Understanding and Analyzing an Environmental Controversy

Steve Martin, Ripon College
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This page first made public: Mar 18, 2011


In an ideal world, once an unsustainable practice is recognized, a more sustainable solution would be implemented. Unfortunately, most solutions and policies are not so easily implemented. By asking students to investigate and analyze a controversy related to environmental sustainability, this assignment will help students understand the complexities involved in implementing solutions that may, to them, seem self-evidently necessary. Students also will learn how participants in such debates attempt to convince others of their positions, goals, values, etc.

Learning Goals

  1. To become familiar with the history and context of a particular environmental controversy.
  2. To understand that issues related to the environment are complex and involve many competing interests who may hold very different values. "Sustainability" might not be among those values.
  3. To understand that the language we use, the arguments we make, the evidence we employ, and the style of our discourse affects the policies we may or may not pursue as they pertain to the environment.

Context for Use

This paper assignment is best suited in a class on social movements and/or social problems. It would not be suitable for an introductory course because the students would need to have some prior mastery of argumentation and analyzing texts.

Description and Teaching Materials

Write a 8-10 page analytical essay that accomplishes the following:
  1. Select an example of a controversy related to an environmental issue (protecting an endangered species such as the spotted owl or orcas, conserving depleted fisheries or fish farming, land use for landfills, cattle grazing, etc., energy bill debates, issues related to drilling for oil, wind farms, Whale Wars, etc.)
  2. Locate "texts" (at least 6, but you may need more depending on length of the texts) that pertain to this controversy, or were part of it. Examples might include media coverage of the controversy, advocacy literature, books, websites, television programs, brochures, etc. Attempt to find texts that represent multiple perspectives (i.e., both loggers and those who are attempting to protect the spotted owl; both Sea Shepard and the Japanese whalers, etc.).
  3. Analyze the texts. What are the main arguments of each text? Are there any prevalent fallacies? What evidence is used, if any? Does each side rely on different types and categories of evidence? What style is used? (Are there any dominant metaphors, narratives, etc.?)
  4. Draw some conclusions/consider the implications. How do the texts portray "nature" and/or humans' relationship with nature? For example, does the discourse suggest that humans are superior to nature and animals, equal to or part of nature, or in some way below nature? What does the discourse reveal about the hierarchy of values of each side?
  5. Predict an outcome based on which "side" is currently presenting a more convincing case. Justify why you believe that.


The assessment would be no different than evaluating most essay assignments.

References and Resources