Why Environmental Literature Matters

While researching for the upper-division Environmental Literature course I teach every other fall, I came across this quote from Dr. John Tallmadge:

“Environmental literature…engages the humanities in pressing concerns of the day. We often blame environmental problems on industry, capitalism, bad science, or rampant consumption, and we think that technical fixes or clever new laws will solve them. But these address only the proximate causes. Environmental problems ultimately stem from our values, beliefs, and ideas about the proper relations between human beings and nature. We will never solve them without understanding those beliefs, subjecting them to critique, and transforming them with capable imagination. Such work has always belonged to the ‪humanities, and this means that humanists now have a vital role to play as public intellectuals in a culture that is groping halfheartedly toward a sustainable future.”

I’ve long been a champion of the humanities for this very reason: while science and politics have an indisputable place in remaking the world into a safe, thriving place for all sentient beings, it’s the humanities’ unique emphasis on methodological self-reflection that hold the power to bring awareness to hypocrisy or internal contradiction and transform a person’s values and beliefs, which drive behavior. The humanities are where the revolution of spirit happens. Without this revolution, our conversations and actions surrounding the most pressing issues of our time will remain stagnant.

It’s no secret that my favorite courses to teach are literature courses, and that’s because it places me on the front lines of this revolution. As students encounter new ideas, new kinds of intelligences, new ways of moving through and knowing this world, new voices that have been historically relegated to the margins, I can witness the transformation of values on a personal level. That’s exciting and immensely rewarding.

All literature has this power, but I believe that, of all the branches of literary criticism, exposure to ecocriticism is the one that wields the greatest power to transform. Thankfully, the study of simple (and, for my tastes, leaning toward the sentimental and passive) environmentalism has been overtaken by the principals of environmental justice, the idea that ecological issues intersect with human social and political issues surrounding race, class, gender and even sexuality.

This theoretical transition from environmentalism to environmental justice follows a logical progression of moral development we can see on the individual level: once a young person develops empathy for the plight of mammalian cousins like polar bears, for example, she will begin to worry about the ecosystem the polar bears exist within and start to work to conserve habitat or to slow climate change. Under the care of a good educator, as this student learns about climate change in her effort to save the polar bears she will begin to tease out the complex implications of climate change that impact not just those starving, exhausted bears, but all living beings on the planet. She opens her mind and heart to vulnerable groups of people who are most devastated by rising seas, unpredictable weather, famine, drought, soil erosion, and deforestation. This student – and I’ve watched this happen – will begin to feel the weight of her responsibility not just to the polar bears and their immediate habitat, but her empathy will range in ever wider circles. From there, it’s a short leap to extending empathy to living beings everywhere and to work for transformation in all political and social systems in an intersectional way.

Environmental justice is social justice, and vice versa.

One of the powerful things about teaching environmental literature is that, more than other literary discourse, the study of environment, even a study grounded in the written word, is best taught in a direct, hands-on way. I’ve come to learn that environmental literature courses that don’t take students out into our woods and plains, our lakes and streams, our grasslands and oceans, into the very heart and lungs of the earth, are missing a powerful and transformative teaching tool. All of our literature courses could draw on this lesson, certainly: as students read Kafka, for example, with an eye toward Marxism, what would it be like to take those students into agricultural fields to speak with migrant farm workers, or into a massive Amazon warehouse where workers’ bodies are searched before and after their shifts and walk dozens of miles a day to retrieve items to be shipped across the world? But there’s something immediately personal and visceral about our connection with nature, even in those students who begin an environmental literature course oblivious to that connection. There’s something about the study of nature that humbles us, that reminds us of our dependence on our common Mother. Nature nudges us in the direction of equality, because as a species we are equally vulnerable, our future equally tenuous. Nature teaches us that we are tied not just to each other but to all other systems.

If our university’s mission is to provide transformative education, a complex study of ecology that includes the voices and written or spoken experiences of many kinds of humans should be a part of that education. I’m pleased that my university opens this course not just to English majors or those interested in the abstract, critical and theoretical underpinnings of written codes and signs, but requires the course for all Environmental Science/Studies majors. Maybe the next step could be offering that course more often than every other fall.


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