What is the future of ecocriticism?
n 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois presciently suggested that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” With a nod to Du Bois, Lawrence Buell opened his 2005 book on The Future of Environmental Criticism by suggesting that, although issues of race are sadly still with us, our emerging global environmental crisis will be the greatest problem of the coming century. As Buell is, sadly, very likely correct, environmental criticism will be crucially important in the 21st century, and will no doubt experience many “waves” of interest. Because concern over our environmental crisis is in large measure fueling this interest, it seems likely that future ecocriticism will move in the direction second-wave critics are now charting, rather than looking back in a sentimental way to overly romanticized accounts of the environment. Similarly, ecocritical approaches that do not take into account issues of environmental justice (or more accurately, injustice) will no doubt seem simplistic and perhaps even worrisome. In addition, critics such as Robert Watson will likely continue to theoretically explore the nature of the art that deals with nature. Moreover, as Watson makes clear on the first page of his Back to Nature, “ecocriticism seems to be booming in its test markets (British Romanticism and the literature of the American West) and now seems ready to push its way back to the Renaissance,” as well as into all other periods of literary study.
It is also likely that ecocriticism will greatly enrich other critical approaches. For example, in his Introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, Jean-Paul Sartre made a famous speculation: “Were the colonized to disappear so would colonization–with the colonizer.” By this Sartre meant that if colonized human beings were to disappear, “there would be no more subproletariat, no more over-exploitation.” While this is certainly true, Sartre ignored the fact that not only human beings are colonized, but so are the places they inhabit. Indeed, the colonial enterprise usually understood the “colonized” as both people and place. True, in some instances it would be the human colonized resources that would appeal most to the colonizer, with the prospect of labor so inexpensive that literally thousands of hours of human labor could be lavished in the making of a single wool rug or bolt of silk fabric. On the other hand, the colonized natural resources, which in this case supply the wool and silk, also had immense appeal to the colonizer. By drawing attention to the fact that places as well as people are colonized, an ecocritical approach reveals that Sartre is not only being simplistic, but like many twentieth-century thinkers, he is unfortunately largely oblivious to environmental issues.
Because of the environmental justice movement, ecocriticism greatly benefited from the work of literary critics exploring issues like gender, class, race, and colonialism. Ecocritics are now returning (and will very likely in the future continue to return) the favor by showing how an environmental approach can enrich critical work in the fields, such a colonial studies, from which environmental justice borrowed. In this sense, ecocriticism will, like the methodological approaches that preceded it, both remain a discrete field of literary study, as well as inform other approaches. Consequently, many critical studies will have a “green” tint to them without being primarily works of ecocriticism.