless World Is a Fantasy.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 31 July 2016. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hanson-borders-20160731-snap-story.html>.

Time has been but a silent witness to the increasing need, exploitive acquisition and externalities due to the human dependency on oil. Countries have gone to great lengths, to acquire the capacity to either produce or be assured the free-flow of oil. People have been subjected to war, to conflict, and to enmities that find the root in this dependency. But a greater problem is engendered. One that’s oft ignored- the devastation and damage that is caused to our Environment. In our imperceptive manipulation and blind greed for oil we have, and are rapidly eroding the very source of our being.

In this light, neither Habila nor Calvino could have chosen a more pivotal topic to write about. Both stories, although disparate in their writing styles, are analogous in the way they interweave the impending issue of oil production and use. Habila entwines the deleterious, yet labyrinthine politics of Oil in Nigeria, with Petro-dollars, the government and the plight of the people. The story is enveloped by a nuanced human essence, that calls to our attention, as to how and where the problem begins. “The oil industry has been associated with corruption, violence and bloodshed, wreaking ecological devastation on the Niger Delta region and its fishing and farming communities, which benefit little from the enormous profits involved, fueling ethnic conflict and guerrilla activity. At the same time as local lives and livelihoods are constantly endangered, the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom has proliferated over the years, with opportunists vying with self-selected freedom fighters.”(The Independent)

A young Nigerian reporter- Rufus is the protagonist of Habila’s first-person narrative. In his book “Oil on Water”. Rufus is paired on a mission with his mentor, acclaimed journalist Zaq. Zaq although an alcoholic, still has erudition to impart. In their pursuit to find a kidnapped British woman, being held hostage by militants, they expose many more realities- to themselves and the reader. The exploited peoples, the militants fighting to protect their environment from oil companies, the army with its own vested interests and the oil companies themselves. Habila shows how journalism is a tool that not only can challenge a government, but also give a voice to the faceless people in a country. In “The Petrol Pump”, Calvino elicits an impactful, yet nuanced confluence. He envisions oil’s ubiquity and its inadequacy in the face of human wants. From the millennial time scale for oil’s creation, to the nexus flows of money, power, and technology that make the current global economy- fueled by oil. He highlights in his allegorical short story, that although time and oil are running out, our needs and wants are not. Both stories bring to the forefront the unseen issues in the production and exploitation of Oil. They appeal to the reader to no longer be ignorant towards the calamity we are now facing, a problem we have created for ourselves. They impart a sense of urgency for us to do something, anything- to save our planet, its resources and its inhabitants- before its too late.


Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. “卡尔维诺中文站.” The Petrol Pump – 尔维诺中文站. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

“Environmental Impact of the Petroleum Industry.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

The Independent. “Oil On Water, By Helon Habila.” Ed. Margaret Busby. Independent Digital News and Media, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Storytelling Across Media

February 10th, 2017 | Posted by Jessica Marlow in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Novel. Short story. Film.

Oil on Water. “The Petrol Pump.” Pumzi.

This past week, we have examined three literary pieces crafted in three different forms of media.

One, Oil on Water, a novel written by Helon Habila and published in 2010, takes us on a tumultuous journey through the war-torn and oil-drenched jungle that is the undeveloped region of Nigeria. From the eyes of a hopeful reporter, Rufus, we flash forward and backward in time before fully grasping the complexities of not only the kidnapping of a rich British petroleum engineer’s wife, but also the many power struggles within the country – racial, socio-economic, cultural – all of which find their root in a common evil: oil. In it’s vivid imagery and diction which fairly bring the inky stench of oil to life, Oil on Water provides a startling anecdotal rendition of the very real oil wars that occurred in Nigeria nine short years ago and the struggle several countries undoubtedly still face. More significantly, this novel is up close and personal. Real pain is experienced; real strife is endured.

Two, “The Petrol Pump” is a short story written by Italo Calvino in the 1970s but set in a dystopian society in which there is a severe oil shortage, such that crude oil costs $11.00/barrel and there are only certain hours in which oil is sold. The piece which captures only a small sliver of time, an instance of banal everyday existence for a speaker whose identity remains enigmatic, takes on a wonderfully lyrical tone as the first-person speaker muses to himself of the history of the oil shortage, punctuating his idle contemplation with powerful statements like: ” Money and the subterranean world are family and they go back a long way.” At the root of the dystopic world lies one uniting factor: oil.

Three, Pumzi, a short film written and directed by Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu, depicts a Kenya from far in the future, one post-WWIII, the River Wars. In under twenty minutes, Kahiu establishes a futuristic world of complete destitution, one in which humans have lost all traces of individuality but rather survive mechanically, similar to machines in a world full of metal. Though they have adopted sustainable practices, they have lost the vitality of life, with even unconscious dreams crushed by the system’s “dream suppressor” drugs. One lone woman breaks from the norms of the future’s reality to take the role of Mother Earth. She cares for and protects a young seedling, ultimately prioritizing it above her own life as she selflessly gives the last of her precious water source to the plant.

Though the media through which each piece is presented differs, all three works provide emotional, vivid stories of what could, can, and will happen if we humans continue to squander the earth’s natural resources. Perhaps the ultimate uniting factor of the three stories is their universality – all messages are not limited to one culture group or people, but rather can and should be heard and acted upon by all.

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo, and Tim Parks. “The Petrol Pump.” Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1995. 170-75. Print.

Dodocutepoison. “Pumzi”. Youtube. Youtube, LLC. 2013.

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Prompt: Critical or creative response to Oil on Water, Pumzi, and “The Petrol Pump”

Watching Pumzi in class today sparked some thinking about existentialism. If humans could start anew, living in a bounded area, couldn’t any animals (even besides humans) have begun civilization in a similar manner? An even better question might be: couldn’t such disaster, whether leading to full extinction or not, have happened before?

After all, the earth is very old. Some say it is hundreds of millions of years-old, but we truly do not know how it came to be. Due to the abundance of time and natural disturbances, how can we possibly conclude that another civilization, in human or other form, did not occupy the earth just as we do or did not make the same technological advances as us? Whatever sparked life as we know it on earth could potentially ignite it again, especially long after humans become extinct.

Furthermore, an article that appeared last year in the New York Times examined the possibility that civilizations may have existed on other planets. Almost all stars (such as the sun) host a solar system including planets, and about a quarter of those planet contain sufficient liquid water for life to form. As a result, the probability of other life is much higher than initially imagined.

This brings about a laundry list of questions: How would we interact with other civilizations? What would be our rationale for communicating with them? What could we learn about life, and do we want to learn it?

We cannot help but wonder about life and its origins. What we do know, however, is that humans have tried to manipulate almost everything that they have come across. Thus, we should keep in mind that if we do ever learn about life or other civilizations, we should do so with extreme care.


Works Cited:

Frank, Adam. “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.” New York Times, 16 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/opinion/sunday/yes-there-have-been-aliens.html?_r=0.

“To be a great reporter required a lot of suffering, a lot of backstory, and I was finding that out for myself.” – Helon Habila 

I listen as my grandmother recounts an event that I, too, experienced. Only, as I listen, I hear nuances that I had once dismissed as meaningless occurrences that had no impact on the meaning of the story being told. I then realize that the selection of detail, itself, impacts the meaning of any story. The way in which history is recorded and retold is telling in itself of societal and cultural values. While reporting is seen as an unbiased entity, the very choice to retell an event is making a statement about the value and importance of that story. The telling of stories, both fictional and non-fictional, is an act of declaring importance to certain issues that would have otherwise been dismissed as meaningless occurrences. Images of the past, memories, and of the future, dreams, have an impact on the perspective that a person has on current issues, and this truth is not exempt from issues involving the environment. The usage memories and dreams is a key aspect to the success that many environmental artist have in communicating the importance of said issues.

In the novel Oil on Water, author Helon Habila utilizes memories as a motif throughout the storyline to demonstrate how the recollection of past events have the power to shape current and future perspectives on problem plaguing African communities. He makes the argument that the telling of these tales of destruction on the African villages due to the extraction of oil will catch the attention of someone and that is when change can happen. The novel’s structure supports this idea because  the author chooses to describe images of the past, or memories, when attempting to explain events that were happening in real time in the novel. Along with structure, the repetition of simple words like “remember”, “tell”, and “truth” supports the theme that the act of remembering and revealing the truth of problematic events will cause change in at least one person’s heart which will then spread to the people they interact with.

The usage of memories is also seen in the short story The Petrol Pump by Italo Calvino. Instead of using memories to tell stories, this piece of literature utilizes memories as a means of forewarning. Since the story in set in a future in which oil is scarce, the protagonist has memories of an “easier” time that serve as nostalgia to a time period of exploitation. This sweet recollection of the destructive dependency on oil in a setting that no longer can exploit the earth demonstrates the sad truth that people may not see how their actions are detrimental until they have security in resources as a memory alone instead of a current reality. This nostalgia is paired with a dream of the future in which there will no longer be a human population because people will no longer be able to support themselves on the depleting source oil. Imagining a future in which humans are obsolete and ultimately decompose into oil instills a feeling of fear that could potentially serve as a means of changing behavior.

The short film Pumzi directed by Wanuri Kahiu draws on this idea of dreams of the future shaping perspective but in a more hopeful sense. Asha, a woman living in a dystopian technology based future who represents Mother Earth in the film, had reoccurring visions of a future in which she was united with vegetation and water. She was then ordered by officials to take her “dream suppressants” so that these images of nature would not haunt her. Suppressing the hope of a future united with nature again was a mechanism that the government used to control the people they were over. These images of fertility and hope pushed her to go against the corrupted system in which she was shackled. Dreams became the motivation to protect the environment even over her own well-being.

The utilization of images of the past and the future serve as bridges to finding solutions to current issues.

Works Cited

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Calvino, Italo, and Tim Parks. “The Petrol Pump.” Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1995. 170-75. Print.

Dodocutepoison. “Pumzi”. Youtube. Youtube, LLC. 2013.

Blog Post 3

February 6th, 2017 | Posted by John Desan in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Food is important to everyone. People need food in order to grow, reproduce and survive. Over the human course of history, food has evolved from just a fundamental need to a cornerstone of religion and culture. For example, bread is now more than a complex carbohydrate. To a Roman Catholic, the bread in the ceremony of Eucharist literally has the presence of Jesus in it. Food has become revered! I heard a comment in class 2 weeks ago that made think differently about how cultures view nature and environmental issues: “maybe people respect the environment more based off of how involved they are with the food process.”

CUESA estimates that the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to the plate. This distance that food travels to get to the plate has greatly increased from when the United States was first colonized in the 17th century. Crops were grown right outside of colonies like Jamestown and Plymouth. Residents of such small cities also likely had something to do with the food process as such small towns split up creating the space to farm, planting the seeds, tending the field and preparing the food. Residents were able to appreciate by clear example that nature provides food. I do not think that the increased distance that food has to travel and the decreased interest in environmental issues are just correlated. The increasing distance that food travels is a cause for the decreased interest in environmental issue.

Environmental issues register differently in different cultures because every culture has a different level of respect for nature. People used to worship nature just because it made crops grow. Because people revered food and where it came from ,the environment, people care about its well-being and respected it more. Today, fruits and vegetables are grown in laboratories and then flown across the globe. Frozen foods can be prepared in a overseas factory and then shipped around the world to be heated up in any home with a microwave. Food is no longer synonymous with a farm, but massive factories and shipping trucks. The loss of the direct presence of nature on the food process has led people to forget the importance of a sound ecosystem for food production. People are bombarded by comments that the environment is struggling and soon will not be able to provide for us, but they are not able to comprehend this because nature’s ability to provide has been hijacked. People are now able to buy Avocados in a non growing season because of genetic modification and large green houses. Society now believes it can make food on its own. The saddest thing is that the process that is hailed as the new way of making food (meat packing factories, trans-Pacific carrier ships, etc) is a major culprit of destroying the world’s environment. The ability to see that Nature is human’s provider is crucial for respecting natures, and this respect is crucial for caring about environmental issues.



Blog post #3

February 5th, 2017 | Posted by Riley Cohen in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

How do environmental issues register differently in different cultures? (Or do they?)

Before taking this course, I didn’t think that environmental issues could be interpreted differently by different cultures. I thought, for the most part, that there were facts about humans and our effect on the environment that were objective, indisputable, and self-evident. For example, if the amount of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere is increasing, we must decrease our output of these gases. Or, if the abuse of animals is somehow ingrained in the norms of our society, the obvious answer is to cease that that cultural norm. Although the solution, at this level, seems simple, the way in which human beings actually achieve that goal is not. This is where the differences between cultures has an affect on how we can collectively combat climate change and negative impacts on the environment that humans are responsible for.

This week, in response to what we discussed in class, I decided to do more research on how my culture has directly or indirectly moulded my opinion towards environmental issues. Specifically, I wanted to know how ecological awareness is viewed in the Judaic tradition.

Although there aren’t many ancient Jewish traditions that are explicitly environmental, in the 1980’s Richard Schwarz wrote a book called Judaism and Vegetarianism, which essentially makes the case that vegetarianism is encouraged by Jewish values. This is based on two Jewish concepts of Kashrut and Tza’ar ba’alei chayim. These principles act as a reminder of the seriouesness of taking another living creature’s life and forbid inflicting uneccessary on animals.

At least as a child, it was difficult to square these principles with traditions that seemed to contradict them. For example, Kapparot is a tradition practiced by some orthodox jews that involves swinging a chicken around your head. It meant to help atone and the chicken is given to charity after the ritual is finished.

Many modern Talmudic scholars have argued that not only is this tradition not compatible with modern values of respect for animals, but also it fails to square with the Jewish principles outlined above. As a result, this tradition is becoming has become less popular in recent years.

Kapparot serves as a great example of certain out-dated traditions are properly dealt with in the context of modern values. It is very difficult to, as an outsider to a culture, impose your own values on another tradition. However, if people within the tradition speak up and educate those around them, it is possible to square tradition with a progressive world. This is true not only for environmental values, but general morality as well.


Gershom, Yonassan, and Richard Schwartz. “THE CUSTOM OF KAPPAROT IN THE JEWISH TRADITION.” jewishveg. n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

Schwartz, Richard H. Judaism and vegetarianism. New York: Lantern , 2001. Online.



The Journal News. “Monsey, NY – county cites Kapparot ritual site.” vosizneias. VosIzNeias, 22 Sept. 2009. Online. 5 Feb. 2017.


Blog Post #3 -Thabit Pulak

February 4th, 2017 | Posted by Thabit Pulak in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

How do environmental issues register differently in different cultures? (Or do they?)

At their core, I think communities will always deal with issues that are relevant to their wellbeing. Especially in regions that are not economically well-off, the issues that the communities deal will only be of utmost importance to their survival. These different communities will have different cultures as well – often the cultures of the communities correlate to the social living conditions, sometimes dictated by the economic conditions of the area. We can see this clearly in the story “Staying Afloat” by Angela Pemrose. The central environmental issue is that affecting Mexican community, from the flooding mountain plains. This was directly affecting the ability for farmers to be able to farm their land. The issue of global warming on the other hand, will not be on the radar for this community, as this isn’t an immediate priority (also, this farm isn’t probably a big contributing factor to global warming).

The story “Staying Afloat” also demonstrates how different cultures respond differently to such environmental issues. In communities like the one described in the story, simple resources, such as even things that other would call “junk”, are utilized to solve the environmental problems. I personally find it amazing and I think it is incredibly innovative to be able to come up with such solutions when more expensive, complex alternatives exist. In Bangladesh, I personally have witnessed many inexpensive solutions to environmental issues. Pollution in many city areas is a very big problem, and gas-burning vehicles have been a large contributor to the problem. Recently, affordable electric rickshaws have been propagating throughout the country, which can seat up to 8 passengers (even up to 10, if really necessary!). I’ve personally driven and ridden in these – they are quite fun, affordable, and quick! They aren’t anywhere near as fancy as electric cars in America (Tesla, anyone?) – but they do a wonderful job solving a pressing environmental problem in Bangladesh that is affordable to the people, and is highly useful!

Penrose, Angela. “Staying Afloat.” Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction. Ed. John Joseph Adams. Saga. 323-40. Print.

Culture and Engineering

February 4th, 2017 | Posted by Alyssa Cleveland in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

How do environmental issues register differently in different cultures? (Or do they?)

To begin, it is imperative to highlight the validity of this question even without the answer. The shear acknowledgement of the possibility that environmental issues, or any issue for that matter, could be viewed differently by different people. Often, more times than not, a there is a notion that all people think the same way; this way being “Western”. To recognize that different cultural aspects could impact the way people view the environment and corresponding issues is a beginning step to engineering solutions to these said issues. And let me specify what I exactly I mean by engineering. Any innovative usage of materials to solve some problem is the definition of engineering; not just the fancy projects built by the “greatest” minds in Western countries.

The true difference in how different cultures register different issues is demonstrated through how each group of people decide to move forward, or engineer. As demonstrated in the environmental fiction piece “Staying Afloat” by Angela Penrose, while Western societies tend to try to monetize and profit from sustainable solutions, poorer countries and people tend to find ways to prevail with the means that they are given. This short story also highlights how if a people are more connected to ancestry and the history of their people due to cultural aspects such as valuing family, they are more likely to looking backwards in time for a solution. This opposes the tendency of people who do not have family and ancestry at the core of their culture to try to find completely new solutions with a main focus on the economy. The globalization of ideas has made the way that people find solutions less polarized;however, this is not to say that viewpoints have become monolithic. The combination of different perspectives and cultural backgrounds to solve these interconnected environmental issues is the most efficient way to finding the means to environmental recovery and behavioral changes. While having a council in which people come from different countries to discuss possible solutions to environmental issues and the human health problems related to said issues would be ideal, there would be a number of political concerns due to the fact that any group containing more than on perspective must have regulations and mediation. And who would mediate? Western countries? Who would have the ultimate say so? Would this run like a direct democracy where issues are voted on? Which issues are valued first on the list? While collaboration would come with a set of concerns, it could truly be the solution to finding solutions.


Work Cited

Penrose, Angela. “Staying Afloat.” Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction. Ed. John Joseph Adams. Saga. 323-40. Print.

How do environmental issues register differently in different cultures?

 (Or do they?)

While cultural differences can be found by observing communities separated by oceans, like in the South Pacific short stories from this past week, there is a prime example much closer to home. The installation of the Dakota Access Pipeline and recent mistreatment of Native American heritage sites has created a cultural divide in the United States over the course of the last year. As the pipeline threatens to cut through areas of spiritual significance, Native Americans are standing and defending, not for money or power, but for their connection to the earth.
The resistors call themselves “protectors, not protesters” (Elbein). The subtle difference creates a huge message that the people of Standing Rock are defenders of nature, not owners. Grassrope, an indigenous tribesman, further illuminates the cultural divide between Native Americans and otherAmericans:

“Most people who come here never had a role to play in their own lives. We saw a lot of lost people, people who don’t realize they’re more than Americans. Their ancestors are indigenous from somewhere, which means they were once caretakers of the Earth” (Elbein).

This mentality of being keepers of the environment comes in stark contrast when considered next to the business-like, immediate-fix mindset that plagues so much of the United States. One protector was asked how long she would stand with Standing Rock, and “She laughed: “Until it’s done. Where would I go?” (Elbein). Her commitment characterizes the dedication of Native Americans to the earth as one that transcends time. These protector’s lives will not carry on when water quality and the earth are in jeopardy.

Environmental issues absolutely vary from culture to culture, just as cultural responses to such issues vary. For Native Americans, the DAPL is threatening a member of their tribe, the source of life. For other Americans, it may be threatening land value or their subjective ideal of nature. However, while the environmental issues register differently, one thing remains unchanged: “Water is Life.”

Works Cited:
Elbein, Saul. “These Are the Defiant “Water Protectors” of Standing Rock.” National Geographic. Jan. 26, 2017. Web. Feb. 1, 2017. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/tribes-standing-rock-dakota-access-pipeline-advancement/