What is 1st- and 2nd-wave ecocriticism?
This useful distinction, formally introduced by Lawrence Buell in his 2005 book on The Future of Environmental Criticism, distinguishes between older (generally speaking, 20th-century) environmental criticism that was preoccupied with nature writing, wilderness, and texts such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and emerging 21st century work that is often concerned with a variety of landscapes (including places like cities) and more timely environmental issues. A UCSB undergrad working on an honor’s thesis succinctly drew attention to how this distinction applies to primary texts by noting that “Thoreau is content to sit, contemplate, and ponder the beauties before him . . . [while individuals like Rachel Carson are] . . . apt to actually do something.” Consequently, writers such as Thoreau and Wordsworth, who were the darlings of first-wave environmental criticism, are somewhat less interesting to the second wave. Not surprisingly, second-wave environmental critics, careful not to overly romanticize wilderness (as did many of their predecessors), are more likely to direct themselves to sites of environmental devastation and texts that do the same, such as Carson’s Silent Spring. While some first-wave environmental critics might cringe at the thought, a study of the celebration of flowers in Romantic poetry may be of far less interest to the second wave than an assessment of A.R. Ammons’s book-length poem Garbage. One of the important advantages of this shift in focus is that, because environmental criticism is now directed to present environmental issues rather than an improbable pastoral past (i.e. some sort of imagined pristine “wilderness”), it is poised to have real cultural and political relevance in the 21st century. There are, however, two important points to keep in mind.
1. Second-wave environmental critics can still take up some of the same interests as their predecessors, though they are generally very conscious of the implications of doing so. For example, the aforementioned undergrad argued that Carson intentionally (from the pastoral opening of Silent Spring onward) romanticized nature as a rhetorical strategy designed to enlist readers to combat threats to the environment. This approach is very different than first-wave environmental criticism, as this student was not herself led by Carson into making a fetish of nature (as often happened in the first wave); rather, as she explored how such romanticizing takes place, she drew attention to the manner by which this rhetorical strategy influenced the first wave of environmental critics–who were in many cases blind to the influence.
2. As our environmental crisis has been brewing for thousands of years, second-wave environmental critics need not just work with modern texts. For example, because the first commission to study London’s air-pollution problem (which was caused by burning highly sulfurous coal) was convened in 1286, environmental critics working with medieval and Renaissance texts are ideally positioned to explore the birth of our attitudes toward urban air pollution. Consequently, the literature of nearly any period can be of interest to second-wave ecocritics as a way of helping us understand the emergence of our present environmental crisis.
Because the distinction between first- and second-wave environmental criticism is not always clear, a useful question to ask of works of environmental criticism is whether they promise the sort cultural or political payout prized by the second wave. Expressed another way, following the above undergrad, does the criticism in question “actually do something”? For an example of environmental criticism that does something, it is helpful to consider the emerging field of environmental justice.