Environmental Literacy and Ecocriticism

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Environmental literacy and ecocriticism

Environmental literacy and ecocriticism refer to the work of educators, scholars, and writers to foster a critical understanding about environmental issues. Environmental literacy includes educational materials and programs designed to provide lay citizens and students with a broad understanding of the relationship between humans and the natural world, borrowing from the fields of science, politics, economics, and the arts. Environmental literacy also seeks to develop the knowledge and skills citizens and students may need to identify and resolve environmental crises, individually or as a group. Ecocriticism is a branch of literary studies that offers insights into the underlying philosophies in literature that address the theme of nature and have been catalysts for change in public consciousness concerning the environment .

Americans have long turned to literature and popular culture to develop, discuss, and communicate various ideals about the natural world and their relationship to how Americans see themselves and function together. This literature has also made people think about the idea of progress: what constitutes advancement in culture, what are the goals of a healthy society, and how nature would be considered and treated by such a society. In contemporary times, the power and visibility of modern media in influencing these debates is also widely recognized. Given this trend, understanding how these forms of communication work and developing them further to broaden public participation, which is a task of environmental literacy and ecocriticism, is vital to the environmental movement.

Educators and ecocritics take diverse approaches to the task of raising consciousness about environmental issues, but they share a collective concern for the global environmental crisis and begin with the understanding that nature and human needs require rebalancing. In that, they become emissaries, as writer Barry Lopez suggests in Orion magazine, who have to "reestablish good relations with all the biological components humanity has excluded from its moral universe." For Lopez, as with many generations of nature writers, including Henry David Thoreau , John Muir , Edward Abbey, and Terry Tempest Williams, and Annie Dilliard, the lessons to be imparted are learned from long experience with and observation of nature. Lopez suggests another pervasive theme, that observing the ever-changing natural world can be a humbling experience, when he writes of "a horizon rather than a boundary for knowing, toward which we are always walking."

The career of Henry David Thoreau was one of the most influential and early models for being a student of the natural world and for the development of an environmental awareness through attentive participation within nature. Thoreau also made a fundamental contribution to Ameri can's identification with the ideals of individualism and self-sufficiency. His most important work, Walden, was a book developed from his journal written during a two-and-a-half-year experiment of living alone and self-sufficiently in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau describes his process of education as an awakening to a deep sense of his interrelatedness to the natural world and to the sacred power of such awareness. This is contrasted to the human society from which he isolated himself, of whose utilitarianism , materialism, and consumerism he was extremely critical. Thoreau famously writes in Walden : "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." For Thoreau, living with awareness of the greater natural world became a matter of life and death.

Many educators have also been influenced by two founding policy documents, created by commissions of the United Nations, in the field of environmental literacy. The Belgrade Charter (UNESCO-UNEP, 1976) and the Tbilisi Declaration (UNESCO , 1978) share the goal "to develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems." Later governmental bodies such as the Brundtland Commission (Brundtland, 1987), the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio (UNCED, 1992), and the Thessaloniki Declaration (UNESCO, 1997) have built on these ideas.

One of the main goals of environmental literacy is to provide learners with knowledge and experience to assess the health of an ecological system and to develop solutions to problems. Models for environmental literacy include curriculums that address key ecological concepts, provide handson opportunities, foster collaborative learning, and establish an atmosphere that strengthens a learner's belief in responsible living. Environmental literacy in such programs is seen as more than the ability to read or write. As in nature writing, it is also about a sensibility that views the natural world with a sense of wonder and experiences nature through all the senses. The element of direct experience of the natural world is seen as crucial in developing this sensibility. The Edible Schoolyard program in the Berkeley, California, school district, for example, integrates an organic garden project into the curriculum and lunch program, where students become involved in the entire process of farming, while learning to grow and prepare their own food. The program aims to promote participation and awareness to the workings of the natural world, and also to awaken all the senses to enrich the process of an individual's development.

Public interest in environmental education came to the forefront in the 1970s. Much of the impetus as well as the funding for integrating environmental education into school curriculums comes from non-profit foundations and educators' associations such as the Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, the Center for Ecoliteracy, and The Institute for Earth Education. In 1990, the United States Congress created the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) whose efforts include expanding environmental literacy among adults and providing funding opportunities for school districts to advance their environmental curriculums. The National Environmental Education Act of 1990 directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide national leadership in the environmental literacy arena. To that end, the EPA established several initiatives including the Environmental Education Center as a resource for educators, and the Office of Environmental Education, which provides grants, training, fellowships, and youth awards.

The Public Broadcasting System also plays an active role in the promotion of environmental literacy as evidenced by the partnership of the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create and disseminate educational videos for students and teachers, and grant programs such as that sponsored by New York's Channel 13/WNET Challenge Grants.

A common thread woven through these organizations is a definition of environmental learning that goes beyond simple learning to an appreciation of nature. However, appreciation is measured differently by each organization and segments of the American population differ on which aspects of the environment should be preserved. At the end of the 1990s, the George C. Marshall Institute directed an independent commission to study whether the goals of environmental education were being met. The Commission's 1997 report found that curricula and texts vary widely on many environmental concepts, including what constitutes conservation . Although thirty-one states have academic standards for environmental education, a national cohesiveness is lacking.

Thus, the main challenges to environmental literacy are the lack of unifying programs that would bring together the many approaches to environmental education, and the fact that there is inconsistent support for these programs from the government and public school system. Observers of environmental literacy movements suggest that the new perspectives that learners gain may often be at odds with the concerns and ethics of mainstream society, issues that writers such as Thoreau grappled with. For instance, consumerism and conservationism may be at opposite ends of the spectrum of how people interact with the natural world and its resources. To be effective, literacy initiatives must address these dilemmas and provide tools to solve them. Environmental literacy is thus about providing new ways of seeing the world, about providing language tools to address these new perceptions, and to provide ethical frameworks through which people can make informed choices on how to act.

Ecocriticism develops the tools of literary criticism to understand how the relationship of humans to nature is addressed in literature, as a subject, character, or as a component of the setting. Ecocritics also highlight the ways in which literature is a vehicle to create environmental consciousness. For critic William Rueckert, the scholar who coined the term ecocriticism in 1978, poetry and literature are the "verbal equivalent of fossil fuel, only renewable," through which abundant energy is transferred between nature and the reader.

Ecocritics highlight aspects of nature described in literature, whether frontiers, rivers, regional ecosystems, cities, or garbage , and ask what the purposes of these descriptions are. Their interests have included understanding how historical movements such as the Industrial Revolution have changed the relationship between human society and nature, giving people the false illusion that they can completely control nature, for instance. Ecocriticism also brings together perspectives from various academic disciplines and draws attention to their shared purposes. Studies in ecology and cellular biology, for example, echo the theme of interconnectedness of the individual and the natural world seen in poetry, by demonstrating how the life of all organisms is dependent upon their on-going interactions with the environment around them.

Although nature writers have expressed their philosophies of nature and reflected on their modes of communication since the nineteenth century, as a self-conscious practice, ecocriticism's history did not began until the late 1970s. By the 1990s, it had gained wide currency. In his 1997 article "Wild Things," published in Utne Reader, Gregory McNamee notes that courses in environmental literature are available at colleges across the nation and that "'ecocritcism' has become something of an academic growth industry." In 1992, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was founded with the mission "to promote the exchange of ideas and information about literature and other cultural representations that consider that human relationships with the natural world".

Nature's role in theatre and film are also popular ecocriticism topics for academic study in the form of seminars on, for example, The Nature of Shakespeare, and suggested lists of commercial films for class discussion that include Chinatown, Deliverance, The China Syndrome, Silkwood, A Civil Action and Jurassic Park.

Ecocritics Carl Herndl and Stuart Brown suggest that there are three underlying philosophies in evaluating nature in modern society. The language used by institutions that make government policies usually regards nature as a resource to be managed for greater social welfare. This is described as an ethnocentric perspective, which begins with the idea that one opinion or way of looking at the world is superior to others. Thus, the benefits of environmental issues are always measured against various political and social interests, and not seen as important simply in themselves.

Another viewpoint is the anthropocentric perspective, wherein human perspectives are central in the world and are the ultimate source of meaning. The specialized language of the sciences, which treats nature as an object of study, is an example of this. The researcher is seen as existing outside of or above nature, and science is grounded on the faith that humans can come to know all of nature's secrets.

In contrast, poetry often describes nature in terms of its beauty and emotional and spiritual power. This language sees man as part of the natural world and seeks to harmonize human values and actions with a respect for nature. This is the ecocentric perspective, which means putting nature and ecology as the central viewpoint when considering the various interactions in the world, including human ones. That is, this perspective acknowledges that humans are a part and parcel of nature and ultimately depend upon the ecology's living and complex interactions for survival.

Scholars make the distinction between environmental writing and other kinds of literature that use images of nature in some fashion or another. Environmental writing explores at length ecocentric perspectives. They include discussions about human ethical responsibility towards the natural world, such as in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, considered one of the best explorations of environmental ethics . Many ecocritics also share a concern for the environment, and one aim of eco-criticism is to raise awareness within the literary world about the environmental movement and nature-centered perspectives in understanding human relationships and cultural practices.

In Silent Spring, a major text in the field of environmental literacy and ecocriticism, Rachel Carson writes that society faces two choices: to travel as we now do on a superhighway at high speed but ending in disaster, or to walk the less traveled "other road" which offers the chance to preserve the earth. The challenge of ecocriticism is to spread the word of the "other road," and to simultaneously offer constructive criticism to the environmental movement from within.

[Douglas Dupler ]



Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Finch, Robert, and John Elder, eds. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990.

Herndl, Carl, and Stuart Brown, eds. Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Rueckert, William. "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism." The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Snyder, Gary. Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854; Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Pantheon, 1991.


Lopez, Barry. "The Naturalist." Orion Autumn 2001 [cited June 2002]. <http://www.oriononline.org>.

McNamee, Gregory. "Wild Things." Utne Reader November-December 1997 [cited July 2002]. <http://www.asle.umn.edu/archive/intro/utne.html>.


Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. [cited July 2002]. <http://www.asle.umn.edu>.

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Environmental Literacy and Ecocriticism