The term “environment” in its broadest sense indexes contested terrains located at the intersections of political, social, cultural, and ecological economies. In its narrowest sense, it refers to the place of nature in human history. In each of these usages, representations of the natural world are understood as having decisive force in shaping environmental policy and the environmental imagination. Conservation politics were inspired by interpretations of particular places as untouched by the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century, while much contemporary ecocriticism has continued the mainstream preoccupation with wilderness traditions, pastoralism, and the Romantic impulse of nature writing. Environmental justice activists and some ecofeminists have questioned these preoccupations, as have indigenous and postcolonial writers and scholars across the Americas who point out that imaginative writing about “nature” has a long tradition among colonial settlers attempting to mythologize and indigenize their relationships to place. This polyphony of competing voices and genealogies may be best understood as an interplay among many environmentalisms.
In Keywords, Raymond Williams (1983, 219, 223) notes, “Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language. . . . Nature has meant the ‘countryside,’ the ‘unspoiled places,’ plants and creatures other than man . . . : nature is what man has not made.” At the heart of this conception of nature lies the sense that there exists inherent, universal, and primary law beyond the corrupt societies of “man.” While “environment” is not one of Williams’s keywords, “ecology” does make an appearance, even though the term was not common in the English language until the middle of the twentieth century. “Ecology,” defined as the “study of the relations of plants and animals with each other and their habitat,” replaced “environment,” a word in use since the early nineteenth century but derived from the mid-fourteenth-century borrowing from Old French environ, meaning “to surround or enclose” (111). In American studies and cultural studies, “environment” has undergone a renewal among scholars and activists, owing in part to resistance to the bracketing of “nature” and “wilderness” as privileged sites of national identity and its acceptance as a shorthand for research on ecosystems and diverse environmental movements. Though used less often, the term “ecology” has been condensed to a prefix in the names of social and intellectual movements, notably ecocriticism and ecofeminism.
In the late eighteenth century, a transatlantic Romantic movement coincided with U.S. independence to produce a nationalism whereby nature, understood as “wilderness,” came to underwrite a new national identity. A harmonious relationship with sublime, wild nature became a way of articulating civilized U.S. American purity against the perceived decadence of Europe. With Henry David Thoreau’s version of Transcendentalism, “wildness” came to symbolize absolute freedom (R. Nash 1982, 84). For Thoreau, preservation of wilderness was important for the preservation of civilization, though his own notion of wilderness was the pastoral, a liminal space between the technologically driven pursuit of progress and the savagery of wilderness. Lawrence Buell (1995) locates the “American environmental imagination” in the canonization of Thoreau as a naturalist by late nineteenth-century ecologists such as John Muir. Muir developed an environmental ethos that was later central to the philosophy of deep ecology: first, abuse of nature is wrong; second, “nature has intrinsic value and consequently possesses at least the right to exist” (D. Payne 1996, 5). During this period characterized by increasing fear of eastern U.S. urbanization, environmental protection became synonymous with wilderness preservation. Thus, urban environments, along with the diverse human populations who inhabit them, mediated (and continue to mediate) perceptions of nonhuman, “natural” environments.
The narrow sense of “environment” as a discourse on wilderness protection has fueled criticism by ecofeminists, urban ecologists, and environmental justice activists. Ecofeminists suggest that human relationships with the natural world have been engendered by a masculinist impulse to imagine and experience the land as feminine. For Annette Kolodny (1975, 58), the pastoral impulse is at once a desire for exclusive possession, leading to exploitation, and an urge to protect the primal forest, so as “to return in order to begin anew.” In response, ecofeminism attempts to deconstruct the nature/culture dualism that situates nature, women, and ethnic minorities as passive “others” against which the Anglo-American male constructs himself. By linking the salvation of the planet Earth to issues of social equality, ecofeminism contributes to our understanding of the place of human structures of domination and power in environmental change. Yet the process of deconstructing the nature/culture dualism also risks enshrining a gender dualism. The problem is that neither “women” nor “ethnic minorities” are unitary categories of analysis. Rather, they are diverse groups differentially situated with respect to their environments, communities, and identities (Di Chiro 1996).
In response to this problem, Marxist streams of ecofeminism have focused on issues of social class and environmental degradation, while grassroots environmental justice movements have successfully mobilized urban poor communities in the United States. In different ways, each has pointed out that the antiurban bias of preservation politics has often resulted in the creation of toxic ghettos in cities while cordoning off scenic wonderlands. William Cronon (1995) argues that wilderness preservation may encourage the migration of dirty industries to poor communities whose members lack access to networks of power; Robert D. Bullard (2002) adds that the term “environmental racism” more accurately describes the environmental policies and industry practices that provide benefits to whites while shifting costs to people of color. Environmental justice movements, including the “environmentalism of the poor” in developing countries, place the survival of poor and marginalized people at the center of environmental activism. These movements seek freedom from state-centered and international development projects that excrete the toxins of afﬂuent nations and local communities into poor communities.
Environmental justice activists charge deep ecologists with ignoring the problems of social and economic inequality on a global scale. Deep ecologists counter with the charge that the environmental justice position is reformist and anthropocentric, too firmly rooted in human communities. The advantage of deep ecology’s bio- or ecocentric position lies in its emphasis on the notion that “everything is connected”; its disadvantage is that it can be accused of ventriloquizing a natural world that cannot speak for itself. Herein lies the central paradox: speaking for a natural world is a representational practice requiring the intervention of an authorized human agent. Biocentrism’s radical displacement of human agency means that a powerful speaking human subject vanishes into nature, setting up an ideological fantasy of a world of total equality among humans and between humans and nonhuman “nature” (van Wyck 1997). As Jim Tarter (2002, 213) puts this critique of biocentrism, “some live more downstream than others,” and those people tend to be poorer and darker and to have little or no access to environmental policymakers. In short, biocentrism risks masking the relationship between environmental exploitation and human exploitation. By contrast, the broader sense of the term “environment” can enable a questioning of relations of power, agency, and responsibility to human and nonhuman environments.