Global Warming, Globalization, and Environmental Literary History

Global Warming, Globalization, and Environmental Literary History

Lance Newman

Lance Newman suggests Ecocriticism shares a problematic assumption with “green” capitalism: the idea “a livable future will result from billions of individual ethical decisions.” Here he traces a burgeoning critical alternative that investigates the historical connections between global capital and the shifting structures of the “ecosocial.”

Brian Lennon:

Ursula K. Heise makes a consonant argument in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford UP, 2008), which looks at (among other dimensions of the evolution of ecocritical thought itself) the dynamic tension through which the globalist-environmentalist thought of the 1960s-70s propelled itself forward in tension with the U.S American line of antimodernist environmentalist and ecocritical localism.

Brian Lennon:

Still, all this might require imagining a methodology which, beyond marking positive connective relations between positive (visible) figures (Thoreau and Commandante Marcos), however far flung from each other, sees in “deep time” (the cue taken from Dimock’s work, below) the figure of erasure that any insurgent self-critical project of Euro-Atlantic modernity itself—such as a renovated ecocritical or any other criticism—must also face.

Brian Lennon:

There is perhaps nothing in either R/romanticism or neo-Romanticism that requires identification with critical naivete and ignorance, here, or with necessarily less theoretically sophisticated approaches than the alternatives to be proposed in what follows.


Last year’s announcement of Al Gore’s Nobel Prize kicked off a flurry of media coverage of climate change. As many observers noted at the time, Gore’s win coincided neatly with the run-up to the December 2007 Bali talks, where scientists and diplomats from around the world attempted to frame a new global agreement limiting CO2 emissions. While it was billed as a showcase of international civil society’s determination to solve the environmental crisis, what Bali really spotlighted was the illogic of Natural Capitalism. This reformist theory’s proponents argue that capitalism can be radically transformed into a clean, sustainable, equitable world system through a combination of creative entrepreneurship and coordinated guidance of national and international markets. In his opening remarks, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon argued that we are entering a new historical era:

We have witnessed three economic transformations in the past century. First came the Industrial Revolution, then the technology revolution, then our modern era of globalization. We stand at the threshold of another great change: the age of green economics. Handled correctly, our fight against global warming could set the stage for an eco-friendly transformation of the global economy - one that spurs growth and development rather than crimps it, as many nations fear.

According to this way of thinking, capitalism can solve the crisis it has created by investing in alternative energy on a planetary scale, thereby generating millions of green jobs and trillions of dollars in new profits.

But the main things that stalled the Bali talks were 1) the impossibility of achieving the radical changes demanded by climate scientists, given constraints like private property rights in clean energy technologies and the unevenness of global development and 2) the intransigent self-interest of world’s dominant imperial power. The result, not surprisingly, was more of the same evasiveness and irresolution that defined the Kyoto protocols. In other words, what Bali reflected most clearly is that the globalization of environmental crisis is a direct outcome of the globalization of capitalism. The international market economy has transformed planetary natural systems, such as the atmosphere. These changes have, in turn, radically disrupted whole societies, rearranging their most basic energetic processes and further straining the geopolitical relationships between them. Rather than producing a new global energy order, Bali will likely mark the beginning of a period of growing environmental instability during which we will see simultaneously 1) further intensification of hydrocarbon imperialism as Big Oil, faced with increasingly limited supply, scrambles to defend its profits during a global recession, and 2) the emergence of the kind of green energy imperialism Thomas Friedman ghoulishly demands in his most recent and most cynical book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

In this dire context, talking about environmental literary history may seem silly, even absurd. But that is only because what is still the dominant theoretical paradigm, Ecocriticism, shares so much ideological common ground with the environmental movement that it represents within the halls of the academy. The keystone warrant of both Ecocriticism and Natural Capitalism is that a livable future will result from billions of individual ethical decisions. Charles Reich put it this way in his influential 1970 book, The Greening of America:

There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. … Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty - a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land (2).

Of course, Reich is rejecting the Marxist tradition, with its emphasis on deliberate, collective, revolutionary change, favoring instead a more “organic” model, a drop-in-the-bucket philosophy of social evolution with roots in Emersonian liberalism.

But the incommensurability of the problems we face and Natural Capitalism’s seemingly pragmatic response gets more glaring by the day. For instance, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, does a great job of presenting all the latest scientific facts and figures about global warming, and it gives jaw-dropping examples of the potential consequences of inaction. Then, in its last five minutes, the film addresses its audience directly, taking up the question of what is to be done. Its answer is that viewers should reduce their personal carbon emissions by carpooling, checking their tire pressure, buying low-wattage light bulbs, changing the settings on their thermostats, and so on. This conclusion falls horribly flat after the film has spent so much time showing that climate change is a global problem, driven by impersonal socio-economic forces like the hydrocarbon economy and population growth. Likewise, Ecocriticism has accomplished a tremendously important task in the last two decades by demonstrating that we can learn a great deal about the planet and our relationship with it by studying representations of nature in literature. But when ecocritics suggest that if enough people will just read Walden or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, then Earth’s fever will break, it’s a little like telling people to buy umbrellas to ward off Katrina. It reveals a profound ignorance of the total environments in which the world’s workers and poor struggle to survive.

Despite the continuing dominance of ecocritical neo-Romanticism, a small group of scholars has been working steadily to develop more theoretically sophisticated approaches to the environmental history of literature and culture. They are a diverse group and cannot be said to constitute a definite sub-discipline, but in surveying their work, I’ve identified several points of agreement that I’d like to synthesize into a theoretical framework for a redefined critical practice in which we tell environmental histories of literature and culture rooted in the world’s archives, and we do so with the specific goal of refuting the newly dominant ideology of Natural Capitalism.

1) Genres and Places: Ecocritical methods and concerns not only can, but should be applied to genres other than the American tradition of non-fiction nature writing, with its focus on pristine wilderness. As Karla Armbruster and Kathleen Wallace argue, it is time to move beyond nature writing and ask ecocritical questions about materials scattered across the full field of both contemporary and historical textual production. We must shift our focus, in other words, from parables of backwoods piety to texts that explore and embody the dynamic interactions between evolving human societies and their continually changing environments. Some of the most important work yet to be done will examine what Lee Rozelle, in an unpublished essay, calls the “ecological potential of post-natural landscapes” like toxic waste dumps, urban cores, sacrifice zones, and even suburbs.

2) Internationalism and Politics: Ecocriticism has for too long remained a project of the imperial center, naturalizing an individualized western white male subject who is the hero of a drama of moral awakening. When ecocritics have examined non-white literatures, they have too often relied on orientalist tropes, making invidious distinctions between Eurocentric modernity and exoticizing accounts of Eastern or indigenous cultures, distinctions that serve as the foundations for self-aggrandizing environmentalist epiphanies (e.g., the usually unexamined assumption that Native American cultures “were” inherently ecocentric, an assumption that is really no more than a negative image of an equally totalizing supposition about Euro-American modernity). In order to correct this myopia, we need to move beyond Ecocriticism’s moralistic and reductive critique of anthropocentricity, developing instead an ideological critique of instrumentalism that shows how the parallel otherings of nature and people serve as tools of imperial conquest. Moreover, we need to shed the provincialism that marked Ecocriticism’s beginnings and develop a genuinely international perspective that engages systematically with the best of post-colonial theory.

3) Interdisciplinarity and Science: Ecocritics have long argued that environmental literature can only be understood in the context of reliable scientific information about the natural systems under representation. Too often, though, this has amounted to little more than imprecisely enlisting ecological concepts in order to praise an environmental author’s detailed awareness of pristine nature’s complexity and interactivity. We need, as Dana Phillips has argued, to go beyond selective engagement with outdated ecological models. Instead, we should situate our readings in the context of a more truly scientific environmental history of the rise and spread of capitalism across the globe, adding to this broadly interdisciplinary project the powerful evidence of the literary texts and cultural practices we study. What those texts can show us is that human societies are not unnatural intruders in nature. They are now and always have been historically specific configurations of economic power that are integrated into the evolving environments in which they labor for sustenance, both changing nature and being changed by it in an ongoing dialectical process.

4) Nature and Language: This insight should also serve as the starting point for a new understanding of the relations between nature, language, literature, and culture. We need to recognize that Ecocriticism’s adoption of mimesis and ecocentricity as aesthetic and moral standards for judging literary representations of nature constitutes a totalizing reaction against the equally totalizing linguistic constructionism that dominated literary studies in general through the last decades of the last century. Rather than reflecting or transcending nature, our languages work in and on it. A fully ecological theory of language and culture would resolve the ancient and exhausted nature/culture debate. Language is neither a mirror of nature nor a self-enclosed field of signification; it is a conjunctural and collaborative tool that social animals use to organize their collective labor in and on nature. And while it often responds to internal imperatives, it is always subject to the test of reality. What should engage our attention, then, as we assess literary representations of nature is neither their seeming accuracy nor their purported status as self-enclosed discourses, but their rhetorical and ideological functions in specific historical circumstances.

As this sketch of a synthesis and the accompanying annotated bibliography show, we’ve made a good start on the job of theorizing a new ecocritical project, but it’s time now to pick up the pace. Taken together, what these four points of tacit agreement suggest is that our work must become comparative on a global scale, must combine the human and natural sciences into an integrated environmental history of capitalism as it has spread across the planet, and must result in explicit political and ideological assessments of the rhetorics of nature that have both empowered and resisted that long process. I’d like to suggest three questions that should direct our work as we move forward: 1) We should begin by asking how human societies’ material relationships with their home ecosystems have been changed by the long transition from feudalism to capitalism and then by the successive stages of capitalism. We can identify the broad trends: enclosure and privatization of the global commons, depletion and pollution of natural systems, urbanization and alienation from nature, resource imperialism and environmental racism, and so on. But we can then also ask 2) How these ecosocial changes have been reflected in, mediated by, authorized by, and/or critiqued by the oral and print traditions of the world’s tribal and national cultures, as well as by the increasingly international cultures of film, broadcast, and new media. Finally, we should go on to ask 3) what environmental histories of literature and culture can teach us about how to convoke new communities of resistance in the present.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to speculate for a moment about how this way of imagining our collective work might move my own scholarship forward, pushing me to expand my horizons beyond my own work in Transatlantic Romanticism. Taking a cue from Wai Chee Dimock’s recent argument in favor of reading literature across deep time, I’d like to begin making connections between John Clare, Henry Thoreau, and such 20th-century figures as Wangari Matthai and Commandante Marcos, all of whom protest the privatization of communal land and the industrialization of agriculture and resource extraction for profit. I’d like to read Olaudah Equiano’s narrative alongside Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies and the writings of figures like Chico Mendes and Ken Saro Wiwa, all of whom interrogate the racism that positions them and their labor as natural resources awaiting rational development by the forces of commercial empires. I’d like to explore the parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria, Lydia Maria Child’s Letters from New York, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, and other texts that represent cities as grey dystopias where alienation from nature leaves displaced women vulnerable to the violence of dislocated and desperate men. In doing so, I’d like to investigate how women have fought back rhetorically against their segregation into the sweatshop or the reproductive hothouse of the urban home.

In other words, I’d like the activist goal of my work to be assessing the rhetorical power of the varied tropes and strategies that have emerged in response to modernity’s radical transformation of our world. Throughout, I’d like to showcase texts that deliver powerful holistic critiques of capitalist development, spotlighting its multiple and connected contradictions: its world-historic material productivity and environmental destructiveness, its simultaneous liberation and repression of human creativity, the ingenuity and irrationality engendered by competition, and the simultaneous utopianism and cynicism of its politics and ideology. Work like this would necessarily collapse the artificial boundaries and binaries that have prevented us from moving decisively beyond our initial focus on ecocentricity and mimesis in the writings of America’s green saints, allowing us to finally integrate environmental literary history into the broad contemporary project of radical cultural studies. Work like this would help earn the environmental humanities what they deserve, a central place in the universities of the 21st Century, which will be the warmest century since the world’s oldest continuously operating university, Al-Karaouine, was founded in Fes, Morocco, in 859 A.D.

A Selected Bibliography of Environmental Literary Theory since 2000

Adamson, Joni. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. In this critique of the Eurocentricism of early ecocriticism’s neglect of issues of environmental justice and of its exoticizing representations of Native American relations with nature, Adamson begins with a sharp reading of Edward Abbey’s representational emptying of Southwestern wilderness, then turns to texts by Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, and Leslie Marmon Silko, showing how they contest Euro-American “nature talk,” exposing its complicity in the environmental racism that has transformed reservations into toxic waste dumps and rural slums.

Armbruster, Karla, and Kathleen R. Wallace, eds. Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism). Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001. The contributors to this pathbreaking volume irrevocably break beyond the field’s initial myopic focus on American nonfiction nature writing, producing ecocritical readings of texts as divergent as the Bible, Chaucer, Milton, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, novels by Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, and examples of science fiction, film, and new media. Cheryl Glotfelty, one of ecocriticism’s founders, contributes a spotlight article that reads a textualized physical space, the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.

Branch, Michael, and Scott Slovic, eds. The ISLE Reader: Ecocriticism, 1993-2003. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003. A perhaps necessarily miscellaneous collection of articles from the first ten years of the discipline’s founding journal, with contents selected to demonstrate the interdisciplinarity and eclecticism of the work being conducted under the rubric “ecocriticism.” The contents defy categorization, despite a table of contents that divides them into sections titled, “Re-evaluations,” “Reaching Out to Other Disciplines,” and “New Theoretical and Practical Paradigms.” While they make no single unified statement, these essays do document the discipline’s evolution, showing how it has left behind the parochialism of its founding moment, moving quickly towards a more theoretically engaged contemporary practice.

Buell, Lawrence. Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Blackwell Manifestos). Chicago: Blackwell, 2005. In his contribution to the Blackwell Manifestos series, Buell narrates the emergence of first-wave ecocriticism and the beginnings of its evolution into a more theoretically sophisticated second wave. He then explores three keywords of the movement -representation, place, and commitment–sketching out pragmatic, mediating positions in the debates over them. The book concludes with a brief discussion of the organizational and professional challenges facing ecocriticism as a scholarly movement.

Buell, Lawrence. Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003. If The Environmental Imagination delivered both the culminating statement of first-wave ecocriticism and a spur to disciplinary progress, Buell’s second book is one of the most important second-wave texts, exploring the implications of the fact that “the nature-culture distinction is both a distorting and a necessary lens through which to view the modernization process” (5). Buell sets out “to put ‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes, the landscapes of exurbia and industrialization, in conversation with each other” in chapters focused on surprising pairs of writers, discussing for instance John Muir alongside Jane Addams and then Wendell Berry alongside Gwendolyn Brooks. Buell ranges widely over the terrain of contemporary ecocriticism, discussing toxic discourse, place attachment, reinhabitation of the city, environmental determinism, localist land ethics, globalism, animal rights, and bioregionalism.

Coupe, Lawrence. The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2000. A seemingly baggy, ecumenical anthology that nevertheless makes a powerful theoretical intervention, recasting ecocriticism as long tradition of inquiry that begins with William Blake and William Wordsworth, then evolves through John Ruskin, William Morris, D. H. Lawrence, the Frankfurt School, F. R. Leavis, Claude Levi-Strauss, Raymond Williams, Donna Haraway, Kate Soper, Jonathan Bate, and Lawrence Buell, to become an area of sustained focus within the broader field of contemporary Cultural Studies. Extremely helpful both as a classroom resource and a thought experiment.

Cilano, Cara and Elizabeth DeLoughery, “Against Authenticity: Global Knowledges and Postcolonial Ecocriticism.” ISLE 14.1 (Winter 2007), 71-87. This article is the first in a group of five articles - a special collection within an issue of ISLE - that accomplishes the first sustained articulation of ecocriticism with post-colonial theory. Cilano and DeLoughery observe that when ecocritics have looked overseas, too often their work replicates “the consumptive drive of empire” and it is as though “the world’s texts are rendered open to the Anglo-American critic’s piercing view” (77). They go on to call for the internationalization of what has for too long been an insular discipline of the imperial center, and they “suggest that postcolonial topics should not be viewed as entirely new directions in the field of ecocriticism as much as they represent increased visibility to a western-based audience who is rethinking the limitations of U.S. national frameworks that had occluded other perspectives” (73).

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. In this introduction to the contemporary concerns of the field, published as part of the Routledge series, The New Critical Idiom, Garrard aims to “balance a constructionist perspective with the privileged claims to literal truth made by ecology” (10) as he explores the rhetorical functions of eight key tropes in environmental rhetoric: pollution, positions, pastoral, wilderness, apocalypse, dwelling, animals, and futures. If Buell’s The Environmental Imagination was the defining statement of the 1990s, then Garrard’s synthetic and comprehensive book is the key document of the 2000s, quietly rearticulating the once moralistic ecocritical project as a task of political and cultural critique.

Mazel, David. American Literary Environmentalism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. This wide-ranging Foucauldian genealogy of the discourse of environmentalism in the United States offers a powerful antidote to the idealist historicism of the Roderick Nash and Max Oelschlaeger school. Mazel argues that “the environment itself is a myth, a ‘grand fable,’ a complex fiction, a widely shared, occasionally contested, and literally ubiquitous narrative…within which and by means of which particular, historically contingent forms of agency and subjectivity are constituted” (xii-xiii). Mazel focuses on the way that the dominant focus within environmentalism (and ecocriticism) on pure nature and pristine wilderness undermines the movement’s “most progressive aims by obscuring and enabling the economic, political, and historical relationships at the root of both environmental destruction and human oppression” (xiii). Includes readings of National Park Service documents, Puritan settler narratives, Romantic exploration narratives, Yosemite, and Central Park.

Murphy, Patrick. Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000. The founding president of ASLE, Murphy urges ecocritics to move beyond their initial focus on Euro-American nonfiction nature writing to the broader field of nature-oriented poetry and fiction as well as various forms of environmental writing that focus on human impacts on the land. He calls for ongoing investigation of multicultural American literature and world literature from ecofeminist and postmodernist theoretical perspectives. Includes substantial readings of texts by Pat Mora, Ishimure Michiko, Linda Hogan, and Karen Tei Yamashita, among others.

Myers, Jeffrey. Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Myers envisions an interdisciplinary effort to use “critical race studies and ecocriticism” to “make ecology a site upon which an egalitarian racial paradigm can be grounded” (8). He critiques the alienation of the individual from nature that he sees in Jefferson, Thoreau, and other Euro-American authors, arguing that this “human/nature duality [lies] at the root of ecological and racial hegemony.” He goes on to celebrate the antiracist, egalitarian ecocentricity that he sees in the works of such writers as Charles Chesnutt, Zitkala-Sa, and Eddy Harris.

Outka, Paul. Race and Nature: From Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Palgrave, 2008. In this study of the intersection between the discourses of race and nature in antebellum through early modernist American literature, Outka critiques ecocriticism from the perspective of critical race theory and whiteness studies. Reading texts by such figures as Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Jacobs, Chesnutt, Muir, Toomer, and Hurston, Outka shows that “to form and maintain two landscapes and two races - one endlessly exploitable, traumatized, and enslaved, and one unspoiled, sublime, ‘outside’ of race, culture, and history, eternally free - out of a single place and a single species necessitates a wide-ranging and ever-renewed ideological police action” (9). According to Outka, both black and white racial identities are naturalized by association with varying pastoral and sublime landscapes and practices.

Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A brilliantly skeptical, if vituperative, critique of the way that ecocritics and nature writers have adapted long-since superseded ecological ideas (succession, climax, connectivity, etc.) to perpetuate neo-Romantic tropes of mystical experience in the face of nature. Dana argues that ecocriticism has become mired in absurd attempts to rehabilitate mimesis as a critical standard, and advocates what he considers a pragmatic approach to both environmental and literary questions. Mainly a negative critique, with only cursory attempts at framing an alternative.

Rosendale, Stephen, ed. The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory, and the Environment. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. This collection confronts the field’s early theoretical insularity, demonstrating the value of engagement with established literary theories and practices. The contributors argue for expanding the canon through textual archaeology and translation, engaging New Historicist theories and practices, and reading urban literature and touristic narratives. They call for adaptation of insights from psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theory to complicate the ecocritical emphasis on the ecocentric subject, especially through investigation of differences according to categories of race, gender, class, and embodiment. A final group of essays explores the implications of the discourse of the sublime, with its emphasis on unrepresentability, for ecocritical theories of mimesis in representations of nature.

Tallmadge, John and Henry Harrington, eds. Reading Under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000. This uneven but important collection of essays, all of which began as presentations at the 1997 ASLE conference, documents the first tentative steps of early ecocritics on their “long migration away from foundational theory toward the exciting and varied terrain of actual practice” (x). The essays are grouped by topic: contemporary alternatives to Romantic moral geography, gender and nature, race and nature, ecopoetry, critiques of eco-egoism, and alternatives to mimetic theories of language and representation. Two especially interesting items are George Hart’s reading of Larry Eigner and Matthew Cooperman’s reading of Charles Olson.