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American Nature Writing  

John Elder

Nature has, like love, been an essential topic for authors in every language and every literary form. The first thing to acknowledge about the term nature writing is that it conventionally refers to a distinctive category of nonfiction, not to the entire spectrum of literature about the natural world. The present survey is further restricted to American nature writing, though the genre has also developed in many other countries. The American lineage of nature writing has been especially influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who combined journal-based descriptions of the New England landscape and knowledgeable appreciation of science with lyrical prose, receptiveness to nature’s human and transcendent meanings, and a highly personal voice. Thoreau’s own orientation to solitude, wildness, and the music of nature has also been complemented, however, and in some cases forcefully challenged, by subsequent writers focusing on urban landscapes; environmental justice; the impact of gender, class, and race on our visions of nature; environmental justice; food and agriculture; and material culture. Many literary scholars also now prefer to consider nature writing under the multi-genre and international rubric of “environmental literature.” Nevertheless, this particular form remains a vital model for integrating imaginative literature with close observation of natural phenomena. Today’s writers continue to find, with Thoreau, that books “with earth adhering to their roots” may blossom in the human spirit, revitalizing individual lives even as they also address the urgent environmental and cultural challenges we now confront.

Article

Environmental Justice  

Rebecca McWilliams Ojala Ballard

The Environmental Justice Movement emerged in the 1980s as a political framework uniting diverse struggles by multiply marginalized communities (especially communities of color) against disproportionate exposure to environmental harm. Since then, environmental justice has expanded to encompass not just the pollution and hazardous waste issues that first inspired it but a range of other environmental health concerns and environmental rights, and it is best understood as an extensive network of political projects that extends in time and space beyond its 1980s US origins. Despite a common narrative situating environmental justice as one relatively recent stage of the environmental movement, environmental justice has important historical precedents in the organizing work of minoritized communities outside of mainstream Western environmental thought or politics. Similarly, beyond social movements, philosophical work on environmental justice puts pressure on many assumptions of Western environmental thought, revising environmental critiques of anthropocentrism to situate human concerns in multispecies contexts and centering Indigenous and non-Western ways of understanding and living in relation to land. Environmental justice issues have been represented in diverse literatures and across genres (nonfiction prose, literary fiction, poetry, drama, popular and speculative genres, etc.) since the emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement in the 1980s. However, the concerns of the Environmental Justice Movement are evident in earlier literary works as well, particularly those by variously minoritized writers, and literary scholarship on environmental justice has often focused on reclamation and canon revision, seeking to identify the presence of environmental and especially environmental justice themes in literary works not previously articulated as environmental because they did not fit neatly into “nature writing.” Climate change produces a range of environmental justice problems relating to exposure, vulnerability, dispossession, and displacement, and 21st-century literature’s increasing engagements with climate change have led to both the telling presence and the telling absence of climate justice concerns. Environmental justice ecocriticism thus does not merely trace connections between the Environmental Justice Movement and literature explicitly responding to it but operates as an interpretive framework that considers the full range and broader implications of literature’s engagement (or lack thereof) with issues affiliated with environmental justice.