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Environmentalism and Ecocriticism (Richard Kerridge)

Ecocriticism is literary and cultural criticism from an environmentalist

viewpoint. Texts are evaluated in terms of their environmentally harmful or helpful
effects. Beliefs and ideologies are assessed for their environmental implications.
Ecocritics analyze the history of concepts such as nature, in an attempt to
understand the cultural developments that have led to the present global ecological
crisis. Direct representations of environmental damage or political struggle are of
obvious interest to ecocritics, but so is the whole array of cultural and daily life, for
what it reveals about implicit attitudes that have environmental consequences.
Of the radical movements that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s
environmentalism has been the slowest to develop a school of criticism in the
academic humanities. The first use of the term ecocriticism seems to have been
by US critic William Rueckert in 1978. A few works of literary criticism may be
said to have been ecocriticism before the term was invented, including in Britain
Raymond Williamss The Country and the City (1973) and in the USA Annette
Kolodny's The Lay of the Land (1975), a feminist study of the literary metaphor of
landscape as female. These were informed by environmentalist ideas and asked
some of the questions that were to become important in ecocriticism, but it was not
until the beginning of the 1990s that ecocriticism became a recognized movement.

So far, ecocriticism has grown most rapidly in the United States. The
Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), now the major
organization for ecocritics world-wide, was founded in 1992 at a meeting of the
US Western Literature Association. Ecocriticisms early bias towards the study of
US nature writing in the tradition of Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, and Dillard, and
Native American writing, reflects this origin. Other points of emergence were
feminist theory and the study of Romantic literature. The first British critic to use
the term, tentatively, was Jonathan Bate in Romantic Ecology (1991).
Searching for alternatives to the most destructive forms of industrial
development, many ecocritics have looked to indigenous non-industrial cultures,
exploring the possibility of alliance between these cultures and the wider
environmental movement. Texts such as Leslie Marmon Silkos Ceremony (1977)
and Linda Hogan's Solar Storms (1995), two novels in which the environmental
values of Native American cultures are set against those of white industrial
capitalism, are important presences in the new ecocritical canon. This is part of a
broader attempt to bring together the different environmentalisms of rich and poor.
The environmental justice movement' is a collective term for the efforts of poor
communities to defend themselves against the dumping of toxic waste, the harmful
contamination of their air, food, and water, the loss of their lands and livelihoods,
and the indifference of governments and corporations. Ecocritics responsive to
environmental justice will bring questions of class, race, gender, and colonialism
into the ecocritical evaluation of texts and ideas, challenging versions of
environmentalism that seem exclusively preoccupied with preservation of wild
nature and ignore the aspirations of the poor.
A striking feature, of early ecocriticism at least, is its hostility to the
atmosphere of what is normally called theory. Sue Ellen Campbell was a rare
exception when she wrote in 1989 of the surprising amount of shared ground she
had discovered between poststructuralist and Deep Ecological conceptions of
desire. Karl Kroeber, one of the first US ecocritics, wrote more typically in 1994
that ecocriticism was an escape from 'the esoteric abstractness that afflicts current
theorising about literature.1 Strongly constructionist theories, which place much
more emphasis on the cultural significances of things than their material reality,
arouse particular suspicion. Ecocritics worry that too much attention to nature as a
cultural and ideological construct, or rather a multiplicity of constructs made by
different groups, will lead to neglect of nature as an objective, material, and
vulnerable reality. From an environmental justice perspective, however, attention
to these diverse meanings is precisely what ecocriticism needs, to expose the
fissures of race, gender, and class that environmentalism must recognize before
alliances can be built.
Some postmodernists seem so intent on rejecting grand narratives and
welcoming pluralism as to be unable to accommodate any attempt to build
consensus in the face of material danger. Michael J. McDowell speaks for many
ecocritics when he says that postmodernist critical theory has 'become so caught up
in analyses of language that the physical world, if not denied outright, is ignored'.2
Several (Cynthia Deitering, Dana Phillips, Lawrence Buell, Richard Kerridge)
have used readings of Don DeLillo's comic novel White Noise (1984), in which a
cultural studies professor has to face the possibility that his body has been
contaminated by toxic chemicals, to ask whether environmental crisis is a limit-
case for postmodernism.
Bate too sets ecocriticism in opposition to a dominant mode of theory. He calls for
a move away from Marxist and New Historicist criticism that can see nothing in
nature writing but conservative ideology. Marxism is often regarded as an anti-
environmentalist philosophy, because of its confident emphasis on nature as a set
of restraining conditions to be overcome by technological progress, the disastrous
environmental records of most Communist states, and the tendency of Marxists to
dismiss environmentalism as nostalgic and reactionary. Yet eco-socialists such as
David Pepper, Paul Burkett, and Peter Dickens have argued that Marx also saw
nature as a condition of well-being from which human beings could be alienated
and degraded, and a set of primary human needs that societies and economic
systems could neglect or attempt to meet.
Bate's view is that environmental crisis necessitates cultural and critical
realignments. Nature writing has been a refuge for conservatives wistful for
feudalism, and has been used by colonialists to depict the territories they were
invading as empty and wild. The genre is not always conservative, however, and
has in its history expressed a diversity of sentiments, communal and solitary,
acquiescent and rebellious. Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests (1992), a study of the
meaning of forests in Western culture from antiquity to postmodernity, shows wild
nature in a dialectical relationship with civilization. Wild places provide solace for
exiles, release for repressed and outlawed feelings, and space for adventurous
forays beyond the restrictions of law and domesticity, but the discoveries made
there are, like Robin Hood and his followers, eventually re-assimilated by civiliza-
tion, which will then make new exiles. For Bate, environmental crisis is a new
context, a new phase of the dialectic, in which the pleasures and desires involved
in the love of nature have the potential to produce a radical critique of dominant
values. Whereas psychoanalytical and Marxist critics have seen writing about the
natural world as primarily metaphorical and symbolic, a displacement of other,
unstated desires and political sentiments, Bate argues that environmental crisis
demands a return to literal reading. Wordsworth's owls and Keats's swallows
should be read, first and foremost, as real owls and swallows. To read them
otherwise is now the evasive reading:
One effect of global warming will be (is already?) a powerful increase in the
severity of winds in northern Europe; the swallow has great difficulty in coping
with wind, so there is a genuine possibility that within the lifetime of today's
students Britain will cease to be a country to which this bird migrates. Keats's ode
'To Autumn' is predicated upon the certainty of the following spring's return; the
poem will look very different if there, is soon an autumn when 'gathering swallows
twitter in the skies' for the last time.
Recent work in ecocriticism has ranged beyond nature writing and
Romanticism. Tracy Brain makes an ecocritical reading of Sylvia Plath's poetry.
Jhan Hochman reads The Silence of the Lambs from an animal rights perspective.
Karla Armbruster analyses television wildlife documentaries. Barbara Adam
discusses cultural aspects of the BSE crisis in Britain. Cheryll Glotfelty criticizes
the denigration of desert landscapes. Greg Garrard sees the Eden Project in
Cornwall as a new version of Georgic. In all this work, the priority is to find ways
of removing the cultural blockages that thwart effective action against
environmental crisis. So what is this crisis?

Environmentalism began to take shape in the second half of the twentieth
century, in response to perceptions of how dangerous environmental damage had
become. This movement grew partly out of traditions of enthusiasm for wild
nature, but is distinct from those traditions. The threats that preoccupy
environmentalists are not only to wildlife and wilderness but also to human health,
food, and shelter, and they are global as well as local. Rachel Carson's Silent
Spring (1962), widely credited, because of the international response it received,
with the first rallying of environmentalism as a public movement, was a study of
the toxic effects of residues of industrial and agricultural chemicals in animal and
human bodies.
Industrial pollution is the main threat, along with destructive ways of
consuming natural resources, such as excessive fishing and the 'clear cut' logging
of forests. These are modern phenomena, products of industry and the application
of industrial methods to traditional harvest and husbandry. Environmentalism is
both a critique of industrial modernity and another product of it, a distinctively
modern movement in which an indispensable role is played by science: by the
methods and technologies, for example, that can identify chemical traces or
analyse atmospheric data. Essential, too, are modern forms of communication,
especially television, with its power of sending iconic images across the world to
mass audiences. These technologies have helped to create the global perspective
that is fundamental to environmentalism: the sense of relationship between the
most local thingssome too small for the human eyeand the most large-scale. It
r important to insist on environmentalism's modernity, because the movement is
often accused of nostalgia and hostility to modern culture and technology.
In the late 1980s, reports began to appear of concern among scientists about
climate changes thought to be occurring because of increasing levels of carbon
dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. Among the possible consequences are flooding,
desertification, famine, eco-wars over diminishing resources, and millions of
environmental refugees. Many features of global warming defy political response
and cultural representation. Its extent is global. Fifty years may pass, or more,
before the effects become plain. It confronts us with possibilities so frightening as
to demand urgent action, yet, even when few scientists deny '.hat it is happening, a
degree of uncertainty remains that those who want to do nothing can seize upon.
Environmentalist philosopher Val Plumwood writes, in Environmental
Culture, of 'massive processes of biospheric degradation' and 'the failure and
permanent endangerment of many of the world's oldest and greatest fisheries, the
continuing destruction of its tropical forests and the loss of much of its agricultural
land and up to half its species within the next thirty years'.4 For environmentalists,
the task is to persuade the world to take these dangers seriously and do what is
necessary to avert them. The obstacles are daunting. Actions available to
individuals may seem so insignificant as to be scarcely worth taking. Evidence
accumulates, but there are few single events large enough to shock the world into
actionand those there are, such as the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster
in 1986, fade from memory.
These can easily seem to be tomorrow's problems, and are pushed aside by
more immediate and tangible concerns. Environmental themes feature abundantly
in culture: in thrillers, adverts, literary novels, poems, tourism from country
weekends to safaris, television wildlife documentaries, food scares, horror movies,
dreams of rural retreat, books and films for children. Yet real change is elusive,
In Timescapes of Modernity (1998), the social theorist Barbara Adam
suggests a reason for this. Environmental problems are frequently invisible,
deferred, gradual, too small, too large, and subject to radical uncertainty. As such,
they are unrepresentable by our customary forms of narrative, verbal and visual.
Often we are not confronted with the environmental harm we do, because it occurs
later and elsewhere. Adam argues that culture, lacking the complex multiple
perspectives of time and space these hazards call for, cannot find symbols, visual
images, or stories of individual lives to give them adequate representation.
Inventing these new forms, or helping writers and artists invent them, is a project
for ecocriticism.
Another difficulty is that environmentalism seems to be all about things we
should stop doing; Other radical movements have been able to appeal
simultaneously to collective good and personal liberation. These movements have
offered a critique of capitalist culture while being, in part, products of the
economic growth that for the first time made working-class people and women into
powerful groups of consumers. Feminism, for example, demands huge changes in
the assumptions about justice and priority that are implicit in the way people live,
but offers women an empowering narrative of self- fulfilment situated at least
partly within the dominant terms of consumer culture. Environmental problems, by
contrast, require a curbing of economic growth, at least in its most destructive
forms. Environmentalists have to warn against popular objects of desirecars,
especiallythat symbolize success and the good life. Environmentalism can thus
seem hostile to pleasure: a movement of the wealthy middle classes, resistant to the
economic growth that would bring middle-class living standards to poorer people.
Cultural critic Andrew Ross has pointed out that civil liberties and gains for
oppressed groups have usually been won in times of prosperity. Environmentalists
should be careful not to align environmentalism with attacks on these gains. Ross
suggests, as does the philosopher Kate Soper, that the need is for environmentalists
to foreground the pleasures associated with their vision. He writes of our culture's
'need to be persuaded that ecology can be sexy, and not self-denying', and of 'the
hedonism that environmentalist politics so desperately needs for it to be populist
and libertarian'.5 Soper argues that anxieties alone are not enough to persuade us to
modify our consumerism, and calls for an environmentalist vision of hedonism and
human welfare.
A1 Gore, when he was US Vice-President, said to the environmentalist
writer Bill McKibben, 'We are in an unusual predicament as a global civilization.
The maximum that is politically feasible, even the maximum that is politically
imaginable right now, still falls short of the minimum that is scientifically and
ecologically necessary.' This is the impasse confronting environmentalism. The
changes required are so great as to appear to be dreams with no purchase on the
ordinary business of life. Yet to the environmentalist it is the familiar assumptions
that are dangerously unrealistic: the normalized desires that enmesh us in
increasing car use, energy consumption, deforestation, factory farming, and
overfishing. If the gap between what is necessary and what is possible is to close,
and if environmentalism is in future to be seen as more than a doomed rearguard
action or spasm of regret, there will have to be a cultural shift strong enough to
induce democratic politicians to make eco-friendly practices advantageous for the
mass of the world's population. This is the considerable challenge facing ecocritics.
Their more modest task is to analyse and evaluate environmentalism in culture.
To see how they have begun to do this, we must investigate some concepts,
starting with the word that gives the 'eco' to ecocriticism.


Ecology is the scientific study of natural interdependencies: of life forms as they

relate to each other and their shared environment. Creatures produce and shape
their environment, as their environment produces and shapes them. Ecology
developed in reaction against the practice of isolating creatures for study in
laboratories, is based in field-work, and draws on a range of specialist disciplines
including zoology, botany, geology, and climate studies. Concepts that illustrate its
work include the following.
An ecosystem is a local set of conditions that support life. Tropical rainforest, for
example, is a biome, a generic type of ecosystem. More locally, we might refer to
the ecosystem of a particular forest, wetland, heathland, or desert. The word
'system' is misleading. Ecosystems are full of variables, often in flux, and subject
to forces outside their boundaries. New species arriving in an ecosystem will
change it. Each local ecosystem is, in this way, part of a larger one, and all together
constitute the global ecosystem, called the 'ecosphere' or 'biosphere'.
Ecological niche
The niche within the ecosystem is the 'space' the species occupies: the combination
of factors that makes a population viable, including food, shelter, temperature, and
number of predators and competitors. Again, the concept should not imply
stability. The word 'niche' may suggest a clever neatness of fit, and an overall
design in nature that furnishes a place for every species, but all the conditions that
constitute a niche may fluctuate, and a niche can suddenly disappear. The startling
fall in numbers of house sparrows in London, for example, due to factors not yet
identified, indicates that this bird's local niche is disappearing.
Food chain
This term describes one of the sets of relationships that make an ecosystem: the
way in which energy circulates. One creature eats another, and is in turn eaten or
rots down into nutrients. Food chain is an important concept for ecologists
investigating pollution, because of effects such as biomagnification, in which some
poisons become more concentrated as they pass up the food chain to the few top
predators. This was one of Rachel Carson's concerns in Silent Spring. Ecologist
and environmental justice campaigner Sandra Steingraber points out in Having
Faith (2001) that, contrary to the usual diagrams, it is not 'man' at the top of the
food chain, but the breastfed infant. Diagrammatic figures that illustrate this
conceptchain, circle, pyramid (as in 'apex predator') are simplifications of a
more complex reality.
The word 'ecology' is frequently used in connection with the 'green'
movement. Deep Ecology, for example, is a radical version of environmentalism,
conceived in the early 1970s by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess and
developed in the 1980s by US environmentalists Bill Devall and George Sessions.
Deep Ecologists reject merely technological and managerial solutions, because
these constitute yet another form of human dominance. Instead, Deep Ecologists
advocate a biocentric view, which recognizes the non-human world as having
value independently of its usefulness to human beings, who have no right to
destroy it except to meet vital needs. Deep Ecology proposes drastic changes in our
habits of consumption, not only to avert catastrophe but as spiritual and moral
awakening. Social Ecology, mainly associated with the US anarchist writer Murray
Bookchin, emphasizes the link between environmental degradation and the exploit-
ation of human beings, arguing that better treatment of the environment can only
come with the abolition of oppressive hierarchies in human society.
These philosophies use the word 'ecology' in a much looser sense than the
scientific. This practicesomewhere between seeing culture as manifestation of
ecology and using ecology as metaphor for cultureis common in ecocriticism.
Bate provides an illustration. He finds in Wordsworth's The Excursion the
insight that 'Everything is linked to everything else, and, most importantly, the
human mind must be linked to the natural environment'.7 Bate is drawing an
implicit analogy between material connections, such as the circulation of
nourishment, that an ecologist would identify, and the emotional processthe way
the loved place acts on the mindexplored in the poem. For Bate this is more than
analogy. He goes on to describe some of the material consequences for the
Cumbrian region of the influence of Wordsworth's poetry. The 'Lake District'
became a cultural icon and tourist attraction, leading to the designation of the area
as a national park. Bate shows poetry to have made an intervention in an
ecosystem. No clearer refutation could be given of the idea that 'poetry makes
nothing happen', unless the case of Eugene Schieffelin, the New Yorker who, in
the early 1890s, as part of an attempt to introduce to North America all the birds
mentioned in Shakespeare, released a hundred European starlings in Central Park.
Today the continent holds two hundred million. It would be unfair to blame
Shakespeare for this, but, much as New Historicism asks us to see literature in its
historical context, ecocriticism makes the less familiar demand that we should see
the ecological context, and asks writers to accept some mew responsibilities.
Dana Phillips is one ecocritic who warns that care should be taken to
recognize changes taking place in the scientific discipline. Ecological orthodoxy no
longer accepts, for example, that a mature ecosystem reaches a relatively stable
'climax' condition.Attempts to derive 'balance', 'harmony', and 'wholeness' from
ecology and make them into terms of literary value are problematical. Diversity in
nature is what environmentalists work to preserve, but the best justifications for
this are not necessarily ecological. As Phillips points out, ecologists have not found
consistently that diversity goes with stability. Aesthetic, moral, or even utilitarian
arguments for diversity may be more dependable than ecological ones. It is when
we come to environmental hazards that the ecological arguments are strongest.
Anthropocentrism and ecocentrism
Anthropocentrism is the placing of humanity at the centre of everything, so
that other forms of life will be regarded only as resources to be consumed by
human beings. The environmentalist historian Lynn White Jr. has described
Christianity as the most an- thropocentric of religions, because of God's command,
in Genesis 1:26, that man should have dominion over the other creatures of the
Anthropocentrism's opposite is ecocentrism. We cannot escape the human
viewpoint and migrate to another, but we can be mindful of the existence of other
viewpoints. Ecocentrism means attempting, at least as an imaginative gesture, to
place the ecosystem, rather than humanity, at the centre. An ecosystem has no
centre, though, except in the purely spatial sense, and hierarchical distinctions
between centre and margin, or foreground and background, should collapse.
Landscape in a novel, for example, should not function merely as setting,
background, or symbol.
Lawrence Buell, who has done more than any other critic to give
ecocriticism an explicit method, has set out a 'rough checklist' of criteria to
determine how far a work is 'environmentally oriented':
1. The non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as
a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural
2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text's ethical
4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a
given is at least implicit in the text.8
These principles amount to a guide to the avoidance of heedless
In 1974, an influential essay by Sherry B. Ortner, 'Is Female to Male as
Nature Is to Culture?', sought to explain, in terms of structuralist anthropology, the
presence in diverse cultures of the idea that women were subordinate to men. The
underlying idea, Ortner discovers, is that woman is closer to nature.9 This helps to
explain the acquiescence of women in their own subordination: they accept the
general logic of human domination of nature. Beliefs that legitimate the oppression
of women also legitimate environmental degradation. This is ecofeminism's key
insight. Certain fundamental binary oppositions fit neatly over one another,
creating the ideological basis for both sorts of harm:
Feminist environmental justice campaigners, such as Vandana Shiva, point out also
that women and children are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental
Kolodnys The Lay of the Land examines the way in which colonial nature
writers in the USA represented the land as female. Louise Westling's The Green
Breast of the New World (1996) extends this analysis to twentieth-century novels.
Some ecofeminists argue that the identification of women with nature should now
be seen as a source of strength. Others, such as Janet Biehl, are wary of any
strategy that, by accepting women as essentially less estranged from nature than
men, and problematizing rationality too prohibitively, risks leading women back
into the old cultural spaces. Notable examples of ecofeminist criticism include
Marti Kheel's critique of the masculine 'heroic' genre, into which many fictional
representations of environmental problems fall, and Gretchen Legler's analysis of
the transgressive erotic in contemporary women's nature writing.
Environmentalists are conventionally seen as defenders of nature, but it can
be argued that all human behaviour, including the environmentally destructive,
derives from natural impulse. 'Unnatural' is often a term of abuse used to oppress
people; yet to identify a group of people with nature is also, historically, an
oppressive strategy. In What Is Nature? (1995), Kate Soper writes of our need to
retain two conflicting perspectives. We need to value natural ecosystems and
acknowledge our dependence on them, without forgetting that 'nature' is a series of
changing cultural constructions that can be used to praise and blame.
In its most familiar meaning, nature is what the earth is and does without
human intervention. This may include 'natural' human impulses, as opposed to
considered actions. The natural is the opposite of the artificial. Natural wilderness
is land that has never been altered by human activity. Bill McKibben argues, in
The End of Nature (1990), that global warming has brought the possibility of this
pure state of nature to an end:
By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial.
We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning.
Nature's independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.10
The separation of humanity from nature has a long history. Ecocritics have
paid most attention to its roots in Christian and post-Christian Western culture,
because industrial capitalism first appeared in Western Europe arid was spread by
colonialism. An important part of ecocriticism's philosophical and historical work
has been the analysis of this tradition of man/nature dualism. Lynn White junior's
critique of the Christian principle of dominion is one example. White points also to
the tradition of regarding the earth as a fallen world.
Eden is a recurrent motif in Western culture. Repeatedly, paradise is lost and
fleetingly regained. Ecocritics who have tracked this narrative, such as Carolyn
Merchant in Reinventing Eden (2003), have found it problematical because of the
insistence on exquisite purity and the inevitability of loss. Some ecocritics are
enthusiasts for more environmentally benign Christian traditions, especially the
principle of stewardship.
The opposite of dualism is monism, the belief that the world and its
creatures should be seen as one substance, one organic body. Ecocritics Diane
McColley and Ken Hiltner have read Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) as a work of
Christian monism that deconstructs dualistic theology. Eve becomes a Christian
version of the pagan genius loci. Satan tempts her with a dualistic vision of
transcendence and mastery.
In Enlightenment humanism, the separation of humanity from nature is at its
most systematic in the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Reason, including
understanding, self- awareness, and choice, is for Descartes the quality that
distinguishes humankind from non-human nature. Nature, including the human
body, is mechanical. Animals are denied reason and all but rudimentary sensation.
In the opening to Environmental Culture, Val Plumwood argues that 'developing
environmental culture involves a systematic resolution of the nature/culture and
reason/nature dualisms that split mind from body, reason from emotion, across
their many domains of cultural influence'. She sees this dualism as producing the
'weakened sense of our embeddedness in nature' responsible for 'the cultural
phenomenon of ecological denial which refuses to admit the reality and seriousness
of the ecological crisis'.11
Ecocritics have looked to a variety of philosophical sources for ways of
resisting the nature/culture dualism and re-embedding human beings in nature.
Donna J. Haraway, the feminist theorist of science, proposes that scientists, when
they write, should 'situate' themselves, identifying their position in terms of sex,
race, and class, so as to renounce the apparently disembodied voice that claims too
much objectivity. Patrick D. Murphy has used Mikhail Bakhtin's principles of
dialogic writing to describe possible alternatives to that disembodied voice.
Recently there has been ecocritical interest (David Abrams, Leonard M. Scigaj,
Westling) in the phenomenological ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as the basis
of a more radical strategy of re-embodiment.
Dreams of quitting modernity for a more natural, simple, and instinctive way
of life have often been dreams of escape from two of the prerequisites of
Enlightenment reason: self- awareness and teleology (the sense of life as
movement between an origin and a goal). Paradise regained would be permanent
escape. Rural retreat offers temporary refuge.
Pastoral, the genre that has expressed this vision since antiquity, is an
obvious place for the literary or artistic expression of environmental concerns. Yet,
with its immense historical variety of forms and tones, its many modulations
frivolous, serious, complex, simple, ironicof the desire to return to nature,
pastoral presents a number of problems. Leo Marx, Glen A. Love, and Terry
Gifford are among those who have attempted to show what the genre has to do,
and leave behind, in the age of environmental crisis.
Gifford points out, in Pastoral (1999), that a basic pattern in the genre is the
retreat and return cycle, evident in Shakespeare's comedies. Flight from urban peril
is followed by a consoling pastoral interlude, which heals the characters and
readies them for return to the city. For this cycle to be reproduced in pastoral now
would be misleading, because of the assumption that the rural or natural world is a
safe refuge where modernity does not penetrate. An ecofeminist novel that
revisited this cycle, to see how it might work in feminist and environmentalist
terms, was Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1972), The novel ends with the woman
protagonist poised, perhaps about to return from her pastoral retreat, perhaps
committed to it as permanent transformation. Jean Hegland's Into the Forest (1996)
takes a more apocalyptic approach to the cycle, renouncing return altogether.
Ecocriticism's transformative approach to pastoralits search for what Gifford
calls 'post-pastoral'shows the extent to which it must resist and reform even the
traditions and genres that seem to lend support.
Romanticism was the great reaction against the philosophical and industrial
rationality that had separated humanity from nature. Not surprisingly, much
ecocritical attention (Bate, Kroeber, John Elder, Garrard) has been given to
Rousseau, the Wordsworths, Coleridge, and Keats. In The Song of the Earth
(2000), Bate reads Keats's 'To Autumn' and Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight' in the
light of historical weather records. These readings, examples of the technique of
trying to see the ecosystem that surrounds the text, are among ecocriticism's most
eloquent achievements.
Finding modernity to be a condition that ptoduces heightened, because
estranged, self-consciousness, Wordsworthian Romanticism looks with the joy of
rediscovery on what it sees as unestranged conditions: early childhood, traditional
rural labour, wise passiveness, and the self absorbed in nature. For the most part,
such ways of being are denied to Romantic subjectivity, which approaches them in
precious moments only, or gazes at them longingly.
The Romantic gaze frequently belongs to a lone figure stilled in
contemplation of immanent nature, or of landscapes suggestive of infinity
mountains, chasms, oceans, distant plains. Coleridge in 'Frost at Midnight' listens
to the breathing of his sleeping infant together with other sounds of natural
process, or in 'The Aeolian Harp' to music produced by the wind.
Reabsorption of this observing self into nature could come only with a
relinquishing of the self-consciousness that is the mark of Romantic estrangement.
Such a disappearance into nature would be a refusal to complete the pastoral cycle
of retreat and return, like the possible refusal of Atwood's protagonist and the
definite refusal of Hegland's: a withdrawal from communication with modernity.
Romantic subjectivity likes to stand at the brink.
For ecocritics, a renewed version of Romantic joy in the contemplation of
nature may offer the best chance of the sexiness and hedonism that
environmentalism needs. But the Romantic joy must be combined with
ecologically informed practice. Dana Phillips observes that nature writing, with its
Romantic inheritance, is conspicuously dependent on the momentary epiphany.
Using terms from Walter Benjamin's analysis of metropolitan artistic alienation,
Phillips calls this epiphany Erlebnis, as distinct from Erfahrung: 'Experience as
Erfahrung is know-how, expertise, skill; experience as Erlebnis is adventure,
chance, occurrence, a passing sensation.' The nature writer is a version of
Benjamin's flaneur, a visitor or tourist bringing an urban sensibility to nature and
seeking 'fleeting moments of sensuous disorientation' rather than practice over a
long period of time.12
Phillips suggests that nature writing and ecocriticism urgently need forms of
mediation between Erlebnis and Erfahrung. This suggestion encapsulates the larger
need of environmentalism for mediation between the different perspectives of
work and leisure, science and imaginative literature, indigenous peoples and
touristsand between the different aspects of individual lives, for people with the
liberty to move between these positions. An important literary model here is the
narrative technique of Thomas Hardy, whose novels show a rare ability to shift
perspective between the viewpoints of indigenous rural labourers and Romantic
visitors to the countryside.
Ecologists set out to reveal the ways in which niches are created, and the
chain of dependency that links even the creatures that seem most distant from each
other; ecocritics to unmask the dependency between different niches in cultural
ecosystems, so that nature will not be seen only as the space ,of leisure where we
entertain Romantic feelings that we must leave behind when we return to work.


Adam, Barbara, Timescapes of Modernity; The Environment and Invisible Hazards

(London: Routledge, 1998). Adam analyses the failure of conventional politics and
culture to find adequate forms of representation and response.
Adamson, Joni, Evans, Mei Mei, and Stein, Rachel (eds.), The Environmental
justice Reader (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 2002). This collection
of essays introduces the concept of environmental justice, presents some important
case histories, enters into a series of key debates, and outlines the principles of
environmental justice ecocriticism.
Armbruster, Karla, and Wallace, Kathleen (eds.), Beyond Nature Writing:
Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (Charlottesville, Va., and London:
University Press of Virginia, 2001). This collection takes ecocriticism in some new
directions, with essays on canonical authors of different periods and a range of
cultural studies topics. It includes McColley on Milton, Kerridge on Hardy,
Glotfelty on denigrated landscapes, and Murphy on science fiction.
Bate, Jonathan, Romantic Ecology (London: Routledge, 1991). This study of
Wordsworth and an 'environmental tradition' encompassing Ruskin and Edward
Thomas was the first avowedly ecocritical work by a British critic.
The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000). A wide-ranging critical
history of the love of nature in British and Western literature since the eighteenth
century. Bate concludes by proposing a controversial separation of the poetic
sphere from the political.
Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., and London:
Harvard University Press, 1995). An important work of US ecocriticism in which
Buell examines the characteristic rhetoric of US nature writing in the tradition
beginning with Thoreau. On this basis Buell advances an ecocritical poetics.
Writing for an Endangered World (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard
University Press,
2001). This takes ecocritical poetics beyond the gerire of nature writing to a wide
range of US and other literature.
Coupe, Laurence (ed.), The Green Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2000). This
is the most wide- ' ranging introductory anthology, with short excerpts, historical
and recent, from philosophers, poets, theorists, and ecocritics.
Garrard, Greg, Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2004). Garrard explores and
critiques ecocriticism by examining its recurrent genres, tropes, and symbols.
Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Fromm, Harold (eds.), The Ecocriticism Reader (Athens,
Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1996). This indispensable reader was the first
ecocritical anthology, representing the major viewpoints and topics in US (but only
US) ecocriticism to date, with excerpts from many landmark writings. It includes
Campbell on environmentalist and post-structuralist desire, Silko on landscape and
certain Native American cultures, White Jr. on Christianity, Deitering on DeLlllo.
Hochman, Jhan, Green Cultural Studies (Moscow, Ida.: University of Idaho Press,
1998). Hochman brings a radical environmentalist and animal rights perspective to
cultural studies. This book includes provocative, original readings of Derrida,
Deliverance, and The Silence of the Lambs.
Kerridge, Richard, and Sammells, Neil (eds.), Writing the Environment (London:
Zed Books, 1998). The first ecocritical collection published in Britain brings
together UK and US ecocritics. It includes Armbruster on television wildlife
documentaries, Legler on body politics and nature writing, Brain on Plath,
Kerridge on DeLillo.
Phillips, Dana, The Truth of Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Phillips makes a rigorous ecocritical critique of ecocriticism, with a focus on
ecocritics' uses of scientific ecology. Plumwood, Val, Feminism and the Master}'
of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993). This defines the philosophical basis of
Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (London: Routledge.
2002). An extension of this into a general critique of traditional and contemporary
dualist attitudes to nature.
Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1994), p. 1.
Michael J. McDowell, 'The Bakhtinian Road to Ecological Insight', in Cheryll
Glotfelty and Harold
Fromm (eds.). The Ecocriticism Reader (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press,
1996), p. 372.
Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology (London: Routled'ge, i991), p. 2.
Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (London:
Routledge, 2002), p. 1.
Andrew Ross, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society
(London: Verso, 1994), pp. IS, 17.
Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild (Boston: Little Brown, 1995), p. 1.
Bate, Romantic Ecology, p. 66.
Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, Mass. and London:'
Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 7-8.
Sherry B. Ortner, 'Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?', in Michelle
Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (eds.), Women, Culture ant! Society
(Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974).
Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (London: Viking Penguin, 1990), p. 54.
Plumwood, Environmental Culture, p. 3.

Dana Phillips, The Truth of Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003),
pp. 190-3