Ecocriticism, Environmental Ethics, and a New Ecological Culture

By Platz, Norbert H. | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ecocriticism, Environmental Ethics, and a New Ecological Culture


Platz, Norbert H., Cross / Cultures


1. Introduction

In this essay I wish t? offer a tentative programme for the development of fruitful cooperation between ecocriticism and environmental ethics. What could be envisaged as a result of this cooperation would be the idea and ideal of a new ecological culture.

To start with, I will submit working definitions of my key terms. While doing this, I would also like to thumbnail the agendas they include. As will become clear, I look at the environment through a dual lens - in the hope that the relationship between these two foci will yield some new insights.

2. Definitions and the Programmes They Include

Let me first consider ecocriticism. An important statement made by Cheryll Glotfelty, the founder of the American Association for Literature & Environment (AS LE), describes the focus of ecocriticism in the following terms: "While in most literary theory 'the world' is synonymous with society - the social sphere - ecocriticism expands the notion of 'the world' to include the entire ecosphere."1

The primary concern of ecocriticism, to use an agreed definition, is thus to study "the relationship between literature and the physical environment."2 One important feature attached to ecocriticism should not be disregarded: it was born from the environmental crisis, awareness of which has affected many literary critics and scholars since the 1980s.3 There has been a growing number of ecocritical publications from the last two decades of the twentieth century.4

A major motive underpinning the ecocritical agenda is its insistence on critical awareness. In the final analysis, the purpose of ecocriticism is to study literary texts and other art-works, in order to generate more caring attitudes towards nature and the whole biosphere. To be more specific, ecocriticism tends to make ethical appeals by pointing, for example, to failings in political and cultural practices. The overall concern of ecocriticism is with human survival on Earth. The basic assumption prominently expressed by quite a few - but not all - ecocritics is that humankind will have to face up to an ecological holocaust if it does not abandon its exploitive direction.

Environmental ethics could be defined as "a set of principles, values or norms relating to the ways in which we interact with our [natural] environment."5 If we look at this area of concern, we can easily recognize that there are some striking characteristics which ecocriticism and environmental ethics have in common.

i. Like ecocriticism, environmental ethics sprang from the environmental crisis. '"Environmental ethics' is essentially a response to a range of environmental problems which collectively make up the 'environmental crisis'."6 So, one could say that the environmental crisis has haunted literary critics and philosophers alike.

ii. Like ecocriticism, or even more strongly, environmental ethics insists on our critical awareness of environmental problems.

iii. Like ecocriticism, environmental ethics is working towards generating more caring attitudes towards nature and the whole biosphere,

iv. Like ecocriticism, environmental ethics is deeply concerned with the question of human survival on Earth.

So much for the common features. Let us now point out a couple of significant differences.

i. Obviously, environmental ethics does not deal with literary texts and works of art. As a branch of 'applied philosophy', environmental ethics focuses more directly on human behaviour. More precisely, it devotes attention to the ways in which humans interact with the physical /natural environment, both as individuals in their everyday behaviour, on the one hand, and as social groups such as governments or business companies (with their farreaching impacts), on the other.

ii. Environmental ethics aims to identify and address a wide range of environmental problems that have been caused by humans, and submit these problems to critical analysis. …

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