Urban jumbles

July 18, 1997

YOUR "ECOCRITICISM" article was valuable and interesting but it repeats the persistent misconception that it is just about "nature writing" (THES, July 4).

Since German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word "ecology" in 1866 it has properly meant the study of how each creature shapes its environment. The ideal for humans is to see us as interrelated to and interdependent on other species. This is what underlies the concept of sustainability. But even that accepts that humans can and should adapt their environment. In short, ecology is not about "nature unaffected by human control" or about "wilderness".

Ecocriticism has not yet grasped this as your article shows. The same misconception was apparent at the UK Literature and Natural Environment Conference. For instance, there was a convincing paper by an American reclaiming Dickens as a nature writer. Yet it missed the point. Dickens's value as a proto-ecocritic is in his relevance to debates about the "sustainable city". What is often missing in ecocriticism is any idea that urban ecology exists. This is not entirely true. When Virago published an environmental anthology (Beneath the Wide, Wide Heaven, 1991) the one Words-worth poem was "Composed upon Westminster Bridge". Furthermore, in 1987 Raymond Williams wrote a new preface to Culture and Society in which he identified "startling connections" between the Romantic and Victorian writers he had discussed 30 years earlier and "the new ecological and radical-ecological movements".

Williams's belief rests on the way that writers like Ruskin, Morris and Dickens adapted a romantic love of nature and its social critique to also embrace a forceful social and environmental criticism of industrialisation and the Victorian urban environment. It is not that it is not about the natural world but that it is about both - natural and built. This leads me to Nicholas Roe's excellent remark in your article that the best ecocritical work is about "the human community in the living world".

For this is exactly how Williams saw ecology, ie as also a "social philosophy". Until we accept the place of urban ecology, it will be impossible to see the point of ecocriticism or for it to avoid the charge of Marilyn Butler and many others that ecocriticism is "old-fashioned and nostalgic writing about nature".

John Parham

Department of cultural studies

University of East London

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