Eco-criticism is a relatively new field of critical study, with the history of its founding only going back to the mid-twentieth century. The theory focuses on exploring humanity's relationship with the natural world, with many aspects of it found in modern literature. As the global climate crisis worsens, eco-criticism has significantly grown in importance.

Eco-Criticism Eco-Criticism

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    Eco-criticism in literature

    Eco-criticism is a critical study in literature that investigates humanity's relationship to the environment. This can be found in many forms, including literature, film, or the arts. Eco-criticism aims to evaluate how humans interact with the natural world with the goal of improving how we treat the environment.

    In recent years, eco-criticism has become linked to activism as the global ecological crisis becomes more prevalent and mainstream. Many eco-critical texts either critique how humanity treats the natural world or provides more compassionate and productive ways to coexist with nature.

    Global ecological crisis: a crisis first discovered by scientist Guy Callendar (1898-1964) in 1938 but was not taken seriously by many until much later in the twentieth century. Over the past few centuries, human actions have contributed to widespread damage being inflicted on the Earth's environment.

    For example, carbon emissions from mass farming and industrialisation have created a hole in the Earth's ozone layer, the protective barrier that surrounds the planet and separates it from the atmosphere of space. The expansion of towns and cities has also led to many natural habitats being destroyed, leading to animal species going extinct. Today, climate change activists are fighting for countries to commit to lowering emissions and protecting the environment before it is deemed too late.

    Eco-critical texts can show humanity's relationship to nature in both positive and negative terms. Many modern eco-critical texts criticise Western society's approach to the environment and the ways in which humanity's duty as caretakers of the Earth has been neglected. The theory also operates in close collaboration with climate scientists and their findings.

    Eco-criticism can be widely encompassing, with few characteristics in common between works, aside from a concerted interest in environmentalism. A key aim of the critical study is to contribute to the efforts to drastically improve humanity's relationship with the natural world.

    However, there are certain values that tie this theoretical field together. Above all else, eco-critics hold a deep respect for nature and its beauty. They see it as of the utmost importance. It is humanity's job to safeguard this beauty in a much better way than has been done previously. Another central value of eco-criticism is the honest acknowledgement of the damage humans have already done to the natural world coupled with a commitment to try to reverse some of this.

    History of eco-criticism

    While scientific investigations into humanity's impact on the environment began in the 1930s, eco-criticism's history as a critical and literary theory began later. Rachel Carson's (1907-1964) Silent Spring (1962) is thought to have begun the literary eco-critical movement. Silent Spring investigated and criticised the use of pesticides in farming and the ways in which they can fundamentally damage the environment.

    Pesticides had been found to be deeply destructive to the natural world, yet many people continued to use them regardless, as they served a purpose. Carson's novel sheds light on the dangers of pesticides and the human impact on the environment more broadly. It was the first literary text of its kind.

    Pesticides: chemicals used in farming to kill insects that may pose a danger to certain plants or crops. They can be hugely damaging to the environment.

    The term 'eco-criticism' was first coined by author William Rueckert (1926-2006) in his essay 'Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism' (1978). The eco-criticism movement of the late twentieth century was marked by an appreciation of nature and all its beauty. The movement made a relatively strict distinction between the human world and the natural world, though it did attempt to eliminate this distinction. It promoted fighting for better environmental policy that would benefit the planet. Eco-criticism at this time was sometimes accused of lacking nuance.

    Fact! Many critics point to children's literature as a good starting point for understanding eco-criticism. There are multiple texts for children that are designed to teach them to understand and appreciate nature. A great example is The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) by Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) which humanises animals.

    In 2005, the prominent professor and critic Michael P. Cohen called for eco-criticism to become more wide-ranging and aware as a critical field. The changes that were called for have come to define the ways in which modern eco-criticism operates today. Recently, eco-criticism has become a much more critical discipline, particularly as the worldwide ecological crisis worsens.

    It has drawn in elements of both feminism and postcolonialism, recognising that the climate crisis most often impacts the most marginalised groups. Earlier eco-criticism typically focused more on the Western world, which restricted the study's scope. Many experts think that those outside of the West, for example in Africa and Asia, will be the first ones impacted by climate change. Eco-criticism believes that this should be recognised and investigated in eco-critical texts.

    Feminism: the belief that society promotes an inherent inequality between the two sexes which must be challenged. Feminists fight for their rights in many spheres, including political and academic, and utilise the power of organised protest.

    Postcolonialism: cultural, social, and economic legacies left behind in a formerly colonised country. The impacts of colonisation can haunt nations for decades and centuries to come. The theory rose to prevalence in the twentieth century as many countries that had once been occupied and colonised by powerful Western nations, like Britain and France, began to gain independence. Postcolonial novels explore these concepts through fictional characters, typically tying in real events. Famous postcolonial novels include Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie (1947-) and Chinua Achebe's (1930-2013) Things Fall Apart (1958).

    Types of eco-criticism

    As the field has expanded, various types of eco-criticism have surfaced and developed. Below are some key examples of these variations.

    Pastoral eco-criticism

    Pastoral eco-criticism mostly deals with texts based in the Western world. Pastoral literature usually has a rural setting which is heavily idealised. The genre juxtaposes the chaos and corruption of urban life with the peace and serenity of the countryside. Pastoral literature promotes a human connection to nature and the importance of protecting it.

    Eco-Criticism, an image of rolling green hills covered with trees and fog, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A rural setting, like one found in pastoral fiction.

    Older eco-criticism tended to positively view pastoral literature's idealisation of nature. It was seen as promoting the potential of humanity's relationship with nature by choosing a rural setting. The urban world was demonised as being anti-nature. However, newer eco-criticism of the twenty-first century takes a more nuanced view. It critiques the divide that pastoral literature sets up between the urban and rural worlds. Modern eco-criticism sees both worlds as connected and integral to improving the ecological condition of the planet. Many modern eco-critics see pastoral literature as having a somewhat outdated view.

    Feminist eco-criticism

    Feminist eco-criticism is one of the more common types of eco-criticism. Texts that fit under this genre tend to link the patriarchal subjugation of women to the subjugation of the natural world by humans. Some ecofeminists believe that the natural world is inherently feminine, which gives women a deeper connection to nature than men. This idea can be first found in the influential book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (1974) by leading French critic, Françoise d'Eaubonne (1920-2005).

    Fun fact! Françoise d'Eaubonne founded an LGBTQ+ revolutionary group in Paris designed to fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

    However, modern ecofeminists, like the critics Catherine Roach and Anne Archambault, see this as somewhat stereotypical. Ecofeminism believes that patriarchal societies, particularly in the West, only do things for the benefit of men and modernisation, neglecting both women and the natural world. This can produce a compassionate link between women and the environment, which may push certain women to become more involved in environmental movements.

    Patriarchy: a type of society in which there is an unequal balance of power between two sexes. Men are privileged and hold the majority of the influence, whereas women are subordinated and oppressed.

    Postcolonial eco-criticism

    Postcolonial eco-criticism has become one of the most important types of eco-criticism in the last few decades. Environmental activists have begun to recognise that it is often postcolonial countries, like India, that will first feel the more devastating impacts of climate change. This is despite the fact that these countries are frequently the lowest contributors to pollution.

    On the other hand, many Western countries, particularly in Europe and America, contribute significantly to pollution. Postcolonial eco-criticism recognises and analyses the geographical disparities that the climate crisis has exposed. Texts in the genre of postcolonial eco-criticism may criticise these hypocrisies while also trying to incite positive action on the environment within the international community.

    India, a postcolonial nation, will likely be one of the first countries to feel some of the more severe impacts of climate change. India was colonised by Britain in the mid-1800s and did not gain independence until 1947. This left somewhat of a power vacuum in the country, which caused political turmoil.

    Despite producing relatively low emissions for such a large country, India is already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Heatwaves and droughts are becoming increasingly more common, putting both lives and livelihoods at risk. In addition, glacial melting is causing more and more rivers to burst their banks in India, destroying homes. It is thought that India will be the fourth most impacted country on Earth by climate change.

    Postcolonial eco-criticism also recognises the different ways that various countries and cultures interact with the natural world around them. Often people in postcolonial countries are shown to have better relationships with their natural environment, acknowledging the importance of every part of the ecosystem. In contrast, many in the Western world only see the natural world as useful if it can serve a particular purpose for humans.

    Importance of eco-criticism in literature

    Recently, eco-criticism has become much more relevant and important in literature as the global climate crisis grows in severity and scale. As a critical field, eco-criticism provides us with a way to analyse our relationship with the natural world in both a positive and negative sense. The study can put humanity's place on Earth into perspective as part of a broader ecosystem. Eco-critical texts encourage a nuanced view of the environment around us and, particularly, the ways in which it can be saved from pollution and damage.

    Examples of eco-criticism in literature

    There are many examples of eco-criticism in literature, one such being The Road (2006), a post-apocalyptic novel by author Cormac McCarthy (1933-). The Road follows a father and son travelling through the United States after some sort of apocalyptic event has occurred. The event itself is never specified, but some eco-critics believe the novel could plausibly be set after an ecological collapse. The Road is a dark and grim novel with a lot of unsettling imagery. This shows the potential devastation that could come as a result of climate change.

    Eco-Criticism, a city's buildings burning down, StudySmarterFig. 2 - McCarthy's novel shows a world devastated by an apocalypse.

    There is a particular emphasis in The Road on food or lack thereof. In this post-apocalyptic world, food is very difficult to come by, with many characters willing to fight for it or resorting to cannibalism. In depicting a world such as this, The Road emphasises the importance of the Earth's ecosystem and how each element relies on the other. Humanity relies on nature for food, while nature relies on humanity to take appropriate care of it.

    Fact! The UN (United Nations) estimates that there will be severe food shortages in the next thirty years if nothing is done to combat climate change by major nations.

    Eco-Criticism - Key takeaways

    • Eco-criticism is a field of critical study founded in the mid-twentieth century.
    • It explores and analyses humanity's complex relationship with the environment.
    • In recent years, eco-criticism has become a more nuanced study, recognising the ways in which humanity has damaged nature.
    • Pastoral, feminist, and postcolonial are all different forms of eco-criticism.
    • Cormac McCarthy's (1933-) The Road (2006) is an example of an eco-critical text.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Eco-Criticism

    What are eco-critical values?

    Eco-critical values are respect and regard for nature's beauty and importance while recognising the damage humanity has inflicted upon it.

    What is eco-criticism?

    Eco-criticism is a field of study that investigates humanity's relationship with nature.

    What is an example of eco-criticism?

    An example of eco-criticism can be found in Cormac McCarthy's (1933-) novel The Road (2006).

    Why is the study of eco-criticism important?

    Eco-criticism is important because it can help us better understand nature and also better protect it from damage.

    Who is the father of eco-criticism?

    William Rueckert (1926-2006) is the father of eco-criticism. 

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