Lawrence Buell is one of the most widely read ecocritics (or so it would seem, since pretty much every ecocritic I’ve read has quoted him, though being a widely read ecocritic generally means you have a readership of about 2000 people, which really isn’t that much, but in context it is impressive). So, since I have a term paper due on ecocriticism (I’m focusing on the poetry of William Blake, so expect some work on his material from me in the not too distance future), I figured I would read one of his books to help contextualize the work within the frame ecocriticism. Anyways… it starts off as a very interesting read, though many of the more crucial observations, for me at least, are made in the introduction and first chapter. He starts off noting that
“W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the great public issue of the twentieth century would be the problem of the colour line” and goes onto say that in “the century just begun… a still more pressing question may prove to be whether planetary life will remain viable for most of the earth’s inhabitants without major changes in the way we live now. Like racism” he says, “environmental crisis is a broadly cultural issue, not the property of a single discipline”, and so the birth of literary ecocriticism. Lawrence believes that in order to make progress on environmental issues we have to be “globally networked” and “interdisciplinary”, though he also admits that an “increasingly heterogeneous movement, has not yet achieved the standing accorded (say) to gender, or postcolonial or critical race studies”. In fact, Queer theory has a much broader readership than does ecocriticism, though it could be argued that the Green movement has more public support (though both issues remain under-supported).
Lawrence speaks to the language of creationist myths and how they influence our relationship with nature and the environment. In Genesis, for example, the popular English translation says that god gave dominion over nature to man, but there seems to be an issue with the translation which we have handed down for over 500 years. Let us take a look at Genesis 1:28; “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” It reads to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’. Apparently ‘subdue’ isn’t quite right. The actual translation is ‘cultivate’ it, a word that doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as “subdue”, which project nature almost as an enemy. Genesis 1:29-30 goes onto say (and this is my own observation, not from Lawrence’s work): “Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.” He does not say than man is to eat animals, but rather, he says that he gives “every green plant for food” to “everything that has the breath of life in it”.
There is a theme that runs through ecocriticism that language has separated humanity from nature and Lawrence touches on Mayan mythography noting how it “represents the gods as fashioning human beings after several false starts from corn gathered with the help of already-created animals, thereby symbolizing ‘the collective survival that must exist between humans, plants and animals,’” which lends credibility to this idea that humanity is interconnected with nature. This is an idea Lawrence returns to when he quotes Kathleen Dean Moore’s The Pine Island Paradox: “’You could cut off my hand, and I would still live… You could take out my eyes, and I would still live… Take away the sun, and I die. Take away the plants and the animals, and I die. So why should I think my body is more a part of me than the sun and the earth?’” We are more connect, it would seem, to nature than we are to our own bodies, a concept that ecocritics hope to instil in the “great unwashed” with the hopes of making some positive changes. A “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” if you will.
Lawrence concedes that many works will be “retrospectively enlisted” by ecocritics, that the original authors may not have shared the ecocritics view on humanity’s relationship with nature, or as Robert Kenr notes in “Ecocriticism – What Is It Good For”; “‘ecocriticism becomes most interesting as useful… when it aims to recover the environmental character or orientation of works whose conscious of foregrounded interests lie elsewhere”. Lawrence also suggests there is a need “for a closer alliance with environmental sciences”, or as he calls it: “science-literate” critics. Indeed, it would seem important for literary critics to be aware of the science behind theories before supporting it, though even among the scientists and their ‘objective’ results there are great disputes! Lawrence touches on this as well; “For a number of other ecocritics, the arrogance of scientism has loomed up as a greater hazard than the insouciance of cultural theory”.
There is also an idea among ecocritics of the “ecocentric or biocentric vs. anthropocentric”, or in other words, an approach to life that is centered around the environment, vs. one centered around humanity. Since humanity’s survival is interdependent on the survival of nature, it seems we should me making this move from the anthropocentric to the ecocentric immediately, but “’the arrogance of humanism’” seems to be too much to overcome at this point, and the ecocritics efforts can sadly be equivocated as quixotic at this point. There are some other core themes to ecocriticism explore throughout the book, but it is largely, as I’m sure you may have guesses, esoteric.