Gary Handwerk, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Washington
Before Today: On the Culture-Historical Background to Contemporary Environmental Attitudes
The agenda set by Lynn White’s essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Present Ecologic Crisis,” is, if anything, more compelling today than when that essay was first published in 1966: the ecological crises we face potentially worse, anti-ecological perspectives even more deeply embedded in the ideological framework of many contemporary political perspectives, the task of understanding those historical roots and sharing that understanding across societies globally accomplished in only the most preliminary of ways. Literary and cultural studies lag behind even environmental history in this regard, though their role in seeking to reframe environmental values is equally fundamental.
This project begins with a simple methodological premise: that literary-cultural texts, like works of art generally, are not simply descriptive accounts of what particular authors see or feel. They are acts of persuasion, implicit arguments about how the intended audience should think and feel and behave that are often all the more effective for the implicitness of their positions. Such texts play an important role in determining how societies think about environmental issues; they help shape the deep base of beliefs and values that frame political debates about public policies. Tracing the historical evolution of environmental attitudes and analyzing the strategies through which certain attitudes gain traction (or fail to do so) are therefore crucial steps in apprehending how and why we find ourselves in many ways in an ecological impasse, heightened by the Great Recession of 2008, at a moment when environmental awareness is self-evidently more important for the human race than ever before.
Beginning, then, with the early modernity of the eighteenth-century, this project will trace from that era through the present the historical roots of our own ecological crises. I begin with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (British Calvinism as a particular offshoot of Christianity), look next at Rousseau (Romantic views on nature), take up the nineteenth-century intersections between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Nietzsche’s uneasy naturalizing of his theory of power, examine Faulkner’s rendering of the parallel construal of nature and race in the twentieth-century American South, and conclude with an account of some late twentieth-century science fiction perspectives on nature (Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson).