Writing Environmental Ruin, or How to Write an Obituary for an Embattled Planet

Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Until recently, Princeton University junior Anne Merrill wasn’t aware of how time and distance can dampen a person’s awareness of the pervasiveness and the toxic endurance of environmental degradation.

As someone who is well-read on environmental topics and active in environmental clubs on campus, Merrill, a comparative literature major, was shocked upon enrolling in the course, “The Literature of Environmental Disaster,” to learn about environmental crises of which she’d never heard or realized the scale.

Decades of rapacious oil drilling in the distant Niger River delta that has laid waste to the environment and decimated local cultures with corruption, violence and pollution. A chemical leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984 — long before Merrill was born — caused by an American company’s negligence that killed thousands and continues to sicken local populations more than a quarter-century later.

“Before this course, I would have told you that my knowledge of environmental issues was quite broad and, in some areas, deep,” Merrill said. “I was unprepared for the number of significant environmental disasters I didn’t know of, or had glossed over as having occurred long ago or far away.”