A Memo-Festo

Environmental Justice Ecocriticism: A Memo-festo

© 1997; 2010 by T. V. Reed; quote all you want, but please cite this source.

[This essay was originally published via the online conference, "Cultures and Environments: On Cultural Environmental Studies," held at Washington State University and in cyberspace during June 1997; an expanded and updated version of this essay was published in the collection, Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy, edited by Joni Adamson, Rachel Stein, and Mei Mei Evans (University of Arizona Press, 2002), and the final version was published in T.V. Reed,The Art of Protest University of Minnesota Press, 2005. In the interests of history, the text below is the original 1997 version.]

I want in this brief piece -- a sort of memo with ambitions to be a manifesto -- to examine what I see as a problematic feature of much current "ecocriticism," and then to outline some directions for the further development of what I call "environmental justice ecocriticism." I offer this as a sketch which I plan to develop into a longer essay [see note above], and thus I encourage responses that augment and/or argue with these initial positionings.

My problem with much past and current "ecocriticism" (a term whose necessarily imprecise contours I will try to sketch below) is less what it is than what it is not (yet). While the field of ecocriticism is in many respects very broad, it has not for the most part dealt seriously with questions of race and class, questions which I and many others believe must be at the heart of any discussion of the history and future of environmental thought and action.

Both the problem and some hints towards its solution can be found in the collection of essays entitled, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology edited by Cheryll Burgess Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. As the title itself might suggest (the ecocriticism reader, not an ecocriticism reader), this volume has designs to be the defining text for its field. As the introduction puts it: "These are the essays which anyone wishing to undertake ecocritical scholarship ought to be familiar." (xxvi). And while there are other clear gestures noting the incompleteness of the project of ecocriticism, mention of its "evolving nature" for example, to the extent that this text is representative (and in many respects I believe it is), it suggests that ecocriticism is in danger of recapitulating the sad history of environmentalism generally wherein unwillingness to grapple with questions of racial and class privilege has severely undermined the powerful critique of ecological devastation

The problem I am addressing can be seen clearly in a remark in the section of the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader entitled, "The Future of Ecocriticism." There co-editor Cheryll Burgess Glotfelty names the problem and exhibits it in the same breath. She writes: "Ecocriticism has been a predominately white movement. It will become a multi-ethnic movement when stronger connections are made between the environment and issues of social justice, and when a diversity of voices are encouraged to contribute to the discussion." (xxv) Notwithstanding the good intentions no doubt present in this statement, it is a remarkably complacent and politically insensitive one. Offered as a series of passive constructions, there is clear recognition that the "whiteness" of the movement can appear to be a problem, but there is little sense of urgency about making connections between "the environment and issues of social justice." We are presumably to wait until those connections "are made" (as if they had not been made for years by environmental justice workers), and there is more than an hint that we will have to wait for those connections to be made after "a diversity of voices are encouraged to contribute to the discussion." Again, why do "we" have to wait? Why does Glotfelty not feel an urgent need to not merely encourage but actively to seek out "those" voices for this collection? And why, once again, are issues of racial justice not seen as primarily a "white" problem rather than one to await diverse voices? The content of the rest of the volume unfortunately reinforces the problems and gaps in this initial formulation.

There is not a single essay in the volume that deals seriously with environmental racism The two essays that seem most clearly chosen to introduce something of the "diversity of voices" Glotfelty mentions are essays by mixed-race American Indian authors Paula Gunn Allen and Leslie Silko. Both articles attempt to elucidate aspects of native American Indian relationship to the natural world, and however admirable each may be on its own terms, in context it seems to me they play into the syndrome wherein Indians of the past are noble, in this case noble keepers of the land, while contemporary Indians remain invisible or useful only as symbols of a degraded present. I hasten to add that this is not an attitude I attribute to Gunn Allen or to Silko but rather the discursive context in which I fear they will be set in the absence of serious environmental justice ecocriticism.

Before continuing my discussion of what is missing from ecocriticism, I think it helpful to try to define and sketch the terrain it covers in order to help locate these problematic dimensions within the wider space of the field. The introduction to the volume offers two somewhat competing definitions of ecocriticism. The first, relatively narrow definition reads as follows: "Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment" (xviii). But immediately after this, a larger more inclusive set of questions expands the scope of ecocriticism beyond "literature" to include more general questions of "representation" that would entail looking at "U.S. government reports, corporate advertising, and television nature documentaries," among other things. (xix) This larger definition is greatly to be preferred, in my view, since a wider sense of relevant "texts" will be crucial to the elaboration of an environmental justice ecocriticism, though as I will try to suggest, there is much that has been and can be done in this respect with regard to "literature" defined narrowly.

Let me offer the following typology of ecocritical schools, approaches, or tendencies as a way of briefly mapping the field. Like all typologies, of course, it is a crude device, and I should say quickly that much, if not most, ecocriticism in practice combines two or more of these "schools." The schools listed are meant to correspond roughly to major sectors in the history and present of environmental movements. Since all of these schools are still relatively undefined, I find the best way to characterize each is through a list of the typical questions it seeks to address, rather than definitive positions it takes.

Conservationist Ecocriticism:

Typical Questions: What can literature/nature writing and criticism do to enhance appreciation and improve attitudes toward the natural environment? What can literature and criticism do to help preserve and extend wilderness, protect endangered species and otherwise assist in the preservation of the natural world? How can literature and criticism strengthen the transcendent dimension of the human/nature spiritual relationship?

Ecological Ecocriticism:

Typical questions: How can the ecosystem idea (or metaphor) be extended to a poetics of the literary system in relation to nature? How can literature and criticism be placed within ecosystems, or be used to elucidate the nature and needs of ecosystems? How can a sense of rootedness in place, in particular ecosystems, bioregions, etc. be enhanced when examining literary works? How can the insights of the "science" of ecology be used in the analysis of literary texts and other representations of the natural world?

Biocentric/Deep Ecological Ecocriticism:

Typical Questions: How can literature and criticism be used to displace "man" and place the biotic sphere at the center of concern? How can literature and criticism be used to show the limits of "humanism"? How can the independent existence and rights of the non-human biotic and abiotic realms be protected and extended through literary and critical acts? How can a deeper, biocentric spirituality be furthered by literature and criticism?

Ecofeminist Ecocriticism:

Typical Questions: How have women and nature been linked in literature and criticism? How has nature been "feminized"? How have women been "naturalized"? In what other ways has the gendering of nature been written and with what effects? How are the liberation of women and the liberation of nature linked? How do interrelations of race, class, and sexuality complicate the imagined and real relations between women and nature? Is there a separate, different history of women's "nature writing" and other writings about nature?

Each of these schools or approaches has real virtues and important things to contribute to cultural environmental criticism. But without adding another school, environmental justice ecocriticism, this list remains radically incomplete and politically limiting.

Environmental Justice Ecocriticism:

Typical Questions: How can literature and criticism further efforts of the environmental justice movement to bring attention to how environmental degradation and hazards unequally affect poor people and people of color? To what extent and in what ways have other ecocritical schools been ethnocentric and insensitive to race and class? Are there separate and different traditions in nature writing by the poor and people of color? How can issues like toxic waste, incinerators, lead poisoning, uranium mining and tailings, and other environmental equity issues be brought forth more fully in literature and criticism?

The lack of a developed environmental justice ecocriticism such as this should constitute a crisis in the field.

Two articles, set back to back in The Ecocriticism Reader neatly stage the problem and point to the solution I see emerging. The first is an essay by Scott Russell Sanders entitled, "Speaking a Word for Nature" (Glotfelty and Fromm 182-202). The presumptuousness of the title is matched by the content of the essay which in essence condemns virtually all of contemporary American literature as un- if not anti-natural. Sanders cites a number of examples of this alleged unnaturalness, but one will suffice to point to the issue I wish to raise. Sanders writes: "In Don DeLillo's White Noise -- the most honored novel of 1985 -- the only time you are reminded that nature exists is when his characters pause on the expressway to watch a sunset, and even the sunset interests them only because a release of toxic gases from a nearby plant has poisoned it into technicolor." (193) For Sanders these facts point up the utter lack of appreciation for or sense of connection to "nature" in DeLillo's novel. From Sanders' ecological ecocritical perspective, this is a tragedy and a travesty. (This passage comes soon after Sanders reports on his own attempt to view a lovely sunset in the Great Smoky Mountains when a rumbling camper van reminds him of the gross insensitivity of city folks to nature.) But looked at from an environmental justice perspective, quite a different sense of DeLillo's novel emerges.

Clearly in part what is at stake here is what counts as "nature" or "the environment." Sunsets apparently count, while toxic gases do not. It would be hard to find a more succinct statement of the problem in much ecocriticism. The problem with this perspective is not that it is ecological, but that it is not ecological enough. The ecosystem and Nature seem to end at the edge of the city or the national park or the wilderness. Sanders argues that much contemporary literature is superficial because it does not treat seriously human connectedness to nature. But his own analysis remains equally superficial until it connects the social realm to the "natural" (defined too narrowly), including what those toxic gases are doing to all of us but to low-income communities especially. It remains deeply embedded in a romanticist notion of nature as the non-human, and the relatively pristine.

What is left out, of course, is human beings as connected to nature not only as appreciators but as destroyers. To privilege the first without dealing seriously with the second is a recipe for continued ecological disaster. The kind of nature appreciation writing Sanders thinks we need more of has, in fact, been the dominant form at least since the Transcendentalists. Despite the great virtues of this tradition, it is not the primary source of modern environmentalism. That source is work like Rachel Carson's which brought to the world's attention the link between human damage to nature and human damage to humans. The toxic chain she traces is powerful in its evocation of a silence(d) Spring, but it is placing people in that chain, I would argue, that accounts for the ultimate power and impact of the book. Even the route to biocentricism must pass through the human.

The next essay in the ecocriticism collection also discusses White Noise, but in a very different, more useful way. Cynthia Deitering's "The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction of the 1980s" (Glotfelty and Fromm 196-203) places White Noise in the context of numerous works in the last several decades in which the traditional "wasteland" literary trope has been made more concrete and specific in the form of works pointing to various kinds of real waste -- toxics, garbage, landfills, industrial debris, etc. -- that are so much a part of the contemporary "landscape." Where Sanders saw DeLillo's novel as unnatural, if not anti-natural, Deitering's essay sees DeLillo as pointing us toward and trying to bring into greater public awareness the obliviousness to a toxic environment that is leading us toward further disasters. This seems to me the beginning of a better understanding of a work like DeLillo's, but an environmental justice eco-critic would push the analysis further in two, importantly interrelated ways.

First, Deitering's essay misses the opportunity to raise more directly the nature and causes of the toxic crisis. And second, in doing so it would be crucially important to see that crisis related in part to the whiteness of the world depicted in White Noise. "Noise" in technical jargon is that which distorts communication. And the "white noise" that is the background or subtext of U.S. culture is a not accidentally racially coded distortion of ecological reality. The whiteness of the world in DeLillo's novel is one studded with privilege and the capacity to bury consciousness of toxicity along with all other signs of human vulnerability. The novel is in part about flight from death and the search for reality in a wholly simulated environment. The sunset whose observation Sanders mocks is part of an ecosystem of commodified representations parodied most directly in tourists flocking to photograph "the most photographed barn in America." The commodification of this picturesque rural America is merely an extension and condensation of an ideology of the picturesque that has pervaded European and American apprehension of "Nature" since the late 18th century. And that process of commodification has been inadvertently furthered by the kind of aestheticization found in much ecocriticism. What the environmental justice eco-critic would bring to the fore here is the invasive, pervasive effects of corporate capitalism on this process, and the racial-class dynamic that has enabled that process to continue. Aesthetic appreciation of nature has not only been a class-coded activity, but the insulation of the middle and upper classes from the most brutal effects of industrialization has played a crucial role in environmental devastation. Aesthetic appreciation of nature has precisely masked the effects of environmental degradation. In the case of this novel, that dynamic can be seen most richly in the way in which the white suburban characters have been so protected by privilege that they literally cannot see the toxic danger in front of them -- the "airborne toxic event" is something that happens only to others, to lower class people in ghettos and such.

Let me finish by pointing toward some directions in which the development of an environmental justice ecocriticism might go, and then offer an quick example of how such an approach might be brought to bear on a text not obviously primed for such a reading.

In her introduction to The Ecocriticsim Reader, Glotfelty offers an ecocritical gloss of Elaine Showalter's feminist gloss of Huston Baker's gloss of black literary critical history, that lays out three stages of development: 1. -- identifying images/stereotypes 2. -- uncovering & mapping traditions 3. -- theorizing specific approaches

I think an environmental justice ecocriticism is proceeding and should proceed on all these fronts simultaneously. With regard to stage one, we can continue looking for relations between racial and environmental stereotypes (a task underway in some ecofeminist work, among other places). This includes looking at a rich body of work on racialist biology and how the racialization of science played into the racialization of environmental science. More directly, we can look for cultural texts that have helped enable this racism, as well as at texts and images that have called attention to instances of environmental racism.

Stage two might include furthering attempts to define other than white traditions in nature writing, as well as tracing the literature on environmental racism (in fiction, poetry and non-fiction). The novels of "toxic consciousness" Deitering notes would provide one set of examples. Ana Castillo's So Far from God with its treatment of environmental racism in the Southwest would be another more directly relevant choice, among many others. This stage might also include re-reading such classics as Carson's Silent Spring for positive and/or questionable awareness of racial difference.

And finally, stage three would seek to bring together theoretical tools (from racial formation theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, "minority" literary theory, etc.) to use in approaching the specificity of an environmental justice ecocritical analysis. (To cite one example from within The Ecocriticism Reader itself, David Mazel's essay, "American Literary Environmentalism as Domestic Orientalism," might well be adapted to link environmental and racialized colonialism.)

In addition to looking for the most direct sources for an environmental justice ecocriticism, theoretical imagination should encourage us also to approach texts where the links are not immediately present. Take, for example, Penny Hall's essay in this conference on "Nature and Culture in Three Women's Slave Narratives." Or a recent effort by Mary Wood to read immigrant writer Mary Antin's "natural history" of mice in her early 20th century tenement as a reflection on gender, ethnicity, racial privilege and the coding or nature (Wood 1997).

Or, how might an environmental justice ecocritic look at this influential poem by Adrienne Rich:

Trying to Talk With a Man
Out in this desert we are testing bombs,
that's why we came here.
Sometimes I feel an underground river
forcing its way between deformed cliffs
moving itself like a locus of the sun
into this condemned scenery....
....Coming out to this desert
we meant to change the face of
driving among dull green succulents
walking at noon in the ghost town
surrounded by silence
that sounds like the silence of the place
except that it came with us
and is familiar
and everything we were saying until now
was an effort to blot it out--
coming out here we are up against it
Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of caring for each other
in emergencies--lacerations, thirst--
but you look at me like an emergency
Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor
talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else. (1971)

A new critic or a psychological critic would approach this setting as a mere metaphor, an externalization of a barren relationship (and that surely it is, in part). Feminist critics have read it well as a critique of patriarchal power and verbal reticence. What could ecocritics add? Ecological ecocritics could link lack of respect for the delicate desert ecosystem with the other character flaws suggested in the poem. Ecofeminist critics would extend this to the patriarchal power and arrogance that threatens the world with the bombs being putatively "tested" on this landscape. An environmental justice ecocritic would use these analyses of power, and then point also to what is left out of the poem, s/he would work to re-place the indigenous Paiute and Western Shoshone back onto this Nevada Test Site region (see the paper by Valerie Kuletz in this conference, and her book, Tainted Desert), for it is they who have most directly suffered the effects that the patriarchal military-corporate-scientific complex have inflicted on this particular landscape. They are present as the absence that calls this place a wasteland. Seeing this wasteland is inside the "man" of the title, allows an opening toward what "he" does not see outside -- the desert and the people who have lived on it for several thousand years.

I end with this composite because my goal is not to suggest that environmental justice ecocriticism supplant these other approaches. Rather I want to suggest that it adds a vital dimension to the important work done by Glotfelty, Sanders, and others, just as surely as the environmental justice movement adds an absolutely crucial dimension to our understanding of environmental problems and solutions. But this is not simple addition. Bringing environmental justice into environmentalism, and into ecocriticism, must lead as well to a fundamental rethinking and reworking of the entire field.


Glotfelty, Cheryll Burgess, and Harold Fromm, eds. The Ecocriticism Reader. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Hall, Penny. "Nature and Culture in Three Women's Slave Narratives" Paper delivered at the Cultures and Environments: On Cultural Environmental Studies conference, Pullman Washington, June 1997.

Kuletz, Valerie. Tainted Desert. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Wood, Mary Elene. "Spiders and Mice: Mary Antin, Immigrant 'Outsider' Identity, and Ecofeminism," paper delivered at the Pacific Northwest American Studies Association meeting, April 10-12, 1997.