Ecocriticism: A type of literary criticism, sometimes popularly referred to as green criticism, that focuses on the relationship between nature and literature. Ecocriticism, which arose in the United States and is grounded in ecology, natural history, and environmental studies, examines how people interact with nature and how these interactions inform and are forged by symbolic representations of nature. Ecocriticism often involves the study of nature writing, which, as a genre, refers to American and European nature-oriented literature dating back to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). Ecocritics frequently analyze: (1) the relationship between literary representations of nature and human interactions with the natural world; and (2) the role of literature and language in furthering or hindering agendas for changing humanity’s relationship with the natural environment. Unlike other approaches to literary criticism, ecocriticism addresses the relationship between writers, texts, and the world from a truly global perspective — one in which the “world” is the entire ecosphere, not just human society. Further, in “A Report Card on Ecocriticism” (2001), Simon Estok characterized ecocriticism as “distinguish[ing] itself … firstly by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections.”
The term ecocriticism, coined by William Rueckert in 1978 in an essay entitled “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism,” did not gain currency in critical discourse until 1989, when Cheryll Glotfelty, a leading theorist in the field, suggested referring to all ecologically informed literary criticism as ecocriticism. Because ecocriticism involves a shared frame of reference rather than a particular methodology or theoretical perspective, some practitioners refer to their work as “ecological literary criticism,” “the study of nature-oriented literature,” or “literature-and-environment studies.”
Several early examples of ecocriticism, dating back to the 1970s, emphasize scientific concepts and employ relatively direct applications of ecological science to literature. Rueckert, for example, used biological concepts to construct what he termed “literary ecology,” arguing, for instance, that “poems can be studied as models for energy flow, community building, and ecosystems.” Similarly, Joseph Meeker employed physical models of ecosystems to analyze literary modes in his book The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1972).
Ecocritical works from the 1970s and early 1980s that focused on representations of the land, wilderness, and women’s relationship to nature, however, ultimately had a greater impact on contemporary ecocriticism than explicitly scientific applications. Influential examples include Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1975) and The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630—1860 (1984), both of which discuss representations of land in American culture; Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980), which investigates the interplay between representations of women and nature; and Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (1982), which traces the concept of the wilderness throughout American intellectual and cultural history. Subsequently, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, several anthologies of American nature writing came out, including Thomas J. Lyon’s This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (1989), which was prefaced with a piece entitled “A Taxonomy of Nature Writing” that detailed questions about the purpose of the genre.
In 1992, following the emergence of ecocriticism as a movement in literary studies, a group of American scholars established the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) to encourage the exploration of literary and other cultural representations of human relationships to nature, an aim advanced in part through ASLE’s journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Two highly influential works of ecocriticism followed in 1996: The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, in which Glotfelty and coeditor Harold Fromm mapped the lineage and landscape of ecocriticism, then still largely focused on American nonfiction nature writing or on explicitly nature-oriented fiction and poetry; and Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, which examined Thoreau’s influence on American attitudes and writing about the natural world.
Many ecocritics work within one of two related but contrasting theoretical frameworks: deep ecology and ecofeminism. Deep ecology, first outlined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in his book Ecology, Community and Lifestyle (1989), locates the source of contemporary environmental crises in Western ideologies characterized by anthropocentrism, the tendency to conceive of nonhuman nature primarily in terms of human interests. Deep ecologists, who contend that nature has value in and of itself, should be distinguished from social ecologists, who believe that nature must ultimately be approached in light of human needs.
Ecofeminists take an explicitly feminist approach to ecocriticism. Like deep ecologists, they locate the source of environmental problems in the tendency to privilege human interests, but many argue more specifically that androcentrism, the tendency to conceive of nonhuman nature in terms of human male interests, has led patriarchal cultures, particularly in the West, to associate and exploit women and nature. For essays relating environmental problems to androcentric ideologies, see Greta Gaard and Patrick D. Murphy’s Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy (1998). For an ecofeminist identification and analysis of women’s contributions to natural history and nature writing, see Very Norwood’s Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature (1993).
Some ecocritics incorporate poststructuralism, which addresses the relationship between our experience of the material world and the language we use to describe that world, into their analyses. For instance, SueEllen Campbell’s 1989 essay “The Land and Language of Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-Structuralism Meet” describes the inherent tension between ecocritics’ concern with the material effects of the relationship between language and the natural environment and poststructuralist views on how language mediates and even creates all of our experiences (including our experience of the material world). Neil Evernden’s book The Social Creation of Nature (1992), as well as the essays collected in Michael E. Soule and Gary Lease’s Reinventing Nature?: Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (1995), likewise deal with issues involving nature, language, and poststructuralist theory.
Ecocritics also draw on rhetorical theory and on ideas and attitudes growing out of the global environmental justice movement to study political and literary discourse in the context of public debate about environmental problems. M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer’s Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America (1992), like many of the essays in Carl Herndl and Stuart C. Brown’s Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America (1996), analyzes public debate about environmental issues such as the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest.
Some ecocritics, influenced by the personal style of much nature writing, also employ personal criticism in analyzing literature. They may extensively discuss their own experiences, and they tend to exhibit the same kind of heightened appreciation of place and community that is the defining feature of many of the works they study. (Indeed, some ecocritics have argued that “place” should be a critical category akin to race, class, and gender.) For instance, in Reading the Mountains of Home (1998), John Elder alternated interpretations of Robert Frost’s poem “Directive” with first-person accounts of his own life and exploration in Vermont’s Green Mountains, where Frost once also lived. Likewise, in American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place (2001), Joni Adamson’s narrative scholarship places her examination of Native American literature in the context of her personal experience in natural and human communities that have borne the brunt of environmental degradation.
Ecocritics aim to raise environmental consciousness and to remind us of our dependence on the earth and its resources. Aldo Leopold’s concept of the “land ethic” — that is, of nature as a part of the community, not a commodity, and the moral imperative to act responsibly and respectfully toward the natural world (“The Land Ethic” ) — has been particularly influential. Moreover, ecocritics highlight nature’s aesthetic and symbolic value, seeking to show that nature is far more than the object of scientific scrutiny. Many ecocritics even regard science as something of an enemy, particularly insofar as technology has contributed to environmental degradation. Common themes in ecocritical analyses include the interrelation of all elements in an ecosystem (from natural phenomena to social and political factors), the need to monitor technologies and to pursue sustainable means of living, the quest for environmental justice, and the interconnections between nature and culture. As Glotfelty explains in the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, “all ecological criticism shares the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it.”
Ecocritics also aim to establish a “green” canon by identifying the classics of nature writing, offering ecological readings of these texts, and explaining why the texts and readings matter. Aside from Thoreau’s Walden, which offers an intensely personal take on living in harmony with nature, key works of nature writing often studied by ecocritics include Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain (1903), Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986), Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild (1990), and Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge (1991). Several nature poets, including Snyder, Wendell Berry, W. S. Merwin, and Mary Oliver, have also been the subject of ecocritical attention. Notably, all of these writers are American, a focus likely due both to ecocriticism’s American origins and to the perception that Walden launched nature writing as a genre.
More recently, ecocritics have recognized the need for ecocritical studies of works in other literary arenas, in other art forms, and in other national and cultural contexts. Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace’s Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (2001) features essays discussing works dating from medieval Europe to the present day and ranging from traditionally canonical texts to virtual / cyber landscapes. J. Scott Bruson’s Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction (2002) examines the role of nature in Western poetry and assembles scholarly inquiries into the roots of ecopoetry (a type of nature poetry that addresses environmental issues and concerns) as well as into recurrent themes such as extinction, genocide, postcolonialism, and the female and lesbian body. Murphy’s Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature (2000) looks beyond Euro-American literary traditions to survey African, Asian, Australian, and South American works, and Terrell Dixon highlights urban environments in City Wilds: Essays and Stories about Urban Nature (2002).
Chicano and Chicana literature has been a particularly fertile ground for nature writing and ecocriticism. In Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Gloria Anzaldúa testified to the exploitative and destructive effect of patriarchal values on the land and on Mexicans living on both sides of the United States-Mexico border. In Adios to the Brushlands (1997), Arturo Longoria discussed the devastation of brushlands along the border, as well as the effects of this destruction on the human spirit. Other Chicano and Chicana texts that highlight the link between environmental degradation and marginalization along economic, ethnic, and class lines include Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima (1971) and the works of two ecofeminists: Ana Castillo’s So Far from God (1993) and Helena María Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus (1995).
In the twenty-first century, the focus and priorities of ecocriticism have shifted, in part due to the increasingly apparent planetary nature of the unfolding environmental crisis, as described in works such as Joseph Masco’s “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis” (2010). Ecocritics are more likely than in the past to view their field as a means of understanding, if not solving, the problems that all earthly inhabitants — not just humans — face. Taking the view that cultures construct the nonhuman world through their collective ideas and desires, contemporary ecocritics have challenged the binary opposition human / nonhuman and the concept of human exceptionalism. They have also, as Estok put it in “Shakespeare and Ecocriticism” (2005), made ecocriticism a “theory that is committed to effecting change by analyzing the function of the natural environment” as it is “represented in documents … that contribute to material practices in material worlds.”
Estok’s emphasis on “material worlds” proved prescient, as much contemporary ecocritical work has been materialist in its interests and assumptions. For example, in her essay “Material Ecocriticism and the Creativity of Storied Matter” (2013), Serpil Oppermann drew on the work of new materialist theorists including Susan Hekman, Karen Barad, and Jane Bennett to argue that matter — whatever its form (e.g., cells, stones, machines) — is “agentic,” or, as Bennett put it, has “the power to make things happen.” Oppermann described that power as “creative” and even “narrative,” explaining that “we are surrounded by stories,” not just of the conventional sort, but “geological, biological, and cosmic stories that compel us to envision the physical world as storied matter teeming with countless narrative agencies that infiltrate every imaginable space and make the world intelligible.” Oppermann and fellow ecocritic Serenella Iovino subsequently published a collection of essays titled Material Ecocriticism (2014).
The planetary nature of the interconnectedness between human and nonhuman environments has led a number of critics to study disease, the agents of which are often nonbiological materials. The ability of viruses such as AIDS, the West Nile virus, and Ebola to migrate rapidly from Africa to and throughout Western metropoles is a sobering reminder that no geographic, cultural, economic, or political boundary is impervious. And, much like a water-borne, biological disease that circulates easily between nature and culture and across cultures, disease can be shown to circulate between bodies and texts. For example, cultural attitudes affected the spread of the bubonic plague, but the plague also affected literary language, as Meghan Kari Nixon showed in “Keep Bleeding: Hemorrhagic Sores, Trade, and the Necessity of Leaky Boundaries in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year” (2014). Likewise, Joseph Valente argued in “Stoker’s Vampire and the Vicissitudes of Biopower” (2016) that the vampire — and, more specifically, Dracula in Bram Stoker’s eponymously titled 1897 novel — represented the threat of human degeneration via a contagion that could be passed on via sex and passed down via reproduction. Although Valente’s analysis is focused mainly on a single literary text, his broader interest is in the complete “human and nonhuman enmeshment” Oppermann speaks of in discussing Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010): viruses, bacteria, and parasites are all “material agencies” that can, as Bennett put it, “destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us” as they make us part of their respective stories.
There is an increasingly apparent overlap between the perspectives of ecocriticism and the emergent discipline, or perhaps ontology, known as posthumanism, which reconsiders the widely held Western assumption that human nature is a universal, superior state of being at once autonomous, rational, and indomitable. Posthumanists thus debunk the anthropocentric notion, fundamental to humanist assumptions, that humankind is the measure of creation insofar as it is superior to and distinct from the realm of nonhuman life, including microbes and viruses, and the material world, which includes everything from geological formations to machine operations.
For further discussion of both classical and contemporary trends in ecocriticism, see Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (2011). Other notable recent works include Buell’s The Future of Environmental Criticism (2009), Murphy’s Ecocritical Explorations in Literary and Cultural Studies (2009), Kimberly N. Ruffin’s Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions (2010), Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley’s Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (2011), and Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011).