What is Ecocriticism?

Read a short primer on the subject

Ecocriticism is the youngest of the revisionist movements that have swept the humanities over the past few decades. It was only in the 1990s that it began to gain momentum, first in the US and in the UK, as more and more literary scholars began to ask what their field has to contribute to our understanding of the unfolding environmental crisis. 

Initially focused on the reappraisal of Romanticism (as the moment in Western cultural history when still reigning conceptions of nature were formed) and its cultural progeny, it has since broadened to address the question, in all of its dimensions, how cultures construct and are in turn constructed by the non-human world. 

In the process, some have rejected the label “ecocriticism,” as it had become identified with one particular strand of scholarship that is ideologically aligned with Deep Ecology and strongly committed to political activism, and suggested alternative designations, such as “environmental/ecological literary studies” or “green cultural studies.” Nevertheless, the term ecocriticism has stuck as the name for what is, today, a rather large tent, where work on nature writing can sit comfortably next to animal studies, and postcolonial theory rubs shoulders with ecofeminism.

The common ground on which all strands of ecocriticism stand is the assumption that the ideas and structures of desire which govern the interactions between humans and their natural environment (including, perhaps most crucially, the very distinction between the human and the non-human) are of central importance if we are to get a handle on our ecological predicament. 

While its mainstay is still the study of culture in a more narrow sense (literature, visual arts, and also music), ecocriticism is by its nature an interdisciplinary enterprise, which seeks to engage with environmental history, philosophy, sociology and science studies, and not least with ecology and the life sciences.

Hannes Bergthaller, National Chung Hsing University