Literature and the Environment: Fictions of Nature, Culture, and Landscapes

Teresa Shewry

How do literary texts orient their readers towards conflicts over the meanings and uses of water or of butterflies and their rainforests? What might these texts say about how the planet looks from different perspectives around the world? How does literature try to make readers see struggles over scientific abilities to alter and re-alter life?

In this issue of ENNZ, we focus on literature and the environment, a combination that may seem unusual, given that environmental studies is more often associated with scientists, policy makers, and political movements than it is with literary critics and their texts. Yet, as environmentalism engages increasingly with various places and subjects world-wide, interest in environmental issues has grown and been institutionalized in the humanities, including in Comparative Literature and English departments. The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) was established in the early 1990s, and there are now many publications, conferences, and even entire university programmes in the field.

The worlds of the socio-cultural texts that have tried to take their readers beneath the seas, over the ice sheets, across islands and continents and beyond into space, and the aesthetic, political, and cultural contexts in which they are engaged, generate perplexing questions and problems for researchers. I will suggest just a few of the possibilities of the field by outlining some of these questions here.

Why study literature and the environment? Why not just become a scientist in order to undertake research about the environment? The answers to this question vary according to how concepts such as “literature” and “environment” are used and defined, and the contexts in which they are engaged. Recently, it has been increasingly common for environmental literary critics to justify their research as contributing to the alleviation of environmental crisis and therefore to the survival of life on earth. For example, Lawrence Buell argues that scholars in this field foreground cultural texts such as literature and film in approaching the environment because:

The success of all environmentalist efforts finally hinges not on ‘some highly developed technology, or some arcane new science’ but on ‘a state of mind’: on attitudes, feelings, images, narratives. That the advertising budget of U.S. corporations exceeds the combined budgets of all of the nation’s institutions of higher learning is crude but telling evidence that trust in the power of imagination is not a literary scholar’s idiosyncrasy. [1]

A potential (although not inevitable) problem with this approach to environmental literature is that it can lead to assumptions that novels or poetry should speak about the environment as if they are scientists, politicians, or environmentalists. This expectation of literature can be seen in New Zealand at present, where socio-cultural texts are often instrumentalized in varied ways in environmental struggles. For example, poetry, novels, and films are used in education about conservation or to draw eco-tourists to socially and environmentally contested locations.

Does literature simply repeat back to us truths that are already known to science, political movements, or politicians? If literature does act as a prism for scientific or political voices, in what ways does it rework those voices in the process? I think that by analyzing the varied and often experimental struggles undertaken by socio-cultural texts in building narratives about the environment, scholars can investigate alternative perspectives on nature, culture, and landscapes, and the aesthetic, political, and socio-historical contexts in which they are engaged. As the Italian writer Italo Calvino has written, of literature in a different context:

Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed both in individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the colour spectrum perceived by politics. [2]

Speaking of Italian writers and their influence, a second issue that researchers currently confront is the difficulty of stabilising environmental literary texts in particular contexts. Literary critics follow their texts as they move in both space and time, and these movements can be unbearably slow (with resemblances in genres unfolding over hundreds, or thousands, of years) and can radiate across vast spaces. Researchers in the field of literature and the environment have carried out experiments with appropriate temporal and spatial scales at which to imagine environmental literatures, and an ideal of “internationalization” has emerged, in a context of criticism (which is not entirely accurate) that up until now the field has been primarily based in and focused on North America. In some cases, scholars assume that because the environment is a world scale phenomenon, the approaches and methodologies of environmental literary criticism also apply world-wide, to all literatures. For instance, Greg Garrard recently wrote that “I will be dealing principally with British and North American literature and culture, although the principles of ecocriticism [environmental criticism] would of course admit of more general application.” [3]. At the opposite pole, some critics have seen non-American environmental literatures as culturally “particular”, or assumed that non-American literature is unable to speak about environmental issues beyond local or national contexts. [4]

In New Zealand, environmental writers and critics often manoeuvre in a context where the nation has been (and often continues to be) imagined not only as a political entity but also as an ecological or environmental entity. Nigel Clark has described the ways in which ideas of a primordial, unique, and national nature were important for settlers in imagining New Zealand as a national community, and were promoted in literary studies among other disciplines. [5] One challenge for researchers may be to consider how socio-cultural texts experiment with ways of imagining environmental problems at scales that sometimes engage intensely with the national context but also that at least partly go beyond it, addressing issues such as various migrations to and from New Zealand, regional or planetary environmentalisms, or the movement of people, ideas, and nonhumans in ways that do not compute with established conceptual frameworks.

Finally, a point of convergence but also contention between many scholars who work on literature and the environment is their investigation of the relationships between nonhuman nature and culture. What characterises the environmental dimension of literature? Lawrence Buell argues that in environmental literature “the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.” [6] Many scholars have tried to balance the ways in which nonhuman nature is always caught up in history, culture, politics and power, without simply squashing resistant, unaccountable nonhuman worlds beneath rhetorics of “culture” or “history.” An as yet unexamined issue that the field may need to confront in defining the term “environmental” has been posed recently in a different context by anthropologist Christine J. Walley:

While obviously all people have relationships with, and ideas about, the environment, since it is the medium in which we live and which sustains us as human beings, must we all possess a common view of nature that bounds our perceptions of the environment in similar ways and sees it as distinct from other phenomena? Although much academic thought particularly in its French variants has rested upon a symbolic distinction between nature and culture, is such a distinction, […] truly universal? [7]

The archives of literature and criticism about environmental issues in New Zealand are rich but diffuse: much criticism exists as book reviews, or in journal articles. Some recent, longer studies and articles that touch on literature and the environment in New Zealand or the Pacific have been published or are forthcoming. Further, interesting work is being done across disciplinary boundaries. Recent works include:

  • Charles Dawson has a paper forthcoming on rivers and bicultural issues in the journal PAN.
  • Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s Routes and Roots: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures has been published with University of Hawai’i Press (April 2007) and includes discussions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and nuclear testing.
  • Diane Hebley’s The Power of Place: Landscape in New Zealand Children’s Fiction 1970-1989 (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1998) is a detailed study of the representation of places such as beaches or islands in children’s literature.
  • Julian Kuzma’s Landscape, Literature, and Identity: New Zealand Late Colonial Literature as Environmental Text, 1890-1921 is an intricate study of landscape in New Zealand literature and an analysis of the uses of literature in environmental history (Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Dunedin: University of Otago Schools of English and History, 2003).


  • [1] Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in U.S. and Beyond (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p.1.
  • [2] Italo Calvino, “Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature.” The Uses of Literature (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 98.
  • [3] Greg Garrard. Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p.5.
  • [4] Rob Nixon has made this point in “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism.” Postcolonial Studies and Beyond. Ania Loomba, et al, eds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 233-251.
  • [5] Nigel Clark. “Cultural Studies for Shaky Islands.” Cultural Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand: Identity, Space, and Place, eds. Claudia Bell and Steve Matthewman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 3 (16).
  • [6] Lawrence Buell. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 7-8
  • [7] Christine J. Walley. Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 143

Teresa Shewry is undertaking doctoral research on ways that Pacific literature and film narrates and influences hope for changed ecologies in a context of urgent ecological problems and intensifying efforts to reshape people’s approaches to ecology in the Pacific in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

Jocelyn Tresize is undertaking doctoral research on John Muir’s writing from an ecocritical perspective.

Briar Wood has a paper forthcoming in ISLE (April or May 2007) called “Mana Wahine and Ecocriticism in Some Post-80s Writing by Maori Women.”

David Young published Whio: Saving New Zealand’s endangered blue duck with Craig Potton Publishing (Nelson, 2006) and Keeper of the Long View: the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainability with PCE (Wellington, 2007). His previous book was a history of conservation in New Zealand (2004).

Further interesting starting points for materials and references are the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment web pages:

European Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment:

David Young recommends, for those who want to stretch out towards the edge of sustainable thinking, a couple of websites and an article:

  • Alan AtKisson, “Sustainability is Dead, Long Live Sustainability”, 2001,
  • Adams, W.M., “The Future of Sustainability: rethinking environment and development in the 21st century”, 2006
  • Kofman, Fred, and Peter M. Senge. “Communities of Commitment: the Heart of Learning Organizations”. Organizational Dynamics 22.2 (Autumn 1993), p.5 (19).