What is Ecocriticism?

Ecocriticism guides this literary studies course. It is an optimal interpretative approach that allows us to learn about sustainability in works of literature, where nature intersects with race and gender inequalities, food insecurity, and climate instability, for example. Key points on ecocriticism are provided below (please go to the glossary for more details).

  • Ecocriticism is a critical approach to literature. Its purpose is to understand how nature, the nonhuman, is represented. Findings inform  misrepresentations of nature, like anthropomorphized lifeforms in Eurowestern literary works that are instances of anthropocentrism, meaning a human-centered view of nature. However, nature is highly honored and revered in non-Western literary traditions like the literary and storytelling traditions of the Indigenous communities throughout North America, whose expressions of anthropomorphism are not anthropocentric, “the boundaries between the human and the other-than-human are more permeable, the relationship more complicated,…always less certain of human superiority” (Justice 91).
  • The background and history of ecocriticism is quite vast. By the 1960s, it gained momentum due to life-threatening environmental pollution. Environmentalists, along with their proponents, offered testimonial narratives on the facts behind environmental abuses, like that by Biologist Rachel Carson who exposed the dangers of DDT in her book The Silent Spring (1962), a study on pollution.
  • The work of other environmentalists includes The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal In America (1964) by Leo Marx. This is a cultural history of the pastoral at the rise of American urbanism, which threatened the imagined American landscape. Animal Studies has emerged to further address humanity’s impact on nature in literary works. *See Literature and Animal Studies (2016) by Mario Ortiz Robles.
  • Two leaders in ecocriticism are Black Civil Rights leader and former NAACP director Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Joni Adamson. Chavis is a civil rights leader who coined “environmental racism” back in 1987. Indigenous Studies scholar and environmental humanist Adamson on Indigenous literature and Laguna Pueblo storyteller and American writer Leslie Marmon Silko discusses the impact of environmental racism throughout the Indigenous communities of the American Southwest.
  • Ecocriticism is optimal for a course’s theme on sustainability. It is an interpretive approach that assists readers to work through representations of nature, the nonhuman, while identifying topics important to them – like social justice, climate instability, and human rights. We will approach works of literature to address our twenty-first century challenges and aspire the discipline of Literary Studies as a sustainability platform for a sustainable future, like the UNSDG.

We rely on ‘ecocritical’ perspectives to interpret and learn about how literary works inform on both our concerns about racial and social justice and the rights and protection of the environment and ecology.

How do Ecocritical Reading Approaches Meet Course Goals?

The readings, activities, short assignments, and end of term sustainability project align the overall outcomes of an introduction to literary studies course with culturally responsive teaching methods, in the following order.

  • Engage in ‘close reading’, as a process.
  • Practice textual analysis on literary devices to learn about form.
  • Practice analysis with interpretative approaches, like ecocriticism.
  • Demonstrate critical reading in writing assignments to build skills practiced.
  • Build critical thinking in groups and discussion forums to share interpretations.
  • Complete end of term sustainability project on a topic that intersects between social and environmental injustices. Present findings to support problem solving.

…Ceremony (1977), remind readers that ecological and social injustices are rooted in unsustainable ideologies and cultural norms on humanity’s treatment of nature.

How does an Ecocritical Reading inform on Sustainability?

Sustainability, according to the UNSDG, offers topics that we must face in the twenty-first century. But those same topics were also challenges for prior generations – like John Rollin Ridge’s era. In fact, we can learn about the past and the exploitation of people and nature to inform us today about similar challenges – such as deforestation, shortages of resources and threatened members of the animal kingdom, for example, in addition to systemic racism.

Featured works of literature in this book offer students a literary studies experience that upholds their own integrity and joys of storytelling while navigating recent publications on race and environmental justice to address sustainability.

This book is also informed by research on the intersection between isolated racism and institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, in Black Power (1967) by Kwane Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton.

The literature by Laguna author Leslie Marmon Silko also informs this book. For example, in Ceremony (1977) Silko reminds readers that ecological and social injustices are rooted in unsustainable forms of ideology, which aggravate unjust treatment of people and nature by its cultural norms, as witnessed by the Indigenous communities of the American Southwest. Their testimonies expose the environmental devastations of the region, which has been plagued by “nuclear testing.” By identifying the intersectionality between aspects of ecological injustices with forms of social injustice, we learn to understand how to face unsustainable practices and think of alternative methods.


Intersectionality in Literary Studies for a Sustainable Future

Intersectionality shows how we are interconnected with overlapping characteristics and experiences cc

  • What does Sustainability Mean?
    • African American scholar Anissa Janine Wardi defines sustainability by quoting cultural geographer Carolyn Finney of Middlebury College. Sustainability is “an increasingly crucial lens through which all aspects of society are being considered… about the relationship – that human beings have to the Earth and the land, as well as the relationships we have to each other”(Finney qtd. in Wardi 9). In the study of literary texts we can learn about sustainability through ecocriticism – a theoretical approach to understanding human relationships with nature for the purpose of supporting efforts toward sustainability.

Let’s Learn from the traditions of more sustainable cultures through their literature

  • Peoples of other cultures share their sustainable traditions embracing nature and humanity in a web of life. Diné Lyla June in her 2022 TED Talk 3000-Year-Old Solutions to Modern Problems explains that “the ecological crisis is a response that involves practices associated with the term ‘sustainability’ (Boom 2021).

Diné Lyla June shares a worldview that recognizes humanity as part of the ‘web of life’. Her practical method for sustainability calls for all of us to learn and practice a belief system that recognizes our inherent relation with and responsibility to nature.

  • What is the ‘Web of Life’?
    • The ‘web of life’ is also a scientific concept known as the Gaia Hypothesis: “The emphasis of the hypothesis is on the interrelation of everything on and around the earth…that the physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere, and of the oceans has been and is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself.
    • This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom which held that life adapted to the planetary conditions as it and they evolved their separate ways” (J. E. Lovelock qtd. Sandner 2000). Lovelock’s scientific explanation of the ‘web of life’ challenges us when our present local, national, and global cultures do not reflect this view nor in practice, because we have yet to transform our current unsustainable practices into sustainable ones. Ancient cultures around the world also struggled with sustainability. They, too, did not hold ideological views that valued ‘the web of life’ – like the Maya of Mesoamerica.
    • The Mayan epic Popol Vuh, is just one literary text by Maya storytellers. The books addressed themes by scientists, writers, and literary scholars. Biological concepts, medicinal remedies, ethics, and philosophy are intertwined in their stories. They too, like Western civilizations, also created environmental devastations that resulted in droughts.

What is a Sustainable Worldview?

Dr. Jeff Todd Titon of Brown University challenges us to understand a sustainable ideological worldview in his lecture on ecojustice and the interconnectedness of life on earth. He states,

I argue that for humans the problem of ecojustice in a sustainable world is more than a problem of science and technology. It is more even than a problem of ethical behavior towards other beings. Ultimately, it’s is an ontological as well as an epistemological problem….An ecological rationality of interconnectedness and collective well-being must come to replace our current economic rationality of self-interest, growth, and the maximization of material wealth if we ever to bring ecojustice and survival to a sustainable planet (Todd Titon 2018).

To engage with literature and on its topics to understand our current global and local challenges means that we need to reflect on our ideological worldviews.

Which Stories Can We Tell For A Sustainable World?

Our framework in this course places today’s dire challenges on human rights and climate stability alongside the health of communities and ecologies. Let’s experience literature and inquire about its representation of racial social justice, poverty and access to sustainable farming, gender equality and personal liberties, and out-of-date industries that pollute and threaten all life. Ecocritic and Shakespearean scholar Steve Mentz in Tongues in the Storm: Shakespeare, Ecological Crisis, and the Resources of Genre points out that numerous stories need to be repositioned in literary studies so we may engage with them for a sustainable future.

Many of these narratives, from the Garden of Eden to the promise of the New World to Walden Pond, posit an at least potentially harmonious relationship between human beings and their environment. These stories are not dead by any means, they are not even past, to paraphrase [William] Faulkner – but they do not seem to be up to the task of helping conceptualize a global ecology in crisis. (Mentz 2013)

Like a tapestry knit together over time and space, this book is designed to intrigue your own inquiries on similar challenges to address Mentz’s observation by offering literary texts from many regions and historical eras.


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Literary Studies For A Sustainable Future Copyright © 2024 by Lisette Helena Assia Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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