The relationship between people and the environment has long been documented through literary works. In the foreword to Natural Discourse: Toward Ecocomposition, Edward White cites Adam and Eve’s journey through the Garden of Eden (in the Bible), and Odysseus’ dangerous trek across the Mediterranean Sea in Homer’s Odyssey, as early literary examples in which human paths cross with nature.
Though formal praxis of Ecocriticism — sometimes referred to as ‘Green Studies’ — is considered a somewhat recent addition to literary theory (mid to late-20th century), we can trace a distinct rise in environmental writing and its importance in American culture through the late-18th and early-19th century. For we may look in even less “literary” works, like Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) to get a sense of the value colonial America prescribed to the natural environment surrounding them. “The Natural bridge,” writes Jefferson, “the most sublime of Nature’s works, though not comprehended under the present head, must not be pretermitted.” The key word used by Jefferson is sublime. It speaks to the way in which people (writers, artists, wanderers) saw the beauty of nature — of the landscape — as something so powerful and inspiring that it could uplift them. Then, emerging in the 1820s and 1830s — influenced by the British Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge, who leaned on nature in their writing — American transcendentalists (like Thoreau) wrote intimately through and about nature and how it could influence society’s spiritual and intellectual growth.
Many other great naturalists, environmental thinkers and advocates, writers and essayists arrived prior to Ecocriticism becoming a formal theoretical study in literature: John Muir, John Burroughs, Alexander von Humboldt, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, just to name a few.
Pippa Marland, and many other ecocritics, suggests Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) as marking the beginning of modern (American) environmental writing, and ultimately being the catalyst for the Ecocriticism movement.
Peter Barry, another ecocritic, provides a sense of when Ecocriticism may have officially arrived, positing that William Rueckert’s 1978 essay, Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism, was the first to explicitly reference the term Ecocriticism; Barry also points to Karl Kroeber’s 1974 article “Home at Grasmere” as the first to use the term ecological in literary criticism. At any rate, we understand the 1970s to be when Ecocriticism was manifested in literary research.
Early on in his groundbreaking essay, Rueckert postulates what this idea of Ecocriticism might look like:
Specifically, I am going to experiment with the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature, because ecology (as a science, as a discipline, as the basis for a human vision) has the greatest relevance to the present and future of the world we all live in of anything that I have studied in recent years….I could say that I am going to try to discover something about the ecology of literature, or try to develop an ecological poetics by applying ecological concepts to the reading, teaching, and writing about literature (107).
To briefly recap: Ecocriticism has been founded on the accumulation of great environmental writing, seen over time and eventually propelled by landmark books such as Carson’s Silent Springs. We must additionally — perhaps imperatively — look to Rueckert’s Experiment in Ecocriticism and Kroeber’s “Home at Grasmere” as paving the way for an official literary theory. Additionally, to underline one more central point about the emergence of Ecocriticism: it did not arrive arbitrarily or through no visible cause; on the contrary, Ecocriticism derived from a number of events or activities pertaining to humans interactions with and study of the environment. For instance, Silent Springs emerged at a time when a common belief was that the environment was in crisis and an uncommon belief that literature could serve as society’s antidote, in ways that scientific discoveries could not.
Because problems with the environment were previously only a scientific endeavor, the Ecocriticism movement emerged slowly in the 1960s and 1970s, struggling to progress into what it would eventually become today.
Critical vocabulary, suggests Barry, like Ecocriticism and ecocritical, became dormant until the late 1980s. It was not until the 1989 WLA conference, when Cheryll Glotfelty, a graduate student at Cornell University at the time, urged the use of the term Ecocriticism instead of “the study of nature writing.” Barry acknowledges Cheryll Glotfelty as the founder of U.S. Ecocriticism. She “greened” the field of literature through her important anthology, The Ecocriticism Reader, which contains numerous eco-critical essays about fiction, drama and other forms of environmental literature (published in 1996); and, in 1992 Glotfelty co-founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (the ASLE), which continues to publish its own house journal — ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment).
On the British side of things, Ecocriticism emerged through critic Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition; and similar to Silent Springs, many British critics have drawn inspiration from Raymond Williams’ book The Country and the City.
Another pioneer of Ecocriticism, Lawrence Buell spoke of “finding better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it” (The Environmental Imagination, 2). In other words, and to extend Buell’s argument a tad further, he posited that environmental change is possible through creative literary texts. Buell more notably suggested, at least for our discussion in this essay, that Ecocriticism arrived in waves. We’ll discuss these indistinct waves shortly, though we must briefly recognize its importance here, because as Ecocriticism has developed over-time it’s not always pointed to one central figure but relied on a slew of ecocritics galvanizing the movement — from Buell and Glotfelty, to Jonathan Bate and Peter Barry — in conjunction with the invaluable works that already existed, like Walden, Silent Springs, and The Country and the City.
As previously mentioned, Ecocriticism as a movement was born out of a trembling desire to better a suffering environment, and to improve how the environment is treated by its human constituents; this idea, or movement, was not accomplished through science, but through writing and literary work. So, how might we formally define Ecocriticism itself? Marland refers to Ecocriticism as an umbrella term,
…a range of critical approaches that explore the representation in literature (and other cultural forms) of the relationship between the human and the non-human, largely from the perspective of anxieties around humanity’s destructive impact of the biosphere (Ecocriticism, 1507).
Jonathan Culler’s definition of Ecocriticism, in a broad sense, mirrors Marland’s, though in a more narrowed sense of the term Culler emphasizes Ecocriticism’s unique ability to act as a vehicle for societal change:
Most narrowly, it is the study of literary representations of nature and the environment and the changing values associated with them, especially evocations of nature that might inspire changes in attitude and behavior (Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, 146).
It’s in this way that Ecocriticism has aligned itself with feminism (more on that later). Buell’s influential work certainly echoes Culler, positing that we must find the most ‘searching’ environmental works for they will show us the things that cause great harm to society and demonstrate the alternatives that can heal society (2).
So far we’ve focused mostly on Ecocriticism having sprung up in the United States, but as is the case with many literary theories, Ecocriticism’s roots can be traced globally. As Buell points out, “since 1970 there has been an unprecedented discussion, not just on a national but on a global scale” concerning the environment. So much so that Buell believed environmentalism could be a catalyst for a global culture. (In fact, a post-colonialist perspective on the environment would surely look to problems such as climate change as a global issue.) With this in mind, it’s reasonable to jump into the first-wave of Ecocriticism — the notion of waves instigated by Buell himself — which launched in Great Britain in as much as it did in the U.S. The first-wave of British ecocritics — led by Jonathan Bate — championed romantic poetry, particularly that of William Wordsworth. In the introduction to Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, Bates dedicates the book on the notion “that the way in which William Wordsworth sought to enable his readers better to enjoy or to endure life was by teaching them to look at and dwell in the natural world” (4). In re-engaging with a natural world, Wordsworth demonstrated a close eye in nature and thus his poetry often emphasized local scenery (for instance, book eight of The Excursion depicts manufacturing towns expanding over the country). Though unlike a Marxist approach, ecopoetry “draws us into communion with earth” rather than act as a representation of it.
The first-wave of Ecocriticism in the U.S. celebrated primarily non-fiction nature writing, such as that of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard, “reflecting the legacy of American Transcendentalism” and individual connections with the landscape. These authors often wrote about the land and wilderness in a broad sense, compared to Wordsworth, with heightened fixation on the sublime nature (or realness) of the environment.
There’s no obvious transition between the first and second wave of Ecocriticism, in large part because the second wave very much continued the awareness and importance of our engaging with the physical environment, though the second wave critics notably diverged from the first wave in want of a closer relationship to critical theory…a more skeptical view of the environment. (Dana Phillips in particular, notes Marland, headed this more polemic view.) If the first wave aimed for a realist and less controversial interpretation of nature, the second wave sought debate and doing so through different formal approaches. The novel, for instance, could offer an “artfulness” that non-fiction environmental writing could not, seen in the ways in which it could explore the relationships between the self (the self-concious) and the world, entwined in social and environmental history. Ursula K. Le Guin describes the novel as a ‘medicine bundle’ that can hold things, including conflict, in relation to one another. At this point it is perhaps valuable to note “two strands of thought” that Marland discusses, which are present during the first two waves of Ecocriticism relating closely to the cultural study of Ecocriticism, and later merging together (or overlapping in certain ways) in the third and fourth waves.
The first — deep ecology — asks us to reconsider our place on Earth. “Deep ecology challenges the anthropocentrism at the heart of modern society,” Marland writes, “and the kind of ‘shallow ecological’ standpoints that see the natural world as merely a resource for humanity and that presuppose that human needs and demands override other considerations” (1512). In other words, deep ecologists believe that taking care of our environmental problems first will in-turn solve our society problems. The second strand that we must familiarize ourselves with is social ecology. A reverse of deep ecology, social ecologists suggest we must first address our social inequalities before remedying the environment. According to Marland, the first wave of Ecocriticism was froth with deep ecologist, while the second concentrated on social concerns.
Often nature is used to construct or reinforce social ideologies — gender, class, race. As mentioned earlier, and which Culler posits, Ecocriticism is often aligned with feminisim, “which has critiqued masculaninist propensities to dominate nature rather than coexist with it” (146). The ecofeminist may seek through literature to dismantle the commonly androcentric viewpoint of the environment, a prospective which has been quite harmful to the environment. Terry Tempest Williams’ work has challenged the natural binary ordering of culture, which tends to favor a male stranglehold. In “Refuge: An Unnatural History,” Tempest Williams is driving with a friend to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge — a site located dangerously close to the great Salt Lake, who’s water levels could rise, flood the refuge and wipe out the burrowing owls. Tempest Williams and her friend arrive to find the mound she knew and visited for many years gone, a result not of flooding but of construction demolishing the owls’ habitat. This conversation between Tempest Williams and her friend during the drive beforehand, foreshadows much of the ecocritical ideas that appear later in the essay:
We spoke of rage. Of women and landscape. How our bodies and the body of the earth have been mined.
‘It has everything to do with intimacy,’ I said. ‘Men define intimacy through their bodies. It is physical. They define intimacy with the land in the same way.’
‘Many men have forgotten what they are connected to,’ my friend added. ‘Subjugation of women and nature may be a loss of intimacy within themselves.’ (744)
In fact, the men they run into at the bird refuge mock the loss of the mound and flippantly speak of their bets about the mound popping up somewhere else by next year, showing their careless attitude towards the environment. This essay fundamentally demonstrates the value in social ecology: a critique of rigid gender roles in this instance (women behaving passively in relation to men and in relation to the environment; men behaving domineeringly towards women and towards the environment), and how such normativity is a direct hindrance to environmental change.
Ecocriticism continues today as a blend of waves three and four — both interweaving their ideas through the cultural landscape. Under the third-wave’s global anxieties, Ursula Heise proposes a “world citizenship,” which connects everyone to Earth and universally relates independent problems as important global issue. Heise’s ecocrtical approach seeks to bring people together through “common destiny,” advocating against global capitalism, enlightening the world on modern world issues like climate change. In the fourth wave emerged material Ecocriticism. Initially focusing on the impact of the environment on the human body, and being closely linked the ecofeminist body, the idea permutated into a post-humanist stance — material Ecocriticism now focuses on the “interchanges across human bodies, animal bodies, and the wider material world.” (“States of Suspension,” 476). Subsequently, this shared materiality — or a decentering of the human being at the head of life — has given way to post-humanist studies, which in turn dedicates itself to animal studies. For many it’s considered valuable to understand that human and non-human animals share the same environment and, as Iovino suggests, it’s this way of thinking that may dissolve the traditional binaries (humans vs. animals, humans vs. nature) and thus extend closer towards eco-egalitarianism.
Many ecocritics’ current ideas and works — such as Stacy Alaimo’s “States of Suspension” — continue to be published in the Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment journal, founded by Glotfelty over two decades ago.
According to Marland, the ASLE now heralds “ten affiliate organizations worldwide with more under discussion; there are a large number of ecocritical environmental journals in existence including Ecozon@, The Journal of Ecocriticism, Indian Journal of Ecocriticism and Green Letters.” Yet, in a world where the environment is deteriorating quickly and one’s day-to-day efforts to engender change can feel fruitless, it’s difficult to imagine how a turn to close environmental reading will alleviate our problems. Even so, writes Marland, ecocritics such as Roman Bartosch and Greg Garrard embrace the challenge and remain excited about the future. In Sam Harris’ recent podcast “What You Need to Know About Climate Change,” Joseph Romm, a leading communicator on climate science and solutions, makes the point that because humans are the major cause of climate change, we are also the major solution. Romm is, of course, keen on materialized solutions, but to his credit, humans being in fidelity with the planet is crucial. Approaches to environmental improvements will come in various forms. This idea gives validity to hopefuls like Bartosch and Garrard, who view their ecorticial work as invaluable towards curing our only Earth.
 Carson’s book documents the evil effects of pesticides on the environment.
 In an example from Bate, “Wordsworth’s impassioned vision, the child’s vitality is destroyed and his unity with nature is lost when he is put to work in a cotton mill” (41).
 The idea that humans are at the center of existence; an assumption that places humans as more important than other living beings.