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  • Commentary
  • Scott Slovic (bio)

The environmental humanities, despite the growing prominence of ecocriticism and its sister disciplines (environmental history, environmental philosophy, environmental religious studies, and so on), are often viewed as the third wheel of environmental studies. Although I teach in one of the world's leading programs in literature and environment (which has existed now for 16 years at my university), the university president gave a State of the University speech a few weeks ago and highlighted environmental science and engineering as disciplines central to the mission of our institution—there was no mention of literature, or more generally of the environmental humanities and social sciences. I wonder sometimes why it's so hard for scholars, administrators, and policy-makers with backgrounds outside of the humanities to fathom the relevance—indeed, the centrality—of our work to society's crucial environmental conversations.

Perhaps one reason for this perceived insignificance is that the humanities seem less practical to the powers that be than disciplines that result in quantitative information (levels of particulates in the air, population levels of species, numbers of human beings contracting cancer), specific dollar amounts (costs of remediation or alternative designs for vehicles and buildings), or laws/policies that guide corporate or governmental practice. Without detracting from the usefulness of these other approaches to environmental questions and concerns, I would argue, along the lines of historian Donald Worster's eloquent claims in the 1993 book The Wealth of Nature, that "We are facing a global crisis today, not because of how ecosystems function but rather because of how our ethical systems function. Getting through the crisis requires understanding our impact on nature as precisely as possible, but even more, it [End Page 180] requires understanding those ethical systems and using that understanding to reform them. Historians, along with literary scholars, anthropologists, and philosophers, cannot do the reforming, of course, but they can help with the understanding" (26-27). What literary studies and other humanistic disciplines can contribute to environmental scholarship is precisely the nuanced analysis of human thought processes (including the processes of values formation and ethical decision making) and communication practices that tend to be beyond the purview of the natural sciences. This is not to say that humanists should be ignorant of natural systems per se—indeed, theorizing natural systems, illuminating how nature is represented and natural science is communicated to various audiences, and using literature to study human culture's integration with or resistance to natural processes are several of the central objectives of the field called "ecocriticism" (ecological literary criticism).

Gillen D'Arcy Wood, in his provocative introduction to this special issue, provides a fascinating critique of the apparent opposition between ecocriticism and sustainability studies, suggesting that there are prominent ecocritics who fundamentally resist certain core facets of sustainability studies, including the reliance on natural science. In order to better align human habits and social systems to the actual patterns of the natural world, it seems crucial to attend to the sciences that study these patterns, not to advocate an essential rejection of science. In expressing his concern about the anti-science stance of leading sustainability-minded ecocritics ("well-known figures in American ecocriticism"), Wood points specifically to the 2008 volume titled The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, co-edited by Wes Jackson and Bill Vitek and including contributions by the likes of Wendell Berry. Unfortunately, none of these writers would identify himself as an ecocritic. Wendell Berry is an environmental writer—a poet, fiction writer, and literary essayist par excellence, with a lifelong interest in place, community, and agriculture. Wes Jackson is a theorist of alternative agriculture and place-based communities. Bill Vitek is a philosopher who studies human social practices in specific environmental and cultural contexts. I have written about and taught the works of Wendell Berry for many years, and much of his writing is devoted to the celebration of hard-won experiential knowledge among rural people, knowledge that may seem like ignorance to university-based technocrats, but that actually enables individuals and communities to function well without depleting their local resources. This "ignorance" is actually a form of wisdom. Berry and his fellow contributors...


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pp. 180-188
Launched on MUSE
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