Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability
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Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability

Ecocriticism

Environmental problems appear primarily to be scientific problems. Public debates about global warming typically involve climatologists and glaciologists rather than poets or literary critics. They very quickly take on a moral character, however, when we are exhorted to switch off lights, recycle glass, or even refrain from flying to our holiday destinations. As soon as we attempt to respond to the ethical imperative, larger cultural and political issues supervene: our desire to travel sustainably runs into appalling public transport snarl-ups, while we are perpetually subjected to the blandishments, entreaties, subtle coercions, and Hobson's choices of consumerism on an obviously unsustainable scale. At this nexus of science, morality, politics, and culture is the problem of "sustainable development," a highly contested term with almost as many senses as users.

The environmental philosopher John Passmore proposed a useful distinction between essentially scientific "problems in ecology," which may be addressed and even resolved through experimental investigation and technological change, and the much broader category of "ecological problems," which are "features of our society, arising out of our dealings with nature, from which we should like to free ourselves, and which we do not regard as inevitable consequences of what is good in society" (1974: 44). The latter, while they certainly involve scientific hypotheses and evidence, are essentially cultural in character. Pollution, for example, clearly involves problems [End Page 359] in ecology: toxicological analysis, ecological impact assessment, and technological amelioration. But the definition of what counts as pollution is a cultural question that depends as much on shifting values and priorities as on actual emissions of toxic substances (see Garrard 2004: 1–14). Depending on one's point of view, loud music and the orange glow of streetlights are just as surely pollutants as CFCs, DDT, or—most recently—carbon dioxide.

Analysis of the cultural origins and responses to environmental crisis is called "ecocriticism" by most of its practitioners.1 Cheryl Glotfelty (1996: xix), a founder of the ecocritical movement in the United States, asks: "What then is ecocriticism? Simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies." As this definition suggests, ecocritics see themselves as activist-critics, although the emphasis in the past tended to be individualistic and ethical, as opposed to the systemic or political approach characteristic of feminism or (especially) Marxism.2 Two points that Glotfelty's helpful analogy tends to obscure is that ecocriticism hopes to draw a certain moral authority from science—which may turn out to be a problematic strategy, for reasons discussed below—and, furthermore, environmentalism is generally perceived as a politics of self-denial rather than liberation. It may therefore lack the emancipatory appeal that feminism in particular has had. The apocalyptic fear that environmentalism can mobilize tends to produce either appalled apathy or hardened insouciance in the students we spoke to, as detailed in "Teaching Education for Sustainable Development" below.

Early contributions to ecocriticism may be seen, in retrospect, in Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (1964) and Raymond Williams's The Country and the City (1973), both seminal contributions to the criticism of pastoral literature in America and the United Kingdom, respectively. Williams's environmentalist commitments became clearer in later work such as Resources of Hope (1989), but it was in the early 1990s that the first wave of ecocriticism proper was launched: Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology, a study of Wordsworth, was published in 1991, and Lawrence Buell's reevaluation of Thoreau, The Environmental Imagination, followed in 1995. The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment was formed from a base in the study of western American literature in 1992, holding biennial conferences that grew rapidly in scale in the remainder of the decade. Early research [End Page 360] focused on Romantic and pastoral literature, with a special emphasis among American critics on the great tradition of nonfictional nature writing, from John Muir...