In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecocriticism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Influences and Origins
  • Collections of Essays
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Global Perspectives
  • Ecocritical Futures

Literary and Critical Theory Ecocriticism
Derek Gladwin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0014


Ecocriticism is a broad way for literary and cultural scholars to investigate the global ecological crisis through the intersection of literature, culture, and the physical environment. Ecocriticism originated as an idea called “literary ecology” (Meeker 1972, cited under General Overviews) and was later coined as an “-ism” (Rueckert 1996, cited under General Overviews). Ecocriticism expanded as a widely used literary and cultural theory by the early 1990s with the formation of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) at the Western Literary Association (1992), followed by the launch of the flagship journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (cited under Journals) in 1993, and then later the publication of The Ecocriticism Reader (Glotfelty and Fromm 1996, cited under Collections of Essays). Ecocriticism is often used as a catchall term for any aspect of the humanities (e.g., media, film, philosophy, and history) addressing ecological issues, but it primarily functions as a literary and cultural theory. This is not to say that ecocriticism is confined to literature and culture; scholarship often incorporates science, ethics, politics, philosophy, economics, and aesthetics across institutional and national boundaries (Clark 2011, p. 8, cited under General Overviews). Ecocriticism remains difficult to define. Originally, scholars wanted to employ a literary analysis rooted in a culture of ecological thinking, which would also contain moral and social commitments to activism. As Glotfelty and Fromm 1996 (cited under Collections of Essays) famously states, “ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies,” rather than an anthropomorphic or human-centered approach (p. xviii). Many refer to ecocriticism synonymously as the study of “literature and the environment” (rooted in literary studies) or “environmental criticism” (interdisciplinary and cultural). Ecocriticism has been divided into “waves” to historicize the movement in a clear trajectory (Buell 2005, cited under Ecocritical Futures). The “first wave” of ecocriticism tended to take a dehistoricized approach to “nature,” often overlooking more political and theoretical dimensions and tending toward a celebratory approach of wilderness and nature writing. Ecocriticism expanded into a “second wave,” offering new ways of approaching literary analysis by, for example, theorizing and deconstructing human-centered scholarship in ecostudies; imperialism and ecological degradation; agency for animals and plants; gender and race as ecological concepts; and problems of scale. The “third wave” advocates for a global understanding of ecocritical practice through issues like global warming; it combines elements from the first and second waves but aims to move beyond Anglo-American prominence. There are currently hundreds of books and thousands of articles and chapters written about ecocriticism.

General Overviews

This section looks at some of the pioneering work in ecocriticism, as well as some of the most read work introducing the subject. Meeker 1972, presenting comedy and tragedy as ecological concepts, connects literary and environmental studies as a cohesive field of study. As an ethnologist and comparative literature scholar, Meeker helped to pioneer the critical discussion of ecocriticism in what he called “literary ecologies.” Following Meeker, Rueckert 1996 (first published 1978) actually coined the term “ecocriticism,” arguing for a way “to find the grounds upon which the two communities—the human, the natural—can coexist, cooperate, and flourish in the biosphere” (p. 107). Love 1996 builds on the work of Meeker and Rueckert by essentially anticipating the explosion of and need for ecocriticism in just a few years. Ecocriticism as a literary and cultural theory significantly expanded in the 1990s—paralleling other forms of literary and cultural theory, such as postcolonialism and critical race studies—largely due to the publication of Glotfelty and Fromm 1996 (cited under Collections of Essays), the first edited collection of essays and anthology to introduce a comprehensive critical outline of ecocriticism. Buell 1995, another critically dense and timely study, outlines the trajectory of American ecocriticism by way of Henry David Thoreau as a central figure. Kerridge and Sammells 1998 (cited under Collections of Essays), which expanded studies in race and class, as well as ecocritical history, followed both Glotfelty and Fromm 1996 and Buell 1995. Phillips 2003 offers a skeptical and refreshing critique of ecocriticism amid otherwise quite praiseworthy—bordering on mystical—celebrations of “nature” in the scholarship of the 1990s. Garrard 2012 (first published 2004), along with Coupe 2000 (under Anthologies) and Armbruster and Wallace 2001 (under Nature Writing), serves as a political and theoretical turn in ecocriticism because it addresses more of the “second wave” concerns about animals, globality, and apocalypse. Clark 2011 is a contemporary overview that integrates a unified critical history of the “waves,” including nature writing, literary periods, theory, and activism, while it also provides sample readings that deploy specific ecocritical methods to literary texts. Garrard 2014 is the most recent overview volume, with many noteworthy ecocritical scholars; it serves as a somewhat updated version of Glotfelty and Fromm 1996. (See also Anthologies and Collections of Essays for some other notable overviews.)

  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    Looks back at the history of American nature writing through literary analysis—with Thoreau’s Walden as a “reference point”—to establish a history of environmental perception and imagination. It examines how humanistic thought, particularly through literary nonfiction, can imagine a more ecocentric or “green” way of living. (See also Nature Writing.)

  • Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Provides updated introductory material to previous studies. It offers an excellent range of topics, and despite serving as an introduction, it employs incisive analysis of previously overlooked issues in introductory books on ecocriticism, such as posthumanism, violence, and animal studies. It is one of the best contemporary overviews.

  • Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Examines a wide range of literary and cultural works. Two notable strengths: (1) it acknowledges the political dimension of ecocriticism; and (2) it explores a range of issues, from animal studies and definitions of “wilderness” and “nature,” to postapocalyptic narratives. It is available as an inexpensive paperback. Originally published in 2004.

  • Garrard, Greg, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    One of the most ambitious collections to date, with thirty-four chapters, this book is aimed at both general readers and students, but it also revisits the previous twenty years of ecocriticism to offer contemporary readings from the most prominent names in the field. It is an essential work for ecocritics.

  • Love, Glen. “Revaluating Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism.” In The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, 225–240. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

    Argues that literary studies must engage with the environmental crisis rather than remaining unresponsive. This essay advocates for revaluing a nature-focused literature away from an “ego-consciousness” to an “eco-consciousness” (p. 232). Originally published in 1990. See also Love’s Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003).

  • Meeker, Joseph. The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology. New York: Scribner’s, 1972.

    One of the founding works of ecocriticism. It spans many centuries—looking at Dante, Shakespeare, and Petrarch, as well as E. O. Wilson—and analyzes comedy and tragedy as two literary forms that reflect forces greater than that of humans. The “comedy of survival” is at its core an ecological concept.

  • Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195137699.001.0001

    One of the more prominent critiques of ecocritical theory, this book challenges neo-Romantic themes explored by ecocritics, many of which Phillips argues support the use of mimesis as a standard way to read environments, instead of looking at more pragmatic approaches.

  • Rueckert, William. “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” In The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, 105–123. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

    Notable primarily because it was the first publication to use the term “ecocriticism” as an environmentally minded literary analysis that discovers “something about the ecology of literature” (p. 71). Originally published in 1978.

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