Confronting climate change: An interdisciplinary approach

Plan Author

  • Ian Hitchcock, 2016

Fields of Concentration

  • Environmental Studies

Sample Courses

Project Description

Unleaded: Regulation of ethyl gasoline in the 1920s

Faculty Sponsors

  • Adam Franklin-Lyons
  • John Sheehy
  • Jennifer Ramstetter

Outside Evaluator

  • William Kovarik, Radford University


In my studies of social responses to climate change, I attempted to transcend disciplinary boundaries, combining literary, historical, and ecological perspectives. The first component of my Plan of Concentration is a personal narrative in which I explore some of the reasons why I chose to pursue climate change as the central theme of my undergraduate academic work. The second component is a paper in which I explore dilemmas of modernity during the American Gilded Age (the late 19th century), through selected works of Henry Adams, Mark Twain, and Owen Wister. The third component is a historical case study in which I explore the controversy surrounding the initial sale of leaded gasoline in the 1920s. Finally, the fourth component of my Plan tells the story of Marsh Fork Elementary School, in West Virginia, a school located beneath a coal cleaning plant and sludge impoundment. Each of these papers were written with an eye toward what they can tell us about how we respond to the crisis of climate change, for better and for worse.


At the heart of our responses to climate change lies a paradox: all of us are responsible for it, but none of us could have caused it alone. The scientific community tells us that the burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases are radically reshaping the world. Yet it doesn’t seem to have registered within the broader culture in the ways that one would think the end of the world would. It certainly didn’t mean much to me until I saw the forests I grew up in dying all around me. Part of the reason climate change is such a difficult concept has to do with the vastness of the problem. It seems strange somehow that our species, alone, could singlehandedly reshape the entire biosphere. It seems unbelievable. And many of us choose not to believe it.

Even as technological progress planted the seed of Twain’s dream of being a steamboat man, that same progress takes away his ability to pursue that dream. The emergence of the steamship and then the railroad quickly afterward represent two of an infinite number of technological “improvements’ that alienate human beings from the natural world. The steamboat allows humanity to act independently from nature, in that boats can now travel upstream, against the current of the river. But they are still connected to nature in that the boats travel on rivers on which pilots are navigating nature, avoiding snags, sandbars, etc. With the emergence of the railroad, commerce and travel are no longer constrained by the limitations of geography. In the form of the transcontinental railroad, technology finally conquers the landscape.


The inspiration for my Plan came from my own interest in climate change and how multidisciplinary approaches can be employed to confront complex challenges. What I remember most was how much the Plan changed as I went through the process of producing it. Writing the introduction was interesting to me because I had to demonstrate how diverse academic fields can provide different lenses for examining important issues. This work was important to my future because I plan to continue to engage in issues of environmental justice.