Green Theory

The Routledge Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory (2nd ed), edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), pp 154-66






There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth …

(Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Rolling Earth’)


Green theory is a development within literary and cultural studies which is informed by the insights of ecology. We may define ‘ecology’ as a branch of science which deals with the relation between organisms and their environments, and with the total pattern of such relationships. The root of the term lies in two ancient Greek words: oikos (household) and logos (word): ecology is the study of the  earth as our home. As a science, it began in the mid-nineteenth century; but its impact on critical theory as an academic discipline was not felt until the later twentieth century, when the relationship between human beings and their total environment had become manifestly unstable, and the damage being done to nature had become an unavoidable challenge.

The name given to green theory when it was becoming established was ‘ecocriticism’, this term being used as an abbreviation of ‘ecological literary criticism’. Ecocriticism, essentially, is the study of the relation between literature and nature: in particular, the literary representation of nature and, just as importantly, the power of literature to inspire its readers to act in defence of nature.  ‘Green studies’ takes its cue from ecocriticism but, rather than confine attention to literature, it expands the area of interest to include all manner of works, whether literary, artistic, cinematic, musical, political or philosophical. The two terms, ‘ecocriticism’ and ‘green studies’, are often used interchangeably, though the former seems to be more favoured in the USA and the latter in the UK. In this introductory essay, we are using the phrase ‘green theory’ to cover both ecocriticism and green studies, so nearly all of what is said about the former may be taken to apply to the latter.



Nature, then, is the focus, whichever name we give to the way we talk about it, and whether we are relating it to literature or to other forms of cultural production. But what is nature? The Concise Oxford Dictionary offers seven meanings, some of which divide into further sub-meanings. The first of the seven is ‘a thing or person’s innate or essential quality’: a usage that inevitably occurs in any kind of theory. But for green theory, these are the two semantic areas which are of special interest:

2 a (often Nature) the physical power causing all the phenomena of the material world (Nature is the best physician).  b these phenomena, including plants, animals, landscape, etc.

6 a an uncultivated or wild area, condition, community, etc; b the countryside, esp. when picturesque.

Having provided these distinctions, it is necessary to gloss them if we are to be clear about the way green theory refers to ‘nature’. Thus, though it goes without saying that green theorists are interested in phenomena such as plants, animals and landscape (2b), it would be misleading to say that they are exclusively interested in the countryside, as they may be equally concerned with the ecology of the city (6b). Again, though they are interested in wilderness, they would usually try to avoid speaking of any community which lives in harmony with wilderness as itself either ‘wild’ or ‘uncultivated’ — or even worse, ‘savage’. For that would suggest a dubious model of human evolution, and it would reinforce the language of colonialism (6a). Moreover, in considering the countryside, they would not want to endorse the commodification of landscape associated with the late-eighteenth-century cult of the ‘picturesque’, which selected and approved certain ‘views’ of rural landscapes (6b). But whatever their area of interest, green theorists will inevitably engage at some point with the idea of a fundamental force, capitalised as ‘Nature’: they will not necessarily resist the capitalisation, but they will by no means take for granted what the word represents (2a). Thus green theory ‘debates “Nature” in order to defend nature’ (Coupe 2000: 5).

Paradoxically, the picture becomes clearer when we bring in the complementary term ‘culture’, even though it is usually regarded as forbiddingly complex. For the point to emphasise about its etymology is that all three of its original meanings  – ‘inhabitation’, ‘cultivation’ and ‘worship’ – suggest activity in relation to nature. People may inhabit, and so understand, a region of earth; they may cultivate the soil; they may worship an underlying ‘power’. Note too that ‘cultivation’ was early on used both for the soil and the soul, and we may say that a link between earthly matter and human spirit is implicit in the word ‘culture’. The further inference we might make is that human culture is only ever meaningful as a dimension of nature, which may perhaps be regarded as that larger culture which contains ours – whether we want to refer to it as ‘Nature’ or not.



We can begin to get some sense of the development of green theory by considering one particular literary convention: ‘pastoral’.  This celebrates the idyllic rural life and loves of shepherds – the term ‘pastoral’ coming from Latin pastor, shepherd – with an emphasis on simple pleasure in a natural setting.  In The Country and the City (1973), possibly the first example of ecocritical writing in the UK, the socialist theorist Raymond Williams demonstrates how writers have always looked backwards for their vision of rural contentment, and how such a vision has been used to mystify the actual relations of production in the countryside. While conceding this point, Jonathan Bate argues in Romantic Ecology (1991) that the poet William Wordsworth managed to forge a radical version of pastoral that entailed environmental and social responsibility.

Enquiring further into the dimensions of the genre, Terry Gifford in Pastoral (1999) differentiates between three modes of writing: (1) ‘pastoral’, the received literary form; (2) ‘anti-pastoral’, the critique of that form, particularly insofar as it distorts rural reality or justifies rural hierarchy; (3) ‘post-pastoral’, a newly inclusive mode which, while treating pastoral itself with suspicion, yet affirms the human need for a deep relationship with nature. This is a usefully flexible model which allows us to situate any depiction of the natural environment without pigeon-holing a particular writer. Gifford sees Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Ted Hughes, for instance, as encompassing all three modes.

In the United States, the question of how to avoid formulaic and idealised depictions of nature, in order to do justice to a new-found land that has not lost its wonder, is especially  important. North American green theory is particularly interested in non-fictional nature writing, which seeks to convey a direct, authentic encounter with the landscape. Lawrence Buell in his The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (1995) takes as his point of departure Henry David Thoreau’s famous work Walden (1854). In doing so, he explores the possibilities of an ‘aesthetics of relinquishment’, which involves a move from the ‘egological self’ to the ‘ecological self’ [my emphasis]. Buell is clearly aware of the deposing of the human subject that is characteristic of post-structuralism; but that is done in the name of language and culture, with the ‘I’ discovering itself to be an effect of its own discourse. What he is talking about is the voluntary giving up of individual autonomy: that is, forgoing ‘the illusion of mental and even bodily apartness from one’s environment’ (Buell 1995: 143-5). Thus, Thoreau may seem at first to be brooding on his own experiences, but he in effect suspends his identity in the act of writing, presenting us with an image of what it might be like to feel at one with nature: he produces an ‘ecocentric’ text.

In concentrating on nature writing while demonstrating its impact on other genres, such as fiction and poetry, Buell shows us how one of the effects of green theory is to extend the scope of the literary canon. Complementing this effect are such works as Louise H. Westling’s The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction (1996), which argues that the received, dominant tradition has enshrined a reductive view of both women’s experience and the natural world. With an ambitious sweep of exposition, Westling demonstrates how male heroism has been habitually defined by opposition to female nature. The settlement of North America, inspired by Biblical myth, saw a nomadic, pioneer spirit assuming total command over the ‘virgin’ territory it encountered, even while it retained a sentimental view of the female. Westling articulates this tension between force and feeling very clearly in her account of American fiction: she offers, for instance, a persuasive account of the defensively masculine stance that lies behind the modernist cult of primivitism represented by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. By way of counterpoint, she considers female authors such a Eudora Welty, whose fiction offers a revaluation of what precisely it means to identify the female character with a given landscape.

It will be seen that Westling’s argument is a confirmation rather than a contradiction of Buell’s. We might add, by way of postscript to this section, that he himself has gone on revising his initial thesis. In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), he proposes that green theory needs to extend, not only its idea of what an environmental work is but also what ‘nature’ itself means; he also stresses the need to encompass perspectives such as social ecology and environmental justice. He even wants to query his own previous concern with locality and piety: that is, to open up environmental criticism to global issues and to face more explicitly the challenge of postmodern scepticism. Green theory, it seems, never stands still for long.



The term ‘ecocriticism’ was invented by the American critic William Rueckert, whose article ‘Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism’ first appeared in 1978. In it Rueckert sets about trying to define the nature of literature, and does so by depicting literature as nature:

Poems are green plants among us … [which] arrest energy on its path to entropy and in so doing, not only raise matter from lower to higher order, but help to create a self-perpetuating and evolving system. That is, they help to create creativity and community, and when their energy is released and flows out into others, to again raise matter from lower to higher order (to use one of the most common descriptions of what culture is).

(Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 111).

Rueckert’s use of an organic metaphor to describe literary creation may seem fanciful, but this image of poem as ‘plant’, or ‘stored energy’, allows him to make a forceful case for the centrality of ecological thinking to literary studies. His aim is to open up the question of the interrelationship between literature and the biosphere (the whole complex of life on our planet).

Rueckert’s inspiration in writing his article is the work of his mentor and friend, the poet-critic, Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Firstly, the very fusion of ‘ecology’ and ‘criticism’ is indebted to Burke’s idea of ‘perspective by incongruity’, that is, the creation of new meanings by ‘extending the use of a term by taking it from the context in which it is habitually used and applying it to another’ (Burke 1984a: 89). ‘Perhaps’, Rueckert muses, ‘that old pair of antagonists, science and poetry, can be persuaded to lie down together and be generative after all’ (Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 107). Secondly: ‘Kenneth Burke was right – as usual – to argue that drama should be our model or paradigm for literature.’ It is not that he wanted to ‘treat novels and poems as plays’; rather, he wanted us to ‘become aware of what they were doing as creative verbal actions in the human community’ (Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 107). Thirdly, Rueckert is very much aware at the time of writing that Burke was insisting decades before that no academic discipline can afford to ignore the state of the natural environment:

We tend to over-refine our conceptual frameworks so that they can only be used by a corps of elitist experts and gradually lose their practical relevance as they increase their theoretical elegance. I am reminded here of the stridently practical questions Burke asked all through the thirties and early forties and of the scorn with which they were so often greeted by literary critics and historians of his time. But none of these questions is antithetical to literature and there is a certain splendid resonance which comes from thinking of poets and green plants being engaged in the same creative, life-sustaining activities, and of teachers and literary critics as creative mediators between literature and the biosphere whose tasks include the encouragement of, the discovery, training and development of creative biospheric apperceptions, attitudes, and actions.

(Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 120-1)

 Rueckert no doubt has in mind such statements as this, from Attitudes Toward History (1937):

Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole.

(Burke 1984b: 150)

If Rueckert is right (and I believe that he is), we may regard Kenneth Burke as the father of green theory.

Though Burke never produced a final summation of his ideas, he did leave us a statement, simply entitled ‘Poem’, which he wrote for inclusion in a volume of essays celebrating his work towards the end of his life. It is based on an article he had written over thirty years before, but it is clearly intended to stand alone. Here are some lines from the first stanza, using uppercase as given:









                                                                                    (Simons & Melia 1989: 263)

Given Rueckert’s endorsement, we might do worse than think through some of these phrases within the green perspective that Burke himself helped to make possible. The aim is not to summarise Burke’s philosophy (though we will need to refer to his other writings), but to draw inferences from his ‘Poem’ which connect up with green thinking generally.



Burke’s general mode of enquiry is what he calls ‘metabiology’. Where metaphysics is a philosophy of mind, insofar as it reflects on abstract concepts of being, metabiology is a philosophy of body-mind, of the mind as rooted in bodily processes, which in turn are rooted in nature. Biology assumes nature to be purposive; metabiology studies what happens when human language is added to biological purpose. So how should we view this particular system that one particular species manages to acquire, as indicated in ‘Poem’?

Human language is a specialised form of discourse, involving spoken and written words. Other species have their own forms of discourse, but ours is distinctive in its complexity and in the range of its influence. Nevertheless, we should not forget our bodily existence, and not start attributing to language an independent status beyond its actual function in helping us make sense of the world and of our place within it. Hence Burke translates ‘human being’ as ‘wordling’: a neat way of reminding us of our modest status. This view of language as arising from the body is most fully articulated by the famous exponent of phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who tells us that it is only by seeing ideas and utterances in the context of ‘the flesh of the world’ that they can make full sense. The individual’s bodily life is inseparable from the ‘body’ of the earth from which it emerges and to which it inevitably returns (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 144).

Burke’s term for the human capacity for language is ‘symbolicity’; he prefers the word ‘symbol’ to ‘sign’, because he wants to convey the tribal and ritual function of language in all its richness, which humanity has increasingly forgotten. As the ecologist David Abram has since argued, it was with the invention of phonetic writing – by which words were first removed from bodily and natural life, becoming counters in an abstract code – that humanity began attempting to break its bond with the ‘more-than-human world’. Abram reminds us, though, that what we call the self is still a bodily organism, not a transcendental ego; our only way of understanding the world is through situated participation not through abstract, objective knowledge – which is itself a false ideal.  We are deeply implicated in the physical world: while it is true that we can shift our attention within the act of understanding, we can ‘never suspend the flux of participation’ (Abram 1996: 45-7). The code of language is only part of the larger web of being; words articulate an ‘interanimated world’ (Abram 1996: 85). With Merleau-Ponty in mind, he observes: ‘The complex interchange that we call “language” is rooted in the non-verbal exchange always already going on between our own flesh and the flesh of the world’ (Abram 1996: 90).

To return to Burke’s statement, it is important to recognize that there are not only huge advantages in symbol-using for human beings (for example, organizing the cultivation of crops, producing great poetry) but also huge dangers (for example, organizing large-scale deforestation, producing soulless shopping malls). Either way, the very possession of the capacity for language implies activity: human beings are always doing something with words in order to have some effect on the particular situation in which they find themselves. That is why Burke speaks of ‘symbolic action’ as central to human endeavour; and that is why he defines the human being as the ‘symbolic actor’. Words, as symbols, are names for situations; situations are always dramatic, involving conflict and engagement; and the drama extends to the farther reaches of the natural environment.



Burke’s phrase suggests that, due to their capacity for symbolic action, human beings are both a part of nature and apart from nature: the question is whether they can maintain an equilibrium. The problem of modernity is that the latter feeling predominates, leading to human alienation and natural degradation. For just as human discourse detaches itself from its biological environment, so technology – made possible by language and rationalized by language – assumes proportions and powers hostile to that environment. There is nothing wrong with symbol-making, nothing wrong with tool-making; but divorce these activities from the sense of ultimately being part of nature and you have the makings of ecological disaster.

To counter the escalating misuse of symbolicity and destruction of nature, Burke advocates a new kind of ‘humanism’: not one that glories in humanity’s advantages over nature, but an ‘anti-Technological humanism’: that is, opposed to the current faith in ‘Big Technology’ as the answer to all our problems. This would be ‘animalistic’ in the sense that ‘far from boasting of some privileged human status, it would never disregard our humble, and maybe even humiliating, place in the totality of the natural order’ (Burke 1972a: 53-4). While later green theorists have tended to reject humanism outright because of its suggestion of an inflated view of human achievement, Burke uses ‘perspective by incongruity’ to conflate humanity and animality, humanism and humility.

Always, though, we need to come back to the issue of language itself, which is so often taken to indicate human superiority over other species. Forgetting that human culture is an extension of the culture that we call nature, we forget also that once language was a means of having a dialogue with the earth (which was also assumed to be articulate), not of talking about it from a privileged distance – a distance which encourages exploitation. Burke observes that, if community depends on ‘identification’, then we need to recognise that we belong to the world, and not vice-versa:

It would be much better for us, in the long run, if we ‘identified’ ourselves rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying – our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of.  … But too often, in such matters, our attitudes are wholly segregational, as we rip up things that we are not – and thus can congratulate ourselves upon having evolved a way of life able to exhaust in decades a treasure of natural wealth that had been here for thousands of years.

(Burke 1970: 413-14)

 The irony, of course, is that we treat nature as alien to ourselves, because of our supposed distinction as symbol-users, while remaining wholly dependent upon it.

Again, the problem comes down to the assumptions that we make because of our possession of symbolic discourse. This anthropocentric (human-centred) way of thinking is evident when we pronounce that the more-than-human world which we call ‘nature’ is nothing more than a cultural or linguistic ‘construction’. The philosopher Kate Soper begins her challenge to the increasing prevalence of ‘constructionism’ within the academy as follows:

 …I recognize … that there is no reference to that which is independent of discourse except in discourse, but dissent from any position which appeals to this truth as a basis for denying the extra-discursive reality of nature.  I seek to expose the incoherence of an argument that appears so ready to grant this reality to ‘culture’ and its effects while denying it to ‘nature’, and argue that, unless we acknowledge the nature which is not a cultural formation, we can offer no convincing grounds for challenging the pronouncements of culture on what is or is not ‘natural’.

(Soper 1995: 8)

Refuting those who would declare that ‘nature’ is just one more unit in a signifying system, she reminds us: ‘it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier’ (Soper 1995:151).

Someone who warned about the consequences of an anthropocentric view of nature was the scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) stands as a sustained challenge to what he called the ‘epistemological error’ of the Western worldview. This error is twofold. Firstly, there is the failure to see that ‘mind’ (the focus of the branch of philosophy known as epistemology) is not the exclusive possession of humanity. We need to learn from the wisdom of the ancient East: ‘mind’ is present in all of nature, as a wonderfully complex pattern of mutual arising, or co-dependent origination, with the human variant being only one minor aspect. Secondly, and following from that, is the wrong-headed belief that the individual organism may be understood in isolation from its environment, and that the human species may be understood in isolation from the total environment of all species. In short, the error in essence is ‘Man against nature.’ Bateson asks rhetorically what we end up with thereby. Referring to an environment he himself knows, he answers his own question:

When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise ‘What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,’ you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop struc­ture. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

(Bateson 1972: 491-2)

 Normally, one might take the picture painted by Bateson to exemplify ‘anthropomorphism’ (the attribution of human characteristics to nature); but in the context of his general argument, it would be more accurate to say that he is treating humanity and nature as two aspects of the total biological order. For the same rule applies throughout: ‘The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself’ (Bateson 1972: 501). It is a thought that occurs independently to Burke: having devoted a good deal of time to theorising about ‘victimage’ – the human urge to create and punish a ‘scapegoat’, an ‘other’ to whom is attributed all the faults and failures of the community – he comes in his later years to see the same process at work on a larger scale, with disastrous consequences: ‘Men victimize nature, and in so doing they victimize themselves. This, I fear, is the ultimate impasse’ (Burke 1972b: 26).



‘Hierarchy’ derives from two Greek words, meaning ‘sacred’ and ‘rule’, so it is worth reminding ourselves that the original idea behind the word is that of a divinely ordained pattern of existence. Anyone studying Shakespeare will sooner or later come across the idea of a ‘chain of being’, running from God at the top down through angels, human beings, animals, plants and so to stones. In studying one of the tragedies, for example Macbeth, we may read a commentary which explains that anyone who murders the king is breaking this ‘chain’: in other words, offending against a natural order which has its origin in the sacred Word of creation. As we read in the first verse of the first book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1).

In the context of our discussion, there are two possible viewpoints on such a model of society, both of which are allowed for by Burke. On the negative side, we might point out that human beings all too easily find in nature confirmation of their own system of government and economic organisation; in doing so they claim they are sanctioned by an appropriately capitalised ‘Nature’. The chain of being was, whatever truth it contained, a rationale for feudalism. Moreover, the consensus that it was a God-given structure only encouraged the rich and powerful to enforce rigid class divisions and wield power at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, who themselves were compelled to labour for paltry recompense. In this sense, we may speak of hierarchy as a ‘goad’: hence one of Burke’s many coined phrases, ‘hierarchical psychosis’, which refers to the state in which a legitimate concern for order becomes both obsessive and oppressive.

On the positive side, we might admit that some rudimentary acknowledgement of a chain of being had the advantage of reminding everybody that their ultimate allegiance was to something greater than themselves, and that the abuse of the system by the greedy was contrary to the whole idea of a divine harmony manifest in nature – as was frequently spelt out by holy men such as Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology. In that sense, we might relate it to the scientist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis’: named after the earth mother of ancient Greek mythology, it tells us that the biosphere is an organic harmony to which we must conform, or else suffer the consequences. The Gaian model is a ‘post-secular’ equivalent of the traditional model, emerging as it did at a time when it seemed that science had done away with the dimension of the sacred.

The question is, then, whether it is hierarchy itself that is the problem, or whether it is hierarchical psychosis. Burke would opt for the latter; proponents of ‘ecofeminism’ would opt for the former. For ecofeminists, the main point about hierarchy is that it goes hand in hand with patriarchy: get rid of the latter and you get rid of the former. Perhaps the classic case against both is given by the philosopher Val Plumwood in her influential work Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993). For her, the clue to the triumph and hitherto scarcely questioned survival of the patriarchal order is the view of the world that we call ‘dualism’, which works according to the law of divide-and-rule.

According to Plumwood, nature has, since at least the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, been systematically subordinated to ‘the master subject’, the hero of ‘the master story’. This story identifies rationality with masculinity, and justifies the absolute rights of both. We will not be able to repudiate ‘the master subject’ until we have gone beyond dualism, which sets up a series of contrasts on the basis of higher and lower, according to its own remorseless logic.  Thus, in the following list, the former are always believed to be opposed and superior to the latter:

culture           nature

reason            nature

male                female

mind               body

rationality    animality

spirit               matter

self                   other.

(see Plumwood 1993: 41-4)

Plumwood traces the history of Western thought in terms of this dualism, demonstrating how a ‘female’ nature has been systematically degraded, dominated and exploited. The logical culmination, which now seems imminent, will be the destruction of the planet by ‘the master subject’ in the name of ‘rational economy’ and global profit, unless ‘reason’ can be remade.  This cannot simply involve privileging ‘female’ nature instead of subordinating it, for that is simply to invert the logic of patriarchy. The answer is to develop ‘the rationality of the mutual self’, which would ensure ‘the incomparable riches of diversity in the world’s cultural and biological life’ and encourage participation in the whole ‘community of life’ (Plumwood 1993: 195-6). Despite any doubts he may have about the equation of hierarchy with patriarchy, Burke would certainly concur with that last sentiment, and indeed with Plumwood’s model of how dualism and hierarchy can work to reinforce each other.



Burke sees the principle of perfection as implicit in human language: ‘The mere desire to name something by its “proper” name, or to speak a language in its distinctive ways is intrinsically “perfectionist”’. Here it helps to be aware of Aristotle’s concept of ‘entelechy’, which Burke defines as ‘the notion that each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind’. Thus the acorn will inevitably become an oak, the child an adult … all in due course. This process sounds innocent enough: after all, biology implies purpose. But Burke sees language as adding a potentially dangerous complication: ‘terminology’ involves ‘termination’: the words we use imply the ends we pursue. ‘At the very start, one’s terms jump to conclusions.’ (Burke 1966: 16-17)

Perfectionism, then, is a peculiarly human – peculiarly linguistic – urge which eats away at us, driving us on and on: hence the phrase ‘rotten with perfection’. True, the desire to fulfil the promises of our terminology is responsible for such undoubted achievements as Paradise Lost or War and Peace; but it is also responsible for the nuclear bomb. We don’t have to take such an extreme example as the latter, though, to see how dangerous terminology is when it is complemented by technology. As our ability to transform our natural environment grows, so does our determination to do so. We complete projects simply because we have names for them, regardless of the consequences. In our own day, it is all too obvious how terms such as ‘management’, ‘development’, ‘enterprise’ ‘improvement’ and ‘progress’ are frequently deployed as though the pursuit of such ideals were unanswerable guarantors of benefit for the whole planet, and are relentlessly pursued despite the manifest falsity of that conviction.

Perhaps the most influential text to dramatise the human urge for completion is the last book of the Christian Bible, namely Revelation. Written towards the end of the first century AD, this is the book of the apocalypse – the word ‘apocalypse’ coming from the Greek for ‘revelation’. It reveals what will happen at the end of history: the Messiah will return to overthrow Satan and his followers, and to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth. One of the most vivid passages in Revelation depicts the destruction of the natural environment: ‘there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast up on the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up’ (Revelation 8:7). What replaces it, however, may not strike us as very much better. Jerusalem, the Messianic city, is described as having a street of ‘pure gold, as it were transparent glass’; moreover, ‘the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of God did lighten it’ (Revelation 21:21-23). This celebration of divine artifice, with its implicit denial of nature, hardly makes for environmental responsibility.  But it is precisely because it depicts both natural catastrophe and unnatural salvation that the Christian apocalypse has proved a powerful presence in green thinking.

Among Burke’s writings is a blueprint for a satire, to be entitled ‘Helhaven’, in which he rewrites Revelation so that the rich, or ‘saved’, live in a luxurious, synthetic ‘heaven’, well away from the very real ‘hell’ they have created through industrial pollution, which is populated by the poor, or ‘damned’. The natural environment having been degraded beyond recognition, he presents the rich as enjoying the display of artificial scenes of ‘natural’ beauty, in a demonic parody of the ‘picturesque’. In doing so, he wants to demonstrate that the comic mode of satire is the most appropriate literary response to ecological crisis, since by taking things imaginatively to their logical conclusion, it exposes and mocks the folly of those who would blunder on towards a very literal catastrophe in pursuit of technological  perfection.  His idea is that the satirical tendency to take things imaginatively to ‘the end of the line’ might help prevent the ultimate termination (see Coupe 2000: 96-103).

For a more obviously serious, sustained work of environmentalist thinking along apocalyptic lines, we might turn to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). This is her challenge to the damaging impact of agribusiness in the United States, with its widespread and destructive use of pesticides. It strikes its apocalyptic note immediately with a ‘Fable for Tomorrow’ concerning a town in which all non-human life is dead and human beings are dying (see Carson 2000: 21-2). Another is Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1990), which declares that, whereas once human interference in the natural order made only a local impact, which was not lasting, now ‘global warming’ has altered everything:

We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning: without it there is nothing but us.

(McKibben 1990: 54)

Thus the urge to perfection has been fulfilled: nature has been subsumed within human culture, and   is therefore at an end. McKibben leaves unstated here the obvious inference: that human culture cannot survive its futile triumph.

Both Carson’s and McKibben’s books are serious, significant works: important touchstones for anyone interested in the future of the planet; and their sombre warnings have only gained in credibility over the years. However, the task of green theory must be to continue engaging with the representation of nature and promoting its defence. In doing so, it must distrust finality. That is why it cannot afford to ignore the importance of what Burke in Attitudes Toward History (1937) calls the ‘comic frame’: a perspective which is dedicated to maintaining ‘ecological balance’, and which considers human life as ‘a project in “composition”’, never to be completed (Burke 1984b: 173). Thirty years later, he is more and more convinced that ‘mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy’: ‘The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality’ (Burke 1966: 20). In our context, we might translate ‘help out with the holocaust’ (Burke’s allusion to the fascist ideology of tragic destiny) as ‘assume the worst about the state of the planet’. It is not at all that we should choose to laugh away the perils which now beset the earth; but a ‘cult of comedy’, founded on bodily participation in Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh of the world’, is far more likely to encourage generous activity in defence of nature than is a preoccupation with doom and futility. In Burke’s very first book, Counter-Statement (1931), he suggests that an important value of both literature and critical theory lies in ‘preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself’ (Burke 1968: 105). Now that we have a flourishing green theory, let us hope it will play its part in the daunting task of preventing a whole species from ‘becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself’. The stakes could not be higher.




Please note:

1.In the section entitled ‘THE SYMBOL-USING ANIMAL’, the second sentence (‘Where metaphysics is…’) has had a clause restored which was omitted from the published version.

2.In the section entitled ‘SEPARATED FROM OUR NATURAL CONDITION’, the paragraph which begins with the words ‘Again, the problem…’ and ends with the words ‘insights at the level of the signifier’ was omitted from the published version of the chapter.



Bate, Jonathan (1991), Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, London: Routledge.

A pioneering work, which affirms Wordsworth’s importance and influence as a celebrant of nature.

Bateson, Gregory (1972), Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

An ambitious overview of psychology, genetics and communication theory from a green perspective – with frequent allusions to the poetry of William Blake for good measure.

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

Another pioneering work, which takes Thoreau’s Walden as a model for the ‘ecocentric text’.

Buell, Lawrence (2005), The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A succinct guide to the changes taking place in green theory, with particular emphasis on social concerns; it has an extensive and detailed glossary of terms.

Coupe, Laurence (ed.), (2000), The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, London: Routledge.

A wide-ranging collection, indicating the general development of green theory and showing what green reading involves.

Garrard, Greg (2004), Ecocriticism, Abingdon: Routledge.

A brisk and lively overview of critical debates about nature; controversial at times.

Gifford, Terry (1999), Pastoral, London: Routledge.

About much more than a literary convention, this is an indispensable guide to how  poets write about nature.

Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm (eds) (1996), The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press.

The first ever collection of green theory: American in emphasis; includes several classic essays.

Westling, Louise H. (1996), The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction, Athens and London: Georgia University Press.

An accessible and interesting exploration of the ecological meaning of fiction from a feminist perspective.

Williams, Raymond (1973), The Country and the City, London: Hogarth Press.

This fusion of socialist ecology and cultural history is the starting-point for many green theorists in the UK.



 Abram, David (1996), The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, New York: Random House.

Bate, Jonathan (1991), Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, London & New York: Routledge.

Bate, Jonathan (2000), The Song of the Earth, London: Picador.

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

Burke, Kenneth (1968), Counter-Statement, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1966), Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1970), ‘Poetics and Communication’, in Howard E. Kiefer & Milton K. Munitz  (eds), Perspectives in Education, Religion and the Arts, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1972a), Dramatism and Development, Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1972b), ‘As I Was Saying’, Michigan Quarterly Review 11: 9-27.

Burke, Kenneth (1984a), Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1984b), Attitudes Toward History, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Carson, Rachel (2000), Silent Spring, London: Penguin.

Coupe, Laurence (2013), Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology, West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press.

McKibben, Bill (1990), The End of Nature, London: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968), The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Plumwood, Val (1993), Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London & New York: Routledge.

Simons, Herbert W. & Trevor Melia (eds), The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Soper, Kate (1995), What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human, Oxford: Blackwell.

Westling, Louise H. (1996), The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction, Athens & London: Georgia University Press.