Ecocriticism and re-reading nature

👤Rob Budde 🕔Feb 01, 2012

I received quite a few inquiries and comments about my last column where I discussed UNBC’s role as a “Green University” (“What Green Really Means,” Dec/Jan Northword). The questions that arose were from people curious about the term ‘ecocriticism’ and what it means.

The word “ecocriticism” was first used in William Rueckert’s 1978 essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism” and was adopted later in the 1980s in place of what had previously been referred to as “the study of nature writing.” An act of ecocriticism is a study of the connections between literature (or other representations) and the physical environment. Just as feminism explores literature from a gendered perspective, ecocriticism studies texts with attention to the representations of land, earth, plant, animal and ecosystems of all kinds.

The value of ecocritical inquiry (whether it be engaged with literature or social discourse, policy, media, etc) is that it takes seriously the urgency and injustice involved with human-caused environmental degradation. It probes the psychology and cultural constructs that cause us, as humans, to harm the other-than-human.

One of the precepts that Western civilization (in particular) has created is the division between the “natural” and the “artificial”—the human-made, industrial, urban, developed, technological aspects of our planet. It is the divide we create when we say we are “escaping into nature” when we head out for a hike or a canoe trip. It is what separates the idea of a human habitat (a suburban bungalow) from an animal habitat (a beaver lodge). The latter is “natural” where the former is seen as something apart from the natural world. This is a way of thinking, not an innate truth. Very easily one could see that human constructs are part of an overall “nature” and, more importantly, part of ecosystems that we are disrupting to disastrous results. Ecocriticism asks why, and what are the consequences of humans’ self-exile from “nature.”

Another concern of ecocriticism is the ways in which the non-human is often portrayed as malevolent adversaries—elements to be overcome or subdued—or as passive resources, elements to be used for human benefit. If an animal is given any agency, it is most often given a false human-like consciousness and human concerns. This is called anthropomorphization (a great word to trot out at cocktail parties!) and tends to use non-human settings and subjects to work through human issues or for entertainment. YouTube is packed with goofy videos of animals given human voice-overs. Eeyore glumly responds, “Thanks for noticing.”

The impact of this history of our concept of nature is that we do not interact well with our environment. Bears are iconic symbols of northern BC whether it be spirit bears, the grizzly, or the numerous black bears of the interior. There are countless books that document bear attacks and demonize the creatures. There is also a lucrative black market in bear paws, which are exported for medicinal uses (arthritis) and as a culinary delicacy. Prince George typically has several hundred black-bear “incidents” per year, and many bears are destroyed as a result. All of this creates a cumulative text to read about how we relate (or don’t relate) to these complex creatures.

The call from ecocritics is to recognize the way humans have oppressed the non-human, across history and across the globe, and to imagine a new way to respect and interact with the complex and sustainable culture of the more-than-human world.