By Vermonja R. Alston

About Vermonja R. Alston

Vermonja R. Alston is Associate Professor in the Departments of English and Equity Studies at York University in Toronto. She has published articles on environmental justice, poetry and poetics, and cosmopolitanism in journals and edited volumes. Alston has completed a manuscript on twentieth-century African American and Caribbean cosmopolitanism. She teaches postcolonial literary studies, ecocriticism, indigenous literature of the Americas, and Caribbean poetry and poetics.


The first decade of the twenty-first century has been marked by several environmental disasters and debates about global climate change, which have compelled academics, policy makers, and grassroots organizations to reexamine the relationship between environment and development. But what exactly do these varied stakeholders mean when they use the term “environment”? For students and specialists alike, “environment” carries as much of a “complex and contradictory symbolic load” as “nature” (Soper 1995, 2). An overview of the etymology of “environment” brings some clarity and is a useful place to start if we are to understand the contrary ideologies and symbolic load the term carries.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces “environment” to the word “environs,” from Middle French. Ironically, in contrast to twentieth- and twenty-first-century perceptions of environment as wide open natural spaces, early moderns understood “environment” as a noun—“the state of being encompassed or surrounded”—or a …

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