Is there an Environmental Studies canon?

An e-mail asking about an “environmental studies canon,” sent recently by veteran environmental writer John Lane to the ASLE listserv, might have flared up into a full-throttle debate over the joys and pitfalls of disciplinary canonization, but quickly fizzled out, probably due to its coinciding with the end of summer and beginning of the fall semester. John’s proposed list, shared below, reflected the mainstream American ES consensus fairly well, and the responses indicated both its problems and the breadth of unquestioned support some of its texts would get from those who teach in the field.

Since “environmental studies” is a field that, to some at least, hasn’t quite decided whether it is a field of undergraduate education (full stop) or of interdisciplinary scholarship (akin to cultural studies or urban studies, with graduate programs and peer-reviewed research fora and the like), or what its exact relation is to the environmental sciences and to the various humanities and social science disciplines that delve into environmental issues, and since the query was posted to an ecocriticism listserv (albeit one with several hundred subscribers), dissent and divergence of views could have been expected.

(On the state of the field itself, I would direct interested readers to the relatively new Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) web site, which posts its very informative newsletters, and to the much longer-established Environmental Studies Association of Canada, which also does that.)

Lane’s initial suggestion of canonic readings leaned toward the rather traditionalist end of American environmental studies:

1. Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” from SAND COUNTY ALMANAC
2. Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons”
3. Preface to Jared Diamond’s COLLAPSE.
4. Henry Thoreau’s “Walking”
5. First chapter of SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson.
6. Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter”
7. “Seeing” by Annie Dillard from PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK
8. Robinson Jeffers’ “Hurt Hawk”
9. Something from E.O. Wilson [?]
10. Barry Lopez’s “Children in the Woods”

The obvious criticism that arose within minutes was that this represented a bunch of white males, with two token white females, and that all were American (i.e., USan, pronounced “you-essan”). Suggested additions and replacements to that list included Robert Bullard’s DUMPING IN DIXIE, Deming and Savoy’s COLORS OF NATURE, Cherrie Moraga’s HEROES AND SAINTS, Wole Soyinka’s THE SWAMP-DWELLERS, Vandana Shiva’s STAYING ALIVE, Karl Polanyi’s historical treatise THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, Ursula LeGuin’s SF novel THE DISPOSSESSED, and Neil Evernden’s ecophilosophical THE NATURAL ALIEN.

To the first list, based on other list members’ responses and suggestions, Lane eventually added a series of other readings including Al Gore’s EARTH IN THE BALANCE, Bill McKibben’s THE END OF NATURE, Michael Soule’s and Daniel Press’s provocative 1998 Conservation Biology article “What Is Environmental Studies?” (but I would suggest you read Maniates’ and Whissel’s reply to that as well), David Orr’s EARTH IN MIND, Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking like a mountain”, E.O. Wilson’s “Biophilia and the conservation ethic” and Stephen Kellert’s “The biological basis for human values of nature” (both from Wilson/Kellert’s collection THE BIOPHILIA HYPOTHESIS), Richard Louv’s LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, Paul Dayton’s & Enric Sala’s “Natural history: the sense of wonder, creativity, and progress in ecology“, Wendell Berry’s “In distrust of movements” and “The idea of a local economy,” Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin Du Bois’s “Democracy’s lifeblood”, Gro Harlem Brundtland (et al)’s “On Population, Environment, and Development”, Michael Pollan’s “Naturally”, “Power steer”, and “When a crop becomes king” (three essays that presaged THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA), and a handful of lesser known writings, listed presumably to indicate inclusion of everything that had been mentioned: Stephen White’s translation of Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s SEVEN TREES AGAINST THE DYING LIGHT, Helena Maria Viramontes’ UNDER THE FEET OF JESUS , Luis Sepúlveda’s THE OLD MAN WHO READ LOVE STORIES, and cartoonist Gary Larson’s THERE’S A HAIR IN MY DIRT).

Any such attempted canonization, of course, raises as many questions as it answers. The field has had a few anthologies that have already tried to create such a canon (such is the nature of anthologies): Glenn Adelson et al’s ENVIRONMENT mega-tome and Olszewski & Schiavo’s now out-of-print READINGS IN ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES (which could use an updating), as well as loosely related anthologies like AMERICAN EARTH: ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING SINCE THOREAU (McKibben, ed., 2008), THE PALGRAVE ENVIRONMENTAL READER (Payne & Newman, eds., 2005), and various British and other analogues. Related fields like “green studies” (see Laurence Coupe’s collection THE GREEN STUDIES READER), ecocriticism, et al. are all somewhat more specific, but helpful nonetheless.

But there are so many directions one could go with environmental studies canonization — e.g. towards literature and poetry (Whitman, Wordsworth, Callenbach’s ECOTOPIA, Frank Herbert’s DUNE), or literary and cultural history (Raymond Williams’ COUNTRY AND THE CITY, Simon Schama’s LANDSCAPE AND MEMORY) or popular science (Ehrlich’s POPULATION BOMB, Lovelock’s GAIA, Gregory Bateson’s MIND AND NATURE, Humberto Maturana’s and Francesco Varela’s THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE), environmental history (Carolyn Merchant’s DEATH OF NATURE, Alfred Crosby’s ECOLOGICAL IMPERIALISM, Richard Grove’s GREEN IMPERIALISM), ecophilosophy (Plumwood’s FEMINISM AND THE MASTERY OF NATURE, Murray Bookchin’s ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM — which is less philosophy than all-round interdisciplinary historical treatise), religion and ecology (Lynn White’s classic article, which I’m surprised no one seemed to mention, Vine Deloria’s GOD IS RED, Catherine Albanese’s NATURE RELIGION IN AMERICA), green political theory (Robyn Eckersley’s ENVIRONMENTALISM AND POLITICAL THEORY), eco-sociology (Ulrich Beck’s RISK SOCIETY), etc.

And then there’s the inevitable question of whether we are selecting for influence or for continued relevance — for instance, whether Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” should still be read without, at the very least, supplementing it with the many counter-arguments that have made his original argument seem so tenuous (see, e.g., Ostrom et al’s Revisiting the Commons); ditto with Lynn White, Ehrlich’s early work, etc.

For what it’s worth, then, I would like to offer my own list of ELEVEN ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES CLASSICS — not so much a recognized canon as a canon and counter-canon combined, including several works I think deserve wider recognition. It’s biased towards the interdisciplinary, historical, and political-ecological — “green theory” that reflects the growth of green politics more than academic environmental studies, and that prefers synthetic/holistic thinking about nature-society relations over the inspirational (eco-literature, ecopoetry, and the like). Not that the literary and inspirational cannot also be synthetic/holistic or that it shouldn’t count as “environmental studies”; just that that would be a separate list, for another day — and that it would be too difficult to come up with, once we get to sifting through all the literature, poetry, etc, in the world that effectively conveys the thorough interdependence of humans & the nonhuman world. In other words, once we agree that “environmental studies” is NOT equivalent to “U.S. environmental studies,” we open ourselves up to a vast world of writing and culture. Nevertheless, the world we share faces some common dilemmas that have to do with learning to recognize and work with the tight intertwinings of human and nonhuman worlds, and the following readings, while all reecognizable “hits” within one field or another, contribute to working those dilemmas out.

In roughly chronological order, then, here’s an idiosyncratic and somewhat personal selection of environmental studies ‘classics’ (avoiding the last 10 years, since classic status requires at least that many years of digestion).

1. Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends – It’s outdated, yes, and I’m going out on a limb recommending it since I haven’t looked at it in years, maybe decades, but I recall it offering such a great overview of the Romantic counter-tradition, which I suspect will appeal to ES students who haven’t yet contextualized their own hippieish proclivities — I’m speaking out of my Vermont context here — within that of their historical forebears.
2. Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy – I think it’s still the best single intro to the history of ecological ideas.
3. Neil Smith, Uneven Development – Provides a crucial injection of Marxian political economy into environmental thinking, and does it provocatively and smartly.
4. Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism – Good for giving a sense of biocultural change writ large, by an eminent historian. Start here and avoid some of the pitfalls others, from Jared Diamond to E. O. Wilson, fall into.
5. Susan Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information – For anyone with leanings towards oversimplified evolutionism, especially of the sociobiological ‘selfish gene’ variety, Oyama provides the most sophisticated antidote. A must read for the eco-biopolitics of the 21st century.
6. Donna Haraway, Primate Visions – Haraway’s most thorough historical study, it chisels away at our inherited ideas of the human and the natural by showing how we can never get ourselves (society, economy, politics) out of the picture. What better place to do that than the hinge at which we try to separate ourselves from the rest of our relatives (primatology)?
7. The Ecologist, Whose Common Future? – Still a very cogent injection of political smartness into discussions of environment, sustainability, and globalization; and a good summary of one of the responses to Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument.
8. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern – While its style of argumentation errs on the overly provocateurial, here’s where Latour makes the clearest case for a thoroughly transdisciplinary dismantling of nature-culture dualism.
9. Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind – A very good intro to Shiva’s important Southern voice on ecology, biology, and science.
10. Richard White, The Organic Machine – A little book and a quick read, but immensely rewarding.
11. Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History – A cutting-edge complex-systems analysis of the last thousand years of geological, biological, economic, and cultural change.

There. Read those eleven books and you will be ready to write your comps. And if you only have time to read three (and don’t need to apply for comps), read Worster, White, and DeLanda.

Cross-posted to the Environmental Thought and Culture blog.

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About Adrian Ivakhiv

Adrian Ivakhiv is a professor of environmental thought and culture at the University of Vermont.
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One Response to Is there an Environmental Studies canon?

  1. john lane says:


    Enjoyed this recap. I realize now, a few months later, that the choice of the word “canon” was very unfortunate. I should have framed the question in another way. But the little intellectual fire storm was instructive. My MFA in creative writing (poetry) didn’t serve me very well in seeing the flames coming! As a writer/poet (not an ecocritic, which I am not) I listed the writing I admired, quickly off the top of my head. If in my cabin up the mountains of NC I’d rather have my list with me than all the others I’ve seen come in. But you’re right, my list sure wouldn’t help anyone with comps! The discussion made me think more about what my responsibility to my students in our new ES program. Teaching “environmental writing,” what should I point them toward? So this next term I’m teaching a new class called “Major Themes in Environmental Writing” (a focus course for some of our BA majors) and I’m teaching three books– Sand County Almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m mostly going to focus a good bit on what I’d call the literary qualities of the works, with a big emphasis on literary devices (the use of metaphors in particular) so that my students would walk away with some practical knowledge of how these three writers communicate “environmental” themes in their time and beyond. Pollen I think will be particularly interesting in that way. His prose is very “literary” (he leans on metaphor a great deal, and his tone (humor) is quite complex) and yet when most people teach him they focus on the topical ideas about food in his work. So, thanks again for this good post.


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