EcoEnglish: Teaching English as If the Planet Matters: Sasha Matthewman Argues That English Has a Major Role to Play in Environmental Education, and That the Debate about the Environment Provides Rich Opportunities for English Teachers

By Matthewman, Sasha | English Drama Media, February 2012 | Go to article overview

EcoEnglish: Teaching English as If the Planet Matters: Sasha Matthewman Argues That English Has a Major Role to Play in Environmental Education, and That the Debate about the Environment Provides Rich Opportunities for English Teachers


Matthewman, Sasha, English Drama Media


Is poetry the place where we save the Earth? How do you define an 'ecopoem'? What makes an ecocritical reading? How do texts represent animals using different kinds of anthropomorphism? Which adverts are guilty of 'greenwashing'? How can fieldwork inspire nature writing and inform the discussion of literature and place? How can environmental science inform science fiction writing on the theme of climate change? These are just some of the questions explored in Teaching Secondary English as if the Planet Matters (Matthewman 2011) which is a book dedicated to connecting English with environmental thinking.

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We are perhaps not used to thinking of English as a subject explicitly concerned with environmental issues. But the idea for the pioneering series Teaching Secondary School Subjects as if the Planet Matters began with English. The premise of the series is that any subject worth its space on the timetable needs to engage with the environmental crisis as the major overarching issue that humanity faces in the twenty first century.

The environmental crisis is not just a scientific and economic matter but involves cultural, ethical and aesthetic decisions. Clearly the influence of texts and media shape and direct public attitudes to the environment, and rhetoric and debate are crucial to environmental activism and the formation of environmental policy. In Teaching Secondary English as if the Planet Matters, I argue that English has a pivotal role to play in mediating the environmental rhetoric, texts and readings that surround us. In this article I will explain how English connects with environmental ideas, drawing inspiration from the exciting work in university English departments on 'ecocriticism', and describe some lesson activities to get you started.

English and ecocriticism

Ecocriticism: three definitions

Ecocriticism is ... the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment (Glotfelty and Fromm 1996: xix)

Ecocriticism seeks to track environmental ideas wherever they appear (Kerridge and Sammells 1998:5)

Ecocriticism ... does not write as if human beings were the sole occupants of the planet and must open itself to a space in which fundamental questions about the human place in nature are at issue. (Clark 2011: 5)

Hardly any aspect of our daily lives is now untouched by recognition of the environmental mess that we are in. From news of carbon trading deals to 'green' car adverts to leaflets about how we should organise

our rubbish, we are constantly exposed to environmental rhetoric. Texts and readings are shifting accordingly to take account of the heightened public awareness of environmental threat. The shelves are stocked with books, films and computer games which deal directly with themes of environmental disaster and climate change (see for example popular titles such as: An Inconvenient Truth (Gore 2006), The Day after Tomorrow 2004, The Road (McCarthy 2006), Reavers Ransom (Diamond 2008) and Fate of the World: Tipping Point--a computer game by Red Redemption 2010).

What we read reflects a new consciousness of environmental fragility, but awareness of environmental threat also affects how we read. Is it possible to read a celebratory poem about nature without a sense of unease about the pace of environmental change? Similarly, nature programmes such as Planet Earth and Frozen Planet have been criticised from an environmental perspective for their apparently pristine depictions of nature, but what audience could simply admire the footage of polar bears in blissful ignorance of the global warning that they have come to signify?

Of course this is not to suggest that English should be about promoting 'a cause'. This would be antithetical to English as a critical and creative subject, if not antithetical to education generally. English could have an ecocritical role, however, which would involve critical reflection on the way that nature, the environment and animals are represented as well consideration of the aesthetic and ethical effects of these representations. …

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