A history of some major ecological literary discourses

Ecocriticism and the environmental humanities

Ecofiction, novels based around environmental themes, and so-called Doomer Lit (stories about climate chaos, pandemics etc) are key cultural genres of the contemporary zeitgeist. Yet ecological discourses have played a major role in narrative literature since the invention of writing and are the main concern of Aboriginal cultures based on oral traditions going back millennia. It is only in the late modern period starting with the industrial revolution that scientific narratives gradually displace other forms of storytelling as primary modes for societal understanding of nature and the environment. However, the recent development of academic disciplines such as ecocriticism (or EcoCrit) and the environmental humanities reflect new intellectual endeavours to reclaim a central space for non-scientific methodologies in major ecological discourses. Whilst the following account (or Lockdown ECOSLit!) is a personal selection of classic texts on environmental themes from ancient times to the present day, it also attempts to locate these within a broader ideological framework for thinking about humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

To this end, the discussion adopts Lorraine Elliott’s recent classification of environmentalism in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and employs this as a form of cultural theory within historical contexts. Elliott conceives modern environmental movements as comprising:

  • Anthropocentric schools of thought:
    • Apocalyptic environmentalism
    • Emancipatory environmentalism (including “Green Utopianism”)
  • Biocentric schools of thought:
    • Social ecology and deep ecology
    • Animal rights
    • Ecofeminism

This framework has the advantage of simplicity and is straightforward to apply in different periods even if criticism of lacking historicity can be levelled.

With regard to text selection, this uses the following categories:

  • Stories from the Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome
  • Narrative poetry from Medieval Europe
  • Early modern English fiction
  • Late modern Anglophone novels 
  • Environmental themes in contemporary genres

Apologies in advance for an inevitable Western and English language cultural bias!

Apocalyptic environmentalism in the ancient world

In the mid-1990s, archaeologists rediscovered the monumental structures of Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey and uncovered striking animal iconography. The functions of the site’s megaliths and their ecological symbolism have been widely debated with increasing focus on the environmental conditions which led to its creation. One interpretation suggests that Göbekli Tepe represents a form of cosmogenic map that orientated late Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer communities to the surrounding landscape and their cosmos. This theory fits with anthropological insights into creation myths associated with the sacred landscapes of Aboriginal Australians, for instance. However, the site is notable in transferring stories embodied by places into narratives contained within images carved in stone which transcend the pictorial representations of earlier cave art in their abstract symbolism.

Fast forward over half a decem millennium and the world’s first narrative literature is now inscribed on stone tablets, notably in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Yet the renowned archaeologist David Lewis Williams has suggested important continuities between Göbekli Tepe’s imagery and the inscriptions of ancient Babylon. It may therefore be possible to locate what could be read as apocalyptic environmentalism in the literature of the ancient world, including biblical stories contained in the Old and New Testaments, within a cultural memory extending back into prehistory. An influential contemporary topos suggests that the transition to agriculture had predominantly negative long-term effects with a “Neolithic Doom” hypothesised. This may help explain not only the “End of Days” associations of some prehistoric sites in the Ancient Near East but also certain dominant themes in the subsequent literature of the wider region as well as that of Greek and Roman civilizations. Interestingly, a key preoccupation in Old Babylonian stories was human population growth. In the poem Atramhasis, from which the flood myth in Gilgamesh and the Bible is derived, the gods resolve to tackle this issue with famine, plague and deluge at intervals of 1200 years. Much later, in Greek mythology the goddess Demeter wreaks a terrible famine on humanity in a plot which also seems to integrate an eco-feminist message about the importance of the role of women in agriculture. Another ecological concern shared across the literature of the ancient world were the consequences of deforestation of which Plato writes: “What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left.” Later still, the Roman Pliny the Elder in his Natural History recalls a time when “forests were once the only temples of the gods” in apparent nostalgia for the deep ecology of a prehistoric animist religion. 

A folio edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh, often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature

Redemptive nature in medieval European poetry

Although the period between the decline of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, or early modern era, was once identified with the Dark Ages, in fact Medieval Europe provides some of the most animated ecological discourses in the history of narrative poetry. The Dream of the Rude (Cross) is one of earliest poems in English literature, possibly dating back to the 8th century. It demonstrates an interesting fusion of Christian and pagan imagery in which the Crucifixion story is told from the both the perspective of the Cross and the tree cut down to make it. Jesus, the Cross and the tree then become one to redeem mankind. The trope of a speaking tree has animist roots and includes nature as an object of worship. In Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Richard North states that “the image of Christ’s death was constructed in this poem with reference to an Anglian ideology on the world tree”. Other contemporaneous works also conflate the image of Jesus crucified with that of Woden/Odin bound upon the Tree of Life. The historical geographer Della Hooke has written extensively on the importance of trees and forests in Anglo-Saxon culture together with their representation in early literature.

Later medieval and early modern culture provide two of the most dynamic arenas for ecocriticism and the environmental humanities so selection of texts from these periods is challenging. However, three works give a flavour of a time that has been called “The Flowering of the Middle Ages”: the Anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; William Langland’s Piers Plowman; and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. The Gawain story contains a rich tapestry of ecological discourses. At its heart is a dialectical relationship between nature and culture embodied on the one hand by the figure of the Green Knight and his environment and by the Arthurian Court on the other. Wildlands and the creatures that inhabit these, including large predators such as wolves and bears, are contrasted with a managed aristocratic hunting forest of large herbivores in the form of deer. Piers Plowman is a rhetorical poem in which Will the narrator’s indignation about the state of agriculture in Middle England – the action begins on the Malvern Hills – and the corruption of London government becomes the impetus for a spiritual reflection guided by the figure of Nature (Kind). A personification of nature is also the central figure in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls and convenes an assembly in which birds choose their partners on Saint Valentine’s Day. There is often a tension – indeed a discourse – in Chaucer’s work between the celestial and earthly realms and this is a dominant topos in later in Medieval European poetry. Although the importance of the heavenly world is emphasised, not least because death was an everyday reality for most people, the natural world and is also a potential source of joy, emancipation and redemption.

The brilliant translation from Simon Armitage of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Animal kingdoms in early modern English literature

The early modern period is defined here as the largely pre-industrial age between 1500-1800 with beginnings in the European Renaissance. This coincided with the birth of modern natural history practiced by English naturalists and antiquarians as well as expounded by scientific thinkers like Sir Francis Bacon. It is noteworthy that during the great age of natural history in the Victorian period, what is now recognisable as the antecedent of modern ecocriticism took the form of commentaries on the flora and fauna of William Shakespeare’s plays and the works of his contemporaries. An example is Emma Phipson’s Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time published in 1883. The contemporary scholar Tod A Borlik has written extensively on this period (for instance in his 2011 Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature – Green Pastures). He emphasises the development of a pastoral ideology during and after the English Renaissance which is amongst the ages most important legacies to British culture, exerting an all-pervasive influence in rural discourses to the present day.

However, a recognisably modern sensibility in relation to the animal kingdom does not emerge in works of fiction (and probably elsewhere) until the mid-17th century when animal welfare legislation was first introduced in Ireland. The great Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift not only reflects discourses around animal ethics in his most famous work Gulliver’s Travels, but also a range of other ecological perspectives in the eponymous hero’s visit to the Land of the Houyhnhnms. Here the narrative enters what might be described as a green utopia of rewilding lite (maybe somewhere between the Knepp Estate and Windsor Great Park) “divided by long rows of trees, not regularly planted but naturally growing”, with a “great plenty of grass, and several fields of oats”, albeit in an imagined far off part of the then known world. The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses and, in a reversal of what in a later age might be described as evolutionary development, they preside over a less evolved race of humanoids called Yahoos. Like his friend and contemporary, the poet laureate Alexander Pope, the main target of Swift’s satire are the foibles of the human animal, including a propensity for utopian thinking juxtaposed with cruelty and poor natural resource management. Pope, an early advocate of vegetarianism, wrote of hunting,  at the time the main cause of wild animal loss, in his Essay on Man: “Beasts, urged by us, their fellow-beasts pursue, And learn of man each other to undo”. In his conversations with the Houyhnhnms, Swift’s Gulliver describes the mistreatment of horses in his own society to which he has to reluctantly return at the end of his travels. Whilst Gulliver’s Travels is a notoriously difficult “to read”, in the sense that its meaning lies on many different levels, what it does embody is the ambiguity of the relationship between humans and “other” nature, particularly animals. In this respect, the creation of a different animal hierarchy in the Land of the Houyhnhnms looks forward to biocentric worldviews found in much later Anglophone literature and other narrative art forms.

Guliver’s Travels, a regular sight in Top-100 lists

Transcendental ecology in modern Anglophone novels

1816 is known as the “Year without a Summer” after the eruption of an Indonesian volcano, probably one of the largest in recorded human history, caused a volcanic winter. Similar events are linked to the early part of the so-called Dark Ages in Europe and the collapse of Bronze Age civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean.  The young author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, wrote of her travels in France and Switzerland: ‘Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime”. Frankenstein is, arguably, the first novel of the late modern age and begins and ends in bleak snowy landscapes. Along with Bram Stoker’s late 19th century Dracula – another tale swathed in transcendent dark European landscapes – Shelley’s creation is the most famous in Gothic fiction. Frankenstein is remarkable not just in the shock of the new, the scientific creation of a man-made monster, but also in what might be described as the shock of the old: an encounter with the vast and sublime in nature, also powerfully evoked in Lord Byron’s 1816 poem “Darkness”.

What I’ll call “transcendental ecology” is a dominant motif in Anglophone novels from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries, although this takes on many different forms. Moby Dick is “perhaps the greatest book on nature ever written” according to Glen Love in Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology and the Environment. Published in 1851, Herman Melville’s American novel is also one of the great stories of the sea and is partly based on the author’s experience of whaling ships. The plot follows the voyage of the Pequod under the command of Captain Ahab and her motley crew, including narrator Ishmael, as they pursue the white whale Moby Dick who eventually destroys the ship. As with Gulliver’s Travels, this book can be interpreted  in different ways but it most certainly offers an encounter with the dark sublime of the oceans. Moby Dick also describes humanity’s rapacious exploitation of nature, a theme which the early 20th century novels of Joseph Conrad and those of D H Lawrence too confront. Lawrence brilliantly evokes the natural environment and Australian Joan Lindsay brings some of his descriptive skill (or ecopoetics) to historical fiction in her 1967 Picnic at Hanging Rock. Lindsay claimed to have written the novel over two weeks after successive dreams of the narrated events and it has entered modern Australian folklore as pseudohistory.  An excised final chapter of the novel was published in 1987 posthumously, entitled The Secret of Hanging Rock. The plot concerns the disappearance of girls on a boarding school day trip to a mysterious landform in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. The alternative ending suggests that they may have been spirited away to the Aboriginal Dreamtime, and one aim of the story is to juxtapose the daily oppressions of early 20th female life in colonial Australia with an ancient mythic natural landscape, provoking deep ecological and eco-feminist interpretations concerning the true meaning of wilderness.

Moby Dick had a mixed reception in literary circles until long after Melville’s death

Anthropocene discourses in contemporary genres

In 1986 the literary academic and birdwatcher George Levine wrote in The New York Times:  “IT is arguable that the most influential English writer of the last 150 years is Charles Darwin and the most influential book The Origin of Species. Darwin gave to the West its most powerful myth of origins since the Old Testament; at the same time, he wrested biology, the study of life, from theological tradition and set it entirely within … materialist science.”

The phenomenon once described by scholars as a “disappearance of god” in 19th and subsequent 20th century narrative literature has now been partly superseded by a re-embodiment of deity (or deities) within the natural universe. This is certainly the worldview of renowned American biologist and naturalist E O Wilson. He and other contemporary thinkers have also sought to reclaim Darwin’s intellectual legacy from the atheist and evolutionary materialism of scientists such as Richard Dawkins. In this endeavour, Wilson turned his scientific profession in the study of ants, of which he is the global expert, into the 2010 novel Anthill. The story is set in Alabama and follows the struggle to save a local wilderness from development. A subplot follows the battle between two ant colonies for hegemony of a riverbank. As an environmentalist, E O Wilson has called for setting aside fifty percent of the earth’s surface to conserve other species as the only possible strategy to solve the extinction crisis.

Whilst Anthill joined The New York Times bestseller lists, Wilson is likely to remembered as a scientist rather than a novelist. Indeed, it is difficult to predict how posterity will treat early 21st  century Ecofiction and other cultural narratives about the future of the planet.

A book club invitation to ECOS readers…

I would be most interested to connect with ECOS readers around their own preferences from contemporary literature and also more 20th century authors, for instance from the Cold War period, which tackle environmental themes. Of the latter, the science fiction of John Wyndham and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass are examples. In addition, it would be fascinating to engage with perspectives from beyond the Anglophone world and Western views of nature. Meanwhile if anyone is looking for stories from the present age, the Cambridge Ecofiction Book Group has a useful website.

Concluding darkly

I’m going to conclude this very brief history of ecological discourses with The Second Sleep by the popular English writer Robert Harris, published last year along with a rather brilliant newspaper syndicated essay entitled “Apocalypse.com”. Both deal with the theme of systemic collapse and the novel is set in a future which has reverted to early modern dark pastoral in which monotheist religion is once again the dominant ideology. Its plot uncovers what has happened to Southern England, where the story is set, although the precise trigger for a global civilisational collapse is never fully revealed. This novel might be described as Anthropocene Gothic as industrial consumer society may have disappeared but its legacy of plastic detritus has not. Accustomed to his more straightforward historical novels, Harris’ readers found this genre-bending dystopian tale unsettling but it was critically well-received. Like all good fiction, The Second Sleep has its genesis in a certain zeitgeist, known as collapsarianism in North America and collapsology in Europe, that has gained traction since the early 2000s and has contributed to the intellectual underpinnings of Extinction Rebellion. This ideology combines apocalyptic, emancipatory, utopian and biocentric environmentalism infused with New Age spirituality and “science religion”. XR has a strong appeal for many people concerned about the relationships between climate change, loss of nature and human over-consumption who are disenchanted with the sustainability agenda and looking for something beyond their technology-driven lifestyles. However, as the world engages with the impacts (negative and positive) of the Coronavirus pandemic, we might all do well to reflect on a sub-text of The Second Sleep and be careful what we wish for.

The Second Sleep, a real page turner


Mackinnon, Janet “A history of some major ecological literary discourses” ECOS vol. 41(6) 2020, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/a-history-of-some-major-ecological-literature/.

3 thoughts on “A history of some major ecological literary discourses

  1. Barry Larking says:

    An excellent overview – though I confess I struggle with this kind of prose writing, seemingly heavily indebted to sociological philosophic ‘dialogues’. My own brief and largely nugatory employment in official nature conservation persuaded me sometime ago that science alone cannot promote nature conservation in the public arena and above all, action by and of itself alone. Unless under threat to its integrity as science it doesn’t however grip as many people’s attention as the more imaginative arts; children will collect acorns first and tackle the science that lies behind these large shiny objects a distant second.

    In the only amusing essays she ever wrote that I know Susan Sontag described the ‘Imagination of Disaster’ as it appeared in a collection of ‘B’ pictures in cinemas. The amusement is perhaps lost to us post 9/11 and later tsunamis, cyclones, nuclear accidents and now a pandemic. Bad acting and wonky ‘special effects’ aren’t as funny if the outcomes and presentation all around are real. The issue now must be are there any visions in art that can portray a hopeful way beyond this dysfunctional world to be made and remain credible? It would seem not. At the end of Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ there is a coda that as has been pointed out, is predicated on the notion that a newer version of a democratic liberal world is ultimately restored; just beyond the horizon of Air Strip One lies Orwell’s own Edwardian childhood in a countryside he knew and loved. Orwell divided writers and artists by when they were born; all those before about 1900 were brought up in an atmosphere that vanished sometime about 1917. Those who grew up after that time (and I am speaking of Britain and Ireland here) were, Orwell felt, infected with a defeatism proportionate to their political beliefs – either revolutionary or reactionary, a polarisation he felt degraded many with slogans. Nature writing, the good stuff, has since that time in these islands been carried on chiefly by men and always pessimistic if they wanted to claim serious attention. The major fiction writers like Orwell himself most often used nature as a metaphor for what was fatal and lost rather than that which could be regained. That was then; the formative decades of the 20th century. Like the stark covers of earnest post War Penguin paperback ‘specials’ the world was going to be restored by planners guided by scientists; when that didn’t quite work we had a new sort of freedom based on shopping. Mike Leigh’s satire ‘Nuts in May’ (1976) was sort of coda too, without Godzilla.

  2. Janet M says:

    Thanks for the feedback and interesting set of cultural references. I strongly agree with your point about the shift in environmental (as well as social and political) consciousness that occurred in England during the early part of the 20th century. World War 1 had a significant role in this and the Second World War continued the transformation. George Orwell’s contemporary J B Priestley wrote about some of these changes in the 1933 “English Journey” which captured a certain inter-war zeitgeist that led to the creation of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, amongst other things. Priestley had a far more positive vision than Orwell about the future of humanity and “English Journey” has been credited with helping win the 1945 general election for the Labour Party. However, Orwell remains the better remembered novelist and his literary pessimism continues an extremely long tradition which the Cold War and now climate change and the extinction crisis have re-galvanised. Your comments suggest women writers may be less inclined to dystopianism than male ones. I’m not so sure: the works of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Doris Lessing and more recently Margaret Atwood suggest otherwise. Thanks for mentioning Susan Sontag as you’ve reminded me that I need to read her work, alongside revisiting Orwell’s. These seems to be growing critical interest in his writings on the environment of which this excellent article says: “He’s perhaps our most underappreciated commentator on nature, his writings about animals and agrarian life eclipsed by his reputation as a dystopian”. https://www.neh.gov/article/george-orwell-outdoorsman

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