- Greening English:Recent Introductions to Ecocriticism
In the last two years, the first book-length introductions to the growing field of environmental literary and cultural studies have appeared: Greg Garrard's Ecocriticism (2004) and Lawrence Buell's The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (2005). 1 Both of these works were published in book series designed to introduce academics, students, and parts of the broader public to key concepts in recent cultural theory and philosophy, Routledge's New Critical Idiom series and the Blackwell Manifestos. The decision by prominent publishers to include a survey of ecocriticism in their lineup of important concepts being discussed in the humanities reflects a significant change in the status of environmental approaches in the expanding matrix of literary and cultural studies. Broadly speaking, it signals the first step toward the institutional and intellectual integration of ecocriticism—its transition from an emergent and marginal field to a fully recognized research area. The fact that [End Page 289] many faculty members as well as students in the humanities still need a handbook on ecocriticism to familiarize themselves with its most important contributions also means that this integration is a long way from completion and may yet fall short; nevertheless, introductions such as Garrard's and Buell's establish a highly visible interface between the concerns of those engaged in ecocriticism and those working in other fields in cultural studies that will make the environmental perspective harder to ignore in the future than it has been in the years since ecocriticism's inception in the early 1990s.
Despite its recent emergence—ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, was founded in 1993—ecocriticism is not an easy field to summarize. In just over a decade, it has proliferated from its beginnings in a relatively small canon of primarily North American nature writers studied with mostly conventional literary methods into a highly diverse field encompassing a wide variety of genres and authors in the United States and abroad, as well as the full spectrum of cultural theories and methodologies, from Marxism and poststructuralism to feminism, critical race theory, queer studies, and cognitive science. But its diversity has also unfolded in ecocritics' association with varying political projects that are usually lumped together under the label of "the environmentalist movement," from conservation and restoration movements mostly focused on the welfare of ecosystems and nonhuman species all the way to the environmental justice movement, whose activism centers on the unequal share of different population groups in ecological resources and risks.
Obviously, such diversity in the objects and methods of study as well as the political projects they are associated with also characterizes other research areas including, for example, feminist literary studies, to which both Garrard and Buell compare ecocriticism (Garrard 3; Buell 7). Yet neither of them comments on ecocriticism's extraordinary belatedness in this respect: while other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—feminism, civil rights, gay liberation—transformed cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s, environmentalism's impact did not make itself felt until the late 1980s and early 1990s and has become visible as an institutional presence only since the turn of the millennium. Buell, in his first [End Page 290] chapter, gives a more complete account of the intellectual emergence of ecocritical concerns than Garrard, who links ecocriticism to the origins of modern environmentalist rhetoric in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) without commenting in detail on the slow translation of environmental concerns into literary studies. Buell does mention the dominant influence of poststructuralism and its persistent indictment of claims about nature and biology as mere ideological legitimations for specific historical and cultural perspectives as one of the factors that impeded discussion of the reality of environmental threats in literary studies. But he does not comment on the effect of this delay, which differentiates ecocriticism rather sharply from feminist or critical race theory: while the latter two areas co-evolved over several decades with the...