19 * EcocriticismThe Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory


Paper #19


Index for Volume 19


Case 19-2004

Richard C. Cabot, Nancy Lee Harris, Jo-Anne O. Shepard, Sally H. Ebeling, Stacey M. Ellender, Christine C. Peters, Mary S. Huang, Robert P. Hasserjian



Ecocriticismcocriticism richard kerridge

This chapter looks at ecocritical work published in 2012 that challenges established positions and extends the scope and methodology of the field.

Among the topics considered are deconstructionist approaches to the question of climate change, ecocritical fatalism, cultural and literary strategies for bioregionalism, positive uses of nostalgia, ecocritical pedagogy and ecocritical approaches to East Asian literature.

People who accept that the ecological crisis is real are faced with two broad approaches. One is to see the crisis as necessitating a fundamental change of values and behaviour, in consumerist societies at least. Environmentalists must propose a profound alternative to mainstream culture: one that reaches all corners of life. If we are to avert a wide range of catastrophes, our current reckless consumerism must be restrained legally and challenged ethically and culturally. Legislation to restrict and ration carbon emissions would be one step in this direction, and many others are also necessary. The main cultural task is to persuade society of the need for these changes, and to make them conceivable not only as forms of restraint but also forms of pleasure and fulfilment. A culture of non-consumerist values and pleasures must emerge.

Such thinking is likely to have been influenced, at least distantly, by Deep

Ecological ideas about the need for humanity to take up less space on the planet and relinquish some traditional aspirations to control natural processes. Environmentalists of this kind try to face the moral implications of the frequently-made observation that for the whole world’s population to live in the way that middle-class Westerners do now, several more Planet

Earths would be required (see http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/ index.php/gfn/page/world_footprint/). On this analysis, consumerist values are socially unjust because they are ecologically threatening. These values encourage people—the haves and the have-nots—to desire and

The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 22  The English Association (2014)

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D ow nloaded from normalize material standards of living that can never truly be available to the majority. Environmentalists who take this view are likely also to see consumerism—at least in its most dominating and addictive forms—as damaging to other kinds of personal, social and cultural fulfilment. Such critics will be appalled at the material wastefulness of the culture—the food discarded by supermarkets, and the rapid obsolescence of still-functioning technological products.

Nostalgia plays a part in this alienation from consumerism.

Environmentalists often look back admiringly at times when food—because scarcer—was conserved more carefully, machines were repaired rather than junked, and the repairs could be carried out using ordinary skills. A similar nostalgia is felt for times when wild nature was more abundant and farming less ecologically destructive. What these nostalgic environmentalists seek, generally, is not the return of the old, but a new synthesis between the virtues of the old and those of the new.

The other approach proceeds from the assumption that anti-consumerism is a lost cause. Arguments for restraint make little political headway.

Politicians are afraid to stand by them. At best there are short periods of progress—usually in times of economic boom—when environmentalism is in fashion, followed by periods of neglect and retreat. The decisive turn is ever-elusive. It is not surprising that some environmentalists have come to see anti-consumerism as a political trap, and have started to look for solutions that do not involve a comprehensive rejection of mainstream culture.

Technological solutions that may also generate ‘green growth’ become the main hope, and this emphasis brings a shift towards the consideration of different ecological problems one by one, as opposed to the identification of a single, apocalyptic, all-encompassing ‘crisis’ to which a similarly allencompassing redemptive change of values must be the answer. Such critics note ruefully that, with a few honourable exceptions, the people who profess most concern about environmental problems have as much difficulty in changing their habits as everyone else. Because a high degree of ecological awareness and concern correlates in the West with a relatively high degree of wealth, the high degree of concern tends to go with a larger carbon footprint. In view of such ironies, many environmentalists are now reluctant to identify with a radically anti-consumerist position.

This dilemma has always existed in the environmental movement, and can be resolved in other ways than by jumping to one side or the other. Many have advocated a selective combination of both approaches. James Lovelock, for example, in The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back—And How

We Can Still Save Humanity (Penguin [2006]), called upon environmentalists to 374 | Ecocriticism at TO

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D ow nloaded from combine Deep Ecological thinking, as a way of preparing for the necessary long-term cultural changes, with a willingness to accept new nuclear power stations as an interim means of preserving civilization from collapse in the immediate post-crisis period. More recently, Mark Lynas, in The God Species:

How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans (Fourth Estate [2011]), reviewed last year, has argued for the international acceptance of a set of precise global ecological limits, within which consumerism and conventional economic growth can be encouraged. Pragmatic combinations of both approaches are common.

But the first approach—the anti-consumerist approach—has found life harder in recent years than for a long time previously. Many now feel that their earlier aspirations were deluded. The failure of the 2009 United