- Guest Editors’ Introduction: The Shoulders We Stand On: An Introduction to Ethnicity and Ecocriticism
In the wake of large-scale events such as Hurricane Katrina, there is growing consensus that social justice and environmental issues are linked. The 11th Hour, a recent documentary narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, foregrounds images of Lower Ninth Ward residents standing on their roofs waiting for rescue and emphasizes United Nations estimates that ignoring the growing climate change crisis could result in over 150 million “environmental refugees” and a rapidly increasing extinction rate by the middle of this century. But for decades before Katrina, there were profound tensions between the concerns of the activists, scholars, and leaders of the mainstream conservation- and wilderness-oriented environmental movement and those of the US Environmental Justice movement, who argued that social and environmental issues could not be separated. These tensions were dramatically illustrated in 2004 when Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus released “The Death of Environmentalism,” a report addressing the environmental movement’s failure to achieve real success on the issue of global warming. Shellenberger and Nordhaus stated that the “children of the environmental movement must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us” (6). The shoulders they claimed to stand on were those of John Muir, who campaigned at the end of the nineteenth century to establish Yosemite National Park. In a response titled “The Soul of Environmentalism,” activists and scholars of the Environmental Justice Movement saluted the Shellenberger and Nordhaus report for instigating the debate over global warming, but noted that many environmentalists of color choose not to stand on the shoulders of Muir since he developed his conservation ethic during the movement to abolish slavery and in the midst of the expropriation of Native American lands for the creation of national parks, yet never addressed these two great racial struggles (19). For over twenty years, the Environmental Justice movement offered a home to activists who were not “comfortable separating their concern over the state of the planet from their concerns about social justice” (Gelobter 20). The roots of the environmental movement [End Page 5] can be traced back to the abolition movement, which revealed the connections between colonization, conquest, slavery, resource exploitation, and capital, and many of the most successful strategies of early environmentalism were borrowed from the abolition, civil rights, and women’s movements and American Indian Land Claims lawsuits. For this reason, any history of environmentalism that did not include W. E. B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., or César Chávez, among others, would need to be revised.
In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), Lawrence Buell writes about the powerful impact that the Environmental Justice movement has had in the field of literary environmentalism, often described as “ecocriticism” and sometimes as “environmental criticism.” Buell describes what he terms a “first” and “second wave” of environmental literary criticism (17). “First wave” environmental criticism concerns itself with conventional nature writing and conservation-oriented environmentalism, which traces its origins to the work of Emerson, Muir, and Thoreau. “Second wave” environmental criticism redefines the environment in terms of the seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice and increasingly concerns itself with “issues of environmental welfare and equity” and “critique of the demographic homogeneity of traditional environmental movements and academic environmental studies” (Buell 112, 115).1
The decades-old tensions reflected in “The Death of Environmentalism” and “The Soul of Environmentalism” are also present in more recent first-and second-wave environmental criticism, as the intersection between ethnicity and environment has become a focal point of a flood of recent books and articles. Cheryll Glotfelty pointed to this tension in 1996 when she asked implicitly, “Where are the other voices?” In her introduction to the ground-breaking The Ecocriticism Reader, which helped launch the field, she observed, “Ecocriticism has been predominantly a white movement. It will become a multi-ethnic movement when stronger connections are made between the environment and issues of social justice, and when a diversity of voices are encouraged to contribute to the discussion” (xxv). This special issue of MELUS starts from the premise that there has...