Literature and the Environment
UC Santa Barbara’s English Department is a national leader in the study of Literature and the Environment (also known as ecocriticism and “green” criticism). What makes us unique is that, with a range of faculty members doing diverse though often interconnected research, we have seamless, strong coverage in ecocritical coursework from the early Renaissance through the 21st century. Moreover, we explore environmental issues from British, American, and Global perspectives, using a host of methodological approaches, with such emphases as non-human/human relations, environmental and social justice within a global rather than national context, and the political impact of institutions, networks, and regimes on bodies and the biosphere. Such diversity has allowed students to take courses as varied as “American Romanticism and Environmental Imagination,” “Postcolonial and Global Ecological Imaginations,” “Milton and Ecology,” “Natural Representations: Wordsworth, Dickinson, Bishop,” and “Animal Theory.”
How does literature affect environmental values and practices? Can a novel or poem make a more sustainable world? Environment literary criticism focuses on the ways in which literature shapes and responds to a variety of environmental concerns, from animal welfare to pollution to global warming. UC Santa Barbara’s English Department offers a variety of ways for undergraduates to explore the intersection of literature and the environment. Students casually interested in the subject can simply take one or more of the many courses offered. It is also possible to do an Undergraduate Specialization in Literature and the Environment by taking four or more of these courses. Students who are especially dedicated can complete the USLE with Honors. The English Department also sponsors a variety of events having to do with literature and the environment.
Get a green B.A. in English! OK, you can’t actually get a green-colored diploma at UCSB, but if you are concerned about the environment and the future of our planet, or would just like to explore the literary history of the natural world, it is possible to declare an Undergraduate Specialization in Literature and the Environment (USLE). The requirements of the USLE are simple: just complete four environmentally oriented courses from a range of over two-dozen that are regularly offered. Certain other courses, such as English 199 and 196 with an environmental theme, may also satisfy the requirements of the USLE, as may courses from past years. Contact Professor Ken Hiltner for details. It is also possible to complete the USLE with honors. In addition to receiving the regular UCSB diploma at graduation, students completing the USLE will also be awarded a special certificate at the English Department’s Undergraduate Commencement Reception. (Sorry, but the certificate is not green either!)
Students interested in completing the Undergraduate Specialization in Literature and the Environment (USLE) with Honors have two options: 1. Majors who have completed at least two quarters of the junior year with a minimum GPA of 3.5 (overall and/or in the major) may apply for admission to the English Department’s Honors Program. Students who satisfy the requirements of the Honors Program by completing English 199 and 196 with an acceptable environmentally themed thesis will receive Honors in the USLE. 2. At the discretion of the Instructor, students may enter into an USLE Honors Contract for upper-division courses that meet the requirement of the Specialization. This involves regular meetings with the Instructor, as well as supplemental work, such as extra readings, an additional short paper or two, or a slightly longer term paper. Students completing Honors Contracts for two or more USLE courses to the satisfaction of the Instructor will receive Honors in the USLE. (Please note that the USLE Honors Contract is not related to UCSB’s College of Letters & Sciences Honors Contract.) USLE Honors Certificates will be awarded at the English Department’s Undergraduate Commencement Reception.
UC Santa Barbara’s English Department provides graduate students with a range of resources to aid in the study of literature and the environment. This begins with our extraordinary faculty, who approach environmental issues from a variety of diverse and exciting perspectives. The regular meetings of the Colloquium in Literature and Environment bring together faculty and graduate students in order to discuss their own work, and to keep current with ecocritical studies. There are also teaching opportunities available for graduate students interested in literature and the environment. Students may take the “Theories of Literature and the Environment” list an option for the First Qualifying Exam.
GRADUATE QUALIFYING EXAM
UCSB is one of the few U.S. universities that offers PhD students a comprehensive overview of the field of ecocriticism. All candidates for the PhD in English at UCSB must successfully pass two oral qualifying exams, both of which may be vectored toward literature and the environment.
As the Department notes on its website, “[t]he first qualifying exam is designed to test the student’s familiarity with a range of literature at once various enough to encourage breadth of learning and focused enough to allow for the demonstration of intellectual grasp. Students are expected to complement their knowledge of individual works with a sense of broader historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts as well as with the ability to apply the kinds of critical tools used by professional scholars today. For the purposes of the exam, the spectrum of literature written in English is broken up into thirteen fields.” One of these thirteen fields is “Literature and the Environment.” In order to prepare the for exam, students are required to read and prepare all three parts of the below list.
The second qualifying exam involves students sitting down with “their dissertation committee for a ninety-minute conference on the dissertation project based on a four-to-five-page prospectus and a bibliography of at least fifty works to be constructed by the candidate in consultation with her/his committee…The prospectus should define the dissertation topic, its initial critical questions, and its relationship to existing scholarship and may also describe likely chapter divisions. The readings lists will include works most immediately germane to the dissertation but will also represent the wider professional area within which the dissertation is likely to be received or in which it seeks to make an intervention.”
The First Qualifying Exam in Literature and the Environment
Part 1. The Emergence of Environmental Thinking
1. Bible, Genesis I-IV
2. Virgil, Eclogues I, IV, & V; Georgics I
3. Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1624)
4. Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest (1713)
5. Jean Jacques Rousseau, from A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind (1755)
6. Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village” (1770)
7. Immanuel Kant, 71-74, from The Third Critique (of judgment) (1790)
8. John Clare, from The Village Minstrel and Other Poems (1821)
9. William Wordsworth, selections from The Prelude (1850)
10. Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” “The Pond in Winter,” from Walden (1854)
11. Charles Darwin, Chapter IV, “Natural Selection,” from The Origin of Species (1859)
12. George P. Marsh, Chapter 1, “Introducing,” from The Earth as Modified by Human Action (1874)
13. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” from The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (1949, trans. William Lovitt, 1977), and “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” from Poetry, Language, Thought (trans. Albert Hofstadter, 1971)
14. Hannah Arendt, “Labor, Work, Action,” (1964, from The Portable Hannah Arendt 2000)
15. Leo Marx, “Sleepy Hollow, 1844,” from The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964)
16. Raymond Williams, Chapters 1-5, from The Country and the City (1973); “Nature” and “Culture,” from Keywords (1976)
17. Jonathan Bate, Chapter 2, “The Economy of Nature,” from Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991)
18. Terry Gifford, “Three Kinds of Pastoral,” from Pastoral (1999)
19. Robert N. Watson, Introduction and Chapter 3, from Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance (2007)
Part 2. Ecocriticism and Modern Environmentalism
20. Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” “The Conservation Aesthetic,” “The Land Ethic,” from A Sand County Almanac (1949)
21. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
22. Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” from Science (1967)
23. Ed Abbey, “Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” from Desert Solitaire (1968)
24. Yi-Fu Tuan, Chapter 8, “Topophilia and Environment,” from Topophilia (1974)
25. Carolyn Merchant, “Nature as Female,” from The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980)
26. Bill McKibben, “The End of Nature,” from The End of Nature (1989)
27. Arne Naess, “The Deep Ecological Movement,” from Philosophical Inquiry (1986) and “The Deep Ecology ‘Eight Points’ Revisited,” from Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century (1995)
28. Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” from The Ecocriticism Reader (1996)
29. Cheryll Glotfelty, “Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” from The Ecocriticism Reader (1996)
30. Richard Kerridge, “Environmentalism and Ecocriticism,” in The Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism (2006)
31. Lawrence Buell, Introduction and Chapter 3, “Representing the Environment,” from The Environmental Imagination (1995); “Toxic Discourse,” from Critical Inquiry(1999)
32. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” from Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1995)
33. Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986), from The Ecocriticism Reader (1996)
34. Michael Pollan, “Weeds,” from Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991); “The Feedlot: Making Meat,” from Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)
35. E. O. Wilson, “Bernhardsdorp,” from Biophilia (1984)
36. Robert Bullard, Chapter 2, “Race, Class, and the Politics of Place,” from Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (1990)
37. Dana Philips, “Expostulations and Replies,” from The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America (2003)
Part 3. Futures: Posthumanism, Risk, and Global Environmental Justice
38. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth-Century,” from Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991); “Cyborgs to Companion Species: Reconfiguring Kinship in Technoscience,” from Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality (2003)
39. N. Katherine Hayles, Chapters 1 and 11, from How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999)
40. Giorgio Agamben, Part III from Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998)
41. Temple Grandin, “Animal Feelings,” from Animals in Translation (2004)
42. Carey Wolfe, “Learning from Temple Grandin: Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes after the Subject,” from What is Posthumanism? (2009)
43. Vandana Shiva, Introduction, Chapters 1 and 2, from Biopiracy (1999)
44. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” from Critical Inquiry (2009)
45. Greg Garrard, “How Queer Is Green?,” from Configurations (2010)
46. David Harvey, “Notes Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development,” from Spaces of Global Capitalism: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development(2006)
47. Ursula Heise, “Introduction” and “From the Blue Planet to Google Earth,” from Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global(2008)
48. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, “Introduction: Towards an Aesthetics of the Earth,” from Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment(2011)
49. Paul Outka, “Introduction: The Sublime and the Traumatic,” from Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance (2008)
50. Bruno Latour, Part I: “Crisis” and Part II: “Constitution,” from We Have Never Been Modern
51. Ramachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” from Environmental Ethics (1989)
52. Joan Martinez-Alier, “Currents of Environmentalism,” from The Environmentalism of the Poor (2002)
53. Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” from Collapse (2010); “Queer Ecology,” from PMLA (2010)
54. Rob Nixon, Introduction, from Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011)
55. Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” from Party Writing for Donna Haraway!
56. Michael Ziser and Julie Sze, “Climate Change, Environmental Aesthetics, and Global Environmental Justice Cultural Studies,” from Discourse (2007)
57. Ulrich Beck, Chapters 1 and 2, from Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986; trans. 1992)
58. Rebecca Solnit, “Diary” on the BP Blowout, from London Review of Books (2010)
59. Peter Van Wyck, “Waste,” from Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma, and the Nuclear Threat (2005)
WHAT IS ECOCRITICISM?
Environmental criticism, also known as ecocriticism and “green” criticism (especially in England), is a rapidly emerging field of literary study that considers the relationship that human beings have to the environment. As Cheryll Glotfelty noted in the Introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, “Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature form a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts” (viii), environmental critics explore how nature and the natural world are imagined through literary texts. As with changing perceptions of gender, such literary representations are not only generated by particular cultures, they play a significant role in generating those cultures. Thus, if we wish to understand our contemporary attitude toward the environment, its literary history is an excellent place to start. While authors such as Thoreau and Wordsworth may first come to mind in this context, literary responses to environmental concerns are as old as the issues themselves. Deforestation, air pollution, endangered species, wetland loss, animal rights, and rampant consumerism have all been appearing as controversial issues in Western literature for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years.
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.
WHAT IS THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT?
The environmental justice movement, as Richard Kerrigan notes in his very helpful essay on “Environmentalism and Ecocriticism” in Oxford’s 2006 Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, is “a collective term for the efforts of poor communities to defend themselves against the dumping of toxic waste, [as well as] the harmful contamination of their air, food, and water” (page 531). Consequently, as Kerrigan makes clear, “ecocritics responsive to environmental justice will bring questions of class, race, gender, and colonialism into the ecocritical evaluation of texts and ideas, challenging versions of environmentalism [such as first-wave ecocriticism] that seem exclusively preoccupied with the preservation of wild nature.” In this sense, the environmental justice movement, which has become very influential in the past few years, did for ecocriticism what second-wave feminist critics, such as Gayatri Spivak, did in their field in the 1980s. Just as Spivak warned that it was both naive and dangerous to consider issues relating to gender without also taking into account a range of additional factors, such as class, race, and colonialism, the environmental justice movement made clear that ecocritics also need to consider these and other factors, including gender. As one might imagine, this enormously complicates–and greatly enriches–the practice of environmental criticism. For example, in 1992 the chief economist for the World Bank, Larry Summers (who later went on to become Harvard University’s President for a time), baldly stated in an internal memo that “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country [i.e. Africa] is impeccable,” as such an arrangement would presumably allow wealthy nations to dispose of their toxic waste, while impoverished countries would receive much needed capital for accepting it. Although Summers denied that the memo was intended seriously (and later denied its authorship altogether), because it in fact reflected the World Bank’s policy, this document makes clear that environmental concerns are often entangled with factors like class, race, and colonialism. If we just read the statement made by Summers from an environmental perspective, we risk not taking these other issues into account–as well as risk being oblivious to the horrific implications of the statement.
Texts of nearly any genre and period can be read from the perspective of environmental justice. For example, in 1635, a century and a half before William Blake famously took up the subject, William Strode penned what is likely the first “Chimney-Sweeper’s Song.” Read with a concern for environmental justice, this song makes clear that the individuals of the working class performing this job suffered, as the poor generally still do today, far more from the dangers that come with burning fossil fuels than individuals of wealthier classes. (This profession actually emerged with urban air pollution, as prior to the 16th century most English homes did not have an actual fireplace with chimney, but rather a designated place on the floor for a wood fire under an opening in the roof. Because smoke from coal was too noxious for such an arrangement, residential chimneys, and chimneysweeps, became ubiquitous in England by the end of the 16th century.) Not all second-wave environmental critics are part of the environmental justice movement; however, few ecocritics today would be so naive as to not take issues of environmental justice into account.
WHICH WORKS QUALIFY AS ECOCRITICISM?
This is a difficult question. On the one hand, a work that we may at first glance take as a work of environmental criticism, such as a study of medieval bestiaries, might have little to do with actual animals and their relation to the environment, as such bestiaries are often highly allegorical works that use animals merely as stand-ins for human beings. This is not to say that such texts cannot be approached from an environmental perspective, but the fact is that this has rarely happened. Similarly, a literary critic interested in an urban landscape from a cultural, political, or economic perspective might give little thought to environmental concerns. Yet another example would be works that focus on the environment exclusively from the perspective of the history of science.
On the other hand, a work that may not deal with environmental issues directly may be an important ecocritical text. For example, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) named Robert Watson’s Back to Nature as the “best book of ecocriticism” published in 2005-2006, in spite of the fact that this book is not primarily referencing the environmental resonances that emerged with its title phrase in the 1960s and ’70s; rather, in this book, “back to nature” signals something like “back to reality” or, to be more precise in the phenomenological sense Watson intends, it means “back to ‘the things themselves.’” The thesis of Back to Nature is that in the Renaissance there emerged an anxiety over whether poets and artists could succeed at representing between the boards of a book or on canvas “the things themselves” we encounter in the environment. Consequently, this is a highly theoretical work that surprisingly does not significantly touch on important environmental issues emerging at the time, such as air pollution, deforestation, endangered species, wetland loss, and so forth. Nonetheless, Back to Nature is in fact an important ecocritical work as it fascinatingly explores how late Renaissance writers squarely dealt with the issue of how to represent the environment.
As “ecocriticism” is a bit of a freely floating signifier at this time, it is difficult to know what works of criticism fit under the rubric. It is certainly the case that some works touch on environmental issues without primarily being works of ecocriticism. Similarly, a study that is primarily cultural or economic (such s Raymond Williams’s milestone The Country and the City, which is in many respects an early work of environmental justice) may importantly draw attention to the relationship between economics and the environment. Although it may sound simplistic, perhaps the most important question to ask of a possible ecocritical work is whether it is primarily concerned with environmental issues as they principally appear in texts.
IS ECOCRITICISM NEW?
Yes and no. For as long as human beings have been writing, and reflecting on what others have written, we have been considering the relationship that we have with the natural world. This began long before Plato and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Indeed, because the concept of “nature” has been given so much thought, it is, as an early ecocritic (Raymond Williams) noted, perhaps the most difficult of all ideas to understand. In spite of the fact that nature is such an old and difficult concept, in the 1960s and ’70s a number of literary critics, including Lynn White Jr., Leo Marx, Carolyn Merchant, Keith Thomas, and Williams, began considering what literature can tell us about our relationship to the natural world, as well as our current environmental crisis. In many respects, these were the first modern environmental critics. Consequently, the term “ecocriticism” was coined in the 1970s. In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, interest in environmental criticism increased exponentially; it promises to be one of the most important fields of literary study in upcoming decades.
DO ECOCRITICS ONLY WORK WITH MODERN TEXTS?
With the growth of technological modernity, which began to accelerate in the 16th and 17th centuries, came increasing interest in the implications of technology, industrialization, urbanization, and other environmentally important topics. Because these issues began appearing regularly in early modern and modern literature, ecocritics have paid a good deal of attention to these relatively recent texts. However, literature of nearly any period can be read ecocritically. For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is nearly five thousand years old, is a fascinating text to consider as it explores how a culture came to grips with the fact that it needed to deforest vast tracts of land in order to thrive. Similarly, in a fascinating (and controversial) essay from the 1960s, Lynn White Jr. argued that the opening chapters of the Bible can tell us much about our current attitudes toward the environment. Once you get in the habit of reading “greenly,” it sometimes seems as if every book that you pick up has environmental implications!
WHAT IS ANTHROPOCENTRICISM AND ECOCENTRISM?
In 1964, in what is in some sense the prehistory of environment criticism, Lynn White Jr. boldly suggested that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion that the world has seen.” In addition to containing an enormously influential ecocritical reevaluation – which has frequently been challenged as being overly simplistic – of Christianity, this statement also makes an important assumption: that anthropocentricism, which is an ethic that makes human interests central, is problematic. Following White and others, such as Aldo Leopold, many first-wave ecocritics found the notion of putting human concerns above those of other species worrisome. In response to anthropocentricism, they offered “ecocentrism” (closely related to “biocentrism”), which does not privilege the interests of any one species, such as human beings, over any other in the biosphere. Not surprisingly, many of these early ecocritics found “wilderness” particularly appealing (as did nature writers such as Thoreau), as these places were supposedly untouched by human concerns. This in part accounts for the preference that some early ecocritics had for wilderness over “spoiled” environments. However, the second wave has been more likely to accept the fact that human beings now inhabit much of the “natural” environment of our planet. This acceptance came largely concurrently with the growth of “restoration ecology,” which is the belief that human beings need to take an active role in both restoring and preserving our natural habitat. Consequently, many ecocritics today see the anthropocentricism/ecocentrism binary as overly simplistic, believing that the two are not always in conflict.
IS ECOCRITICISM A FORM OF ACTIVISM?
It certainly can be. In fact, many, if not most, ecocritics may think of themselves as environmental activists. As environmental criticism can deepen our understanding of the relationship that we have with the environment, it can certainly be an aid to activism. For example, an environmental activist deeply devoted to the preservation of wilderness may benefit enormously (and perhaps even significantly reconsider their position on the subject, as have some individuals in the past decade) when they become aware of the literary history of the notion of “wilderness,” which is by no means a self-evident concept, but rather is a culturally constructed idea that has undergone dramatic change in the past few centuries. Moreover, in recent years, ecocritics have begun looking at the writings of environmental activists, such as Rachel Carson’s enormously important Silent Spring, in order to deepen our understanding of environmental activism itself.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF ECOCRITICISM?
In 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.