Ecocriticism and a Microscopic You

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In the deep rainforests and snow drifted mountains, you will find stack towers breathing grey flames and belching death. You will look for reindeer and anemones in the glass-chrome skeleton of the world, and there will be neither moss cloaked rocks nor wildflower boughs to rest on.

 

Avian casualty in the 2012 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (Image Source: The Mirror)

In conjunction with the 2016 Sustainability Week, IGNITE presents five revolutionary and award-winning ecocriticism literary texts that have spurred the environmental movement into achieving radical success across the globe.

The concept of ecocriticism was first introduced by William Rueckert in 1978, to describe the study of the relationship between literature and the environment. Since then it has evolved into a multidisciplinary field that encompasses all environmental literature, art, film and music. The umbrella of ecocriticism also includes green literature, which serves to inform, raise questions, and  bring a sense of oneness with nature.

Primary ecocriticism literary texts focus on the earth, pollution, and other contemporary environmental issues. They include works of fiction written to move the reader and inspire the masses towards environmentally conscious lives, as well as scholarly publications that give reasoned, logical arguments against the grossly rampant destruction of the earth by industrialization, warfare and consumerism. Essentially they are about the earth, its various denizens and humans.  These texts range from poetry and plays to essays and novels, both fiction and non-fiction, and are also described as ‘green literature’.

Secondary ecocriticism literary texts study the symbiotic relationship that exists in eco-literature. Ecocriticism at its core comprises of scholarly pursuits that study the representation of nature in literature, how literature has defined human perception of nature, the role it has played in the environmental activism movement, and many other fields. It observes how humans perceive nature, and how this perception is depicted in literature. It deals with human interference in ecosystems, and how green literature in many situations forestalled further destruction from occurring, by changing how we relate to nature.

While the academic branch of ecocriticism may be more suited to academics, it nonetheless provides for an intriguing look at the earth through the lens of the arts. Both categories of ecocriticism delve into cultural studies, feminism, mythology and philosophy.

 

Image Source: Sciencetopia.net

It was not until the advent of widespread pollution and natural resource abuse that environmental consciousness was realized. People could see that the natural world was being razed to the ground, that entire ecosystems were collapsing, that various species were being extinguished, and that both living creatures and humans were suffering and dying. The adverse effects of industrialization, land acquisition, warfare, profligate human consumption of natural resources and the destruction of pristine natural habitats was a warning call.

The ecocritical writers were among the first advocates of nature conservation, and devoted their lives to nature, through hands-on conservation work, research and education. They also raised awareness and brought about changes in how humans treat the environment. Their medium of choice to reach the masses was green literature. This had a twofold aim; sustainable living practiced on a large-scale and macroscopic change by the government.

And now, for your perusal, the books that have paved the way for change:

 

1. Silent Spring (Rachel Carson, 1962)

Rachel Carson, well-known for her work as a marine biologist and her books on the subject, dived into the irrevocable destruction of the global biosphere by the chemical industry to write Silent Spring. By the time Silent Spring was first published as serialized articles in The New Yorker, the usage of DDT was at its peak. Although several magazines refused to print Carson’s work on DDT on account of the fear of lawsuits from chemical producers, this only consolidated her resolve to inform people about the harm the chemical industry was causing. She was ready for the tumult her book would cause and preemptively prepared her manuscript with exhaustively researched notes, and a list of distinguished experts who had read and approved it.

Carson writes with a poetic slant that compliments her structured reasoning and inclusion of scientific terminology.

She paints a hauntingly graphic image of towns, animals, people all affected by the innocuous looking poison.

Silent Spring starts from the inside out; speaking out against the usage of DDT, the most powerful pesticide produced.

While its inventor was being awarded the Nobel Prize, DDT was made available for civilians and its indiscriminate use sounded the death knell not only to thousands of species of the animal kingdom but also prevented many from breeding. It built up along the food chain, affecting entire ecosystems and obliterating already threatened species. Carson works her way up to the radical proposal that the industrial and technological progress would need to be curbed with regards to nature’s progress. Nature fixes itself, given time. However, some destruction is irrevocable, when entire species are wiped out, when there is sickness in the air and people die.

At its time, Silent Spring was considered a highly controversial book, resulting in the threat of legal action, degrading accusations regarding Carson’s sanity her purported affiliations with the Soviet Union. These attempts by the chemical industry to discredit Carson served only to gain more exposure for Silent Spring. Rachel Carson and Silent Spring were vindicated and went on to provide a much needed push towards radical acts of environmental protection.

While Silent Spring is renowned for being the revolutionary force behind DDT becoming a banned substance, it is also responsible for numerous changes in laws that were a preemptive strike against further pollution. The changes wrought by the book snowballed to the point that the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were implemented, Earth Day was established and the Environmental Protection Agency was founded by President Nixon.

 

2. Animal Liberation (Peter Singer, 1975)

Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is hailed as the founding ideology for the animal movement. It was the inspiration behind PETA and started a worldwide revolution against animal cruelty since its original publication in 1975. Since then the book has undergone revisions but its principles remain the same.

Provocative, highly-controversial and candid, the concept of animal liberation raises inflammatory questions and addresses even the smallest factors that can affect this venture. Singer brings to light the term speciesism and used it to describe discrimination against other species. This oppression required a voice that the animal kingdom does not have, so Singer appeals to the human race to bring an end to inter-species cruelty.

The exploitation of nonhuman animals ranges from experimentation on animals, factory farming, animal products consumption, hunting, animal circuses and rodeos to the desensitization of animal cruelty. Peter Singer’s work is a question of human ethics and how we apply them to our lives. It even explores the constraints language places on discussing the liberation of an oppressed group whilst the language itself is prejudiced towards it. It questions why animals are taken as inferior when they too have the capacity to suffer and outlines the goals of the animal movement.

Animal Liberation weaves together a rich, unapologetic tapestry of oppression to the entire animal kingdom, the grounds on which we determine equality, animal cruelty being subjective to human profitability, the difference between animal suffering and killing, the issues of equating animals to humans and according them utilitarian rights, and many more topics. The book probes into laboratory techniques, human nutritive requirements and all the nitty-gritty the world of animal cruelty holds.

Singer’s Animal Liberation follows the words of Jeremy Bentham:

The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?

This quote has resonated through the years and still features in various media until today. The book was received with fervent supporters and indignant opposition from those who felt it was too harsh and unrealistic in some of its goals.

Regardless of the thought-provoking ideologies, Animal Liberation has achieved monumental success in terms of preventing animal cruelty. Animal husbandry in many countries has undergone drastic changes, some cosmetic companies have eliminated animal testing, and countless organizations cropped into being to continue the fight for animal rights.

 

3. The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (Laurence Coupe, 2000)

The Green Studies Reader is a scholastic compilation of ecocritical texts by a number of authors (with Coupe as the editor), each examining the relationship between literature, ecology and culture. Essentially it is a critique of green literature through time, since the Romantic Age to the contemporary world of established ecocriticism. It takes the reader into an insightful study of philosophy, literature, anthropology and nature. The ways in which “green thinking” has appeared in literature is highlighted, making this book a valuable guide to aspiring students of green literature.

This book addresses some of the prominent aspects of ecocriticism; the legacy of romantic ecology, ecofeminism, ecocritical principles, the relationship between nature and culture and the development of a ‘green’ perspective.

With essays and extracts from Virginia Woolf, Claude Levi-Strauss, D.H. Lawrence, Jhan Hochman, Henry David Thoreau, Kate Soper and many more, The Green Studies Reader is a challenging and heavy read tempered by Coupe’s entertaining introductions to each section.

 

4. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Rob Nixon, 2011)

Rob Nixon brings to light the invisible and insidious forms of environmental destruction that are inflicted on impoverished populations across the globe. He confronts the concealed issues of postwar devastation to the environment, the residual effects of ecological disasters left unaddressed, and the socio-economic fall-out that takes place once the calamities are no longer sensational news.

He introduces the idea of “slow violence” by discussing environmental justice from the perspectives of disregarded Third World ecosystems, environmentally irresponsible capitalism and global sensitivity to what constitutes a crisis.

Nixon addresses environmental justice with the examples of deforestation, toxic waste dumping, oil spills, climate change and the postwar effects to ecosystems. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor is a contemporary ecocritical contribution that discusses environmental politics with the intent to illuminate the various complex issues that are prevalent in the world.

 

5. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Naomi Klein, 2014)

Award winning journalist Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is a brilliant in-depth analysis of the climate crisis as an issue that demands a complete restructuring of our economy. Naomi Klein provides explanations for why so many green initiatives fail, as well as solutions to simultaneously fix the environmental and economic problems the world is facing. She highlights how the “free market” system has essentially resulted in exponentially rising global warming levels. On an ecocritical level, Klein discusses the importance of worldwide attitudes and political beliefs towards achieving a radical change against the climate crisis.

 

Your environmental efforts register on a microscopic scale. When you switch to biodegradable soaps and detergents, when you refuse to buy palm oil products and fur, when you raise awareness by celebrating Earth Hour, when you save water; you make a tangible difference towards sustainable living. However, we need more. We need big changes; we need the movers and shakers of the world to rethink consumerism, to lay down laws against pollution and to address everything from mercury levels building up the food chain to radical changes in manufacturing industries.

And this is what ecocriticism takes under its umbrella. Primary earth-centered literature takes a direct stance towards inspiring people and celebrating pro-earth goals, while secondary ecocriticism texts study literature that is focused on the environment. The latter deals with how literature as a medium expresses humanity’s relation to nature, how attuned we are to it and what role literature can play in advancing this connection for the better.

Literature is a legacy that every culture in the world holds. Be it poetry, plays, fairy tales or books, the world is shaped by the lenses we see it through. This change in the way we think and treat the world around us is accomplished to a significant degree by the things we read, see and hear. So, listen to the words between the ferns and tell others that there is beauty in celebrating the world we live in.

 

By Ayesha Shaik

 

Book cover image sources: Quotabelle.com; Amazon.com; SimonandSchuster.com.

 

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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