Critical Environmental Theory Essay

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Critical environmental theory broadly refers to critical theories of society that attempt to illuminate the relationship between advanced industrial power and the domination of nature in connection with ideological issues of race, class, gender, and species. With the rise of modern environmentalism as a powerful social movement, critical environmental theories have also begun to chart the modes and meanings of resistance posed by environmental groups in an attempt to better understand the environmental movement’s evolution, its successes, and failures. Additionally, since the early 1990s, ecocriticism and green studies have increasingly gained currency within the humanities, producing a large body of work by transdisciplinary scholars who seek to interrogate the politics of representation as regards the relationship between culture and nature and human and nonhuman species.

Ecocriticism is more narrowly associated with related disciplinary developments in the field of literary studies. However, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which is the primary organization for the development of ecocriticism, is composed of a wide range of praxis-based alliances between academic literary critics, activists, environmental educators, and artists concerned with natural themes. In this way, the academic movement for ecocriticism emulates other politicized scholarly movements such as Marxism, feminism, and critical race studies that have attempted to utilize institutional and noninstitutional positions to respond to perceived social crises by furthering debate, articulating new values, and organizing political collectives. Thus, ecocritics hope to promote awareness of ongoing environmental crises in academia, as well as to ultimately generate wider environmental literacy and social transformation in order to foster a more sustainable world characterized by ecological well-being. There are two distinct traditions of critical environmental theory, based in social theory and literary hermeneutics respectively, though there is ultimately significant overlap.

Critical environmental theory that aims at the emancipatory critique of societal domination of nature has its roots in the social scientific tradition of critical theory begun by the Frankfurt School. As part of their radical critique of Enlightenment ideology, capitalism, and the industrial production of mass culture during the 20th century, Frankfurt School theorists such as Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno made important conceptual contributions that helped found the basis for critical environmental theory’s contemporary approach and goals. Drawing in part upon Marx’s critical social theory, which made its own nascent gestures toward environmental critique, these theorists analyzed how a dialectical relationship existed between the societal domination of external nature (the environment) and societal domination of internal nature (the psyche). In this way, they theorized that the growth of consumer capitalism was symptomatic of the oppression of peoples and environmental destruction.

Exposing the Political Machine

Unlike Marx, however, the Frankfurt School theorists maintained less optimism for the prospect that social progress could be achieved through rationally planned economic and technological growth. Drawing upon Max Weber’s ideas, which linked the establishment of modern society to the normalization of instrumental rationality and the naturalization of bureaucracy and hierarchy, Frankfurt School theorists also developed a critical environmental theory that attempted to expose the ideological workings of the political machine imposed by the ruling class.

Marcuse perhaps went furthest in this respect by claiming that modern industrialism produced nothing less than a one-dimensional technological society characterized by its need for total administration, further arguing that a hallmark of this form of society is its general desire to interpret life instrumentally as a natural resource form of commodity. In opposition, he offered theories advocating the free play of biological and psychological instincts as part of a historical struggle for the liberation of individuals’ subjectivity, including the future realization of the subjectivity of nature itself. In this way, Marcuse anticipated environmentalists’ critique of anthropocentrism, as well as the movement for animal rights.

These theories influenced radical environmental theorists and leftist activists during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and have helped to articulate a vision for militant environmental practices. While not a member of the Frankfurt School proper, Murray Bookchin, the founder of the important critical environmental theory known as Social Ecology, branched from the ideas of Marcuse, Horkheimer, and Adorno to craft a rigorous form of anarchist ecological politics. In his monumental book The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin retained the Frankfurt School’s emphasis upon the relationship between human oppression and environmental crisis, as well as the centrality of domination and hierarchy as political concepts, but refuted the idea that these concepts could be applied to nature directly. Rather, in Bookchin’s social ecological turn, environmental crises arise out the social malformations that are produced through institutionalized human domination of other humans.

Therefore, in his view, the only way to arrive at a more sustainable and humane society for nonhuman animals is through the dismantling of current social forms and norms in order to engage the organic reconstruction of egalitarian, spontaneous, and mutualistic communities. While social ecology remains well regarded within some environmental circles, largely through the ongoing work of the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont, the competing popularity of environmental theory known as Deep Ecology-which Bookchin declared to be a dangerously noncritical (and even “eco-fascistic”) theory in a series of diatribes during the 1980s-has greatly reduced the role critical social ecological theory plays amongst environmental activists at present. On the other hand, there is renewed academic interest in the environmental potentials of Frankfurt School lineage critical theory, including work by or about Jurgen Habermas, William Leiss, Timothy Luke, Douglas Kellner, and Steven Best.

Another major branch of critical environmental theory has emerged among literary critics, where scholars use the term ecocriticism to define a recent transdisciplinary field that studies the relationship between literature, aesthetics, and the physical environment. While various historical figures have been hailed as forerunners of the ecocriticism movement, the 20th-century literary critic Kenneth Burke is arguably the first to have rigorously theorized ecocritical methods in books such as Attitudes Towards History and Permanence and Change.

Alternatively, many ecocritical texts point to Joseph W. Meeker as the field’s progenitor. In his 1972 book The Comedy of Survival, Meeker theorized the study of literary ecology, which he defined as the analysis of the biological relationships and themes of literary works, and the attempt to discover the ecological role played by literature in the evolution of the human species. Meeker’s views on the science of ecology and evolutionary theory are now best considered as dated, however, and his reputation has been diminished overall. Still other ecocritics trace the founding of their project to William Rueckert, who is considered to have first coined the term ecocriticsm in his 1978 essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” In Rueckert’s view, ecocriticism should methodologically utilize the concepts and findings of scientific ecology in order to interpret literature. Yet, exactly how natural science is to be properly used to study cultural texts has proven extremely difficult to determine. As a result, literary critics, even those with an interest in environmental themes, were not quick to adopt Rueckert’s terminology, as they feared that ecocriticism implied an expertise in ecological science that most English scholars lacked.

Studies in Ecocriticism

In 1992, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) was formed, and a year later the Association launched the publication of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, which along with its younger British counterpart, Green Letters, has become a preeminent ecocritical journal. While ecocriticism must still be considered a marginal academic movement overall, since the last decade ASLE significantly expanded its membership to include affiliated chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Korea, and Germany. Additionally, it has held a number of major international conferences on the topic of ecocriticism, and is now discussed seriously in universities of every continent.

Initially, ecocriticism’s major agenda was to reaffirm the genre of nature writing and to identify important works that were primarily environmentally oriented. An emphasis was also placed on outdoors experiences in order to move ecocriticism outside of the academy, connect theory with practice, and link culture with nature. In his 1995 book The Environmental Imagination, Buell crucially outlined a methodological ecocriticism, in which he signaled four ways that literature could be categorized as environmental in an ecocritical sense: the nonhuman environment serves as a textual presence and not just a setting or frame for the plot; the interests of human characters are not the sole legitimate interests of the story; an ethical orientation exists in the narrative in which there is demonstrated a human accountability to the environment; and there is an implicit or explicit depiction of the environment as nonstatic, evolutionary, or otherwise engaged with some form of historical process.

Along with these criteria, many ecocritics called attention to work that either influenced the mainstream environmental movement that had emerged in society since the 1960s, or could be linked in some fashion to that movement itself. In this way, many anthologies of primary literature, critical essays, and other related theoretical works were released in an attempt to map the emerging field and legitimate its venture. Thus, alliances were made with other scholars who theorized diverse fields like ecofeminism, ecotheology, environmental history, deep ecology, and other modes of environmental philosophy and environmental education. Yet, on the whole, ecocriticism’s early stress was on highlighting its prophets and practitioners, most often in the context of the literary traditions of American and British Romanticism, as well as other recent American nature writing exemplified by authors such as Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Wallace Stegner.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of ecocriticism’s self-linkage to the ideals and rhetoric espoused by mainstream environmentalism-particularly in its long-standing American celebration of pristine “wilderness” places-was that the field lacked social diversity and often took a surprisingly uncritical stance toward its own ostensible subject-matter, instead favoring praise narratives that celebrated the aesthetic experience of being outdoors in nature. By 1999, a crisis began to erupt and as had happened in other social movements such as environmentalism and feminism themselves, a second wave of ecocritics began to emerge who criticized the movement as overly white and privileged. While it remains unclear as to what the end result of this recent criticism will be, it has generated significant controversy and heightened attention to acknowledged problems. Thus, ecocriticism has increasingly moved to include previously unattended topics such as urban environments, environmental racism, social justice literature, post-colonialism, anti-imperialism and globalization, and comparative international ecocritical studies.

Reformation of Ecocriticism

As ecocritics have been challenged about their right to speak for and provide definitive representations of the environment, wilderness, and nonhuman animals, there has been a greater opportunity for cross-cultural knowledge about how different peoples relate to and understand nature. On the other hand, the critique of the social construction of nature has led some ecocritics toward more reactionary positions. Hence, a major ideologue for the movement, Leo Marx, has derided ecocriticism for its disavowal of anthropocentrism as the main reason for environmental conservation and for its adoption instead of an ecocentrism that attaches intrinsic value to nonhuman beings. Still others, such as John Elder, have strategically moved away from more radical ethical positions to advocate ecocriticism that advocates for a more moderate view of human stewardship over the earth. This shift can also be seen in the work of Glen Love, who rejects a strong anti-anthropocentrism in favor of complex analyses of what it means to be human in the world. For Love, this means bringing ecocriticism full circle and attempting to base it once again in the scientific knowledge of biology and ecology, which he believes can provide the universal foundation to escape the relativistic perils of postmodern social constructionism, as well as forms of hubristic anthropocentrism in which the human is divorced from the natural order.

Ecocriticism is ultimately concerned with revealing the roots of global environmental crises and with reconstructing a more just and sustainable world in which culture and nature work harmoniously. Changes in the field, then, must be understood as responding not just to the discipline’s inner dynamics, but also to the needs of present environmentalist politics. Therefore, ecocritics’ desire to adopt a scientifically based ecological literacy and ideology of stewardship perhaps reflects a larger turn in the environmental community away from the deep ecological theories and practices that were dominant during much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bibliography:

  1. Joni Adamson, Mei-Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein, eds., The Environmental Justice Reader: Politcs, Poetics, and Pedagogy (University of Arizona Press, 2002);
  2. P. Branch and Scott Slovic, eds., The ISLE Reader: Ecocriticism, 1993-2003 (University of Georgia Press, 2003);
  3. Lawrence Buell, Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Blackwell Press, 2005);
  4. P. Cohen, “Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism Under Critique,” Environmental History (v.9/1, 2004);
  5. Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (New Critical Idiom) (Routledge, 2004);
  6. Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, eds., The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (University of Georgia Press, 1996);
  7. A. Love, Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment (University of Georgia Press, 2003);
  8. Dana Phillips, The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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