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Green Voices: Some Aspects Of Ecological Criticism

By Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan

31 August, 2007

In the late seventies, when the dispute over the Silent Valley in Kerala was rampant and the great debate over the whole philosophy of Nature Conservation was in its incipient stages, a senior friend of mine who later was to become a naturalist of considerable renown, accosted me one day and opined: "you are more of an aesthete than a naturalist!" His dismissive tone was on account of the significance that I had advocated for the idea of beauty and value in nature. Nature conservation, I had then argued, began with the love and devotion to nature and the natural. However, the seventies in Kerala, were quite unsuitable times for the aesthete and idealist! And by then, the Sastra Sahitya Parishad-- the advocates for peoples' science movement-- who radicalized the idea of science and technology, and who were development-oriented and forward-looking, had taken over the entire struggle towards the popularisation of the idea of conservation and preservation. Ecology had become a household term and the idea of conservation of biodiversity was indisputably foregrounded as an integrated part of the agenda of development studies. Equating development with the progressive adaptation of science and technology was as always held to be logical and unquestionable.

Of course, the arguments for and against conservation have far from subsided. Strangely enough, even now there are many who believe that the entire idea of nature conservation is only suited for the developed countries, while the poor and needy in our part of the world cannot afford such a measure! Economically such proceedings are not quite feasible at all. Ecology we need to remember was a comparatively recent science and it has been necessitated by the inadvertent march of human (read Western) civilization! Because we overexploit our natural resources and remorselessly indulge in species annihilation, lethally poison our rivers and seas over and above damming and polluting them, smoke out holes in our atmosphere, and engage in a hundred different ways of self-destruction, we need to sit up and take stock before things go out of our hands. Now, if only we had listened to our poets and artists! If only we had heeded our now over-interpreted spiritual texts and good old religious seers! It is not as if everything about the past and those days of yore is to seen as conservation-oriented. And it is not to generalise that all religious texts are wisdom texts too. But then there had been one too many voices of dissent and disapproval raised against the mad march of development in the past. And the point is that they had perhaps resorted to the heart rather than the head. And that is where it all leads us to. West or East, ecological wisdom had always been there, but then it was buried under the rubble of destructive and exploitative philosophies. Further it was for the most an affair of the heart rather than the head as such. Feeling, of course would later spill into thought and action.

The argument that my scientist-friend disapproved of was that nature conservation was largely a matter of the heart than the head. I had cited the green poets and pointed out that the ultimate historical foundations of nature preservation are aesthetic (which I much later came to realize was the basis of the environmental ethics as formulated by the deep ecologists). We start by loving nature and the natural, and begin to care for what we love and cherish. The deep blue sky, the wide expanse of the green earth, the songs and flutter of the birds and butterflies, the gambolling animals—all these begin to crystallize in our hearts a deep fondness of indistinguishable delight, a sense of nature. This crystallization is not without its cultural and historical contexts. Nevertheless it is what binds us the great wide world. The hard data of the like that today a significant portion of the 15000 plant species and 75000 animal species found in India are threatened by the pressure of human activity on land and forests, and so many hectares of forest land are ransacked per the hour in the rain forests of the world, are only supplementary and they could add to our agony. The fragility and the resilience of earth is first borne into our hearts through the wonder and amazement that our hearts accord. Perhaps this is the experience of the intangible behind the tangible that the spiritual masters have spoken of. This would bring us to the brink of metaphysics and religion. Perhaps, this is the right place to begin.

Religious thought, the world over, dovetails with that of the nature lover, because religion in its beginnings and ends has a bearing on nature. Almost all religions, sociologists would agree, have their roots in the worship of nature. The adoration of trees, birds and animals, the worship of sacred groves, and the attribution of sacredness to all life forms are true to the spirit of ancient religions. It may be that the reasons for their being so sacred might be slightly different from the ecological angle that we are seeking for, but however, in spirit, they come quite close to that. Of course, we are saddled with the virtues and hindrances of hindsight and therefore can see in history the reverence attributed to all life forms in the sacred texts of almost all religions. The finer aspects of differences may be a matter of significance only for the scholar: while most "pagan" religions identified the immutable with the divine, the Hebraic, especially the Christian religion, maintained the natural superiority of the human being over all other life forms, and insisted on his (His?) superior ability to break the immutability of natural laws. As many perspective scholars have noted it might be this underlying patriarchal power that laid the foundations for classical science and its strains are still visible despite the claims to universality and understanding of contemporary science. However, pre-scientific societies cherished a celebratory attitude to nature.

In the march of Western history of ideas, the Enlightenment is often looked upon as the age of reason. Whatever else this might have entailed, the most significant aspect is that this age gave rise to a belief in scientism—a dangerous attitude indeed—a deep faith in the order of scientific thinking. Human emotion, feeling, and the entire "irrational" sphere of mankind were delegated a secondary insignificant position in the understanding of life. The intellect superseded the heart and analytical thought sought precedence over the intuitive. Values came to be reinterpreted, religion was relegated to superstition, and science got itself the supreme role as the interpreter of truth. In our own times even to speak of one's beliefs is to rake up the ghost of pre-renaissance nescience! How could one speak of being moved by nature and the natural forms? Poetry and imagination are things of the past. These are days of rationality and intelligence. Religion breeds only superstition and nonsense; it works as opium! This is not to demean rationality and intelligence per se but only to challenge their claims to being the only valid means of approaching the truth. While this being so, truth, in the logic of the postmodern, is multi-dimensional and multifaceted. Let us reorient ourselves to this fact that is not a fact! If fiction differentiates itself by not being fact let us create the faction of the present! In the search for alter/native truths we need to heed and understand the other logic that may not resemble the logic we are used to. If the post-enlightenment logic declaims the validity of religion and metaphysics, then we need to reorient ourselves with regard to these two as well.

To believe Theodore Adorno, it is barbaric to write poetry after Auswitz . And to believe Michael Foucault and Edward Said, it is impossible to think of any social situation without relating it to the politics of power and oppression. And of course after the great movements in Feminist thinking it is virtually impossible to understand any situation without relating it to the ideas of gender and politics. Likewise race, class, ideology—these concepts have all altered our ways of understanding the present. In such a situation how could we relegate the idea of nature? What we understand by nature most certainly has a bearing on what we make of ourselves. And our understanding needs necessarily be holistic and not discriminative. The efforts of environmental historians and environmental geographers have enabled us to understand the profound implications of the natural environment and our ways of responding to it.

Thus in our understanding of the world we live in we need to reorient ourselves with regard to the values and our ways of response. It is my strong contention that aesthetics belongs to the order of values of which ecological value too forms a significant part. In fact the value which we attribute to the environment cannot be seen distinct from our general aesthetico-ethical frame of reference. The value which we attribute to the environment is holistic and complete and not peripheral or derivative . Aesthetic value cannot be and should not be dismissed as subjective (in a Cartesian sense) when considering the value of environment and issues pertaining to conservation and preservation. The ecological activism that globally politicized these issues has come to be known as the Green Movement. There is a green politics and even a green speak! And over the last fifteen years a whole aesthetics of the green has also emerged under the name of ecological criticism or eco criticism. In the great welter of socio-political theorizing that had held sway over the last half of the twentieth century the concerns of the human individual and nature were virtually submerged. After the death of the author the individual artist/poet ceased to have any space to speak afterwards, and after the closure of the text history ceased to exist at all. If one were to take the pains of going over the warp and woof of socio-political theorizing carefully, one can perceive the struggles of the author and the text in the light of meaning production. When we reinstate class, race and gender along with the voice of nature we regain the fuller meaning of human's being. When Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…" and when Aldo Leopold spoke of the land ethic, they were giving voice to an aesthetics of commitment and engagement.


What came to be called Deep Ecology stemmed primarily from the work of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. According to Naess, "the aim of supporters of the deep ecology movement is not a slight reform of our present society, but a substantial reorientation of our whole civilization." Hence it is an ecosophy. It concentrates on the human relationship with the natural world and supplies a substantial reorientation to a world run astray. Let me provide the major points of this ecosophy as it is developed by the practitioners of deep ecology:

A rejection of anthropocentrism. All life on earth has an intrinsic value irrespective of the human angle.

Richness and biodiversity are valuable in themselves and humans have no right to reduce this diversity.

An identification with all life

Caring for the other life forms is part of individual self realization.

A critique of instrumental rationality (emphasis should be not on quantity and efficiency but quality)

Personal development of a total world view. Individual thinking and action are of utmost significance and later the collective and the social.

As can be seen the concept of deep ecology is akin to the spiritual. What is aimed at is life enhancing qualitative values very much similar to spiritual enlightenment or artistic fulfillment. After all, life becomes meaningful only when we start to live fully and selflessly.

In our present day-to-day life of hard reality at every point we are habituated to turn to the physical sciences for concurrence and approval for only they can account convincingly for our corporeal existence. Similarly, in spite of their theoretical differences the so-called social sciences get their sanction only because they meekly follow the methodology of the non-human mathematical sciences. And yet many perceptive minds have pointed out time and again that our thinking and perception have been determined by the technological environment rather than the natural. There is apparently little of nature that is left in us. Technology has taken over. This has become an automatic universe for us. Our constructions of our environment and our lives have become so removed from the organic unity of the poetic and the spiritual and so how could we sense and see the elemental harmony that is so apparent to the poet when he writes:

My beloved is the mountains
The solitary wooded valleys,
Strange islands…silent music

(St John of the Cross)


iyam prithvi sarvesam bhutanam madhu, asyai prithvyai sarvani bhutani madhu

this earth is like honey for all creatures and all the creatures are like honey for this earth, Brhadarnyaka V brahmana1.

This brings us to the immediate contexts of ecological criticism or ecocriticism. Literature and art have always shown deep affinities with nature, however, the academic critical pursuit of this interdisciplinary field of enquiry has developed fairly recently. It has come to be known as ecological criticism, or ecocriticism in short. Among the many factors that led to this recognition of environmental art and literature—distinctions have also been drawn between nature writing and environmental writing, etc—are the growing public awareness of profound ecological crisis consequent to many conservation and Green movements the world over, as well as the historical development of contemporary social and critical theory. It is in this context that the work and critical practice of most ecocritics who endeavour to direct public attention to the ecological values embedded in literary texts become contemporary and relevant. Scott Slovic (2004) has drawn attention to the fact that despite traditional interactions between humans and the land that figure prominently in the literatures of the world, literary scholars and other specialists in the arts and humanities (the visual and performing arts, history, philosophy and related disciplines) have almost solely concentrated their studies on human experience and expression, seldom considering the ramifications of human behaviour for the planet and the impact of nature on human experience. Ecocriticism is an attempt to organize and understand the human and non-human interactions and interrelationships. Ecocrticism is further an attempt to reintegrate the human and the non human, to retrace the lost links between humanity and the world out there. Too much of scientism has effected the human separation from nature and hastened in a clear demarcation between the head and the heart. What is thus so crystal clear to the nature-aesthete—the intimate links between those primal human emotions, the need and desire for sympathy and compassion and the principles of nature conservation—has become too indistinct to the woolly-minded scientist and material philosophers. Ecocriticism focuses on these and much more.

In his recent book, Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature, Patrick Murphy points out that the rapidly increasing number of published aesthetic texts concerned with nature, environmental issues, ecology, place, regionalism, and inhabitation has gained sufficient critical mass to generate an entire field of ecologically influenced literary studies—ecocriticism. Perhaps this could be looked upon as being more of a movement than a method. The emergence of ecocriticism has been compared to that of the feminist movement by one of its pioneers in the U.S., Cheryl Glotfelty (1996), in its practice of rediscovering early writers, rereading the classics from a 'green' perspective and the attempts to conceptualize the subject in a theoretical way. Ecocriticism thus has as much links with the feminist movement and thinking as with the development of theory per se. It runs deep roots in culture and history. Like New Criticism necessitated by the European Modernist movement ecocriticism has multiple roots.

Primarily ecocriticism could be seen as a product of the rising environmental concerns—this is not to reduce this movement to being but an offshoot of something else, but, on the other hand it would reveal its global significance and relevance. Then of course, there is this deep-felt post-deconstructivist crisis in the human science academia, a sense of being deprived of direction and momentum. Ecocriticism reintegrates the text and the world, history and narrative, meaning and value. While it poses challenges to any universal value system, it attempts to reinstate the living experience of reality and multidimensionality of experience. Ecocriticism calls for a paradigm shift from the human-centric to the bio-centric, which transcends the mutually exclusive categories of centre and periphery. As Robert Kern puts it:

­ …ecocriticism… depends upon our willingness as readers to marginalize, if not completely overlook, precisely those aspects and meanings of texts that are traditionally privileged or valorized …. What ecocriticism calls for, then, is a fundamental shift from one context of reading to another—more specifically, a movement from the human to the environmental….from the exclusively human to the biocentric or ecocentric…a humanism informed by an awareness of the more than-human.

­ Robert Kern, Ecocriticism—What is it Good For? ISLE,7.1.Winter 2000, 9-32

Finer distinctions have to be drawn between literature and writing: while the literary kind includes the imaginative and fictional, writing of a broader nature goes beyond the fictional into non-fictional narrative. Further distinctions have already been drawn between nature writing and writing for nature. While nature writing could be either natural history information or personal responses to nature, writing for nature would be something more self-reflexive and self-aware, philosophically as well as scientifically--like philosophical interpretations of nature and the human-nonhuman integration. Environmental texts tend to interrogate the human/nature divide and focus on the human accountability to the environment.

Much has happened in the wake of the controversial essay by Lynn White that drew attention to the interrelationship of nature, science, technology and Christianity. The patriarchal Christian world-view, according to White has been instrumental in fostering a utility-oriented and exploitative view of nature, while science and technology have become its handmaidens. Ecofeminism has been another major intellectual challenge to this patriarchal world-view. Many feminist intellectuals the world over have drawn attention to wide spread environmental domination and damage as another effect of androcentricism.

These are some significant aspects of Ecocritical studies:

1.environment and ecology—basic awareness of nature

2.writing about nature and nature writing—poetry, fictional/non fictional narratives

3.rereading history—European Romanticism , Colonialism,

4. Women and nature—ecofeminism

5.reclaiming the past—tracing roots of environmental writing and awareness Especially in non-anglo-American situation—traces of environmental culture

6. religion and society and nature

7. environmental philosophy

8. environment, geography andlandscape studies

9. landscape,culture and memory—mythical and spiritual connections to non-human world

What is to be done?

Michael Branch, another American critic writes quite prophetically of the future of ecocriticism:

The recent acceleration of scholarly activity in the areas of environmental ethics, environmental history, ecofeminism, and ecotheology provides a clear indication that environmental consciousness is increasingly being reflected in both academic discourse and the institutional structures which underwrite that discourse. Environmental scholarship has finally infiltrated the discipline of literary studies, where it variously appears under the rubric of nature writing, environmental literature, nature/culture theory, place studies, ecofeminism, and a number of other subdisciplines which may be constellated around the term ecocriticism. The green writing is now on the wall—or, more precisely, the palimpsest—of literary studies, and today's burgeoning ecocritical scholarship will be tomorrow's curricular reform.

Ecocriticism could also be seen as a method. If we could reorient our critical and conceptual tools we can rediscover our intimate ties with nature, and towards that end ecocriticism is also a methodolgy. What is now called for is a shift in our perceptions. Nature is not that something out there that excludes the perceiver, the feeler and the thinker. Nature is not peripheral but holistic and complete. Ecophilosophy encourages us to perceive change at every point of time and it would orientate us towards a rediscovery of our long lost ecological wisdom. When we attempt to retrace the h istorical roots of ecocriticism and ecological wisdom in our spiritual texts, we are not regressing to fundamentalist values, but only reconnecting with our indigenous roots meaningfully. What is now called for is an intensive study of our tribal and folk culture and simultaneously an extensive study of environmental movements in other parts of the world – because both the global and the local are of equal significance for us. After all, we have only one earth and we all share the skies and water and air. And ecocriticism shows us how to go about it. We need to recognise the urgency of evoking our ecological wisdom. Our constructions of our environment and our lives have become so removed from the organic unity of the poetic and the spiritual and so how could we sense and see the elemental harmony that is so apparent to the poet…? The Upanishadic wisdom of delight in dispossession is there for us to reclaim. It is not through domination and assertion of right and possession that we relish the universe but by an aesthetic distancing. Further, the values that ecocriticism hastens to establish are far from that of the colonial as well as consumer-oriented capitalist culture. At every point ecocritical theories have challenged domination, power and authority. Thus the voices of the minorities, the underprivileged, the subaltern and marginalized would be heard distinctly. Introducing ecocriticism into our hard-core curriculum would thus mean a rereading of our intellectual and cultural inheritance. Perhaps we could reintegrate our value systems and regain our sense of balance and harmony. Not through a strategy of homogenisation and universalisation but through a recognition of difference and an understanding of the many. Passion and compassion are at the core of ecocriticism.

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan
Department of English
Pondicherry University
Pondicherry India 605 014


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