Theorizing Ecology : Ecocriticism
Dr. Rohit Phutela
Editor, The Literati, A Transnational Peer Reviewed Journal, devoted to Language & Literature
and Assistant Professor, DAVIET, Jalandhar (Punjab) - India
Ph. 84372-01166. <>


In simple words, Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. It is a literary and cultural criticism from an environmentalist’s viewpoint. In it, texts are evaluated in terms of their environmentally harmful or harmless effects. Beliefs and ideologies are assessed for their environmental implications. It analyses the history of concepts such as ‘nature’ to understand the cultural developments that have resulted in the present ecological crisis. Direct representations of environmental damage or political struggle are of obvious interest to Eco-critics
The term “Ecocriticism” came into existence in the late 1970s, at the meetings of the WLA (the Western Literature Association, a body whose area of interest is the literature of the American West.) However, it was William Rueckert who coined the term ‘Ecocriticism’ in his 1978 classic essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Eco-criticism”.
There are two distinct national variants of Ecocriticism. The first commenced in the USA in the late 1980s, and the second in the UK in the early 1990s. In the USA, the acknowledged founder of Ecocriticism is Cheryll Glotfelty, co-editor with Harold Fromm of a key collection of helpful and definitive essays entitled The Eco-criticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology1 (Glotfelty and Fromm XVIII). In 1992, she also co-founded the Eco-critical organization called ASLE ( the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment). This organization has its own journal called ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment) which was launched in 1993.
On the other hand , the Infrastructure of Ecocriticism, more frequently known as ‘green studies’, in the UK is less developed than that of in the USA. There are as yet no indigenous journals or formal bodies for Ecocriticism, though there is a UK branch of ASLE. The central text in the UK version of Ecocriticism is Laurence Coupe’s The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Eco-criticism. (Coupe 12)
The work of three major nineteenth century American writers- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau- is considered of pivotal importance in the genesis of the US Ecocriticism. All three were ‘members’ of the group of New England writers, essayists and philosophers known collectively as the transcendentalists, the first major literary movement in America to achieve cultural independence from European models.
Three books are considered foundational works of American ‘eco-centered’ writing. The first among them is Emerson’s short book Nature, which is a reflective essay on the impact of the natural world upon him. In powerfully dramatic directness, Emerson voiced: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.” (Ziff 38) The second is Fuller’s first book Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, which is a powerfully written journal of her encounter with the American landscape at large. For instance, she writes:
“For here there is no escape from the weight of a perpetual creation; all other forms and motions come and go, the tide rises and recedes, the wind, at its mightiest, moves in gales and gusts, but here is really an incessant, an indefatigable motion. Awake or sleep, there is no escape, still this rushing round you and through you. It is in this way I have most felt the grandeur—some what eternal, if not infinite.” (Kelley 71)
The third is Thoreau’s Walden, which is an account of his two-year sojourn in a hut he had built on the shore of Walden Pond, a couple of miles away from his home town of Concord, Massachusetts. In it, Thoreau describes how he chose a site at the Pond, cut the necessary trees, erected the cabin, planted a garden for food and income. It is, perhaps, the classic account of dropping out of modern life and seeking to renew the self by a ‘return to nature’.
The UK Version of Ecocriticism, or green studies, takes its literary bearings from the British Romanticism of the 1790s rather than the American transcendentalism of the 1840s. The central view is that the root of the modern human malaise is its separation, or ‘alienation’, from its original unity with nature, and that the cure for this disease of civilization lies in a reunion between humanity and nature. Jonathan Bate is a key figure in this context. He in his classic book Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition details the emergence, in Wordsworth and his English contemporaries and successors, of an environmental and ecological consciousness, the result of noting the destruction of forest and farm lands by urban sprawl, as well as recognizing what Wordsworth, in the eighth book of The Excursion , called ‘the outrage done to nature’ by newly established factories that foul the air and pollute the waterways. Many of the concerns of British Ecocriticism are also evident, prior to the term ‘Ecocriticism’ existed in Raymond Williams’s book The Country and the City.
Though both UK and US versions of Ecocriticism are clearly linked in their approaches and aims, they differ in emphasis and ‘ancestry’. The difference between them is the same as it exists between British cultural materialism and ‘American’ new historicism. Generally, the preferred American term is ‘Ecocriticism’, whereas ‘green studies’ is frequently used in the UK. The American writing is ‘celebratory’ in tone, whereas the British variant tends to be more ‘minatory’ , that is , it seeks to warns us of environmental threats emanating from governmental, industrial, commercial, and neo-colonial forces. For instance, Bate’s more recent work, The Song of the Earth, argues that colonialism and deforestation have frequently gone together. He writes: “As Robert Pogue Harrison has demonstrated in his remarkable book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, imperialism has always brought with it deforestation and consuming of natural resources.” (Bate 87)
Eco-critics do not share the same theoretical perspectives or procedures. Instead, they manifest a wide range of traditional, post-structural, and post-colonial points of view and modes of analysis. Within this diversity, however, one can identify certain central and recurrent issues:
1. The Eco-critics claim that the reigning religions and philosophies of western civilizations are intensely anthropocentric; that is, they are oriented to the interests of human beings. Human beings are viewed as opposed to and superior to nature, and free to exploit natural resources and animal species for their own purposes. This viewpoint is grounded in the biblical account of the creation, in which God gave man ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth’.
2. The Eco-critics are critical of binaries such as man/nature or culture/nature, entities are interconnected, and also mutually constitutive. As William Howarth writes in “Some Principles of Ecocriticism”: Although we cast nature and culture as opposites, in fact they constantly mingle, like water and soil in a flowing stream ” (Howarth 69). Our identities, or sense of self, for example, are informed by the particular place in which we live. On the other side, human experience of the natural environment is never a replication of the thing itself, but always mediated by the culture of a particular time and place. Its representation in a work of literature is inescapably shaped by human feelings and the human imagination. A striking example is the radical shift in the conception of the wilderness in America, from the Puritan view of it as a dark and ominous thing, possibly the abode of demons, which needs to be overcome, appropriated, and cultivated by human beings, to the view expressed by Thoreau two centuries later that “In wildness is the preservation of the world”.
3. Many Eco-critics recommend, and themselves exemplify, the extension of “green reading” to all literary genres, including prose fiction and poetry, and also to writings in the natural and social sciences. Within the literary domain, the endeavor is to elevate the status, or to include within the major canon of literature the hitherto undervalued forms of nature writing and of local color or regional fiction by authors such as Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, and Sarah Orne Jewett.
4. The Eco-critics analyze the differences in attitudes toward the environment that are attributable to a writer’s race, ethnicity, social class, and gender. The two terms are central to this concepts-Eco-feminism and wilderness romance. The writings of Annette Kolodny are of pivotal importance in Eco-feminism. Her writings analyze the role attributed to women in fantasies of the natural environment by male authors, as well as the study of specifically feminine conceptions of the environment in the neglected nature writings by female authors. In The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters, Kolodny stresses, in male-authored literature, the predominant gendering of the land as female, and the accordant tendency to resort to nature for pastoral repose, recuperation, and gratification (Kolodny 45). She also proposes a parallel between the domination and subjugation of women and the exploitation and spoliation of the land. For instance, the devastation of a natural scene is figured in detail as the rape of a virgin in Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem “Nutting”. Wilderness romance-represented by such major works as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn-project distinctively male imaginings of escape to an unspoiled natural environment, free of women and of an effete, woman-dominated civilization, in which the protagonist undergoes a test of his character and virility.
5. The Eco-critics have a growing interest in the “primitive” cultures, as well as in Hindu, Buddhist, and other religions and civilizations that lack the Western opposition between humanity and nature, and do not assign to human beings dominion over the non-human world. That is why Eco-critics in the United States concern themselves especially with the oral traditions of Native Americans and with the exposition of these cultures by contemporary Native American writers such as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko. The common view, it is pointed out, envisions the natural world as a living, sacred thing, in which each individual feels intimately bonded to a particular physical “place”, and where human beings live in interdependence and reciprocity with other living things.
6. Another striking feature of Ecocriticism is its hostility to the atmosphere of what is normally called ‘theory’. Eco-critics worry that too much attention to nature as a cultural and ideological construct will lead to neglect of nature as an objective, material and vulnerable reality. For this purpose, Bate calls for a move away from Marxist and New Historicist criticism that can see nothing in nature writing but conservative ideology. 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.
Recent work in Ecocriticism has ranged beyond nature writing and Romanticism. Beyond Nature Writing:Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace is of central importance in this context. This outstanding book stresses that eco-criticism need not only refer to “natural” or “wilderness” areas; Ecocriticism includes cultivated and built landscapes, the natural elements and aspects of those landscapes, and cultural interactions with those natural elements. Besides, Ecocriticism encompasses biblical studies, medieval and Renaissance studies, literature and thought of the Enlightenment era, colonial American studies, nineteenth-century British and American literature, twentieth-century British and American literature, and contemporary texts that push the boundaries of literary study, such as film, science fiction, virtual reality, and theatrical space.
Some environmental critics maintain that the ecological crisis can only be resolved by the rejection, in the West, of the Judeo-Christian religion and culture, with its anthropocentric view that human beings, because they possess souls, transcend nature and are inherently masters of the non-human world, and by adopting instead an eco-centric religion which promulgates the sacredness of nature, and a reverence for all forms of life as intrinsically equivalent.
Other environmentalists insist, on the contrary, that the hope for radical reform lies, not in trying to assimilate an outmoded or alien religion, but in identifying and developing those strands in the human-centered religion, philosophy, and ethics of the West which maintain that the human relationship to the non-human world is not one of mastery, but of stewardship, and which recognize the deep human need for the natural world as something to be enjoyed for its own sake, as well as the moral responsibility of human beings to maintain and transmit a livable, diverse, and enjoyable world to their posterity. For example, Moses in Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Hebrew Bible, remind his people over and over that the price of their continuance in the Promised Land is social justice- justice not only among themselves but for every other occupant: human, animal, and the land. Human beings, in their intricate connections to the earth and to one another, bear the responsibility of justice and righteousness as a condition of their continued survival in the places that gives them nurture.
Despite such disagreements, all Eco-critics concur that science-based knowledge of looming ecological disaster is not enough, because knowledge can lead to effective political and social action only when informed and impelled, as it is in literature, by imagination and feeling. As P. B. Shelley wrote in his “Defense of Poetry” almost two centuries ago: “There is no want of knowledge”, scientific and other, “respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy”; what we lack is “the creative faculty to imagine that which we know” and “the generous impulse to act that which we imagine” (Cook 233)

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. London: Picador, 2000.
Cook, Albert S. ed., A Defence of Poertry.Boston, U.S.A.: Ginn & Company,1991.
Coupe, Laurence. ed., The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. London:Routledge, 2000.
Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm, eds., The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of George Press, 1996.
Howarth, Williams. “Some Principles of Ecocriticism” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of George Press, 1996.
Kelley, Mary. ed., The Portable Margaret Fuller Viking Portable Library:Penguin, 1994.
Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experiment and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
Ziff Larzer, ed., Selected Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. London: Penguin, 1982.

© Author

(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2013)