In recent years, the environment has moved from a marginal concern to the average American citizen to a major political, personal, and philosophical issue that pervades everyday life. In response to rising concerns (and sea levels), a tremendous outpouring of fiction, nonfiction, movies, and music that tackle the issue both directly and indirectly have infiltrated our daily rosters of cultural consumption. Though the environment factors heavily in literature and entertainment throughout the ages (think idyllic pastoral sonnets from the Renaissance era, or Hollywood’s Spaghetti Western movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s—and everything in between), more than ever before, the environment and our relationship to it are present in contemporary cultural production, as words like “green” and “sustainable” become increasingly prevalent in our vocabularies.
So how do we make sense of it all? Since the 1980s, in light of growing environmental consciousness and concern across the world, the term ecocriticism has emerged, eventually growing into a critical discipline in its own right. Ecocriticism seeks to answer questions like: What are the ethics of human interaction with the environment? What do we mean when we use the word “nature”? What does our cultural output say about our perception of the world we live in? And, how can we re-think and re-engage with the environment to affect positive change for the future? If you’re looking to explore ecocriticism, any of the following books are a good place to start:
American professor and scholar Lawrence Buell is widely recognized as a major pioneer of ecocriticism. In The Future of Environmental Criticism, he traces the emergence of the discipline, tracks its progress, and predicts its future. Most importantly, he lays out the reasons why environmental criticism is a vital edition to academic discourse worldwide in light of climate change and outlines ways in which it can be modified to create a popular consciousness and debate about ecology and encourage the lifestyle changes necessary to guarantee humankind’s future on Earth.
It’s no coincidence that ecocriticism emerged first and foremost, as an American critical tradition. With a national literature brimming with testimonials of challenging, diverse, and rolling landscapes, and with personal and philosophical accounts of rugged individualism in the face of such fierce countryside, it makes sense that nature factors heavily into the American literary imagination. A classic work of American romanticism and the transcendentalist movement, Thoreau’s Walden is an essential read for the budding ecocritic. Seeking solitude, self-sufficiency, and harmony in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau meticulously recorded his experience and the philosophical implications of his quest to find a more meaningful existence in the world. The result is a book that is widely considered to be the very foundation of the American environmentalist movement.
An essential text in ecological thinking, Ecology Without Nature is an excellent and accessible introduction to common ideas in contemporary ecocriticism. Timothy Morton argues that the chief stumbling block toward sustainable human interaction with the environment lies in our fundamental perception of it as capital-N “Nature.” He theorizes that ecological writers’ “very zeal to preserve the natural world leads them away from the ‘nature’ they revere.” Morton sets out a seeming paradox: to have a properly ecological view of the world, we must relinquish the idea of nature for once and for all.
One of the world’s leading contemporary philosophers and sociologists of science, Bruno Latour frequently treats the topic of the environment and our understanding of it in his works. Politics of Nature seeks to shed light on the ways in which politics has warped popular perception of the environment and its current issues (and, in a broader sense, most scientific concerns), and to think about new ways of democratizing scientific knowledge on the environment so as to arrive at practical and accessible solutions to problems like climate change.
Often credited with inspiring key thinkers in the deep ecology and ecofeminist movements, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is directly responsible for mobilizing grassroots environmental activists and the United States government alike. Written on the topic of the use of harmful pesticides in the American agricultural industry, Carson’s painstakingly researched book uses beautiful prose to call its readers to begin to question not only the way that the environment is unthinkingly altered by human actions, but also to the broad ripple effect our industries can have on the ecosystem.
Here, Joseph Meeker lays out his theory that comedy and tragedy are forms of adaptive behavior in the natural world that either promote our survival (comedy) or estrange us from other life forms (tragedy). Drawing upon centuries of western writing from Shakespeare to E. O. Wilson, he demonstrates the universality of comedy in both human and animal behavior and shows how the comic mode helps us to live in harmony with nature. Meeker then defines the tragic view of life, interweaving that behavior with exploitation of the environment. The Comedy of Survival is a book for literary critics, environmentalists, human ecologists, philosophers, and anthropologists. General readers, too, will find much to ponder in the author's clear explanation of how all of us might become better stewards of our home, planet Earth.
This text is for non-science students looking for a basic introduction to the principles of ecology, and their relevance in human affairs. Pleasants examines causes of, and long-term solutions to environmental problems, and organizes information according to several important topics in environmental discourse: energy use and production, population and community ecology, and types of ecosystems.