The consensus in the scientific community that the planet faces catastrophic social and environmental changes as a result of carbon emissions has had far-reaching effects in the study of the humanities over the last 30 years. In literary criticism it has led to a reassessment of the critical tradition, drawing fresh attention to the ecological aspects of the thought of numerous writers.
Our current destructive relationship with the natural world raises questions about humanity’s attitude towards the environment throughout history.
Particular attention has been paid to the work of natural history writers, including Henry David Thoreau (1817—62) and Richard Jefferies (1848—87). Lawrence Buell’s (b. 1939) The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (1995) argues for an urgent reassessment of the relationship between humanity and nature based on his close reading of Thoreau’s nature writing.
Let’s return to Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry”. Elements of his defence of the poetic imagination were closely bound up with veneration for the natural world.
The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.
Responding to contemporary scientific developments, Shelley articulated a view that the possibilities for human self-realization and flourishing are dependent upon a harmonious, rather than exploitative, relationship with the natural world. It was also implicit, for Shelley, that the scope of the study of poetics is far wider than, say, formal concerns with prosody.
William H. Rueckert (b. 1926) coined the term “ecocriticism” in his 1978 essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism”. Thinking about how to bring together literature and ecology re-focused critical attention on the material world in the wake of the post-structuralist turn towards textuality. By attending to the specificities of place and region in literature and nature writing, ecocritics question the post-structuralist current in literary theory.
Post-structuralism is self-regarding narcissism!
A sole focus on textuality is ethically irresponsible.
The subsequent growth of ecocriticism in the 1990s reflects the appearance of environmental politics in the 1970s and the foundation of green and ecological parties. Tensions within ecocriticism reflect divides within the wider ecological movement: some criticize a perceived anthropocentric bias in the dominant critical culture and wider society, calling attention to ways in which human consumption is privileged over the needs of the planet.
We speak for the trees.
Others argue that environmental sustainability is achievable as part of a wider reorganization of economic distribution based around the idea of social justice.
Ecocritical writing on literature has led to a reassessment of Romantic poetics, particularly the work of William Wordsworth and John Clare. Jonathan Bate in Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Imagination (1991) defined the “ecopoetics” of the Romantic poets as un-political —
— Or, more specifically, pre-political.
This chimes with the claims of some environmentalists that the green movement transcends the ideological divides of the 20th century because of the way in which an issue such as climate change affects the human species as a species, regardless of political affiliation.
This position, however, is problematic, as it negates the status of ecocriticism as a contemporary political criticism with a clear ethical agenda.
Karl Kroeber’s (1926—2009) Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of the Mind (1994) similarly concentrates on re-reading the English Romantic poets, demonstrating how the modern critical tradition had neglected the presence of a proto-ecological strand in the work of Romantic writers.
The Romantics’ sense of responsibility to nature as central to their being socially valuable poets poses difficult issues of responsibility for their critics. Contemporary critics have preferred to dwell on the poets’ ideological shortcomings or personality quirks rather than to inquire into the social responsibilities of their profession.
Kroeber offered a re-reading of Wordsworth’s poem “Nutting” (1798), which noted a tendency in recent criticism to ignore the poem’s intimate connection to the natural world, favouring psychologizing interpretations over the more literal circumstances described in the poem.
Ecocriticism does not imply any particular method of reading literature, hence the lack of consensus around how best to describe this critical tendency, which is also sometimes referred to as “green cultural studies” or “ecopoetics”.
What unites ecocritics is a common focus on issues including:
· The relationship between humanity and nature
· Place consciousness
· Stewardship of the natural world.
Lawrence Buell provides a useful characterization in describing his book, The Environmental Imagination (1995):
[It is a] broad study of environmental perception, the place of nature in the history of western thought, and the consequences for literary scholarship and indeed for humanistic thought in general of attempting to imagine a more “ecocentric” way of being.