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Earth Vs. People, The Michael Pollan Edition

The new online magazine Yale Environment 360 recently published a meaty interview with Michael Pollan that includes some rather sweeping generalizations about the American wilderness ethic. In the United States, Pollan declares, "land is either virgin or raped. It's an all or nothing ethic." Here's the Utne Reader's Keith Goetzman in a response titled "Michael Pollan: Eat Foot. Mostly Your Own.":

It's time for him to start seeing the nuance in the debate. Certainly there are wilderness lovers who oppose oil drilling in ANWR yet gladly till their yard to plant tomatoes. Certainly there are mall developers who take fly-fishing trips to remote wilderness destinations. To paint backcountry hikers and organic farmers as somehow locked in mortal battle is to vastly oversimplify a complex issue."

This intra-environmentalist squabbling reminds me of some of the conflict that has shaped and reshaped the eco-criticism movement since the 1990s. In case you're not a lit theory trend-watcher, eco-criticism is the new queer theory. It's today's doctoral specialty of choice, and departments and positions devoted to it have sprouted at universities across the country. On a basic level, eco-criticism is the study of literature and the environment. This study can assume a political or activist bent, or it can revel in pure aesthetics or autobiographical narrative. It is often articulated as an evolution of previous studies of character, plot, and style--today's critics are interested in place. 

Historically, the conflict I mentioned before has fermented within the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), the hub of eco-crit since it was founded in Reno in 1992. By 1999, the organization had split into two camps: ecocentrists (nature first) and anthropocentrists (people first). Anthropocentrists pushed to bring questions of race, gender, and sexuality into the eco-critical project, and they wanted eco-crit to bring about the kind of concrete socio-political change that feminist crit had, in its time, inspired. This camp accused the ecocentrists of spending all their time in hiking boots (ASLE's motto is, admittedly, "I'd rather be hiking") scribbling about their own spiritual encounters with Mother Nature.

Goetzman's anger seems to stem from an assumption that Pollan is reverting to the old labels to set wilderness supporters--the "backcountry hikers"--in opposition to his own highly rational, close-to-canonized anthropocentrism. The "nuance in the debate," as I see it, is that maybe, unlike Pixar's recent apocalyptic vision, environmentalism doesn't have to be cast as a battle between Earth and People. Maybe there's a way to preserve--conserve, reserve, what you will--both.

On that note, here's Michael P. Cohen, an especially astute eco-critic, on writing for nature and people:

[The promise of NEPA] will not be fulfilled until people like ecocritics demand better nature writing in Environmental Impact Statements, because this is where much of the real writing of nature occurs today. Ecocritics must enter the public arena by encouraging and facilitating writing of the most important single literary genre, the letter to a governmental agency.

--Nicole Allan