Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the environment. Various schools of literary criticism examine language and literature from specific perspectives. Feminist criticism, for instance, examines literature from the perspective of feminine gender, whereas Marxist criticism examines literature from the standpoint of class structure and production. Ecocriticism looks at literature from the perspective of the ecology.
It is believed that William Rueckert was the first to use the term ecocriticism. Rueckert published an essay in 1978 entitled "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism." This essay offered an outline for the new discipline: "the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature."
While environmentalism became a popular issue in the late 1960s and 1970s, ecocriticism was not established as a genre until the mid-1980s. This initiative was actualized through the work of the Western Literature Association. In 1990, Cheryll Glotfelty of the University of Nevada in Reno was the first to assume an academic position as professor of Literature and the Environment. This institution is still considered the primary bastion for ecocritical thought.
Ecocriticism is represented in the United States by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). This organization holds biennial meetings for ecocritics. The official journal of the ASLE, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE), represents the latest in scholarship on ecocritism. As an ecocritic or theorist reads particular texts, he or she will think about specific issues relating to the ecology. Questions will arise: How is nature expressed in this piece? How important is physical plant to the plot? Are the values represented in the text consonant with "green" thinking? Do literary metaphors for land have an impact on how we treat the land? What constitutes nature writing? If class, race and gender are critical categories, shall place become another such category? Are there differences in the way men and women write about nature? Has literacy changed man's bond to nature? Is the crisis with the environment represented in literature, and how has this affected man's relationship to the ecology? Are United States government reports influenced by a particular ecological view? How has ecology impacted the study of literature?
Though these questions hint at a very wide area of inquiry on different levels, there is a single basic premise in ecological criticism: that all of human culture is linked to the physical world and is affected by and has an effect on the natural world. The ecocritic's job is to negotiate between that which is human and that which is nonhuman.
Another way to understand ecocriticism is by comparing it to other literary criticism. Literary criticism looks at the relationships among authors, writings and the world. The literary critic takes "the world" to mean "society." Ecocritics expand on this notion so that "the world" comes to include all of the ecosphere. According to Barry Commoner, an American envionmental scientist, the first law of ecology states, "Everything is connected to everything else." Applying this concept to literature, the ecocritic believes that literature is not an esoteric or ethereal presence but one capable of playing a role in a complicated global pattern where everything -- matter, energy and ideas -- can interact.
Most ecocritics are driven by the idea that humans are nearing the end of their environmental resources. They see everything as a consequence of how humans have damaged the basic life-support system of the planet. With this awareness at the forefront, the ecocritic yearns to take part in restoring the environment not just from time to time but at all times, in every discipline, including the study of literature.
Historian Donald Worster believes that scholars in the humanities can play a significant role in this work. "Getting through the crisis requires understanding our impact on nature as precisely as possible, but even more, it requires understanding those ethical systems and using that understanding to reform them," he says. "Historians, along with literary scholars, anthropologists, and philosophers, cannot do the reforming, of course, but they can help with the understanding."
Those immersed in the study of literature have the habit of delving into point of view, language, tradition, meaning and value. Through these perspectives, the literary scholar may use ecocriticism to further awareness of the environment and the ecology. Ecocriticism focuses attention on a matter that is acknowledged by most to be of critical importance in the modern world.