European Association for Studies of Literature, Culture and the Environment

Webinar Spring 2017 – Dr. Simon C. Estok – The Ecophobia Hypothesis

EASLCE Webinar Spring 2017
With Dr. Simon C. Estok
The Ecophobia Hypothesis

Saturday, May 20, 2017, 14:00 pm EU time


In The Biophilia Hypothesis, a book E.O. Wilson co-edited, Stephen Kellert explains that “the dominionistic experience of nature reflects a desire to master the natural world” (56). This “proficiency to subdue, the capacity to dominate, and the skills and physical prowess honed by an occasionally adversarial relationship to nature” (ibid) are, in this view, somehow a part of “the biophilia tendency.” Yet, in thinking about aversion, indifference, and fear-driven anxiety, it does not seem that “biophilia” is entirely the right concept. An adversarial domination of nature does not seem biophilic. Resentment, hostility, and the imagining of nature (often gendered as Mother) as an opponent to be conquered, subdued, beaten, eaten, raped, ploughed, mutilated, regulated, and so on seems to require a different concept, one that explains better why environmental crises are worsening, a concept that more adequately encompasses the complex range of ethical positions that humanity generally displays toward the natural environment, and one that consciously envisions itself on a spectrum. It is within this context that the ecophobia hypothesis takes shape.


In what seems an attempt to be mocking or satirical, Timothy Clark offers what he sees as a redefinition of ecophobia: it should be defined “as an antipathy, dismissive stance or sheer indifference towards the natural environment, including attitudes which, however understandable in the past, tend now in the emergent contexts of the Anthropocene to become directly or indirectly destructive, even in ways that may not have been the case before” (Ecocriticism on the Edge 111-2, italics in the original). Whatever the intent, this summary (certainly not redefinition) of more lengthy and no doubt less eloquent definitions I have given over the past several years, is serviceable. Our question is about this: to what service can the term be put?  Can it contribute to a heightened environmental awareness and, if so, how?

- How can we talk productively about the tension between the cultural and the genetic with regard to ecophobia?  We know, for instance, that the amygdala (see NatGeo Youtube video in Required Readings below) processes different images in very different ways.  In some sense, we are hardwired to fear some things and not others.  How can we talk about this matter in empirically valid ways?

-How can we discuss the cultural determinants of ecophobia in ways that are meaningful?

-What are the relationships between ecophobia and varieties of contempt for the body?  How can we understand what Greta Gaard has termed “erotophobia” as it manifests the larger general frame of ecophobia?  How do eating disorders fit in with this? Do deodorants and perfumes warrant discussion here?

-What possible action does theorizing about ecophobia enable/require?  If theorizing about racism and homophobia, for instance, ideally results in changes to behavior (even laws requiring changes in behavior), then what about theorizing about ecophobia?  Clearly, education isn’t enough, since very well educated scholars in the environmental humanities continue to fly places (myself included), and although there may not be indifference toward the effects of such behavior, knowledge of those effects simply isn’t enough to stop those behaviors. Where do we go with this? Practically speaking, then, what is the point of theorizing about ecophobia?

- To what degree do industrial food production practices rely on an indifference toward nature?  How should we talk about these industrial food practices?

Required Readings/viewings

“Brain Games—Fear Response (Amygdala).” National Geographic June 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0akKEDAZHt4  

Estok, Simon C. “Theorizing in a space of ambivalent openness: ecocriticism and ecophobia.”  ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 16. 2 (2009): 203-225.

Kellert, Stephen R. “The Biological Basis for Human Values of Nature.” The Biophilia Hypothesis. Eds. Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993. 42-69.

Mackenzie, Louisa, and Stephanie Posthumus. "Reading Latour Outside: A Response to the Estok-Robisch Controversy." ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 20.4 (2013): 757-77.

Ulrich, Roger S. “Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes.” The Biophilia Hypothesis. Eds. Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993. 73-137.

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