Environmental Activism and Eco-Fiction

- Lakshmi Muthukumar

This paper attempts to present eco-fiction as a genre that offers great potential for amateur writers of fiction. It also tries to spell out its salient features. It seeks to clarify questions such as, “Is eco-fiction simply fiction set in nature?” and “What is the rubric for writing such a work?”Another objective of the presentation is to make budding writers aware of the scope such fiction offers. Last, but not the least, the paper also tries to make a case for eco-fiction to be included in the syllabi of literature programmes that teach papers in Popular Culture or World Literature not only as samples of how creative artists might become inspirational change makers but also of how young minds might be made aware of the challenges posed by climate change for humanity.

Keywords: Green fiction, Environmental consciousness raising and Cli-Fi

Bionote: Dr. Lakshmi Muthukumar heads the Department of English at the South Indian Education Society’s College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Sion West, Mumbai. She has 25 years of experience in teaching undergraduate students language and literature. She also teaches postgraduate students at the National College as a visiting faculty and is a registered guide for Ph.D. Her areas of interest include language studies, gender studies and creative writing.
Email address: lakshmim@sies.edu.in

English Literature courses in India focus largely on British Literature, Indian Literature in English and American Literature in a genre-based format while also acquainting students with critical tools to appreciate these literary works. These critiques include feminist, modernist and postmodern interpretations. While learners who study feminism are subjected to some consciousness-raising when it comes to gender, the environmental awareness that is so crucial to our times takes a backseat. In what can only be termed as an exercise in tokenism, courses on literature and gender sometimes include a segment on Eco-feminism. This does not even come close to making the youth aware of the challenges that humans pose to the environment today, let alone focus serious attention on issues such as global warming and seasonal change.

One of the objectives of this paper is to recommend that syllabi of literature programmes include a course on Eco-Fiction. This will not only make the learners aware of the dangers that the environment is beset with today but also give them a glimpse into world literatures written in English in various forms such as Poetry for Climate change, Cli-Fi or Green Fiction or Eco-Fiction and even graphic novels such as The Rime of the Modern Mariner by Nick Hayes. Written in 2010, this graphic novel is a take-off on Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and is an excellent example of graphic eco-fiction. It is an engaging Eco Fable set in the cesspool of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, thus adding another dimension to Eco-Fiction. Such an innovative course could be titled as a paper on World Literature and could have environmental awareness as one of its objectives. Another important objective of such a course could be to introduce learners to literatures written in English in parts of the world other than the West.

Another suggestion that will instill environmental consciousness raising and awareness amongst young learners is to offer creative writing programmes with a focus on green fiction. That way students not just from the Humanities, but also from Life Sciences such as Biology, Botany, Zoology, Microbiology and Biochemistry with a yen to tell a tale may be taught how to do just that by marrying their knowledge of species of flora and fauna that are going extinct with a fictive account of how the human race is responsible for such extinction. In order to teach such a course, it is necessary to understand what exactly Eco-Fiction is and what would constitute a rubric for writing such fiction. Such courses will also encourage a healthy interaction between students of the Humanities and Life Sciences.

The term “Eco-Fiction”, became prevalent from the 1970s and is used to refer to a branch of literature that encompasses nature-oriented works of fiction. Such fiction focuses on both non-human as well as environment-oriented work that gives perspectives on the impact of humans on nature. Nomenclature of this kind of fiction is varied and ranges from terms such as environmental fiction, nature-oriented fiction, Cli-Fi to Green Fiction. According to Jonathan Levin, the term “Eco-Fiction” emerged soon after ecology took hold as a popular scientific paradigm and a broad cultural attitude in the 1960s and 1970s. Eco-fiction is an elastic term, capacious enough to accommodate a variety of fictional works that address the relationship between natural settings and the human communities that dwell within.

In order to understand how Eco-Fiction differs from fiction that simply has a natural setting, it is necessary to list its salient features or characteristics. Creating such a list is necessary even from the point of view of providing a rubric for budding writers of fiction who wish to try their hand at Eco-Fiction as an upcoming genre. Internationally, there are several writers who are producing this kind of fiction. However, in India, such fiction has only been attempted by a few. In the 1970s Zai Whitaker and in 1991, Perumal Murugan who wrote such a novel in Tamil entitled Eru Veyyil(Translated as Rising Heat) are some of the names that immediately come to mind. The twenty first century has seen novelists such as Amitav Ghosh whose novels such as The Ibis Trilogy, especially The Hungry Tide and Gun Island (his most recent work) popularized the form among readers while also generating environmental activism through his non-fiction such as The Great Estrangement. Several of Amitav Ghosh’s novels address environmental concerns with a fierce urgency that is usually witnessed only among environmental activists. The novels showcase the precarious predicament of people whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the repercussions of climate change. Apart from Amitav Ghosh, another writer who has emerged on the scene is Rajat Chauduri whose novel The Butterfly Effect has created ripples on the literary scene.
There are three salient features of Eco-Fiction that can be identified. Firstly, the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. Secondly, the human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. Thirdly, human accountability to the environment should be part of the text’s ethical orientation. Last, but not least, some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or given is usually implicit in a work of Eco-Fiction.

Mike Vasey has laid down some principles that are to be followed by writers of such fiction. These include two major ones. Such stories are usually set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems. Also, the story necessarily takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive. This is beautifully evidenced in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behaviour. This novel revolves around a new winter habitat for monarch butterflies after their traditional habitat is destroyed by flooding due to climate change. Kingsolver skillfully blends science with fiction by addressing climate change through the eyes of a woman whose small world is shaken by a bizarre natural event. The protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow reaches the mountains for a rendezvous with a man only to discover a vast population of monarch butterflies. The unseasonal arrival of these butterflies signifies a miracle to the locals while to the scientific community, it portends an ecological disaster. With great felicity and empathic engagement Kingsolver portrays the implications of climate change on the unsuspecting ecology.

There are quite a few writers of Eco-Fiction who are making the scene lively and engaging such as the American authors Ann Pancake and the Australian novelist, James Bradley. Ann Pancake’s novel, Strange as this Weather has been, is a novel set in the midst of a town witnessing a coal boom. The novelist poignantly brings out the effects of the mountaintop removal by strip mining that destroys the surrounding land. Pancake, who hails from West Virginia, writes with great authenticity using testimonials of locals who have actually lived through mountaintop removal mining. Place is a major character in this novel and as the character Lace says, “Stay in their way-that’s the only language they can hear.” This quote brings out the desperate measures that the local people have to resort to in order to ensure that their rights are protected and their voices heard.

Patricia D. Netzley classifies novels that belong to the genre of Eco-Fiction into three categories. The first category includes works that portray the environmental movement and/or environmental activism, the second category consists of works that depict a conflict over an environmental issue while also expressing the author’s beliefs and the third category consists of works that feature an environmental apocalypse. This classification will also help researchers theorize such works even as it assists in embedding fiction within the broader arena of environmental fiction as a type of environmental activism because it leads to environmental awareness and consciousness-raising.

It is precisely for this reason that one is building a case for such fiction to be encouraged at the undergraduate level through courses in creative writing with an emphasis on Eco-Fiction. Literature programmes at the undergraduate level can also include Eco-Fiction as a term that can be taught to their learners just as they teach terms such as Gothic fiction or the Graphic novel. The times we live in are grim if one were to mull over environmental crises looming large. Therefore, including such fiction in our literature courses will encourage useful discussions in class and ensure that students think and read about issues such as global warming and non-seasonal migration that adversely impact the ecology.

Dwyer, Jim (2010). Where the Wild Books are: A Field Guide to Eco Fiction. University of Nevada Press.
Murphy, Patrick D. (2000). Further Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Navarre, Gabriel (1980). Earthworks: Ten Years on the Environmental Front. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth. pp. 218–219.
Netzley, Patricia (1991). Environmental Literature: An Encyclopedia of Works, Authors and Themes. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio. P. 78.

Vasey, Mike (February 20, 1996). Bioregional Studies - Correspondence with Jim Dwyer.

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