Out of the Twilight
Bate, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
There are no green films, plays or literary criticism. Why?
The political revolution never really came close to happening 1968. But it is clear now that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s are here to stay. The rights of women, ethnic minorities and gays are enshrined in law and embedded in consciousness.
How do revolutions of this kind come about? Typically, there will be a slow growth of consciousness, then a headline-grabbing series of books and events, and after that a permeation of new ideas and attitudes through the fabric of society. Education and the culture industry play an important role.
Consider feminism. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was a bestseller when it appeared in English translation in the United States in 1953, but it was not until the very end of the 1960s that the movement gained mass attention -- thanks to the coining of the phrase "women's lib", the tabloid myth of mass public bra-burnings, and the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. A decade later, feminism was everywhere: in fiction, drama and film, and across the academic disciplines (with the exception of the hard sciences).
There was a similar progression in the arenas of race and gay rights. But what about the other great cultural revolution of the 1960s: environmental consciousness?
In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring woke the world up to the dangers of toxic pesticides. In the 1970s, Love Canal and Agent Orange became symbols of the devastating ecological consequences of rampant capitalism and imperialism, while the oil crisis made everyone aware of the limits of natural resources. By the turn of the century, more people were engaged in environmental campaigning of various kinds -- from local protests over new housing and roads to the global consciousness-raising of Greenpeace -- than in any other kind of political direct action.
Yet there has not been a corresponding revolution in cultural practice. We have feminist history, feminist literary theory and feminist anthropology by the barrow-load. Ditto for "post colonial" studies. There are university departments of women's studies, MAs in sexual dissidence, the Orange Prize for women's fiction, and, in the theatre, Gay Sweatshop and Split Britches. From Salman Rushdie to Zadie Smith, the modern novel has pulsated with visions of multiculturalism. So where are the equivalents for the promotion of an environmental agenda? How often do you get to see a film or play, or read a novel or work of history or cultural commentary, that is manifestly "green"?
My own field of expertise is English literature. Over the past 20 years, just about every major author since Chaucer has been analysed in relation to race and gender. There has been a huge industry in the recovery of the lost voices of the literary past -- female poets, black autobiographers, gay novelists. Minorities of all kinds have been honoured, and the literary canon redrawn accordingly. Old liberal humanists in English departments up and down the country have had to recognise that there is no going back to the morally bracing but crampingly provincial "great tradition" of FR Leavis.
I started doing ecological literary criticism a decade ago, when I grew impatient with a tendency among the most advanced readers of William Wordsworth to claim that there is "no such thing as nature". This seemed a counter-intuitive way of looking at someone who took such an interest in the ecology of the Lake District. When I looked around for precedents for my approach, I was greeted with near silence.
As far as I am aware, the first example of self-consciously ecological literary criticism -- published just two years after Rachel Carson -- was an article called "Enclosures: the ecological significance of a poem by John Clare". Clare, a 19th-century farm labourer, was a proto-ecologist in that he perceived human society and the natural environment to be held together in a complex and delicate web. …