Ecocriticism: An Essay

Ecocriticism : Ecocriticism is the study of literature and environment from an interdisciplinary point of view where all sciences come together to analyze the environment and brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of the contemporary environmental situation. Ecocriticism was officially heralded by the publication of two seminal works, both published in the mid-1990s: The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, and The Environmental Imagination, by Lawrence Buell.


Ecocriticism investigates the relation between humans and the natural world in literature. It deals with how environmental issues, cultural issues concerning the environment and attitudes towards nature are presented and analyzed. One of the main goals in ecocriticism is to study how individuals in society behave and react in relation to nature and ecological aspects. This form of criticism has gained a lot of attention during recent years due to higher social emphasis on environmental destruction and increased technology. It is hence a fresh way of analyzing and interpreting literary texts, which brings new dimensions to the field of literary and theoritical studies. Ecocriticism is an intentionally broad approach that is known by a number of other designations, including “green (cultural) studies”, “ecopoetics”, and “environmental literary criticism.”

Western thought has often held a more or less utilitarian attitude to nature —nature is for serving human needs. However, after the eighteenth century, there emerged many voices that demanded a revaluation of the relationship between man and environment, and man’s view of nature. Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher, developed the notion of “Deep Ecology” which emphasizes the basic interconnectedness of all life forms and natural features, and presents a symbiotic and holistic world-view rather than an anthropocentric one.

Earlier theories in literary and cultural studies focussed on issue of class, race, gender, region are criteria and “subjects”of critical analysis. The late twentieth century has woken up to a new threat: ecological disaster. The most important environmental problems that humankind faces as a whole are: nuclear war, depletion of valuable natural resources, population explosion, proliferation of exploitative technologies, conquest of space preliminary to using it as a garbage dump, pollution, extinction of species (though not a human problem) among others. In such a context, literary and cultural theory has begun to address the issue as a part of academic discourse. Numerous green movements have sprung up all over the world, and some have even gained representations in the governments.

Large scale debates over “dumping,” North versus South environmentalism (the necessary differences between the en-vironmentalism of the developed and technologically advanced richer nations—the North, and the poorer, subsistence environmentalism of the developing or “Third World”—the South). Donald Worster‘s Nature’s Economy (1977) became a textbook for the study of ecological thought down the ages. The historian Arnold Toynbee recorded the effect of human civilisation upon the land and nature in his monumental, Mankind and Mother Earth (1976). Environmental issues and landscape use were also the concern of the Annales School of historians, especially Braudel and Febvre. The work of environmental historians has been pathbreaking too. Rich-ard Grove et al’s massive Nature and the Orient (1998), David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha’s Nature, Culture, Imperialism (1995) have been significant work in the environmental history of India and Southeast Asia. Ramachandra Guha is of course the most important environmental historian writing from India today.

Various versions of environmentalism developed. Deep ecology and ecofeminism were two important developments. These new ideas questioned the notion of “development” and “modernity,” and argued that all Western notions in science, philosophy, politics were “anthropocentric” (human-centred) and “androcentric”(Man/male-centred). Technology, medical science with its animal testing, the cosmetic and fashion industry all came in for scrutiny from environmentalists. Deep ecology, for instance, stressed on a “biocentric” view (as seen in the name of the environmentalist group, “Earth First!!”).

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.

Ecocriticism is the result of this new consciousness: that very soon, there will be nothing beautiful (or safe) in nature to discourse about, unless we are very careful.

Ecocritics ask questions such as:

(1) How is nature represented in the novel/poem/play ?

(2) What role does the physical-geographical setting play in the structure of the novel?

(3) How do our metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it? That is, what is the link between pedagogic or creative practice and actual political, sociocultural and ethical behaviour towards the land and other non-human life forms?

(4) How is science —in the form of genetic engineering, technologies of reproduction, sexualities—open to critical scrutiny terms of the effects of science upon the land?

The essential assumptions, ideas and methods of ecocritics:

(1) Ecocritics believe that human culture is related to the physical world.

(2) Ecocriticism assumes that all life forms are interlinked. Ecocriticism expands the notion of “the world” to include the entire ecosphere.

(3) Moreover, there is a definite link between nature and culture, where the literary treatment, representation and “thematisation” of land and nature influence actions on the land.

(4) Joseph Meeker in an early work, The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1972) used the term “literary ecology” to refer to “the study of biological themes and relationships which appear in literary works. It is simultaneously an attempt to discover what roles have been played by literature in the ecology of the human species.”

(5) William Rueckert is believed to have coined the term “ecocriticism” in 1978, which he defines as “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature.”

Source: Literary Theory Today,Pramod K Nair

Read it also:  Postcolonialism

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