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Literature Lesson: Environmental Issues in History


--World History
--Earth Science
--Environmental Science
Language Arts
--Communication Skills



Brief Description

After reading and discussing key works of fiction, students reflect upon environmental issues of the past and compare them to current environmental concerns.


Students will:

  • Treat works of fiction and literature as windows into the past by considering their historical context.
  • Identify environmental issues that impacted societies throughout history.
  • Compare past environmental issues with the ones we face today.


History, language arts, literature, environmental, environment, nature, pollution, industrial, deforestation, atomic, nuclear, climate change, Earth Day

Materials Needed

  • Paper, pencils or pens (or computer access for word processing)
  • Student access to specified works of literature (some of the older ones are available for free on e-Readers such as Kindles, and online via sites such as Online Books Page and Project Gutenberg). Alternately, the teacher could plan to read aloud from these works, or (for public-domain works) provide students with printouts of excerpts.

Lesson Plan

Fiction and literature can be valuable and engaging tools for teaching history. When they begin to think about the circumstances under which a fictional work was written, students can learn a great deal about actual events of that time period.

Getting Ready

Prepare by reviewing the following five works of literature. If desired, plan to have students read relevant excerpts from each (or plan to read the excerpts aloud to students).

Doyle Tackles London’s Air Pollution

SherlockDuring the Victorian era (mid- to late 1800s), the vast resources of the Imperial Colonies had led to English prosperity. Because London’s population expanded six-fold in just 100 years, however, the city also experienced excessive poverty, homelessness, drug abuse and crime. These circumstances provided author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the backdrop for the character Sherlock Holmes.

For example, in the 1912 short story "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," he writes, “In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses.”

This excerpt dramatically illustrates the air pollution problem caused by the burning of coal for light and heat.

Tolkien Addresses Deforestation

Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien witnessed the negative environmental impact of industrialization.

Tolkien's concern for nature echoes throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was published in 1954-1955. Evil beings of Middle-earth dominate nature and abuse it to bolster their own power. For example, Saruman, the corrupt wizard, devastates an ancient forest as he builds his army.

The Elves, in contrast, live in harmony with nature, appreciating its beauty and reflecting a sense of enchantment and wonder in their artful songs.

Milton Inspires Respect for Nature

Best known for his 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton is considered one of the great literary minds of all time.

Scholars, arguing that Milton was also an adamant environmentalist, point out the author’s ahead-of-his-time ecological arguments. Milton sought to explain how Paradise might be regained, despite the fact that it was lost through humanity’s folly.

Orwell Protests Nukes

George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1948) takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where people are no longer permitted to think for themselves. In addition to the mental and physical torture citizens endure, the physical world in which they live is ruined.

As a result of a massive atomic war, Earth and its bounty of natural resources are unfit for consumption. People live on black bread and other manufactured foods. Orwell’s description of this existence is both vivid and horrifying. He is clearly advocating against nuclear weapons and in favor of environmental protection.

environmental issues in literature
Herbert Focuses on Climate Change

Written by Frank Herbert, Dune is widely regarded as the first planetary ecology novel. Published in 1965, the book offers complex descriptions of life on the planet Arrakis, from giant sandworms to smaller, mouse-like life forms that have adapted to live with limited water.

The inhabitants of the planet are forced to adapt to the ecosystem in which they live, sacrificing some of their desire for water in order to preserve the sandworms which are important to their culture.

Many believe that Dune’s popularity influenced environmental movements such as the creation of Earth Day.

Class Activities

Discussion Topics

What environment challenges do we currently face?

One of science’s hallmark rules is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This rule can be applied to the environmental issues we face today. The burning of fossil fuels has damaged the ozone layer. Deforestation has caused entire civilizations to collapse. It is for these reasons that humans must think about how their actions will impact the environment in both the short-term and long-term.

The list of current ecological and environmental issues is fairly well known. They include, among others, the destruction of the rainforests, carbon dioxide emissions and the melting of the polar ice caps. (For more information, see the EducationWorld WebQuest What is the Most Serious Problem Facing Earth?.) Some even believe that these problems are worse than we think.

Which of these environmental concerns, if any, were also prominent at the time when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Milton, George Orwell and Frank Herbert wrote their famous works of fiction?

How are we working to combat these issues?

As awareness of these problems grows, people become more involved in finding solutions. Major auto manufacturers are continuing to produce electric and hybrid cars, alternative fuel sources are being explored and eco-activism in on the rise. Major companies are working to provide people with a venue to help, and grassroots organizations are working at the local level to inspire change.

  • How have our knowledge, attitudes and behavior changed since the time of the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Milton, George Orwell and Frank Herbert?
  • Are the environmental concerns these authors mentioned now more of a problem or less of a problem?
  • Have scientific advancements affected how we address these problems?

In-Class or Homework Assignment: Ranking Environmental Challenges

  1. Students identify and rank what they consider to be the top three most critical environmental issues from history. Some solid resources for researching these issues include, ScienceDaily, NYTimesEnvironment, and The ranked list should be created in ascending order, with the environmental issue they feel is the most important being marked number one.
  2. Then, by choosing from among the five works of fiction above, or by identifying additional titles through research, students assign to each issue a literary work that they feel best describes the issue. (Note: Typing "fiction with environmental theme" into a search engine brings up numerous book lists.)
  3. For each of the environmental issues and accompanying literary works, students should write a paragraph or two explaining why they made that particular selection.
  4. Next, students identify and rank the three most critical environmental issues we are currently facing. Again, the list should be created in ascending order. As they did with the first list, students should write a brief justification for each of their selections.
  5. Using the two lists, the teacher will determine which environmental issues the class feels were the most important in history and the most important in the present day. The teacher will also rank the most popular literary descriptions of these issues. These lists can be revealed to the class for discussion and debate. If desired, students can present some of their justifications orally.



Assess students in terms of:

  • Participation in class discussion
  • Depth of research on environmental issues and literary works addressing those issues
  • Completion of “Ranking Environmental Challenges” assignment
  • Written or oral delivery of justifications for ranked environmental challenges and associated literary works

Lesson Plan Source


Submitted By

Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor

National Standards

NSS-WH.5-12.6 The 20th Century Since 1945


NS.5-8.4  Earth and Space Science
NS.5-8.5  Science and Technology
NS.5-8.6  Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

NS.9-12.4  Earth and Space Science
NS.9-12.5  Science and Technology
NS.9-12.6  Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Language Arts
Grades K-12

NL-ENG.K-12.1  Reading for Perspective
NL-ENG.K-12.4  Communication Skills
NL-ENG.K-12.6  Applying Knowledge
NL-ENG.K-12.12  Applying Language Skills

Additional Standards

Standards for the 21st Century Learner (American Association of School Librarians [AASL])

Standard 1: Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.
Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context.

Standard 3: Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.
Use knowledge and information skills and dispositions to engage in public conversation and debate around issues of common concern.

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