- A Response to Ursula Heise
In "Ecocriticism and the Transnational Turn in American Studies," Ursula Heise picks up where she leaves off in her 2006 PMLA article on the role of science in the emergence of ecocriticism. At the end of that piece, Heise writes: "Precisely because ecocritical work encompasses many literatures and cultures, it would also stand to gain from a closer engagement with theories of globalization" ("Hitchhiker's" 513). In her contribution to American Literary History, Heise answers that call by attending to literature about globalization, families, and the environment, describing some of the problems that arise from equating biodiversity with cultural diversity in a transnational context.
One way to frame Heise's main points in her ALH article is to think of her as concerned with various instances of alignment. Heise begins the article by characterizing the emergence of ecocriticism as resulting, in part, from an alignment between the tradition of localism in environmental literature and a growing concern for the local in 1980s and 1990s American studies. Heise then critiques recent environmental literature and criticism for aligning environmental and cultural issues. Her first example of this comes from Barbara Kingsolver's 1990 Animal Dreams, a book that aligns the multicultural family with environmental systems to suggest the multicultural family as a kind of compensation for environmental problems. Heise then critiques Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation (2003) for aligning biological and cultural diversity in ways that ultimately ignore how "causally dependent [transnational cultural encounters are on] economic globalization." Heise is arguing that environmental writing and environmentalism could benefit from a more substantive transnational turn that does more than merely romanticize transnational and multicultural subjects. Heise wants us to resist the "enduring temptation" to derive "socio-cultural ethics and political stances [End Page 405] from the insights of ecological science." In Heise's view, the "oppositionality of the multicultural and transnational subject" has appealed to writers in ways that mask what has brought about such oppositionality in the first place: our environmentally rapacious transnational economy.
In this response, I want to focus on one part of Heise's argument that I find particularly significant: her concern with the analogizing of biodiversity and cultural diversity. By attending primarily to this aspect of Heise's argument, I do not mean to discount the rest of her essay. Heise's take on the emergence of environmental criticism in relation to work in American studies, for instance, has important consequences for keeping environmental criticism from stagnating in relation to current scholarly and cultural trajectories. I want to focus on bio/cultural analogies to avoid what I fear might be a possible uptake of Heise's piece that would see such analogies as part of a new wave of transnational environmental thought. By historicizing Heise's examples, I mean to show that there were very similar ones in the late nineteenth century, and by offering this comparison, I want to question Heise's suggestion that equating biological and cultural diversity is "ultimately not . . . environmentalist." As I think my examples will show, environmentalism has long relied on such equations between what might be called nature and culture. What is at stake in seeing environmentalism as inclusive or exclusive of this kind of thinking is an accurate and responsive definition of environmentalism in our transnational context.
Analogies between species diversity and cultural difference were fundamental to the North American environmentalist rhetoric of one of the first and most successful environmentalist interventions: the effort, in the late nineteenth century, to save dozens of species of birds from impending extinction due to the industry of the plume trade.1 In the 1880s and 1890s, environmentalists, writers, and activists responded in a number of ways to what seemed to many to be an imminent mass extinction; one of the responses was to create a new genre of the birdwatching field guide in an effort to foster new attitudes of appreciation and protectionism toward birds. As the nineteenth century came to a close, the pastime of identifying birds was promoted by field guide authors as a way to ultimately protect birds. The new field guides to North American birds were written by a number of...