- The Metaphysics of Ecology in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping
Marilynne Robinson is an intriguing case for ecocriticism. She is most well known for her novels, Housekeeping, Gilead (the 2005 winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and most recently Home. But she is also the author of the 1999 book Mother Country, an essay that provides a trenchant and relentless critique of England's wholesale dumping of nuclear waste into the sea at the Sellafield Nuclear Processing Plant, a fact of incomparable environmental and social devastation. Although Robinson has written a small number of highly regarded works, this book remains surprisingly little known in the United States and in England.1 This is perhaps because the book challenges a whole host of facile assumptions about what it means to be moral politically, environmentally, and socially. Robinson describes a long British history of cultivating an official morality toward the poor that has depended on their continued existence and suffering. Her diagnosis is that this is not merely a case of a divided nation, but rather of a kind of strange co-dependence between a social ill and its supposed political cures, what she calls "moral aphasia" (Mother Country 193). What she questions is why "our education produces an acculturated blindness which precludes our taking in available, unambiguous information if it is contrary to our assumptions" (27). In addition to uncovering the considerable environmental sins of England, she remains focused on the greater moral responsibility to "break down some of the structures of thinking that make reality invisible to us" (32). [End Page 496]
Mother Country and the Failures of Environmentalism
England's welfare state systematically creates poverty and suffering that it then routinely decries, so it is not surprising for Robinson that it also elevates the art of pastoral praise and environmentalist rhetoric while endangering rural beauty and the commons of the ocean itself by dumping plutonium waste with impunity. Underscoring the irrationality of this scenario, she writes:
For thirty years a pool of plutonium has been forming off the English coast. The tide is highly radioactive and will become more so. The government inspects the plant and approves the emissions from it. The government considers the plant poorly maintained and managed, and is bringing pressure to lower emissions. The government is expanding the plant and developing another one in Scotland. Foreign wastes enter the country at Dover and are transported by rail through London.(209)
Sympathetic to Marx's deep economic criticisms of capitalism, Robinson offers what might be considered a morally inflected criticism of the "refinements of life made possible by privacy and amenity" that have rendered degradation invisible within the public sphere of official memory and morality (89). Environmental degradation, for Robinson, is a profound moral failing that ignores the well-being of the whole of the social network. That England is now polluting its own backyard on an inconceivable scale is merely the coming home to roost of a logic of social erasure that began with enclosure, as Raymond Williams has argued, and, as Robert P. Marzec has additionally suggested, led English colonialism outward toward resources where the visibility of the hand of exploitation could be disguised in the language of Western refinement.2
Robinson's book is strongly critical of Greenpeace because of its duplicitous actions in England of looking the other way, and this is perhaps one reason why environmental thinkers have kept her at an arm's distance. The book exposes that Greenpeace claimed it was able to "score a ban" against Sellafield's dumping of nuclear waste and suppressed information that suggested its own ineffectiveness in banning one of the most devastating environmental problems in Europe ("Radiant" 3). Greenpeace successfully sued Robinson for libel, which in British law means that a text deemed libelous cannot be mentioned in public, reviewed, or sold. The net result of Greenpeace's defensiveness was that the book essentially disappeared in England, where it was a lone voice of criticism of this practice. In a recent interview Robinson notes: [End Page 497]
I'm profoundly critical of the environmental movement. Not because I have any problem with the idea that the environment needs to be rescued...